Continuing my series of posts on comparing Orthodoxy with Protestantism, I thought I should address the status of icons and the Saints in the two branches of faith.
One of the most distinctive things about the Orthodox Church, and probably the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Orthodoxy, is the proliferation of Byzantine-styled paintings known as icons. Church walls are covered in them, especially down the front. Believers will bow in front of them, pray in front of them, confess their sins, make the Sign of the Cross, light candles and kiss them as part of their observance of faith. For Protestants, indeed, most Westerners, this is all very alien and bizarre. Since, to a Protestant, our faith is defined by its spiritual, individual and internal nature, this behaviour has the appearance of, at best, unnecessary religious activity, and at worst, pagan idolatry. It’s a cultural phenomenon which can lead Protestants to dismiss Orthodoxy without giving it due care of examination.
Of course this is not what is going on at all. The word icon is Greek, and simply means “image”. In this case, the images are of Jesus, Mary, and all those Saints, both Biblical and otherwise, who have passed on. The Byzantine style in which they are painted is very deliberate. It’s a reaction against Classical art, in which it was common to furnish pagan gods and goddesses as idols for worship. The lack of 3D depth is simultaneously supposed to signify their current abode in a “different dimension”, as well as take the focus away from the object itself and place it on the real person the object depicts. The paintings themselves are not idols. They instead focus our minds on the Saint and the example he or she set us, or on Jesus Himself.
A Protestant may not see the necessity of such paraphernalia to their faith. They would argue that the focus should be on Jesus, and Him crucified, and that it is Jesus who saves us. Anything else is a distraction. This is not necessarily untrue. However, it is in Christ’s body that we find salvation. The Saints are part of that body, and part of the congregation of our Church as we worship, even after they have passed on. It encourages our faith to have their icons on the wall, participating with us, as we participate with them. We are not saved by ourselves, we are saved in Christ, as part of His body, which is the Church. Theoretically the presence or absence of icons makes no eternal difference, but for the sake of our own souls, we encourage their participation, as they encourage ours. So that is why Orthodox value them in both their own homes and in their churches. As my Priest would say, “they are part of our family, and the icons are our family album”.
Making the icons, and the Saints they depict, a part of our faith is no different from the way a Protestant would normally make other Christians a part of their faith as they seek to follow Jesus: We look to others as good examples to follow, and we ask godly men and women to pray for us for our needs. This is never a substitute for our prayers to God, but a way of involving the Body of Christ in our faith rather than struggling alone.
I should say here that in practical terms, icons of Saints play only a small part in Orthodox religious practice. It is mostly icons of Jesus and Mary that are venerated and utilized on a day-to-day basis. Usually Saints are only specifically venerated on Saint’s Days, or if they are a patron Saint of a specific church, or an individual’s Name Saint. The focus is (rightly) on Jesus Christ, His incarnation, life, death and resurrection.
Icons are definitely the “weirdest” part of Orthodoxy, but they are a continuation of the Old Testament tradition of icons, such as those on the Ark of the Covenant, and the theological basis for them is directly related to Jewish veneration of physical objects like the Ark. They are a manifestation of the Church’s focus on Christianity as a physical, material, experiential faith, rather than merely a spiritual and intellectual one. Personally, as a lifelong Protestant I have found it very strange (and still do to some extent) to kiss and venerate icons, and, like any religious activity, to do it for its own sake without faith as your motivator is no better than not doing it at all. But there is value in actually kissing Jesus’ image as a physical act, rather than just praying to Jesus in your head, or singing a gospel song about Jesus. It binds us to Him in a physical way. It gives us more reverence for Him and what he has done for us. And like all acts of faith, it allows the Holy Spirit to work on us.
What about the Saints? Is venerating the Saints an act of worship that should be reserved for God alone? There is a tendency in Protestantism to regard any veneration of others as somehow diminishing God, or worshiping man rather than God. However, I have come to the opposite point of view. To venerate men and women of God, living or dead, and to honour them, glorifies God, and in turn it blesses us to venerate those God has chosen to work through. And I have to say that it was not anyone Orthodox that convinced me of this, but a Protestant writer and speaker – John Bevere. While attending a Protestant “Megachurch” in Corpus Christi, I got involved in a Bible Study which utilized his book Honor’s Reward. Bevere explains in the book very clearly that how we act in the Kingdom of God determines our reward from God, and that for God to reward us, we must honour both God and others in our lives. Honour is an essential part of our Christian faith, and there are plenty of Bible references to those we should honour in our lives, all of which Bevere details.
As for the distinction between “veneration” and “worship”? To me it is very clear – it’s simply a distinction of what you say about someone. We praise people all the time and talk about their deeds. If I say David Bowie is the greatest musical artist of the twentieth century, then that’s not worship, it’s simply veneration – saying an (admittedly subjective) true thing about him. If I said David Bowie was King of the Universe, that would be worship (and therefore blasphemous, because he is not). In Orthodoxy, Mary and the Saints are given due praise, but not praised as God is praised. There is a clear dividing line, as there normally is when we praise even secular figures.
Iconography has always been a part of Christianity and a part of the Tradition of the Church. It was only in the 8th Century that icons became hotly debated, partially due to the influence of the new religion of Islam, in which all images were banned. In fact, icons were banned in the Byzantine Empire for many years during this time. However, the 2nd Ecumenical Council of Nicea proclaimed in 787AD:
… we declare that we defend free from any innovations all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us. One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another’s message. … we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects.
While there was there was further conflict in the ensuing years, until icons were finally restored by the Empress Theodora in 842AD, this settled the matter theologically. I think the proclamation here sums up pretty well the value of icons to Christian faith. They are an enrichment to it, not a detraction from it, and while one can obviously practice Christianity without them, they can be an excellent aid to faith.