The Orthodox Err in Venerating Pictures of People

(Feb. 5, 2019 version)

A kindergarten teacher once asked a little girl what she was drawing. She said she was drawing God. The teacher said, "but no one knows what God looks like." The girl replied, "they will when I am done!"

We can laugh at her audacity, but when people draw definitive pictures of the apostles, Jesus, or even God, the little girl would feel right at home.

One of the most serious errors in eastern orthodoxy is venerating icons, or images used for veneration. They don't claim to worship these images, but to venerate saints represented by them. They don't claim to pray to the image, but rather through the images.

We are not saying that images are always bad. Early Christians drew fish and crosses; evangelicals today have crosses, and sometimes murals with Bible figures in them. They frequently have crosses in their homes. In the Old Testament the ark had on type two statues of cherubim. But in all cases, people did not pray to these.

Early Pre-Nicene and Nicene Christians did not venerate icons. We have a whole article on this. (and .doc)

How Important do Orthodox think this is?

Here is an orthodox quote: "Thus, according to St. John Damascene, those who refuse to venerate an Icon also refuse to worship God's Son, Who is the living image and unchanging reflection of God the Invisible. Be it known, he says, that anyone who seeks to destroy the Icons of Christ or His Mother, the Blessed Theotokos, or any of the Saints, is the enemy of Christ, the Holy Mother of God, and the Saints, and is the defender of the Devil and his demons." 11/26/2017

Are icons really essential for worship and salvation???

"In many ways, it's difficult to imagine how our Liturgy could subsist without icons. They are an irrevocable part of the life of the Church. Ouspensky notes (Theology of the Icon, vol. 1, p. 8):

It is absolutely impossible to imagine the smallest liturgical rite in the Orthodox Church without icons. The liturgical and sacramental life of the Church is inseparable from the image.

The liturgical and mystical life of the Church is inseparable from icons because they together proclaim the same faith and truth -and that Truth is Jesus Christ. All icons are icons of Christ, the express image of God the Father. The Truth conveyed by icons is one and the same with the words of our fathers, the scriptures, and our prayers and hymns." 8/21/2017

"One of the first things that strikes a non-Orthodox visitor to an Orthodox church is the prominent place assigned to the Holy Icons. The Iconostasis (Icon-screen) dividing the Altar from the rest of the church is covered with them, while others are placed in prominent places throughout the church building. Sometimes even the walls and ceiling are covered with them in fresco or mosaic form. The Orthodox faithful prostrate themselves before them, kiss them, and burn candles before them. They are censed by the Priest and carried in processions. Considering the obvious importance of the Holy Icons, then, questions may certainly be raised concerning them: What do these gestures and actions mean? What is the significance of these Icons? Are they not idols or the like, prohibited by the Old Testament?" 8/21/2017

and also

The Bible Says Don't Worship Images

Yet the Bible says not to worship any image of anything in heaven above or on earth in Exodus 20:4-5 and Deuteronomy 5:8-9. It does not just say don't give worship to those things, but don't worship anything they are images of either.

People have always had a tendency towards idolatry. Not only in ancient times, but over 1 billion Hindus and Mahayana Buddhists today worship religious idols. But there are two different ways sinful people have worshipped idols. First, some think the idol, as a rock or piece of wood, has no power itself but is a representative of the spiritual being they are trying to worship. Second, others think the actual rock or piece of wood itself has magical or supernatural power. Many orthodox venerate icons (including pictures of Christ) the first way. However, some "venerate" the second way too, as there are claims that sometimes icons miraculously weep.

What about Nehushtan?

The bronze snake, lifted up in the desert, is a great example of the good and bad use of images. When the children of Israel were wandering in the Wilderness in Numbers 21:4-8 they grumbled against God and God sent venomous snakes against them. When the people repented, God commanded Moses to set up a bronze snake on a pole. Anyone who was bitten could look up at the graven image of the animal on the pole and live. Jesus compared Himself to the bronze snake in John 3:14; anyone who would look up to Him would live.

But what did the people eventually do with the bronze snake? 2 Kings 18:4 tells us they called it Nehushtan and started burning incense to worship it. So the godly king Hezekiah had it destroyed, because people started worshipping what God gave them in addition to God.

This is one of the two strongest arguments Eastern orthodox make for the venerating pictures of people. However, even eastern orthodox ought to agree:

1) It was a graven image not a picture

2) They had no pictures of any Old Testament person to look up to. Even under Bar Cochba, Jewish coins had only images of the temple or plants, but not people

3) It was a snake, not a person

4) They did not honor snakes; they wanted freedom from snakebite,

5) Ultimately they sinned with that image by valuing it too highly.

6) We should look up to Jesus, who took our sins upon Himself, not sin or the serpent behind this evil world.

What about the Cherubim on the Ark?

In Exodus 25:18-20 God told Moses to make two cherubim, out of hammered gold, to place on top of the ark. Eastern Orthodox says that since these images were commanded by God in these religious objects used in worship, therefore images are OK in worship. This is one of the two strongest arguments the Eastern Orthodox have for pictures, though these are not even pictures!

For the Tabernacle the Curtains and the veil of the Holy of Holies had pictures of cherubim woven in them according to Exodus 26:1,31. These were part of the design though, not independent pictures to venerate.

It is agreed that images can be OK in a church. Evangelicals as well as eastern orthodox have prominent crosses on their church, and even pictures with Bible characters. We have also found carvings by early Christians of crosses, and they used the fish as one of their symbols too. However, this does not support venerating pictures of people because

1) These were two angels, not people,

2) These were graven images, not pictures

3) They did not worship these, because Exodus 20:4-5 and Deuteronomy 5:8-9 say they were not to make or bow down to any idols

4) The Bible did not say to venerate the cherubim, and both early Christians and evangelicals never mentioned venerating cherubim, other angels, crosses, or any other carved images or pictures.

By the way, to their credit, Eastern Orthodox do not venerate with statues or any other carved images.

Images in Solomon's Temple of Cherubim, Lions, Bulls, Palm Trees, and Flowers

A less important argument is about Solomon's temple. There were cherubim made of olive wood according to 1 Kings 6:23. On the walls around the temple were pictures of cherubim, palm trees and open flowers in 1 Kings 6:29. On the doors of the temple were carved the same in 1 Kings 6:32. On the side panels of the bronze furnishings Solomon cared lions, bulls, and cherubim according to 1 Kings 7:29,36. These were decorations and the Jews did not venerate cherubim just like they did not venerate lions or palm trees.

Eastern Orthodox Answers

All eastern orthodox have two answers to the above. First, carved images should not be venerated as Exodus 20:4-5 and Deuteronomy 5:8-9 say, but they only use paintings. (Note that the Roman Catholic Church differs on this.)

Second, in the Old Testament, they agree that venerating anything as an image of God was not to be done, but since Jesus came, who is the image of God, in New Testament times now we can have pictures of Him. So Greek Orthodox (but not Russian) say they cannot venerate pictures of God the Father or the Holy Spirit, only Jesus. John of Damascus gives this argument in Exposition of the Orthodox Faith ch.16 p.88

But these arguments do nothing to justify pictures of people besides Jesus. Eastern orthodox would agree the Jews did not venerate pictures of Moses, David, Isaiah, or anyone else. Can you imagine the twelve disciples in the gospels, or the many disciples in Acts, carting around pictures of Jesus, Peter, Paul, or others when they worshipped, instead of looking at the apostles directly? ' I hardly think they did that. Even today, if we have Jesus inside of us, what do we need a made-up picture for?

Why would someone venerate an image of a person besides Christ, unless perhaps they thought they should be devoted to that person too, because they believed were a part of the Godhead also. But since they believe these people have deity and are a part of the Godhead, then the fine line between veneration and worship get very hard to see. However, in 2 Corinthians 11:3 Paul had a fear that some would lead the church astray from their sincere and pure devotion to Christ. Unfortunately Paul's fear was justified. The Greek Orthodox Church even has a hymn to the Virgin Mary.

Another Eastern Orthodox Answer: St. Hilarion Troitsky 1886-1929

"Today we ever more frequently run up against this kind of reasoning: "We read such and such in Holy Scripture. The Church teaches differently. So the Church is wrong." All kinds of sectarians monotonously chant in this manner ad nauseam. There are even those who echo these ideas while calling themselves Christians, that is, they have adopted incomprehensible arrogance in their attitude toward the Church, placing themselves far above her. Holding the point of view described above regarding the sources of doctrine, it is not easy to respond properly. Let us consider, for example, the issue of the veneration of icons. A sectarian points out the prohibition of images in the Old Testament (cf. Ex. 20:4), or the words of Christ about spiritual worship (cf. Jn. 4:23). For him icons are a contradiction. Do we respond by saying that the veneration of icons is based on Tradition? But Tradition is to be accepted only when it does not contradict Scripture. References, for example, to the Cherubim on the curtain of the Old Testament Temple are not very convincing. Thus, the dispute continues without end and to no avail because the missionaries themselves adopt the sectarian perspective, and that perspective by its very essence leads only to a battle of words, but not to the truth. In contrast, drawing from the idea of the Church, we do not even need to argue on the basis of Scripture; for us, our faith in the Church is enough. The fruitlessness of disputes "from the Scripture" was recognized long ago by Tertullian, who said that such arguments could only make your stomach and brain ill or cause you to lose your voice, falling finally into rabid fury from the blasphemies of heretics (Prescription Against Heretics, 17). He asserts that it is not worth appealing to Scripture, since victory is either unlikely or completely impossible. But a person of the Church can boldly reiterate these words, since to him "it is quite the same to be taught by Scripture and by the Catholic Church" (The Confession of Dositheus). (Holy Scripture and the Church) From 11/26/2017

By the way, he totally messed up the meaning of Tertullian. Tertullian's quote refers to Gnostics who do not receive all of the scriptures and have their own scriptures. After giving this quote, early in his career, Tertullian went on to give probably over a hundred scriptural proofs. See the appendix for Tertullian's entire quote.

John of Damascus' "Unwritten Tradition"

John of Damascus, whom the Eastern Orthodox Church considers one of its greatest theologians, taught that they venerate icons because Luke the evangelist taught that. Where you might ask? John of Damascus said it was an "unwritten tradition". But we have over 4,174 pages of writings by Pre-Nicene Christians, and totally absent is anything about veneration, icons, or statues. So in all the important things and many small details they told us in those 4,174 pages, there is nothing. So why would it be totally "unwritten" if it is a central part of Christianity as the eastern orthodox claim? If the 412 pages after Nicea by Athanasius of Alexandria, there is no mention of icons either.

As a test of the veracity of John of Damascus, here are quotes said by John of Damascus to be from Methodius. "So the images of His [God's angels who are made of gold, the principalities and powers, we do them for the honor and glory of Him." (EIA, St. John Damascene, vol.3 p.357). "And one who speaks against either of them, is not acquitted as if he had only spoken against clay, nor condemned for having despised gold, but for having been disrespectful towards the King and Lord Himself. The images of God's angels, which are fashioned of gold, the principalities and powers, we make to His honor and glory." Discourse on the Resurrection part 2 p.369. The quote from John of Damascus is in Oration 2 De Imagin., tom. I p.389. There is no other reference in ancient history to Methodius' Second Discourse on the Resurrection. Since John Damascene seemed to have made up the quote from Luke, then I question this when he is the only source. Furthermore, this quote only refers to graven images of God's angels anyway, not pictures of people.

No one had any record of either this quote or a Second discourse on the Resurrection except for John of Damascus. So how does this square with what everyone agrees is genuine from Methodius?

Methodius (c270-311/312 A.D.) "And those artificers who, to the destruction of men, make images in human form, not perceiving and knowing their own Maker, are blamed by the Word, which says, in the Book of Wisdom, a book full of all virtue, 'his heart is ashes, his hope is more vile than earth, and his life of less value than clay; forasmuch as he knew not his Maker, and Him that inspired into him an active soul, and breathed in a living spirit;' that is, God, the Maker of all men; therefore, also, according to the apostle, He 'will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.'" Banquet of the Ten Virgins discourse 2 ch.7 p.316. Methodius gives a blanket condemnation of all religious images in human form, regardless of who is represented.

Appendix: What Tertullian Really Said about Scriptural Proofs

Tertullian (198-220 A.D.) "Now this heresy of yours does not receive certain Scriptures; and whichever of them it does receive, it perverts by means of additions and diminutions, for the accomplishment of it own purpose; and such as it does receive, it receives not in their entirety; but even when it does receive any up to a certain point as entire, it nevertheless perverts even these by the contrivance of diverse interpretations. Truth is just as much opposed by an adulteration of its meaning as it is by a corruption of its text. Their vain presumptions must needs refuse to acknowledge the (writings) whereby they are refuted. They rely on those which they have falsely put together, and which they have selected, because of their ambiguity. Though most skilled in the Scriptures, you will make no progress, when everything which you maintain is denied on the other side, and whatever you deny is (by them) maintained. As for yourself, indeed, you will lose nothing but your breath, and gain nothing but vexation from their blasphemy." On Prescription Against Heretics ch.17 p.251 (.doc)

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by Steven M. Morrison, PhD.