The Incarnation Changes Everything

Muslims reject the Incarnation. Therefore, this mosque has bare walls and no images of God.
Muslims reject the Incarnation. Therefore, this mosque has bare walls and no images of God.

Before the Incarnation, it was idolatrous to make an image of God.

Now that the Incarnation has taken place, it would be idolatrous not to make images of Him.

When a religion rejects images of God, it sends the message that God is only a spirit, and that He has no physical body. Before the Incarnation, that was true. After the Incarnation, it is false, and is therefore idolatry.

There are two types of idolatry:
1) Worshiping false gods, and
2) Worshiping the true God in
a way which misrepresents Him.

In ancient Israel, when people worshiped Baal, Ashtoreth, and Molech, they committed the first form of idolatry. These are all false gods, and it is idolatry to worship them in any way whatsoever, either with or without images.

When the Israelites worshiped the golden calf, they committed the second form of idolatry. They correctly noted the identity of the true God, but they grossly misrepresented Him. Instead of recognizing God as an invisible Spirit, the Israelites made a golden calf, they praised it for delivering them from Egypt, and they even called the calf “YHWH”.

In the Old Testament, images of God were forbidden, because they misrepresented Him. God is not a cow. And God did not yet have any physical body.
In the Old Testament, images of God were forbidden, because they misrepresented Him. God is not a cow. And God did not yet have any physical body.

When the Israelites sinned with the golden calf, they were still correct that God’s name is “YHWH”. They were correct that YHWH had delivered them from Egypt. And they were correct to praise YHWH. But their worship was turned into idolatry, because they misrepresented Him. God is not a cow.

Similarly, when Protestants worship with bare walls and an absence of icons, they are correct that God’s name is “Jesus”. They are correct that Jesus came to deliver them from sin.  And they are correct to praise Jesus.  But their worship is turned into idolatry, because they misrepresent Him.  God is no longer a faceless spirit.

Before God became incarnate in the womb of Mary, He had no body. Images of God were forbidden, because they misrepresented God.  But now that God has become incarnate, our worship must reflect this important fact.  Otherwise, if we misrepresent God, we become idolaters.

Dura Europos Synagogue 3rd century
Dura Europos Synagogue — 244 A.D. — Worshipers would face the icons, and would bow toward the Torah scrolls located at the center of the wall.

In ancient Israel, God did not want His people bowing down before images of Himself, because He did not have a body yet. But He knew that people needed to bow down before something, so He provided the Temple in Jerusalem for this purpose. The temple did not represent the image of God, but it did represent His presence. So God had His people bow down toward the temple:

But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you. (Psalm 5:7)

Anticipating the day when He would become man, when His people would be able to have images of Himself, God taught His people to include many images in the context of worship. The Jerusalem temple included icons of angels, and early synagogues were covered with icons of many Old Testament saints.

The Word had not yet become flesh, so God’s people venerated the Word of God contained in Scripture. Even to this day, Jews bow toward the Torah scrolls when entering/exiting the synagogue, and also during special Torah services. Jews also kiss the Torah to venerate it. All of these ancient practices anticipated Orthodox Christian worship, including the veneration of icons.

Before the coming of Christ, the Jewish Temple signified God’s presence, and His peoplebowed down toward it. After Christ came, He referred to His own body as the true temple. Therefore, instead of continuing to bow down toward a temple building, we now bow down toward images of Jesus.

We also bow to one another, because Scripture says that every Orthodox Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

When the Word became flesh, iconoclasm became idolatry. The Incarnation changes everything.
When the Word became flesh, iconoclasm became idolatry. The Incarnation changes everything.

When Orthodox Christians bow to an icon of Christ, they are reminded thatGod now has a body.  Jesus is fully God, and fully human, and He is physically seated in Heaven even today. Orthodox worship represents God correctly.

 

When Protestants refuse to bow to icons of Christ, and they choose to bow down before nothing instead, their worship suggests that God has no body, and that the Incarnation hasn’t happened yet. Their worship misrepresents God. They are bowing down before a faceless idol.

When the Word became fleshiconoclasm became idolatry.

The Incarnation changes everything.

 

About Fr Joseph Gleason
I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with seven children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog at The Orthodox Life.

 

17 comments:

  1. I must say that I’ve always felt this apologetic to be a non sequitur and misrepresentation of most, if not all, Protestantism. First of all, just because Orthodox feel that icons logically proceed from the incarnation and that they are a way of affirming the incarnation, does not mean that a Protestant lack of icons even implicitly is a denial of the incarnation. In the fundamentalist circles in which I grew up, the incarnation was huge. In fact, the prayers and the icons of the Orthodox church have made me feel less able to think about Jesus as a real flesh-and-blood man because of the way in which he is represented in icons (i.e. not realistically) and how little emphasis is given in prayer to his suffering nature (unlike, say, the book of Hebrews). Before you suggest that I am misrepresenting Orthodoxy, I want to emphasize that this has been my experience with Orthodoxy. I have a hard time relating to Jesus as “the suffering servant” when I think of the Orthodox representations of him. In addition, for most Protestants, depicting Jesus is not the problem. The problem is what is perceived as using them idolatrously in worship. I think that calling such avoidance of icons idolatrous needs much more nuancing. In what way are those who don’t venerate icons idolatrous if they avoid your above accusations? They don’t have a faceless Jesus. They do believe in the incarnation. So in what way other than that are they idolatrous? Protestants don’t bow down before nothing. We bow down before God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; before Jesus Christ, the incarnate God.

    I will grant that any theology or manner of worship that is unorthodox (or un-Orthodox for you all) would be a kind of idolatry. But it does not really do any good to go around calling each other idolaters. If that was the solution, a Protestant might respond by saying that since Protestants worship Christ “in Spirit and in Truth” (rather than with images), it is the Orthodox who are idolaters. And rather than the Old Testament images pointing to something more embodied (i.e. icons of Christ), Jesus words above show that such locality as is found in the temple has been abolished. I say this only as a caricature. Personally, I don’t think that the above article is suited to promote Orthodox-Reformed dialogue because it does not try to represent Protestants as they see themselves.

    I myself would need a lot more justification for the required use of icons in worship than the supposed claim that iconoclasts don’t really believe in the incarnation.

    1. Of course Protestants believe in the Incarnation. The article never says otherwise. The problem is that Protestant worship is inconsistent with the Incarnation. Protestants say one thing with their words, but then they say something contradictory with their worship.

      To think this through properly, it is necessary to consider the reason *why* images of God were forbidden in the Old Testament. There was not any blanket condemnation of images, per se. The temple was filled with icons and statues of angels. But images of God were forbidden, because God did not have a body. Therefore, any image of Him would necessarily be telling a lie. You should not bow to an image of a cow, because God is not a cow.

      But today, God *does* have a body. Therefore, to worship Him correctly, it is appropriate to have an image of the incarnate Christ. To intentionally avoid all such images is to suggest — via your actions — that God is spirit only, and that He still has no body . . . which would be a lie.

      What did it *mean* in the OT when God’s people worshiped Him, without using any images of God? It meant, “God is spirit, and has no body.”

      It that is what it meant in those days, then it is also what it means now. Today, if you worship God without using any images, you are still sending the message, “God is a spirit, and has no body.”

      In the OT, that message was true.

      Today, that message is false, and is therefore idolatry.

    2. Long-time (evangelical/protestant) lurker here…just commenting to say that while I initially really enjoyed the defense of icons here, I agree with Prometheus. I do indeed take exception to the statement that worshiping without icons NECESSARILY suggests that God has no body, and is equivalent to bowing down before a faceless idol.

      From an Orthodox perspective on icons, the position is likely correct, and someone with an Orthodox understanding of icons might, indeed, come to believe that our lack of icons betrays a lack of belief in the Incarnation.

      However, the evangelical, by necessity, does NOT have an Orthodox understanding of icons…and so a lack of icons does not have that significance TO EVANGELICALS. And that’s pretty important, if you’re going to say that the lack of icons is ultimately damaging our conception of God to the point of undermining the reality of the incarnation. To the evangelical mind, there is literally no connection between the two…and an attempt to force such a connection onto our understanding of God is nothing more or less than a misrepresentation of evangelicalism.

      1. Mackenzie,

        Glad you could join the dialogue! I would say a key difference here is how Protestants and Orthodox understand the Incarnation. When I was a Protestant Evangelical I understood the Incarnation mostly as a historical event that more or less ended when Christ ascended to heaven. For me access to God was through the Bible and the Holy Spirit who indwells me. As an Orthodox Christian I acquired a sacramental worldview and I came to see that the Incarnation continues in history through the Church, the Eucharist, the Bible, and the icons.

        When I was a Protestant I would see pictures of Jesus in the Sunday School materials for children and occasionally on the church bulletins but for the most part the reality of the physical embodied Word was confined to the four Gospels. What helped me see things differently was the Eucharist. When I was a Protestant I saw the bread and the wine in the Lord’s Supper as reminders of what Christ did on the Cross back then. The Lord’s Supper also helped increased my devotion to Christ who was up in heaven. As an Evangelical I knew that Christ continued to have a body when he ascended to heaven but it seemed that during the Sunday morning worship Christ was up there in heaven. In Orthodox worship Christ is truly there on the altar in the Eucharist. So when the priest greets the congregation with “Christ is in our midst!” and the people reply “He is and ever shall be!” I have this sense of Christ being present in the room. The icon of Christ manifests this reality. I know that Evangelicals believe that Christ is in the room with them especially when they are gathered in his Name but in Orthodoxy I have a much keener awareness of Christ’s presence.

        So as I said earlier the difference is not so much how Evangelicals and Orthodox understand icons but how the two traditions understand the Incarnation. This in turn shapes how we worship Christ.

        Robert

        1. Just to present a different anecdote – I’m still a member of a Reformed congregation, and you absolutely do not get the message (in my experience) that the incarnation ended when Christ ascended into heaven. See Lord’s Day 18 of the Heidelberg Catechism:

          “with respect to his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit he is never absent from us”

          When you say that the Incarnation continues in history through (among other things) icons, you’re showing why people like me have an aversion to icons – your language (whether consciously or not) is implying that Christ is physically present and to be worshiped in the icon itself. When you think about it and express yourself more carefully towards the end of your comment, you say that the icon is simply manifesting (which could mean a few different things) the larger reality acknowledged by both Orthodox and Protestant Christians, but the way the icon is used, presented and thus treated leads it to be an object of worship in itself, rather than the more careful treatment given to icons in official church teachings or when trying to convince me that you don’t, in fact, worship the icon itself.

          1. Rob W,

            I’m not sure what you mean when you wrote that “the incarnation ended when Christ ascended into heaven.” You don’t mean that Christ left his physical body behind when he ascended into heaven? You cited Q. 47 but what about Q. 49 where it says “that we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge”?

            As far as your statement about Christ being worshiped in the icon, my guess is that your experience with Orthodox worship is limited. Your reaction is similar to other Reformed Christians when I attempt to describe the role of icons in Orthodox worship. If you haven’t yet visited an Orthodox Sunday service, I encourage you to do so. You might find “A Peek into Orthodoxy” helpful. My recommendation is that you attend an all-English Orthodox service at least several times, and then to sit down for a one on one conversation with the priest. As helpful as the medium of the Internet may be it falls far short of the actual experience of attending the Divine Liturgy. As Philip said to Nathaniel in John 2:46: “Come and see!”

            Robert

      2. Mackenzie,

        For the starting point in the conversation, I am seeking to identify a place of common ground between Protestants and Orthodox. That’s why I start with the Old Testament.

        What did it *mean* in the OT when God’s people worshiped Him, without using any images of God? It meant, “God is spirit, and has no body.”

        I believe Protestants and Orthodox can both agree that this is the reason why iconoclasm was the *correct* approach to worship in the Old Testament. To venerate any image of God would imply that God had a body, which would be a lie, and therefore would be idolatry. This is the very reason why God prohibited divine images in the OT.

        But when we fast forward to the New Testament, now what does it mean when people worship God, without using any images? It has to mean exactly the same thing as it did before: “God is spirit, and has no body.”

        It is not logical to claim that it meant one thing in the OT, but something totally different at a later time. If venerating *no* image of God implied God’s *lack* of a body in the OT, then it has to mean the same thing today.

        1. “It is not logical to claim that it meant one thing in the OT, but something totally different at a later time. If venerating *no* image of God implied God’s *lack* of a body in the OT, then it has to mean the same thing today.”

          Unless, of course, images themselves MEAN something different to the people using (or not using) them.

          To the Israelites, using no images meant that God had no body because they lived in a world saturated with religious images and idols. People made images of their gods, and to NOT have an image could only be a DELIBERATE choice to reflect a deliberate difference in worship.

          Intentionality is the key here, and I notice in your response to Prometheus above, you yourself recognize that: You say “To intentionally avoid all such images is to suggest — via your actions — that God is spirit only, and that He still has no body.”

          You admit that it’s about intentionality. And that intentionality is most definitely NOT present in the evangelical church: At least, in all but the most fundamentalist ones. The Israelites INTENTIONALLY didn’t have images: For evangelicals, images aren’t even in the “Worship” category. The lack of images merely suggests that we don’t think images need to be used during worship.

          Of course, we may be wrong in that. But even then, the neglect of images would not suggest that we “worship a faceless idol”: Merely that we have neglected to portray the face that we know is there. And by the way, to say “people who don’t use images are idolaters” is just as uncharitable and misrepresentative as certain evangelicals who say “people who use images are idolaters”.

          (and by the way, if you think that stating all evangelicals are idolaters is building a bridge, then I wonder what an actual attack would be?)

    3. Prometheus,

      I don’t have any intent to defend the particular angle of the article. I can see why your reaction is what it has been. Your reaction has been defensive – perhaps understandably so. And yet this does not change the incongruity of your position.

      I will touch on a couple of the issues you brought up in your response which illustrate some deep misunderstandings.

      First…you say…“First of all, just because Orthodox feel that icons logically proceed from the incarnation and that they are a way of affirming the incarnation…

      The great shame of our (yours and mine) Protestant backgrounds is that we project upon Orthodoxy our own mechanisms for theological understandings…in this case on iconography. diological Logic.

      It is decidedly NOT correct to say that Orthodox feel that icons “logically” proceed from the incarnation. It is not a logical inference. Orthodoxy does not work like this. Yes, written defenses of iconography can take logical form, but the practice is incarnational, true and real….not a product of logical discursive thought. What has been revealed to us in not simply a logical construct.

      It is this same Western premise of “logic” that makes many in the West reject baptism or the real presence in the Eucharist. This is all the same “stuff” and it can’t have a “logical” basis in some circles of Protestantism. Therefore it is jettisoned.

      But Orthodoxy does not simply rely on “logic” to formulate it dogmas, but on the “experience” of the life of the Church and the revelation of God to man. We Protestants have lost so much in this regard…we simply cannot get out of our “God boxes.”

      Let me give you an example that I was blown away by when I was moving from Protestantism to Orthodoxy. The baptism of Christ in the Jordan always perplexed me, and seemed to perplex other Protestants. There really was not an understanding of why or what this occurred for. It was rendered meaningless. For this reason, the “validity” of baptism has become a preoccupation for the West and the various sects of Protestantism. “Because of the obsession of baptismal theology with juridical and not ontological terms, the real question -remained unanswered.” (Alexander Schmemann)

      The fact that Christ Himself sanctified water itself by His baptism was lost on me as a Protestant. We tended to wonder what the water did to Him. The correct framework is to wonder what happened to the water by His immersion into it! That “matter” in the form of water was sanctified (or revealed as sanctified) by His immersion is a microcosm of the Orthodox view of such things, and is as true of water as it is of wine as it is of images. Christ changes (transforms) all of creation by His incarnation and participation. The water is not just water, the bread is not just bread, and life united to Him is not just an analogy. We are transformed, just as these “things” are transformed from death to life. There is a mindset here that takes the seriousness of the incarnation and its meaning to a whole different level than in any circle of Protestantism (or “Catholicism”) I have seen. Perhaps this is not true for your experience. Good for you!

      But the fact that you think this is simply a “logical” and not an “ontological” and incarnational reality shows the great divide there is in you participating rightly in the use of icons. Which gets to the next point; how you “feel” and “think” about such things.

      Iconography has been by far the one thing that I did not “get” even after I became Orthodox. Slowly, I began to see that the problems I had were not the iconography, but me….and my mindset. I was in my own way.

      You say,“In fact, the prayers and the icons of the Orthodox church have made me feel less able to think about Jesus as a real flesh-and-blood man because of the way in which he is represented in icons (i.e. not realistically) and how little emphasis is given in prayer to his suffering nature (unlike, say, the book of Hebrews).

      So lets take you’re stance on icons and simply say, “You know what..Prometheus is right! How we “feel” about these things is what makes them true, worthy of respect or in any sense helpful. How we “feel” and “think” should be trusted, because of course no sin could taint my “feelings” or “thoughts” in this regard. It is my “feelings” which drive this train.

      In fact…I’ve decided that this is how I “feel” about scripture. It makes me “feel” less able to think about the true Jesus. Lest you laugh and scoff at me for such a “feeling” or “thought” this is exactly the type of liberal higher criticism that infects Protestantism. How do I know? I go to a Protestant seminary. Scripture has become just as empty in many “Christian” theologies as has iconography in the Protestant world. So if you can “feel” less Jesus like with icons and Orthodox prayer….it must be Orthodoxy that is the issue….it could not be you?

      Likewise, if I were just to say that scripture made me “feel” the same way and that therefore I reject it, you would be properly stunned. Taking your own words and applying them to another degree of Christian rejectionalism is just as valid. “Just because you think that the “word of God” logically proceeds from the declaration of the gospel does not mean that a Unitarian Universalists rejection of the meaning and sufficiency of scripture even implicitly is a denial of the incarnation or gospel.”

      I hope you would simply be aghast at such a statement, and yet it is exactly your stance on iconography and the incarnation.

      The utter secularization and individualism in the West is a product of this kind of thought. First, we reject what we don’t understand; icons. Then, groups reject and redefine scripture….claiming it as their own to redefine. Then, why not simply reject scripture. Now the Church…the Church also makes me “feel” less connected.

      In fact, Jesus makes me “feel” bad too, and I simply cannot connect to the “spiritual” through Jesus.

      There is nothing one can say to underlying individualism and emotionalism of your school of thought, for it is as consistently inconsistent on icons as it is on the true incarnation of Jesus. It applies “logic” to the unutterably transcendent – and simultaneous immanent – nature of Christ and the true accomplishments of His incarnation, revealing all of creation to be under His Lordship.

      The water, the bread, the wine, the human nature, and yes images themselves are all revealed to be truly incarnations of His love and life – and they all serve Him – as they help us to live our lives in such a way as to allow His grace to transform us to be “conformed to His Image” (Eikonos -εἰκόνος)Romans 8:29.

      For a true engagement of the complexity of such a matter, I would recommend the bit cerebral but amazingly constructive thoughts offered by David Bentley Hart at Biola on Youtube. Just search for “David Bentley Hart: Beauty, Form, and Violence – Biola Art Symposium 2013.”

      May Christ bless and keep you and lead you into the truth of the Orthodox faith.

  2. In response to MacKenzie and Prometheus, as Fr. Dn. Joseph has affirmed, we understand Evangelicals believe in the Incarnation. The issue is not belief, but rather how that belief is expressed in liturgy. If we take the biblical patterns Fr. Dn. Joseph describes here as our biblically normative standard and concede that God ordained how He is to be properly worshipped (as His instructions in the OT to Moses for the Tabernacle sacrifices show), we have to conclude Protestant liturgy misrepresents God, Who has taken a human Body in Jesus Christ. The problem is not Protestant belief (insofar as it is consistent with that of the Orthodox), but with the Protestant understanding and practice of corporate worship which (from an historic and not just contemporary Orthodox perspective) is inconsistent with that belief and with the biblical pattern of the bodily expression of worship (i.e., bowing toward and kissing objects that represent the presence of the true God).

    As a former Evangelical, I would also argue from my own experience that this divorce of professed belief from liturgical practice can undermine and diminish our understanding of the full implications of God’s incarnation in Christ as well as tempt us to form erroneous images and conceptualizations of Christ which then tend to be projections of our own imaginations, egos and cultures rather than a reflection of the entire Church’s experience of Christ across history and cultures as expressed in the Scriptures, and in her dogmas and the lives of her Saints, which Orthodox iconography is designed to faithfully preserve.

  3. Hi All,
    For my part I would like Calvinist leaders to grow up and make a declaration that icons aren’t idols and that the 10 commandments do not prohibit icons. Plenty of individual Calvinists have reached this conclusion but the rest are happy to live in the shadow of 16th century ignorance. I notice that much of the Internet discussion around icons goes over the same ground.
    The local Anglican cathedral is full of Byzantine style icons but the Anglicans around here still play coy. Perhaps something like officially acknowledging the 7th Ecumenical Council would be a firm step in the right direction.
    My observation is that many Protestants bring up icons to avoid taking Orthodox theology (and Orthodox) claims seriously. Once icons become acceptable then you have to seriously look at Tradition, hierarchy and Apostolic Succession and the mysteries, etc

  4. Looks like I’m late here. I can agree with some of the points Prometheus raised regarding the charge of idolatry towards Protestants particularly since many Protestants like the Anglicans and Lutherans are quite content with using imagery. So in the case of generalizing Protestants into the category of Iconoclasts worshiping in bare churches, this isn’t true. Even some Reformed see no problem with any use of imagery as long as it doesn’t lean towards “idolatry” which in their context would mean their veneration as done by Orthodox and Catholics. This is even more problematic when we consider the Assyrians who are known for not using Icons in worship(they still use imagery though). However, Fr Joseph’s point still stands with regards to Reformed and Evangelicals that reject any image depicting Christ.

    Most if not all religions often depict in imagery their key figures, particularly those that revealed themselves to human beings or are human themselves. The Buddha and the Bodhisattvas in Buddhism are an example of this. They are often depicted in iconography or statues which in some sense testify to their reality and their deeds. Granted, there are many other functions of imagery such as symbolically conveying belief and doctrine. But an aspect also revolves around the reality of the figures depicted. So in some sense by denying the image depiction of Christ in Iconography, what Iconoclastic Protestants are doing is to misrepresent God and present some form of Docetism since there is no reality of the Godman being depicted as a testimony to its actual occurrence and existence. It is true that these charges would be immediately rejected by the same Iconoclastic Protestants but this is what they are indirectly conveying by denying any images of Christ.

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