What Does the Bible Say About Icons?

This article is the third in a series where I show that before 313, and probably for some time after, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice. In this post, I will examine the Scriptures to see what light they can show on the subject.

Here is an overview of all the posts in this series:

  1. My first post introduces and summarizes the issues around the veneration of icons. It deals with some high-level objections and brings all the different evidence together.
  2. My second post deals with the archaeological evidence for early Christian art. Because the evidence from art is more ambiguous, I demonstrate only the more modest claim that evidence from archaeology does not suggest that before 313, the veneration of images was a common Christian practice.
  3. My third post discusses Scripture and theology and whether they can be used in support of the veneration of images (as opposed to the worship of idols). I conclude that Scripture seems to be against the practice, though it doesn’t explicitly mention it.
  4. My fourth post digs deeply into the pre-Constantinian evidence—the church fathers before 313. It shows very clearly that the consensus of the pre-Constantinian church is against the veneration of images.
  5. My fifth post discusses evidence after 313 to see how the veneration of images could have arisen. I look into the writings of John Chrysostom and others of Orthodoxy’s favorite saints, and show that they did not practice iconodulia. I also sketch out how the veneration of images could have slowly crept into the church, without drawing much comment.

Some Images Were Appropriate

In the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded not to make images of gods, even of their own God, and worship them. In the New Testament, we are also told not to worship idols.

However, even in the Old Testament, which is no longer in effect, certain images were considered appropriate. For example, the brass serpent was appropriate until the Israelites began to worship it. The temple also had images of some kinds in it, though no images of deity and no images that were venerated. Thus, we can’t read these prohibitions to assume that every image was wrong.

However, the mere existence of images doesn’t mean that it was appropriate to venerate images. For that, we need to look at the textual evidence from Scripture and the early church.

The Veneration of Images Is Condemned

The Old Testament is very clear that images must not be venerated. However, Scripture basically never speaks of the veneration of images except in context of worshiping an idol. So how can it be so clear?

Simply because the reasons offered against worshiping idols also apply to the veneration of images.

The Relevant Texts

Here are several relevant texts from Scripture:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
    they have eyes, but do not see;
they have ears, but do not hear,
    nor is there any breath in their mouths.
Those who make them become like them,
    so do all who trust in them. (Psalm 135:15-18 ESV)

All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. . . . The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” . . . No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” (Isaiah 44:9–20)

Those who lavish gold from the purse,
    and weigh out silver in the scales,
hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god;
    then they fall down and worship!
They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it,
    they set it in its place, and it stands there;
    it cannot move from its place.
If one cries to it, it does not answer
    or save him from his trouble. (Isaiah 46:6–7)

Veneration of Images Is Silly

These Scriptures mock the veneration of images as a foolish practice. They point out that the images cannot know or do anything; why trust them? They need to be carried around by people, and can’t move on their own; why would people expect help through them? People bow before a material object and pray to it, even though it’s arbitrary what material would be used for that object and what would instead be destroyed.

Of course, God knows very well that the heathen were praying to the gods through their images. They didn’t expect the images to do anything; they only believed that the images were the place where they could directly access their gods. Yet, even so, Scripture mocks the idea that people can pray toward material objects and expect to be heard.

Yet this is exactly what those who venerate icons are doing—praying toward material objects and expecting to be heard by a being who is supposed to be present in the object to hear them. Does the reasoning process of Scripture really not apply to anyone who expects help by praying toward a material object, even if that object is intended to represent Christ or a dead Christian?

Veneration of Images Is Demeaning

After saying that the idols can’t speak, see, or hear, Psalm 135 says, “Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them.” Those who worship images, according to Scripture, become lifeless and unresponsive, probably in a spiritual way.

Yet how is this any different for those who simply venerate images? They still address communications (bowing, kissing, and praying) to material objects that can’t speak, see, or hear. In both cases, they’re not trusting the material object itself, but believe that the being they pray to is present in some way in that object. So this reasoning process applies to those who venerate images as well.

Don’t Expect Them to Help You

One of the main reasons to pray is to ask for help. Yet Isaiah tells us not to expect help when we address prayers to a material object: “If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble.” And again, Psalm 135 stresses the fact that they aren’t sentient and cannot hear anything.

These Principles Don’t Change in the New Testament

Although we are no longer bound by the Old Testament Law, there seems no reason why these principles would change from one testament to the other. These aren’t commandments found in the Law, but principles and reasoning processes that are found in the Psalms and Prophets. Does God’s reasoning process change from one testament to the other?

Furthermore, the early Christian writers used these exact same arguments against pagan veneration of images, as my next articles shows.

No Bowing to Saints or Angels

Though the New Testament says little about prayers to images, it does speak to the subject obliquely. The reasoning process behind bowing to images is that the person who venerates an image intends to be bowing to the person represented in that image. We are told that there is a form of proskynesis (the Greek word for bowing in worship) that is appropriate to saints and angels.

Throughout the New Testament, forms of this word are used to signify bowing without the intent of worshiping, as well as bowing with the intent of worshiping. To bow, itself, is not wrong.

However, the idea of a proper sort of proskynesis intended for veneration of saints and angels sits very uncomfortably with two prominent examples where a worshiper of God did proskynesis to a saint or an angel:

When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped [proskyneo] him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.” (Acts 10:25–26)

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship [proskyneo] at the feet of the angel who showed them to me, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship [proskyneo] God.” (Rev 22:8–9)

When Cornelius bowed to Peter, he wouldn’t allow it. But if there is a proper sort of proskynesis for Peter, then why did he forbid Cornelius? Did Peter happen to know Cornelius’s heart and that he was intending to address full worship to him? And why did the angel tell John to reserve his proskynesis for God, when there is actually a proper sort of proskynesis for angels?

Furthermore, are we seriously to expect that John, who knew Jesus and had even seen his glorified figure already in this vision, thought that it was appropriate to address full worship to an angel?

I’m sure that you can find ways of explaining this away. If, like John of Damascus, you postulate several forms of worship, one of which is appropriate to images, you could assert that these people were simply trying to do the wrong form of worship, and that’s what they were being corrected for.

But that seems very ad hoc and after the fact, and should convince no one who is not already convinced. Furthermore, Peter knew the Christian faith, and the angel knew what was appropriate. Why didn’t these knowledgeable individuals simply correct those who bowed to them by telling them which kind of proskynesis was actually appropriate?

What About the Other Examples of Proskynesis?

Besides the many times in the New Testament where people offered proskynesis to Jesus, who of course is worthy of all worship, here are the only other times where proskynesis to a human is spoken of as though it is appropriate:

And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees [prosekynei], imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ (Matt 18:25–26)

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: . . . Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down [proskynēsousin] before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. (Rev 3:7, 9)

In the first case, Jesus tells the story of a servant who bowed to his master, someone with ultimate authority over him, but someone whom he didn’t seem to give admiration or loyalty. This is the type of homage that in their culture was given to a king, homage which you had to give whether you were loyal or not. In the second case, Jesus says that those who rejected him will bow to the church in Philadelphia, who was loyal to him. In this case also, the “synagogue of Satan” would hardly have admiration or loyalty for the church of Jesus Christ.

This is certainly a different kind of proskynesis from what is addressed to God—and also a different kind of proskynesis than is addressed to saints by the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. So if we take these Scriptures at face value and assume that it is appropriate to bow down in front of someone who holds authority over you, but whom you are in no danger of admiring, it still doesn’t suggest that we can give proskynesis to saints, whom we do admire.

Objections

This section deals with objections to this argument.

  • Galatians 3:1 says that the gospel was proclaimed with an icon. This verse says, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed [prographō] as crucified” (Gal 3:1 ESV). I don’t know of any exegete who would consider this as evidence for an icon, since “before your eyes” could just as easily be a metaphor. However, even if it were discussing an artwork, no mention is made of venerating it, so this gives not evidence for iconodulia. Note also, (1) Forms of the word “prographo” in Gal 3:1 typically refer to words, not images, in Paul’s writings. See Rom 15:4, Eph 3:3. (2) Given the vast amounts of evidence that show that the early church did not venerate images, we can safely assume that Paul wasn’t saying he preached the gospel with an icon. (3) Interestingly, the early Christians almost never portrayed Jesus on the cross. That started happening toward the fourth century.

What About a “Theology of Icons”?

Often, arguments for the veneration of icons are based in a so-called “theology of icons.” Basically, proponents of this argument mean that they believe they can, by reasoning from Scriptural or theological principles, support the veneration of icons. This section will look at the theological arguments for iconodulia and gauge whether or not there’s any support for it in a Christian framework.

What Can Theology Accomplish?

What can theological speculation accomplish? A bit. Where the apostolic teachings are silent on a particular question, but they do speak enough in that area to give us an idea of some principles to go by, then it is completely appropriate to speculate based on those principles to see what we think the apostles might have said on that issue. However, since the faith was delivered complete, and only Jesus and the apostles had authority to define the faith, later speculation remains just that—speculation.

In this case Scripture and the early church seem to be quite clear—the veneration of images is not a legitimate Christian practice. So no amount of theological speculation can accomplish what they deny to be true. However, let’s take a look at the argument anyway, and see whether it would succeed even in the absence of the clear Scriptural and church teaching.

The Theological Argument

Basically, the theological argument for iconodulia goes like this:

  1. The reason the Israelites were forbidden from depicting God was that God the Father is invisible: “Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure” (Deut 4:15–16). God the Son came to earth in human flesh, so he actually did have a form and was not invisible, thus this reason doesn’t apply to making images of Christ. Furthermore, the saints also had human forms, so images of them are appropriate as well. Presumably, images of angels are also appropriate for the same reason, because angels have appeared in visions to people.
  2. The material world is intrinsically good, since God created it and vindicated it by becoming incarnate. To object to icons because they are made of matter is therefore to be un-Christian, perhaps even Gnostic (since the Gnostics believed the material world to be intrinsically evil).
  3. Veneration is not ultimately addressed to the image itself but to the being whom the image stands in for. Thus, if Scripture or a church father recognizes that when someone honors an image, that person is honoring the person in the image, this opens the door for the possibility of iconodulia.

I’ll respond to these arguments one by one.

Christ Is Visible

The first point fails for a number of reasons.

  • The Scriptural argument against idolatry in Deuteronomy 4 is not the only Scriptural argument ever given against idolatry. It’s just not enough to argue that one of these Scriptural arguments no longer applies—you need to reply to the other arguments from Scripture as well. And those are principles that hold true in the New Testament as well as in the Old.
  • Old Testament saints were just as visible as New Testament saints, yet we see no Scriptural room for venerating images of the dead. In fact, the Wisdom of Solomon, a book full of wisdom and recognized by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as part of the Old Testament, suggests that idolatry arose through the foolish veneration of human images (14:15–21).1“For a father, consumed with grief at an untimely bereavement, made an image of his child, who had been suddenly taken from him; and he now honored as a god what was once a dead human being, and handed on to his dependents secret rites and initiations. Then the ungodly custom, grown strong with time, was kept as a law, and at the command of monarchs graven images were worshiped. . . . For he, perhaps wishing to please his ruler, skilfully forced the likeness to take more beautiful form, and the multitude, attracted by the charm of his work, now regarded as an object of worship the one whom shortly before they had honored as a man. And this became a hidden trap for mankind, because men, in bondage to misfortune or to royal authority, bestowed on objects of stone or wood the name that ought not to be shared.” (Wisdom 14:15–21 RSVCE)
  • Finally, if it is appropriate to venerate angelic images, it must therefore be appropriate to venerate images of deity for the same reasons. After all, God actually did appear in the Old Testament just as much as angels did. In fact, he took on at least the appearance of incarnation when speaking to Abraham. Yet the Old Testament is very clear that there is to be no veneration of images of God; thus (a) venerating the images of angels cannot be appropriate, and (b) seeing a visible form of God doesn’t change whether we can venerate images of God.

Matter Is Good

The second point also fails for a number of reasons:

  • To argue that one should not venerate material objects is not the same as arguing that matter is evil. I also believe that the material world is intrinsically good. Yet it is a non sequitur to say that, therefore, it is appropriate to venerate material objects.
  • The early church fathers consistently argued against the veneration of images {link}. These were the same early church fathers who argued against Gnostics. So they were definitely not Gnostic in their theology.
  • Some Gnostic groups actually venerated images, according to Irenaeus; thus this whole argument is historically impoverished.

Honor Passes Through Images

The third point also fails for two reasons:

  • The early church fathers actually argued against the veneration of images by saying that images couldn’t stand in for someone. Only after about 313 did this idea start to take root. The early church fathers derided that as an uneducated and superstitious idea that the pagans and heretics believed. Are we to understand that later Christians understood the faith better than those who had the apostolic teaching still ringing in their ears?
  • Even if it is possible for veneration to pass through an image to its referent, that doesn’t make it appropriate for Christians to do so.

Should a “Theology of Icons” Impress Us?

The term “theology of icons” can make these arguments sound like lofty endeavors carried out by sophisticated theologians, concepts that deserve careful handling. In reality, the arguments are not very sophisticated, nor do they have any connection to the teachings of Jesus or the apostles.

Conclusion

There seems to be no good way around the Scriptural injunctions, even with theological speculations such as are given above. The most straightforward reading of Scripture is that it teaches against the veneration of images, even in the New Testament era.

The simple, yet profound truth is that we ourselves are made in the image of God. We are the highest being of all creation. Should God’s image be found bowing down to lesser objects made out of paint, wood, or stone?

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    “For a father, consumed with grief at an untimely bereavement, made an image of his child, who had been suddenly taken from him; and he now honored as a god what was once a dead human being, and handed on to his dependents secret rites and initiations. Then the ungodly custom, grown strong with time, was kept as a law, and at the command of monarchs graven images were worshiped. . . . For he, perhaps wishing to please his ruler, skilfully forced the likeness to take more beautiful form, and the multitude, attracted by the charm of his work, now regarded as an object of worship the one whom shortly before they had honored as a man. And this became a hidden trap for mankind, because men, in bondage to misfortune or to royal authority, bestowed on objects of stone or wood the name that ought not to be shared.” (Wisdom 14:15–21 RSVCE)

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