Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Icon veneration

I think that icon veneration, as practiced and taught by the Orthodox and Catholic churches, is idolatry, it's a violation of the second commandment. Let's discuss in the comments.


  1. yeah, that sounds about right. the problem is that most people seem to be predisposed to some form of polytheism or another. they don't want to worship one, formless absolute god--they want to worship saints, heroes, martyrs, a sun god, a war god, etc..

  2. Or you could say everyone venerates icons: whether they be celebrities, parents, good pastors, strong moral examples and heroes in their life.

    It is a matter of directing that proper human activity - honor and veneration - towards a proper end - to those who are actually good and worthy of being honored.

    'Latria' is the word which describes total devotion and obedience, which is the 'reasonable service' due only to God: it means everything and every breath.

    The trouble most have with icon veneration is that they don't worship God, they merely venerate him. If one was to truly worship him with 'all mind, all body, all life' the veneration given to saints in icons and to the heavenly host in the old covenant looks small in comparison, even that which we give to our Lady.

    Iconoclasm is a slippery slope: witness Islam.

  3. Garth, how would someone violate the second commandment?

  4. Even with a religion that is as extreme as Islam in its observance of the second commandment it's hard to tell: To an outside observer it may look like Muslims worship the Prophet Mohammed, or the Kaaba (they do bow towards it at every prayer after all...)

    It really seems that no matter how formless or absolute or omnipresent or locationless God is, human worshippers do need something either physical or human to relate to to use as a conduit to express their worship.
    Whether a person worships God or the icon is really in their head, isn't it?

  5. I like much of what you have to say about icons and tradition. On the other hand: "Revelation doesn't work. Protestants can't come to agreement on basic, important things." I disagree, though I understand why you would say what you say. The fact that people disagree over the meaning of a document doesn't make that document broken. If you narrow the scope a bit and define what you mean by "agreement on basic, important things," you'll see much more the power of revelation. First of all, deal only with those who see Scripture as true revelation and as the only reliable source of true revelation. In other words, you must hold to inerrancy and sufficiency as a starting ground. If you look at those Protestants, you will find a large amount of common ground. In fact, we agree on just about 90-95% of what we believe and on all the really important, core doctrines. We disagree on some things, to be sure, but that's true of any group of human beings dealing with any subject and any book. The fact that we agree on so much speaks to the power of the Holy Spirit and revelation.

  6. It is amazing the lenghths to which Orthodox people will go to rationalize and justify their blatant violations of the Second Commandment. It's almost as bad as most Protestants' utter disregard for the Fourth Commandment. The problem is not with the Bible-that it is unclear, but the problem is with our hearts. We are so stubbornly sinful. The beautiful thing is that Scripture tells us so, which further confirms its truthfulness.

  7. That's something that disillusioned me with Christianity a long time ago. Jehova's witnesses do consciously avoid idolatry as much as possible. They have no crosses in their churches, no rosaries, and no statues of the Virgin Mary. The concentration is on prayer.

  8. Jason: Your comparison of Orthodox and Catholics use of the second commandment to that of many Protestants use of the fourth is apt.

  9. going along with what yuriy said, if i recall correctly, so-called "folk islam" involves magical dealings with djinn and the use of protective talismans. additionally, shi'a regions have saints' tombs that are alleged to confer blessings upon people that make pilgrimages to those sites. i'm not sure how much of this is representative of the beliefs of the total muslim population, but as it is it might be something like what you see in other, less iconoclastic religions.

    if you look at religious belief in a society, what you frequently find is a minority of philosophically/spiritually-minded people who tend to gravitate away from ritual worship in favor of contemplation and discourse on the absolute, the word, the one, the tao, brahman, sunyata, etc.. the majority seems to be more invested in fulfilling ritual obligation (which varies from culture to culture) in exchange for some sort of reward either in material good-fortune or some sort of heavenly state. more simply: no matter where you go in the world, religious practice for the majority of people involves being crammed into a building, offering good thoughts and other things as sacrifice to some statue or another, in the hope that the universe will not go out of its way to screw them over.

    it's most likely not that simple. sorry for the long post. just riffing.

  10. Alex,

    Making an idol of any created thing. That would mean offering latria (obedience and true worship) to it. We all do this surprisingly often without icons, so at least as they are used in EO practice it is actually a non-issue. We have a greater problem making graven images of money (already one anyway), other people, ideologies and other created things than we do of the saints.

  11. MC,

    According to Lewis, at least as expressed through his work "The Great Divorce" we find that it is the contemplatives who suffer from the worse temptation - to make idols of 'unseen' but created things - manmade ideologies, angels, demons, various doctrines. It is the simpletons who are the true faithful, since they do not have the subtlety to fool themselves into thinking anything but actual obedience is obedience.

    These 'spiritual types' have different gifts but are by no means the salt of the earth without the grace of God.

  12. Garth, I'd been thinking of the second commandment speaking to veneration of images in general. I don't recall hearing the clarification you mention—that the second commandment is limited to images of creation—when I was an Inquirer. I'll think about this.

  13. Graham,

    You said:

    no matter where you go in the world, religious practice for the majority of people involves being crammed into a building, offering good thoughts and other things as sacrifice to some statue or another, in the hope that the universe will not go out of its way to screw them over.

    I think it really is that simple. A fair number of people, as you point out, disagree with that understanding of the cosmos. A smaller number think that people ought to at least have the opportunity to be freed from an oppressive system where you must do something to satiate this or that capricious deity and his or her need for justice and instead try out this belief system where the deity satisfies his own damn justice. But most of us are too busy arguing with each other on the internet to do so, though.

  14. @ Meaghan:

    jehovah's witnesses don't believe in blood transfusions.

    @ River:

    yeah, i didn't mean to imply that one group was objectively better or worse than the other. that's just the way religious belief seemed to cut. personally, i don't envy the "simpletons."

    @ Matt:

    but i like arguing on the internet! it gives me feelings of productivity without having to get dressed.

  15. Alex,

    Paul says that Christ is the 'express image of the Father'; and he is seen not merely 'in the form of a man' in the sense that his humanity is not his but a mask, but rather, divinity and humanity become one in the person of Jesus Christ. John says as much in the Prologue (chapter 1) of his gospel. (We beheld his glory, that of the only begotten of the Father) that they were seeing God when they saw Jesus, not merely a hint of divinity veiled in flesh.

    This is an astounding thing, considering two things, 1. No one has seen God, 2. Nobody sees God and lives. It is also thought by the Church as revealed by what Psalm verses she chooses, that particular Psalms prefigure this. Especially:

    Ps.16:15 As for me in righteousness I shall behold Thy face, I shall be satisfied when Thy glory is revealed.

    Ps. 117(118 in Masoretic):27 God is the Lord and has revealed himself unto us.

    etc. Matins is very subtle but pointed about what the Psalms mean in the light of the incarnation.

    As for breaking the 2nd commandment, we ought to also wonder about the 4th; Jesus is the lord of the sabbath certainly, but the commandment does not disappear. However, we are willing to accept that this commandment is reinterpreted in light of the new covenant, but more recently it has been thought by some in the West that the 2nd commandment is not also reinterpreted.

    Even consider 'honor your mother and father' and compare it with the NT admonitions that Christ would cause division among families (even among parents and children) and that of people defying their parents to follow Christ.

    Even the more obvious, if you are a trinitarian Christian is that the first commandment and the shamat israel (Rejoice O Israel, the Lord your God is One) are reinterpreted; given that God is not just one but three as well.


    As for worshiping God in the formless, this is obviously the highest form of devotion, which is to say, worship and knowledge which goes beyond all forms. St. Maximus talks about this in his 'Four Centuries of Love' Third Century #38 and on..

    "It is a great thing not to be affected by things; but it is far better to remain detached from their representations."


    and again in 'Chapters on Knowledge' First Century #6 and others...

    "..the one who through genuine knowledge has gone beyond created things."

    But this is not a simple task, not simply because we're stubborn, but because all ways we know of devotion/worship all are actions which pertain to either a created thing or some kind of representation. Without some participation in the life of God there is no way 'from here to there' that we can think of.

  16. I've been told that icons were used like storyboards for congregations who were mainly illiterate.

  17. I can tell that I'm doing my job right, or wrong, when I get a headache.

    I'm not sure that you care about YouTube videos of people playing the piano, I think that something other than caring is going on. Ebert's recent post on frisson has been helpful to me in thinking about distraction.