Earlier this year, I completed not only a lengthy article but also a 5-part podcast series for Ancient Faith Radio on the history of icons in the Christian Church. These were done in response to an article called ‘The Patristic Critique of Icons,’ which essentially repeats portions of John Calvin’s 16th century arguments against the same, as well as other brief comments.
I have received a lot of emails as a result of this series, and many of those emails bring up questions that I think are worth addressing here. For example, what is the real difference between icons and idols? What is the proper, Christian use of icons? Why are icons necessary for the doctrine of the Incarnation (contra Nestorianism)? And so forth.
In this post, I’m going to attempt an answer to one of these questions: What is the real difference between icons and idols? To answer this question, one must know first what the word idol really means, and especially in the Christian context.
The words idol and idolatry are both carelessly invoked today. For some, idolatry can be applied to practically anything. Going to church can be idolatry; prayer can be idolatry; the Scriptures can be an idol; your spouse or children can be idols; even some have said that being a martyr or practicing asceticism can be idolatry. When everything is idolatry, nothing is idolatry. We have to be careful how far we take such things.
What is an Idol?
The Greek word εἴδωλον is related to ειδος. Ειδος is a word that is often used as either a literal or figurative reference to a form or appearance of something (a visible form or shape).
An example of a figurative reference in the NT is 1 Thess. 5:22, wherein the apostle instructs the Thessalonians to ἀπὸ παντὸς εἴδους πονηροῦ ἀπέχεσθε (“abstain from every form of evil”). When Luke describes the transfiguration, writing “the appearance of his countenance was altered” (Luke 9:29), the word “appearance” is a more literal use of ειδος. And in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament; hereafter LXX), ειδος can be used as a reference to the “glory” of God’s appearance, as with the case of Jacob: “And Jacob called the name of that place ‘Form of God,’ for ‘I saw God face to face, and my life was spared’” (Gen. 32:30). The name of the place (פְּנִיאֵ֑ל in Hebrew, from the Hebrew פָּנִ֣ים for “face”) is in the Greek Εἶδος τοῦ θεοῦ.
Ειδωλον itself can be examined across three main sources, in order to better understand its Christian usage: ancient Greek literature, the Septuagint, and the New Testament.
Idols in Greek Literature
Simply put, ειδωλον means “‘picture’ or ‘copy,’ whether artificially made, self-reproduced or simply present” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 375). However, in most Greek literature, a word other than ειδωλον is used for religious/cultic images of deities: αγαλμα (agalma).
Additionally, the words ανδριας and εικων (icon) are used—instead of ειδωλον—as a reference to statues or depictions of human beings. In the pagan context, the word ειδωλον is not the “cultic object as such” (ibid.), but is a picture or copy of the deity. It would be appropriate to call the idol both a “reflection” (e.g. Aristotle, On Divination in Sleep, 2, p. 4646, 9 & 11) and a “shadow” (e.g. Plato, Republic, 7, 532c) of the deity, as well. Ειδωλα are the “inhabitants of the underworld . . . though they are no longer the men concerned, but only copies of them.” They are also “works of art” as well as recollections that are “awakened by an object in the soul” (ibid.).
Idols in the Septuagint
As a sort of departure from typical Greek literature, the LXX will broadly translate ειδωλον for several different Hebrew words (ibid., p. 377):
- Images of pagan gods – Gen. 31:19,34ff; Ex. 20:4; Num. 33:52; Dt. 5:8; 1 Sam. 31:9; 1 Ch. 10:9; 2 Ch. 14:5; 23:17; 24:18; 33:22; 34:7; Ps. 115:4; 135:15; Is. 10:11; 30:22; 48:5 (עֹצֶב); Hos. 4:17; 8:4; 13:2; 14:9; Mal. 1:7; Zech. 13:2
- Images of deities in a context of contempt or loathing – Lev. 26:30; Deut. 29:17; 1 Kings 11:5,7; 2 Kings 17:12; 21:11,21; 23:24; Ezek. 6:4–6,13; 8:10; 18:12; 23:39; 36:18, 25; 37:23; 44:12
- God(s) and their idols (“El” and “Elohim” in Hebrew) – Num. 25:2; 1 Sam. 17:43; 1 Kings 11:2,7-8,33; Isa. 37:19; 57:5
In the Septuagint, then, ειδωλον—instead of the more common αγαλμα—is used to refer to images of pagan deities, which suggests polemical intent. A word meaning copy or artificial is being used for both the images of pagan deities and the deities themselves. In other words, ειδωλον became a word for false (copy) and unreal gods, as compared to the true God of Israel. This has no non-Jewish (or non-Christian) precedent, and so both Jews and early Christians “coined a new expression out of an existing term” (ibid.). Philo and Josephus also follow the LXX usage of ειδωλον in their written works.
Idols in the New Testament
Not surprisingly, the NT follows the LXX usage of ειδωλον. It is almost exclusively used as a reference to imaginary pagan deities and their cultic depictions (statues, images, etc.). While not occurring at all in the Gospels, the word is used in the writings of both Paul and John (Acts 7:41; 15:20; Rom. 2:22; 1 Cor. 8:4,7; 10:19; 12:2; 2 Cor. 6:16; 1 Thess. 1:9; 1 Jn. 5:21; Rev. 9:20).
TDNT notes a question over whether or not St. Paul sees these pagan gods as “real” or mere imitations/copies/artificialities/etc. (ibid., p. 378):
It is evident from 1 Thess. 1:9 that they are not gods in comparison with God, and from Gal. 4:8 and Rom. 1:23 that they are not divine by nature but only products of human sin and folly. But he [Paul] seems to see demons behind their worship (1 Cor. 10:19; cf. 8:5), so that we do not have here a purely intellectual dismissal. He gave full weight to Deut. 32:17: ἔθυσαν δαιμονίοις καὶ οὐ θεῷ [“They sacrificed to demons and not to God”].
The late-Jewish and apostolic usage of ειδωλον also spawned the neologism ειδωλοθυτον (meat sacrificed to idols), which, while first used in 4 Macc. 5:2, has great importance in both the NT and certain controversies of the early Church.
One can reasonably conclude that, in the Christian context, the word ειδωλον is plainly a false (imaginary) god or its depiction.
Following Paul, we might also say that these are “false” gods in the sense that they are of no comparison to the true God of the Holy Trinity, but are “real” in that they are often associated with demons. The pagans of the Greco-Roman world before the advent of Christianity were not making sacrifices to mere stone or marble, but were in fact serving demons—beings that are very real, and that have real powers and capabilities.
It is somewhat of a stretch to ascribe idolatry (ειδωλολατρεια) or the worship of idols to things that are wholly unrelated to the word itself—with the one exception of πλεονέκτης (covetousness), as seen in two of Paul’s occasional epistles (Col. 3:5; Eph. 5:5); although, it should be noted, this was in response to a specific concern and a direct teaching of Jesus Christ (Matt. 6:24). This does not give a blanket approval to call anything (and everything) idolatry, without restraint. If not a reference to Matt. 6:24, scholars speculate regarding another reference to Paul’s warning, but it is something foreign to our present-day context, in my opinion.
And of course, there is a real inaccuracy or dishonesty in ascribing idolatry to the Christian veneration of holy icons.
As noted above, the word εικων in classical Greek was simply a word used to describe an artistic depiction of a human being (among other things, but nothing related to cultic worship of deities or false gods in the Jewish or early Christian context of the LXX or NT). The Christian usage of εικων for our sacred images is more than appropriate. Saying that icons are idols makes no sense, linguistically (even in the unique Jewish and Christian usage), as our icons are not depictions of imaginary pagan deities, they are not worshipped as copies of such false gods, and they are not the objects of cultic worship (such as “meat sacrificed to idols”). Calling icons idols (in a post-NT context) is just as much a stretch as calling a picture of one’s grandson an idol. The Decree of the Seventh Ecumenical Council discusses this at length, for further reference.
Personally, I think it takes something away from the reality and danger of true idols—as they existed in the days of Israel, Judah, and the early Church—when we call anything an idol, or ascribe idolatry to things that have nothing to do with the actual meaning of the word.
As with St. Paul, I do think there’s a real, demonic presence behind these depictions of pagan deities, and to dilute the meaning of ειδωλον is misguided; to call the veneration of icons “idolatry” is nonsensical. And according to the witness of the undivided Church, to say that the Church has ever sanctioned idolatry, or that sacred images are idols, is not only unthinkable but also a denial of the Incarnation.