church history

On Icons: A Response to Some Arguments

Looking at the use of Icons, I’ve noticed several arguments in support of the practice. The strongest argument by far is the Christological argument, which I don’t deal with in this post but aim to dedicate an entire post to it. In this post I’ll list some of the common arguments and specify why I think is wrong with them and what role they play in the Icon discussion:

(1) Argument: The Church has long participated in this practice.

Response: The historical use of icons do not justify the continued use of icons just as much any practice en vogue by the historical church justifies the continued practice today. The Bible was read only by the Clergy before; today it is not. Historicity shouldn’t be the only grounds for continuation of any practice. If the practice is wrong then it doesn’t mean it should continue, so an appeal to history rings hollow unless the practice is proved (A) Right or (B) Allowable.

This point then is allowed for inductive reasons, but doesn’t really push the use of icons forward—so it shouldn’t be offered as a proof.

(2) Argument: The revelation of the image of God (Christ) overruled Torah regulation.

Response: One has to address two different uses of language to give a proper response.

On one level, the revelation of God could be such passages as just about all of the book of Hebrews where the old things have passed away and now we have the reality of the previous shadows—indeed, this might be the stronger route to justify the practice beside the Christological argument; but on another level the language is referring to God’s use of an image (Jesus) as perfect representation of God.

This level just completely misses what Christ is doing as representative: he’s not being a pictorial image (as in ‘a representation’), he’s acting in a role as mouth piece (The Son speaks only those things which he has heard the Father saying). So when the Apostles start to speak of being molded into the image of Christ, they’re not saying that we’re going to physically look like Christ, or even physically stand for Christ, but we’re being molded into the system by which Christ leads the way knowing God intimately and being known by God just as intimately as a whole. Christ is the brightness of God’s glory and the image of God insofar as he accurately represents him; not in that he’s a static photograph of Him.  We become lights on a hill insofar as we accurately represent Christ.

Now as to the first level, the stronger argument (not based on language-switch) the book of Hebrews does seem to speak of those previous things being things that pointed forward into what would properly come. Maybe this would be the use of images where an appeal to Exodus 20:4 is unjustified on the grounds of going back to Law? But this cuts both ways. After all, a person is not now justified to go back to practices found in the OT on account of the revelation of the New—the very point the writer to the Hebrews is making.

This point could be argued more vigorously by Icon supporters but then, if they do so, they would find that the point plays directly against the use of icons as well.

(3) Argument: God spoke perfectly through the imperfect situation in the OT but now speaks perfectly with the revelation of His image therefore Images are justified in use

Response: This view looks at what is being said in an imperfect situation and stating that God had to speak into this situation as accurately as the situation would allow. This is why, this view would say, God can’t speak about being Triune lest the imperfect situation of polytheism is provoked to justification. So God would often refer to certain things (slavery, women as property, God being One, beating people, etc) with no statement about their lack of morality.

But, the problem here is that the situation in Jesus’ day wasn’t any better. There was still brash polytheism going on, there was still slavery, women were still treated as property, and servants were still allowed to be beaten. How is stating that God’s current revelation (as in Jesus’ Day) is now better because of the circumstances?

Well, the justification might be “because God decided to send his son then and not previously” but the problem still stands. There were myths of God-Men in Jesus’ day just as much as before; and there were ideas of people being the image of Zeus just as much as people being the image of El…the situation is no different—unless by the situation we mean the Jewish practice in regard to images in Jesus’ day (a point that I don’t usually hear raised in support of icons).

This point then doesn’t really prove anything; it is empty evidence that upon closer examination collapses on itself.

(4)Argument: Exodus 20:4 doesn’t say what you think it says; it speaks about false Gods

Response: When pointed to the context of bowing down to these images (Exo 20:5) the response might be “would God be jealous of something that represents Him? Well, the answer, unfortunately for icon supporters, is in the affirmative.

When the Jews decide to throw some gold into the fire, pull it out and then say that this represents the God that rescued them from Egypt, God got severely ticked off. The thing most definitely was representative of Him, and yet He saw the practice as wrong. But maybe because this was a non-commanded image?

Well, he does tell them to make an image that they are to look at to survive the plague of the poisonous snakes; yet this same image is later destroyed as a worthless piece of brass on account of the people elevating its status. The same thing occurred with the Ark of the Covenant; when divorced from God who uses the item, it becomes problematic.

But these folk would say that that is exactly the point: these icons are being used by God—but on what basis are they saying that?

There’s no Apostolic mandate that icons are used by God; there’s no Scriptural mandate that icons are used by God; there is no recorded message from the Lord in the Old or New Testament stating that icons are used by God. There is the citation of what the Church allows being allowed in heaven and what the Church binds being bound—but that still doesn’t justify going in any direction which the Church wants. The Levites had tremendous freedom in serving God, but if they got too exuberant they were killed; and although we are not under Law, what makes us think that we can stuff words in God’s mouth just because we do it as a whole and not as individuals?

Indeed, the disciples show that their thinking is not a divorce from the old but an outgrowth in light of the current revelation. They were never allowed to bow down and worship men (not just the action of prostration, but the elevation of the individual before them) and yet they worshipped Christ the Man—does that mean that there was repeal in worshipping men or angels? Not at all, for when people bow down to Peter, Good Ol’ Peter tells them to stop—he’s a man just like them. When John does this to an Angel, the angel says stop, I’m a minister of God just like you.

So Exodus 20:4 isn’t talking about the fact of pictures or about other Gods; it’s talking about how you are to treat God: differently. And this means not treating everything (anything?) else as if it is in the same category of Different.

(5) Argument: Icons are real windows into the spiritual and since we are a spiritual people we should be using the windows

Response: This point might be dangerously written off as insupportable because there is no proof that icons are windows. This is important—I think Icons really are windows.

Paul reflecting on idols that are worshipped by pagans thinks that these unbelievers have created windows. Idols are nothing, we know that, but they are taken advantage of by demons—therefore avoid the whole justification of the practice of meat offered to idols.

Woah, icons aren’t idols says the supporter. They’re just windows to the spiritual! The questions I’d ask are twofold: (a) are they windows into the correct Spiritual realm and (b) are they windows that should be used?

As to (a) I don’t think there’s any way to establish that these icons are windows into the correct (speaking about Saints, angels as correct and Demons, Spirits as incorrect) Spiritual realm or not…we just don’t have enough information.

Sure we know Demons can take advantage of Idols because those are false Gods but what is to say that they can’t take advantage of Icons? There are no other Gods, says Paul, and yet these things stand behind the Idols to take advantage of people and Do Something—we don’t know if it is to detract worship from God, answer requests, or just find an inroad into someone’s home. Icon Supporters would state that the images of Christ point to Christ—but what about all the other icons? And even those images of Christ, who is to say that Demons can’t take advantage of even those images?

An argument from silence is never great for standing ovations, but the silence on both ends of this question is deafening and ultimately frightening. We don’t know. Which I think leads to (b) where the Apostles, and Our Lord, teach that we are to worship the Father in spirit and in truth with all our body, soul and minds then we should be careful when we open a window without knowledge. We have a category here that is not veiled in mystery; it’s veiled in the murky shadows of the Spiritual Realm.

So this point does much less than support the use of icons—it should lead to extreme wariness.

(6) Argument: Jews maintained this practice without repercussions therefore it is allowed for us to maintain this practice

Response: There are two things going on here. One is a confusion of categories that I won’t argue for here (e.g. The Church are not Jews and the Jews are not the Church) but the second is just historically sticky.

First off, which temple? Solomon’s temple? The Second Temple? Zerubabel’s Temple? Herod’s Temple? The Second Temple had all the gold taken out, Zerubabel’s was a weak rebuild, Herod’s Temple was so different it was called the Third Temple and it was so fraught with compromises that the pagans would call it the Imageless Temple: I would have to assume the argument is focused on Solomon’s Temple.

When the Jews set up the tabernacle and all the items therein, they did certain actions with these things, but these things were mandated by God for specific use with the concern of the presence of God in their midst (Numbers 5 and 6 are important in this regard). When the Tabernacle went Temple, Solomon’s Temple, it took those items and moved them to that structure so that it was essentially the same.

What Solomon then did with it is add basins and artwork and did his own updates to which the text remains silent, as it does with much of Solomon’s activities (like the forced labor for the building projects). That doesn’t mean God, nor the authors, didn’t have an opinion, it just means that they were letting the text speak.

Now the Psalmists do recall the wonder of Solomon’s temple, indeed each temple after Solomon’s lived in its shadow, but we find the very late book of Chronicles not so much concerned with the look of the temple but with what people did with it. The concern was more the mindset of the people in regard to the Temple than how the imagery inside portrayed or didn’t portray heavenly things.

This point was important to Ezekiel when he saw the vision of God’s glory, departing from the tabernacle, moving from the outer court, right outside Jerusalem’s walls and leaving: the pictures in the tabernacle stopped mattering because what the people were doing had become abominable. In Malachi, God says to shut down the sacrifices, close the tabernacle doors, the sacrifices that are supposed to have a sweet aroma are making me want to vomit.

So, looking at the temple and saying “They had images in one of their temples” just ignores how much God was in opposition to the Jews as they invested in their images over Himself.

Now my response doesn’t really address if the use of images was justified or not—but neither does the charge that the Jews had a temple with images. So this point just doesn’t do anything with the overall argument.

(7) Argument: Who are we to judge the sincerity of our fellow Christian?

Response: I wrote a series years ago (here, here) on the matter of judging other believers and this just doesn’t hold water. If a practice is wrong, Paul felt it necessary to judge even if the Church in Corinth didn’t—that’s not just Apostolic authority; that is the voice of a person who has the fellow “mind of Christ” speaking into the community about how they should know better.

This point then is a red herring.

(8) Argument: Everyone honors family with pictures therefore honoring with icons is justified

Response: I love the works of Caravaggio because he so brilliantly and graphically depicts moments when Something Happened in the life of such and such Biblical person as if they were on the stage of a drama. But even so, if I were to equate my love of Caravaggio’s depictions and equate them to the use of icons, I think Icon supporters would likely be upset.

You see, my Caravaggio books have paint fingerprints; they have fallen on the floor; they’ve been crushed—so have the photographs of my family. Even the photos of my old grandfather; ah it sucks that they’re falling apart but I’m not going to weep at the loss of the photograph. I wept at the loss of family but I weep no longer. Maybe that’s a problem with me but in either case, I don’t think that people who use icons are seeing them exactly like how we’d see departed loved ones’ photos.

I won’t die for a photograph. Or my Caravaggio books. I just won’t. And yet folk have died for their Icons. This doesn’t mean that the practice is wrong because some people have died for icons; it means that people view icons in a different category completely from mere photographs.

What we have here is an appeal to emotion which doesn’t really settle the matter of icons but does make one wonder about the similarities that are being drawn. I wish that icons were only used for remembering departed loved ones—but then we would expect icons made of mom; or of grandpa. But no, we have icons made of specific people being used for specific purposes.

(9) Argument: Many Christians have paintings and pictures; there is no difference

Response: The people who have a picture on the wall as décor could just as easily have a picture of a loaf of bread; they see nothing beyond the loaf of bread and it does nothing to the person’s existence in the home. It’s just accents to unify the thematic structure of the house.

People who go the further mile and enjoy the art on the wall because how it speaks to them or because they like how the scenery makes them feel is more like having art be a window into one’s imagination: still not any real connection between the art and reality (not even the photographs).

Maybe in the best of cases, the art is framed, by some famous artist, pinned to the wall but even then the content is not as important as the signature on the front or back.

In all three cases the art is exceedingly different from the icon and the only similarity is that it depicts something. But we’ve already stated that the problem with depictions was not in the fact of depictions but what is done with those depictions (Exodus 20:5 above).

This argument then is also a red herring since there is no similarity between pictures on the wall and icons.

(10) Argument: It’s not worship; its veneration.

Response: This is one of those distinctions without a difference. If what goes on with worship also goes on with veneration, then it doesn’t matter if it has a different name. It’s like the Praise Bands and the Worship Bands—if they mean the same thing in that context then they’re the same thing in that context.

Now, there usually a shift in the burden of proof by saying “well, if you think it’s worship then prove to me how it’s worship when I tell you there’s a difference between worship and veneration”. Unfortunately, I don’t think the burden of proof has been changed. I think the burden remains on the camp that has introduced the word “venerate” as different—we agree on what worship means and then you can show me how veneration is different.

Concluding points: Not only then do the arguments that are often proffered start to shudder from foundation issues under examination, I think the support is tangential at best and ultimately way too heavy for a proof at worst. I also think that there’s enough dangerous issues potentially associated with them that they should not be encouraged in the form that they are currently used. If the things were used as merely familial reminders, no problem; but they don’t’ seem to be used only in that respect. With matters of veneration and worship occluding the discussion, and the fact that these things are windows into the Spiritual realm, I’d not only avoid using them; I’d strenuously suggest that others stop using them as well. No matter the intentions, we just don’t know enough about the other side to support a practice that opens windows into it.

Note: I have also made some minor edits to the post, deleting a reference to burning at the stake in Argument (1) which read as follows: The historical use of icons do not justify the continued use of icons just as much burning heretics at the stake or using the sword to earn converts or the Bible being read only by the Clergy should be practiced in the later Church. I still think the statement was factually correct and a worthy comparison about the Historic Practice vs. Later Practice (without a council by the way) but some used the point to digress from the main point of the piece in its entirety.

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