Friday, June 1, 2012

In Defense of Icons Part 2

Veneration of Saints and Icons.

In this post I am going to try to cover another one of those stumbling blocks to Protestants: veneration of the Saints. This post immediately follows In Defense of Icons Part 1.

I would like to take this moment right now to say veneration is not worship! Veneration could be more properly described as honor, or respect; whereas worship would be adoration. If you have ever saluted the flag and said the Pledge of Allegiance then you have venerated Old Glory. If you have ever looked at a photograph of a loved one and kissed it then you have venerated that picture and that person. Chances are that if you are part of a church that teaches Sola Scriptura then you have venerated the Bible. So please remove the idea from your head that we Orthodox worship the Saints, unless you want to be accused of worshiping the Flag or Joel Osteen. I will try to explain in detail the how and why of this below.

So where do we get this practice of praying to people already dead? No where in the Bible is it mentioned, right? In fact it seems that the Bible is full of examples telling us not to communicate with the dead. But let us consider for a moment a book that is not included in most Protestant Bibles, but has always been included by the Catholics and the Orthodox (and was included by the Jews of Jesus' time). II Maccabees. The following is from II Macabbees 12:39-45:
39 And upon the day following, as the use had been,
Judas and his company came to take up the bodies of
them that were slain, and to bury them with their kinsmen
in their fathers’ graves. 40 Now under the coats of every
one that was slain they found things consecrated to the
idols of the Jamnites, which is forbidden the Jews by the
law. Then every man saw that this was the cause
wherefore they were slain. 41 All men therefore praising the
Lord, the righteous Judge, who had opened the things that
were hid, 42 Betook themselves unto prayer, and besought
him that the sin committed might wholly be put out of
remembrance. Besides, that noble Judas exhorted the
people to keep themselves from sin, forsomuch as they
saw before their eyes the things that came to pass for the
sins of those that were slain.
43 And when he had made a gathering throughout the
company to the sum of two thousand drachms of silver, he
sent it to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering, doing therein
very well and honestly, in that he was mindful of the
resurrection: 44 For if he had not hoped that they that were
slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and
vain to pray for the dead. 45 And also in that he perceived
that there was great favour laid up for those that died
godly, it was an holy and good thought. Whereupon he
made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be
delivered from sin.

Now for those who are unfamiliar with the books of the Maccabees, they are the books from where the Jews draw their celebration of Hanukkah. It seems strange that these books would be missing from the holy texts that the Jews use today, seeing as they give the whole reason for one of their larger feasts, but those books were there in Jesus time (and other apocrypha as can be evidence from these indirect quotes found in the New Testament and many of the Early Church Fathers, but that is for another post).

So here we see that the ancient Jews practiced prayers for the dead, something that wasn't uncommon in the time of the Apostles. As I stated in the preceding post, Christianity is a continuation of Judaism, specifically Judaism as practiced in Jesus' time. It makes sense for these things to carry over.

We covered praying for the dead, but what about praying to them? Let me ask you this: if someone falls asleep in the Lord are they still alive with Him in Heaven or do their souls rot with their bodies? The Bible tells us in many places that the souls of the dead keep living:

"Now for some biblical examples of what I said above. In Genesis we see the dead as being gathered to their people. This implies not unconsciousness, but a journey to where the fathers and ancestors of the people had gone, a place of the dead which was not the graves they were buried in. If the dead were unconscious, then this idiomatic expression has no meaning, for to be gathered to one's people who simply don't exist is nonsensical. See Gen. 25:8, 35:39, 49:29-33 for this expression. God told Abraham that he would go to his fathers in peace (Gen. 15:15). But Abraham was not buried with his fathers. His father died in Haran (Gen. 11:32), and Abraham went on his journey that God planned for him. He was buried, not with his fathers, but in a cave given to him by the Hittites for the burial of his wife Sarah. How could Abraham go to his fathers in peace, and be gathered to his people, if he was not buried with them, and they were all in a state on non-existence until the resurrection ? I must conclude from this that the earliest evidence in the Bible is that the dead were in some place of the dead, not in a state of non-existence. Is there another explanation for this ?...
... In the New Testament, Jesus refuted the Sadducees' concept of no resurrection. He also told them, in Mark 12:26-27, that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was the God of the living, not the dead. If God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and he is specifically God of the living, not the dead, then these three men must be among the living, and not among the dead. That must mean spiritually living, since it is true that they are physically dead. It is also interesting to note that in the preceding verses, the Sadducees asked the question in the future tense - and Jesus answered in the present tense, implying that those things - marrying not, but being like angels - were going on at that moment. Of course, the Bible also talks of a physical resurrection of our bodies, but what Jesus is talking of here is mainly the spiritual one, which, judging by his tenses, occurs at death, else Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would not be among the living, and God would have to be God of the dead too."

So if God is the God of the living and not the God of the dead then it would stand to reason that our souls are alive after death (further proof, the Transfiguration). And the Bible tells us to pray for each other (check it out), and also that where two or more are gathered there is Christ (Matt. 18:20).

Now let me add this. When we Orthodox pray to the Saints we are not praying to them as we are to God. We are asking for their intercessions, just like if we were to ask any of our friends and family to pray for us. We know that prayer is answered only by God, but we also know that we can ask our brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for us as well (hearkening back to Matt 18:20), and we know that our departed brothers and sisters are alive with Christ in Heaven. Also, we are not arguing against Christ being our only mediator, as many Protestants think that we do, but if that were the case then we should cease asking anybody to pray for us.

So how does this tie into venerating icons? Well the icons that we use depict the various Saints of the Church. We realize that the icon is just paint and wood, but the person depicted therein is alive in Christ. We do not pray to the icon, but to the person depicted therein. This is not idolatry because we do not believe that the icon has any special attributes* or that the icon (or the person depicted therein) is any kind of deity. In fact we recognize God's amazing glory when we remember the life of the Saint and see his life depicted on the icon; the Saint did things for the glory of God as should we.

Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross... When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them. —St. John of Damascus

But what about the kissing them and and bowing down to them? Have you ever kissed a picture of a deceased loved one? Surely you are not committing idolatry by showing how much you care for that person are you? And bowing has been a sign of respect in many cultures throughout history. In fact this can still be seen when one is in the presence of royalty, or meeting with a respected elder. But just because bowing as a sign of respect has fallen out of use in our modern Western culture does not mean that bowing should be looked down upon by the people who still hold to such a practice.

Please do not think that we are worshiping the icon just because we are showing respect for our dearly departed, just as many cultures still do, and have done for millennia. This is something that has been done from the beginnings of Christianity as can be seen with Polycarp's remains (Polycarp was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist).

Lastly, I would like to point to the 7th Ecumenical Council:

Concerning the teaching of icons 
Venerating icons, having them in churches and homes, is what the Church teaches. They are "open books to remind us of God." Those who lack the time or learning to study theology need only to enter a church to see the mysteries of the Christian religion unfolded before them.
Concerning the doctrinal significance of icons
Icons are necessary and essential because they protect the full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. While God cannot be represented in His eternal nature (" man has seen God", John1:18), He can be depicted simply because He "became human and took flesh." Of Him who took a material body, material images can be made. In so taking a material body, God proved that matter can be redeemed. He deified matter, making it spirit-bearing, and so if flesh can be a medium for the Spirit, so can wood or paint, although in a different fashion.
I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation... —St. John of Damascus
The seventh and last Ecumenical Council upheld the iconodules' postion in AD 787. They proclaimed:Icons... are to be kept in churches and honored with the same relative veneration as is shown to other material symbols, such as the 'precious and life-giving Cross' and the Book of the Gospels. The 'doctrine of icons' is tied to the Orthodox teaching that all of God's creation is to be redeemed and glorified, both spiritual and material.

Now, your church may or may not follow all of the Ecumenical Councils, but they are very important to the Orthodox. They represent a time when heresy was prone to popping up and these Councils combated those heresies. To us they show the triumph of the Church over heresy. Your church may not follow all of the Ecumenical Councils, but still for some of you they may claim to - keep that in mind here as it may help to put this into perspective.

I hope I have provided a concise argument to show that having icons, and venerating the Saints and icons is indeed biblical.

For further reading please follow the links below:
Canons of the 7th Ecumenical Council

Orthodox-Reformed Bridge

Bread From Heaven, also (mind the Catholic apologetics on this one, especially the reference to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary), and lastly, there are many others at this site, but be warned it is for Roman Catholic apologetics, which can and will vary from Orthodox opinions in some cases.

* There are certain icons that produce miracles. These are not said to be self-producing, meaning the icon is some kind of deity, rather it is recognized that God is producing the miracles through His chosen vessel of an icon.
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