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Guilty of Bibliolatry?

Holy Bible



Recently an inquirer, interested in Orthodoxy, wrote to express his frustrations about a conversation he had with Protestants:

The problem that I kept encountering while discussing Orthodoxy with these fundamentalist Protestants is that the center of their faith is a book and not the Incarnate God-man, Jesus Christ. For example, one said: “It’s funny how he keeps trying to point to Christ and talk about how Christ is more important than Scripture. But without Scripture we don’t know Christ. He’s putting the cart before the horse. You can’t have Christ if you don’t go to God’s infallible Scripture to find Him. There is no Christ, no Christianity, no Christology, no soteriology and no other theological field of study apart from God’s infallible Word. God chose to reveal His Son through Scripture.” What is being said is only partly true, yet it is also deceptively heterodox, particularly the first sentence in red, which is what I’m calling out as iconoclastic bibliolatry! In essence, I perceive a sincere belief in the Incarnation of God the Word, yet they are saying that it is the written word that makes the Incarnation of God a reality, instead of the Incarnate Word and His theanthropic organism, the Church, that prove the veracity of Scripture; things are completely backwards and upside down, an inside out anti-Sacramental, iconoclastic bibliolatry. Please correct me if I’m wrong!



Extreme Protestantism

What one sees in the excerpt above is an extreme form of Protestantism.  The original Protestant Reformers, while they asserted sola scriptura, were also receptive to other sources of knowledge.  They formulated their arguments using Scripture, philosophy, natural science, and common sense.  They amply quoted the Church Fathers, especially when they supported the Reformers’ positions.  Luther in his famous Here I Stand speech appealed to both Scripture and reason:

Martin Luther “Here I Stand!”

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.  (Emphasis added.)  [Source]

Calvin’s Institutes is filled with citations from the early Church Fathers.  So while the Reformers appealed to Scripture, their understanding of sola scriptura allowed for other sources of knowledge.  What one finds in the Fundamentalists mentioned above is something different, a version of sola scriptura that excludes all other forms of knowledge.  This is a radical departure from historic Protestantism and results in cultic Protestantism.  They are not Protestants in the historic or normal sense of the word.

While the approach taken by the Magisterial Reformers is superior to Evangelicalism, problems remain. Under the Reformers’ seeming willingness to hear and even submit to the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils is an acknowledgment that there is wisdom greater than our own reading of Scripture. Sadly, this is not what we find happening in practice.  The history of Protestantism reveals the gradual unraveling of sola scripturaKeith Mathison’s in The Shape of Sola Scriptura notes the divergence between the classic sola scriptura of the Reformers and the later solo scriptura favored by Evangelicals.  The later version eschewed all other external sources, positing instead the individual Christian interpreting the Bible for himself.


Cultic Protestantism

Sola scriptura places a heavy burden on the Christian.  In rejecting the papacy, Protestantism imposes on the individual Christian the responsibility for understanding Scripture.  This gives rise to an independent spirit: “Nobody tells me what the Bible means!”  It also paradoxically gives rise to a spirit of dependency in which one comes to rely on the pastor, favorite radio preachers, or denomination for understanding Scripture.  It is the latter that gives rise to cultic Protestantism.

The term “cult” has often been used pejoratively to refer to a religious group one does not like.  For this article, I define “cult” in terms of sociological traits: (1) authoritarian in structure, (2) personalistic – centered on the group’s leader, (3) lacking accountability to an independent tradition or authority, (4) suppression of critical thinking, (5) little or no tolerance for internal diversity – group think, (6) an embattled, hostile perception of the outside world, and (7) anger and hostility directed against those who have left the group.

A cult takes certain elements of a healthy church and distorts them in very unhealthy ways.  In terms of architectural design, both a house and a prison have walls and doors; but where a house is designed to allow easy access and exit while protecting the residents from inclement weather, a prison is designed to prevent inmates from leaving (escaping) and is designed to maximize control over their movements.  Institutions like an army encampment or a monastery can bear a strong resemblance to a prison or an internment camp, but with the former the element of free will and consent are preserved.  People trapped in a cult or abusive relationships are enclosed psychologically by threats of punishment or external danger.  Oftentimes, all one’s close relationships are within the cult which means that leaving will result in social abandonment – life alone bereft of meaning and direction.  When engaging in theological discussions it is wise to discern whether one is talking with someone who belongs to the historic mainstream or to a cultic form of Protestantism.

Cults rely on techniques of manipulation: seduction, isolation, indoctrination, and domination.  This is similar to an abusive relationship in which the man dates a woman, and then gradually and subtly compels her to sever ties with friends and family.  These comprise the initial stages of seduction and isolation.  The stated rationale is his love and concern for her.  The woman learns to see the world the same way as the man; this is the indoctrination stage.  She is discouraged from thinking independently, becoming reliant on the man for news of the outside world; this is the group think stage.  In time the relationship takes a downward spiral into spiritual darkness and violence; this is the domination stage.  The relationship has become a prison that is very difficult to leave.  Exit is not presented as an option.

I know a man who was torn between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism.  He told me that one night he was walking by a park and saw a group singing and having a good time.  It turned out to be a church group that met at the park and in people’s homes.  He got into a discussion with the pastor (group leader) who would frequently ask him: “Where does it say that in the Bible?”  This innocent question resembles the initial stages of seduction and isolation.  A person who is spiritually hungry and seeking the truth is led down a one-way street in which the conversation is confined to what one sees in the Bible.  Other sources of knowledge are subtly excluded.  Here the rules of the game are subtly rigged without the other player knowing it.  The seeker then has to contend with the pastor’s interpretation of the Bible.  If one is ignorant of church history or has not had much education in critical thinking, one becomes vulnerable to the pastor’s “superior” insights into the Bible.  I don’t know if this group was a cult or not.  However, intellectual honesty calls for the inquirer to be made aware of the methods and sources being employed.  Fairness requires that the players be made aware of the rules of the game.  Healthy spirituality calls for a balance between the rational intellect and emotional/intuitive discernment, between individual freedom and collective authority.

So when I read the quote in the reader’s e-mail I was struck by the subtle psychological manipulations taking place.  Rather than take seriously the inquirer’s attempt to take a Christ-centered approach to Christianity, his interlocutors belittled his theological method and attempted to steer him towards an extreme version of sola scriptura.

It’s funny how he keeps trying to point to Christ and talk about how Christ is more important than Scripture. But without Scripture we don’t know Christ. He’s putting the cart before the horse. You can’t have Christ if you don’t go to God’s infallible Scripture to find Him. There is no Christ, no Christianity, no Christology, no soteriology and no other theological field of study apart from God’s infallible Word. God chose to reveal His Son through Scripture.

What we see here is a full-fledged theological system with an implicit theological method: the Bible as the exclusive source for theology.  What is not mentioned is the method by which Scripture will be interpreted.  The exclusion of creeds, church history, theologians, and church fathers prevents one from being able to entertain alternative points of views.  This leaves people not familiar with church history and with scant knowledge of the Bible at a disadvantage when discussing the Bible.  In cultic Protestantism the “correct” interpretation of Scripture lies with the group leader.  Rival interpretations are suppressed, sometimes through peer pressure or subtle sermonizing directed at the critic, other times through more open and coercive means like direct reprimand or even expulsion.

Orthodoxy offers a quite different approach to the interpretation of Scripture.  I wrote several articles that deal with this.  One article shows that what the Bible teaches is not the Bible alone, but the Bible in the context of Apostolic Tradition.      And how the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church through the centuries in its reading of Scripture.


The Bible Alone?

Probably the best way to counter extreme Protestants is to ask them: “Where does the Bible say ‘the Bible alone’?”  They will likely respond with bible verses about the Bible being divinely inspired, infallible, and authoritative, but none of these verses will say that we are rely only on the Bible to the exclusion of other sources.  A careful reading of the Bible will show that God allowed people to utilize human reason and other sources aside from Scripture.


The Bible often points to the beauty of creation as evidence of there being a Creator God (Psalms 8:3-5, 19:14).  Paul likewise referred to Creation’s witness to God in Romans 1:20.  While Creation’s witness to God is incomplete, it is a sign of wisdom for one to learn from God’s creation.  God’s gift to the Jews was the divine wisdom found in the Torah (Psalm 19:7-10).  When the Jews turned away from God, God used Creation as a witness against them (Isaiah 1:2-3).


The Prophet Isaiah made this appeal: “’Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18).  This was not blind obedience but an appeal for the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah to think about their present circumstances and future outcomes.  A careful reading of Apostle Paul’s letters shows his familiarity with the techniques of argumentation used by philosophers and religious scribes of his time.  Nowhere in his letters did Paul urge on his readers blind faith.


In his speech before the philosophers in Athens Apostle Paul quoted two Greek philosophers: Epimenides and Aratus (Acts 17:28).  Paul cites Epimenides in Titus 1:12 and Menander in 1 Corinthians 15:33.  The ease with which Paul could quote the pagan Greek philosophers and poets shows his familiarity with pagan Greek culture.  The Apostle Paul was a bi-cultural Jew; he grew up in the world of Hellenism and received his rabbinical training in Jerusalem under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).  Paul was by no means a narrow minded Fundamentalist!


We find in the Bible theological arguments based on historical narratives.  Stephen in Acts 7 traced the history of the Jews from Abraham to Solomon.  Paul in Acts 14:16-23 traced the history of the Jews from the Exodus event to King David.  In his speech before the Areopagus (Acts 17), Paul traced human history from Genesis 1 to 11.  In Acts 26, we find Paul presenting his personal history to King Agrippa as a way of presenting and defending the Gospel.

There is nothing in the Bible that says we cannot learn from history after the book of Acts.  As a matter of fact we would expect to see evidence of God’s sovereignty in the history of Christianity.  We would expect to see the fulfillment of Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church into all truth (John 16:13).  The argument that the Orthodox Church has kept Apostolic Tradition throughout church history is congruent with the way the Bible uses history.  Extreme Protestants are loathe to argue from church history preferring to cherry pick bible passages and constructing an elaborate theological system based on the inner meaning of the Bible that they alone are privy to.

Visions and Dreams

If the extreme Protestants are right, then all it would take for Saul of Tarsus to become a Christian would be reading the Old Testament.  Instead, God walloped Paul with a blinding vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-5).  Apostle Peter in his Pentecost sermon quoted the passage by Joel about young men seeing visions and old men having dreams (Acts 2:17).  In Acts 10, we read how it took a vision from God to convince Peter it was kosher to visit the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius.  Miraculous events like these, while not typical, show that knowledge of God can take place outside Scripture.  What matters is that these miraculous events were consistent with Scripture’s witness to Jesus Christ.


When Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch if he understood the passage in Isaiah, the eunuch answered: “How can I unless someone explains it to me.” The Orthodox understanding is that Christ is the master Teacher who taught the Apostles the meaning of the Old Testament (Luke 24:44-49).  Philip as an ordained deacon had the authority to give the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53:7-8 to the eunuch Acts 6:5-6).  In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul exhorted the Christians to stand firm on Apostolic Tradition in both the written and oral forms.  Extreme Protestants, on the other hand, will turn a blind eye on oral tradition.  If pressed, they will insist that we don’t know what this “oral tradition” is and that it has been lost early on when the Christian Church fell into spiritual darkness.  This is the Apostasy or Blink-On/Blink-Off theory of church history.

The Orthodox Church insists that it has faithfully preserved both oral and written Tradition from the time of the Apostles.  What many Protestants overlook is the role of the Church in preserving the written Word of God before the invention of the printing press.  We owe a great debt to the early Christians who faithfully copied the Bible and who protected the Bible against unbelievers who sought to destroy it.  Moreover, we owe a debt to the early Church Fathers, who defined the biblical canon, ensuring that inspired Scriptures were made part of the Bible and spurious works excluded.  We also owe a debt to the Church Fathers who guarded the Bible against heretics who distorted the meaning of the Bible.

To sum up, what we find in the Bible is a rich array of methods people used for discerning God’s will.  We do not find the proof texting method much preferred by extreme Protestants.  So, if one enters into a conversation or discussion and is asked: “Where does it say that in the Bible?”; the best reply is: “Where does it say in the Bible, ‘the Bible alone?’  And since the Bible does not teach that, this means we have the freedom to use our rational intellect to work through the evidence available to us like reason, church history, and the Church Fathers.”

Extreme Protestants have fallen into the same error as the Pharisees.  In John’s Gospel we find Jesus explaining the role and purpose of the Bible.  Jesus told the Pharisees:

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39; RSV)

The Bible is like a street sign that points to the desired destination; it is not the destination.  The scribes and Pharisees devoted so much energy studying Scripture that when the promised Messiah arrived they failed to recognize him.  Similarly, extreme Protestants have become so fixated on reading the Bible in their own way that they fail to take into account Jesus’ promise to establish his Church (Matthew 16:18), protect the Church against the powers of Hell (Matthew 16:18), guide the Church by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13), and make the Church “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).  They overlook the Old Testament promises of the Eucharistic sacrifice (Isaiah 56:6-7), a new priesthood for the Messianic Age (Isaiah 66:20-21), and the worldwide offering of incense in the Messianic Age (Malachi 1:11).  The priesthood, incense, and the Eucharist can be found in Orthodoxy today, but are nowhere to be found in extreme Protestantism.  They can claim that they have the Bible but so too do cults like the Jehovah Witnesses, the Mormons, and the Seventh Day Adventists (all which originated in the 1800s).  Many extreme Protestant groups have sprung up only recently.  The earnest seeker of God’s truth need to ask: “Where is the Church that Christ promised?  Where is the right worship of God promised in the Old Testament prophecies?


Orthodox Altar

Guilty of Bibliolatry?

Tim Challies, a Reformed pastor, noted that conservative Protestants, that is, those who affirm the inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture, have often been accused of bibliolatry by theological liberals.  Then he presented what he considered to be genuine bibliolatry:

In brief, I can affirm that it is entirely possible for a person to idolize the Bible. If I were to place a Bible upon an altar, light some candles around it, and bow down before the Bible, I would be worshipping a collection of paper, ink and leather (or “pleather”). I would be idolizing a created object rather than worshipping God. This would be no better than worshipping the image of a man or animal carved from wood or stone. But this is not what is most often meant when a person accuses another of idolizing the Bible. [Source]

When I read Pastor Challies’ definition of bibliolatry, I was struck with a strong sense of irony.  In every Orthodox Church on the altar is the Gospel book surrounded by candles!  During the Liturgy, the priest will cense the Bible, and he will bow towards the Bible showing his reverence for the Word of God.  On Sunday morning, just before entering the sanctuary, I bow before the icon of Christ and kiss the Gospel book.  There is a certain irony in the fact that Protestants have accused Orthodox Christians of Mariolatry but not of bibliolatry!  Here Orthodoxy goes beyond Protestantism in its outward bodily reverence for Scripture.  Yet these acts of reverence do not betray any sort of “idolatrous worship” of Mary or of Holy Scripture!

Historically, Scripture was understood as a sacred deposit to be safeguarded by the Church.  Before the printing press very few people had their own personal copy of the Bible.  One had to go to church on Sunday morning to hear the Gospel and other books in the Bible read out loud.  With the advent of the printing press in the 1400s people began to have their own personal Bibles.  This was good in that many could now read the Bible and become intimately acquainted with the Bible.  However, the downside of this is that many began to treat the Bible as their own personal possession independent of the Church.  This gave rise to an independent spirit in which one became confident one could understand the meaning of the Bible independent of the Church.  In Orthodoxy, the right understanding of Scripture is maintained through Tradition, e.g., the Nicene Creed which is recited every Sunday, the Divine Liturgy, the Ecumenical Councils and the early Church Fathers.  In Orthodoxy, Holy Tradition frames Scripture and for that reason Scripture cannot be understood on its own but in the Church.

Holy Tradition prevents Orthodoxy from becoming a cult: (1) every priest and parish are accountable to a bishop the recipient of Apostolic Tradition; (2) every bishop is accountable to Holy Tradition and their respective synod of bishops; (3) lengthy catechism classes ensure one understands Holy Tradition; and (4) an open door policy in which those who disagree with the teachings of the Church are allowed to leave rather than be coerced into conformity.  Added to this is Orthodoxy’s reluctance to make definitive statements on specific individual’s eternal destiny.

The Church Fathers give us insight into how Christians can have the Faith apart from sola scriptura.  Irenaeus of Lyons, a second century Church Father, wrote about illiterate barbarians who, despite the absence of written Scripture, have received the true Faith through oral tradition (AH 3.4.2).



So, are these Protestants guilty of bibliolatry as my inquirer friend asked?  My response is: (1) it all depends on what one means by “bibliolatry” and (2) in light of its negative connotations the term “bibliolatry” does not contribute to edifying dialogue.  The term’s utility is further diminished by the elasticity of its meaning.  Conservative Protestants have been accused of bibliolatry by liberal Protestants, and by Pastor Challies’ definition even Orthodox Christians can be accused of bibliolatry.

A more useful approach is to ask whether or not Christians may avail themselves of other sources of knowledge besides the Bible.  If one takes the position that Christians are to rely solely on the Bible to the exclusion of other sources of knowledge, then one has adopted an extreme form of Protestantism.  This opens the door to cultic Protestantism and to spiritual abuse.  Healthy spirituality, while open to the outside world, also has boundaries.  Orthodoxy has relied on Holy Tradition for the delineating of this boundary.  Protestantism has long struggled with defining its boundaries, and as a consequence has suffered numerous splits over where the line is to be drawn between orthodoxy and heresy.  Liberal Protestantism has extended its boundaries to the point where radical Enlightenment skepticism undermined basic Christian tenets.  Extreme Protestantism, in contrast, constricted its boundaries so narrowly that it creates totalitarian cults.  Popular Evangelicalism has eagerly and uncritically embraced aspects of popular culture into its worship and the way it articulates its beliefs.

We can be thankful that fundamentalist bibliolatry has not often plagued the more educated descendants of the Magisterial Reformation, e.g., Lutherans and Reformed Protestants. Yet the difficult question must be asked: “Who is more at fault for this willful high-handedness? Those familiar with the Church Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils, Holy Tradition, and who know the difference between sola and solo scriptura.  Or, the provincial and less historically informed Fundamentalists?” This is not unlike asking who is more culpable of criminally abusing a 14-year old sexually curious girl?  Her 17-year old boyfriend who loves her, or her 40-year old gym teacher?  To whom much is given, much is required.


Redeeming the Time

One needs to exercise caution when entering into theological debates.  Debates have a very different quality from a dialogue or conversation.  In a debate one side wins and the other side loses.  One wins by outwitting the opponent with an irrefutable argument or by presenting a fact that the other side does not know about.  The weakness of debates is that they rarely result in people changing their minds.  It takes more than one single argument for people to change their religious beliefs and affiliation.  Formal debates are useful in that they present audiences different points of view for them to consider.  Personal conversations are a much better way for inquirers interested in Orthodoxy.  I often engage in lengthy theological discussions with inquirers at the local Orthodox parish.  I do this to help people who are sincerely interested in becoming Orthodox, but have reservations.  With sincere inquirers I don’t hesitate to enter into detailed bible discussions.  If they are not at seriously interested in becoming Orthodox, I will seek to avoid debates.

I learned this lesson when I got into a debate with several members of Calvary Chapel.  After a while, I came to the conclusion I was wasting my time and theirs.  It can be fun, swapping bible verses and arguing what the verses mean, but for the most part very little serious learning was happening.  It was more like a theological tennis match than a serious quest for God’s truth.  The quest for God’s truth must take place in an atmosphere of holy reverence and prayer.  I recently came across a quote on a FaceBook page that read: “Every hour that has passed is gone forever, and we must give an account of each minute of that hour.”  This is similar to Apostle Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:16: “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”  In light of the Final Judgment, we must beware of wasting our time in trivial activities like tossing bible verses back and forth for the fun of it.  Jesus warned:

I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:36-37; RSV)

A good example of people worshiping the Bible in place of Christ can be found in the Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel.  Wise men from the East guided by the star came to Jerusalem in search of the Jewish Messiah.  The chief priests and the scribes quoted to them Micah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.  Then guided by natural revelation (the star) and Scripture (Micah) the wise men found the Christ Child and worshiped him (Matthew 2:1-12).  It is dumbfounding that those who knew Scripture so well did not seek out Christ.  The sin of bibliolatry here was knowing Scripture but failing to do God’s will.  For Protestants the danger is that of revering Scripture over the Church, “the pillar of truth” founded by Christ.  Cyprian of Carthage wrote:

He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. (ANF Vol. V p. 423)

The Bible and the Orthodox Church go together.  The Orthodox Church has been reading Scripture and proclaiming the Gospel in its worship services from Day One.  It has preserved and passed on Scripture for the past two thousand years.  It reads the Bible within the framework of the Church Fathers, the successors to the Apostles.  This preserves the inner meaning of Scripture.  For the spiritually hungry seeker the Orthodox Church provides a safe haven for knowing Scripture.

Robert Arakaki


Tim Challies.  2006.  “Feedback Files – Bibliolatry.www.challies.com  (5 July)

S.M. Baugh.  2008.  “Is Bibliolatry Possible?” Resource Center – Westminster Seminary California.

Naomi Epps.  N.D.  “8 Signs Your Friend’s In An Abusive Relationship.”  BlackLoveADvice dot Com

—-  N.D.  “9 Ways Groups Become Cults.”  Criminal Justice Degrees Guide dot Com


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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