An Orthodox Response to John Calvin on Icons: Icons and Idolatry

An Orthodox Response to John Calvin on Icons: Icons and Idolatry

Are all religious depictions idolatry? This is a question that plagued the Roman Empire near the end of the eighth century, and again in the ninth.

And though our patristic forebears no doubt assumed this aversion to iconography was settled once and for all—as celebrated most pointedly on the Sunday of Orthodoxy near the beginning of Great Lent—the aniconic spirit reared its ugly head again in the Protestant Reformation.

In my first article on this topic, I briefly examined the rhetoric of the Reformation and how this rhetorical style was used to influence the commoners on the subject of spiritual artwork: relics, icons, crucifixes, illuminated Gospel books, and so on. And while not all Reformers have the same position on this question, those who adopt the neo-iconoclastic notions of heretics past are most dependent on the arguments set forth by John Calvin.

For Calvin, not only was the veneration of icons and other religious relics forbidden, but also their very existence and placement in the homes and churches of faithful Christians. His arguments rest upon two basic assumptions: 1. All images of God/gods are idols, and 2. Christian images are therefore indistinguishable from pagan idols.

Let’s take a closer look.

All Images of God are Idols

As mentioned in the first post, the eleventh chapter of the first book of Institutes is where Calvin directly addresses the subject of religious imagery.

He begins his discussion by explaining how the scriptures distinguish “the true God from the false” by contrasting him with “idols” (1.11.1). From this point of view, even images or statues meant to represent the one true God are idols, for they erect something other than God for mankind to direct their worship:

God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him. Therefore in the law, after having claimed for himself alone the glory of deity, when he would teach what worship he approves or repudiates, God soon adds, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any likeness.” By these words he restrains our waywardness from trying to represent him by any visible image, and briefly enumerates all those forms by which superstition long ago began to turn his truth into falsehood. (1.11.1)

And further:

[W]ithout exception he repudiates all likenesses, pictures, and other signs by which the superstitious have thought he will be near them. (1.11.1)

Beyond mere representations themselves, Calvin makes it plain that to venerate or worship such objects is both superstitious and forbidden by scripture:

[W]hen you prostrate yourself in veneration, representing to yourself in an image either a god or a creature, you are already ensnared in some superstition. For this reason, the Lord forbade not only the erection of statues constructed to represent himself but also the consecration of any inscriptions and stones that would invite adoration. (1.11.9)

And again:

Why do they prostrate themselves before these things? Why do they, when about to pray, turn to them as if to God’s ears? Indeed, what Augustine says is true, that no one thus gazing upon an image prays or worships without being so affected that he thinks he is heard by it, or hopes that whatever he desires will be bestowed upon him. (1.11.10)

To summarize, Calvin argues that to depict God in any way (to give him a “form”) is to detract from God’s glory. By creating an intermediary, we replace God and his own glory with a superstitious falsehood—an idol or false god, as idolatry especially in the Old Testament is often connected with the idea of a fake or nonexistent deity, as opposed to the true God of Israel. By offering veneration to these idols, Christians are no different than the Israelites paying homage to a golden calf, which itself was meant to represent Yahweh.

The Orthodox Response

In response to these initial claims, Orthodox Christians have much to say.

The scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ is the image or “form” of God (εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ): “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). While the Father and Spirit are both formless and invisible (1 Tim. 1:17; Heb. 11:27; 1 John 4:20), the ὑπόστασις or person of the Son is revealed to us in the God-Man Jesus Christ: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18).

God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), as the prophetic Emmanuel indicates (Matt. 1:23). When we look at Christ, we see the Father, and Jesus Christ is the “exact counterpart of [the Father’s] person” (Heb. 1:3). This word translated by the EOB:NT as “counterpart” is χαρακτὴρ, implying something like an image stamped into a wax seal. Through the Incarnation, God made himself known to us as a circumscribed, touchable, breathing person—a person that was born, grew old, ate and drank, suffered, was buried, and resurrected after three days.

So when Calvin and his followers claim that depicting God in any way detracts from his glory, we must only point to Christ, for it is in the person of Jesus Christ (most importantly, at least) that we see the face of God. When we praise, worship, and magnify Jesus Christ, we are offering praise, worship, and honor to the all-holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Similarly, when we pay honor to the image of the Son of God in icons, we are paying honor to the prototype—to Jesus Christ himself. And when we honor the Saints, we are honoring the God whose uncreated light shines through their halos. The uncreated light of the shimmering gold leaf as it reflects the light of our oil lamps and candles—symbolic of the faithfulness of God shining forth in their saintly and Christ-like lives (which is, incidentally, why Orthodox Christians pay such close attention to the lives of the Saints).

Calvin’s arguments on this point seemingly presuppose that the Incarnation never happened; that the dispensation of the new covenant has yet to take place, and that there has been no Emmanuel or “God with us,” a God we can hear, see with our own eyes, and touch (1 John 1:1). These sorts of arguments are fitting for a religion such as Islam, but they are not the Christian Gospel; the Gospel of God made flesh, dwelling among us for our salvation.

Also missing from this presentation is any mention of the times when God commands his people to relate to him through an intermediary such as the bronze serpent, a relic that even miraculously healed people of their infirmities (Num. 21:9).

The flaw in Calvin’s viewpoint rests not only in Christology, but also in anthropology (as the two are inextricably linked). Mankind is created “according to the image of God,” as in the Greek translation of Genesis—κατʼ εἰκόνα θεοῦ (Gen. 1:27). And that image of God is Christ. Being created in the image of Christ, human beings are oriented towards a teleological purpose of transformation according to God’s likeness in him. This is our destiny, and why we are created: To become like Christ; to become like God. To be anything less is to be less than fully human, as Christ is the true and final Adam (1 Cor. 15:45).

Christian Artwork is Idolatry

The second tenet of Calvin’s argument revolves around the idea that not only are all religous images idolatrous (and perhaps even all images, though this is less clear), but also that Christian artwork in particular is idolatrous. In other words, images of Christ, the ever-virgin Mary, angels, and the Saints are all idols, regardless of who or what they depict.

For example, speaking of the Psalmist and his adversion to pagan idols, Calvin asserts:

[David] concludes in general that nothing is less commendable than for gods to be fashioned from any dead matter. [Ps. 135:15; cf. Ps. 115:4] (1.11.4)

This implies that attempts to fashion a form (eidos) of God is prohibited, at least as Calvin sees it. The problem being that, in David’s context, the idols are forms or images of false or non-existent deities. They are images of demons, even, as taught elsewhere. The Old Testament in particular is no stranger when it comes to associating idols (eidolon) with pagan gods (e.g. 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), while in much of classical Greek literature, the ειδωλον are mere copies, rarely viewed as deities in-and-of-themselves. (Ανδριας and εικων are more frequently used in reference to images or statues of human beings.)

Looking at this from another angle, attempts to depict deity or the divine nature itself are scandalous, and should be avoided (Acts 17:29).

For example, in the written works of St. John of Damascus alone—the father of Orthodox iconology—we find:

If we attempt to make an image of the invisible God, this would be sinful indeed. It is impossible to portray one who is without body: invisible, uncircumscribed, and without form …

If anyone should dare to make an image of the immaterial, bodiless, invisible, formless, and colorless Godhead, we reject it as a falsehood …

I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead, but I paint the image of God who became visible in the flesh, for if it is impossible to make a representation of a spirit, how much more impossible is it to depict the God who gives life to the spirit?

Continuing along the lines of images as “superstitious,” Calvin states:

Now we ought to bear in mind that Scripture repeatedly describes superstitions in this language: they are the “works of men’s hands,” which lack God’s authority [Isa. 2:8; 31:7; 37:19; Hos. 14:3; Micah 5:13]; this is done to establish the fact that all the cults men devise of themselves are detestable. (1.11.4)

Again, the context is pagan idolatry and the worship of false (non-existent) deities. In the Christian and especially Orthodox Christian context, icons are strictly fashioned anagogically according to the Gospel. They depict eternal truths and transcendent realities, revealing the deeper meaning of the world around us for our crippled senses.

Next, Calvin touches on the idea that veneration or honoring images—even Christian images—diminishes the glory due to God alone. This, he argues, is in fact a form of idolatry:

Men are so stupid that they fasten God wherever they fashion him; and hence they cannot but adore. And there is no difference whether they simply worship an idol, or God in the idol. It is always idolatry when divine honors are bestowed upon an idol, under whatever pretext this is done. And because it does not please God to be worshiped superstitiously, whatever is conferred upon the idol is snatched away from Him. (1.11.9)

Here, Calvin denies the Christian distinction between veneration and adoration—perhaps most famously explained at the Second Council of Nicaea (A.D. 787). Stated briefly, veneration or honor can be paid to honorable men (for example, kings and royalty, along with clergy), angels, and even relics or the Cross, while adoration (λατρεία) is given to God alone.

While exposited more fully at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, this distinction is thoroughly biblical. The scriptures provide numerous examples where a person or object is venerated, and without it being mistaken as idolatry (or the worship due God alone): Leah and her children, along with Rachael and Joseph (Gen. 33:7); Absalom before the king (2 Sam./Kings 25:23); a woman before a man (1 Sam./Kings 25:23); a woman before a prophet (2/4 Kings 4:37); and even priests before the ark of the covenant, which was adorned with statues of the cherubim (Psalm 98/99:5)!

And I should add, it seems a denial of both human reason and experience to claim the honor paid to relics or images does not pass along to their prototypes. When Americans salute their flag, they are not honoring cloth and ink. When a lonely wife kisses a photo of her husband while he’s away on business, she is not honoring a piece of paper (or cell phone screen). When a child hugs close to them a gift from their recently deceased grandparent, they are honoring the giver, not the gift itself. Veneration is all around us, and no one mistakes it for the worship of idols.

Calvin again reproaches the distinction beween veneration and adoration:

The honor that they pay to their images they allege to be idol service, denying it to be idol worship. For they speak thus when they teach that the honor which they call dulia can be given to statues and pictures without wronging God. Therefore they deem themselves innocent if they are only servants of idols, not worshipers of them too. (1.11.11)

This goes back to the meaning of both idols and idolatry. What is an idol? What is idolatry? Calvin seems incapable of making the simple distinction between a statue of a false deity and that of Christ and his friends. This seems to me both obstinate and absurd. There is a gaping chasm between the worship (whether veneration or adoration) given to idols and the honoring of Christ, his holy Mother, angels, and Saints.

The object of our devotion is neither wood and paint nor the legions of Satan—it is Christ and those who have shown forth Christ in all humility and self-sacrifice for the life of the world. It is no different than honoring the saints of old in Hebrews chapter eleven, the “great cloud of witnesses” that encourages the faithful as we strive to finish the race set before us (Heb. 12:1).

Finally, Calvin derides Orthodox Christians specifically in their (primary) usage of two-dimensional iconography:

But we must note that a “likeness” no less than a “graven image” is forbidden. Thus is the foolish scruple of the Greek Christians refuted. For they consider that they have acquitted themselves beautifully if they do not make sculptures of God, while they wantonly indulge in pictures more than any other nation. But the Lord forbids not only that a likeness be erected to him by a maker of statues but that one be fashioned by any craftsman whatever, because he is thus represented falsely and with an insult to his majesty. (1.11.4)

The background here is a wordplay that is somewhat lost in English. The idols of the second commandment are “scupltured images” (Heb: פֶּ֫סֶל from the root פסל, meaning to “hew” or “cut”), implying three-dimensional images. Since most Orthodox iconography (at least during this time) was two-dimensional, Calvin aims to prove that we Greeks are not free from his condemnations of idolatry.

But again, the Orthodox objection to this artistic fundamentalism is in its denial of the Incarnation. If God could become truly man—being the very image of God—then true depictions of other images of God are not only possible, but also acceptable. Without image-making, there is no salvation. God fashioned an image according to his own for our salvation.

G. V. Martini

About G. V. Martini

G. V. Martini works as a senior product manager for a software company and is a subdeacon in the Orthodox Church. He and his family attends St. Innocent Antiochian Orthodox Church in Everson, Washington.



  1. Regarding the denial of the incarnation, the usual Calvinist approach seems to be to resort to Nestorianism by positing that the human body of Christ is not God but rather a property of Christ’s human nature. Calvin also unwittingly conjures up Nestorius in that the Monergism inherent in Calvinism depends on monothelitism, as does Nestorianism, which relies on a single will to connect the human and divine natures, faces or persons, depending on how far you take it. This attribute of Calvinism was pointed out by Luther and also surfaces in the Black Rubric.

    Interestingly, the real Nestorians apparently had icons at one point but stopped using them for practical reasons, but they are not prohibited and their absence is possibly illicit according to the canon law of the Assyrian church. The real Nestorians are in my private opinion no longer guity of Nestorianism at least since the current Catholicos came to power, but the fact that they were and are able to tolerate an absence of iconography might be linked to their belief system. For my part I am entirely convinced that the two main errors of the Reformed churches and their derivatives are crypto-Nestorianism conjoined with iconoclasm.

    1. I agree with you, William, that Calvin’s theology hearkens back to Nestorianism, and you hit an interesting point about the Assyrian Church of the East. In fact, the Assyrian Church of the East has never considered herself Nestorian and does not hold to Nestorianism (Nestorius was a Greek Constantinopolitan and not a Syriac-speaking Christian), largely because his debate with others, names Cyril of Alexandria, was essentially a Greek argument in Greek about how to use ὑπόστασις versus φύσης and what those terms really meant.

      The heresy of which we accuse the Assyrian Church and those in communion with her, they simply do not hold, frankly, and have never held (Thumpanirappel, Christ in the East Syriac Tradition, 2003). It is only we who call them Nestorians, which is very, very unfortunate.

  2. Great article! Thank you.

    Weren’t there a couple of Ecumenical Patriarchs who were Calvinists?

    1. Patriarch and martyr Cyril Lucaris is often accused or assumed to have been as much, although this seems to be false. There were political reasons for the Calvinists to attempt this forgery, but he never publicly or in writing confessed to such beliefs.

      Nevertheless, the Orthodox Church responded to the confession attributed to him in no uncertain terms (Synod of Jerusalem and Confession of Dositheus).

      More info here and here.

  3. By the way, the Calvinist iconoclasm seems amusing in light of the existence of Calvinist iconography, the zenith of which is surely Rev. Robert Walker Ice-Skating on Duddingston Loch.

  4. Great article. I sometimes think that Calvin’s clumsy, ham-fisted theology is part and parcel of the Reformation’s need to reduce and reject “Church” – writ large – to simple black-and-white “theology” that could be reconstructed from Sola Scriptura doctrine. But Sola Scriptura back fires because Christian faith has never been “Bible Alone”; the Christian Church didn’t start that way, it wasn’t founded that way, and its trajectory over time wasn’t that way. In short, it seems there is no such thing as the Gospel without Christian Tradition. It is precisely Christian Tradition that the Reformation must reject, while holding on to so much of it at the same time. . . . Again, great, thought-provoking article.

  5. Gabe, thanks for combining your passion, skill, knowledge and time into a work that is so informative and irrefutable. I always enjoy your work.

  6. Icons and idolatry. If it walks like duck, waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck then hey ho, surprise, surprise it is a duck! Icons are idolatrous.

    Relying on tradition is simply teaching for doctrine the commandments of men.

    I do not see Reformed Christians abasing themselves before the reformation wall in Geneva nor do I see Scottish Presbyterians abasing themselves at the statue of Knox outside the High Kirk of St Giles in Edinburgh.

    Statues are OK per se but should never be inside a church nor used in any way in worship.

    1. Forgive me for saying so, but your comment represents a classic case of looking at something from the outside (i.e., Orthodox practice and the Scriptures) and failing to perceive its interior content and meaning. “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.”

      Is the gesture of the child in the linked photo “idolatry”?:

      If you believe it is, then I guess you are beyond reach of the truth for the moment. If you believe it is not, as an Orthodox believer I can tell you that the Orthodox Christian veneration of Icons is a completely analogous gesture. I can also tell you it has enabled me to believe and express, not only in my words and prayers, but also with my body and heart, the profound appropriateness of so honoring Christ and those events and persons in salvation history that have caused Him to shine forth most brightly.

      1. Of course I am looking at it from outside Orthodoxy, I am a Presbyterian. Nobody is suggesting photographs are idolatrous, that is a typical trite, off the back of a fag packet RC and Orthodox response.

        I have photos of my mum, dad and grandchildren on display at home but I would never dream of involving them in any religious ceremony worshipping the Almighty nor would I abase myself before them in any way.

        1. “Nobody is suggesting photographs are idolatrous, that is a typical trite, off the back of a fag packet RC and Orthodox response.”

          James, you seem to have misunderstood, and I apologize because the photo in the link is small and didn’t show enough context to make this clear. In the photo, the boy is kissing (the act of “veneration” for an Orthodox) the Vietnam Veteran’s War Memorial in Washington, D.C., presumably in honor of a loved one who has died in the war. Do we assume the child loves the granite of the wall or the inscription of his loved one’s name? Is that why he is kissing the wall? Of course, not. I assume it is obvious even to you that he offers this gesture in the context of a formal public memorial object because it is an embodied way of symbolically referring love and honor to the loved one. Is such love and honor and its public expression “idolatry?” What is your Presbyterian response? From an Orthodox perspective, the erection of such a public memorial and its use (whether formal or not) is in every way analogous to the Orthodox use of Icons in the liturgical (public worship) setting.

          Perhaps you are aware that in biblical times and in the orient to this day (the Near East being the context, obviously, of the origination of ancient Christian customs), one also bows to show respect for a social superior (one’s elders) or in greeting another. There are instances of believers bowing in this context in Scripture where there is no hint of rebuke for “idolatry” from the Scriptures, though the object of the “bowing down” was another human being or a sacred space/object (i.e., the “Holy of Holies”).

          Perhaps you believe the Jewish traditions (in ancient times and to this day) of bowing toward the Temple in Jerusalem, bowing and praying along the Wailing Wall, and kissing the scrolls of their Scriptures before reading them is also “idolatry.” If so, then I can at least acknowledge you are consistent, if not exactly correct, in your interpretation of both of Scripture and its application (ancient and contemporary) in Jewish and Christian tradition.

          Matthew 25, 1 John, and many other Scriptures make it quite clear that our love for others is the necessary and normative way to demonstrate authentic love (worship) for God. Nothing could be more natural or appropriate than to express this in the context of gathered Christian worship as well (as Christians have from ancient times, e.g., the liturgical kiss of peace mentioned by the Apostle Paul). How odd to believe that love and honor expressed toward God’s actions in history and toward those whose lives He has transformed detracts somehow from love and honor to God Himself! On the contrary, the biblical attitude is that all honor expressed for the things and people of God (whether ritualized or not) is ultimately given to God Himself! I have to admit I suspect if you did “abase” yourself a bit more before photos of your loved ones as well as in the living presence of others (such as Orthodox also do with fellow worshippers), such a gesture might drive home to you a little better why the Scriptures urge us to an attitude of of “gentleness and reverence” in defending our Christian hope (1 Peter 3:15).

          1. Dear Karen

            I never kiss inanimate objects. I try never to attach too much emotional interest in them either, lest I turn them into idols, ever mindful of the dangers of straying into idolatory. This does not mean I do not like or appreciate nice things, on the contrary I collect lots of stuff.

            I,admittedly, base my aversion to statues and pictures in worship on the pretty clear instruction contained in the second commandment. The shorter catechism of the Church of Scotland also enjoins us not to engage in practices of worshipping anything which is not God or authorised by scripture ( the regulatory principle in worship ).

            I do understand some branches of Christianity have teased out the meaning of the second commandment and have engaged in mental gymnastics to allow veneration of icons (Orthodoxy) and icons and statues (RCs).

            This is what they have decided to incorporate in their traditions – which is fine for them – but not for another whole swathe of Christians who place a whole lot more faith in a stricter interpretation and following of scripture.

            I only posted my first post to give an alternative view to those previously posted. It seemed Calvin was getting a bit of a pasting.

            I have a deep respect for Orthodoxy and its richness, it is just not for me.

          2. Thank you, James, for be willing to engage with my comments. Having been Protestant for most of my life before I became Orthodox a few years ago, I can appreciate what you have been taught in your current context about the meaning and implication of the 2nd Commandment. I assure you I would never encourage you or anyone else to engage in a practice that goes against his conscience. That said, I believe consciences can be wrong and wrongly educated. I must also challenge the slander that centuries of the Church’s Orthodox veneration of the relics of her Saints, holy places and holy events constitutes “idol worship.” I have personally actually found the Orthodox practice to be a safeguard against idolatry.

            I also know from experience that regarding an inordinate (idolatrous) attachment to material things, to relationships, and even to ideologies, whether or not one believes Holy Icons can be venerated, or whether or not one is inclined to kiss an object as a symbolic gesture, is virtually immaterial as to whether or not one may be tempted to engage in such an inordinate attachment. Some of the most materialistic (addicted to collecting and shopping, stingy with gifts, etc.), gluttonous, ideologically committed, and codependent people I know (and know, here, I am also describing myself as a committed Evangelical Protestant for more than 30 years!) would insist the Orthodox veneration of the Holy Icons constitutes a violation of the 2nd Commandment. Meanwhile, some of those most abandoned to the will of God, having renounced all possessions and even their own wills through a life dedicated to the obedience of Christ through a monastic call, were those who took the lead to defend the Christian veneration of Holy Icons even at the cost of their own lives.

            What you perceive as “mental gymnastics” is for me submission to the thoughtfully and prayerfully deliberated ruling of a Council of duly appointed Bishops of the Church, who were deeply immersed in the teachings of the Scriptures, who were informed by the lives and testimonies of those of heroic faith (including some of their own number), and who were charged very solemnly with keeping the apostolic faith whole and intact in the face of heresy, many of whom suffered greatly in order to do so. Because I believe the promises of Christ concerning His Church, I accept their ruling as having been led of the Holy Spirit as did the one united apostolic, catholic Church of that era, more than 600 years before the Medieval Roman Catholic Papacy began the abuses that led to the Protestant Reformation, which ultimately fragmented Christians into thousands of competing sects.

            You are certainly welcome to offer another perspective here to contrast with other commenters. I’ve certainly done so myself in different contexts. But I also believe it is ultimately more profitable for readers and more respectful to the blog’s host to at least attempt some engagement with the carefully reasoned substance of the content of the post.

  7. Dear Karen

    I believe I have engaged and my final comments would be that although I have not quoted individual portions of scripture it cannot be denied there are many, many passages which, in the old and new testaments, warn against idolatory and making and worship/veneration and bowing to idols.

    Orthodoxy has interpreted these one way, the Reformed tradition another. It seems to me the Reformed tradition has interpreted them in the more logical way whilst Orthodoxy and Rome have stretched their interpretation to allow practices not intended by God. Councils of the church are all/were very well, however, they were/are simply men (now of course plus women) with all the inherent dangers contained therein of “teaching for doctrine the commandments of men”. Well intentioned men mind you, but men nevertheless.

    I hope you are happy in your new home, you seem to be.

    1. Thanks, James.

      Orthodox would totally agree with you that the Bible prohibits, and Christian faith precludes, any and all worship of idols. Where we part ways is in whether we believe the Bible prohibits, and Christian faith precludes, any and all use of images in the worship setting and that bowing toward a person or image in any context constitutes “worship” that belongs to God alone. Given that Moses was instructed by God to have images of the Cherubim cast over the Ark of the Covenant and weave images of the Cherubim into the tapestries of the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle just chapters after the listing of the Ten Commandments and that the Hebrew people most certainly bowed toward the Holy of Holies as an expression of their worship of God, I would suggest the strict prohibition of any and all images in the worship of the true God (even of Christ and His Saints, Holy events, etc.) is an illogical and untenable interpretation of the Scriptures.

      God bless you, James. I have enjoyed the exchange.

  8. One point that greatly disquiets me is the depiction of the Father. One would have to concede this to be abominable and yet can be seen in some religious imagery, namely the Sistine Chapel.

  9. I was raised evangelical protestant — fundamentalist, really — and I was taught similarly, that any pictures of Jesus were idols, and that there’s no such thing as saints, that what really matters is the name of the pastor on the light-up sign outside and on sides of the church’s 9-passenger econoline van. Walking into church, there’s no artwork at all. All you see is the big flat-screen, a naked cross, and the drumkit and guitars and amps of the praise band. But now I’ve learned some, read some, thought some, and re-evaluated some. I’ve learned about the heresies akin to docetism. And I see there was “nicea II” or the 7th ecuminical council, in 787, and the struggles following it including writings by the exiled patriarch Nicepherous, and I don’t even get the issue. It is “asked and answered” so to speak. An ecuminical council has ruled that venerating the images of our savior, of theotokos, of saints and heroes of our faith, is ok. Now I get that Calvin and his reformers hated Rome and catholicism, certain aspects of middle-ages scholasticism theology and whatnot, but how can you “reform” something decided at an ecuminical council? Wouldn’t reforming something decided at an ecuminical council require … another ecuminical council??? As for me, if I were to catechize into the roman catholic church, or an orthodox church, I still would probably never venerate an icon as part of my piety because I am so thoroughly western protestant born-and-raised, that it would feel awkward. But I can never go back to ignorantly claiming that it is idolatry to have holy images, especaillywhen people often in history can’t read, and when the eastern icons have so much hard-thought-out theology in how the images are depicted (i.e. aren’t like western church art which sometimes gets a little pervy or too focused on the artistic expression goals of the artist or his sponsors).

  10. Brother Gabe and commentators: A fascinating, well-written article and followup comments!

    You have made me feel better (and Orthodox!) on a day I felt pretty lousy. Thank you all!

Comments are closed.