Biblical Defense of Icons

796__15252 Resurrection2By: Jay Dyer

The standard charge of classical Protestantism is that the Orthodoxy is “idolatrous” because of the tradition  of reverencing icons, images, relics and shrines.  If Orthodoxy thought these sacramental conduits of grace were magical idols, that would be a valid charge.  In fact, as I have argued with both Islamic and Jewish thinkers, what we call the “Incarnational” principle is something all monotheistic religions adhere to, even if inconsistently.  For example, in Judaism the debate has raged at times over whether the Torah or various temporal manifestations of the divine, are in fact divinity manifesting.  The reverence Jews place upon the pages of Torah itself points to this same principle.  For Islam, the notion is similar, given the classical debates over whether Allah’s words in the Koran are eternal.  For both views, as well as ours, the theological issue centers around God’s relation to the created order, time and space.

For Protestantism, however, the issues are even more muddled, as Protestants historically confess belief that God became man in the Incarnation, yet due to their various philosophical biases and presuppositions, fail to see the implications of this doctrine.  For one, the Incarnation of the Logos means the entire created order is renewed, as detailed in Romans 8.  Christ’s humanity is universal in character, and forms the metaphysical basis for the resurrection of all men (1 Cor. 15).  All things are rendered anew in Christ’s recapitulation, as all creation awaits the full pledge of deification (Col. 1) fully realized at the Last Day and in the eternal state.   The reply to Judaism and Islam is similar here – if God can create, and if God can communicate in some sense sacramentally through the created order using signs, words, symbols and events, then God can also become Incarnate.

However, the biblical case for holy images is overwhelming when one takes the above into account.  Furthermore, for those in Christianity who respect Tradition, the matter was settled by the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II in 787), which many Protestants claim to adhere to (though they in fact do not in the least0:

Nicea II based its argumentation upon the writings and argumentation of Ss. Theodore of Studium, Germanus of Constantinople, and John of Damascus.  St. John of Damascus’ famous treatise In Defense of Holy Icons is the overall basis for the arguments  below.  I will also include some quotes from various Fathers defending images:

The argument against icons and images takes basically one form: The Protestant view is the Second Commandment.  Protestants argue that there are to be no images made of God, or anything in heaven or earth, based on the letter of the text.  In response to this charge, it is important to note that the Protestant view is quite inconsistent and impossible.  First, the literal wording of the Command forbids all making of any images of anythingin heaven, earth, sea, etc.  Famed reformed theologian Charles Hodge, for example, mentions a reformed colleague of his at Princeton who even refused to use maps that pictured things like mountains, lakes, etc. This is at least an attempt at being consistent in the outworking of the Protestants position, but should be mocked for its childishness.

Two points refute this: the Commandment specifically mentions heaven, earth, sea, etc.  God is specifically countering the type of worship Israelites encountered in their pagan neighbors like Egypt, Babylonia, Philistia, Canaan, etc.  In other words, “heavens,” meaning astrology, “earth,” meaning animism and nature worship, and “sea” meaning various forms of aquatic idolatry, such as Nile worship.  God is not railing against the inherent evil of an image, but against the practices of the Israelite neighbors, which included any or all of the above.  We can further prove this with the second point: God Himself commands many holy images to be placed inside the Holy of Holies.  1 Kings 6 describes how ornate the inside of the Holy of Holies was, replete with images of Cherubim and Seraphim, and of course the Ark itself had two huge, golden Cherubim over its lid.  If images were inherently evil, the tabernacle/temple would not be full of them.  Thus, the Second Command cannot mean absolutely no religious images.  It forbids pagan idolatry, and clearly the temple worship, which had images, was not idolatry.

Following in this same vein, when the Israelites were in the wilderness and were bitten by the serpents, God commanded Moses to make an image of a bronze serpent and put it on a pole and all the Israelites are to look in faith to this image. This is recounted in Numbers 21.  Once again, this is clearly a religious image because Jesus explains it as a mystical type of His crucifixion in John 3:14-15.  All who will look to His Holy Cross will be saved from the bite of the real serpent, the devil.  In Christian theology this is called typology, where the historical event pre signifies a later fulfillment:  We have here a vindication of the image of the crucifix.  This is also why St. Paul sees power in the Cross of Christ (see Colossians 2:13-15) to disarm the devil’s fallen hierarchy of angels and why such crosses are used in exorcisms.

The Bible itself is full is symbolism, which is merely another form of the use of images as mentioned above.  Thus, the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove at Christ’s baptism, and in the text, a dove is legitimately used as an image of the Holy Spirit.  The paschal lamb is an image of Christ, as the true and final Passover. God also presents Himself to us in Scripture through a variety of images, or ikons. Human fathers, for example, are a faint image of our heavenly Father.  St. Paul, in Colossians 1:15, says that Christ is the image (Greek is “ikon”) of the invisible God.  It was, in fact, the Jews who were enraged at Christ’s claim of divinity, a claim that provoked this same errorneous zeal against holy images.  How could the invisible Jehovah be Incarnate in a human image? To the Pharisees, this was idolatry. Instead, the Orthodox view gives due honor to the Incarnation by recognizing the validity and holy nature of images as part and parcel of the Incarnation, and this was the reasoning of Nicea II.

Ikon of the 7th Ecumenical Council.

Ikon of the 7th Ecumenical Council.

Some Protestants may hold to the validity of images, but deny the reverence paid to them as idolatry.  Does, then, Scripture provide any warrant for reverencing anything created?  All monotheist agree worship is to be paid only to God.  But what about reverence, or as Latins term it, dulia? Is it licit to give homage, reverence, even prostration to any created thing/image?  The biblical answer is yes, since we see several times in Scripture men occupying positions of authority being reverenced.  For example, Joseph, as a ruler in Egypt, deserves the homage of his brothers and sisters, and thus they “bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground” (Gen. 42:7).   The company of the Lord’s prophets also bow down before Elijah in reverence in 2 Kings 2:15. Surely, if it were inherently wrong to bow before a created thing (and Joseph and Elijah were created), they would have rebuked others for so doing.  There are numerous such examples of this in Scripture.  St. Paul says to give “honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7), and if anyone is due honor, it is the Saints and their relics.

In Acts 19:11-12, cloths and handkerchiefs are touched by Sr. Paul, and are then placed upon those possessed, resulting in the spirits are driven out by such “relics.”  Likewise, the woman with an issue of blood touches the hem of Jesus’ garment and “virtue goes forth from him” to heal her.  The bones of Elisha even resurrect a dead soldier (2 Kings 13): These examples display the entire principle behind relics.  Things–matter–stuff can be consecrated/sanctified for such purposes and are conduits of the divine energies.  We also see this displayed as Jesus spits in the sand and makes clay, rubbing it on the blind man’s eyes to heal him.  Jesus could have simply spoken a word and healed the man, but in this instance He intentionally chose to use mud–stuff, to do the miracle.  This Incarnational principle is the same thinking behind sacraments.

Likewise, in the Old Testament period, locations were often spoken of as holy, such as Mt. Sinai, the Temple, etc.  Contrary to Protestantism, this practice is not rejected in the New Testament:  In John 5, there is a pool where an angel stirs up the water and the first to enter the pool is healed.  This is continued in the Orthodox principle behind shrines and healing icons.  In 2 Peter 1:16-18, St. Peter calls the mountain where he witnessed the Transfiguration and the divine energetic Light, the “holy mountain.”  Thus, even in the New Testament the principle of holy placesis not abolished.

The patristic view is also very clear:

“We do not worship, we do not adore [non colimus, non adoramus], for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate [honoramus] the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.”   Against Riparium

-St. Jerome

“We by no means consider the holy martyrs to be gods, nor are we wont to bow down before them adoringly, but only relatively and reverentially [ou latreutikos alla schetikos kai timetikos].” Against Julian

-St. Cyril of Alexandria

And Bl. Augustine Against Faustus the Manichaean:

“We, the Christian community, assemble to celebrate the memory of the martyrs with ritual solemnity because we want to be inspired to follow their example, share in their merits, and be helped by their prayers. Yet we erect no altars to any of the martyrs, even in the martyrs’ burial chapels themselves.”
“No bishop, when celebrating at an altar where these holy bodies rest, has ever said, “Peter, we make this offering to you”, or “Paul, to you”, or “Cyprian, to you”. No, what is offered is offered always to God, who crowned the martyrs. We offer in the chapels where the bodies of those he crowned rest, so the memories that cling to those places will stir our emotions and encourage us to greater love both for the martyrs whom we can imitate and for God whose grace enables us to do so.

So we venerate the martyrs with the same veneration of love and fellowship that we give to the holy men of God still with us. We sense that the hearts of these latter are just as ready to suffer death for the sake of the Gospel, and yet we feel more devotion toward those who have already emerged victorious from the struggle. We honour those who are fighting on the battlefield of this life here below, but we honour more confidently those who have already achieved the victor’s crown and live in heaven.

But the veneration strictly called “worship”, or latria, that is, the special homage belonging only to the divinity, is something we give and teach others to give to God alone. The offering of a sacrifice belongs to worship in this sense (that is why those who sacrifice to idols are called idol-worshippers), and we neither make nor tell others to make any such offering to any martyr, any holy soul, or any angel. If anyone among us falls into this error, he is corrected with words of sound doctrine and must then either mend his ways or else be shunned.

The saints themselves forbid anyone to offer them the worship they know is reserved for God, as is clear from the case of Paul and Barnabas. When the Lycaonians were so amazed by their miracles that they wanted to sacrifice to them as gods, the apostles tore their garments, declared that they were not gods, urged the people to believe them, and forbade them to worship them.

Yet the truths we teach are one thing, the abuses thrust upon us are another. There are commandments that we are bound to give; there are breaches of them that we are commanded to correct, but until we correct them we must of necessity put up with them.”

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23 Comments on Biblical Defense of Icons

  1. Michael Sean // August 26, 2016 at 9:04 pm // Reply

    I don’t know if you have ever read any of Dr Michael Heiser’s work, but he has some interesting ideas on just how much of the Old Testament contains information about how and why Israel should live contrary to the pagan world. It was in the law and symbolised in their rituals. He also makes the case that the pagan rituals were to worship real lesser created gods; the fallen members of God’s divine council in Psalm 82, or Sons of God in Genesis 6.

    I like the argument for the second commandment referencing the idols of pagan worship. It makes far more sense to me than the idea that images were forbidden wholesale. What would be the point of man’s artistic inclinations?

  2. You really should study the Biblia Sacra Nominum Interpretatio. The old testament lord god is just a dead man named Elias. All of the divine sounding names in the old testament are simply dead ancestors. They were incorrectly translated intentionally. The old testament is 100% pure pagan worship of the dead/necromancy or venerstion of the dead. Heiser is a liar by the way. Had it out with him six years ago. People need to stop referencing english translated bibles. They are of the occult, 100% freemasonic. They obscure what these texts actually say. Jay, you should know better. I offer again here to provide Biblia Sacra scanned cover to cover, page by page from 1685 and centuries earlier. They all concur. The key to understanding the old testsment lies within the Nominum Interpretatio. My evidence that they are correct would be the jewish encyclopedia itself. It praises the accurracy of the vulgate and Jerome himself as well as the quid hebraeorum who translated the latin vulgate. It also claims that if is the ONLY translation from the ORIGINAL PALEO HEBREW TEXTS. It tells quite a different story old and new testaments. What were they teaching you in your “bible college” , Jay? I am truly disappointed with you , Jay. Let me know when you would like a real bible

    • As orthodox we reject marcionism

    • I prefer the Vulgate, but I don’t recall traditionalist Catholics, who usually are the ones who prefer it and the Douay-Rheims English version (I heard the Haydock one is the best), saying that the Old Testament was anything pagan.

  3. Jay, you can call it whatever you like. It is what it says and I did not write it. People can try to pervert what these texts actually say but this would just be fantasy. Why not just accept it for what it says instead of trying to make dead men into God? I have a challenge for you if you believe the old testament lord god to in fact “GOD”. I will put my faith on the line here. Allow me explain. I come from a very long line of “protest” ants. I have not followed family tradition.I am Catholic and not a heretical V11 Catholic either. My family and all pastors of the churches they attend forced me to play Sola Scriptura along with them. I obliged. I put together a Sola Scriptura homily for them from their own lying KJV bible. I will make the same agreement with you that I made with them. It is as follows: if you can refute my Sola Sriptura teaching without denying the one you believe to be “CHRIST” then I will convert to the faith of your choice. If not, you must study a latin vulgate with me. A one sided deal if ever one existed. I can prove with an english translated bible one thing beyond a doubt; the old testament lord god has nothing to do with Iesu Christi or Jesum Christum.(not one and the same by the way) What do you say? Would you like to try? Keep your ears open as the cock will be crowing if you attempt it. You will have have to make a choice, Jay. The choice will determine whether you are a jew(choosing the jewish tribal deity who is actually a dead man)or some form of Christian. Up for it?

  4. You will be studying a vulgate before I am through with you, Jay. Why? I know you care. I enjoy listening to you. You are very sharp. You need to learn this though. It is the ultimate , ancient deception. This is why I know you will follow through. It interests you, it is what you do.

  5. Interesting. Little Digression. In the context of the Islamic World the same charge (rather, the same problem) Protestantism levels against Orthodoxy is synonymous with the same aniconism supported by today’s Salafist, reformist theology against classical Islamic tradition.. The theological and historical circumstances surrounding its emergence (im not really so much here at all concerned with the political and geopolitical motive behind its growth, though I am well aware) is very much in the same spirit of the Reformation — in Occidental world. It IS the “Reformation.” It is the equivalent of the wallmart Mega-Churches and casino-faith of the Occidental World.

  6. lolathecur,
    Do you have a problem with the Septuagint? Because Christ quotes directly from the Septuagint in the Gospels, and oh by the way, He takes the OT text at face value and admonishes the Jewish leaders of His day for not doing exactly that.
    He, the fullness of the Godhead, obviously didn’t need “Nominum Interpretatio” to understand the OT — nor did He or should He have chastised the Pharisees for not obeying the OT if the “true interpretation” was some obscure interpretation caught in an entangled web of Jewish tradition! As it is, the Jewish leaders of today have followed in the same folly by way of their high veneration of the Talmud over and against what Scripture actually says.

    • I am afraid that you have fallen for the deception , flyby047. The one you speak of is Iesu Christi and not Jesum Christum(who is the CHRIST). This would be what the latin translation shows that is obscured in the greek. This is a very spiritual and deep subject. The answers to all are found within the vulgate. Maybe you would like to attempt to refute my Sola Scriptura teaching if you believe that you are correct. Again, I put my faith on the line here as I have above with Jay. By the way, CHRIST GOD(Jesum Christum) is only mentioned in 43 verses in the new testament. Would you like a list of them? I am simply clearing up false beliefs of what most believe these texts to say but do not, except in english transliterated bibles. Quick question for you; “how many Jesus’ do you believe are to be found within these texts”? I will give you a hint, there are many but only ONE CHRIST GOD(Jesum Christum) Seek and get back to me on it.

  7. The declension that is integral to the latin language is the reason why the Biblia Sacra is the most accurate translation. It(the Vulgate) would be the gold standard to hold all other translations against for measure.

    • This makes no sense. Greek, like Latin, is an inflected language. Are you suggesting that a newer text, transliterated from the Greek, is more authentic than the Greek NT? Also, if I understand you, you feel that the OT God is not the godhead; this is Gnosticism.

  8. @Jay: Solid iconology. I think there is such a thing as an iconoclasm out of caution, rather than out of weak Incarnational understandings of physicality and imaging/representation. Someone could easily ask, “How do we know for certain that this icon is a valid showing-forth of the saint or biblical scene in question?” to which we might respond with “tradition” (or something to that effect). That someone then might ask, “Well, what about the Western Catholic traditions of Renaissance and Baroque religious art? What about the statues, etc.?” at which point we would have to explicate a distinction between valid and invalid iconographic forms, plus a cashing out of what iconographic validity/invalidity consists in. Throw in some concern about the potential for idolatry, and the someone in question might end up getting the sense of walking on a tight rope. He or she might conclude that the entire project is futile, or at least overly risking. Of course, allowing fear to motivate one’s theology has always itself been a risky venture.

    @lolathecur: You’re proposing two entirely different characters on the basis of the distinction between Latin’s genitive singular (“Iesu Christi”) and the accusive singular (“Iesum Christum”; there is no ‘J’ in Latin) cases.

    That’s actually hilarious.

  9. lolathecur,

    I’m sorry my friend, but It is not I who has been deceived but you.
    You do realize that the original autographs of the NT were written in Greek, not Latin right? So if anything has been “transliterated” it was the Vulgate. I’m not disparaging the Vulgate here, but you honestly sound like you are a very special flavor of “KJV only” — in this case “Vulgate-onlyism” haha. I don’t mean to poke fun, but it is quite ridiculous.

  10. Possibly the dumbest pseudo argument I’ve heard all year.

  11. Great article, Jay.

    It’s also interesting to note that the Evangelist Luke painted the first icon of the Theotokos with the Christ Child. So according to the no-icons Protestants, one of the four Evangelists is considered an idolater. Ridiculous.

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