Biblical Defense of Icons

By: 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 commandsmany 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.”

Read all of Jay Dyer’s works on philosophy, film, science, and geopolitics at Jay’s Analysis.

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15 thoughts on “Biblical Defense of Icons

  1. Absolutely! God bless our icons, the are the beauty of the Church.

    Let us remember, the Babylonians and others like them believed that their deities inhabited physical material, mosaics, painting, statues, figurines. The Commandment concerning graven images, much like the rules on tattoos which at the time held huge spiritual significance, were in specific reference to this belief. God mocks pretenders who are confined to physical matter and must be ‘carried around’.

    • So Mark, if the “biblical case for holy images is overwhelming” how do you, using your theology explain ? -“And he did what the LORD considered to be right, according to everything that his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, demolished the sacred pillars, and tore down the Asherah poles. He also demolished the bronze serpent that Moses had crafted, because the Israelis had been burning incense to it right up until that time. Hezekiah called it a piece of brass.[2Kings 18:3-4]

      • Did God not command specifically the construction of the house of the Ark? Was it not decked in gold and precious stones in the form of cherubim etc.? The puritanical zeal to drive all beauty from the world, all tribute to what is above man, is a heresy. The Orthodox do not worship icons. We venerate them. We pray in front of the icons, not to the icons.

  2. Off course I will bow to Dr Michael J Heiser’s verdict on the matter, but before I read St John of Damascus or even consider that there is anything else that could be considered for veneration when scripture tells me that, “There is one God. There is also one mediator between God and human beings—a human, the Messiah Jesus.”[1Timothy_2:5] and that no spiritual, physical or mental alternative method or means of receiving can be, I will consider the article rhetorical claptrap.

    • In reality that’s just a choosing of your own authorities and a love of your own opinions of what scripture says, in contrast to 2 millennia of God-bearing Fathers and saints.

    • It is an error to infer that icons or saints mediate between God and human beings. Rather, they participate in the reality of the living saints, holy people whose lives were and are filled with the presence of Christ. In this sense, icons are filled with Christ’s presence and all icons essentially are representions of Christ. This is further reinforced by lighting the lamp before the icons, because without the Light of Christ, the saints are nothing.

  3. My opinions do not matter, and as yet have not entered into this discussion, I have merely quoted two scriptures contradicting your personal opinion which is the underlying foundation of your article – “scripture overwhemingly supports men choosing to call an image holy”. The reality though (not mine or yours), and what does matter, is that the Desert Fathers and the majority of the 2 millenia of saints, that you mention, would prefer to use the scriptures that I have quoted as wisdom for contemplation before choosing your, or any other human rhetoric about “what you think scriptures say” regarding whether there is “overwhelming biblical support for images that men choose to call holy” or not.

  4. You are absolutely correct in your observation that classical Protestants fail to grasp the full significance of the Incarnation. Furthermore, they tend to reduce Christianity to a set of abstractions, that is, by an emphasis on doctrines in which nothing of the material world can truly be considered holy. Because their belief system does not allow them the capacity to fully appreciate or experience how God works through matter, they come to inhabit a metaphysical wasteland. This dimished view of reality affects their view of icons and has also lead to other errors.

    Fr. Alexander Schmemann explains that matter is the icon of the True, the spiritual reality, a symbol in the original sense of the word used by the Fathers. While today the word ‘symbol’ has shifted in meaning to be synonymous with ‘sign,’ the Fathers used symbol to mean ‘something that participates in the reality of something else, yet without ontological change,’ “sacramental conduits of grace” as you said. Christ by his Incarnation sanctified and blessed the material world. The Incarnation therefore is a greater transformative event than the Fall, and this is the significance that Protestants have difficulty grasping.

    Since the icon is a symbol of the saint, it participates in the spiritual reality of that saint who lives in the presence of Christ; when we venerate an icon, we venerate the saint whose heavenly reality the icon participates in and touches. We do not venerate painted boards. So it ought to be sobering to all who blasphemously allude to the Second Commandment in this context to recall the very specific words of the Seventh Council, “anathema to those who say the Christians have recourse to the Holy Images as to idols.”

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