On Teaching Protestants About Saints, Icons, and Theosis

Having taught college-level Religion classes for 25 years now, I have known for a long time that it can be a challenge for students from any faith background to interpret fairly the beliefs and practices of other communities.  In my experience, that is especially the case for many evangelical Protestants when they encounter just about anything that looks “too Catholic.”  Having grown up a Southern Baptist in Texas and having taught now for over 20 years at a Methodist-related institution, I have not been surprised to have students who seem allergic to practices they identify with the abuses of Rome as rejected by the Protestant Reformation.  This semester’s students in my Orthodox Theology course have helped me grow in my understanding of how to address these dynamics with a bit more clarity.

As they were reading St. John of Damascus’ treatises in defense of the holy icons, some of my students took objection to his claim that the Saints are due honor because they partake by grace in the divine glory.  An implication of that claim is that to refuse to honor the Saints is to refuse also to give proper glory to God, for it is His glory in which the Saints participate.  How, then, could any Christian fail to honor those who shine with holy light?  Some students suggested that to honor the icons of Saints, to ask for their prayers, and to remember them liturgically puts people at risk of worshiping the Saints instead of God, of committing idolatry.  In response, I explained that Orthodoxy formally distinguishes between veneration and worship and that there is so much in the life of the Church, and in the spiritual formation of Orthodox believers, to guard against such abuses.  They remained skeptical, however.

It occurred to me a few days after that class that the students were probably thinking about what they imagine would happen if the veneration of Saints and icons were all of a sudden made part of the Methodist congregations in which they worship.  As is perfectly understandable, they were thinking in light of their own experience.  And since the theological sensibilities of Protestantism developed over against the abuses of the Catholic Church in the 16th century, how could they not be suspicious of restoring practices that the Reformers rejected and that are essentially unknown in their communities?

As well, it clicked that Orthodox veneration of the Saints manifests belief in theosis, that human beings become participants in the divine energies like an iron left in the fire.  They shine with the divine glory as they become holy through their participation in the life of the Holy Trinity by grace.  From its origins, the Church has glorified God by celebrating those in whom we have experienced His holiness.  They show us what it means for people, every bit as human as we are, to be so united with the New Adam that they become living icons of the fulfillment of our nature as those created in God’s image and likeness.  Since Orthodoxy is clear about the radical difference between worship and veneration, there is no threat of idolatry here.  Likewise, the iconoclasts challenged the experience of the Church from her origins.  They were the innovators, insisting that what they did not like be ripped out of the life of the Body of Christ, irrespective of the scandal and harm caused to the people of God.

The next time that class met, I urged my students to remember that St. John of Damascus was speaking in and to a Church with well-established understandings of theosis, of the difference between worship and veneration, and centuries of experience in honoring and asking for the prayers of the Saints.  He was not addressing Protestants with no concept of deification.  He was not addressing communities that had refused to venerate the Saints for five hundred years, that had identified that practice with later abuses in the West, or that had affirmed sola scriptura.  My students may make of these matters what they will, but I suggested that it is probably not helpful to reduce the issue simply to speculation on what would happen if they started venerating Saints tomorrow in their own congregations.

Instead, they would do well to wrestle with their relationship to the “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12 that inspires us to look to Christ as we continue the race.  There is no competition between honoring those holy people and worshipping the Lord in that passage.  They would benefit from engaging the status of the martyrs described in Revelation 6 and the reference to the prayers of the Saints rising with incense in Revelation 8.  In other words, their traditions should encourage them to engage the Bible on these matters, including the miracles worked by the bones of Elisha in the Old Testament (2 Kings 13:21) and the shadow, handkerchiefs, and aprons of the Apostles in the New Testament (Acts 5:15, 19:12).  Since Protestants are supposed to judge tradition by Scripture, they should consider whether their traditions have done justice to the teachings of the Bible on these matters.   Some of my former students have become Orthodox as a result of wrestling with such questions, but what they do with my suggestions is ultimately up to them.

Enthusiastic veneration of the Saints and their icons did not break out spontaneously that day in class, but I could tell that the students were open to seeing these matters in a new light, and not in a way that is entirely captive to their own experience.  That is surely one of the most important dimensions of higher education.   Maybe there is some point to what I have had the blessing to do now for 25 years.




  1. I think something that might aid in helping Protestants, such as Methodists, to understand Orthodox practices is to help explain why these practices are not superfluous. In Methodism, we tend to believe that our theology cuts right to the core of Christian faith casting aside the unnecessary.

    1. Chris,
      Thanks for your comment. Perhaps the maximalist orientation of Orthodoxy would be helpful at that point. If we are truly called to become partakers of the divine nature by grace, then honoring those who have become shining examples of such holiness could hardly be superfluous. And who is in a better position to pray for us than those who have finished the race?
      Fr. Philip

  2. I was talking about miracle-working icons to Jennifer Spock (Eastern Kentucky U) at a conference a few years ago, and she mentioned that when her Evangelical Protestant students express disbelief that icons can weep, she challenges them: “But don’t you believe God does miracles?” “Yes,” they reply, “but not THOSE sorts of miracles!” I thought that was a penetrating observation on the double-standards we sometimes apply to other people’s religious experiences.

  3. I’m a life-long United Methodist, and I love reading about the saints. Without their example, I would never have realized what God intends us to be capable of. I also find making the sign of the cross to be very comforting.

  4. Thanks for your thought provoking blog. I came across the beauty of the orthodox tradition while traveling through Crete and visiting one of the churches that was opened. I have also read about theosis, an idea that was foreign to the fundamentalist tradition I grew up in, and I am still grappling with what it means and the similarities/differences with the protestant idea of sanctification.

    Peace and blessings

    1. Thanks very much for your comment. Blessings as you continue the journey!
      In Christ,
      Fr. Philip

  5. Fascinating – the part on miracles does provoke this protestant pastor: why only view specific instances as miracles and not creation as a miracle per se without the need of proof via certain points in existence? The crucified and resurrected Lord is enough of a mystery to grapple with…. All the best, Adrian

    1. Adrian,
      Thanks very much for your comment.
      Orthodoxy teaches that God’s divine energies permeate all reality. The crucified and risen Lord invites us all to become participants in the holy mystery of salvation. We see the Saints as brilliant exemplars of what it means for humans to be united with Him by grace. The Second Adam fulfills our nature as those created in His image and likeness. As such, it should not be surprising to see their lives, bodies, and possessions as conduits for bringing the world into fuller communion with Him.
      Fr. Philip

    2. Adrian, you say:

      “why only view specific instances as miracles and not creation as a miracle”

      We Orthodox do view creation as a miracle, in fact we sing of this all the time when we call the perfections placed in the world and the establishment of the heavens, the earth, the division of the waters, miracles. For us miracle is another word for a wonder, a ‘thavma.’

      “without the need of proof via certain points in existence”

      We do not extol God’s wonders because they offer empirical proof. Rather we extol wonders first because we love the Wonderworker who alone works great wonders, and second because they are wondrous.

      Wonder is also relative thing: When God disrupts his habit for tending the world (by appearing in a cloud or parting the sea), we marvel because he has shaken up our familiarity, shown us a glimpse of something we cannot fully get a hold of. Now you might say, “Shame on you for getting to familiar, then! You should cultivate wonder equally for all things!” But if everything’s a wonder, then nothing’s a wonder. Without difference, we cannot even meet the world, let alone meet God.

  6. Greetings and the peace of Christ be to all that read this comment. I am a fourteen-year-old Orthodox Christian girl writing a speech about the history, theology, and beauty of iconography. I am writing this speech to present to three Protestant Christians per round (or times I deliver the speech at a tournament) who will be my judges and rank me against the seven other speakers in that room. I am very nervous that I will get push-back and rank eighth in the room every time I deliver my speech. However, I am so passionate about defending the Orthodox faith, especially icons, the saints, and theosis (I want to be an iconographer), that I refuse to give up my desire to perform this speech. This post helped me in provoking thoughts on how to word my speech. Thank you, Fr. Phillip, and God bless.
    (p.s. Please pray for me as I will compete with this speech for the first time on Dec. 10th)

    1. Sophia:
      Blessings! Thank you for your message and your deep commitment to speaking about Orthodox iconography. I pray that God will bless and strengthen you for the tournament. Please feel free to be in touch whenever I can be of help.
      In Christ,
      Fr. Philip

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