A REPLY TO DAVID BERCOT ON THE HOLY ICONS

Written by Vladimir Moss

A REPLY TO DAVID BERCOT ON THE HOLY ICONS 

        David Bercot is a continuing Anglican who has produced a number of cassettes on spiritual themes. In several of these, he criticizes the position of the Orthodox Church from the point of view of what he considers to be the classical Anglican via media – that is, a position halfway between Protestantism, on the one hand, and Orthodoxy and Catholicism, on the other. Bercot claims that he was very sympathetic to Orthodoxy, and was even preparing to join the Orthodox Church, but was put off by the attitude of the Orthodox to the Mother of God and the holy icons, which he considers to be clearly contrary to the teaching of the Pre-Nicene Church. The following is a reply to Bercot in defence of the Orthodox teaching on icons.

 

     My reaction to Bercot’s fourth tape, on icons, is similar to my reaction to his lecture on the Mother of God. He fails to understand that in the first three centuries of the Church’s life, paganism was still the dominant religion, so that certain doctrines which were part of the apostolic tradition, but which the pagans would almost inevitably misinterpret if presented to them before they had acquired a firm faith in Christ, had to be “played down” or “kept under wraps” in the public teaching of the Church until paganism was finally defeated in the fourth century. One such doctrine was the Orthodox veneration of the Mother of God; another was the Orthodox veneration of icons, which pagans clearly were likely to confuse with their own worship of idols.

 

     Let me begin with Bercot’s argument that since the distinction between proskynesis (veneration, obeisance, bowing) and latreia (worship) is not found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, and since the prohibition of idol-worship in the Second Commandment uses the word proskynesis rather than latreia, the distinction cannot be used to justify the veneration, as opposed to the worship, of icons.

 

     It is true that the verbal distinction between proskynesis and latreia is not clearly made in either the Old or the New Testaments. But this in no way proves that the real distinction between the honour and veneration shown to holy people and objects, on the one hand, and the absolute worship given to God alone, on the other, does not exist and is not implicit in the sacred text. Thus in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, while the words latreia and prokynesis are used, as always, indiscriminately to refer to the worship of God and the veneration of holy people, the angel is careful to admonish John not to treat him, the angel, as he would God, Whom alone he is commanded to worship (22.9).

 

     Holy Apostles Convent writes: “The proskynesis given by a Christian to an icon is ontologically the same reverence he ought to give his fellow Christians, who are images of Christ; but it is ontologically different from the latreia which is due to God alone. It was St. John of Damascus who developed the word latreia to indicate the absolute worship of which only God is worthy. He describes the relative veneration given to the Theotokos, saints, or sacred objects (the Cross, relics, icons, books) by the word proskynesis. At the writing of the Septuagint such distinctions were not strictly observed. Latreia was seldom used and proskynesis was used to describe everything from worship of God to paying respect to a friend. Although modern usage of these terms (worship and veneration, etc.) are often interchanged as synonyms, it has been critical to maintain their exact Orthodox use, consistent with the explanation of St. John of Damascus, since the iconoclast controversy. Although St. John the Theologian freely uses both ‘worship’ (latreia) and ‘make obeisance’ (proskynesis) with relation to God, he never speaks of offering ‘worship’ (latreia) for anyone or anything outside of the Deity (cf. Rev. 7.15, 22.3). Note that the KJV translates the Greek word prokynesis with ‘worship’ and latreia with ‘serve’. (Cf. St. John of Damascus, On the Divine Images, 9-11).”[1]

 

     It quite often takes time for real theological distinctions to acquire precise verbal equivalents. Thus the early Fathers made little distinction between ousia (essence) and hypostasis (person); but from the later fourth century such a distinction became essential to the development of precision in Trinitarian and Christological theology. In the same way, the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council made use of the clear distinction made by St. John of Damascus between proskynesis and latreia in order to expose the falsehood of the iconoclast heresy. Unfortunately, this distinction was not made clear in the translation into Latin of the Acts of the Seventh Council, which led to Charlemagne rejecting the Council.[2]

 

     As Bercot rightly says, we must not become prisoners of words, but penetrate to the realities behind the words. And the fact is that, whatever imprecisions of terminology may have existed at that time, the Old Testament Jews most certainly did make a practical distinction between veneration and worship. They venerated and bowed down to certain physical objects and people, while worshipping God alone. And they neither venerated nor worshipped the idols of the pagans.

 

     The Jews’ veneration of certain holy objects was central to their spiritual life, and was never at any time confused with idolatry. Was not the ark considered to be holy and the dwelling-place of God? And did not God confirm the veneration in which it was held by striking dead Uzzah, who had handled it without sufficient reverence? Again, did not Abraham and David bow down to men and angels? And did not God command Solomon to build a temple with images in it, so that “he overlaid the cherubim with gold and carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms” (I Kings 6.28-29)? And yet, if Bercot is right, and we cannot make any distinction between worship and veneration, this must be counted as impious idol-worship!

 

     God not only blessed sacred art – that is, art whose products were deemed to be sacred – in the Old Testament. He clearly attached great importance to it by sending down grace upon the artist. Thus of Belzalel He said: “I have filled him with the Spirit of God with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting and in carving wood, for work in every craft” (Exodus 31.2-4). According to tradition, Christ Himself sent an image of Himself to King Abgar of Edessa, who treated it with great reverence. In the early Church, grace was given to specially commissioned artists, such as the Evangelist Luke, who painted several icons that have survived to the present day. According to British tradition, St. Joseph of Arimathaea brought an icon of the Mother of God to Glastonbury, where it remained until it was destroyed by Protestant iconoclasts in the 1520s. We know from Eusebius’ History of the Church that the woman with an issue of blood whom Christ healed built a statue of Him which worked miracles for many years and was never condemned as idolatry by the Church. Archaeological excavations have unearthed Christian iconography from very early times. And of course the Roman catacombs are full of icons.

 

     This evidence shows that in the early Church the tradition of iconography was present in embryo. What prevented the embryo from growing quickly into the fully mature adult of later Byzantine iconography was not any theological objection to sacred art as such, but, as we have said, the still living tradition of pagan idolatry. If we read the Wisdom of Solomon, chapters 12 to 15, we see that pagan idolatry involved: (i) the worship of inanimate objects as gods; (ii) the rejection of the true and living God; and (iii) various kinds of immorality (child sacrifice, temple prostitution) associated with the cult of the false gods. On all three counts, the veneration of icons must be sharply distinguished from pagan idolatry: (i) icons are neither gods, nor worshipped. (ii) they lead us closer to, rather than away from, the true God; and (iii) they have no connection with immoral practices, but rather stimulate purity and chastity. And yet there is no doubt that if the iconoclasts of the 8th and 9th centuries, and the Protestants of the 16th century, failed to understand the distinction between icon-veneration and idol-worship, there must have been a similar temptation for pagan converts to the Faith in the early centuries.

 

     “Just because the pagans used [images] in a foul way,” writes St. John of Damascus, “that is no reason to object to our pious practices. Sorcerers and magicians use incantations and the Church prays over catechumens, the former conjure up demons while the Church calls upon God to exorcise the demons. Pagans make images of demons which they address as gods, but we make images of God incarnate, and of His servants and friends, and with them we drive away the demonic hosts.”[3]

 

     On one point, however, the Orthodox Christians and the pagans are, paradoxically, closer to each other than either are to the iconoclasts and Protestants. For both agree, contrary to the latter, that matter can become spirit-bearing. An image can become a channel of the Holy Spirit, as in Christian iconography, or a channel of the evil spirit, as in witchcraft. The spittle of Christ, the shadow of Peter and the handkerchief of Paul all worked miracles because the Holy Spirit was in them; and all the sacraments involve material objects – water, oil, bread and wine. Similarly, the objects used by Satanists and witches also work “miracles” through the evil spirit that is in them; and their “sacraments”, too, always have a material element.

 

     The Protestants, on the other hand, while not rejecting sacraments altogether, diminish their significance and the material element in them. Thus whereas the Lord clearly decrees that baptism is “through water and the spirit”, “born again Christians” usually dispense with the “water” part altogether, thinking they can receive the Spirit without it.

 

     Since we are made of soul and body, the Word took on a soul and a body in order to save the whole of us – soul and body. Therefore the flesh and matter are no barrier to worship in the Spirit: rather, flesh and matter must become spiritualized, filled with the Spirit, in order to commune with the immaterial. And to this end the Flesh of the incarnate of God is given to us in the Eucharist.

 

     It follows that it is not the materiality of icons as such that is critical, but the use to which they are put. The pagans, as St. John of Damascus said, use material images for evil uses, to commune with evil spirits. The Orthodox, however, use them for good uses, to commune with the One True God.

 

     Bercot is guilty of serious distortion in his discussion of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. He says, for example, that almost all the Christians in the eighth century were Christians in name only. What an astonishingly sweeping and unjust judgement! Since he is an Anglican, let me point out that the seventh and eighth centuries were the golden age of the EnglishChurch, an age of the most abundant sanctity which has not been equaled English history since then. And as the Venerable Bede witnesses, icons were definitely used her worship. Thus when St. Augustine and his fellow missionaries set foot for the first time on English soil, they were preceded by an icon of Christ; and St. Benedict Biscop imported icons from Rome to Northumbria.

 

     Again, Bercot claims that the Church at that time was completely dominated by the emperors – a false cliché which is proved by the simple fact that vast numbers of Christians, bishops, priests, monks and laypeople, were driven into exile or tortured precisely because they refused to accept the emperor’s iconoclasm. Let him read the bold language St. Theodore the Studite used to the emperor of his time – a boldness not, sadly, employed by the Anglicans against that other iconoclast “emperor” and founder of the Anglican church, Henry VIII.

 

     Again, he claims that the icon-venerators were just as cruel to their opponents as the iconoclasts to them. In fact, an unprejudiced reading of the history of the time makes it clear that the persecutions were directed exclusively against the icon-venerators, and were every bit as cruel as those of the pagan Roman emperors. This shows that an evil spirit possessed the iconoclasts, just as an evil spirit possessed the Protestant Anglicans who destroyed the monasteries and images and relics of the saints in sixteenth-century England.

 

     The veneration of icons was the common practice of the whole Church in both East and West for the first millennium of Christian history at least. Consider, for example, the thoroughly Orthodox reasoning of the English Abbot Aelfric, who lived in about 1000: “Truly Christians should bow down to the holy cross in the Saviour’s name, because we do not possess the cross on which He suffered. However, its likeness is holy, and we always bow down to it when we pray, to the mighty Lord Who suffered for men. And that cross is a memorial of His great Passion, holy through Him, even though it grew in a forest. We always honour it, to honour Christ, Who freed us by it with His love. We always thank Him for that in this life.”[4]]

 

     Iconoclasm is a recurrent temptation in the history of the Church. Since the devil hates God, he hates all those who are filled with the grace of God, and all those holy things which are channels of His grace. That is why he inspired the Muslims and the iconoclasts, the Bogomils and the Albigensians, the Protestants and the Masons and the Soviets, to destroy icons and crosses and relics and churches. And that is why the Church anathematizes the iconoclasts and iconoclasm as a most dangerous heresy. For let us not think that we do God service while destroying those things in which God dwells and through which He helps us to come close to Him. If we think that God cannot dwell in material things, or work miracles through holy icons and relics, then by implication we are denying the reality of the Incarnation, in which God not only worked through matter, but became flesh. That is why the main argument in defence of icons is based on the reality of the Incarnation. If the immaterial Word was made flesh, and seen and touched, why cannot we make images of His human body, and touch and kiss them? And if the burning of the national flag is considered treason by those who love their country, why should not the destroying or dishonouring of the holy icons be considered blasphemy by those who love their Lord?

 

     As St. Basil the Great says, “the honour accorded to the image passes to its prototype”, so that the icon is a kind of door (St. Stephen the Younger) opening up into the world of the Spirit. This is not a pagan principle, as Bercot claims; and if the pagans have something analogous, it only goes to show that in this, as in many other ways, false religion simply apes the true. To put it in a more philosophical way, we may say that this is the principle of the symbolical or analogical nature of reality, whereby lower-order realities reflect and participate in higher-order realities, as the light of the moon reflects and participates in the light of the sun. The Catholic West began to lose this symbolical understanding of reality when Charlemagne rejected the veneration of icons at the council of Frankfurt in 794; and the Protestant West lost it entirely when it replaced symbolic truth with scientific truth, the appreciation of qualities with the analysis of quantities. In this respect, the Protestant-scientific revolution represents not so much the triumph of reason over superstition as the beginning of a descent into something even lower than paganism, as Dostoyevsky pointed out - the descent into atheism, the complete loss of faith in spiritual reality. Correspondingly, the return to icon-veneration in the West would represent the beginning of a return to true faith, the faith that ascends in and through material things to the immaterial God.

 

     I end with a quotation from a holy Father of the Pre-NiceneChurch, Hieromartyr Methodius, Bishop of Patara: “Even though the images of the emperor are not all made from gold or silver or precious metals, they are always honoured by everyone. Men are not honouring the materials from which they are made; they do not choose to honour one image more than another because it is made from a more valuable substance; they honour the image whether it is made of cement or bronze. If you should mock any of them, you will not be judged differently for mocking plaster or gold, but for showing contempt to your king and lord. We make golden images of God’s angels, principalities and powers, to give glory and honour to Him.”[5]

 

June 20 / July 3, 2004; revised May 13/26, 2010.

 

 



[1] Holy Apostles Convent, Buena Vista, Colorado, The Orthodox New Testament, vol. 2, 1999, p. 557.

[2] Andrew Louth writes: “The Frankish court received a Latin version of the decrees of Nicaea II in which a central point was misrepresented: instead of an assertion that icons are not venerated with the worship owed to God, the Latin version seems to have asserted exactly the opposite, that icons are indeed venerated with the worship due to God alone. There is certainly scope for misunderstanding here, especially when dealing with a translated text, for the distinction that the iconodules had painstakingly drawn between a form of veneration expressing honour and a form of veneration expressing worship has no natural lexical equivalent. Proskynesis, which in Greek at this time probably carried a primary connotation of bowing down, prostration – a physical act – and latreia, the word used for worship exclusively due to God – a matter of intention – are derived from roots, which in their verbal forms are used as a hendiadys in the Greek version of the second commandment in the Septuagint (προσκυνήσέίς… λάτρέυσής: ‘you shall not bow down… you shall not worship’: Exod. 20.5). Latin equivalents add further confusion, not least because the Latin calque of proskynesis, adoratio, was the word that came to be used for latreia. But whatever the potential confusion, the distinction explicitly made by the Nicene synod simply collapsed into identity by the faulty translation that made its way to the Frankish court” (Greek East and Latin West, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007, pp. 86-87).

[3]St. John of Damascus, First Discourse on the Divine Images, 24.

[4] Abbot Aelfric, Catholic Homilies, II, 18, On the Finding of the Cross; quoted by Fr. Andrew Phillips, Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition, English Orthodox Trust, 1995, pp. 180-181.

[5] St. Methodius of Patara, Second Sermon on the Resurrection.

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