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No Bowing Allowed?

 

Venerating the Icon of Saints Peter and Paul

A reader recently wrote:

My greatest struggle with Orthodoxy is the veneration of saints, angels, and Blessed Mary. In the Book of Revelations there is a scene that plays on 22:8 where John bows to an angel and the angel rebukes him. Typically, Roman Catholic and Orthodox say that he was rebuked for trying to worship the angel (not venerate). The problem though (in my view) is that is the Beloved Apostle. He devoted his life to the God of Israel and when Jesus came to Jesus the Messiah (also God). He wrote one of the four Gospels. He would not worship an angel. It seems to me that that was veneration that he was offering and not adoration, but he was still rebuked for bowing. I can’t see how John would commit idolatry and worship the angel. He would try to veneration though. So if we cant bow to angels how can we bow (in veneration) to images?

 

My response

I took a look at Revelation 22:8.  The text says: “I John am he who heard and saw them.  I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me . . . .” I also checked the Greek text and found that there were two verbs used here: “epesa proskunesai.” (ἔπεσα προσκυνῆσαι NA28)  The first verb “epesa” takes the aorist past tense of “fall down” and the second verb “proskunesai” (to worship) takes the infinitive form indicating the reason or motive for the action.  You are right that John would not want to worship an angel but the infinitive of intent for “proskunesai” indicates that that was what he had intended when he fell down. Basically, the physical act of bowing is not intrinsically wrong.  What was wrong was the intent behind the bowing, that is, bowing as an act of worship.  The basic problem with your argument then is that it fixates on the first verb and ignores or overlooks the second verb.  This misreading of Revelation 22:8 is not good exegesis.  In other words, Orthodoxy, which is open to veneration, is on much solid scriptural ground than Protestantism, which shuns veneration.

Bathsheba kneeling before David – painting by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout

If we look at Scripture we can find instances where people bowed to show respect to another person.  In Genesis 33:6-7, we read that Jacob’s wives and children bowed before Esau during the family reconciliation.  In 1 Kings 1:16 and 23 (RSV), we read that King David’s wife, Bathsheba, and the Prophet Nathan bowed down before the king.  Verse 16 says that Bathsheba “bowed and did obeisance to the king.”  In the book of Acts, the Philippian jailer fell down before the Apostle Paul asking “What must I do to be saved?”  Paul did not rebuke the jailer because the jailer was attempting to show respect to the man he earlier treated as a lowlife criminal.

 

Philippian jailer kneeling before the Apostle Paul and Silas

Bowing in ancient times was a common practice with a range of meaning, from social courtesy to religious devotion.  It seems that Protestantism has become hypersensitive to the physical act of bowing in their reaction against Roman Catholic medieval piety and in their attempt to purify the church.

The key difference between veneration and worship would be offering a sacrifice.  This is what we find in Acts 14 when Paul and Barnabas learned to their horror that the citizens of Lystra were about to offer a sacrifice of oxen to them, believing Barnabas to be an incarnation of Zeus and Paul an incarnation of Hermes (Acts 14:11-15).  Similarly, in Orthodoxy we may bow to show respect to Mary and the saints, but the core of the Liturgy is the Eucharist in which the bloodless sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood is offered to God alone.  During the Liturgy the Orthodox faithful also offer up our whole lives to Christ our God, which is in accordance with Romans 12:1.  The important thing to keep in mind is that the center focus of Orthodoxy is the worship of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Mary and the saints are peripheral.  Not that they are ignored (as so often happens in Protestantism) but they are peripheral much like the supporting cast who surround the star of the show.  Protestant spirituality can be likened to a Jesus-and-me spirituality.  For many Protestants converting to Orthodoxy is a lot like a girlfriend who gets taken to her boyfriend’s home and meets all of his relatives.  If she is serious about her relationship with the boyfriend, she is going to have to accept his larger family as well.

 

Bowing in Japan

The Protestant objection to bowing has disturbing cultural implications.  If bowing is so intrinsically wrong, then Asians who become Christians are obligated to refrain from bowing to their parents, which would be taken as highly disrespectful and offensive.  Furthermore, this position runs contrary to the Ten Commandments which enjoined honoring one’s father and mother—at least in the way Asians who apply it.  

 

 

Protestantism’s Roots in Modernity

I suspect that the Protestant reservation about bowing stems from their being Western and their being modern.  Modernity has resulted in a flattening of social relations and a break from traditional culture which assume hierarchical relations.  This flattening effect can be seen in the Reformed tradition’s rejection of the episcopacy and their not addressing ministers as “Father.”  This way of thinking is tragic and contrary to history.  It is contrary to Christianity’s roots in Judaism and to the Tradition of the Church Fathers. Even early Protestant creeds used the language of hierarchy in social relations, even explicitly speaking about “inferiors and superiors.” See the Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 126 to Q. 133 which expounds on the Fifth Commandment.

In the eyes of Moderns, secularist and even Christians, all hierarchies are considered unjust and corrupting, and therefore to be scorned and done away with. Protestants have been at the forefront of espousing republicanism and the abolition of monarchies.  Oliver Cromwell, a devout Puritan, led the movement to abolish the episcopacy in England and for a time headed the short-lived republican Commonwealth of England. This leveling influence can also be seen in Hawaii’s history where the leading haole (White) Congregationalist church (descended from the New England Puritans) openly supported the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Protestantism’s new social dynamic had unintended consequences for faith and practice.  Where the early Reformers retained a sacramental worldview and respected social hierarchies, later generations of Protestants reduced the sacraments to mere symbols, eliminated the office of the bishop, and expressly forbade the honoring of saints calling it sinful.  Protestantism’s sola scriptura elevated the sermon to a position of prominence in the Sunday service and relegated the Eucharist to the periphery.  But it did not end there; in recent years the sermon has undergone further changes.  Where before the Protestant pastor would strive to give the unvarnished truth of God’s word based on careful exegesis, now the sermon has devolved into an inspiring or comforting message to please the audience. Many Protestant pastors have become religious entrepreneurs.  Church members have become customers whose loyalty the pastor must retain in order to keep the religious enterprise going.  This is religious commercialism where the customer is king and evangelism involves marketing a useful product.  In this new religious context the Gospel—the Good News of Christ—is no longer the eternal truth of God but what suits the taste of the current market.  

Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church – Warrenville, IL

In contrast to Protestantism’s constantly evolving forms of worship is the Orthodox Church’s adherence to the historic forms of worship.  A visitor to an Orthodox Sunday service will get to see the fourth century Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.  Orthodoxy’s liturgical style of worship retains a sense of dignity and hierarchical ordering long gone from from much of Protestantism.  One notable example of this are the Small Entrance and the Great Entrance when the priest and the acolytes process around the interior of the church.  Orthodoxy’s rubrics and protocols provide a much needed corrective to the casual infomality of modernity.  

 

Hierarchy and the Biblical Worldview

Hospital Hierarchy: Doctors, Residents, Nurses

How we worship God and how we live do matter.   They are intertwined to an extent far more than we realize.   Our understanding of society and human nature is impacted by our rituals and practices.  The small act of bowing is consequential because it embodies the Orthodox ethos and worldview.  To venerate the saints is to accept Orthodoxy’s hierarchical and sacramental worldview, where the heavenly realm overlaps with the earthly.  The Protestant rejection of bowing reflects a flat, egalitarian approach to social relations, and a utilitarian, non-sacramental approach to nature. 

Modern humanists of the Enlightenment who espouse egalitarianism don’t like the practice of veneration. They scorn it as “worshiping man,“ but they are wrong. It is not sinful to give honor to another human being but a practical acknowledgement of the way reality works. All men are not equal in every respect.  Hierarchies do matter.  There are hierarchical orders in our schools, in the workplace, in the military, in the hospitals, in our government.  Why, then, do Protestants insist that churches be devoid of hierarchical order?  We honor our graduates, our heroes, and those who made a contribution to society.  Why not face up to the fact that some Christians are indeed worthy of our appreciation, esteem, and honor?

Protestants should also face up to the fact that according respect to our elders and those above us is part of the biblical worldview.  In the Old Testament youths were exhorted to show respect to their elders.

Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:32; NIV)

In the New Testament, the laity was encouraged to honor the clergy.

Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor; especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.(1 Timothy 5:17; OSB)

 

Kissing the priest’s hand

Becoming an Orthodox Christian involves not just learning and accepting a body of teachings, but also entering into a cultural ethos.  For Protestant inquirers, it means relinquishing their rugged self-independence and accepting the Church as our Mother.  An important mark of an inquirer’s readiness to become Orthodox is humility.  Calling a priest “Father” can be difficult for some Protestant inquirers but it marks an important milestone in their journey to Orthodoxy.  Calling a priest “Father” is an acknowledgment that the priest stands as a representative of Jesus Christ and has the awesome responsibility of pastoring Christ’s flock.   At his ordination the priest is invested with the authority of the Orthodox Church and acts as a representative of the bishop, who stands in apostolic succession. In light of this, addressing a priest as “Father” is an act of showing respect to the Lord Jesus.  It is also important to know that the priest’s authority is not arbitrary but is based upon and constrained by capital “T” Tradition.   His authority is valid so long as he remains faithful to Tradition.  The priority of capital “T” Tradition provides a much needed safeguard against arbitrary power and spiritual abuse.   

 

Icon – All Saints

Hierarchy and the Coming Age

Hierarchical ordering is not just for the present age but also for the age to come.  The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians described the coming age in which the resurrected saints will live in a glorified state.  

All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of animals, another of fish, and another of birds.

There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.  There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory. (1 Corinthians 15:39-41; OSB)

It is worth noting that there will different grades of glory among the saints.  This can be inferred from “one star differs from another star in glory.”  They all belong to the same category of being but differ with respect to status.  

When Orthodox Christians venerate the saints they are showing respect to their older brothers in the faith.  Undergirding the spirituality of venerating icons is element of prayer, of relationality.  When I venerate an icon I usually ask the saint to pray for me or for someone I have in mind.  Without prayer, venerating icons become a superficial, perfunctory ritual.  Underneath the venerating of the saints is a combination of affection and respect we show to our elder brothers and sisters in the Faith.  This awareness of the importance of showing respect to older siblings or to older peers in school or the work place can still be found in Asian cultures.  Present day Asians still have this appreciation for hierarchical order whereas this has largely disappeared in the West and in the U.S. where the culture of modernity has obliterated the old way of life.  

 

Making Faith Real

Let me close with a personal observation that the Orthodox practice of bowing to show respect brought a physicality to my spiritual life that I did not experience as a Protestant.  In many ways Protestantism is a cerebral religion and of which one unintended consequence is the mind-body split that weakens one’s spiritual development.  The deep-seated individualism in Protestant spirituality has given rise to the plethora of denominations undermining their sense of belonging to the Church Militant.  It has also led to Protestants suffering a spiritual disconnect with the Church Triumphant.  This can be seen in widespread historical amnesia among Protestants and their refusing to venerate the saints.   For me, becoming Orthodox has brought a deeper sense of belonging to the historic Church, a stronger sense of alignment with the biblical worldview, and an appreciation of integration into the cosmic order—the saints and the angels gathered before the throne of God as described in Revelation 7.  

To sum up, the Orthodox veneration of the saints and the angels are not something added on to Christianity but deeply rooted in the biblical worldview and very much a part of the historic Christian Faith.  The Protestant disavowal of the veneration of the saints marks a departure from the historic Christian Faith and created a new form of spirituality.  Thank you for your question which has led me to a deeper appreciation of a “minor” practice within Orthodoxy.  I hope that this response addresses your concerns and helps you to continue on in your journey to Orthodoxy.

Robert Arakaki

 

References

Douglas Cramer.  “Call No Man Father?”  Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.

John S. Morrill.  “Oliver Cromwell: English Stateman.”  Britannica.com

On Kissing the Priest’s Hand.”  OrthoChristian.

W. Stanford Reid. “John Calvin: One of the Fathers of Modern Democracy.”  Christian History Institute

Q. 126 to Q. 133 — Westminster Larger Catechism.

 

 

Response to James White (1 of 4)

James White – Alpha and Omega Ministries  source

 

As I listened to James White’s 13 April 2017 podcast “Can a Consistent Eastern Orthodox Christian Be the Bible Answer Man?,” I was struck by the numerous fallacies that so often mar Protestant critiques of Orthodoxy.  The quotes below are organized topically, not chronologically.  The intent here is to promote good reasoning and courteous interaction in Protestant-Orthodox dialogue. Please see my earlier posting: “How NOT to Do Anti-Orthodox Apologetics” for a description of fallacies and faulty reasoning.

 

Sola Fide and the False Dilemma Fallacy

At the 3:39 mark, James White brings up one of Protestantism’s core doctrines sola fide – justification by grace alone through faith alone.  He insists that the omission of that one word “alone” opens the door to the legalism and works righteousness of Roman Catholicism.  Here we see the conflating of two fallacies: hasty generalization and false equivalence.  Just because Orthodoxy refrains from using “alone,” that does not mean that their reasons are the same as or identical to Roman Catholicism.  First, it must be shown what the Orthodox understanding of salvation actually is.  Second, that doctrine must be compared with the Roman Catholic understanding to see if they are identical. They are not — as any historic theological investigator without an axe to grind will quickly see.  By casting the question in terms of Protestantism versus Roman Catholicism, Mr. White presents the listener with a false dilemma.  This is the fallacy where something is presented as an either-or situation, when in fact there is one additional option.

At the 33:42 mark, we hear the recording of Hank Hanegraaff reciting the Nicene Creed.  At the 35:15 mark we hear the line: “Who for us and our salvation descended from heaven. . . .”  At that point, Mr. White interjects:

Flesh it out!  They didn’t at that point.  That’s why it isn’t sufficient.  If you say that’s the basis for mere Christianity then there’s no place for the Gospel.

For James White, because the Fathers at the Council of Nicea failed to articulate sola fide the Nicene Creed is theologically insufficient. Here he passes judgment on the universal confession of the Early Church! By what standards? By that of the sixteenth century Reformation?!?!

At the 1:10:05 mark, Hank Hanegraaff is heard saying that he has been saved “by grace alone through faith.”  Here James White leans eagerly on the edge of his chair then theatrically slumps in disappointment when he does not hear the word “alone.” He notes:

This is purposeful folks.  This is not “through grace alone by faith alone.”  “Through grace alone by faith” that is . . . that’s not even . . . he’s accurately dealt with James 2 in the past.  This is Eastern Orthodoxy speaking.  This is a knowing, unwillingness to affirm the language of sola fide (1:10:35).

False Dilemma Fallacy   Source

When James White (or anyone else) asserts: “there’s no place for the Gospel,” he commits the false dilemma fallacy presenting the listener with a stark black-and-white choice between salvation and damnation. When Mr. White insists that the Gospel be understood in terms of “justification by faith alone,” he makes the false equivalence fallacy.  Sola fide here is presented as the untouchable touchstone for true Christianity.  It may be for Protestants, but did any of the Church Fathers make a similar assertion? Was sola fide part of the historic Christian Faith?

In Protestant-Orthodox dialogue sola fide must be proven from Scripture, not just from the biblical text but from the way the text has been understood historically.  It should be kept in mind that Protestant Reformer John Calvin had no qualms about citing the Church Fathers.  Calvin was not a simple-minded Fundamentalist.  It must be shown how the doctrine “salvation through grace alone by faith alone” is the core meaning of what Apostle Paul in Galatians 1:6-9.  At 1:45:48-1:46:01, James White interjects:

And wouldn’t you say that in light of Galatians chapter 1 that justification is one of those dividing lines? . . . . It’s right there: “Let him be anathema.”  False brethren.  You can actually make an argument. ??  There’s stronger evidence that that was an apostolic dividing line.

False Analogy – Apple vs. Orange

Protestants often fall into the false analogy fallacy when they assume that Paul’s argument with the Judaizers about the Jewish Torah in first century Asia Minor is the same as the Protestant-Catholic controversy over earning merits in sixteenth-century Europe.  While there are overlaps in terminology, the issues and contents of the two debates are significantly different.

Noted Anglican biblical scholar NT Wright has written and spoken about how the Protestant Reformers have misread or misunderstood Paul.  See R. Alan Strett’s interview with NT Wright in Criswell Theological Review.

See Seraphim Hamilton’s “Those Whom He Justified He Glorified: Paul’s Argument in Romans 1:17-3:31.” On Behalf of All.

These articles show how Mr. White’s false dilemma of Protestant versus Roman Catholic understanding of justification by faith oversimplifies the theological issues within Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians.  He compounds the confusion through the false equivalence fallacy: Orthodoxy = Roman Catholicism.

In closing, Orthodoxy must be treated by Protestants as a faith tradition distinct and separate from Roman Catholicism.  While they have much in common, they also diverge significantly. Furthermore, Protestants cannot take sola fide (justification by faith alone) for granted in Reformed-Orthodox dialogue. Does the phrase “faith alone” appear in the Bible?  Where?  Did the early Church Fathers universally teach justification by faith alone? One cannot cherry pick the Church Fathers. To persuade the Orthodox, Protestant apologists need to show that justification by faith alone was part of early Christianity, not a sixteenth century doctrinal innovation.  As they dialogue with the Orthodox, Reformed Christians and other Protestants need to be open to the historic Christian Faith as understood by the Orthodox.  Let’s have a frank and friendly dialogue!

Robert Arakaki

 

 

The Incarnation Changes Everything

Muslims reject the Incarnation. Therefore, this mosque has bare walls and no images of God.

Muslims reject the Incarnation. Therefore, this mosque has bare walls and no images of God.

Before the Incarnation, it was idolatrous to make an image of God.

Now that the Incarnation has taken place, it would be idolatrous not to make images of Him.

When a religion rejects images of God, it sends the message that God is only a spirit, and that He has no physical body. Before the Incarnation, that was true. After the Incarnation, it is false, and is therefore idolatry.

There are two types of idolatry:
1) Worshiping false gods, and
2) Worshiping the true God in
a way which misrepresents Him.

In ancient Israel, when people worshiped Baal, Ashtoreth, and Molech, they committed the first form of idolatry. These are all false gods, and it is idolatry to worship them in any way whatsoever, either with or without images.

When the Israelites worshiped the golden calf, they committed the second form of idolatry. They correctly noted the identity of the true God, but they grossly misrepresented Him. Instead of recognizing God as an invisible Spirit, the Israelites made a golden calf, they praised it for delivering them from Egypt, and they even called the calf “YHWH”.

In the Old Testament, images of God were forbidden, because they misrepresented Him. God is not a cow. And God did not yet have any physical body.

In the Old Testament, images of God were forbidden, because they misrepresented Him. God is not a cow. And God did not yet have any physical body.

When the Israelites sinned with the golden calf, they were still correct that God’s name is “YHWH”. They were correct that YHWH had delivered them from Egypt. And they were correct to praise YHWH. But their worship was turned into idolatry, because they misrepresented Him. God is not a cow.

Similarly, when Protestants worship with bare walls and an absence of icons, they are correct that God’s name is “Jesus”. They are correct that Jesus came to deliver them from sin.  And they are correct to praise Jesus.  But their worship is turned into idolatry, because they misrepresent Him.  God is no longer a faceless spirit.

Before God became incarnate in the womb of Mary, He had no body. Images of God were forbidden, because they misrepresented God.  But now that God has become incarnate, our worship must reflect this important fact.  Otherwise, if we misrepresent God, we become idolaters.

Dura Europos Synagogue 3rd century

Dura Europos Synagogue — 244 A.D. — Worshipers would face the icons, and would bow toward the Torah scrolls located at the center of the wall.

In ancient Israel, God did not want His people bowing down before images of Himself, because He did not have a body yet. But He knew that people needed to bow down before something, so He provided the Temple in Jerusalem for this purpose. The temple did not represent the image of God, but it did represent His presence. So God had His people bow down toward the temple:

But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you. (Psalm 5:7)

Anticipating the day when He would become man, when His people would be able to have images of Himself, God taught His people to include many images in the context of worship. The Jerusalem temple included icons of angels, and early synagogues were covered with icons of many Old Testament saints.

The Word had not yet become flesh, so God’s people venerated the Word of God contained in Scripture. Even to this day, Jews bow toward the Torah scrolls when entering/exiting the synagogue, and also during special Torah services. Jews also kiss the Torah to venerate it. All of these ancient practices anticipated Orthodox Christian worship, including the veneration of icons.

Before the coming of Christ, the Jewish Temple signified God’s presence, and His peoplebowed down toward it. After Christ came, He referred to His own body as the true temple. Therefore, instead of continuing to bow down toward a temple building, we now bow down toward images of Jesus.

We also bow to one another, because Scripture says that every Orthodox Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

When the Word became flesh, iconoclasm became idolatry. The Incarnation changes everything.

When the Word became flesh, iconoclasm became idolatry. The Incarnation changes everything.

When Orthodox Christians bow to an icon of Christ, they are reminded thatGod now has a body.  Jesus is fully God, and fully human, and He is physically seated in Heaven even today. Orthodox worship represents God correctly.

 

When Protestants refuse to bow to icons of Christ, and they choose to bow down before nothing instead, their worship suggests that God has no body, and that the Incarnation hasn’t happened yet. Their worship misrepresents God. They are bowing down before a faceless idol.

When the Word became fleshiconoclasm became idolatry.

The Incarnation changes everything.

 

About Fr Joseph Gleason
I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with seven children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog at The Orthodox Life.

 

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