A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Category: Reformed Theology (Page 7 of 19)

Protestant Reformation in the Old Testament?


A response to Anastasiya Gutnik’s comment 24 June 2016:

From Anastasiya:

What do you think of Josiah?  In his time the worship of God was corrupt.  So much so that the law was literally a musty, dusty old book found hidden away in the temple.  Upon rediscovering the law Josiah launched a reformation destroying the idols and the altars upon which idolatry was practiced. Does this mean there were none of God’s people left?  But as Paul writes about the time of Elijah “I have reserved 7000 who have not bowed to Baal. So there is a remnant according to election of grace.” How is his any different than the Protestant Reformation?  What are your thoughts on the Apostle Paul warning that wolves would come and tear up the flock and that apostasy would happen after his departure? And what are you thoughts on his statement regarding the times of Elijah?

The church is composed of individuals “one of a city, two of a family” as Jeremiah writes. So what do you have against individual believers receiving the Holy Spirit? In the Acts we see individuals corporately receiving the Spirit (such as Cornelius and his house).  And what Protestant ever said this is done apart from the Church?  Article 28 of the Belgic Confession explicitly says of the Church that “out of it is no salvation.” Even today in the apostate and corrupt churches like Hillsong they still recognize the importance of corporate worship and belonging to a community of believers.

See also Anastasiya Gutnik’s comment 26 June 2016



Whoa!  All these questions!  I feel like I’m being interrogated by a prosecuting attorney.  What say you that we have a friendly dialogue between the two of us?

I appreciate your vigorous interaction with the OrthodoxBridge.  We may not see eye-to-eye on some issues, but we share common ground in our respect for Scripture.  I will explain my positions using the Bible.


Protestantism in the Old Testament?

Your listing of Old Testament passages seems to rest on the premise that the Protestant Reformation has parallels in the Old Testament, thereby providing biblical justification for the Reformation.  This entails the hermeneutical strategy of reading the history of Christianity, especially the Protestant Reformation, onto the Old Testament text.  Getting the types and parallels of Christ and Israel right is what the Jews of Jesus’ time were so poor and weak at.  They were often dead wrong. This means that using the hermeneutics of history approach calls for caution.  Orthodoxy approaches church history through the lens of the unique promise of Pentecost — Christ’s Upper Room promise that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church (John 14-16), and Christ’s promise that powers of hell would never prevail over the Church (Matthew 16:17-18).  Orthodoxy sees church history as one continuous, unbroken narrative from the book of Acts to the present day.  We view world history as the history of the one Church through which God’s power and wisdom unfold bringing about the salvation of the cosmos (Ephesians 1:18-22).

The Apostle Paul’s prediction of the coming of “savage wolves” attacking the flock (Acts 20:29-30) parallels Apostle John’s counsel about heretics who denied that Jesus had come in the flesh (1 John 2:18-23).  The early Church had to deal with early heresies like Gnosticism, Arianism, and Manichaeism.  It survived these heresies, and in time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.  It is difficult to see there being a universal apostasy as you seem to have implied.

If one wants to find a possible parallel for Protestantism, I suggest it would be the northern tribes’ revolt against Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:12-17).  What made that schism so tragic was not so much the rejection of the Jerusalem monarchy but Jeroboam’s creation of rival worship centers in Bethel and Dan, and the installation of a new rival priesthood (1 Kings 12:26-33).  These innovations made the schismatic Israelites susceptible to syncretistic borrowing of religious practices from their neighbors.

In your first paragraph you cited the example of King Josiah (2 Kings 23) reading the Book of the Covenant and cleansing the Temple of pagan idols suggesting it has parallels with the Reformation. What he did was to follow the covenant obligations imposed on the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20.  In no way did King Josiah introduce new doctrines or worship practices.  This has been one of my primary critiques of the Protestant Reformers.  They rightly reacted against many of the abuses and innovations of Medieval Catholicism.  They sought to return to the original Church, not through the Pentecost paradigm — the Holy Spirit working without break through the Church for the past 1500 years, but rather through the novel method of sola scriptura.  This gave rise to novel doctrines not taught by the early Church Fathers or were condemned by early Councils.  Furthermore, it gave rise to a plethora of Protestant denominations with conflicting interpretations of the Bible.  The Protestant rejection of the episcopacy (priestly leadership) and their rejection of the Real Presence in the Eucharist (right worship) as understood by the early Church bears an uncanny parallel with Jehoboam’s innovations.  This is something that should give thoughtful Protestants pause.

You mentioned the Apostle Paul’s quoting 1 Kings 18 about the faithful remnant of 7000 who refused to bow down to Baal (Romans 11:4).  The important point to keep in mind is that Romans 11 is not about the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, but about the perplexing situation in Paul’s time.  The Messiah had come and instead of welcoming Jesus as the promised Messiah, Israel chose to reject and murder God’s Chosen One.  This created a conundrum: Either Jesus was not the promised Messiah or the Jews were no longer God’s people.  These questions were likely on the minds of Paul and his fellow Jewish Christians.  This question quite possibly contributed to the tensions between Jews and Gentiles which seem to lurk in the background of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Did Paul’s conversion to Christ require the renunciation of his ethnic heritage and religious roots?  Was Israel no longer Israel?  Romans 11 is Paul’s solution to the conundrum.  In it he explains the relationship between the Israel of the Old Testament and the New Israel, the Church.   In this context it becomes clear that when Paul alludes to the faithful remnant of the 7,000, he has in mind himself, his fellow Apostles, and Jewish Christians.

To claim the Protestant Reformers comprise the faithful remnant of 7,000 mentioned by Paul involves reading Protestant church history into the Bible, a very dubious proposition.  This reading of Scripture cannot be asserted; it must be proven.  For several decades now, Anglican Bishop and bible scholar, NT Wright, has been pointing out this common Protestant flaw of reading the Reformation back into Scripture.  Lowell Handy’s “The Good, Bad, Insignificant, Indispensable King Josiah” (2005) traces the place of King Josiah in church history.  Among the early Church Fathers and into the Middle Ages, Josiah occupied a minor role in biblical studies (Handy 2005:41).  He acquired prominence in the 1500s among the Protestant Reformers who saw in Josiah a model of a reforming king and in the 1800s among Protestant bible scholars who saw the “Book of the Covenant” read by Josiah as evidence for a revised understanding of Old Testament formation.  In other words, the prominence given to Josiah is peculiar to Protestantism and does not reflect the broader Christian exegetical tradition. This retroactive approach of reading Protestant history into the Bible is highly speculative and self-serving.


Coptic Icon of Pentecost

Coptic Icon of Pentecost


The Church — Individuals versus Corporate Body

In your second paragraph you cited Jeremiah 3:14 — one from a city and two from a family — to justify the idea of the church as an aggregate of individuals.  This is a bit of a stretch.  Where is this interpretation found in church history?  Some of the more extreme Protestant groups believe that all one needs to comprise a church is a group of like-minded believers who gather to hear sermons about the Bible. But that is like saying gathering a group of kids and giving them a ball makes them a team! They need to agree that they are a team, playing the same sport by the same rule, and under a team leader.  A more pertinent passage for explaining the individual Christian’s relation to the corporate body, the Church, would be 1 Corinthians 12:12-13:

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.  So it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

And then, there’s 1 Corinthians 12:17:

Now you are the body of Christ and each of you is a part of it.

The Amplified Bible translates 1 Corinthians 12:27 it this way:

Now you [collectively] are Christ’s body, and individually [you are] members of it [each with his own special purpose and function].

The key point here is that we become part of the Church through the sacrament of baptism.  One does not join the Church as one is received by the Church.  Furthermore, Paul understood the Church to possess an internal structure, an ordering of ranks.  In 1 Corinthians 12:27-28, Paul lists the orders of church ministries: apostles, prophets, teachers, and workers of miracles.  In Ephesians 4:11, he gives a slightly different ordering: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.  From these passages we learn that the Church is not an aggregate of independent individuals, but rather a corporate body of interrelated members.  There is no need to grasp at obscure or dubious Old Testament passages for our doctrine of the Church when there are New Testament passages that give us greater clarity on the question before us.  As a matter of fact, the Reformed tradition’s teaching about the Church as a covenant community speaks against the individualistic approach that you seem to favor.

In no way am I opposed to the idea of individuals receiving the Holy Spirit.  The real issue is whether one can receive the Holy Spirit independently of the visible Church.  The main difference is that Protestants deny that we receive the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of the Church (chrismation).  However, they need to take into account the fact that the sacrament of chrismation was very much a part of early Christian initiation.  Cyril, the patriarch of Jerusalem in the 300s, described the sacrament of chrismation in which the newly baptized is anointed on the forehead, the ears, the nostrils, and the breast. (Catechetical Lecture 21.4)  This remains the practice of the Orthodox Church to the present.  The point here is that just as baptism is a sacrament administered by the Church through its ordained clergy, so the reception of the Holy Spirit takes place via the sacrament of chrismation which immediately follows baptism.

The issue of the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” has been an especially divisive one for Protestants. Baptists and many Evangelicals equate the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the “born again” experience. Pentecostals and many charismatics identify the baptism in the Holy Spirit as an experience distinct from the born again experience and signified by the gift of tongues.  It’s not clear to me what the Reformed tradition’s position of the reception of the Holy Spirit is.  I searched through the Belgic Confession, which you cited, and while there were numerous references to the Holy Spirit, there seem to be no specific teaching about the point in time when the Christian receives the Holy Spirit.  I then searched through the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Confession and was not able to find anything with respect to the reception of the Holy Spirit. Please help me on this.  Where does the Reformed tradition stand on the baptism in the Holy Spirit?  When does this take place for the Christian?  Does it takes place at the time of baptism, the born again experience, or is it an individual experience distinct from baptism?

You cited article 28 of the Belgic Confession.  The Belgic Confession‘s affirmation that there is no salvation outside the Church is a reflection of the historic understanding of the Church. The novelty of Protestantism is that it denies that claim to Roman Catholicism.  It justifies this denial on the grounds that Roman Catholicism under the papacy has become corrupt, unbiblical, and even apostate. Furthermore, Protestantism lays claim to belonging to the true Church on the grounds that it has the true interpretation of Scripture. This despite the numerous conflicting interpretations of Scripture held by the myriad of denominations!  My point is that you can cite Article 28 of the Belgic Confession all you want, but how do you know your church is part of the true Church?  Which makes me wonder: “What is your church affiliation?  And what leads you to think that your local congregation is part of the true Church?”

In closing, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy are two quite different religious traditions.  They once shared in a common Faith, however, tragically the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) following the Schism of 1054 has moved more and more from the patristic consensus.  What Martin Luther and John Calvin were protesting against was a medieval Catholicism quite different from the Church of the first millennium.  In that light, I view Protestants as unwitting victims of Rome’s deviation from the early Church Fathers.

I have done my best to respond to your questions.  I trust that I have answered them satisfactorily.  I look forward to hearing your responses to my questions and to the interesting conversation you and I will have in the near future.

Robert Arakaki

Do We Need a Photo ID of Christ?

A Response to Pastor Toby Sumpter



Rev. Toby Sumpter’s “A Plea & A Sketch of an Argument on Icons  is not a simplistic bashing of icons.  Rather, he has taken the trouble to engage the Christological issues underlying the iconoclastic debates.  Among the earlier objections to icons was the two-fold argument that either icons depict Christ’s divinity, and by doing so circumscribed the divine Being, falling into the heresy of monophysitism, or they depict only Christ’s humanity and by doing so separated his humanity from his divinity, falling into the heresy of Nestorianism.  The Orthodox answer, reflecting Chalcedonian Christology, is that icons depict the Person of Christ, who is both divine and human. Toby Sumpter takes Orthodoxy’s Chalcedonian premise that icons depict the Person of Christ as the starting point for his argument.  He reasons that if icons are inaccurate or lack sufficient details, then Orthodox Christians, despite their sincerity, are venerating something other than Christ.  He writes:

Thus, to be in accordance with Nicaea II and Theodore, the Orthodox position really must insist that the icons of Christ are in fact true representations of the man Jesus Christ and that whenever they have seen His icon, they have truly seen Christ.

. . . .

And here we arrive at long last at the problem. First, let us grant that if there had been photographers on site in Judea during the earthly days of Jesus it would have been fine to take pictures of Jesus, preserve those pictures, and venerate those pictures. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s argument is sound in principle. The question comes down to whether we have strong enough evidence to believe that the icons we now have are in fact accurate portraits of Christ. And very much related to that, did Jesus and the apostles intend for a central part of the ministry of the Church to be through the making and venerating of images? The actual historical evidence seems decidedly against this.

. . . .

In other words, there are hefty biblical and historical arguments against assuming that modern icons of Christ actually resemble the Jewish man they claim to. And if they do not, they are not in fact the hypostasis of Christ, and therefore we are left with millions of Christians praying in front of pictures of someone else. Either that someone else is real and exists (but we don’t know them[sic]) or else the canonized face of Jesus is the result of the composite imagination of artists.  (Emphases added)

In short, he attempts to show how the Orthodox position on icons, even with its Chalcedonian premise, is untenable and therefore leads to iconoclastic conclusions.


Misleading Question

Pastor Sumpter’s focus on accurate physical depictions of Christ is, from the Orthodox standpoint, entirely off-base.  By framing his question in terms of the need for accurate depictions of Christ’s physical features in icons, Sumpter assumes that the purpose of Orthodox icons is to depict the physical features of the human Christ, not his Person.  Here he confuses Christ’s physical nature with his Person in the icon.  In doing so, he inadvertently frames his question in a way that departs from the Chalcedonian focus on the Person uniting the two natures; thus, he reverts to the heretical alternatives that assumed icons relate to the natures of Christ.  The Orthodox understanding is that icons relate us to the Person of Christ.  However, Sumpter’s question by focusing on Christ’s physical features assumes that icons relate us to the human nature of Christ.  In other words, Pastor Sumpter’s question is not rooted in Chalcedonian Christology but rather reverts to the heretical alternatives that confused the natures for the Person.  Furthermore, implicit in Toby Sumpter’s iconoclasm is a decidedly heretical non-Chalcedonian Christology!

Pastor Sumpter’s argument was anticipated by Leonid Ouspensky, who wrote in Theology of the Icon:

Thus, iconoclastic thought could accept an image only when this image was identical to that which it representedWithout identity, no image was possible.  Therefore an image made by a painter could not be an icon of Christ.  (p. 124; emphasis added)

But the Orthodox, fully aware of the distinction between nature and person, maintain precisely this third possibility, which abolishes the iconoclastic dilemma. The icon does not represent the nature, but the person: Περιγραπτος  αρα ο Χριστος καθ υποστασιν καν τη θεοτητι απεριγραπτος, “Christ is describable according to His hypostasis, remaining indescribable in His Divinity,” explains St Theodore the Studite.  When we represent our Lord, we do not represent His divinity or His humanity, but His Person, which inconceivably unites in itself these two natures without confusion and without division, as the Chalcedonian dogma defines it. (p. 125; emphases added)

This articulation of icons’ otherworldly vantage point is shared by Paul Evdokimov in The Art of the Icon.  He writes:

Now the iconic likeness is radically opposed to natural likeness, to natural portraiture, and only relates to the hypostasis, that is, the person, and to his heavenly body. (p. 87)

Pastor Sumpter’s argument that the absence of exact correspondence between icon and the prototype invalidates icons is not new.  Theodore the Studite anticipated this in his apologia On the Holy Icons:

1. An objection as from the iconoclasts: “If everything which is made in the likeness of something else inevitably falls short of equality with its prototype, then obviously Christ is not the same as His portrait in regard to veneration.  And if these differ, the veneration which you introduce differs also.  Therefore it produces an idolatrous worship.”

Answer: The prototype is not essentially in the image.  If it were, the image would be called prototype, as conversely the prototype would be called image.  This is not admissible, because the nature of each has its own definition.   Rather, the prototype is in the image by the similarity of hypostasis, which does not have a different principle of definition for the prototype and for the image. (pp. 102-103; bold type added)

Theodore argues that the link between the icon and the prototype (Christ) is not found in essence (ousia) but rather in the person (hypostasis) being depicted.  In other words, iconoclasts erred when they located the connection in the essence (ousia) rather than the person (hypostasis).  In doing so, early iconoclasts deviated from the Chalcedonian principle of the enhypostatic union as the basis for Orthodox Christology and iconography.

Note: “enhypostatic” means “in-person.” It refers to the union of the two natures of Christ in his PersonThe Evangelical Theological Dictionary’s entry for “Hypostatic Union” has this definition: “In the incarnation of the Son of God, a human nature was inseparably united forever with the divine nature in the one person of Jesus Christ, yet with the two natures remaining distinct, whole, and unchanged, without mixture or confusion so that the one person, Jesus Christ, is truly God and truly man.”  (1984, Elwell ed.) This understanding comes from the Council of Chalcedon (451).

In the icon, we encounter the Person of Christ.  Key to understanding the Orthodox veneration of icons is prayer.  There can be no veneration apart from prayer.  This is due to the fact that the veneration of icon is an act of prayer.  And key to prayer is calling on the divine Name of Christ.  This is because to invoke the divine Name is to call on the Person who bears that Name.  There is, within the Jewish tradition, a deep reverence for the divine Name.  I learned this when I bought a yarmulke for a friend of mine years ago.  I asked the lady at the counter what made it a holy object and she explained that God’s name was woven into it.  Similarly, because the icon of Christ not only depicts the Word made human flesh, but also bears the name “Jesus” given to him at his birth, it becomes a holy object.  Ouspensky writes:

The icon is joined to its prototype because it portrays the person and carries his name.  This is what makes communion with the represented person possible, what makes him known.  (Ouspensky p. 127; emphasis added)


In an icon, the Hypostasis, Christ’s person, “enhypostasizes” not a substance (the wood and colors) but the likeness.  It is the likeness alone and not the board that is the meeting place where we encounter the presence.  This likeness is fundamental to an understanding of the real nature of the icon.  (p. 195; italics in original)

In other words, Toby Sumpter’s insistence on the need for an exact visual (photographic) representation of Christ diverts him from the Chalcedonian emphasis on the Person of Christ to the heretics’ misguided emphasis on the human nature of Christ.  Rather than refute Nicea II, he merely rephrases the earlier iconoclastic arguments in the form of a question.

Given Pastor Sumpter’s earlier exhortation that we do our homework, it comes as a surprise that he apparently has not read Ouspensky’s Theology of the Icon, which anticipates his objection.  Nor, it seems, did he read Theodore the Studite carefully.  And, even more telling is the fact that he failed to grasp the categories used in Chalcedonian Christology.  His confusing nature with person led to his misleading question and his erroneous iconoclastic conclusion!  A muddled Christology is a bad starting point for doing theology.


Depicting Christ

One important question is whether there is evidence of visual depictions of Christ that can be traced back to the time of Christ.  The Orthodox understanding that icons form part of Holy Tradition implies that icons have been present in Christianity from the start.  Ouspensky wrote: “Thus, the Church maintains that authentic images of Christ have existed form the very beginning.” (p. 58)

One important early witness to icon making is Eusebius’ Church History.   In the fascinating passage about a statue made in memory of Jesus’ healing the woman with the issue of blood is a passing reference to paintings being made of Christ and the Apostles.

Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Saviour, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers. (Book VII Chapter 18, NPNF Vol. I p. 304; emphases added)

Eusebius’ statement about the “likeness” of Christ and his Apostles being “preserved in paintings” points to icons having been a longstanding practice in the early Church.

King Abgar with miraculous icon of Christ

King Abgar with miraculous icon of Christ

There is, in the Orthodox Tradition, the icon known as the Acheiropoietos (Made Without Hands).  This particular icon is commemorated on August 16.  The sticheron (hymn) for this particular feast day goes: “After making an image of Your most pure image, You sent it to the faithful Abgar, who desired to see You, who in Your divinity are invisible to the cherubim.”  In other words, the Acheiropoietos icon is not incidental to Orthodoxy, but integral.  The story behind this unusual icon is related in the Festal Menaion for the month of August:

King Abgar, a leper, had sent to Christ his archivist Hannan (Ananias) with a letter in which he asked Christ to come to Edessa to heal him.  Hannan was a painter; and in case Christ refused to come, Abgar had advised Hannan to make a portrait of the Lord and bring it to him.  Hannan found Christ surrounded by a large crowd; he climbed a rock from which he could see him better.  He tried to make His portrait but did not succeed “because of the indescribable glory of His face which was changing through grace.”  Seeing that Hannan wanted to make His portrait, Christ asked for some water, washed Himself, and wiped His face with a piece of linen on which His features remained fixed.  He gave the linen to Hannan to carry it with a letter to the one who had sent him.  In His letter, Christ refused to go to Edessa Himself, but promised Abgar to send him one of His disciples, once His mission had ended. (Note 2 in Ouspensky p. 51)

Christos Acheiropoietos

Christos Acheiropoietos

If taken at face value, this anecdote about the Acheiropoietos icon rebuts Pastor Sumpter’s claim that early icons of Christ are the result of human imagination and therefore without historical basis.  But, while the Acheiropoietos icon has been accepted by Orthodoxy, its provenance is problematic to non-Orthodox scholars.  The earliest historical references date back to the fifth century, e.g., the Doctrine of Addai and Evagrius Scholasticus in his Ecclesiastical History (Ouspensky p. 52).  Christopher Jones in “The Letters of Abgar” ended on a cautious note: “We also have little corroborating evidence that they did happen.  So, like many thorny problems in ancient history, we can only look on our meager sources and wonder.”

Luke the Evangelist and the Icon of Mary and Christ

Luke the Evangelist and the Icon of Mary and Christ


Another witness to the antiquity of icon-making is the tradition that Luke the Evangelist in addition to writing Luke and Acts also painted the first icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child.  The Orthodox Church commemorates Luke’s painting the icon of Mary and her giving her approval of the painting on the feast day of Our Lady of Vladimir (Ouspensky pp. 62-3).


Very early icon of Mary with Christ

Very early icon of Mary with Christ


Unusual icon - Christ without beard

Unusual icon – Christ without beard


The Wikipedia article “Depiction of Jesus” notes the historical development of visual depictions of Christ.

The depiction of him in art took several centuries to reach a conventional standardized form for his physical appearance, which has subsequently remained largely stable since that time. Most images of Jesus have in common a number of traits which are now almost universally associated with Jesus, although variants are seen.

Coptic icon

Coptic icon

A review of Orthodox icons compared with other ancient icons from the Latin, Coptic, and Ethiopian traditions shows striking similarities despite stylistic differences.  This underlying similarity points to a broad catholic visual tradition in the early Church.  For an overview of the various icons depicting Christ, see Betsy Porter’s website and Columbia University’s “Faith, Imagined – Early Christianity.”  This consensus among the historic churches serves as evidence against Pastor Sumpter’s assertion that icons of Christ to be the product of the imagination of artists.  Moreover, the recognizability of the icons of Christ challenges Pastor Sumpter’s insistence on the need for exact visual correspondence with Jesus’ appearance “according to the flesh.”



Do We Need a Photo ID of Christ?

Depiction by Richard Neave

Depiction by Richard Neave

What did Jesus of Nazareth actually look like?  The fact that the palace guards sent by the Jewish leaders had to rely on Judas to point out Jesus suggests that Jesus’ physical appearance was not markedly different from other Jewish men of his time (see Mark 14:43-46).  Recently, a retired medical artist, Richard Neave, attempted to reconstruct Jesus’ appearance relying on the science of forensic medicine.  However, this concern with capturing Jesus’ physical appearance is at odds with Orthodoxy’s priorities.

Orthodox iconography is based on the assumption of there being a new heaven and new earth under Christ’s rule.  Ouspensky writes:

We therefore do not know what the first icons of Christ and of the Virgin were like.  But the little that remains of primitive art leads us to surmise that the first images were not purely naturalistic portraits, but rather images of a completely new and specific Christian reality. (p. 65)

Christian iconography attempts to convey what is visible to the human eyes and also that which is invisible, i.e., the spiritual content of that which is being presented.  This can be seen in ancient catacomb art, which combined direct images with abstract symbols.

Another characteristic trait of Christian art, which can be seen already in the first centuries, is that the image is reduced to a minimum of details and to a maximum of expression.  Such laconism, such frugality in methods, corresponds to the laconic and subdued character of Scripture.  . . . .  Similarly, the sacred image portrays only the essential.  Details are tolerated only when they have some significance.  (Ouspensky p. 78)


Dangerous Implications

Pastor Sumpter’s argument that the absence of historical accuracy with respect to the historical Jesus invalidates Orthodox icons has dangerous implications.  If his argument is valid, then one can likewise argue that if we do not have the exact words of Christ, but rather mediated and redacted versions, then the Gospel accounts are likewise invalid, and that we are reading the words of mere men.  This quest for the true and genuine sayings of Jesus of history reflects an aspect of higher critical biblical scholarship.  One of the unfortunate consequences of higher critical skepticism is a distrust of the veracity of Scripture and the belief that behind the “Christ of faith” is the supposedly true “Jesus of history.”

If exact visual correspondence is needed between icons and Jesus’ human face, then it could also be argued that valid prayer requires that we use Jesus’ name in the original Aramaic.  This would also imply that our Anglicized version of the Greek “Iesous” is likewise incorrect and invalid, and that God does not hear our prayers, no matter how sincere they may be.  This kind of logic lies behind Islam’s insistence that proper performance of the salat (five daily prayers) be done in Arabic, no matter the native language of the worshiper.


“Blessed are the Eyes that See What You See”

Pastor Toby Sumpter laid out a string of proof texts to bolster his position that faith in Christ requires no visual content.  However, a review of Scripture shows that seeing is not antithetical to believing, and that the two complement each other.  When John the Baptist’s faith was wavering, Jesus told John’s followers: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard.” (Luke 7:22)  Jesus told his disciples that in comparison to the Old Testament saints who lived prior to the coming of Christ and had to go by the prophetic promises of the coming of Christ, they were blessed to be able to see Christ with their own eyes and hear the words of Christ with their own ears. (Luke 10:23-24)  Paul, in defense of his apostolic ministry, asked the Christians in Corinth: “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”  (1 Corinthians 9:1)  The Risen Christ commanded the Apostle John: “Write, therefore, what you have seen . . . .” (Revelation 1:19)  Jesus told Nathaniel: “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.  You shall see greater things than that.  . . . .  I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:50-52)  And then, there is the verse we Orthodox love to quote to our non-Orthodox friends: “Come and see.” (John 1:46)



Icon corner – a place for prayer – Source


How Orthodox Relate to Icons

Can Orthodox Christians pray to God without icons?  The answer is an unequivocal Yes!  Icons are meant only to aid us in prayer.  They make visible the invisible reality of heaven.  They remind us of the spiritual dimension, and so strengthen our faith in Christ.  It is not as if icons were essential for our making contact with God.  Implicit in Toby Sumpter’s critique is the assumption that icons are much like telephones and that the wrong area code can result in a disastrously misdirected phone call.

Key to effective prayer is faith in Christ.  But key to faith in Christ is right Christology.  Having a heretical Christology derails one’s prayer and worship life.  In Orthodoxy, especially in the Liturgy, the Christological and Trinitarian dogmas frame our prayers and our prayers express the dogmas of the Church.  In order to pray genuinely one must be in a relationship with Christ, which is to have Christ as one’s God and Savior.  Orthodox prayer is not like magic where one needs to perform special rites and utter magical formulas for something to happen.  Christian prayer is grounded in God’s mercy to us sinners and in our response to him.  Without faith, that is, without a personal commitment to Christ, the veneration of icons is an empty ritual; the presence of faith makes the veneration of icons a sacramental encounter with the Risen Christ.  Paul Evdokimov writes:

In a nutshell, the icon is a sacrament for the Christian East; more precisely, it is the vehicle of a personal presence.  (p. 178; italics in original)

Ouspensky writes:

The icon is not an image of the divine nature.  It is an image of a divine person incarnate; it conveys the features of the Son of God who came in the flesh, who became visible and could therefore be represented with human means. (p. 127)

In another passage, Evdokimov described the icon as being “charged with a presence.” (p. 178)  He notes that where the Christian West approach icons from the standpoint of anamnesis (memory), Orthodoxy stresses instead the epiphanic (revelatory) presence in icons. (p. 180)

Where the Reformed Christian may view religious pictures as having primarily a pedagogical function, i.e., as a stimulus to mental reflection, the Orthodox Christian sees icons as having a far more sacramental purpose, i.e., as a stimulus to prayer, a uniting of the spiritual with the physical, and beyond that, as a means to deepening one’s communion with Christ and the saints, who are far more present than we imagine.

The Christian painter renounces the naturalistic representation of space, so noticeable in the Roman art of this time.  The Christian painter depicts neither depth nor shadow in his work.  . . . .  They are almost always represented face on, as we have already said.  They address the viewer and communicate their inner state to him, a state of prayer. (Ouspensky pp. 78-79)

Christ the Pantocrator

Christ the Pantocrator

In the context of Orthodoxy, it is impossible for an icon of Christ to mislead one into false worship.  The possibility of a misdirected veneration is prevented by the safeguards within Orthodoxy.  First, regular attendance at the Liturgy will result in familiarity with the icons of Christ and the other saints.  Icons are liturgical art.  One learns about who Jesus is through the Gospel readings and through receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  Second, icons of Christ depict him with a cruciform halo.  This distinguishes Christ from the saints, who also have haloes.  Third, icons of Christ typically have the Greek initials: “IS CS”, which stand for: “IesouS ChristoS” and the Greek: “O ΩN” which means: “Who Is,” a reference to the biblical phrase: “He who was, and who is, and who is to come” (Revelation 1:8).  Furthermore, Orthodox icons typically have written on them the name of the saint depicted.  With these safeguards, and living under the pastoral care of the local Orthodox priest, it is not likely for such an error to occur.


A Conversation About Icons

Orthodox Crossing Themselves

Orthodox Venerating an Icon

It is a common practice for Orthodox Christians to venerate the icon of Christ upon entering church on Sunday morning.  A Protestant visiting an Orthodox church for the first time might have this conversation with his Orthodox friend:

Protestant Visitor: What did you just do?  Why did you kiss that picture?

Orthodox Christian: I wanted to show my love and respect for Christ my Savior.

Protestant Visitor: But that’s just a picture!

Orthodox Christian: It’s more than a picture.  An icon is like a window into heaven.

Protestant Visitor: So you’re not kissing a picture but Christ himself?!

Orthodox Christian: Yes. You got that right.

Protestant Visitor: That’s weird!  Christ is up in heaven. He can’t be here in that picture.

Orthodox Christian: I guess that’s why you’re Protestant and I’m Orthodox.  I believe Christ is up in heaven and in the icon.  Christ is everywhere present.


The Disenchanted World of Modernity

Reformed Christians, and much of Protestantism, live in what Max Weber described as a “disenchanted world” of modernity (pp. 148, 155), where rational thinking prevails, and magic and mystery have been driven out.  For this reason, Reformed Christians are willing to allow for icons as creative expressions or visual illustrations, but balk at icons as sacramental vessels of divine grace.  This difference in worldview underlies the disconnect sketched in the dialogue above.  Converts to Orthodoxy have abandoned Weber’s “disenchanted world” for an earlier Christian worldview, where creation is viewed as sacramental, charged with divine grace, and not mere matter.  In Orthodoxy, common objects like olive oil, basil leaves, palm branches, are blessed and used to reveal God’s merciful presence, along with the water of baptism, and the bread and the wine of Holy Communion.  In Orthodoxy, the redemption of fallen creation, or rather the reenchantment of the world, begins right here and now.  In the Divine Liturgy, material creation is taken and blessed, and then offered up, or rather reintegrated with the kingdom of heaven.  In the Liturgy, the kingdom of God is not something we hear about but rather a reality we encounter through the worship of the Holy Trinity.

Robert Arakaki



Eusebius of Caesarea.  Church History.  Book VII, Chapter 18.

Leonid Ouspensky.  1978.  Theology of the Icon. Volume I.  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Paul Evdokimov.  1990.  The Art of the Icon: a theology of beauty.  Translated by Fr. Steven Bigham.  Oakwood Publications.

Theodore the Studite.  1981.  On the Holy Icons.  Translated by Catharine P. Roth.  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Max Weber.  1946.  “Science as a Vocation.”  In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology.  H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, translators and editors.  Oxford University Press.

Betsy Porter.  Betsy Porter – Art and Iconography: Icons of Jesus and Scenes From His Life. Viewed 12 April 2016.

Columbia University.  “Faith, Imagined – Early Christianity.”

Howard Jacobson.  “Behold! The Jewish Jesus.”  The Guardian.

Faces of Jesus: Forensic Image.”  [Depiction of Jesus by Richard Neave.]

Christopher Jones.  “The Letters of Abgar V.” The Gates of Nineveh.wordpress.com

Wikipedia.  “Depictions of Jesus.” Viewed 12 April 2016.

The Illogic of Calvin’s Iconoclasm



John Calvin  source

On 23 May 1555, John Calvin preached on Deuteronomy 4:15-20 applying Moses’ admonition against idols to the depicting of Jesus Christ in icons.  This sermon is significant for Reformed-Orthodox dialogue because it presents us not only with Calvin’s hermeneutical method but also the theological reasoning underlying his iconoclasm.

In my article, “The Biblical Basis for Icons,” I pointed to the use of images of cherubim on the curtains of Moses’ Tabernacle and images of cherubim carved on the walls of Solomon’s Temple.  Then in another article, “Calvin Versus the Icon,” I wondered about Calvin’s failure in his Institutes or his commentaries to address these pro-icon passages.  This made me curious about how Calvin would have responded to these passages in the Bible that support images in the church.  It turned out that Calvin in his 1555 sermon did address this issue.  We are fortunate to have Arthur Golding’s English translation of Calvin’s sermon series on Deuteronomy posted online by the University of Michigan.  The reader should keep in mind that Golding (1536-1606) lived in the sixteenth century which accounts for what seems to us peculiar English spelling.

Interior of Solomon's Temple

Interior of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6)

And whereas the alledge that there were Cherubins painted vppon the vaile of the Temple,* and that two likewise did couer the Arke: it serueth to condemne them the more. When the Papistes pre∣tend that men may make any manner of image: What, say they? Hath not God permitted it? No: but the imagerie that was set there, serued to put the Iewes in minde that they ought to abstaine [30] from all counterfeiting of God, insomuch that it was a meane to confirme them the better, that it was not lawfull for them to represent Gods Maiestie, or to make any resemblance thereof. For there was a vaile that serued to couer the great Sanctuarie, and againe there were two Cherubins that couered the Arke of ye couenant. Whereto commeth all this, and what is ment by it, but that when the case concerneth our going vnto God, we must shut our eyes and not preace [40] any neerer him, than he guideth vs by his word? Then let vs hearken to that which he teacheth, and therewithall let vs bee sober, so as our wits bee not ticklish, nor our eyes open to imagine or conceiue any shape.  (Emphases added.)

Calvin’s reasoning here is a curious one.  He argues the cherubim were depicted in the Temple: (1) to condemn the Israelites and (2) to remind them to abstain from making idols.  It is as logical as a teetotaler parent’s taking a drink in order to teach his children to abstain from alcohol, or a college professor copying another professor’s work in order to teach his students the wrongfulness of plagiarism.  In my earlier assessment of Calvin I took an irenic stance by titling the sub-section “The Logic of Calvin’s Iconoclasm.”  However, Calvin’s peculiar exegesis in this sermon leads me to a quite different conclusion: “The Illogic of Calvin’s Iconoclasm.”

When reading the Old Testament it is important for Christians to interpret the text in light of the coming of Christ.  In his sermon, Calvin applies Deuteronomy against the Roman Catholics as if they were living in the Old Testament dispensation.  Calvin here seems to have skipped over the Incarnation.  This is a huge omission because the early Church Fathers saw the Incarnation as a “game changer.”  Prior to the coming of Christ humanity was estranged from God and pagans sought to worship God in the light of their understanding of him.  This led to all sorts of pagan rituals and idols, and erroneous beliefs about his character.  God’s meeting with Moses on Mt. Sinai marked the beginning of the restoration of the true knowledge of God which would culminate in the coming of Christ.  John of Damascus explained how the Incarnation was a game changer.

It is clearly a prohibition against representing the invisible God.  But when you see Him who has no body become man for you, then you will make representations of His human aspect.  When the Invisible, having clothed Himself in the flesh, become visible, then represent the likeness of Him who has appeared.  When He who, having been the consubstantial Image of the Father, emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant, thus becoming bound in quantity and quality, having taken on the carnal image, then paint and make visible to everyone Him who desired to become visible (in Ouspensky 1978:44).

As a result of the Incarnation the life of Christ takes on a revelatory character.  We come to know God’s character not just through the teachings and sayings of Christ but also through his actions.  The Orthodox Church sees the Trinity being revealed in Christ’s baptism in the Jordan and his transfiguration on Mt. Tabor.

John’s First Epistle likewise makes the case that in the Incarnation God the Son became visible and tangible.

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…. (1 John 1:1; emphases added)

Calvin’s polemic against images makes sense if God was up in heaven far beyond human knowing and comprehension.  In the Old Testament times it was impossible for man to ascend up to the heavens by his own power to behold God.  Knowledge of God was only possible if God condescended to come down from heaven and showed himself to the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or on Mt. Sinai as he did with Moses or through the prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah.  God’s condescension culminated in his  taking on human flesh and dying on the Cross (Philippians 2:5-11).


Are Icons Nestorian?

Calvin makes another argument against depicting Christ in images.  He argues that to depict Christ in images is a form of the Nestorian heresy.

Beholde, they paint and portray Iesus Christ, who (as wee knowe) is not onely man,* but also God manifested in the flesh: and what a representation is that? Hee is Gods eternall sonne, in whom dwelleth the fulnesse of the Godhead, yea euen substantially. Seeing it is said, substantially, should wee haue portraitures and images whereby the onely flesh may bee represented? Is it not a wyping away of that which is chiefest in our Lorde Iesus Christ, that is to wit, of his diuine Maiestie?  (Emphases added.)

In this passage Calvin makes two arguments.  First, he affirms the two natures of Christ: human and divine.  Second, he argues that because only the human nature can be depicted in a painting the result is a Nestorian heresy in which Christ’s humanity is separated from his divinity.


Christ the Pantocrator (The Almighty)

Orthodoxy has two responses to this.  One, the icon depicts the Person of Christ.  This can be seen in the prominence of the face in icons.  Therefore, when Orthodox Christians venerate an icon of Christ their devotion is directed to the Person of Christ, not to his physical nature or the colored paint on the wooden board.  The Person of Christ encompasses both his divine and his human natures.  Two, Orthodox icons of Christ have symbolic references to Christ’s divinity.  Typically, in the Pantocrator icon we see Christ’s red tunic overlaid with the blue mantle.  The underlying red symbolizes Christ’s essential divine nature whereas the blue symbolizes his taking on human nature as an act of grace.

The visual depiction of Christ’s humanity is accompanied by symbolic references to his divine nature.  We see inscribed on the Pantocrator icon the Greek phrase “Ο ΩΝ” which means “He Who Is.”  This is taken from the book of Revelation:

Holy, holy, holy

Is the Lord God Almighty,

Who was, and is, and is to come.

(Revelation 4:8)

For the Orthodox Calvin’s theological critique of icons is fundamentally flawed.  His ignorance of the principle that icons depict the person leads him to a Nestorian understanding of icons.  In other words it is Calvin who is committing the heresy of Nestorianism, not the pro-icon Orthodox!  We don’t know what kind of images Calvin saw in the Roman Catholic churches of his time but in Orthodox iconography there are safeguards in place to guard against Nestorian heresy that viewed his humanity as separate from his divinity.



For an Orthodox Christian, Calvin’s sermon against images is seriously flawed.  One, Calvin’s neglecting to interpret Deuteronomy in the light of the Gospels, i.e., the Incarnation of the Word, results in anachronistic hermeneutics.  He criticizes the use of images in Roman Catholic churches as if they were living in Old Testament times.  Two, Calvin’s reading of Old Testament passages where God instructed Moses to have images of the cherubim woven into the Tabernacle curtains as being iconoclastic in intent make no sense whatsoever.  Three, Calvin’s accusation of the implicit Nestorian nature of icons shows a fundamental misunderstanding of icons in Orthodoxy.  Calvin’s accusation of Nestorianism holds up if evidence can be shown that the Church Fathers or Ecumenical Councils understood icons as depicting only Christ’s human nature.  Four, Calvin’s failure to see icons depicting the Person of Christ leads him to an inadvertent Nestorian heresy.

Orthodox Crossing Themselves

Orthodox Crossing Themselves

If a Reformed Christian visiting an Orthodox Liturgy were to observe an Orthodox Christian venerating an icon of Christ they should refrain from jumping to the conclusion that the Orthodox parishioner is worshiping the painting of Christ or his physical nature.  When an Orthodox Christian venerates an icon he or she is showing love and respect to the Person who came down from heaven and died on the Cross for their sins.

It may be that Calvin’s iconoclasm was the result of his being embroiled in the heated Protestant versus Roman Catholic polemic of the time.  Reformed Christians today are fortunate to have the opportunity to engage in dialogue with Orthodox Christians who are familiar with both the Reformed and the Orthodox theological traditions.  [I am grateful for the grounding in Reformed theology that I received at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary prior to my becoming Orthodox.]  Icons have been a longstanding stumbling block between the two traditions.  If it can be shown that Calvin’s iconoclasm is based on a flawed understanding of icons and that the Orthodox pro-icon position is grounded in Scripture then the possibility emerges for a rapprochement between the two traditions.

Robert Arakaki

See also:

Are Images of Jesus Idolatrous?” by Jason Goroncy in Per Crucem ad Lucem.

What  is Calvin’s Take on Images of Jesus?” by Eric Parker in The Calvinist International.

Are icons Nestorian?” in Wicket’s Take.

Theology of the Icon by Leonid Ouspensky, Volume I (1978).


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