Icons and Iconoclasts

“Do not make any idols.

  • Exodus 34:17

So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

  • Numbers 21:9

In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother’s name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)

  • 2 Kings 18:1-4

They set up kings without my consent; they choose princes without my approval. With their silver and gold they make idols for themselves to their own destruction.

  • Hosea 8:4

“John was also involved in the controversy over icons or images. He opposed the iconoclasts (destroyers of images), writing three Orations in Defence of Sacred Images. He was anathematized at the Iconoclast Council of Hieria in 754, but his views prevailed at the Council of Nicea in 787.
“ ‘Concerning this business of images, we must search for the intention of those who make them. If it is really and truly for the glory of God and of his saints, to promote virtue, the avoidance of evil, and the salvation of souls, then accept them with due honour as images, remembrances, likenesses and books for the illiterate. Embrace them with the eyes, the lips, the heart; bow down before them; love them, for they are likenesses of God incarnate, of his mother and of the communion of saints.’

(0rations in Defence of the Sacred Images 3. 10).”

  • Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought

John of Damascus (675?-749?), went further than his predecessors regarding Jesus being fully human and fully God, but since I have been on that topic lately, I saw this quote that struck my eye.

Icons are a big thing in the Eastern Orthodox churches.  I have seen videos of the worship services where they bring out the icon to sanctify them or consecrate them.  They insist that they are in accordance with what John of Damascus wrote in the quote above.

Yet, to the common man, especially to the illiterate common man, since John of Damascus wrote that icons become the book for those who cannot read, they may see the priest worshipping the icon instead of simply sanctifying it.

As a 20th and 21st century man, I have to ask the 7th and 8th century John why they did not simply teach the poor man how to read?  Do we need something visual to bring us to the cross?

We worship an invisible God and history has shown that when we introduce a statue, icon, even a cloth with a suggestive stain on it, that we end up worshipping what we see rather than what that represents.

I am like many.  Our present associate pastor gave me a wooden cross and I keep it in my coin pouch.  I do not worship it.  It is a reminder that I am saved by Grace through faith.  I have had a variety of such crosses in my pocket.  I may forget they are there and then as I pour out some coins to make exact change, I see it and it causes me to give up a short prayer of thanks.

But look at the 2 Kings Scripture above.  The bronze snake that Moses made was worshipped.  I could have included the ephod made by Gideon.  We are all sinful people, and we gravitate toward the common denominator after a while and make good things sinful things.

If those things did not exist, there would not be the controversy, but I am not Eastern Orthodox, or Catholic, which has a mountain of relics scattered around.

What John of Damascus says is powerful, but over time, the circumstances change.  In polling the priests, these icons are not idols, but if they polled the common man, would they get the same answer?

If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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