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Tag: Eastern Orthodoxy

Evangelicals Talking With Orthodox


Billy Graham and Metropolitan Hilarion (2014)

“God grant you many years!”     sung version

Evangelicals Talking With Orthodox

In early November 2014, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church visited the Rev. Billy Graham to wish him a happy 96th birthday. The visit was more than a symbolic gesture. Soon afterward, Metropolitan Hilarion delivered a speech to a group of Evangelical leaders at a forum organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. In his address Metropolitan Hilarion reviewed the Russian Orthodox Church’s interaction with American Protestantism.

Among the vivid testimonies to the good cooperation between the Moscow Patriarchate and American Christians is our friendship with Billy Graham’s Evangelistic Association, the founder of which has visited Russia several times. We appreciated the understanding that representatives of the Association and the Rev. Graham personally expressed towards the stand taken by the Russian Orthodox Church in various historical periods.  Source

He further noted that Orthodox and Evangelicals need to work more closely to uphold traditional biblical morality.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev addressing American Evangelicals (2014)

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev addressing American Evangelicals (2014)    Speech








Billy Graham and Russia

Billy Graham Being Received by the Patriarch of Moscow

Billy Graham’s interest in Russia goes back as early as 1959 when he made a personal visit to Moscow and prayed for Russia at Red Square (p. 232). In 1992, Billy Graham returned to Russia to conduct a three day evangelistic crusade (p. 235).

Billy Graham’s passion for preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ is not incompatible with Orthodoxy.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware noted:

The Orthodox have always had good cooperation with Billy Graham. When Billy Graham went to Russia, he was received by the patriarch, because he worked on the principle that those who came forward to make a commitment to Christ at his preaching were handed over to the clergy of their own church. He did not try to set up his own evangelical communities that would be rivals to the Orthodox. (Christianity Today) (St. Elias Church)

After decades of Soviet rule some of the Orthodox Christians have succumbed to nominalism and preachers like Billy Graham have played an important role in renewing their faith in Christ. What is important to Orthodoxy is the fact that Rev. Graham has been respectful of the Orthodox Church. His goal has been to bring people to faith in Christ, not establish rival Evangelical Churches as an alternative to the historic Russian Orthodox Church.

Ecumenicism Through Personal Friendship

Billy Graham approached ecumenicism through personal friendship rather than through theological negotiation. David Aikman in Billy Graham: His Life and Influence (2007) tells how Billy Graham met the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pimen, in 1982 and 1984. In 1988, Billy Graham visited Patriarch Pimen by his bedside as he lay dying. He recounted:

I sat by his side for a long time and held his hand. . . . . He told me again, as he had on an earlier visit, that he wanted his priests to learn how to preach evangelistic sermons. I prayed with him as my brother in Christ. (Aikman 2007:168)


Billy Graham’s Example

I was delighted when I saw the picture of Billy Graham with Metropolitan Hilarion. This is a wonderful example of Evangelical-Orthodox friendship. If Billy Graham is open to talking with Metropolitan Hilarion, it then follows that Evangelicals should also be open to talking with Orthodox Christians and making friends with Orthodox Christians.

Probably the biggest impediment to Evangelical-Orthodox dialogue is ignorance. Many Evangelicals are unaware of the existence of Orthodoxy. Fortunately, this situation is changing as growing numbers of Protestants and Evangelicals are learning of Orthodoxy’s ancient roots and its liturgical style of worship.

At first sight Orthodoxy looks strange, foreign, or exotic to many Evangelicals. That is because so many Evangelicals do not know of Christianity’s ancient roots. Once they get over their initial shock Evangelical inquirers will be pleasantly surprised to find there are former Protestants and Evangelicals among the Orthodox. These former Protestants can explain the ancient Christian faith in terms familiar to Evangelicals. They thus become a bridge between two important religious traditions. For Evangelicals looking for something more the Orthodox response is: Come and see!

Robert Arakaki


See also

Rod Dreher. “An Orthodox-Evangelical Alliance?” In The American Conservative

Shirwood Eliot Wirt.  Billy: A Personal Look at Billy Graham (1997) Ch. 26

Robert Arakaki.  “Which Path to Church Unity: Recognition vs Reception


Response to Robin Phillips’ “Questions About Sola Scriptura”

Robin Phillips

On April 29, 2011, Robin Phillips posted: “Questions About Sola Scriptura” on his blog: Robin’s Readings and Reflections.  What is so striking about Phillips’ comments is that he brings to light the internal inconsistencies within sola scriptura.  This presents an opportunity to show that Orthodoxy provides a more coherent and compelling alternative.  I would like to thank him for inviting me to respond to his blog posting.  

Synopsis of Robin Phillips’ Posting

The posting begins with a description of James White’s debate with a group of Mormons.  When the Mormons asked White to provide a justification for sola scriptura, he refused on the grounds that doing so would establish an authority higher than Scripture.  The Mormons then asked White about the basis for recognizing a book as Scripture.  White appealed to the criterion of consistency with other canonical scriptures.

The debate got Phillips thinking about the issue of sola scriptura.  He put forward a one paragraph critique of sola scriptura by a hypothetical non-Protestant apologist.

Can you give reasons for believing in sola scriptura? Surely you can’t, because the reasons for believing in sola scriptura cannot be from outside of scripture, since then that would contradict the very doctrine of sola scriptura. But the reasons for believing in sola scriptural cannot be drawn from scripture either, because scripture never addresses the question of sola scriptura, nor does it even define scripture (after all, the church gives us the Bible’s Table of Contents page).  Source

The key point of the critique is that sola scriptura can’t be logically defended because it excludes any extra-biblical authority.  Phillips correctly points out that this critique is based on a distorted version of sola scriptura that Keith Mathison labels “solo scriptura.” Another problem with the hypothetical non-Protestant critique is that it is very Roman Catholic in its thinking.  This is can be seen in the reliance on syllogistic reasoning and the insistence on logical consistency.  This is very different from the Orthodox approach which stresses apostolicity and catholicity.  This is unfortunate because by not representing the Orthodox approach it missed an opportunity for engagement with the Eastern Orthodox approach to the authority of Scripture.

In the next section Phillips notes that the classic understanding of sola scriptura — Scripture as ultimate authority but interpreted within the context of the regular fidei given by the church — raises the question of where the regula fidei is to be found.  It also raises the question whether this approach to sola scriptura makes the individual the ultimate arbiter over what is the regula fidei.

Phillips wrote to Keith Mathison about this problem.  Mathison wrote back that there are two possible answers: (1) a one true visible Church or (2) an invisible church manifested through various visible fragments or branches.  Mathison opts for the latter.  Phillips closes the posting noting that for him Mathison’s branch theory of the church does not seem workable in practice.

Basic Premises for the Orthodox Approach

The foundational premise for Orthodoxy is the Good News of Jesus Christ’s third day resurrection.  This historical event establishes Jesus’ lordship over heaven and earth and his commissioning his followers to teach the nations (Matthew 28:19-20).  It should be noted that Jesus did not promise an inspired Scripture but the Holy Spirit who would guide the church into all truth (John 16:13).

The apostolic witness is foundational to the Eastern Orthodox model.  Paul and the other apostles planted churches upon the preaching of the Gospel.  The apostles were keenly aware that they were speaking in behalf of the risen Lord and therefore their apostolic preaching had the weight of the word of God (I Thessalonians 2:13; II Peter 3:16).  Apostolic preaching would in turn lead to apostolic succession (II Timothy 2:2).  The New Testament churches were guided by the apostolic message in oral and written forms (II Thessalonians 2:15; I Corinthians 11:2).

The advantage of Orthodoxy’s stress on historicity is that it lends itself to external verification.  Theology in the form of historical narrative can be found in Genesis and Deuteronomy.  These narratives follow the ancient covenants in which the mighty deeds of the Suzerain are recounted prior to the presentation of the terms and obligations of the covenant.  So likewise the historical narratives found in the four Gospels provide the covenantal basis for the New Testament.  This openness to external verification means that one can exercise critical reasoning to examine the Orthodox Church’s truth claims and not be forced into blindly accepting the theological axiom of sola scriptura.

Orthodoxy has a pluriform understanding of the apostolic witness.  It believes that the apostolic witness continued by several means: (1) in an inscripturated form, (2) the regula fidei — the confession of faith received at baptism, (3) the weekly eucharistic celebration in which the sacred texts are read, and (4) the bishops — the successors to the apostles whose job is to expound on the meaning of Scripture and keep the apostolic witness intact for the generations to come.

Protestantism also believes in apostolicity but in a quite different manner.  It believes that after the apostles died the apostolic witness continued solely in an inscripturated form and that the authority of Scripture is independent of the church.  Where Orthodoxy assumes an essential continuity between the apostles and the post-apostolic church, the Protestant model interposes a series of ruptures or discontinuities.  It assumes that the post-apostolic church quickly fell into heresy and apostasy, and that the Gospel was rediscovered with the Protestant Reformation.

Thus, Orthodoxy assumes a church embedded in human history but faithfully safeguarding the apostolic faith; Protestantism seems to assume a pure Scripture sailing through church history unaffected by the vicissitudes of human failings.  In essence, the Protestant paradigm wrenched Scripture out of its proper context: the one true church.  If one isolates the covenant document from the covenant community one ends up with either ecclesiastical tyranny or hermeneutical chaos.

Orthodoxy’s Criteria: Apostolicity, Continuity, Fidelity, and Authority

Much of the complexities surrounding sola scriptura can be more easily understood if one approach it as a theological system.  Sola scriptura is designed to meet certain functions essential to a theological system: (1) provide a basis for the formulation of doctrine and practice, (2) provide a hermeneutical framework for the right reading of Scripture, and (3) provide doctrinal unity for the community of believers, the church.  In what follows I hope to show that the approach taken by Orthodoxy does a better job of fulfilling these functions for a theological system.

Canon Formation.  How does one know that Scripture is inspired?  And how does one know which books are sacred Scripture?

Canon formation had its start in the life of the early church.  The apostles’ letters and the four Gospels were read out loud during the weekly Eucharist (First Apology of Justin, Chapter LXVII; cf. Acts 2:42).  The weekly Eucharist was under the supervision of the bishop, the successor to the apostles (Ignatius’ Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Chapters VIII-IX).  The recognition of what was Scripture depended on its acceptance into the readings of the weekly Eucharistic gathering.  The main criterion seems to have been apostolicity: what one church received from one apostle was mutually recognized and shared with other churches founded the other apostles.  Early on there was a consensus about the four Gospels and most of Paul’s letters.  There was some dispute about the other writings like Hebrews, Jude and Revelation which would in time be recognized as Scripture.

Initially, canon formation was a local and informal process.  Later regional councils formalized the process through the making of official lists, i.e., canons.  The main intent behind these lists was to provide guidance to the scripture reading in worship.  These councils include: the Council of Laodicea, the Council of Carthage, and Apostolical Canon which was later approved by the Council in Trullo.  When the later Councils, e.g., the Sixth Ecumenical Council, endorsed the decisions of earlier councils the process of canon formation was concluded.

The Protestant appeal to the criterion of consistency is really an appeal to an abstract ideal.  What it does is put the individual Protestant in the driver’s seat when it comes to canon formation.  The Orthodox approach on the other hand is historical and conciliar. Unlike Protestantism which takes divine inspiration as its starting point for canon formation, Orthodox takes apostolicity as its starting point.   This approach is premised upon the Holy Spirit’s active presence in the post-apostolic church.  This approach avoids the debate over whether the Church wrote the Bible or whether the Church is based on the Bible.  The answer is that both are the inspired product of the Holy Spirit.

This is why apostolic succession matters so much for the Orthodox.  Continuity in episcopal succession and continuity in teaching are two important means for safeguarding the proper reading of the Scripture.  Continuity in teaching can be verified through reading the Church Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils.  This means of verification guards us from the secret knowledge of the Gnostics and heretical innovations.  Formal apostolic succession is not enough; there must also be continuity in teaching — fidelity.  The Church of Rome can claim formal episcopal succession but after the Schism of 1054 its theological system became increasingly removed from its patristic base.

The 1054 Schism and the Filioque controversy represent a watershed moment in church history.  If one accepts the Filioque clause then one accepts the Western approach to theology which assumes that Christian theology evolves in light of the church’s understanding of Scripture.  The Eastern Orthodox approach assumes that the Christian faith has been delivered to the saints once for all time and that the apostolic deposit must be guarded against change.

Hermeneutics.  How does one arrive at the right understanding of Scripture?  What is the proper approach for the reading of Scripture?

When one encounters difficulty in understanding a text the best thing to do is to ask the author of the text what he or she intended.  If the author is no longer living the next best thing is to do is to ask the students who studied under him.  This is the advantage of apostolic succession.  This is why the study of the early church fathers is so important to the proper reading of Scripture.  It provides a means by which one can access the original intent of the author.  However, this approach works only if it can be shown that a historical linkage exists going back to the original Apostles.  Orthodoxy can make this claim, Protestantism cannot.

In the early church one could not be a member unless one had been baptized and catechized.  Being catechized meant that one had learned from the bishop the regula fide — a short creed much like the Apostles Creed.  The regula fide has its roots in the oral apostolic teaching.  It was not derived from an exegesis of Scripture.  It comprised an independent and complementary witness to Scripture.  The Apostles Creed was the hermeneutical framework through which the early Christians read Scripture.  In time the local creeds would become the Nicene Creed, the definitive confession of faith for all Christians.

Keith Mathison affirmed the creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon as representative of the regular fide on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit.  Mathison’s approach is vulnerable to the criticism that he affirms these two creeds because they conform to his personal interpretation of Scripture.  This leaves him open to the criticism of circularity.  Orthodoxy affirms the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Formula on the following principles: (1) it was the decision made by the Church through its bishops the successors to the apostles and (2) it was received by the Church as a whole (catholic).  Orthodoxy’s emphasis on apostolicity and catholicity avoids the pitfalls of individual interpretation of Scripture and circular reasoning.

Magisterium and Communion.  Who has the authority to expound on the meaning of Scripture?  What are the marks that identifies the true Church?  Can doctrinal orthodoxy and church unity go together? 

Mathison takes the classic Reformed position that the Church is the true interpreter of Scripture.  But this leads to the question: “Where is this Church?”  Mathison rejects Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy for the Protestant branch theory of the church.  Mathison’s position is that while there may be several branches, some are the closer to the regula fidei than others.  This approach is like the popular Where’s Waldo? game.  But did Jesus intend that his followers should have to search high and low to find the true church?  I propose that a better approach is to assume that the early church in the book of Acts was the true church, that it had received the regula fidei from the apostles, and that one of the identifying markers of the true church is historical continuity that can be traced back to the original apostles.

In Orthodoxy, Scripture is read and understood within the context of Tradition.  The bishops as successors to the apostles are the authorized expositors of Scripture.  Unlike the original apostles, present day bishops cannot lay claim to new revelations, rather their authority is confined to the exposition of the meaning of Scripture according to Tradition. Where the magisterium in Orthodoxy is grounded in apostolic succession, in Protestantism it is quite often grounded in academics.  I remember walking across the Gordon-Conwell campus and realizing that the teaching authority of my seminary professors came from their Ph.D. degrees, not from their ordained standing.  My Gordon-Conwell professors could appeal to reason and scholarship, but they could not invoke the authority of the church.

Eastern Orthodoxy’s rejection of the branch theory can be seen its practice of closed communion: only those who are in agreement with the teachings of the Orthodox Church and live under the authority of her bishops are allowed to receive Communion.  Being in communion with the local bishop means being in communion with all other Orthodox bishops around the world and their historic predecessors all the way back to the original apostles.  This gives Orthodoxy remarkable doctrinal consistency in comparison to Protestantism’s fragmented polity and considerable theological confusion.  Likewise, Orthodoxy’s position on closed communion undercuts the conundrum of Mathison’s proposition that if one submits to others only when one agrees with them then one is really submitting to oneself.  One can freely submit to the magisterium of the Orthodox Church but this in no way impinges upon her authority.


As a theological system sola scriptura is highly problematic.  One, it is highly instable.  This can be seen in the two versions: the classic sola scriptura vs. the popular solo scriptura.  Two, another problem is its theological incoherence.  This can also be seen in the doctrinal confusion among Protestants even though they hold in common sola scriptura as the starting point for doing theology.  Third, it is unable to promote Christian unity.  This troubling propensity for doctrinal heresies has forced many a Protestant to have to uproot themselves and look for a new church home giving rise to the question: Where is the true church?  Doctrinal orthodoxy in Protestantism has quite often meant leaving a mainline denomination for a smaller and sectarian branch. Orthodoxy and catholicity seem to be incompatible opposites in modern Protestantism.

When I was a Protestant I was frustrated by the theological chaos between popular Evangelicalism and mainline liberalism.  I found sola scriptura to be a heavy burden because I was compelled to assess the latest theological fads against my study of Scripture.  I gave up on sola scriptura when I concluded that it was incapable of producing a coherent theology capable of uniting Protestantism.  I found the branch theory espoused by Keith Mathison of very little practical value.  I often felt like I was standing under a leaking umbrella in the pouring rain wishing that I was safe and dry in a house.  I found a roof over my head and a spiritual banquet — the Eucharist — laid out every Sunday when I became Orthodox.  To become Orthodox I had to renounce sola scriptura but in its place I gained the true Church founded by the apostles.  Orthodoxy’s theological system has a stability and coherence unmatched by the best Protestantism has to offer.

Robert Arakaki

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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