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The Biblical Basis For Icons

Apostle John the Theologian

In recent years there has been a growing interest among Evangelicals and Reformed Christians in Eastern Orthodoxy.  However, one of the major stumbling blocks for many is the use of icons in Orthodox worship.  The use of icons seems to violate the injunction against graven images found in the Ten Commandments.  Moreover, there seems to be a dearth of biblical texts pointing to the use of icons in the New Testament.  For Evangelicals and Reformed Christians the bottom line question will be: Is there a biblical basis for icons?  In this posting I will attempt to forge a basis for a common understanding between Protestants and Orthodox on what the Bible teaches about the role of images in worship and theology.

Regulative vs. Normative Principle

If there is anything that stands out as the hallmark of Evangelicalism and Reformed Christians, it would be their high regard for the authority of Scripture.  But whenever one talks about the authority of Scripture, one must also talk about how one interprets Scripture.  Within Protestantism there are two major hermeneutical frameworks: (1) what Scripture does not enjoin explicitly is prohibited — the regulative principle of worship, or (2) what Scripture does not prohibit is permitted — the normative principle of worship.

If one follows the regulative principle, then almost immediately we can close the book on the question.  Although the word eikon “εικων” can be found in the New Testament it would be a stretch to claim that it refers to the pictorial representations found in Orthodox churches.  If on the other hand one were to follow the normative principle then the possibility opens up for an Evangelical or Reformed Christian to find a biblical basis for icons.  For the regulative principle to be valid, it must be shown that this particular approach is the normative hermeneutical framework for all Christians.  Historically, the regulative principle is characteristic of the Reformed, Anabaptist, Baptist, and Restorationist churches.  The normative principle is followed by the Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist traditions.  In other words the regulative approach is not characteristic of Protestantism as a whole, but of certain segments.

There are problems with Reformed churches insistence on the regulative principle.  One problem with the regulative principle is that it hasn’t always been followed consistently.  Many early Calvinists eschewed musical instruments in worship and advocated psalmody exclusively.  However, since the 1800s most of the Reformed churches relaxed their adherence to the regulative principle and allowed for musical instruments.  Another problem is the inconsistency in the Reformed understanding of sola scriptura which allows for extra-biblical tradition and their adherence to the regulative principle of worship which rigorously excludes extra-biblical tradition.  The regulative principle bears a striking resemblance to what Keith Mahison labels: solo scriptura.  This inconsistency in the Reformed theological system creates an opportunity for Reformed Christians to rethink their long-standing iconoclasm.

For a long time I knew that although there were references to “images” in the Bible, these did not refer to Orthodox usage of icons.  Then one day I noticed that one dominant feature of Orthodox icons was the depicting of faces: of Christ, of Mary, of the saints and the angels.  When I became aware of this fact and put it together with the fact that in the Bible there are numerous references to “face” I realized that here was a way of establishing a biblical basis for the use of icons.

The word “face” is used in the Hebrew Old Testament to denote God’s personal presence.  The Old Testament uses several words for face: panim, aph, ayin, anpin.  Of these four words, panim is the most frequently used. The Greek New Testament uses prosopon “προσοπον” in most cases with the exception of one verse which uses opsis “οψις.”  Although the focus of this paper is on how the biblical writers used the word “face” to denote the divine presence, this is not to deny other ways in which the word “face” has been used in the Bible.  The word “face” has other usage such as the earth’s surface — “the face of the earth,” or direction — “set his face towards,” or opposition — “set his face against,” or as an expression of worship — “fell on his face.”

Problems With the New International Version

One surprise in my research has been the issue of Bible translation.  I use the New International Version (NIV) because of its attempt to convey the biblical message in contemporary English and because it is one of the most widely used among Evangelicals.  However, in my reading of the Greek text I was disconcerted to find an iconoclastic bias in the NIV translation.  This bias can be seen through a comparison of the NIV against the Greek original in: Romans 8:29, I Corinthians 15:49, II Corinthians 3:18, and Hebrews 1:3.  It appears that the NIV is inconsistent in its translation of the Greek word eikon “εικων.” It uses the vague “likeness” in reference to Christ but uses the more direct “image” in reference to Christians.  The 1611 King James Version is more consistent in its translation of “εικων.”  The discovery left me with a sense of disappointment and betrayal.  How can one develop a solid biblical theology if the translation one is relying on is skewed in a particular direction?  Overall, the NIV is a fine translation but in this particular area it has been found wanting.  This should serve as a cautionary tale to other Evangelicals that one should not be too reliant on any one translation and that if possible one should learn to read the Bible in its original languages.  Biblical quotations in this posting will be from the NIV unless noted otherwise.

Old Testament Encounters With the Face of God

In the Old Testament we find a tension between God’s utter transcendence which separates us from God and God’s love which draws us to God.  In Exodus 33, we find both these contrasting themes.  In Exodus 33:11, we read: “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” (cf. Deuteronomy 5:4, 34:10)  This speaks of God’s nearness to us, the possibility of our being able to enter into a personal relationship with God.  And yet at the end of the same chapter we see God emphasizing his utter transcendence.  In Exodus 33:20, God tells Moses: “But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live”; and in Exodus 33:23, God tells Moses: “Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

In Genesis 32:30, we read of Jacob’s night of struggle with God in which a breakthrough was made and Jacob received the blessing of God.  Jacob memorialized this event by naming the place “Peniel” (face of God) saying: “It is because I saw God face to face and yet my life was spared.”  Jacob knew that for a finite, mortal being like him to have a direct encounter with the Almighty was full of peril and danger.

The word “face” (panim) can be used not just to denote God’s personal presence but also his personal blessing.  In the Aaronic blessing found in Numbers 6:22-27 we find the metaphor of “face” being used to denote God bestowing his blessings on the Israelites.

The Lord bless you and keep you;

the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;

the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.

There are two mentions of God’s face in this blessing.  Both expressions are vivid and powerful, full of emotional impact.  The phrase “make his face shine upon you” can be taken to mean God is looking at us with a big smile on his face.  Do you ever notice how a smile makes a person’s face light up?  Or how the smile of the mother or father causes the baby to beam with joy?  God’s smiling at us tells us that he likes us, that he is favorably disposed to us, and that out of this happy relationship flows forth the divine blessings.  Another phrase used in the Aaronic blessing is: “turn his face toward you.”  In blessing us God turns his face towards us, that is, he accepts us and is in relationship with us.  The opposite of this is God turning his back on us, doing this would signify divine rejection, our being out of relationship with God.

In I Kings 13:6, we find an interesting use of the word “face” (panim) in the matter of prayer.  When the hand of King Jeroboam shriveled up as a sign of divine judgment, the king implored the prophet: “Intreat now the face of the Lord thy God, and pray for mee…. (KJV)”  This interesting turn of the phrase which means to ask something of God is taken literally by the Orthodox Church when the priest stands before the icon of Christ and presents the prayers of the Church before the face (icon) of Christ.

Pictorial Representations in the Jewish Temple

Interior of Solomon’s Temple

The Old Testament Tabernacle was an artistic masterpiece and far from being devoid of images.  For the construction of the Tabernacle God gave Moses instructions pertaining to the making of the ark of the covenant and the curtains of the Tabernacle.  In light of the prohibition against the making of graven images it is something of a surprise to read that God instructed Moses to make two golden cherubim and to place these above the cover of the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:17-22).  God also instructed Moses to work the image of the cherubim into the outer curtains of the Tabernacle structure and into the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place (Exodus 26:1, 31-33).  Thus, the priests that served in the Tabernacle saw images of the cherubim all around them — on the outer curtains surrounding the Tabernacle as well as on the inner curtain that shielded the Most Holy Place.

Curtain Before the Most Holy Place

Similar artistic details can be found in Solomon’s temple.  For the Most Holy Place Solomon had two sculptured cherubim built (I Kings 6:23-28, II Chronicles 3:10-13).  Cherubim were worked into the curtain that covered the entrance to the Most Holy Place (II Chronicles 3:14).  Cherubim were also carved onto the two wooden doors for the entrance to the Most Holy Place and on the walls all around the temple (I Kings 6:31-35, 29-30).  What is interesting to note is the added details of palm trees and open flowers on the walls and inner entrance.  The lavish visual details here stands in sharp contrast to the stark austerity of many Protestant churches.


Ivory Carving – Samaria

At the end of the book of Ezekiel is a long detailed description of the new temple.  Ezekiel’s prophecy can be seen as pointing to the worship in the Messianic Age, i.e., Christian worship.  Besides a description of the layout of the temple complex, the temple furnishings, the priesthood, the layout of the land, there is also a description of wall carvings (Ezekiel 41:15-26).  The wall carvings consisted of palm trees and of cherubim.  More specifically, the wall carvings were that of the faces of the cherubim, human or leonine.  This passage tells of wall carvings all around the inner and outer sanctuary.  These images were not confined to a few places in the temple but could be seen all over the new temple.  This is not unlike Orthodox churches today where one sees the faces of Christ and the saints all over the church interior.

The basic lesson here is that God intended that pictorial representations or images be part of the Old Testament pattern of worship and that the use of these images did not contradict the injunction in the Ten Commandments against graven images.

The Psalms: Seeking God’s Face

Where the Pentateuch contained instructions for the ordering of Old Testament worship, the Psalms contain the heartbeat of Old Testament worship.  In the Psalms we find expression of the ultimate goal of our prayers and our worship: union with God.  In Psalm 27:8-9, David writes:

My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”

Your face, Lord, I will seek.

Do not hide your face from me,

do not turn your servant away in anger;

you have been my helper.

Do not reject me or forsake me, O God my savior.

Here the word “face” signifies “presence,” i.e., the psalmists desire to experience God’s presence.  When we pray we enter into God’s presence, we seek to draw near to God in prayer, i.e., we “seek his face.”  In Psalm 4:6, we read of David’s request to God: “Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord.”  In Psalm 105:4, we find a similar theme: “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.”

In the Psalms are several references to God’s face shining upon his servants as a sign of his divine favor upon them.  Psalm 67 begins with: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us.”  In Psalm 119:135, we read: “Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees.”  In Psalm 31:16, David prays: “Let your face shine upon your servant.”  The use of “face” to denote God’s favor or grace in these psalms echo strongly the Aaronic Blessing Formula in Numbers 6:22-27.

In Psalm 80, which falls into the category of the psalms of penitence, we find three times the refrain:

Restore us, O God;

make your face shine upon us,

that we may be saved.  (Psalm 80:3,7, and 19)

In this psalm God is asked to make his anger cease against Israel and once again restore his divine favor upon the nation.  A similar reference to seeking God’s face is found in Hosea 5:15: “And they will seek my face; in their misery they will earnestly seek me.”  Here seeking God’s face is part of the process of repentance, i.e., of turning from sin and turning towards God.

The Incarnation

The unfolding of God’s revelation in the Old Testament reaches its culmination with the coming of Christ.  The opening lines of the book of Hebrews tells how the history of God’s progressive revelation reaches its definitive climax in Christ:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son whom he appointed heir of all things. (Hebrews 1:1-2)

The superiority of Christ is proven by the fact that the coming of the Son supersedes all previous Old Testament revelations.  In the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel the Apostle John makes a similar point:

For the law was given through Moses: grace and truth was given through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (John 1:17-18; italics added)

The revelatory significance of the Incarnation lies in the fact where the prophetic message consisted of people hearing the word of the Lord, the Incarnation consisted of the Word of God coming to us in the flesh.

One consequence of the Incarnation is that God can now be seen by people.  This is evident in the several passages where emphasis is placed on the fact that they have in fact seen the Son of God.  John in his Gospel writes,

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14; italics added)

John emphasizes this point repeatedly in his epistle:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched…. (I John 1:1; italics added)

The word “seen” is used again in I John 1:2 and 1:3.  In verse 3 John insists that the Incarnation constitutes the basis for the apostolic testimony and also the basis for Christian fellowship, and that to deny the Incarnation was to deny the Christian faith (I John 4:2-3).

The significance of the Incarnation becomes clear when we examine the words used by the biblical authors to describe how Jesus reveals the Father.  The writer of Hebrews writes: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation (χαρακτηρ) of his being….” (Hebrews 1:3; NIV)  The KJV has: “Who being the brightnesse of his glory, and the expresse image of his person….”  Paul writes of Jesus Christ: “He is the image (εικον) of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15, cf. II Corinthians 4:4)  The words used point, not to an indirect revelation, but to a direct revelation.  For this reason Jesus tells Philip: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9, NIV; italics added)

Icon of Christ

The question may be asked: So what does all this have to do with Orthodox icons?  There are several reasons.  For Orthodox Christians the Incarnation provides the theological basis for the use of icons.  The Word made flesh also means the Word made visible.  The Incarnation made it possible for humanity to behold God, to come face to face with God.  Orthodoxy takes seriously the fact that in the Incarnation the Word of God took on a human face with eyes, ears, nose, chin, and lips by depicting these physical features in the icons of Christ.  For the Orthodox the Bible is the verbal icon of Christ and the images are visual icons of Christ.

The Incarnation, then, marks a decisive turning point in salvation history.  Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled: the Virgin gives birth to a son and names him “Immanuel.”  David’s prayers are answered: God takes on a human face and we see him face to face.  The Incarnation together with Christ’s death on the cross and his glorious resurrection constitutes the climax of God’s work of redemption in human history.  Where Protestantism sees the Incarnation as a historical event, Orthodoxy sees the Incarnation as a cosmic event that continues through the Church and the icons.

The Christian Life:  Becoming Icons of Christ

Our being created in the image of God has significance for our salvation in Christ.  When we became Christians, a process of transformation began in which we become more and more like Christ.  We are “born again” and our old corrupted nature undergoes renewal as we grow in our knowledge of who God is.  Paul writes: “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image (εικονα) of its Creator.” (Colossians 3:9-10)  This process of transformation is actually the restoring of the imago dei that God implanted in humanity at Creation but was disfigured in the Fall (cf. Genesis 1:26-27).

In II Corinthians Paul uses Moses’ encounter with God in the Tabernacle as an illustration of how knowing Christ has a transforming impact on a person.  Whenever Moses entered the Tabernacle and spent time with God, he left the Tabernacle radiant with the divine glory (II Corinthians 3:13; cf. Exodus 34:29-35).  Paul writing about our situation has this to say:

But we all, with open face beholding as in a glasse the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glorie to glorie, euen as by the spirit of the Lord (II Corinthians 3:18, KJV; italics added).

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness (εικονα) with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (II Corinthians 3:18; NIV; Greek original inserted).

The underlying point here is that of us beholding Christ and our being transformed “from glory to glory.”  Where the NIV uses the rather vague “into his likeness,” the KJV has the more vivid “into the same image.”  The same image as what?  The answer seems to be: the same image as Christ!  In other words, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit within us results in our being made into “icons” of Christ.

This passage is followed a little later by another passage which uses the face metaphor to refer to the light of Christ shining in our hearts.  Paul writes:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (II Corinthians 4:6)

This is a complex sentence but basically it tells us that God’s light is shining in our hearts bringing into our lives an awareness of God’s glory which is made manifest in Christ’s face.  The reference to the divine glory in Christ’s face is a reference to the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor (Matthew 17:1-3).  A literal reading of the verse leads us to the understanding that God’s glory was revealed by means of the physical face with eyes, ears, nose, chin and cheeks that Jesus acquired in his Incarnation.

Our being transformed into Christ’s likeness will reach its climax at Christ’s return in glory.  In Romans 8:29, Paul tells how God has predestined us “to be conformed to the likeness (εικονος) of his Son.”  The KJV has the more explicit: “to be conformed to the image of his sonne.”  In I Corinthians 15:49, Paul tells how on the day of resurrection we will “bear the likeness (εικονα) of the man from heaven.”  The KJV has: “And as we haue borne the image of the earthy, wee shall also beare the image of the heauenly.”  This idea is expressed by other apostolic writers, e.g., John who writes that “when he (Christ) appears, we shall be like him” (I John 3:2; NIV; italics added).

In summary, the biblical motif of the icon (image, face) is an important one for understanding the Christian life.  God is at work in our lives, conforming us into the image of his Son.  We become icons of Christ just as Christ is the icon of God!  Orthodox theology has a word for this process of Christian growth: theosis  — becoming partakers of the divine nature (II Peter 1:4).

The Apocalypse:  We Will See God’s Face

The Apocalypse closes the biblical canon.  In the first chapter the Apostle John sees the risen Christ in the fullness of his glory.  John writes: “His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.” (Revelation 1:16)  This passage echoes Daniel’s apocalyptic vision of the Son of Man whose face was like lightning (Daniel 10:6) and Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:2 and Luke 9:29).  The description of the face culminates the list of details describing the risen and glorified Christ.  Upon seeing Christ’s face, the Apostle John’s immediate response was to prostrate himself.

In the last chapter of Revelation, John describes the life in the age to come.  What is especially interesting is Revelation 22:3-4:

No longer will there be any curse.  The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.  They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.

The phrase “they will see his face” is the promise that although at the present time we cannot see God, the day will come when we will be in his presence and we will be able to behold his face.  Standing in God’s presence and seeing the face of God summarizes the Christian hope.

St. Seraphim Cathedral

Revelation 22:3-4 also describes what goes on in Orthodox worship.  In the Liturgy, the Orthodox stand facing the icon of Christ the Pantocrator.  As they look at the icon, “they see his face.”  When people are received into Orthodoxy, the priest anoints them with the holy chrism (consecrated oil) on their foreheads in the sign of the cross.  In other words, the name of the Trinity is signed on their foreheads.

A parallel theme can be found in I Corinthians 13, the well-known chapter in which Paul describes the virtues of love.  He closes this elegant and moving passage with:

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.  Now we see but a poor reflection; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully even as I am fully known (italics added).

For the present moment reality is hazy and confused; God is present although we cannot see him, but the day is coming when we shall see God face to face.

Thus, the icon points to the end of the present age and to the coming of the eternal kingdom of Christ.  The icon of Christ is a promise that we will one day see God face to face.  It is a promise that humanity’s age long exile and pilgrimage will end with a glorious homecoming in the New Jerusalem where we will gather before the throne of God.

Biblical Guidelines for the Practical Use of Icons

The purpose of icons is more than to help us think about God but to encounter God.  Looking at an icon is a moment of personal encounter with the risen Lord.  To look at the icon of Jesus is to see Jesus himself.  We find biblical support for this in a surprising place.  When Jacob met his brother Esau in the desert after many years of separation and estrangement, he told him: “For to see your face is like seeing the face of God….” (Genesis 33:10).  If we take this passage literally, we can derive the principle that an ordinary face can be used depict the divine presence.  However, this event cannot be read as being a theophany, consequently Jacob’s remark should be taken metaphorically.  Building upon this, we get the principle that the depiction of a face can be used to depict the divine presence.  When we come to the New Testament we encounter the mystery of the Incarnation in which the divine Word came down from heaven and took on a human face.  Jesus told Philip: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)  Where Genesis 33:10 can be taken either metaphorically or indirectly, Jesus’ declaration to Philip can be taken literally and directly.  Because Jesus is now risen and having ascended to heaven fills the whole universe (Ephesians 4:10), the very real possibility exists of our encountering Jesus through the icon.

In II Corinthians is a verse which provides us with a good guideline for how to look at an icon.  Paul writes,

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (II Corinthians 4:18).

One looks at an icon not for the purpose of finding out what Jesus looked like while on earth; rather one looks at an icon in order to become aware of the glorious, risen Christ.  That is why icons are full of symbolic significance.  Icons point us towards the mysterious presence of Christ.  To look only for the physical features of Jesus in an icon is to know Christ “after the flesh” (II Corinthians 5:16, KJV).  When one looks at an icon one first sees a depiction of the physical features of Jesus Christ, after prayerful reflection one will become aware of the reality of the risen, ascended Christ.

The Evangelical-Orthodox Option

In the beginning of this paper the two different ways of reading the Bible were discussed: the regulative principle and the normative principle.  The two major hermeneutical approaches used by Protestants have one thing in common: they both neglect the role of tradition.  I propose that there exists a third option which is to operate on the basis that what Scripture teaches must be followed and that where Scripture is silent we follow the teachings of the Church Fathers.   This is the path of the Evangelical-Orthodox.  The term is not intended to describe any particular group of Christians.  This is the approach of an Evangelical who affirms the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture and at the same time avoids the hermeneutical chaos of Protestantism by following the historic teachings of the Church (See End Note 1).  Following this path does not entail a shift from independence to servile submission but a shift to interdependence — we use our God given talents to understand Scripture the best we can while at the same interacting with the historic teaching of the Church.  The Evangelical-Orthodox recognizes that faith in Christ is not something done in autonomous independence but within the context of community, i.e., the Church.

Ancient-Future Worship?

Recently, worship among Evangelicals have undergone remarkable changes.  On the one hand, there are megachurches with praise bands and slick PowerPoint presentations; and on the other hand are the Ancient-Future movement and postmodern Emergent churches which incorporate traditional icons into their worship.  What these two disparate extremes have in common is a shift away from the word-centered approach to worship that has been the hallmark of Protestantism.

The question here is: Do the recent use of icons in worship among Evangelicals signal a move towards historic worship or is it more an extreme version of the Protestant normative principle?  The use of the normative principle apart from tradition opens the door for creative anarchy in worship.  This can be seen in icons displayed in PowerPoint accompanied by music by the band U2 to icons of a Navaho Christ.  This suggests that the normative principle by itself is not enough.  It seems that the recent openness to icons and historic worship among Evangelicals, while commendable still retains a very Protestant free attitude towards tradition.  They seem to be cherry picking their way through both extremes with no regulatory principle.

In contrast, one finds in Orthodoxy a disciplined creativity.  The use of icons in Orthodoxy is strictly regulated by traditions that regulate the content and form of icons, as well as their display and handling.  This discipline reflects the fact that the Orthodox Church is a “community of memory.” (See End Note 2)

An example of a serious attempt to return to historic Christian worship can be seen in Peter Gillquist and the Evangelical Orthodox Church.  This group of former Campus Crusade for Christ staff workers sought to recreate the historic church.  Gillquist in Becoming Orthodox tells the story how they met people from the Orthodox Church and on the advice of Fr. Alexander Schmemann put two postcard sized icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary on the wall next to the altar (p. 131).  In time this tiny step led to the entire denomination of Evangelicals being received into the Orthodox Church in 1987.  What makes Gillquist’s group different from the Ancient-Future movement was their commitment to the historic Church and their willingness to follow the historic practices (tradition) to its logical conclusion — the Orthodox Church.

Are Icons Biblical?

This study of the Bible shows that the use of icons in worship can be considered biblical.  But care must taken to avoid misunderstandings and confusion.  It is not biblical in the sense that the Bible teaches explicitly: You must use icons in worship.  However, it is biblical in the sense that the Bible shows that the use of icons is congruent with the use of pictorial representations in Old Testament Tabernacle.  It is biblical in the sense that it is consistent with the biblical principle that the face of Christ denotes the divine presence.  It is also biblical in the sense that it is consistent with the biblical principle that the goal of our worship and our prayer is the seeking God’s face.  Furthermore, it is biblical in the sense that it affirms the Incarnation of the Divine Word who for our salvation acquired a human nature and took on a human face.

In summary, this particular study of Scripture shows that the Orthodox understanding and usage of icons in its worship is consistent with the teaching of Scripture. This is also the position taken by the early Church at the Seventh Ecumenical Council when it stated:

We preserve, without innovations, all the Church traditions established for us, whether written or not written, one of which is icon-painting as corresponding to what the Gospels preach and relate….  (italics added)

“Whether written or unwritten” is a paraphrase of Paul’s understanding of tradition stated in II Thessalonians 2:15.  “Corresponding to what the Gospels preach and relate” is another of way of saying: This is Bible-based.  Having shown that there is indeed a biblical basis for the use of icons in Christian worship and prayer, it is my hope that Evangelicals and Reformed Christians will take a more open minded stance to icons and will enter into a dialogue with Orthodox Christians about the meaning and significance of icons for worship and prayer.

As a result of my study of the Old and New Testaments, I came to the conclusion that there is a biblical basis for icons.  Thus, for me becoming Orthodox did not mean the rejection of my Evangelicalism, but rather its fulfillment.

Robert Arakaki

End Notes

End Note 1:  What I mean by the “hermeneutical chaos of Protestantism” are major issues that have long divided Protestantism: mode of baptism, the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, and form of church government all of which are based upon competing interpretations of Scripture.  It is ironic and tragic that Protestantism should be united on the authority of Scripture and at the same time so divided by their differing interpretations of Scripture.

End Note 2:  The term “community of memory” can be found in Robert Bellah et al. Habits of the Heart (pp. 152-155).  It is used as a contrast to the radical individualism so prevalent in modern American society.


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  1. Jeremy Conrad

    The Double Standard

    You stand at attention in front of the icon,
    Heart pounding, with tears in your eyes.
    You remove your hat, make a gesture over your heart
    And, in unison, chant a pre-written mantra.

    When I do it, you call it idolatry.
    When you do it, you call it patriotism.

    • robertar


      Thank you for your heartfelt comment!


    • David

      Interesting analogy Jeremy. I assume you intend to mock the notion that the symbols of modern Statism can (should) be ‘venerated’ without question (yea, scorning those who don’t join the state-worship) yet praying before an Icon is Idolatry? (forgive me being slow on the uptake).

  2. drake


    I am a very strict Puritanic type on the issues of the Regulative Principle. I left the Anabaptist Church that I was a member of for 6 years and became a member of a Scottish Puritan Church because of these things. The Regulative Principle is what I understood to be Protestant and Reformed. Later when I went to seminary I had a rude awakening from my fellow “Reformed” students and my Deformed Professors who treated me quite poorly because they all new where I was coming from. I was a sheep being led to the lion’s den without even knowing it.

    “There are problems with Reformed churches insistence on the regulative principle. One problem with the regulative principle is that it hasn’t always been followed consistently. ”

    Agreed. I was treated very poorly in seminary over these things by so called Reformed Brothers.

    “Many early Calvinists eschewed musical instruments in worship and advocated psalmody exclusively.”

    I studied the issue for a couple years before I became Presbyterian and I was under the impression that this is what it meant to be Presbyterian. I understood Presbyterianism to be a package deal: No King as the head of the Church having authority to impose ceremonies, ergo, Regulative Principle/Puritan Worship, Church and State Relations as Defined By Samuel Rutherford’s World Revolutionary Book Lex Rex which refuted the Divine Right of Kings, ergo, a denial of Hierarchical Polity, ergo, Presbyterian Polity. The Presbyterian Polity, Worship and view of the State is a package deal. I’m thinking to myself, you have a choice: 1. A free Western Civilization with the Scot Puritan Theology or 2. Divine Right of Kings with all the theological baggage that goes with it. When I mentioned this stuff to my Professors they just flipped the script and had nothing better to say than insult me. The So-Called “American Presbyterian” deserves the humiliation he gets from the Eastern and Roman Apologists because he is not in the same ballpark as real Presbyterianism.

    This is the first time I have seen an Eastern Apologist deal with the regulative principle and it seems you are admitting hypothetical defeat if the principle can be defended. I would like to debate you on the issue. This is the biggest reason I will not join an Eastern Church. Your attempt at proving icons through the facial imagery is pretty unconvincing. The bible has much to say about God’s hands and his arms as well. These are anthropomorphisms. I learned that my first few years as a Christian. Just thought that was a pretty weak argument.

    • robertar


      Thank you for your comments! It’s good to hear from you. First of all, “robertar” is the name my WordPress program assigned to me when I first set up this blog. Please call me “Robert.”

      Re. “admitting defeat”, I was trying to be honest in the statement that if one adheres to the regulative principle one will not be able to establish a biblical basis for icons. My goal is to be intellectually honest and theologically rigorous as I discuss the Reformed and Orthodox traditions on this blog. But keep in mind that the regulative principle is linked to the doctrine of sola scriptura and that I found serious problems with this doctrine which led me to become Orthodox.

      I’m sorry you did not find my analysis of the biblical teaching on “face” convincing. I would urge you to take a second look at my argument, especially as I link the concept of “face” with the visual representations in the Old Testament Tabernacle and later temple buildings. Then there are the archaeological evidence found in the early Jewish synagogue and Christian church in Dura Europos (see Calvin vs the Icon). The actual historical practices mean that we cannot treat the word “face” as metaphorical as would be the case with what the Bible teaches about God’s hands and arms. In order to convince me otherwise you would have to provide evidence that the Old Testament Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple were blank and devoid of pictorial representations. Is that what you’re claiming?


  3. drake


    “Then there are the archaeological evidence found in the early Jewish synagogue and Christian church in Dura Europos (see Calvin vs the Icon).”

    >>>This is anachronistic. Lee Levine shows how fringe the dura europos synagogue was. I cataloged his arguments here: http://olivianus.thekingsparlor.com/the-regulative-principle/the-synagogue-and-the-regulative-principle-by-drake-shelton

    “The actual historical practices mean that we cannot treat the word “face” as metaphorical as would be the case with what the Bible teaches about God’s hands and arms.”

    If by historical practice you mean dura europos, you don’t have a leg to stand on.

    “In order to convince me otherwise you would have to provide evidence that the Old Testament Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple were blank and devoid of pictorial representations. Is that what you’re claiming?”

    Of course not. Ceremonial worship is just that, ornamental, but it is carnal just as Hebrews 9:10 says.

    • robertar


      You write: “Lee Levine shows how fringe the dura europos synagogue was.”

      I checked out Lee Levine’s article: “The Synagogue of Dura Europos” (1981) <COJS.org> and found him quoting C. Kraeling:

      “Here we see in a new light the common front which Christianity and Judaism held against paganism, and the relationship between Jewish and Christian art. These are the things that give the Dura Synagogue its scientific importance.”

      In a 2008 interview with Reform Judaism Magazine Levine notes:

      “The Dura Europos discovery was one of the crucial factors in sparking an awareness of and renewed interest in ancient Jewish art. Beforehand, and in some circles even to this day, popular opinion maintained that Jews don’t “do” visual art. Dura and other archaeological finds of the twentieth century, some of which were discussed in the previous installment, have done much to disprove this view.”

      These quotes lead me to believe you exaggerated Levine’s assessment of the Dura Europos findings.

      The main point I want to make is that Eastern Orthodoxy’s use of pictorial representations stands in historical continuity with Old Testament worship which is corroborated by archaeological evidence from Dura Euopos. Dura Europos has not been regarded by the scientific community to be a fringe element as you claimed. This leads me to conclude that Reformed Christianity’s aniconic approach to religious art represent a break, a sharp discontinuity with biblical historical practices and with church history. I seriously doubt that you could show that the iconoclasm of the Reformed tradition is part of the historic Christian faith. You are welcome to make that case.


  4. drake

    The argument against images of Christ that I was taught in the Scottish Church is that Deut 4:15-18 forbids the making of images of God. Jesus Christ was God, one person/two natures. The human nature received acts of worship because the human nature was not simply an abstract nature accidentally attached to the Logos but was the humanity of the Logos as the Logos was the hypostasis of the humanity. The humanity is then the flesh of God. It was lawfully worshiped and so it falls under this prohibition in Deut 4. Image Representations are forbidden of all the divine persons. Westminster Larger Catechism 109 says,

    “What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?

    Answer: The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation *********of God, of all or of any of the three persons,********** either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature: Whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense: Whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God has appointed.”

  5. Canadian

    Wouldn’t the following violate RPW: infant baptism, the Christian sabbath, Christmas, Easter, any cross within or without, acknowlegement of Mother’s or Father’s day, weddings with vows and rings, removal of children for Sunday School etc, etc. Or does “good and necessary consequence” always kick in for subjective interpretation? As Greg L. Price admits: “And it is no doubt due to our own ignorance and sin that we might still disagree as to what the Scripture actually declares, though holding firmly to the Regulative Principle of Worship.”
    How can there be a regulative principle which is not just human opinion that carries divine authority, when private judgement trumps it anyway? Appealing to the Westminster standards doesn’t help you. They do not have an authoritative interpreter and hence radical disagreement ensues. Your huffing about the idolatry of images falls on deaf ears for those who are under the authority of the 7th Council.

  6. drake


    “Wouldn’t the following violate RPW: infant baptism”
    No: The Household Baptisms. http://olivianus.thekingsparlor.com/systematic-theology/christian-baptism-infant-baptism

    “the Christian sabbath”
    No. Heb 4:9 “So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God”. http://olivianus.thekingsparlor.com/systematic-theology/tables-of-human-hearts-concerning-the-law-and-the-sabbath-by-drake-shelton

    “Christmas, Easter”
    Yes, http://olivianus.thekingsparlor.com/systematic-theology/tables-of-human-hearts-concerning-the-law-and-the-sabbath-by-drake-shelton

    see section IV.

    “any cross within or without”
    Depends on what it represents. if it represents the person of Christ it is forbidden. If it represents christendom, that’s ok. Just depends.

    “acknowlegement of Mother’s or Father’s day”
    Yes. Unless these days were moved to saturday. These are not religious holy days per se, so they are allowed if done on another day than sunday,

    “weddings with vows and rings”
    Not sure how you could have a wedding without a vow but yes the ring is forbidden.

    “removal of children for Sunday School”
    Yeah I don’t believe in sunday school.

    “Or does “good and necessary consequence” always kick in for subjective interpretation?”

    The regulative principle cost me my scholarship from school. I thought through this stuff for two years before I made the decision to join a Church that believed these things.

    The main practical issue that helped convinced me of this is the puritan view is the only one that can provide perfect uniformity in worship without manipulating people based on your own cultural biases.

    • Canadian

      I wasn’t implying you did not have an opinion on the above things, just that those that hold RPW have dissenting opinions about them. The right of private judgement will not take you to the same place as others who hold this very prinicple. In fact, speaking of being culturally conditioned, this principle is itself culturally conditioned from Puritan and Reformed contexts directly related to squabbles within the western church. This is a tradition.

      “I thought through this stuff for two years before I made the decision to join a Church that believed these things.”

      And now you have left. The principle fails because it comes down to you! Instead of finding the church Christ started and submitting to her, you took a position through your interpretation of the sources and then chose a church. When your position changed, or when that church deviated from what you had come to believe, you refused to submit. This is not obedience to established authority, but submission to oneself.
      I will let you converse with Robert so as not to get too much in the way here. I am glad you are here Drake, blessing in Christ.

  7. drake


    “I wasn’t implying you did not have an opinion on the above things”

    >>>Opinion? No no. The regulative principle is not my opinion. It is truth. Deut 12: 29-32, Mat 15:9, Col 2:21-23.

    “The right of private judgement will not take you to the same place as others who hold this very prinicple.”

    >>>I have only had a personal interaction with the Scottish Churches that believe this principle and every Scottish church I have been to practices the exact same order of worship. There is nothing different in one iota.

    If you would take Greg Price’s statement in context he was talking about the Lord’s Supper and the Offerings. Some American Puritan types like to hand out the sacrament in little plastic cups while the Scottish use the common cup, a common loaf, and common table just like Christ and the apostles did it. Some Americans like to pass out an offering plate while singing a song while the Scottish do not introduce offerings in worship at all. In the Scottish way you put your offering in a coffer before worship.

    That was what he was talking about; he wasn’t saying that in all areas this is the case. It is in a couple issues. When I read that article years ago and even last year when i read it again that was news to me because the Free Church of Scotland cont. had the exact same worship service in every church they have in America and Scotland without a single exception. Now the Orthodox have for centuries held that musical instruments were forbidden from worship and even the Ortho Priest here in Louisville
    agreed with the reasons I gave him why we puritans forbid them. Yet Ware mentions that Orthodox Churches are now introducing that grotesque organ into worship. Your Church is no better alternative.

    “In fact, speaking of being culturally conditioned, this principle is itself culturally conditioned from Puritan and Reformed contexts directly related to squabbles within the western church”

    Assertion. Show it prove it.

    “The principle fails because it comes down to you! ”

    That is right; with authority comes responsibility and if someone had authority over my conscience in the same way you think it, then the Church would give account of me to God at my judgment but that is not what the Bible says. Rom 14:12 So then every one of us shall give account OF HIMSELF to God.

    “This is not obedience to established authority, but submission to oneself.”
    I am a priest (Rev 1:6, 1Pet 2:5-9). I have responsibility and authority, which go hand in hand, over myself which is precisely why the Church will not be there to give account of me on my judgment. I will. Me myself and I. When you are standing alone before God at your judgment I wonder if you will have a strange feeling of Protestantism creep up your spine.

    “This is not obedience to established authority”

    First, I addressed the issues of the Trinity, the Monarchy and the Filioque to my Presbytery and they ignored them because they have never studied it with any depth. For crying out loud, I had to email my pastor the primary literature on these issues.

    The Bible and the conscience have greater authority than the Church. Bannerman gives three levels of authority in rank: 1. The Word of Christ 2. The Conscience 3. The Church: Church of Christ-pg. 290.

  8. drake

    Sorry, the above post was to Canadian.

  9. Canadian

    Thinking the Scottish Puritans are apostolic church is kinda funny…….like saying the Southern Baptists are.
    Even the Seventh Day Adventists will beat your head in if you try to show a change in the Sabbath via sola scriptura!
    Saying the law of nature was exactly the 10 commandments is empty assertion. The Sabbath was NOT a principle of “one in seven” it was the seventh day–period. Scripture must be wrung with both hands to move it to the first day.
    Again, if the Scottish church is the pillar and groung of the truth, why will you not submit, attend and stop trying to show them their error of the filioque and the Trinitarian and Incarnational truths that were established by the 7 Scottish Ecumenical Councils and Maximus the Scottish Confessor or Athanasius the Great Scot!
    I better stop and not derail this thread.

  10. drake


    When did I say that the Scottish Church convened the 7 ecumenical councils?

    “Saying the law of nature was exactly the 10 commandments is empty assertion. ”

    >>>I posted footnotes to every theses I posted on that article. If you cared to actually represent me correctly I posted these verses to prove it:

    Rom 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
    Rom 1:19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.

    Rom 2:14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves,
    Rom 2:15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,

    “The Sabbath was NOT a principle of “one in seven” it was the seventh day–period. ”

    >>>You completely ignore the arguments John Owen wrote from Heb 4:9 “So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God”. There is a sense in which the Sabbath command is in relation to an accomplished great work of God; not only in creation but also in the protection and redemption of his church. In Duet 5:15, God changes the basis of the Sabbath to his newly accomplished work in Egypt and the people of God have a Sabbath rest based upon this work. Is it strange then for us to think that God would change the Sabbath and it’s basis to the redemption of the elect, the conquering of the devil and spoiling of his house? Though the Sabbath is a creation ordinance there is a great ceremonial or positive aspect to it and in the NT the death and resurrection of Christ base this new Sabbath for the dispensation of the New Covenant.
    The last great work of God was the death and resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week. (Mat 28:1, Mark 16:2, 9, Luk 24:1, John 20:1 )

    OT prophecies concerning the NT speak of believers keeping a Sabbath.

    Isa 56:4 For thus says the LORD, “To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, And choose what pleases Me, And hold fast My covenant,

    Isa 56:5 To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, And a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off.
    (Let the reader take note that according to Lev 21:20, Duet 23:1 eunuchs were not allowed in the Temple and assembly in the Old Testament therefore this has to be speaking of the NT)
    Isa 56:6 “Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath And holds fast My covenant;
    Isa 56:7 Even those I will bring to My holy mountain And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”
    Isa 66:22 “For just as the new heavens and the new earth Which I make will endure before Me,” declares the LORD, “So your offspring and your name will endure.

    Isa 66:23 “And it shall be from new moon to new moon And from sabbath to sabbath, All mankind will come to bow down before Me,” says the LORD.
    As offerings in righteousness (Rom 12:1; Heb 13:15; 1Pe 2:5) were predicted in typological language a Sabbath observance is also prophesied of. This has to refer to the new covenant for foreigners were not allowed to enter the temple (Eph 2:14-22).

    The rest of the new heavens and the new earth have still not come and so the Sabbaths spoken of in these passages cannot be referring to the new heavens and the new earth.

    The nature of the law has changed in its relation from the Levitical priesthood to the priesthood of Christ in the New Covenant. Christ being the High Priest, chief interpreter and steward of the Sabbath, has authority (“Mat 12:8 “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”) and reason of necessity (Heb 7:12 For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also) to change it to the first day of the week. (Rev 1:10)

    “Scripture must be wrung with both hands to move it to the first day.”

    >>>Just read Hebrews 4 in the original Greek. A new Sabbath has been instituted based on the great redemptive work of Christ who raised on the first day. It is pretty simple to people who have read rudimentary protestant literature. The more I converse with you X-Reformed guys the more I see why you left.

    “Again, if the Scottish church is the pillar and groung of the truth”

    >>>>When did I say that the Scottish Church was the pillar and foundation of the truth? I am not going to jump into your Neoplatonic view of authority and then try to reason my way out of it.

    You are a better polemicist than a comedian Canadian. Don’t quit your day job.

  11. Canadian

    Aw, come on Drake. You must have cracked at least a slight spontaneous grin at “Athanasius the Great Scot!” 🙂

    Your Sabbath stuff, to quote your comment to Robert, “is pretty unconvincing…..a pretty weak argument.”
    Would you have us believe the Sabbath as Sunday is part of the RPW? Wow, that’s sola scriptura in action! I wonder what the Covenanters would say to you, who abstain from their house of worship on their sabbath……ouch, I can hear the vitriol now!

    Did the gentiles of Romans 1 keep the Sabbath day? Is the Sabbath day (no, not a Sabbath principle) written on man’s heart? If you really mean all you say about the Sabbath, whether it is in relation to creation, redemption or the new covenant, then keep it at is was given, not as you see fit. You will find no command that it be changed. And you will find no new ways to keep a new Sabbath either. There is no supporting evidence that pushes it’s change to the realm of good and necessary consequence. Go keep the Sabbath as God gave it and not as some Covenanter imitiation without divine authorization. Sundown Friday to Sundown Saturday (try that in Northern Canada or Alaska where sundown is for 6 months and sunup for 6 months.) No heating your home. No cooking. No work Saturday. Divine command of death for violation. On and on. You have made it a principle and not kept the divine day! Yours is a tradition that is a command of men (who disagree vociforously on how it is to be kept) and should be forsaken. Look at your OT scriptures about the perpetuity of the Sabbath. “THE” Sabbath, not another. You know there is only one Sabbath that existed and so if you wish to have a Sabbath, then it must be God’s Sabbath not man’s. By the way, it is quite interesting how you chide the Orthodox adherence to the 7th Council regarding icons and the Christological nature of it, yet you embrace with gusto a change of the day by 16th and 17th century Puritans that is not in the slightest even implied in scripture. If you want to argue that the Sabbath is perpetual, go ahead……but it is ridiculous and untenable to imply that God changed the Sabbath day to Sunday, that is pure unadulterated tradition, and you should question the Reformed and their low view of God’s Sabbath that they would see fit to butcher the manner of keeping it. I reject the perpetuity of the Sabbath day on other grounds, just to be clear.

    Hebrews 4 is not discussing any change in the Sabbath, or in fact a continuation of the old one. It is holding out to the people of God the “sabbath rest” of God that was held out even to those of the OT in types and shadows including the sign of the Sabbath day (which was a strict command.)
    v3 says that those who believe enter THAT rest. Also we are to strive to enter and to prevent falling (huh, sounds kinda Orthodox). Heb 3 says that it is unbelief that causes us to not enter, not the lack of Sunday (or Saturday) lawkeeping.
    May you find rest in Him.

  12. drake


    “I wonder what the Covenanters would say to you, who abstain from their house of worship on their sabbath……ouch, I can hear the vitriol now!”

    >>>What? I learned my view of the Sabbath from the Scottish Covenantors. What are you talking about?

    “Did the gentiles of Romans 1 keep the Sabbath day?”

    >>>Probably not but I believe they knew that God requires a set time of worship for human beings innately.

    Is the Sabbath day (no, not a Sabbath principle) written on man’s heart?

    >>> As I stated above the principle is innate. How can a period of time be written on someone’s heart?

    “You will find no command that it be changed.”

    >>> Well there is a change of priest hood and “Heb 7:12 For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also” clearly states that when a priesthood changes law changes. We see all the moral elements of worship that were done on Sabbaths in the Old are now done on the first day of the week in the New. Singing praise, preaching sacraments, etc.

    What we do see is in context of Exo 20 (And asserting a ceremonial law right in the middle of 10 moral laws is a bit difficult for you right?) in the giving of the ten is moral law. We see God basing his Sabbaths on his own great acts. Hebrews 4 clearly affirms a remaining Sabbath for the people of God based on the redemptive work of Christ. It’s pretty simple.

    “And you will find no new ways to keep a new Sabbath either.”

    >>>The moral principle needs no new laws. I keep it just like it was told to Jews in the OT.

    “There is no supporting evidence that pushes it’s change to the realm of good and necessary consequence.”

    >>>I have provided so many supporting evidences I am getting tired of typing them. My paper that I posted is full of them.

    “Sundown Friday to Sundown Saturday”

    >>>I wrote an article specifically on this issue. You have not refuted it. Your complaint proves too much. It would disprove Sabbath observance before the giving of the ceremonial law Gen 2, Exo 16 and in the ceremonial economy OT itself. I practice evening to evening. Regardless of season change I practice 6pm on Saturday to 6pm on Sunday. Thomas Shephard wrote the Magnum Opus on this in his Theses Sabbaticae. Refute him. Writ it up and I’ll change my mind.

    “No heating your home. No cooking.”

    >>>>I stated very clearly in my paper: “xix. Duties of absolute necessity, works of mercy, works requisite to maintain society, cooking of food for the day (Exo 12:16 ‘On the first day you shall have a holy assembly, and another holy assembly on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them, except what must be eaten by every person, that alone may be prepared by you.), and other requirements keeping with the principles of Mark 3:4 “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?”;the principle of the Sabbath being made for man; and the principles of dominion are in keeping with Sabbath observance. ”

    “No work Saturday.”

    >>>Jesus made very clear that work of necessity is allowed on the Sabbath.

    “Divine command of death for violation”

    >>>Wrong again. I made very clear in my paper: “ix. The judicial law of the Old Covenant has been abolished except for the moral equity. This being already established from the previous discourse, it is easily deduced that the death penalty for unnecessary work on the Sabbath (Num 15:32-35) is also abolished. In his book The Divine Right of Church-Government and Excommunication (London 1646), Samuel Rutherford teaches the same (pg. 493-494):

    “But we conceive, the whole bulk of the judiciall Law, as judiciall, and as it concerned the Republick of the Jews only, is abolished; also some punishments were meerly Symbolicall, to teach the detestation of such a vice, as the boaring with an Aule the ear of him that loved his Master, and desired still to serve him, and the making of him his perpetuall servant. I should think the punishing with death the man that gathered sticks on the Sabbath was such; and in all these, the punishing of a sin against the Morall Law by the Magistrate, is Morall and perpetuall; but the punishing of every sin against the Morall Law, tali modo, so and so, with death, with spitting on the face: I much doubt if these punishments in particular, and in their positive determination to the people of the Jews, be morall and perpetuall As he that would marry a captive woman of another Religion, is to cause her first pare her nailes, and wash herself, and give her a moneth, or lesse time to lament the death of her Parents, which was a Judiciall, not a Ceremoniall Law; that this should be perpetuall, because Christ in particular hath not abolished it, to me seems most unjust; for as Paul saith, He that is Circumcised becomes debter to the whole Law, sure to all the Ceremonies of Moses his Law: So I argue, a pari, from the like, He that will keep one judiciall Law, because Judiciall and given by Moses, becometh debter to keep the whole judiciall Law, under pain of Gods eternall wrath.”[50]”

    “ On and on”

    >>On and on? Bring it on. I read through every anti-sabbitarian work available to me before I believed this doctrine. You are not going to say anything I haven’t read. Do you seriously think I would forfeit my scholarship from school and plunge myself into financial ruin without having examined all of this? You Orthodox people still can’t grasp why God sent the Muslims to discipline you preaching against images and preaching obedience to the law of Moses. Israel never caught on and it seems the East can’t either.

    “You have made it a principle and not kept the divine day!”

    >>> You have abandoned God’s law. You make the fourth command a ceremonial command in the context of ten moral commands. Give me a break!
    “You know there is only one Sabbath that existed and so if you wish to have a Sabbath, then it must be God’s Sabbath not man’s. ”

    >>>Hebrews 4:9 in the original Greek “ἄρα ἀπολείπεται σαββατισμὸς τῷ λαῷ τοῦ θεοῦ” Sabbitismos: a Sabbath keeping.

    “Hebrews 4 is not discussing any change in the Sabbath, or in fact a continuation of the old one. It is holding out to the people of God the “sabbath rest” of God that was held out even to those of the OT in types and shadows including the sign of the Sabbath day (which was a strict command.)

    >>>And what was typified?

    “v3 says that those who believe enter THAT rest. Also we are to strive to enter and to prevent falling (huh, sounds kinda Orthodox). Heb 3 says that it is unbelief that causes us to not enter, not the lack of Sunday (or Saturday) lawkeeping.
    May you find rest in Him.”

    >>>I state in my paper: “Believers in both the Old and New Covenant saw the Sabbath sacramentally as rest in Christ and made perfect in eternity. Therefore, Heb 4:9 cannot be used to prove the Sabbath abrogated because the rest of heaven has not yet come and so this gives no reason why the type should pass away. The type is only abrogated when the substance has come. Some say that the rest of Christ has come and therefore the type should be abrogated. Yet the rest of Christ was enjoyed by Old Covenant saints and the type was not abrogated. The type of the Sabbath will abrogated at the new heavens and the new earth.

    As distinguished from the “rests” or κατάπαυσιν, κατέπαυσεν, κατάπαυσιν in the Greek of Hebrews 4 the “rest” of verse 9 reads σαββατισμὸς. Though the KJV leaves the distinction out, the NASB is better by translating this “a Sabbath rest.” As Robert Martin points out when this word is used in post canonical literature it refers to an observance of the Sabbath.[58] Vincent’s Word Studies refers to this verse and reads as such concerning σαββατισμὸς: “N.T.o , olxx, oClass., signifies a keeping Sabbath.” Robert Martin refers to A.T. Robertson’s, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research who points out that the suffix –μὸς “indicates and action and not just a state.”[59] In discussing the character referred to in verse 9 as “the one” or “he” Owen says:
    What are the works that believers should be said to rest from? Their sins, say some; their labours, sorrows and sufferings say others. But how can they be said to rest from these works as God rested from his own?[60]

    The interpretation most agreeable to scripture is that “the one” or “he” is the one spoken of in verse 14: The Lord Jesus Christ, who, after completing the work of redemption entered into rest on the first day of the week after a great work as God the father rested from Creation on the last day of the week. In this way Christ can be said to rest just like God.”

    Your complaints were the exact points I refuted years ago. You have not even the slightest right to claim lineage from Moses and Abraham. That is why God sent the Muslims to your Church. To discipline you. Just like Israel old you hardened yourself against God’s laws because you do not have the gospel. The gospel is brought to men to give them power to obey God’s laws not to abrogate them: Romans 8: 3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: 4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
    I exhort you to turn away from your man made religion and turn to Jesus Christ that he may give you the ability by the Spirit to keep God’s Holy Laws. If your Church will turn to the Jesus Christ of the Bible I believe the world will see the removal of the Muslim tyranny from the earth and God’s heavy rod removed and the golden age of Christ’s dominion ushered in.

  13. Canadian

    “What? I learned my view of the Sabbath from the Scottish Covenantors. What are you talking about?”
    Read what I said. What would the Covenanters think of your abstaining from attendance at their sabbath worship? You are out of church! I expect they would disregard your verbal acceptance of their sabbath and give you a tongue lashing due to your removal from it in practice.

    “We see all the moral elements of worship that were done on Sabbaths in the Old are now done on the first day of the week in the New. Singing praise, preaching sacraments, etc.”
    No we don’t! You do not follow the Sabbath. You make a new one with new stripped down elements without divine command. And it is silliness to assume a chasm between “moral” and “ceremonial” law. All commands of God are moral because he issued command and obedience is obligatory. Read Leviticus 19, the ten commandments are interspersed among things like not trimming your beard. If the Sabbath is moral law–keep it, don’t change it!

    “I keep it just like it was told to Jews in the OT. ”
    By sitting home in protest of your olde Scottishe Kirke?

    “You make the fourth command a ceremonial command in the context of ten moral commands. Give me a break!”
    No. The 10 commandments are a covenant document to a covenant people and not separate from the rest of the Law. Every one (of the 10 Words) is repeated in the NC except the Sabbath! So much for RPW.

    “And what was typified?”
    The rest of God in Christ by believing.

    “That is why God sent the Muslims to your Church. To discipline you.”
    That is why God sent Cromwell and James II and Claverhouse, to discipline you.

    This has gone on long enough. I don’t think you are scouting around Orthodox sites because you want to convert them to what you are certain is the truth. You have massive doubts because of the Orthodox doctrine you have learned and would like to take on Orthodox folks to convince yourself otherwise and try to quiet the uncertainties of your heart. Were done Drake. Fare thee well and Godspeed.
    Hoping for your peace and joy.

  14. Canadian

    One last thing.
    The “SWRB” guys run Still Waters out of their house here, that’s where I got my copy of Calvin’s Institutes many years ago.
    I talked to one of them and all I can remember about the conversation is how the law applies to us such that we MUST have railing on our houses (under whatever circumstances it is) in keeping with some OT law. He revelled in his debates with those heretics Horton and company, and was frankly down right terse, abrasive and cold. A friend of mine, an elderly fella tried to attend their church for awhile and was abused in good Puritan fashion about several such heinous legal crimes.
    You go and enjoy you Nestorian Westminster Standards then, and fight about them among your Puritan peers. Maybe try Puritanboard, they have a knack for confrontation, intellectual warfare and love putting burr’s under saddles and pebbles in shoes. They are good at finding new Sabbath laws and enforcing them too.
    But if you ever realize you are kicking against the pricks and want the Faith of the heart, come and we’ll share in mutually enjoying St. John’s COMMANDMENT…..love one another.

  15. drake

    “That is why God sent Cromwell and James II and Claverhouse, to discipline you.”

    No, no, no. You do not know your Scottish Church History. These came after the Protester-Resolutioner Controversies where the Resolutioners were apostatizing from the Reformation attained between 1638 and 1650. The Reformed Presbytery in their Act, Declaration and Testimony Part 1 speak to this in detail.

    “The daughter of Zion, thus going forth in the perfection of her beauty, when all ranks and degrees voluntarily subjected themselves unto the Royal Scepter of the SON of GOD, was most comely in the eyes of her Beloved: but oh! how is the gold become dim, and the most fine gold changed; the stones of the sanctuary are poured out on the top of every street, so that the house that was called of all people the house of prayer, is now become a den of thieves, being no less infamously despicable for deformation, than formerly for purity of reformation highly admired. This, at first, began with the public resolutions of the commission of the General Assembly, 1650, above noticed, for taking into places of power and trust, in judicatories and armies, such persons as were known malignants, and in heart disaffected to the work, and people of GOD, putting it in their power to destroy and full down the LORD’S work at their pleasure; a practice manifestly inconsistent with their covenant engagements, and the word of GOD, Deut. 13:9, 2 Chron 19:2. Those that were then called protesters (from their opposing and protesting against these resolutions), continued steadfastly to witness against the same, as the first remarkable step, to make way for that bloody catastrophe, that afterwards befel the church. The Lord, then, in his righteous displeasure and controversy with the nation, for betraying of his cause and interest into the hands of his enemies, sold them into the hand of that conquering usurper, Oliver Cromwell, who, having stripped them of their civil liberties, as the most effectual method to rob the church of her spiritual privileges, and nullify, the forcible obligation of the sacred covenants (which, when preserved, serve as a strong barrier against all such usurpations), framed a hellish and almost unbounded toleration in Scotland, of heretical and sectarian errors, for gratification of the abettors thereof, which was followed with a deluge of irreligion and impiety, drowning the nation in a still deeper apostacy.”


  16. Karen


    My fellow Orthodox, pray for Drake and those so embattled. Spiritual delusion and pride is the work of the devil. With regard to demonic affliction, Jesus said, “This kind cannot come out except by prayer and fasting.” These kind of exchanges only serve to remind us how embroiled we are in a war that cannot be effectively fought with carnal weapons, only with spiritual, rooted in love.

    Thank you Michael, Maximus, Robert, et. al. for your labors of love at this site. I’m learning a lot.

  17. David Fraser

    I’m a bit late to this conversation. If I understand the point correctly, the normative principle (assuming for the moment that Protestant hermeneutics can be simplified to these two principles), allows but does not require the use of icons. If so, then we should be able to use Romans 14-15 — and live peaceably and respectfully with each other’s traditions on this one.

    For all the argument above, I think there is some serious lacunae in terms of how hermeneutics works on different sorts of issues. I must admit I find the logic of the argument above tortured and stretched. But I will grant for this argument the major point: icons are not forbidden.

    So where do we go from here? Appeal to tradition? Is ancient tradition any less chaotic than Note 1 points out in the recent Protestant tradition, only on different issues? Having read it I do not find it a pristine, lack-of-conflict, unanimous line. Someone had to settle the conflicts, and it wasn’t always on the basis of good theology and exegesis. So who decides which ancient councils are the most authoritative? What do we do with the patent history of political interference and role in the councils? Whose interpretation of the ancient tradition is to be credited? Is my reading skewed and yours true — or the other way round?

    • robertar


      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! I’m glad you read my biblical basis for icons paper. You may have found the arguments a bit of a stretch but keep in mind that I did present a tempered and hedged conclusion in the subsection “Are Icons Biblical?” If you think my conclusions there were unfounded, please feel free to be more specific in your criticism.

      As far as the hermeneutical conundrum goes (tradition vs. Scripture; appeal to council, which one? and whose interpretation?) my advice is to look at concrete churches or denominations. Ultimately the issue boils down to praxis, not abstract ideals. If you accept tradition then your choices are limited to Eastern Orthodoxy with its Holy Tradition, Roman Catholicism with its infallible Pope, or some smaller bodies like the Coptic Church. If you reject the normative principle and accept the regulative principle your choices are limited to conservative Reformed bodies or something along that line. If you accept the normative principle then your choices are Anglican, Lutheran or Methodist. As far as “pristine, lack-of-conflict unanimous” tradition I would say that any attempt to lay claim to such a tradition avoids the nitty gritty of human history. The question here is the church a divine institution founded by Christ and if so where do we find this church? And how do we find this church? Comparing my experience as an Evangelical with my experience as an Orthodox I can say that there is much more agreement in areas of theology and practice among Orthodox Christians. If you wish to continue this discussion it would help to know which particular denomination you belong to or grew up in. Thanks again for your comments.


  18. Pedro

    I know that in blogs anybody can claim anything about themselves and it not be verified in the name of anonymity, but I am neither Reformed nor Orthodox, just someone who is interested in both.

    I have come up with a good joke that I hope will catch on but I doubt it. It goes like this, “Who was right, Martin Luther or John Calvin? The Methodists.” The point is that Protestantism has an inherent problem in that every denomination claims that it is Apostolic, every single one of them. This is problematic.

    However, in my opinion what is more problematic than that is the fact that all denominations, post-reformation or ancient, are not Christian first, they are Denomination first. Keep your eyes open. The Reformed don’t praise God when a community gets baptized into the Orthodox denomination in Kenya. The Orthodox don’t praise God when a community gets baptized into the Reformed denomination in the Middle East. But both are real quick to say, “X souls got baptized into the Reformed faith” or “X souls got baptized into the Orthodox church” about themselves. How about the whole body rejoicing that Y souls just got baptized into the household of faith! Those are the kind of blogs I would like to see streams of people commenting on.

    I feel as though I could not be Orthodox because of the icon practice. The Apostles did not use icons. Also, I can truly appreciate the Milan Edict and the fact the congregations could finally move out of house churches into buildings devoted to worship. But I would like to see Orthoxy liturgy that resembled what a house church in 120 would have looked like.

    And brother Drake, as an outside observer I do have to say that I feel as though that some of your arguments were not genuine. I do believe that you believe that if Martin Luther and the Anabaptists would have read their Bibles as good as brother Calvin did then they would have believed everything that he did. But that is just not the truth. There are so many denominations because all Protestants are only reading their Bibles, and reading it correctly. An argument with a seminary-level Pentecostal and a seminary-level Baptist over the Trinity (or lack thereof) will ultimately boil down to a few verses with volumes of argumentation on as many single words. A 7th Day Adventist could just as easily have made his arguments on the Sabbath in the exact same manner in which you did.

    I am aware of the double standard that I just applied by attacking while discouraging that behavior. However, I just did that to show the futility of focusing on the things that divide us, but on the one thing that unites us: Christ. Let’s call heresy heresy, together. Let’s keep this Nicean. Orthodox, bear with the Protestant brothers; it is not their fault that the Roman church corrupted the Apostolic tradition for them. Reformed brothers, bear with the Orthodox brothers; non-Apostolic traditions have gotten absorbed into the Apostolic tradition from being a traditionalist ancient religion, but nowhere near like the Roman church.

    The core of Christianity is God revealead in 3 persons, and Christ crucified. Let’s all rejoice that salvation is that simple. Let’s rejoice that there are more people on the team than just us. Let’s praise God that He is using corrupt and broken men to usher in His Kingdom to save His people. Let the discussion continue but let’s praise God that is He is doing marvelous things with pathetic instruments.

    • robertar


      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! I hope you will continue to learn more about the Orthodox Faith.

      I wrote the “Biblical Basis for Icons” for Evangelicals. I’m a little surprised that you did not find that reason enough to accept icons. Your assertion that the Apostles did not use icons has some problems. You are arguing from silence. You are saying, if there is no evidence of the Apostles doing this then we shouldn’t be doing this either. For example, there is no evidence of the Apostles sitting in pews on Sunday mornings and serving Holy Communion using small thimble sized cups to serve grape juice. So do you object to this common Protestant practice? Another problem is that it is quite likely that the Apostles were familiar with icons. Recent archaeological excavations in Dura Europos show a second century Jewish synagogue and Christian church having religious images. You can read about that in my posting “Calvin vs. the Icon.” I know that icons can be a big issue for Protestants but it is part of the historic Christian faith. By their rejection Protestants have deviated from the historic mainstream going off on their own tangents.

      You seem to be assuming that Christians were meeting only in homes until Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan but that was not the case. Christians were meeting in church buildings during times of toleration prior to AD 313. What the Edict of Milan did was make Christianity a legal religion. Protestants have a tendency to both underestimate and overestimate Constantine’s influence on Christianity. You might be interested in my article on Constantine.

      If you are interested in how the Christian worshiped circa AD 120 you might want to check out the Didache and other early Christian writings. You might also be interested to know that the Orthodox Church uses the Liturgy of St. James which has roots going back to the first century church in Jerusalem and which was celebrated by the Lord’s brother himself who was mentioned in Acts 15. I’m puzzled that you would want to treat tradition like a static fossil instead of a living spiritual force. Rather than being fixated on a certain period like AD 120 you should seek to be part of the one true Church founded on the Apostles and Prophets with Jesus Christ as the Cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20-21).

      One last comment, I’m curious about the way you described the core of Christianity. Are you reluctant to confess the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? This is the heart of Orthodoxy, the worship of the Trinity. I invite you to visit an Orthodox Church and see how we worship. I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised.


  19. Pedro

    Thanks for welcoming me. I have a few questions if I may, lovingly of course.

    I didn’t articulate the Trinity when I said “the core of Christianity is God revealed in 3 persons” but I affirmed the Trinity when I said “Let’s keep it Nicean”.

    I do not know anything about the liturgy of St. James, but I did not challenge the presence of liturgy in the ancient church. I said “I would like to see Orthoxy liturgy that resembled what a house church in 120 would have looked like”.

    If I understand what you are saying correctly, and please correct me if I am wrong, you are saying that it’s proven that a second century synagogue-church contained icons, which means that the faithful venerated them. I have yet to see a church that did not have religious art of some kind in it, but can it be proven that they venerated these images?

    I’m curious, too. Do you believe that a typical house church in 120 had the religious practices of wearing robes, sacred chambers and altars, and incense? I’m not saying that these things are wrong, they just seem to me a tad bit unrealistic for a group of oppressed poor people, but I could be wrong with evidence to the contrary.

    With the contrast between “static” and “living” tradition, are you saying that post-Apostolic tradition can be added to the Apostolic tradition? You draw the contrast while mentioning my attention to 120; are you giving approval to the prospect that the church in 120 could have less post-Apostolic traditions than the church in 328? If so then that seems counter to the Orthodox position, and if not then why the contrast?

    And finally if I may, it appears to me that you are unintentionally putting the veneration of icons as the keystone of the arch of the Apostolic church. If the keystone gets removed then the arch falls to the ground. For me if one chooses to revere an icon as a means to draw closer to God so be it, a very peripheral and personal mode of worship. And of all the commandments of the Apostles that should be the keystone of that arch, why the veneration of icons? Assuming that the Apostles advocated the usage of icons and was fully practiced in the second century, where is their command to venerate icons?

    Thank you very much for the opportunity to ask these question.

    • robertar


      You asked some important questions. Forgive my lengthy answers! I grouped my answers under three headings: early churches, living tradition and icons.

      Early Churches. One of the challenges of working with historical data is that they are not as detailed or complete as we would like them to be. All I can say based upon the archaeological findings at Dura Europos is that there is strong evidence of the use of religious images in early Christianity. If this is the case, then a stronger resemblance can be found with Orthodox churches than with many Protestant churches. The fact that so many Protestant churches eschew religious images show how far they have strayed from the historic Christian Faith. The Dura Europos site does not prove the veneration of icons. But the issue was settled by the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Just as the First Ecumenical Council settled the question about Christ’s divinity and the Second Ecumenical Council settled the question about the divinity of the Holy Spirit, so the Seventh Council settled the question about the veneration of icons.

      I can’t say for sure that the early churches circa AD 120 had priests wearing vestments, sacred chambers, and offered incense but I would not be surprised. First of all, vestments and incense are biblical having been included in Moses’ instruction to the Israelites (see Exodus 28:1-5 and 30:1-10). Second, there is no mention in the New Testament of these been abolished and forbidden. Evidently, the early churches did have altars. Hebrews 13:10 says: “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.” It appears then that the early Christians viewed the Lord’s Supper as the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Also, the Christian Eucharist is not accessible to those who adhered to the Old Testament sacrificial system. The altar presupposes Christ’s body and blood being offered and presented (John 6:53-56). Acts 13:2 talks about Barnabas and Paul’s missionary calling coming in the context of the celebration of the Liturgy. Many translations use the word “worshiping” or “ministering” but the original Greek used here is leitourgeia, from which we get “liturgy.” The transfer of Temple worship into the Church should not come as a surprise given the fact that Barnabas was by background a Levite (Acts 4:36) and that large numbers of the Temple priests converted to the Christian Faith (Acts 6:7). While many of the early Christians may have been poor, there were some who were quite affluent. Acts 4:34-37 describes how those who owned property and real estate would sell their possessions and donate the proceeds to the Church. So your characterization of the early Christians as a “group of poor oppressed people” is somewhat an exaggeration.

      Since you are so interested in what the early church circa AD 120 must have looked like, I would encourage you to read Ignatius of Antioch’s letters to the early churches. St. Ignatius was the third bishop of Antioch, St. Paul’s home church, and according to Eusebius died in AD 108. We learn from his letters that the early church had bishops and that the early Christians lived under the leadership of the bishop. We also learn that in the early church the Eucharist could not be celebrated independently of the bishop and that the early heretics stayed away from the Eucharist because they did not believe that the Eucharist is the flesh of Christ. Altogether, Ignatius wrote seven letters. I believe a lot of your questions about the early church soon after the Apostles passed away will be answered by reading Ignatius’ letters.

      Living Tradition. No, I did not say that Apostolic tradition can be added on to. What I meant was that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the Apostolic Tradition develops over time much like a tiny plant grows into a big tree bearing fruit. This is the fulfillment of Christ’s promise in John 16:13. The Council of Nicea in AD 325 has its roots in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. The Nicene Creed has its roots in the confessions of faith in the New Testament, e.g., Philippians 2:5-11, Timothy 3:16, and the Shema of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Mark 12:29-31.

      If anything, it is Protestantism that can be accused of adding on to Apostolic Tradition. From the standpoint of church history, Protestantism has introduced a number innovations, for example, the belief that Holy Communion is just a symbol, that Holy Communion is not an essential part of the Sunday worship, that the Bible alone is all that is necessary, and that one must believe in justification by faith alone (sola fide) in order to be a Christian and that if one does not subscribe to this doctrine one cannot be a true Christian.

      I’m not sure what you had in mind when you mentioned AD 328, except the passing of St. Helen. Or did you have in mind AD 325, when the first Ecumenical Council met? You seem to have the idea that all sorts of traditions were added on over time but that is not how Orthodoxy views Tradition. Orthodoxy views church history from the standpoint of the one Church holding to the same Tradition faithfully for the past two millennia; from this standpoint there is no difference over time. It’s the same Church and the same Faith. While a mango tree looks quite different from a mango plant, it’s still the same thing only more developed.

      Icons. First of all, Christology is the keystone for Orthodoxy. Christology is vitally linked to the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinity. The Incarnation is an awesome event that has many implications for our salvation and how we understand the structure of reality. Not properly understanding the Incarnation can lead to a distorted understanding of who Christ is and what he has done for our salvation.

      When I made the statement about the importance of icons I meant that icons are not an option for anyone interested in Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Tradition comes as a package and to become Orthodox one must accept the entire package. Icons are an integral part of the Christian Faith because it is linked to the doctrine of the Incarnation — the Word of God becoming flesh, that is, becoming part of creation. To deny icons leads to the denial of the Incarnation or to a truncation of this very foundational doctrine. When I was a Protestant, I understood the Incarnation primarily as an event that took place between AD 0-33 but as an Orthodox I have come to a deeper appreciation of the Incarnation’s significance for the Church, for the redemption of the cosmos, and for our salvation as well For a while there was some debate about the use of icons in worship but the matter was settled by the Seventh Ecumenical Council. This is much like a Supreme Court ruling; one may not like it but the Court’s ruling is binding on all American citizens and especially all lawyers and judges. You might view icons as a matter of personal choice but if you want to share in the historic Christian Faith you will need to accept and abide by the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, all of them, from the first to the seventh.

      A lot of this may be new to you. I would urge you to take your time and familiarize yourself with the early church through the writings of the Apostolic Fathers and Eusebius’ Church History. I suspect you will be surprised to learn how different the early documents’ description of the early church are in comparison to what you learned as a Protestant.


      • Pedro

        Very interesting and informative response. May I ask a few concise questions? I promise I am not trying to be difficult.

        You may or may not be an expert on this but do the modern Monophysite and Nestorian churches venerate icons? They broke away in the fifth century. While it could be agrued that since they are non-Chalcedonian they do not matter, I do not want to fall into fallacy ad hominem.

        You said that “with the guidance of the Holy Spirit the Apostolic Tradition develops over time much like a tiny plant grows into a big tree bearing fruit”, and then you went on to say “Orthodoxy views church history from the standpoint of the one Church holding to the same Tradition faithfully for the past two millennia; from this standpoint there is no difference over time”. With all due respect, do you see how these ideas seem contradictory? Could not the Roman church equally claim that the Apostolic tradition develops over time?

        And finally, the true measure of a genuine person is their ability to put their position to the side momentarily and acknowledge that that position can be problematic or concerning for them at some level. If someone says to me on any matter (political, religious, scientific, or otherwise) that they have absolutely zero shred of doubt on a particular position then it is difficult for me to regard that person as not an ideologue. However, when someone candidly acknowledges a shred of reasonable doubt against a position of theirs then they have the possibility of the second party maliciously taking a mile from an inch that was given. I am aware of the problem of candor. But, what is your shred of doubt about equating the incarnation with icon veneration?

        Blessings, and I do appreciate your insight.

        • robertar


          Both the Copts (so-called Monophysites) and the Oriental Orthodox (so-called Nestorians) have icons. I know because I have friends in both churches. As to whether or not they venerate icons, I believe they do. I would encourage you to find out from them their stance on the veneration of icons.

          Yes, Roman Catholics have employed that line of reasoning. Where we differ is whether the Pope has the authority to unilaterally act on his own. That’s another complicated issue. But the fact is the Bishop of Rome was recognized by the Second Ecumenical Council as part of the Pentarchy, the five historic patriarchates along with Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Also, if you look at their theology you will find that the Roman Church has departed significantly from the patristic consensus.

          With respect to candor, I believe that evidence of candor on my part can be found in my admitting to the limitations in the evidence I presented. Also, in my responses I have tried hard to respond on the basis of the evidence rather than bombastic dogmatism. I would urge you to contact a local Orthodox priest. It is often much better to ask one’s questions one-on-one than through an impersonal medium like the Internet. I am a little bothered that you are under the impression that I equated the Incarnation with the veneration of icons. They are not identical, but for they are related. I’m sure your local priest can explain to you the nuances of the Orthodox understanding of icons.

          Let me close with this question for you: Have you ever been to an Orthodox Sunday service? Have you ever seen an Orthodox icon? I have the impression that you have not.


          • Pedro

            Thank you very much for your response. I hope I did not come across as accusing you of being bombastic or dogmatic. And I do agree with you that perhaps asking for honest skepticism should have been done on a personal level rather than impersonal media.

            I apologize if I misunderstood your position on the incarnation and icon veneration. The arguments I have seen for and against icon verge veneration have left me with the impression that if one rejects icon veneration then they are on the verge of rejecting the incarnation. I see from your response that you are drawing a connection between the two, but not as strong a connection as I had given of “equating” the two.

            My questions have only been inquisitive and not “gotcha” questions, so I hope I have presented myself in that way. No, I have not been to an Orthodox liturgy, and I typically do avoid personal experiences as a means of validation, but I’m sure that your aim in asking that question is so that I may get in contact with someone locally who may better answer specific questions personally.

            I have to say that your best arguments in our discourse for the practice of icon veneration were the seventh ecumenical council and the fact that the modern Monophysite and Nestorian churches venerate icons as well. A person would have to argue that icon veneration is an error that crept into the church prior to the fifth century. I have some research to do, and thank your very much for the information you have provided thus far.

            Blessing and have a great day.

          • robertar


            Don’t be afraid of personal experience. Personal experience is a way of gathering data that can be used to test what one has been reading in the books. This approach helped me in discerning the differences between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. You can read about that in my blog “Why I Did Not Become Roman Catholic.” Also, as a result of my interactions with the Coptic and Nestorian Christians I have become aware of the complexity of the differences between them and Orthodoxy. I remember talking with a former Protestant friend of mine about the Copts and the Nestorians. His understanding of them was based on the history books and I constantly had to correct him saying, “No, they don’t really believe that” to his bewildered befuddlement.

            Ultimately, truth is empirical, not just conceptual. That is the significance of the Incarnation, the Word of God came down from heaven and became empirical reality: a body that could be seen and touched by others, vocal cords that could be heard, and a face that could be looked at and depicted so that subsequent generations could behold it as well. I hope your research will involve both books and visits to churches. May God’s Holy Spirit guide you in your journey to Orthodoxy.


  20. John Carpenter

    The “Orthodox” are guilty of a lot of double-talk when it comes to twisting the Word of God to justify their “icons”.

    Theologically they say that their icons are not “art”. “Contrary to popular, non-Orthodox belief, icons are not art.” (All Saints of Alaska Orthodox Church, http://www.allsaintsofalaska.ca/index.php/the-orthodox-church/65-about-icons). Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – c. 215) wrote, “Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine.” (Translated by Rev. William Wilson, The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Clement of Alexandria, Book VII, Chapter V.) Then, if we grant that distinction, that means that the discovery of art in the Bible (such as in the tabernacle/temple) and early Christian art does not necessarily suggest iconography. The “Orthodox” can’t have it both ways: that the icons aren’t art but when we find art in the Bible then that art is an example of icons.

    Canon 36 of the Council of Elvira states, “Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration.” Note the implicit distinction between mere decorations (“pictures”), on the one hand, and “objects of worship and adoration”, on the other. The prohibition was against any images in the church buildings to forestall the danger of those images becoming icons. Hence, the 19 bishops at the Synod of Elvira were objecting to the presence of art in a church because of the temptation it presented, especially for people converted out of paganism with it’s prevalence of images.

    See: John B. Carpenter, “Icons and the Eastern Orthodox Claim to Continuity with the Early Church,” ”Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics”, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2013.

  21. Calvin

    Hello everyone. I see this thread is a little old. I just found this site. I have a very extensive background in the church of Christ (was a preacher for 10 years.) As odd as it may seem, I find myself on a path that seem to be leading me to Orthodoxy.

    I read in the beginning of this discussion a OT reference to Deut 4:15-18. After fast scan of the replies here, I did not see a response to that verse. (I apologize ahead of time if I just missed it?)

    I have a few more things to bring up about this discussion, but I’ll throw them out one at a time so not to get bogged down chasing rabbits that we’re not hunting. LOL


    • robertar


      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! Don’t worry. It’s never too late to join in the discussion.

      You raised a good point about Deuteronomy 4:15-18. I think the best response is to quote from Saint John of Damascus who quoted Deuteronomy 4:15-18 in his apologia for icons “On the Divine Image” then refuted the iconoclasts writing:

      When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw a likeness of His [9] form. When He who is a pure spirit, without form or limit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing as God, takes upon Himself the form of a servant in substance and in stature, and a body of flesh, then you may draw His likeness, and show it to anyone willing to contemplate it. Depict His ineffable condescension, His virginal birth, His baptism in the Jordan, His transfiguration on Thabor, His all-powerful sufferings, His death and miracles, the proofs of His Godhead, the deeds which He worked in the flesh through divine power, His saving Cross, His Sepulchre, and resurrection, and ascent into heaven. Give to it all the endurance of engraving and colour.


      What Saint John wrote here agrees with opening statement to the first Epistle of John:

      That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life–the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us–that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly or fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (I John 1:1-3)


  22. Calvin

    Thank you for your reply.

    As we read in Deut. 4- 23Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of anything which the Lord your God has forbidden you. 24For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.

    On the one hand, I’m wanting to interrupt this and say, “The warning here is NOT to have ANY images so one does not start worshiping that image. Drawn to start believing that God IS that image etc.”

    On the other hand, I am also leaning, to get out of that chapter (and since images where commanded to be used in the OT Temple) in an attempt to try harmonize these passages, lean toward. “images are ok, so long they are NOT of God and we are not worshiping the images, only using them to help us focus our attention to the one in the image. ”

    Also, if we’re going to use the OT passages where they where told to make images of angles on the curtains etc. Would not that limit us to having ONLY images of angles? I’m having a hard justifying images of Jesus, Mary, Angles and Saints just because in the OT they had images of Angles on the curtains.

    In the church of Christ we use this example a lot: “If the speed limit sign reads, 55mph, that eliminates driving 60/70/90 etc.” In other words, if we have a specific command or example in the Bible, that eliminates all like manner. Take the Bible example of people being stuck dead because they use strange fire/incense. They didn’t follow God’s instructions EXCALY as he had commanded. It their mind, God said fire and incense, fire, is fire, incense is incense.

    In conclusion, I’m still struggling with this. I’m keeping an open mind and still studying. I’ve grown to accept some early Tradition so long as it doesn’t directly contradict the Bible. There where a lot of things being taught in the early church before the Bible was complete that wasn’t correct, hence the need for MOST of the Epistles in the NT. ( I’m not trying to chase a new rabbit here! LOL)

    • robertar


      It’s good to see you wrestling with what the Bible teaches about right worship. Please keep in mind that the Old Testament leads us to Christ. Also, please keep in mind that the Old Covenant which was based on the Mount Sinai revelation was superseded by the New Covenant which is based on Christ’s death on the Cross. It’s important to keep in mind that biblically speaking there is no covenant apart from a foundational sacrifice. In Exodus we read of the Israelites taking part in the Passover meal before the Exodus from Egypt. The Passover lamb sacrificed that night foreshowed Jesus Christ the Son of God who would one day come in the flesh to offer himself as the Passover Lamb for the salvation of the world (John 1:36). When Christ the Passover Lamb died on the Cross the old Levitical sacrificial system came to a close and the New Covenant was inaugurated. The point I want to make is that when Messiah came the situation for the Old Covenant changed.

      When the Word of God which up till then was up in heaven and invisible came down from heaven and took on human flesh becoming apprehensible to human eyes the precautionary measures in Deuteronomy 4:15-18 no longer applied as it did before. You will find in Orthodox Churches icons of Christ who took on human flesh for our salvation. You won’t find images of God the Father. The Russian Orthodox tradition explicitly forbids depictions of God the Father. The Incarnation was a game changer. Not only did the Son of God take on tangible visible form, he also gave us his body and blood in the Eucharist. One of the earliest heresies was the denial that Christ had a real body. Docetism taught that Christ only appeared to have a body. Icons are an affirmation of the reality of the Incarnation.

      One way you can approach the issues of images and right worship is to track the historical teachings and practice. You might want to read my four part review of Fr. Stephen Bigham’s book, especially my second posting. The point I wanted to make is that the early church’s use of icons was an extension of a longstanding practice in Judaism and in no way constitute a radical break.

      I’ll leave you with some questions: Was the Incarnation a game changer? If it was a game changer, what does it mean for our understanding of the Old Testament teachings on right worship? Does the Old Testament apply to Christians today as it did to the Jews then? And was the Old Testament superseded by a new Torah?


  23. Calvin

    I believe in three persons in the God Head. Jehovah God, Jesus (The Son of God) and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is a distinct separate person in the God head, yet one in purpose to God. John 12: 44-49 “Jesus cried and said, He that believeth on me, believeth not on me, but on him that sent me…..And he that seeth me seeth him that sent me…..49For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak.”

    I Believe the OT Covenant was abolished at the time of Christ death and the New Covenant came into force in Acts ch 2 . I sometimes call Acts ch2 the “Hub” of the Bible. All things before Acts 2 points toward it the church (in the future), all things after Acts ch2 speaks of the church as being here now in the present. Therefore under the New Covenant.
    Heb 8: 6-13 But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.
    7For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.
    8For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:
    9Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord……
    13In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.

    And Heb 10 : whole chapter
    OT ended with Christ: Heb 9:15-17 ,Gal 3: (whole ch) Gal 5:4, Gal 5:18But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.

    Christ did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. BUT, in fulfilling the Law, he ABOLISHED the Law. When one FULFILLS a covenant/contract, that covenant may still exist, but it’s not longer in effect.: Eph 2:14-16 For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us;
    15Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;
    16And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby:

    Now back to Icons. As far as the NT is concern, we’re not going to find passages for or against Icons. Icons where a huge issue in the early church and the early church fathers. I believe the biggest issue for those who where against Icons was the fear SOME people would end up worshiping the Icons. Worshiping the Icon was the sin, NOT the Icon it’s self. Therefore it becomes an individual matter rather it’s wrong or not.

    I think the Orthodox needs to do a better job in explaining the use of Icons and emphasize on using them as a visual tool to help bring our mind and focus on Christ. Sometimes I feel, from what I’ve seen visiting the Orthodox services, one can easily get the impression of Icon worship. When I see members of the Orthodox bowing, making the sign of the cross and kissing the Icons, then in my opinion, one may be crossing the line. But only God knows whats in someones heart and it’s not for me to judge.

    Long story short. As long as one is NOT worshiping the Icon and uses it ONLY as a tool to help focus their mind on things Godly, then I have no problem with them.

    • Clay


      I struggled with these same concerns when I was considering Orthodoxy. It took some time for me to come to terms with icon veneration. One thing that is very important is to understand the difference between the Orthodox understanding of worship and veneration. I say the Orthodox understanding, because I’m not sure there would be a difference in these two terms in the protestant tradition, at least not the low church Baptist tradition out of which I came. And it’s important to understand that the veneration shown towards icons is not to wood and paint, but it passes through to the person being depicted. So when we bow before and kiss an icon of Mary or the saints, we are reverencing someone who is worthy of honor because the Glory of God has been revealed in them.

      I also found this article by Fr. Stephen Freeman to be very helpful – https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2008/12/25/bowing-in-bethlehem/. It touches on the foreignness of physical expressions of humility and honor in our culture, and helped me better the source of my discomfort for physical acts of veneration.

    • Jason

      When it comes to venerating Icons, I agree with what Clay says, however I just want to add a few cents and hopefully give some clarification.

      So, paying proper respect to one’s superior, or elder, etc. has become a foreign concept in America (and I assume you’re American, but correct me if I’m wrong but i would imagine this is almost a universal problem). There are no longer bows to Kings/Queens, and no one would think to do that to our current public servants. You can hardly find anyone outside of military training that uses the words Sir and Ma’am. Consider in the days when Royalty was a reality for many Christians, they would bow themselves to the King or Queen, but remain Christian. Many times, this ruler would also be Christian, and would accept the kissing of the hand and other such acts of homage. This was allowed and deemed proper by the participants because of the fact of paying this respect to the leader of the nation. It was never construed as worship, at least in Christian societies (ideally, but I’m sure there are instances of where this went astray).

      Come now to Icons, specifically those of Saints. These Saints range from hermits, to Church laymen, to Royal figures and all status in between. They have been elevated to Sainthood due to their holiness in life, not social status. As such, they lived as spiritual Royalty to the Christian believer. Their very lives are a model of what it means to live as Christ who is love. Since they perservered and overcame the passions, they should be properly honored and respected. This does not mean a simple tip o’ the cap. They should be given even more honor than any earthly king/queen, whose glory always fades. The Lord’s glory is forever, and the Saints’ prayers can lead to salvation. Therefore, to pay them proper respect is to venerate their Icon and ask for their prayers. For they are not dead, but live forever in Christ.

      I would add that to learn of each of these Saint’s lives is to understand that they would not ask you or I to worship them at all, but would instead give glory to God and tell you to do the same. In veneration, we participate with them to give that proper Glory. Put another way, St. Gerasim did not overcome the passions by himself. He did so in love, humility and right worship. If we want to achieve the same, we strive to follow his lead, and worship with all of our God-given senses; which includes sight that we can use to gaze up upon Holy things. We continually fail, but the Saint remains in Christ and is there to help lead us back.

      I hope this helps, but it is a summary and could be worked out a little more. Please, I would ask anyone to correct me where I have made any mistakes or misrepresentations.

  24. Calvin

    I greatly appreciate everyone’s replies!

  25. Thomas K

    We do not adore as gods the figures and images of the saints. For if it was the mere wood of the image that we adored as God, we should likewise adore all wood, and not, as often happens, when the form grows faint, throw the image into the fire. And again, as long as the wood remains in the form of a cross, I adore it on account of Christ who was crucified upon it. When it falls to pieces, I throw them into the fire. just as the man who receives the sealed orders of the king and embraces the seal, looks upon the dust and paper and wax as honourable in their reference to the king’s service, so we Christians, in worshipping the Cross, do not worship the wood for itself, but seeing in it the impress and seal and figure of Christ Himself, crucified through it and on it, we fall down and adore.

    Behold, then, matter is honoured, and you dishonour it. What is more insignificant than goat’s hair, or colours, and are not violet and purple and scarlet colours? And the likeness of the cherubim are the work of man’s hand, and the tabernacle itself from first to last was an image. “Look,” said God to Moses, “and make it according to the pattern that was shown thee in the Mount,” (Exodus 25:40) and it was adored by the people of Israel in a circle. And, as to the cherubim, were they not in sight of the people? And did not the people look at the ark, and the lamps, and the table, the golden urn and the staff, and adore? It is not matter which I adore; it is the Lord of matter, becoming matter for my sake, taking up His abode in matter and working out my salvation through matter. For “the Word was made Flesh, and dwelt amongst us.” (John 1:14) It is evident to all that flesh is matter, and that it is created. I reverence and honour matter, and worship Him who has brought about my salvation.

    –St. John of Damascus

    To espouse iconoclasm then, is really to deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. “And every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is the spirit of anti-christ” (St. John’s first epistle).

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