The Orthodox Churches and Icons

Eastern Orthodox Churches have a practice of bowing to icons, 2-dimensional images of saints and Jesus. They call it veneration, and they say it does not violate the second commandment's prohibition against the making of images.

I think this practice is important to address for two reasons.

  • Thanks to the internet, and to the influence of David Bercot (author of Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up) and others, evangelicals are becoming more and more interested in the early history of the Christian church. As a result, many are either contemplating or have moved to Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.
  • Icons and other "ritual" issues are among the biggest stumbling blocks evangelicals have in choosing to take that journey or reject it.

The Second Commandment

The second of the Ten Commandments, as given in Exodus and from their own Orthodox Study Bible, reads:

You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God ... (20:3-4)

The Orthodox argue that icons are not exact images of the saints they represent. While this may be true, it is irrelevant, No likeness of anything in the skies, on earth, or in the seas are even to be made, says the commandment, and the Scripture expressly commands us not to bow down to them. Yet in Eastern Orthodox churches, bowing down to icons is required. I know that in the Russian Orthodox Church, bowing to an icon is part of the baptismal and christening process for adult converts. I would be surprised if this is not the case for all Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Roman Catholic Ten Commandments

If you are Roman Catholic you may be wondering what second commandment I am talking about. While Exodus 20:3-4 is in Catholic Bibles, it is not in the Roman Catholic list of the Ten Commandments. They have removed the second commandment—as listed by the Jews, Protestants, and all the branches of Orthodoxy— and they have divided the tenth commandment into two. The RCC separates the command not to covet into a command not to covet your neighbor's wife and a second command not to covet his goods.

They do this despite the fact that "wife" is not listed first in Exodus 20:17, but second in a long list. Thus, the RCC has to pull their ninth commandment out of the middle of what all other Christians call the tenth commandment.

The Roman Catholics make a habit of bowing and praying before statues. This is not just a reminder of God, but since the Roman Catholics, like the Orthodox, believe it proper to request prayer from departed saints, they bow before statues and pray to the saints whom the statues represent.

At least one saint, Peter, would not allow this sort of behavior even when he was alive! (Acts 10:25-26).

In my experience, when I ask about "bowing down" to icons and its prohibition in the second commandment, the Orthodox will switch the conversation to the difference between "venerating" an icon and "worshipping" one. This is irrelevant, however. The Orthodox use the Septuagint, a Greek translation, as their official Old Testament. The word for "bow down" in Exodus 20:4, in the Septuagint, is proskuneo, the very word they translate as "venerate" and claim the Scriptures allow!

That said, let's move immediately to the Orthodox defense of proskuneo.

Veneration and proskuneo to Other Than God

I am answering the Orthodox argument for the veneration of icons as it is explained in the introduction to the Eastern Orthodox Bible, which I have as an app on my iPhone.

... some scholars have decided to translate proskuneo consistently as "worship," but many others do not use "worship" in contexts where proskuneo is properly offered to a creature. Indeed, ther are instances when proskuneo is reserved for God (Exodus 20:5 LXX, Acts 10:25, Rev. 22:9) and others when proskuneo can be properly offered to creatures as derivative icons of God (1 Chronicles 29:20 LXX, 1 Kings 2:13 LXX, Rev. 3:9). Hence, although 'all honor, glory and worship are due to God,' relative honor, glory and worship are due to parents, rulers, bishops, angels, saints, etc. [LXX means Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures]

We have seen that the second commandment forbids proskuneo to all images. Jesus, too, seems to prohibit proskuneo to anyone but God when he tells the devil:

"Away with you, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.'" (Matt. 4:10, Orthodox Study Bible)

Here, "worship" translates proskuneo, which the Orthodox say can be offered to "parents, rulers, bishops, angels, saints, etc." The word "serve" in Matthew 4:10, is latreuo, which they say can only be offered to God. Matthew 4:10 sure seems to imply, however, that both should only be offered to God.

The Eastern Orthodox Bible provides a table listing all the places where proskuneo is used, and it points out the places that it is offered to people or angels (or demons). Really, though, what is important is any place in Scripture that allows the action of proskuneo towards something or someone other than God. Any word in any language that means worship in any form can be practiced by humans towards anything, even a rock or a tree. That does not mean that God allows it or approves of it.

So let's go through the table in the Eastern Orthodox Bible (EOB) and see if even one passage allows the proskuneo of anyone or anything besides God.

Matthew 4:9 and Luke 4:7This is the devil asking Jesus to worship him, clearly not a practice any of us want to follow.
Matthew 18:26This is a parable of a servant who owed his lord a lot of money. That frightened steward "fell down," proskuneo, to beg for mercy. This is an unnamed servant before an unnamed lord in a parable that is almost certainly fiction. It does prove that proskuneo can be used to indicate one man falling down before another, but it does not say anything about God's opinion about this action.
John 12:20The EOB lists this as general worship of people and saints. I am surprised at the audacity here. The passage talks about Greek-speaking Jews who came to proskuneo at a Jewish feast. I cannot imagine how that could be interpreted to mean bowing down to angels or saints.

The Jews do have a tradition of praying near the graves of departed holy men. The hope is that there is such a connection between God's people, that even across the grave, holy men will feel the pain of the supplicant and join his prayers. It is, however, forbidden to pray directly to the departed, even for those that do so. Thus, even if Greek-speaking Jews were to pray at the graves of holy men, they would be purposely avoiding the act of proskuneo there (chabad.org).

Such prayer is not common, and it is certainly not the reason that Jews go to feasts in Jerusalem. Again, see the link I just gave for the resources explaining this unusual practice.
Acts 7:43Stephen the deacon here charges the Jews with having worshiped idols, for which Stephen charges them with being hard of heart and resisting the Holy Spirit. Again something we would never want to mimic.
Acts 8:27This verse says the Ethiopian eunuch had been in Jerusalem to worship. Again, I cannot imagine why the Orthodox would agure that this implies the worship of anyone other than God.
Acts 10:25Here Cornelius falls down to worship Peter. Peter tells him never to do this.
Acts 24:11Here Paul tells the governor that he had come to Jerusalem to worship eleven days earlier. Paul is clearly referring to worshiping God. It horrifies me that this is on their list as the general worship of saints and angels.
Revelation 3:9This verse comes the closest to justifying the EOB's defense of proskuneo towards people. It falls short, however, because the context has nothing to do with bowing down to images, which the second commandment specifically forbids. In this verse, Jesus tells the Philadelphian church that he is going to make the "synagogue of Satan" come and worship at their feet and acknowledge that Jesus, the Messiah, loves the church at Philadelphia rather than the synagogue. Very interesting passage, but it does not justify falling down before one man, which Peter would not allow, and it certainly does not justify bowing down to images, which is expressly forbidden in the second commandment.
Several verses in Revelation 13,14, and 19These are all worship of the beast and false prophet, for which people are cast into the Lake of Fire.

And so we reach the end of every reference they provided, and there is absolutely no justification for falling down before anyone, except the possibility of those who reject Jesus falling before the church to acknowledge that God has chosen them.  We see something similar in 1 Corinthians 14:25, where an unbeliever has his heart exposed before God, causing him to "fall down" and acknowledge that God is in their midst. Although the Greek word is different (pipto), the idea is the same. The falling down or bowing down is not done to people, but it is done to God, acknowledging his presence among the people.

I have to suppose that my Orthodox friends would argue that is exactly what they are doing with icons. In some way, the icons, being "windows to heaven," allow them to bow down to God without bowing down to the icon itself or even to the saint it represents.

Again, though, this is forbidden by the second commandment, by the teachings of Jesus, and by the example of Peter. The Orthodox list of the scriptural uses of proskuneo provides no precedent for violating this prohibition. As we shall see, the pre-Nicene churches continued to forbid the use of images because they were "afraid of degrading the worship of God and reducing it to the worship of material things made by the hands of men" (see "AD 225" below).

So the Scripture test fails, with specific instructions from the ten commandments, from Jesus, and from Peter not to proskuneo men or their images and no allowances at all to the contrary.

Deceit

When I wrote this, I thought the editors of the Eastern Orthodox Bible (EOB) were just being typically religious. Most religious groups defend their wrong ideas like this, pulling on a small thread, hoping people won't notice how bad their argument is.

In casual reading today I reached Revelation 19:10. In the EOB's chart, proskuneo is directed to God. We are agreed that Christians can proskuneo God, so that reference was irrelevant to this article. Today, though, I happened across Revelation 19:10 in my Bible reading.

I fell down before his feet to express adoration to him. But he said to me, "See that you do not do it! I am a fellow bondservant with you and with your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus. Express adoration to God, for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. (EOB)

"Express adoration" is in the verse twice. Both uses translate the Greek word proskuneo. Obviously, this verse, with proskuneo used towards both God and a departed saint, is critically important to the issue of veneration of icons. The EOB chart, however, does not mention the first use in that verse.

By omitting this usage, the editors of the EOB have stepped past the typical embarrassing arguments employed by the religious. They've moved into purposeful deceit, and that has to be called out. I called out the Roman Catholics, too, in a box above.

In this case the Protestants get off without being charged, but that is because in this case they agree with Jesus, the apostles, and the early church fathers in rejecting image veneration. If we were on the subject of faith and works or eternal security, I could show you the same behavior among Protestants.

If I go further, the problem becomes deeper. Both the Eastern Orthodox Bible and the Orthodox Study Bible (OSB) have a note on this verse. The EOB gives several possible translations of proskuneo without mentioning any application to the verse or to their veneration of icons.

The OSB note says:

Orthodoxy makes a strict distinction between the veneration proper to saints and angels (Gr. doulia) and the worship (Gr. latria) due to God alone (see 22:8,9)

Doulia? Where did that come from? Revelation 19:10 uses a cognate of doulia when it says the messenger is a "fellowservant" of John. The word is sundoulos, but it has nothing to do with the topic of the veneration of icons in Revelation 19:10.

I'm not sure how the OSB switched from proskuneo to doulia, but I assure you the issue has always been proskuneo. The authority for the Orthodox veneration of icons is their Seventh General Council (Nicea II in 787). The decree of that council, translated into English as "The Decree of the Holy, Great, Ecumenical Synod, the Second of Nice", says:

... to these [images] should be given due salutation and honourable reverence (aspasmon kai timetiken proskunesin), not indeed that true worship of faith (latreian) which pertains alone to the divine nature.

I give you this quote to show you that the EOB introduction mentioned above addresses the real issue as decreed by the Second Council of Nicea, the Orthodox authority for venerating icons. That council says that it is the proskuneo of icons that is acceptable, not the doulia of icons.

To address the OSB's irrelevant reference to doulia, that Greek word means to serve as a slave. It is literally impossible to doulia an icon. To doulia a person, you have to render them service. For example, over the last thirty or forty years, a lot of pregrant women use a helper known as a "doula." Doula comes from the Greek noun, doulos, that is associated with doulia. The doula helps the expectant mother prepare for and go through labor.

That is the sort of service implied by doulia. That service can be rendered to men, animals, or even plants. It would be fair to say that when you water a plant or feed a dog, you are rendering doulia service.

In other words, the OSB note is irrelevant. Doulia is not in Revelation 19:10 and has nothing to do with "veneration."

Both the EOB and the OSB notes ignore the rebuke of the proskuneo offered to the "fellowservant and brother" angel. This is blatant dishonesty.

I get a lot of flack from people for referring to this kind of behavior as lying. I don't know what else to call it. If you catch me doing the same, please call me on it too.

The Orthodox churches have been teaching the distinction between proskuneo and latria since the Second Council of Nicea in 787, more than 1200 years. I find it impossible to believe that the editors they assigned to the Eastern Orthodox Bible did not know that proskuneo is rebuked when applied to  a departed saint in Revelation 19:10.

What about church history? Is there a precedent in the early fathers for the veneration of icons?

Veneration of Images in the Writings
of the Pre-Nicene Church

I have been collecting quotes on this subject in the quotes section of this site. You can reference that page as well. All the following come from there.

The reason for limiting the quotes in this section to the pre-Nicene church is because we have a likely origin for the veneration of icons and statues if they are after Nicea. Julian the Apostate, a pagan Roman emperor who tried to overthrow Christianity during his short reign from 360-363, said that hero worship among the Christians was more rampant than in Roman paganism (where all the Roman gods were heroes).

If there are no positive quotes about venerating icons before Nicea, then I suggest that the origin of the practice is the influx of pagan converts after Constantine urged his people to follow the Christian God. They brought their hero worship into the church, and the bishops, warring and battling over the Nicene Creed and being removed and installed by emperors with varying opinions, had insufficient time to correct, teach, and control these new converts.

Four different histories were written about the fourth century by fifth-century historians. Three of them are still extant. The difference between the history they report, as compared to the pre-Nicene history reported by Eusebius of Caesarea, is shocking. See my Fall of the Church series on this site for examples.

That all said, here are the kind of things Christians said about images prior to Nicea.

AD 150:

We have strayed from the Immortal's ways
And worship with a dull and senseless mind
Idols, the workmanship of our own hands,
And images and figures of dead men.
(Justin Martyr.Hortatory Address to the Greeks 16, citing the Sybil, a collection of Greek prophecies)

AD 190:

It is with a different kind of spell that art deludes you ... it leads you to pay religious honor and worship to images and pictures. (Clement of Alexandria. Exhortation to the Heathen 5)

The Law itself exhibits justice and teaches wisdom by abstinence from sensible images and by calling out to the Maker and Father of the universe. (Clement of Alexandria. Miscellanies II:18)

Works of art, then, cannot be sacred and divine. (Clement of Alexandria. Miscellanies VII:5)

AD 200:

All things, therefore, does human error worship except the Founder of all himself. The images of those things are idols; the consecration of the images is idolatry. (Tertullian. On Idolatry 3.)

AD 225:

If the Persians cannot bear the sight of temples, altars, and images, it does not follow that because we cannot bear them any more than they that the grounds on which we object to them are the same as theirs ... The Scythians, the Nomadic Libyans, the godless Seres, and the Persians agree in this with the Christians and Jews, but they are actuated by very different principles. For none of these abhor altars and images on the ground that they are afraid of degrading the worship of God and reducing it to the worship of material things made by the hands of men. (Origen. Against Celsus VII:64)

In contrast to these quotes, there is absolutely no mention in the pre-Nicene writings of the worship of icons.

Icons in History

One of the most famous claims of Orthodoxy concerning icons is that Luke himself made an icon of Mary. While the evidence for this is terrible, it is irrelevant anyway. It is widely known that early Christians painted their walls with pictures of Jesus feeding the five thousand, rising from the dead, and other such pictures long before the rise of Constantine and the influx of pagans into the church.

It is also known that Christians set up shrines for martyrs and celebrated the day of their martyrdom each year.

We do have to admit that the earliest Christians do not seem to have had qualms about painting pictures of Bible scenes on their walls. They painted John baptizing Jesus with the Holy Spirit descending on him in a room that could easily have been a baptistry and Jesus feeding the five thousand in a room that may have been used to eat the Lord's Supper.

Paintings like this, however, give no indication that Christians bowed down to them, kissed them, or in any way venerated them. To this day, Protestants, who are very concerned about idolatry and the worship of images after throwing off the worship of saints among the Roman Catholics, regularly paint or draw Bible scenes. They even put them into their stained glass windows in church buildings.

They do not, however, bow down to them or in any way worship them.

The Language of Icons in Modern Orthodoxy

It was hard to think of a title for this section, but for me it's a game changer.

Not long ago we had an Orthodox priest and one of his congregants come to our men's breakfast. My main fellowship right now, after recently moving to Memphis, is a small house church with just six men. At the time, it was just four, so with the priest and his friend, we were six.

They met with us for about six weeks, and the first couple weeks we politely discussed icons and other unique Orthodox issues, including the fact that "Father Mark" was called Father and in the role of priest. His explanation of "priest" was at least plausible because he did admit the priesthood of all believers. The Eastern Orthodox Bible's explanation of the use of "priest" in the place of "elder" or "overseer" is even better. It almost apologizes for the use as a historic accident, then applied the term to clergy only during the consecration of the Eucharist, and strongly emphasized the priesthood of the believer.

However, when it came to icons, we were definitely not satisfied. Most of the answers we received there, and I have received since, have to do with the wonderful experiences and insight that Orthodox believers get from their use of icons. There is no real scriptural or historic argument that would justify ignoring the second commandment or the negative statements about images throughout the New Testament and early Christian writings.

Worse, and this is what I mean by "the language of icons," in my conversations with Orthodox believers, icons come up all the time, even when they are not being debated. We eventually had to ask Father Mark not to come to our breakfasts anymore because awkward Orthodox issues with which we did not agree, usually icons, never stopped coming up. We'd already discussed this issues, so his input usually produced dead silence, since no one wanted to just return to things we'd already hashed out as much as we could.

There is an absolute silence in the Scriptures and in the pre-Nicene church surrounding icons. Not a word about venerating images is found in any pre-Nicene Christian writing. This silence stands in stark, strong contrast to the constant bringing up of images by Orthodox believers.

This is an important principle to me, and I apply it as much to evangelicals (my own background) as I do to the Orthodox. Evangelicals constantly respond to exhortation with reminders that we are saved by grace and can only do good with the Holy Spirit's help. It is true that we are saved by grace (Eph. 2:8), and we can do no good apart from Jesus (Jn. 15:5), but we are not apart from Jesus. We have Jesus (Rom. 8:9), which is the reason we can exhort each other. That is why Paul told Titus to exhort and rebuke with all authority (Tit. 2:15), and why the whole point of the Scriptures is to reprove, rebuke, and instruct in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Real Christians are zealous for good works (Tit. 2:14), and only false prophet use grace as an excuse for licentiousness (Jude 4).

If the words we speak all the time are rarely found in Scripture, then we are misinterpreting Scripture, no matter what brand of Christianity we prefer. To go from no references to icons to constant reference to icons over a few centuries is a problem. It is a terrible problem when we have clear references in Scripture forbidding the practice.

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