Emanuel Burke previously shared his Anglican journey here: “Anglican, for the Love of God.” In this post below, Emanuel shares about his journey into iconography. If you’d like to support his work, check out his Patreon page.
Icons? Aren’t they idolatrous?
Many Western Christians, particularly in America, have a difficult time understanding why icons are so meaningful and integral to the life of Christians all over the world.
Icons have drawn all sorts of attention from evangelicals and Protestants since the Reformation, ranging from hostility to full reception. Though there has been a steady movement among Western Christians toward an appreciative understanding of icons and the role they play in the Christian life, the most common response has been to consider them idolatrous, the products of bad tradition and emotionalism.
I get it. Before coming into the Anglican way, I was a Reformed Baptist and was opposed to icons.
This was mainly because I didn’t like the paintings of the blonde-hair-blue-eyed-super-white Jesus commonly found in the home of one’s grandmother. I thought they were disrespectful, ugly, and simply unnecessary. I was also opposed to the idea of the crucifix, justifying my disdain with the reality that Jesus was raised from the dead. Therefore, an empty cross was much better.
However, my perspective changed greatly when I became aware of two important things:
- the historical use of icons in the Church, and
- the linguistic, perceptual, and cognitive differences between Western and Eastern people.
I would never have even considered looking into these things more deeply if God had not led me to the Anglican tradition.
Anglicans have always been concerned with connecting people to Jesus Christ through Word and Sacrament, which naturally involves a common life of prayer. Anglicans have also always been reformed in all the right ways, as it were, making appropriate adjustments according to the times and circumstances. Anglicans have always existed in these ways while seeking to maintain faithfulness to the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church Fathers (in congruence with the Scriptures).
For these reasons, it’s important for Anglicans to not only look at how icons were perceived by the English Reformers, but also how they have been perceived and used by our brothers and sisters in the East. We should consider how our perception has been severely distorted by compounded linguistic, perceptual, and cognitive differences between East and West.
Opposition to sacred art and images is called iconoclasm, and the iconoclast perspective can be found in some Anglican circles.
In addition to accusations of idolatry, Anglican iconoclasts will often cite Article XXII of the 39 Articles. The error they make is certainly understandable, but no less an error.
Here’s what Article 22 says:
XXII. Of Purgatory.
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.
In Tract 90 of Tracts for the Times, John Henry Newman defended the catholic nature of the Anglican communion, regarding it as a continuation of the very same Church of Augustine and the other Church Fathers.
Newman also argued about the proper interpretation of the Articles, treating them less as a confession, and closer to a set of ecclesiological principles. In that line of thought, he points out that Article XXII is describing “Romish” doctrine, and that it therefore distinguishes the naivety and futility of such doctrine from primitive doctrine. The primitive doctrine in question, which is the doctrine that had been received by the Apostles and the Church Fathers, contains teachings about the use of icons that are distinct from the Roman use when Article XXII was first written.
Newman sent his readers straight to “A Homily Against Peril of Idolatry and Superfluous Decking of Churches” (as found in The Second Book of Homilies) to show that there was a distinction between the Romish and Primitive use of icons. In doing this, he notes that Article XXII was written prior to the Council of Trent. This is important because Trent, in session 25, rejected the worship of images in the same way the “Homily Against Peril of Idolatry” rejected the worship of images.
According to Newman, this means that Article XXII was specifically addressing the way images were being used by the Roman Church at the time, which had connections with indulgences and the like. Though the connection between icons and indulgences, which generated a culture of idolatry, had passed by Newman’s time, he nevertheless concluded that icons should not be venerated.
The Iconoclast Controversy
Long before Newman, Trent, and the 39 Articles, as Greg Goebel has noted, the Church had already addressed the issue of icons in what became known as the “iconoclast controversy.”
This controversy was resolved through the ruling of the Second Council of Nicaea (Nicaea II), which essentially defended the use of icons by defending the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ. This council has been something of a longstanding controversy between Western and Eastern Christians.
Pope Hadrian I had the ruling of the council translated into Latin, and that is the text that the Western Church initially received. It was not received well.
Charlemagne and the Frankish clergy rejected the council at their own synod in 794 (the Council of Frankfurt), determining that both iconoclasm and iconodulism (the veneration of icons) were to be rejected. Ever since that council, Western Christians have thought of icons as mere teaching tools and creative works of beauty (that is, if they didn’t view them as idols).
The problem is that all of this was caused by a very poor translation of Nicaea II that equated the terms veneration (doulia/proskynesis) and worship (latreia).
The poor Latin translation launched a negative reaction to the council, and a long tradition of Western Christians misunderstanding and misrepresenting Eastern Orthodox beliefs. Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants alike have all inherited this misunderstanding.
Western and Eastern people process information in very different ways.
“More than a billion people in the world today claim intellectual inheritance from ancient Greece. More than two billion are the heirs of ancient Chinese traditions of thought.”
There is a Zen Buddhist proverb says that the opposite of a great truth is also true, which is just one example of how the cognitive processes of Eastern people groups have developed under the idea that individual perceptions and relationships and communal needs determine what can be true.
This is important for us as Western Christians to grasp, especially when it comes to Orthodoxy, because their theological development is not rooted in Greek philosophy, nor is it influenced by the Enlightenment which favors rationalism at the expense of human emotions.
The cognitive differences between the East and the West have fueled the lasting controversy of Nicaea II. This is why we need to take a look at the Church Fathers, and the Nicaea II itself, to better understand what it means to venerate something and what it means to worship something.
St. John of Damascus was a significant figure during the Nicaea II era of the Church, and he wrote an apology against those who condemn holy images. His Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images helped develop the difference between veneration and worship.
John of Damascus argues there are varying degrees of worship. Latreia is the worship that is given to God alone.
Yet we also practice the command of Scripture, “Come, let us worship and bow down (proskynemen). Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker”, which means God alone receives both veneration and worship.
Veneration, then, which we translate from both doulia and proskyneo, can be given to anyone and anything worthy of honor and reverence.
Imagine being given the opportunity to meet Archbishop Foley Beach. How would you prepare for that meeting? How would you want to interact with him?
You would probably mull over potential conversational topics and ways you could verbally show him due honor and respect. Unless you know him as a close friend, you would probably feel excited, a bit anxious, and greet him with a handshake.
If this interaction was taking place in the early Church, you would have knelt and kissed his hand, and probably bowed your head toward him. That is veneration, and no one thinks of it as worship or idolatry.
Consider the emotions involved in those kinds of interactions: excitement, anxiety, love, affection, appreciation, and so on. Those emotions are essential for a person to appropriately honor someone else, and they are no less essential for worshiping God.
As the bishops at Nicaea II considered quotes from the Church Fathers, the conversation began to focus on the record of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s interaction with an icon of the sacrifice of Isaac. It is said that Gregory wept, having an emotional response each time he passed the image because it always turned his attention to the cross of Christ. After all, the image of Isaac being offered up to God is a shadow of the image of Jesus being offered as the sacrifice that liberated humanity from sin and death.
The bishops at Nicaea II believed that the icon of the sacrifice of Isaac only ever pointed a person to the cross, and therefore concluded that the image of Isaac was the image of the crucified Lord, and that “in that image shall be found perfectly the profundity of the abasement of the incarnate God for our sakes”.
The importance of this is the fact that they saw spiritual value in that way icons shaped the emotions and affections of the heart.
The way venerating icons shapes the affections of the heart toward Christ is the primary argument made in the official ruling of the council. The bishops wrote that as Jesus, Mary, the Saints, and the stories of Scripture “are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them…”.
By prototypes the bishops mean is that the icon is not the ontological presence of Jesus, Mary, or the Saints, but that they are, to use another word, archetypes of faith that are to be imitated—pointers to Jesus Christ. The bishops, then, are essentially echoing St. Paul’s urgent words: “Be imitators of me, as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
Icons point you to Jesus…
Icons stir the affections of the Christian heart to long for the way of Christ. They help us meditate on and participate in the divine life to which we have been called.
The giving of our life to Christ, the living sacrifice of our body and soul and mind, is our spiritual worship which is given to God alone. Venerating icons is but one way of doing that, for they lead us to set our hearts and minds on the things that are above.
Concerning the relation of the incarnation to the creation and use of icons in general, St. John of Damascus wrote,
“I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works for my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God.”
God, who was at one time unseen, was made visible through the incarnation. The Apostles saw Him, and touched Him, and listened to Him speak, and that reality is what the icons depict.
This argument is pushed further regarding the veneration of Saints by both St. Athanasius and St. John of Damascus, who said, respectively, “the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power of all,” and, “[the saints] have withstood sin unto blood, and followed Christ in shedding their blood for Him, who shed His blood for them.”
The saints participated in the body and blood of Jesus Christ in such a way that it was His own blood that issued from their wounds in martyrdom. Honoring, or venerating, the saints doesn’t stop with them, since their sacrifice and faith is what inspires us toward our own callings. The veneration flows through them and is worship given to Christ alone, the incarnate Son of God, the Founder and Protector of our faith.
For myself (and many other Christians who grew up in the evangelical world) it has been far too common to experience a kind of Neo-Gnostic version of Christianity.
By that, I mean the belief that a person’s body is nonessential to their faith, and that matter, in general, is of no ultimate value. There is a tendency to view the material world as evil and dark, and to think that the goal of salvation is for us to become disembodied beings floating around in an ethereal dimension called “heaven.” It’s as though, in the words of Wendell Berry’s character, Jayber Crow, Jesus took on human flesh so that “we might despise it.”
These tendencies of Western Christians are seen most clearly in
- preaching that is “cross-centered” at the expense of providing the hope of the bodily resurrection and the New Creation we have been promised;
- “counseling” that tells a person they just need to “rest in Christ,” without giving any concrete examples of what that actually looks like, and
- pastors who teach that saving faith is nothing more than a rational decision to accept a particular set of doctrines about Jesus (which can range anywhere between Licentious Liberalism to Reformed Calvinism).
…and your neighbor
Venerating icons and praying with them can act as a kind of course correction against those tendencies by teaching us to see Christ in the faces of the poor, the orphans, the widows, the sojourners, and even our enemies.
After all, they are icons of God, fashioned after the icon of God: Jesus Christ. Every image-bearer, or icon, carries the potential to be a saint simply by nature of being human. Venerating and praying with icons helps us to come to terms with that reality, so that we may treat everyone as they are: people fashioned by and for Jesus Christ.
Icons have been instrumental in the development of my faith. One of the most encouraging passages in Scripture for me has been Jesus’ quotation of Exodus 3:6 to the Sadducees: “…Have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:26-27).
The Saints are as alive today as they ever were, and that is the hope of our faith in Christ. I create icons in light of that reality, and I’m doing so within the Anglican tradition.
My hope is for the sacred arts to be renewed within the local church, especially the use of icons. If you are interested in learning more about my work, you can follow me on Instagram (@emanuelburke_art) and subscribe as a patron via Patreon for exclusive content, art prints, icons, and more.
Emanuel Burke is a contemplative artist working in iconography, illustration, design, and fine art. You can support his work via Patreon.