Veneration of Images, Iconoclasm, & Idolatry (An Exposition)

Veneration of Images, Iconoclasm, & Idolatry (An Exposition) May 24, 2017


Christ and Saint Mina. 6th-century icon from Bawit, Egypt [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]




The following excerpt from the Anglican Nonjuror Bishops — in 1722 (text in blue) — was taken from a web page by Anglican priest [later, Anabaptist] David Bercot [link now defunct]. Afterwards I make a general defense of the propriety of veneration of images, and explain the distinction between Christian veneration and pagan idolatry.

Stephen D. Jayne wrote (as an introduction to the piece):

The Nonjurors were members of the Church of England who became independent of the State Church in 1688, when they refused to take an Oath of Allegiance to King William, whom they viewed as a usurper. They suffered much for conscience sake, and sought to restore the purity of the primitive Christian faith. They rejected what is commonly called the Seventh Ecumenical Council (A.D. 787), which demands that prayers be made to saints, and that images be bowed to, as conditions of Church membership. Perhaps the best known Nonjuror is William Law, author of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

Fellow Catholic Marcia Dietrich, who originally responded to a posting of this material on a public bulletin board, wrote:

Your source doesn’t even quote the council from what I can see. It doesn’t say what the council was about or what it actually said. It was against ICONOCLASM (literally “image breaking”) which wanted to destroy all Christian art. The council upheld that art and proper honor due to the holy persons they represent (Jesus, Mary, angels, saints). Here is what was actually said in the council:

We define that the holy icons, whether in color, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honor (timitiki proskynisis), but not of real worship (latreia), which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature . . . he who venerates the icon, venerated in it the reality for which it stands.

[The council didn’t] say you have to bow to the item, but that they should be displayed; it is proper to display them instead of breaking them, and that they should cause you to commemorate and love their prototype. “Should be kissed” … but not “must be kissed against your will or you are out.” This is protecting the religious art and those who give proper veneration, . . . the council was protecting religious art, . . . not forcing people to bow to idols against their will.

I shall now reply to the Nonjurors’ semi-iconoclastic statement:

OUR REPLY … is that since we cannot be convinced of any liberty for invoking the saints and paying religious veneration to them, we conceive that the argument lies strongly against giving relative veneration or religious respect to their images. For since the original cannot be thus addressed, it is still more difficult to imagine that the bare representation of such a being can claim any such honor.

We honor saints in heaven because they have attained the likeness (eikon / image) of God (2 Cor 3:18); “spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Heb 12:23). This is why we venerate them, because they reflect God’s glory and are His vessels. The painter is praised when his masterpiece is praised. It is His work. The saints are God’s workmanship, not man’s. Paul tells us to “imitate” him, which is a concept, it seems to me, similar to “honoring” or “veneration” (1 Cor 4:16, Phil 3:17, 2 Thess 3:7-9); and this is because he, in turn, imitates Christ (1 Cor 11:1, 1 Thess 1:6). We are exhorted to honor and imitate the “heroes of the faith” in Hebrews 6:12 and chapter 11.

To proceed: Neither the veneration, nor so much as the use of images, was in the very early Christian Church. This is pretty plain from St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Constantia, in Cyprus, in his letter to John of Jerusalem, where he declares strongly against this practice: When I came into a country church of Palestine, called Anablatha, I found a certain cloth hanging over the door, upon which there was a picture painted like that of our Savior or some saint, for I cannot certainly remember whose picture it was. However, seeing the figure of a man in the Church of Christ, contrary to the authority of the Holy Scriptures, I tore it, and gave orders to the church-wardens to wrap it around some corpse and bury it. And though this Father went too far in asserting the unlawfulness of having any pictures in churches, yet we may fairly infer, that this practice was not customary in Cyprus or Palestine in Epiphanius time. See Council of Nicaea 2nd (i.e., the Seventh Ecumenical Council): Epiph. Haeres: 27, which agrees with the testimony cited.

We cannot infer this, based on one account. So what if Epiphanius was against images? He is not the Church. He didn’t even represent the sentiment of his own community in this instance. Protestant Church historian Philip Schaff wrote about this incident as well, calling Epiphanius a “narrow fanatic,” and he takes quite a different position:

This arbitrary conduct, however, excited great indignation, and Epiphanius found himself obliged to restore the injury to the village church by another curtain.

The prevalent spirit of the age already very decidedly favored this material representation as a powerful help to virtue and devotion, especially for the uneducated classes, whence the use of images, in fact, mainly proceeded.

(History of the Christian Church, Vol. III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity, New York: Scribner’s, 5th edition, 1910, reprinted by Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1974, 566-567)

That hardly sounds like the presence of images “was not customary.” Furthermore, Schaff informs us that:

The Iconoclastic council at Constantinople in 754 cited several works of Epiphanius against images, the genuineness of which, however, is suspicious. (Ibid., 566)

Schaff does note that the Church only gradually adopted images of Christ, but was not against other images:


. . . the prejudices of the ante-Nicene period against images in painting or sculpture continued alive, through fear of approach to pagan idolatry, or of lowering Christianity into the province of sense. But generally the hostility was directed only against images of Christ; and from it, as Neander justly observes, we are by no means to infer the rejection of all representations of religious subjects; for images of Christ encounter objections peculiar to themselves. (Ibid., 565)

St. Basil the Great died 24 years earlier than Epiphanius, in 379. Schaff cites this Church father:


. . . I receive also the holy apostles and prophets and martyrs. Their likenesses I revere and kiss with homage, for they are handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but on the contrary painted in all our churches. (Ibid., 567; Epist. 205. Comp. his Oratio in Barlaam, Opp. i 515, and similar expressions in Gregory Naz., Orat. 19 (al. 18) ).

From about the middle of the 5th century, portraits and representations of Christ became quite common, which should pose no difficulty, as the doctrine of Christ was at the same time being finalized in its Chalcedonian form of the Two Natures. The canon of New Testament Scripture was finally stated only some 50 years earlier. Other images were prevalent much earlier:


Such representations of Christ, of the saints, and of biblical events are found in the catacombs and other places of burial, on sarcophagi and tombstones, in private houses, on cups and seal rings, and (in spite of the prohibition of the council of Elvira in 305 . . . This prohibition seems to have been confined, however, to pictures of Christ Himself . . . ) on the walls of churches, especially behind the altar . . . The earliest pictures of the Madonna with the child are found in the Roman catacombs, and are traced in part by the Cavaliere de Rossi (Imagini Scelte, 1863) to the third and second centuries. (Ibid., 572)

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, 2nd ed., Oxford Univ. Press, 1974, 691, “Images”) concurs as to date:


The paintings of the Catacombs, some of which date to the late 2nd cent., are the earliest Christian pictures, and after the period of the Persecutions sacred images came to play an increasing part in the cultus . . .

To this we may add, that the Council of Constantinople held under Constantine Copronymus, against images, asserts that there was no prayer in the church service for consecrating images, a suggestion which the 2nd Council of Nicaea (i.e., the Seventh Ecumenical Council) does not deny. And St. Augustine, mentioning some superstitious Christians (for so he calls them), says he knew a great many who venerated images (August. De Moribus Eccl. Cath. cap. 34).

Schaff elaborates:

Even Augustine laments that among the rude Christian masses there are many image-worshippers, but counts such in the great number of those nominal Christians, to whom the essence of the Gospel is unknown. (Ibid., 573)

This hardly proves that the practice was not widespread; only that among the ignorant abuses of it occurred, which is no news, but a self-evident truth which holds in all times and places. Elsewhere St. Augustine writes:

A Christian people celebrates together in religious solemnity the memorials of the martyrs, both to encourage their being imitated and so that it can share in their merits and be aided by their prayers. But it is done in such a way that our altars are not set up to any one of the martyrs, – although in their memory, – but to God Himself, the God of those martyrs. (Against Faustus the Manichaean, c. 400,  20-21, from William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers [Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1979, vol. 3, 59] )

And for a further declaration of our sentiments upon this matter, we willingly acknowledge that the use of pictures in churches is not only lawful, but may be serviceable for representing the history of the saints, for refreshing the memory, and for warming the devotion of the people.

Not bad, as far as it goes . . .

And thus our reason for citing the previous testimonies is not against the use, but only against the veneration of pictures. For if the bare usage was sometimes condemned, and nowhere generally practiced in the primitive Church, it follows all the more, that the veneration of them in those early ages cannot be supposed.

And it follows that since their assertion, “Neither the veneration, nor so much as the use of images, was in the very early Christian Church” has now been shown to be false, therefore, the assertion above — based on the false premise –, is also false.

…And we further desire that their Patriarchal Lordships, would be pleased to remember, that Christianity is no progressive religion, but was entire and perfect when the Evangelists and Apostles were deceased, and therefore the earliest traditions are undoubtedly preferable, and the first guides, the best. For the stream runs clearest towards the fountain head. Thus whatever variations there are from the original state, whatever disagrees in belief or practice from the earliest ages, ought to come under suspicion.

This is manifestly untrue as well, because Christianity develops. This state of affairs, if it obtained, would take away all trinitarian and Christological development (including the crucial work of Nicaea and Chalcedon), which was very necessary in the combat against heresy.

It would also give us a drastically abridged New Testament, since up to about 160, even the Pauline material, though generally accepted, was rarely cited as scriptural. Acts was scarcely known or quoted; Hebrews, James, 1,2, Peter, 1,2,3 John, Jude, and Revelation were not considered canonical, and rarely cited at all. The finalized New Testament canon of 397 was a “variation” (i.e., development, not evolution or essential change from) of the earliest Christian beliefs and state of knowledge. Scripture was always what it was, but men did not always know what Scripture was; which books it contained. And so the Church made the declaration, more than 350 years after the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In both these instances, then, the later traditions were far superior to the “earliest traditions” which these Anglicans find “undoubtedly preferable.” I think they are lousy historians, judging by their performance thus far. And all my countering historical assertions come from Protestant sources, not “biased” and supposedly “untrustworthy” Catholic ones.

Therefore, as they charitably remind us to shake off all prejudices, so we also beseech them not to take it amiss if we humbly suggest the same advice …and that they not think themselves unalterably bound by any solemn decisions of the East in the 8th centurydecisions which were even then opposed by an equal authority in the West.

I respectfully disagree and dissent, not simply because the 7th Ecumenical Council orders me to, but by applying their own principle of following the tradition of the early Church. I find it is much more accord with the Catholic and Orthodox view than their own.

Archibaldus, Scoto-Britanniae Episcopus.

Jacobus, Scoto-Britanniae Episcopus.

Jeremias, Primus Anglo-Britanniae Episcopus.

Thomas, Anglo-Britanniae Episcopus.

Their names and titles are infinitely more impressive than their historical research!

* * * * *

The Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4-5) was not brushed aside when Christianity decided once and for all in 787 (after centuries of common practice) that images and veneration of images were permissible, and a pious practice. What was forbidden in the Commandment was a “graven image” (one of God). I looked up “graven image” in the dictionary and it stated, “an idol made of wood or stone, etc.”

Obviously, in context, then, what God was forbidding was idolatry: making a stone or block of wood God. The Jews were forbidden to have idols (like all their neighbors had), and God told them not to make an image of Him because He revealed Himself as a spirit. The incarnation (God taking on flesh) was yet to come, and not yet fully revealed. One has to learn that God is a spirit in order to grasp some of the profundity of God becoming man.

KJV, RSV, AMP, ASV, and Jewish (1917) Bible versions translate graven image at Exodus 20:4, but more many of the more recent translations render the word as idol: NASB, NRSV, NIV, Moffatt, CEV, Confraternity. Others have image (Goodspeed, Knox), or carved image (NEB, REB). Context, however, makes it very clear that idolatry is being condemned. The next verse states:

You shall not bow down to them or worship them . . . (NIV, NRSV)

In other words, mere blocks of stone or wood (“them”) are not to be worshiped, as that is gross idolatry, and the inanimate objects are not God. This does not absolutely preclude, however, the notion of an icon, where God is worshiped with the help of a visual aid.

The Jews were right, according to what had been revealed to them at that early stage of salvation and redemptive history. God had to hammer into them the fact that He was different than man. The pagan gods were notable for their similarity to men. But Yahweh (the Father) is a spirit, and has no body. So idols were absolutely forbidden because 2) they competed with the true god, and 2) implied that God the Father was material.

Idolatry has always been forbidden,to Christians as well as Jews. The use of images is not in the same category, if they are rightly used. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is described four times in the Bible, by the Apostle Paul, as the image (Greek: eikon) of God. Twice, he uses the word directly of Jesus (2 Cor 4:4, Col 1:15), and twice in the sense of Christians being transformed into or conformed to the image of Jesus/God (Rom 8:29, 2 Cor 4:4). This changes everything. The incarnation made images permissible, as long as they were representing Jesus, the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15; KJV, RSV).

Images for creatures such as Mary or Michael the archangel are merely representations, for the sake of honor or veneration. That is not adoration, or worship, which is reserved for God alone, in Catholic and Orthodox theology, as well as in Protestant. Anyone who thinks otherwise is simply ignorant about our theology. Asking a saint to intercede is not worship; it is no different than asking another Christian on earth to intercede. The saints in heaven are alive, as clearly seen in the book of Revelation. They are portrayed as being quite aware of what is going on, on earth.

Idolatry is a matter of disobedience in the heart towards the one true God. We don’t always need an image to have an idol. Most idols today are non-visual: money, sex, lust for power, convenience, our own pride or intellects; there are all sorts of idols. Anything that replaces God as the most important thing in our life and the universe, is an idol. Idolatry is a heart issue.

It’s all about what is going on interiorly, just as, e.g., lust is. One can lust without having a person of the opposite sex right in their vision, and they can not do so with a scantily-clad one right in front of them. The heart is always key in Christianity. God wants our hearts and full commitment, not just lip service or outward gestures (whether liturgical or Protestant charismatic spontaneous informal worship) to the exclusion of the heart. Catholics and Orthodox worship Jesus through images (including crosses, crucifixes, and statues of Jesus), and we venerate saints via images.

Just last week, I saw a woman at church kneeling before a statue of Jesus in the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane. Some people might be so foolish as to say that she was worshiping an idol of plaster. But it is quite obvious that she was worshiping Jesus, Who was made more real to her (in concrete terms) by having a visual representation, which helps to focus spirituality and concentration on the object.

If the statue had been of Mary, then no doubt many Protestants would think she was worshiping a creature. Not so. She would be venerating Mary, or asking her to pray for her. As long as God is worshiped, it is irrelevant if a visual representation is used or not. The object of worship is God. And if the image is of a creature, that is an aid to help us asl for their intercession, and to honor them and ponder their holy lives. It is important to point out the distinction between idolatry and proper use of images for the purpose of worship (of God) or veneration (of saints).

It is 99.99% certain that this woman was worshiping Jesus. One would have to be dumb as a box of nails to sit there and look at a statue of Jesus (already being a Christian and believing in the Creed) and worship a piece of plaster. This is such an outrageous assertion on the part of those who make it that it shouldn’t even be entitled to the dignity of a reply. But it is made all the time, so apologists must deal with it, even though it is groundless in almost all cases that the charge is made.

No nonbeliever should think she is worshiping plaster because it is utterly obvious what is happening. It’s not like she is there before a jagged tree stump in Nevada or something, where no one could tell immediately that an image of Christ was involved. That would be quite different. They don’t need to know Church teaching; they only have to put two and two together and figure out that the statue of a man represents a man, albeit the God-Man in this instance.

Hebrews 1:3 Who being the brightness of (his) glory, and the express image of his person, . . . (KJV)

Here the word is charakter in Greek (Strong’s word 5481). Strong’s defines it as: “a ‘graver’ (the tool or the person), i.e. (by impl.) ‘engraving’ (‘character’), the ‘figure’ stamped, i.e., an exact ‘copy’ or (fig.) ‘representation’): – express image.” Was Jesus, then, the “graven image” of His Father?

Actually, there were theophanies or Christophanies, even in the Old Testament, where God took on a visual form. These were either Jesus Himself, or the “Angel of the Lord,” who is described as being God. Either way, these appearances were visual, and they had bodies (verses from KJV):

GENESIS 18:1-4 And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; (2) And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw {them}, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, (3) And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: (4) Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: (cf. 18:13, 17, 22)

GENESIS 32:24,30 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day . . . (30) And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. (cf. 35:9-15)

EXODUS 24:10-11 And they saw the God of Israel: and {there was} under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in {his} clearness. (11) And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: also they saw God, . . .

ISAIAH 6:1 In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.

Furthermore, the “Angel of the Lord” is identified as YHWH or God or The LORD several times in Scripture. Yet, in other instances, his identity is distinguished from God (e.g., 2 Sam 24:16, 1 Kin 19:6-7, 2 Kin 19:35, Dan 3:25,28, 6:23, Zech 1:8-14), or is ambiguous (Num 22:22, Josh 5:13-14). In the following passages this Angel is regarded as God Himself, either directly or inferentially:

GENESIS 31:11-13 And the angel of God spake unto me in a dream, {saying}, Jacob: And I said, Here {am} I. (12) And he said, Lift up now thine eyes, and see, all the rams which leap upon the cattle {are} ringstraked, speckled, and grisled: for I have seen all that Laban doeth unto thee. (13) I {am} the God of Bethel, where thou anointedst the pillar, {and} where thou vowedst a vow unto me: . . .

JUDGES 2:1 And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, I . . . have brought you unto the land which I sware unto your fathers; and I said, I will never break my covenant with you.

JUDGES 6:12,14 And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him, and said unto him, The Lord {is} with thee, thou mighty man of valour . . . (14) And the Lord looked upon him, and said, Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites: have not I sent thee? (cf. 6:16, 20-23)

JOSHUA 5:14-15 And he said, Nay; but {as} captain of the host of the Lord am I now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship, and said unto him, What saith my lord unto his servant? (15) And the captain of the Lord’s host said unto Joshua, Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest {is} holy . . .

ZECHARIAH 12:8 In that day shall the Lord defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and he that is feeble among them at that day shall be as David; and the house of David {shall be} as God, as the angel of the Lord before them.

In Acts 8:26,29, an identification of the Angel of the Lord with the Holy Spirit might be inferred:

ACTS 8:26,29 And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south . . . (29) Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. (cf. Gen 16:7-14, 21:17-19, 22:11-18, 31:11-13, Ex 13:21 w/ 14:19, Jud 13:13-22, Zech 3:1-2)

I fail to see, however, how (as is sometimes charged by critics) a statue of Jesus could become an “idol” in a Christian’s heart. The point is to remind one of Jesus, not to worship a piece of plaster. With statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary there is much more misconception. That is an aid to veneration (not worship or adoration, which is for God alone). It’s not idolatry at all (i.e., it is not automatically idolatry by virtue of the very existence of the statue). If some self-described “Catholic” is actually worshiping Mary as a sort of goddess, equal to or above the Holy Trinity, then that is absolutely heretical and blasphemous, according to Catholicism.

It is argued that such statues might make a pagan convert stumble, thinking that Christians were engaging in the idolatry that thy had just forsaken. But that’s a matter of a 2-minute explanation: “I am not worshiping these objects; they help me to concentrate on worshiping God and venerating the saints who reflect God’s glory.” This is an entirely different concept from pagan polytheistic idolatry.

Or, it is said that such statues and pictures might be seen as magic charms, to the exclusion of prayer. But such “temptation” is — I dare say — exceedingly rare among Catholics, even nominal ones. We know the function of statues. It is the critics of them who usually have no clue of what is going on. As for lack of prayer; Protestants know full well that this is a universal problem Christians need to work on; one doesn’t need a statue to keep them from praying. The idiot box and computer are more than sufficient for that purpose of the devil.

Statues were a development of paintings, as Christian art became more sophisticated and incarnational. But the principle is the same. Once any image is allowed, the hyper-literalist interpretation of the Commandment against “graven images” is no longer held. The Second Commandment is interpreted somewhat differently. Insofar as it condemns idolatry, nothing has changed. But in terms of the absoluteness of image-making, it is applied differently.

Christians do the same with the commandment about the Sabbath. If we were to be hyper-literalist, we would all worship on Saturday, like the Jews, and Sabbatarian Christians, such as Seventh-Day Adventists. But Christians now observe the Sabbath on Sunday, as that was when Jesus was resurrected. In other words: it is the same essential principle, but a different application, based on the events in the life of Jesus. The Second Commandment works the same way: since God took on flesh, we now have an image of God which is not a “graven” (idolatrous) image: Jesus, the “image of the invisible God.” That is not idolatry; it follows from the Incarnation.

The iconoclastic objection and opposition to veneration of images is as silly as saying that a person raising their hands towards God in worship and praise during church is worshiping the ceiling. That person may not have an image of God in their mind, but they use the symbolism of “upwards” as being directed towards God (yet God is everywhere, so they could just as correctly stretch their arms downward or sideways).

This is using something physical in a gesture of worship. Why ever kneel when worshiping (I did that as a Protestant sometimes; occasionally we would even lie prostrate). Why clasp hands in prayer? These are all physical manifestations of worship towards God (as would be also hymns, or even tears). We are physical creatures; God became man, and so by the principle of the Incarnation and sacramentalism, the physical becomes involved in the spiritual. Icons are based on these presuppositions.

Even in the Old Testament the Jews made images of cherubim, which are creatures, on the ark of the covenant; they had the bronze serpent in the wilderness, and various images in the decoration of the Temple. God had to get it through to them that He alone should be worshiped. Once that was established, people could grasp veneration of saints as a fundamentally different thing. But alas, many Christians today still don’t get it.

Since Jesus was Himself an image or icon; therefore it is permissible to have icons of Him (and by extension, of the saints, who also reflect Him, just as He reflects the Father). This is the basis of images: the Incarnation. Jesus has everything to do with images of God, since He is that, Himself. The Incarnation (like the Trinity) brings a much different understanding of God than was known previously by the Jews.

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