Orthodox Icons: Are we worshiping graven images?

May 8, 2019

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; One God, Amen.  


My beloved, if you have ever walked into an authentic Orthodox Church, surely you have noticed the beauty within it with all it’s domes, pillars, veils, and especially its gold-leafed iconography. For over 15 centuries now, Orthodox Icons have played a very important role in the spirituality of Orthodox Liturgical expression. Now there is much to say about Icons, and so for now, we will only attempt to cover a brief introduction of the meaning and purpose of icons. In later videos we can speak to many other questions that surround Coptic Orthodox Iconography. To begin this short series on Icons, lets first address the skeptics: let’s ask the question “When using icons in the Church, are we worshiping graven images?” Let’s dive right in to begin our investigation.  


To begin, in an attempt to have a better understanding of how the Orthodox Church approaches iconography, lets first address the word icon; what does it even mean?


To understand its source, lets go all the way back to the account of creation. In Genesis 1:26, we read “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” This word ‘image’ in the original Hebrew is the word tselem צֶלֶםWhen this word was later translated into the Greek Septuagint translation, the word used was Eikona εκναIt is from this root word that today we have the English word icon; simply meaning an image. And so, if we dare say, the concept of creating icons (or images) began with God the Pantocrator as the first Divine Iconographer who created humanity in His own image. Even our Lord Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, in His humanity was also called the perfect image of the Father. We receive this from St Paul who speaks of Our Incarnate Lord in Colossians 1 and says “He is the image (εἰκών) of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” And so, just as God creates humanity as the visible expression of His image within all of creation, so too the Church continued in this tradition of expressing the experience and revelation of God through imagery (also known as iconography). This is done through icons of Our Lord Jesus Christ who came and manifested himself visibly in human form through His incarnation, icons of the Holy Virgin Mother St Mary, icons of the angels, saints, martyrs, and other major events that are seen as significant moments in both scriptural and ecclesial history.  


Now I can already see how some people will immediately raise an eyebrow and say “but what about the ten commandments?!” If you have ever read scripture before surely you have come across the book of Exodus. In this book, we find the very popular passage where God gives Moses his commandments for the people of Israel. Among these, we find a very interesting commandment that many like to reference when they argue that we ought not use icons within our expressions of Orthodox worship. The passage in question is Exodus 20:4 


“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”.  


And so, some would argue, because today we find Icons in Church and in our homes, that all these qualify as the very “images” which Exodus 20 warns against. However, the Orthodox response to this would be that clearly this verse has been taken out of context. Let’s see the entire passage put together, including if you wish both the verses that come before and after the one we just read. Lets look at it together: 


1 And God spoke all these words, saying: 2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.3 “You shall have no other gods before Me. 4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God […] (Exodus 20:1-5)  


When placed in its proper context, we discover that the Lord is preoccupied not so much with imagery in and of itself, but rather the worship of anything other than Himself, the One True God. He is speaking to a people who have just come out of Egypt – where they saw men and woman bow down to pagan idols, statues, mural paintings, and where these same people both saw and learned to offer sacrifices to these false gods of Egypt. The Lord therefore is not speaking out against the use of imagery (i.e. Icons as we have explained) but rather He is speaking out against the worship of anything that is false and demonic. He is clearly warning them that they ought not worship anything created, but rather worship Him who is Creator!  


Now we have seen that the Lord doesn’t want His people worshiping other false god’s, however some may ask how do we know that the Lord was not specifically speaking out against imagery per se? Well this is made clear to us in the account of the building of the tabernacle. The book of Exodus gives a clear account of how the Lord is the great Artist who commands Moses as to how every aspect of the tabernacle will be designed with artistic care: using gold and silver, fine linen, and where images of heavenly creatures such as the cherubim are depicted. The Lord even goes to great length to even instill in the hearts of specific people the gift of being able to artistically craft out the tabernacle that the Lord has designed. Let’s read from the book of Exodus: 


“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. 3 And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, 4 to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, 5 in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship. 6 “And I, indeed I, have appointed with him Aholiab the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have put wisdom in the hearts of all the gifted artisans, that they may make all that I have commanded you […]” (Exodus 31:1-6)  


And again: “Then all the gifted artisans among them who worked on the tabernacle made ten curtains woven of fine linen, and of blue, purple, and scarlet thread; with artistic designs of cherubim they made them.” (Exodus 36:8)  


And finally: “He [Bezalel] made two cherubim of beaten gold; he made them of one piece at the two ends of the mercy seat: 8 one cherub at one end on this side, and the other cherub at the other end on that side. He made the cherubim at the two ends of one piece with the mercy seat. 9 The cherubim spread out their wings above, and covered the mercy seat with their wings. They faced one another; the faces of the cherubim were toward the mercy seat.“ (Exodus 37: 7-9)  


Now if the Lord’s commandment were solely focused on the banishment of all imagery, then how can we explain that the Lord not only commands the use of imagery to beautify the tabernacle, but also asked for specific people whom He has “called by name” – people equipped with gifts and talents to do the work that He has set out to be done. I believe from these passages, and in reading the primary passage of the commandment against the use of graven images, we have clearly demonstrated that Scripture in no way condemns the use of imagery within the liturgical life of the Church, but rather condemns the worship of created things instead of the Almighty God. As for questions such as why the importance of Icons, their purpose and value in the Church, we will address those subjects in another separate video.

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