Thursday, October 01, 2009

Theology of Icons

The standard charge of meticulously-Protestant Christians is that catholics are idolatrous because they will reverence icons, altars, the sacrament and other persons. If we thought that these things were gods, that would be a valid charge. Indeed, there are badly instructed catholics who may have superstitious ideas about such things (particularly in places like the Philippines, Latin America, etc.). However, the biblical case for holy images is, I believe, overwhelming when one takes everything into account. Furthermore, it’s been settled by the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II in 787), which many Protestants claim to adhere to!

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 forms the basis for the argument below. I will also include some quotes from various Fathers defending images, showing that this is part of the undivided practice and faith of the church.

1. Really the only apparent biblical argument against images is the Second Commandment. It is argued that there are to be no images made of God, or anything in heaven or earth. In response to this charge, it is important to note that this view is actually inconsistent and impossible. We should be careful to note that the literal wording of the Command forbids all making of any images of anything in heaven, earth, sea, etc. Reformed theologian Charles Hodge mentions a reformed colleague of his at Princeton who actually refused to use maps that pictured things like mountains, lakes, etc. This is a consistent outworking of the Protestants position. Such a position is totally ridiculous, but he was attempting to be as consistent with his heretical reading of the Second Command.

Two points refute this:

  • First, the Commandment specifically mentions heaven, earth, sea, etc. God seems to be pointing out the type of worship the 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. So, 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.
  • Second, 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, God wouldn’t command His own tabernacle/temple to be full of them. Therefore, the Second Command cannot mean absolutely no religious images. It forbids pagan idolatry, and clearly the temple worship which had images was not idolatry.

2. Following in this same train, when the Israelites were in the wilderness and were bit by the snakes, God commands 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 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. So, we have here a vindication of the use of the crucifix. That’s why St. Paul sees power in the Cross of Christ (see Colossians 2:13-15) to disarm the devil’s fallen hierarchy of fallen angels. That’s why crucifixes are used in exorcisms. And it's a rare church that doesn't have a single cross in the place.

(Ironically, many will allow an American flag - replete with eagle at the top, symbol of Roman power - to be in their places of worship without a peep!)

3. The Bible itself is full is symbolism, which is merely another form of the use of images. Thus, the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove at Christ’s baptism. A dove, then, is legitimately used as an image of the Holy Spirit. The paschal lamb is an image of Christ, and so on. God presents Himself to us in Scripture through a variety of images. Human fathers, then, are an 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 their erroneous zeal against holy images. How could the invisible Jehovah be Incarnate in a human image? To the Pharisees this was idolatry. But the catholic 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.

4. Some Protestants may hold to the validity of images, but deny the reverence paid to them as idolatry. We must ask, then, does Scripture provide any warrant for reverencing anything created? All are agreed that worship (latria) is to be paid only to God. But what about reverence, as in dulia? Is it licit to give homage, reverence, even prostration to any created thing/image? I believe the biblical answer is yes, since we see several times in Scripture men in 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 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. But, there are numerous 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 clergy - especially bishops - who labor in the word (of double honor according to Paul in 1 Tim. 5:17).

5. In Acts 19:11-12, cloths and handkerchiefs are touched by St. Paul, and are then placed upon those possessed and the spirits are driven out by these “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): this is the entire principle behind relics. Things–matter–stuff can be consecrated/sanctified for a holy purpose. Thus, 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 chose to use mud–stuff, to do the miracle. We call this the “Incarnational Principle.” It is the same thinking behind all sacramental practice.

6. Likewise, in the OT period, even places were holy. Places like Mt. Sinai, the Temple, etc. But this practice is not rejected in the NT, contrary to what many Protestants may think. 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 the principle behind shrines and healing icons. In 2 Peter 1:16-18, St. Peter calls the mountain that he witnessed the transfiguration on the “holy mountain.” So, even in the New Testament the principle of holy places is not abolished as something strictly Old Testament. One sees, then, that there is biblical basis for the catholic practices of relics, images and icons. If there is discernment, it must lie not with strict prohibition, but with regard to application.

7. The Early Church Fathers are 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.” Against Julian -St. Cyril of Alexandria
And St. 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. This is part of what we mean when we confess the communion of the saints.

But the honor 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-worshipers), and we neither make nor tell others to make any such offering to any martyr, any 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.

Even the incense that is sometimes burned in front of ikons is merely a reiteration that we believe the whole church triumphant prays for us and cheers us on in our run of faith. 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.
The truths we teach are one thing, the abuses thrust upon us are another.

heavy h/t to Jay Dyer


Jay Dyer said...

Thanks, Father!

Fr. Chris Larimer said...

Thank you! I appreciate you doing so much heavy lifting on your site. Like you, I came from a Reformed background and was overwhelmed with the simple catholicity of the Nicene Creed (without further need of punctilious Confessionalism).

On a pilgrimage to England, I was won over to the catholic faith. England is, by all conciliar agreements, the oldest of Churches outside of the Holy Land. The apostolic line of my bishop is only three generations removed from the Roman Church (Duarte Costa succession).

Anonymous said...

Who is the author of this?

Fr. Chris Larimer said...

Mr. Dyer, a convert to Roman Catholicism - I geared down some of the "Protestants this/that" language because it was needlessly galvanizing, and it's untrue. (Anglicans are Protestant, so are Lutherans, and yet both make use of iconography). Kevin and I have been dialoguing about icons and I found these reflections cogent.

I'm not sure I can go as far as relics (though in the charismatic churches they often pass out blessed hankies based on Paul's cited healings). In some ways, I think anti-Papal squeamishness controlled "reforms" made (especially on the Continent, though also in the second wave of the English Reformation); these culturally and politically agitated allergies undercut serious - and humble - reflection on what it means to be part of a received faith.

Based on the testimony of Nicea II, the unbroken practice of the Church, and their edifying use in multiple cultural contexts, and the warrant found in the Scriptures, I do not believe that the 2nd Commandment is violated by the use of images for teaching. I think it would be imprudent to try and image the Godhead, though representations of the Spirit as a dove and of Christ (the ikon of God) seem to be acceptable.

Presbyman said...


Good points, but you know the more Reformed than thou types will have kittens if or when they read this. Remember how I was called a "Papal Yes Man?" Yuk Yuk.