Icons and Idols: Was God Invisible Before the Incarnation?

Sunday of Orthodoxy, March 8, 2020
Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40; John 1:43-51

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

It is often said that Orthodox iconography is a witness to the Incarnation in that the invisible God is now visible. So He can be depicted. The God Who was unseen before is now seen. And since He is seen, we can represent what was seen.

There is of course truth to this argument, that we depict the Son of God in icons as we do because He is now seen. But there is something wrong with this argument.

The argument is an attempt to defend the rise of Christian iconography after the Incarnation. The two assumptions it’s based on are both about what faith in God was like before the Incarnation happened. The first one is that there is no iconography before the Incarnation. The second is that God was not visible before the Incarnation. They’re both wrong, and they’re both based on ignorance of the Old Testament.

So let’s look at the first, the idea that there was no iconography before the Incarnation. This is the easiest one to debunk.

Iconography exists in the ancient worship of Israel, especially in the mobile Tabernacle and later the permanent Temple. There were images of angels, cherubim in particular, on the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 25:18), the curtains of the Tabernacle (Ex. 26:1), the veil to the Holy of Holies (Ex. 26:31), in the sanctuary (I Kings 6:23), on the walls (I Kings 6:29), on the doors (I Kings 6:32), and even on the furnishings (I Kings 7:29,36).

And why were cherubim in particular depicted in these places surrounding the Ark, the Tabernacle and Temple? It is because these are the angels who surround and guard the throne of God. The Ark and the two places it was located in were representative of heaven and, in particular, God’s throne in it.

But hadn’t God commanded Israel not to make images? No, clearly, He did not make a blanket command to make no images. After all, the instructions for the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, for instance, are given directly by God and include the command to include two cherubim (Ex. 25:18-20).

But what about making images of God? Didn’t He command them not to do that in Deuteronomy 4, where He says to them that they had seen no form of God and so could not depict Him? It is true that most of the people had not seen God in any way, but that wasn’t true of Moses, Aaron, and some of the other elders of Israel. They had all seen a form.

Rather, the point God is making here is explained by the verses that follow that warning, which are about idolatry. In other words, they were not to try to trap God and control Him by making images of Him, which is the way that idolatry works.

That is a useful segue into looking at this second assumption of this argument, that God had never been seen before the Incarnation.

It is simply not true that God was completely invisible before the Incarnation. God is said to appear many times in the Old Testament, to Adam and Eve when He walks in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:8), to Abraham at the Oak at Mamre (Gen. 18:1), or to Jacob when He wrestled with him in the night (Gen. 32:24).

And there are many times that prophets see visions of God on His throne in heaven (Is. 6:1, Ezek. 1:26-27) or above the mercy seat on the Ark (Lev. 16:2) or even speaking face to face with Moses (Ex. 33:11). One could go on and on. There is even a point when God has dwelt with them and accompanied them visibly for more than forty years, a presence so familiar to the people that they wept when He left them (Judges 2:1-4).

These visible appearances of God are often referred to in the Old Testament as “the Angel of the Lord” or “the Word of the Lord.” The language that the Old Testament uses for this figure is the language used only for Yahweh, the God of Israel, their Creator and Lord. For instance, when the Angel of the Lord visibly appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Ex. 3:2), a few verses later, the Scriptures say that God is the One speaking to him out of the bush (Ex. 3:4-6).

So given all this, how is it that St. John can write in John 1:18, that “No one has seen God at any time”? Does the Apostle John simply not know about the Angel of the Lord, the Word of the Lord Who is God Himself?

Sometimes, when people quote John 1:18, saying, “No one has seen God at any time,” they forget about the last half of the verse, which goes like this: “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.”

This verse is actually the completion of a thought that John had been making from the beginning of the chapter, where he begins by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). And then later he says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

In other words, this figure Who had appeared so many times in the Old Testament, this Angel of the Lord or the Word of the Lord, Who is indeed Yahweh, the God of Israel, is in fact the very Son of God Jesus Christ. St. John is taking the existing knowledge of the appearance of God and saying that this Second Person of Yahweh Whom Israel had always known is now man, and that man is Jesus Christ.

He is therefore not saying that no one had ever seen God. He is saying that every time someone saw God, it was the Son and Word of God Whom they saw. And He is now here among us. He is Jesus Christ.

So what is really being declared by the icons? They do not declare that the Son of God is now visible—though He is, but He often had been visible before, too. They declare that the Son of God is now man.

You can see that all arguments against iconography break down not on the basis of the Incarnation making the invisible visible. Rather, they break down because the people of God had always made images of holy ones before—especially the angels who are in the presence of God—and because Israel had been seeing God for many centuries before the Incarnation.

The argument against iconography breaks down because those who reject icons do not understand what idolatrous images were actually used for. They were not merely religious art. They are a kind of religious technology designed to trap and control a god.

Icons depict what has actually been seen, which is why we depict God not in symbolical forms but as Jesus Christ, Whom the apostles saw and touched. And icons are not used for idolatry, trapping and controlling God. He cannot be trapped.

Rather, icons exist to connect us freely with our Lord and with all His holy ones, the angels and also sanctified human beings, so that we may worship only the one true God.

To Him therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.


  1. I have always thought that the substance of the argument for icons since the Incarnation is that God took Flesh, not just that he was now visible. Because He took flesh and our nature as well, He is now in dwelling in humans in a way in which He was not before. Therefore icons of the saints.

    Am I wrong?

    1. That just seems to me the same argument, though with the terms redefined. That is, we can now make icons because God is flesh.

      But we had icons before the Incarnation, and we also make icons of appearances of God before the Incarnation (though “anachronistically” depicting Him according to the Incarnation).

      We make icons as we now do because of the Incarnation, but the Incarnation is not the reason that we make icons.

      1. OK. I can see that but there is both a qualitative difference in the Christian icons and, it seems, a quantitative difference. Humans either make idols or icons. I do not understand what about the Incarnation makes a difference in our icons,? Or is there one?

        1. The primary way that it makes a difference is in exactly how Christ is depicted, which is defined by canonical decisions. He is not depicted symbolically (e.g., as a lamb) and even in His pre-Incarnation appearances, He is depicted as the Incarnate Jesus Christ.

  2. I would be really interested to hear more about idols as “religious technology designed to trap and control a god”. This distinctly reminds me naming things or knowing and speaking the name of some thing in the ancient world giving one particular power or authority over it. Do you think there is overlap between these two ideas? What are your thoughts?

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