Should Christians Venerate Icons and Statues?

2017 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. In honor of the Reformation, I am starting a new series lasting at least through the rest of the year exploring why the Protestant Reformers were correct to protest against the false beliefs within Roman Catholicism. If you are a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, please do not misinterpret my critique of these beliefs as an attack on you personally. As a convictional Protestant, I have a responsibility to give a reason for why I believe as I do and you have a responsibility to examine the beliefs of your upbringing against that of Scripture (Acts 17:11). The first topic we will explore is whether Christians should venerate icons of the saints and Christ.

An icon is a visible representation of Christ or a saint which serves to aid the worship of Christ or the veneration of saints. God alone receives latria or worship while the saints receive dulia or service. It is argued that the second commandment which forbids the making of carved images or the likeness of anything in creation was only for Old Testament saints because we are not tempted to commit idolatry in the same way they were. Because the Word of God became flesh in the incarnation, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox argue that we may create physical representations of Christ to depict his human nature.

A key figure in the defense of the use of icons was John of Damascus who argued against the iconoclasts in his Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images. His view triumphed at the Seventh Ecumenical Council which condemned all of those who opposed the use of images in the church. This view was reaffirmed by the Fourth Council of Constantinople which declared:

“If anyone does not venerate the image of Christ our Lord, let him be deprived of seeing him in glory at his second coming. The image of his all pure Mother and the images of the holy angels as well as the images of all the saints are equally the object of our homage and veneration.”

When it comes to the second commandment, John argued:

“These injunctions were given to the Jews on account of their proneness to idolatry. Now we, on the contrary, are no longer in leading strings. Speaking theologically, it is given to us to avoid superstitious error, to be with God in the knowledge of the truth, to worship God alone, to enjoy the fullness of His knowledge. We have passed the stage of infancy, and reached the perfection of manhood. We receive our habit of mind from God, and know what may be imaged and what may not. . . . Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, (Bar. 3.38) I make an image of the God whom I see” (Apologia).

The Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid in his debate with James White at 1:54-56 makes a similar argument by saying that we are not tempted to commit idolatry in the same way the Israelites were. John goes on to argue that because the Son has become incarnate, we may make depictions of him because the invisible God has become visible:

“It is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict Him clothed in human form. . . . When He who is bodiless and without form, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing in the form of God, empties Himself and takes the form of a servant in substance and in stature and is found in a body of flesh, then you may draw His image and show it to anyone willing to gaze upon it” (Apologia).

The medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas claims that images of Christ are not the object of our worship, but only aids to worship:

“Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is” (Summa Theologica II-II, 81, 3 ad 3).

An image aids worship by serving as the starting point for adoration. When a person looks longingly into an image of Christ, it reminds him of who Jesus is and what he has done. By showing veneration to the image of Christ, he then moves on to worship the Christ who stands behind the image. For images of the saints, gazing into them reminds Catholics and the Orthodox of what the saint has done and serves as a launching platform to offer prayers to the saints that they might pray for us.

Without icons, they could not worship Christ as they have been raised to. It’s just too hard to worship a Christ we cannot see or offer prayers to saints without a visible representation of them. Having a picture of a saint in front of you makes it easier to pray to him because you can use it to pretend as if you are having a real conversation and not talking to a dead person. That is why icon lovers value their icons so much and became so upset when the iconoclasts took them away.

Another argument used by those who defend the use of icons in the church is that because God commanded Israel to make two golden cherubim on the mercy seat (Exod 25:18), the prohibition against making images in the second commandment is not a universal prohibition. But Israel was allowed to craft these golden cherubim because God explicitly commanded them to. But there is no command for us to do so today. These two golden images were hidden from the sight of Israel because they were part of the ark of the covenant which was kept in the Holy of Holies. Therefore, they would never become a stumbling block to Israel. The Israelites were forbidden to even look at the ark of the covenant so they could never venerate them (Num 4:20; 1 Sam 6:19).

John argues in his apology that those who oppose his position are Manicheans because they despise matter. But this is a misrepresentation of the iconoclast position. We are not opposed to matter and affirm the full humanity of Christ. But the reason why we are opposed to religious images in worship and bowing down to them is because there is no biblical warrant for them and making images and bowing down to them is forbidden by God in Exodus 20:4-5:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.”

The arguments used to justify statues and images in worship are identical to the arguments used by pagans to justify the worship of idols in their worship. They claim that they are not worshiping the image of their god, but only using it as an aid for worshiping that which we cannot see with our eyes. When I visited a Hindu temple, the woman I spoke with said that the images of their gods are no different than the stained glass windows in a church which depict the life of Christ. So, when I see people bowing down in prayer before statues of Mary, you must forgive me for thinking this is a gross violation of Exodus 20:4-5.

In contrast to these pagan means of worship, we are called to worship God without any physical representation because God by nature is invisible (Lev 26:1; Deut 4:12-24; 5:8-9; John 4:24; Acts 17:29; Rom 1:23) and Jesus Christ never ceased to be invisible with respect to his divine nature (Heb 13:8). Christians are called to be content with no likeness of God until eternity future (Ps 17:15; Rev 22:4). Jesus in his present glorified state cannot be accurately depicted by man (Mark 9:2-3; Rev 1:12-17). To attempt to depict him is to create an incomplete Nestorian Christ. The use of icons in the church is not in accordance with the universal consent of the fathers.

A closely related topic is that of relics which are the bodily remains (graphic images) or items associated with the saints and Christ. It is often claimed that the relics of the saints have miraculous power associated with them which can bring healing. Instead of burying the bodies of the saints in the ground as Paul assumed Christians would do in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, they disrespectfully parade their body parts around to be venerated. It is little wonder then that there is so much religious syncretism and ancestor worship in the Catholic world because the use of images in worship was already a feature of the non-Christian religions these people came out of.

Sunday Meditation – The Spirit Strives

“God speaks with sinners through his messengers. They come for God’s purpose, and their words, counsels, exhortations, and reproofs are his. When sinners reject the words which God’s ministers bring in his name, they are actually striving with the Spirit. They are wrestling with Christ as if He were present. When God comes to reckon with sinners, it will prove just so. God will remind them of his striving and their unkind resistance. The Spirit strives with the consciences of men, debating in their own hearts the case against them, and shows man his sin in all its ugly colors. He does this so well that the creature can sometimes smell the very fire and brimstone about him, and makes him feel at present in a temporary hell. At other times, he parleys and works with them, and makes gracious overtures and offers of the gospel to them. He opens a door of hope and woos and beseeches them to throw down their rebellious arms and come to Christ for life.”

William Gurnall

Universalism in the Early Church

The vast majority of early church fathers believed that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. But unfortunately, there were several who believed in universal salvation. This has led many universalists to greatly overstate their case by claiming that universalism was the prevailing belief of the early church. While universalism was always a minority position among the church fathers, I would like to summarize their teachings here to serve as a reminder that there is no such thing as a universal consent of the fathers on Christian doctrine except when it comes to the foundational truths of the life of Christ. The writings of the early church fathers are filled with strange beliefs and this should give us pause when someone claims that a doctrine is true because some church father said so.

Universalism makes a mockery of Jesus’ warning in Matthew 5:29-30:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

But if people in hell can leave and enter heaven, then it would not be better to cut off your right hand or put out your eye to avoid going there since those who leave it with all their arms and eyes intact would be able to enjoy using them for all eternity while those who mutilated their body would not. Of course, no one in the new heavens and new earth will miss any limbs, but universalism destroys the hypothetical situation Jesus is painting. The Bible teaches that hell will last forever and is not locked from the inside (Matt 25:41-46; 26:24; Rev 14:9-11; 20:10-15).

The first church father to teach universalism appears to have been Origen (the source of all bad things in Christian theology). While Clement of Alexandria is often cited as an early universalist, I believe it is incorrect to label him as such. The clearest expression of Origen’s universalism is not found in the Latin translation of On First Principles by Rufinus, but in the original Greek text which we only have fragments of. It is preserved by Leontius of Byzantium in his Concerning the Sects 10.6 and in emperor Justinian’s condemnation of Origen in his Epistle to Menas:

“There is a resurrection of the dead, and there is punishment, but not everlasting. For when the body is punished the soul is gradually purified, and so is restored to its ancient rank. For all wicked men, and for demons, too, punishment has an end, and both wicked men and demons shall be restored to their former rank” (Greek text of On First Principles 2.10.8).

Arguing on the basis of 1 Corinthians 15:28, Origen proposes that all of Christ’s enemies will be restored to fellowship with him:

“If, then, that subjection be held to be good and salutary by which the Son is said to be subject to the Father, it is an extremely rational and logical inference to deduce that the subjection also of enemies, which is said to be made to the Son of God, should be understood as being also salutary and useful; as if, when the Son is said to be subject to the Father, the perfect restoration of the whole of creation is signified, so also, when enemies are said to be subjected to the Son of God, the salvation of the conquered and the restoration of the lost is in that understood to consist” (On First Principles 3.5.7).

This would occur through a series countless ages where eventually all rational souls will be restored to their original condition after undergoing this period of purgation:

“And this result must be understood as being brought about, not suddenly, but slowly and gradually, seeing that the process of amendment and correction will take place imperceptibly in the individual instances during the lapse of countless and unmeasured ages, some outstripping others, and tending by a swifter course towards perfection, while others again follow close at hand, and some again a long way behind; and thus, through the numerous and uncounted orders of progressive beings who are being reconciled to God from a state of enmity, the last enemy is finally reached, who is called death, so that he also may be destroyed, and no longer be an enemy. When, therefore, all rational souls shall have been restored to a condition of this kind, then the nature of this body of ours will undergo a change into the glory of a spiritual body” (On First Principles 3.6.6).

In Origen’s theology, hell exists to rid those who are hostile to God of their hostility so that they are eventually no longer his enemies:

“For the destruction of the last enemy must be understood in this way, not that its substance which was made by God should perish, but that the hostile purpose and will which proceeded not from God but from itself will come to an end. It will be destroyed, therefore, not in the sense of ceasing to exist, but of being no longer an enemy” (On First Principles 3.6.5).

Jerome, in his letter to Pammacius and Oceanus, believed that Origen taught universal salvation for all including the devil:

“If you too for your parts will but admit that Origen errs in certain things I will not say another syllable. Acknowledge that he thought amiss concerning the Son, and still more amiss concerning the Holy Spirit, point out the impiety of which he has been guilty in speaking of men’s souls as having fallen from heaven, and show that, while in word he asserts the resurrection of the flesh, he destroys the force of this language by other assertions. As, for instance, that, after many ages and one restitution of all things, it will be the same for Gabriel as for the devil, for Paul as for Caiaphas, for virgins as for prostitutes.”

At one time, Jerome agreed with Origen on universal salvation. But he later changed his mind and embraced the Bible’s teaching that it will not be the same for Gabriel as for the devil (Rev 20:10).

While Origen taught universal reconciliation in private to those who are mature, to the immature and those outside the church, he taught eternal punishment as a means to restrain their evil:

“It is risky to commit to writing the explanation of these matters, because the multitude do not require any more instruction than that punishment is to be inflicted upon sinners. It is not of advantage to go on to the truths which lie behind it because there are people who are scarcely restrained by fear of everlasting punishment from the vast flood of evil and the sins that are committed in consequence of it” (Against Celsus 6.26).

Origen was the original theological liberal who used the language of orthodox Christianity in public so that the church would think he believed as they do while redefining its meaning while among the spiritually enlightened.

Gregory of Nyssa, an important church father who defended the doctrine of the Trinity against Arianism, is the most significant universalist in the early church. In his treatise on 1 Corinthians 15:28, he argues that all of Christ’s enemies will be reconciled to him:

“The exposition of the term ‘subjection’ as used here does not mean the forceful, necessary subjection of enemies as is commonly meant; while on the other hand, salvation is clearly interpreted by subjection. However, clear proof of the former meaning is definitely made when Paul makes a twofold distinction of the term ‘enemy.’ He says that enemies are to be subjected; indeed, they are to be destroyed. Therefore, the enemy to be blotted out from human nature is death, whose principle is sin along with domination and power. In another sense, the enemies of God which are to be subjected to him attach themselves to sin after deserting God’s kingdom. Paul mentions this in his Epistle to the Romans: ‘For if we have been enemies, we have been reconciled to God’ [Rom 5.10]. Here Paul calls subjection reconciliation, one term indicating salvation by another word. . . . When all enemies have become God’s footstool, they will receive a trace of divinity in themselves. Once death has been destroyed — for if there are no persons who will die, not even death would exist — then we will be subjected to him; but this is not understood by some sort of servile humility. Our subjection, however, consists of a kingdom, incorruptibility and blessedness living in us; this is Paul’s meaning of being subjected to God. Christ perfects his good in us by himself, and effects in us what is pleasing to him.”

Hell for Gregory is a period of refinement which is purgatorial and temporary:

“Just as those who refine gold from the dross which it contains not only get this base alloy to melt in the fire, but are obliged to melt the pure gold along with the alloy, and then while this last is being consumed the gold remains, so, while evil is being consumed in the purgatorial fire, the soul that is welded to this evil must inevitably be in the fire too, until the spurious material alloy is consumed and annihilated by this fire” (On the Soul and the Resurrection).

He believed that even the devil would be saved by Christ:

“But as regards the aim and purpose of what took place, a change in the direction of the nobler is involved; for whereas he, the enemy, effected his deception for the ruin of our nature, He Who is at once the just, and good, and wise one, used His device, in which there was deception, for the salvation of him who had perished, and thus not only conferred benefit on the lost one, but on him, too, who had wrought our ruin. . . . Therefore even the adversary himself will not be likely to dispute that what took place was both just and salutary, that is, if he shall have attained to a perception of the boon. For it is now as with those who for their cure are subjected to the knife and the cautery; they are angry with the doctors, and wince with the pain of the incision; but if recovery of health be the result of this treatment, and the pain of the cautery passes away, they will feel grateful to those who have wrought this cure upon them. In like manner, when, after long periods of time, the evil of our nature, which now is mixed up with it and has grown with its growth, has been expelled, and when there has been a restoration of those who are now lying in Sin to their primal state, a harmony of thanksgiving will arise from all creation, as well from those who in the process of the purgation have suffered chastisement, as from those who needed not any purgation at all. These and the like benefits the great mystery of the Divine incarnation bestows. For in those points in which He was mingled with humanity, passing as He did through all the accidents proper to human nature, such as birth, rearing, growing up, and advancing even to the taste of death, He accomplished all the results before mentioned, freeing both man from evil, and healing even the introducer of evil himself” (The Great Catechism 26).

I believe Augustine’s doctrine of purgatory is an evolution of the purgatorial understanding of hell as expressed by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Augustine and later Western theology took this concept of postmortem purgation and drew a distinction between hell which lasts forever and a place of suffering for the righteous who will eventually be admitted into heaven after suffering for the temporal punishments due to their venial sins.

Another universalist was Theodore of Mopsuestia who taught that the punishments of the wicked will eventually come to an end:

“In the world to come, those who have chosen here what is good, will receive the felicity of good things along with praise; whereas the wicked, who all their life have turned aside to evil deeds, once they have been set in order in their minds by punishments and the fear of them, choose the good, having come to learn how much they have sinned, and that they have persevered in doing evil things and not good; by means of all this they receive a knowledge of religion’s excellent teaching, and are educated so as to hold on to it with a good will, and so eventually they are held worthy of the felicity of divine munificence. For Christ would never have said ‘Until you pay the last farthing’ unless it had been possible for us to be freed from our sins once we had recompensed for them through punishments. Nor would He have said ‘He will be beaten with many stripes’ and ‘He will be beaten with few stripes’ if it were not the case that the punishments measured out in correspondence to the sins, were finally going to have an end” (As cited by Isaac of Nineveh in his Ascetical Homilies 2.39.8).

A large number within Eastern Orthodoxy believe that it is possible that everyone in the end will be saved. As Bishop Timothy Ware writes:

“Hell is not so much a place where God imprisons humans, as a place where humans, by misusing their free will, choose to imprison themselves. And even in hell the wicked are not deprived of the love of God, but by their own choice they experience as suffering what the saints experience as joy. . . . Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have none the less believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God. It is heretical to say that all must be saved, for this is to deny free will; but it is legitimate to hope that all may be saved. Until the Last Day comes, we must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception. No one must be excluded from our loving intercession. . . . Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the devil” (The Orthodox Church, 262).

That so many people could believe in something so unbiblical demonstrates that simply because someone claims to be a Christian does not mean his beliefs are driven by the text of Scripture. May God protect us from the poison of Origen which is still alive and well.

Sunday Meditation – Continual Warfare

“The Christian’s state in this life is described as wrestling. It is a solitary battle, a one against one fight. The Christian’s life is a continual warfare and so he needs a sword as much as a trowel. The Christian is assailed on every side by the enemy. When he is praying, Satan and the flesh are pratting to drown out his cry. Bathe your soul with frequent meditations of Christ’s love; it will make you disdain the very offer of sin. Do not say you love him as long as you can lay sin in your bosom, which pierced his heart. It would be a strange thing for a child to keep and delight to use no other knife but the one with which his father was stabbed.”

William Gurnall

Deaconesses in the New Testament and Early Church

Can women serve as deacons? The first indication from Scripture would seem to be no. According to 1 Timothy 3:12, a deacon is required to be “a one-woman man” which could never apply to a woman since no woman could ever be a man. In Acts 6:3, only men were considered for the role of deacon in serving the widows of the church. But on the other hand, Romans 16:1 makes reference to “Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae.” The Greek word translated as “servant” here is diakonon which can be interpreted as either an office of service within the church since this is the same word used to refer to a deacon or as being a servant of the church in general without having an office tied to it.

A document which sheds light on the early church is the letter of the Roman governor Pliny to the emperor Trajan written between 111-113 AD. Pliny makes reference to torturing two female Christians “who were called deaconesses” (Letters 10.96). The Latin word translated as “deaconesses” here is ministrae which is the equivalent of the Greek word diakonoi referring to servants. Since they were called ministrae by the church, this was an official title given to them by a local church. Interpreting “servant” (diakonon) as “deaconess” in Romans 16:1 is consistent with the practice of the early second century church. Since Phoebe is a listed as a servant of a particular church and not in a general sense, we should interpret diakonon here as deaconess.

Since deaconship is not a position of teaching or having authority over men, it would not be in violation of 1 Timothy 2:12. However, a distinction needs to be made between the offices of deacon and deaconess because a deacon is required to be a “one-woman man” which could never be said of a woman (1 Tim 3:12). Distinguishing between the offices of deacon and deaconess is the only way to avoid a contradiction between 1 Timothy 3:2 and Romans 16:1. This means there are four offices in the local church: elder, deacon, deaconess, and the order of widows who care for the orphans of the church and infants who had been abandoned (1 Tim 5:9-10).

Another argument used to support deaconesses in the church is 1 Timothy 3:11 which is normally translated as “their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.” But because the Greek word for “wife” is the same as for “woman,” the context must determine whether verse 11 should be translated as “their wives” or “women” referring to deaconesses. “Their” is not in the Greek text. Since verse 12 uses the same word to refer to the wife of the deacon, it is more likely that verse 11 is referring to the deacon’s wife for the same reason an elder must manage his household well (1 Tim 3:4-5).

In the early church, the office of deaconess eventually became tied to the concept of a vow of perpetual celibacy. Deaconesses were required to remain unmarried parallel to how priests would eventually be required to remain celibate. This unbiblical requirement is likely the result of interpreting 1 Timothy 5:9-12 to be a reference to deaconesses instead of a separate order of widows. But if 1 Timothy 5:9-12 is describing the office of deaconess, then that would mean only widows of at least 60 years of age can serve as deaconesses. But most of those in the early church who believed deaconesses had to take a vow of perpetual celibacy did not require all of them to be widows of at least 60 years of age. Also, these requirements are different than those for a deacon in 1 Timothy 3 demonstrating that it is not the same office. Eventually, women were forbidden from serving as deacons altogether.

Sunday Meditation – True Grace

“Satan shall never vanquish a soul that is armed with true grace. True saints, who have been sifted by the enemy, will at last come off with an honourable victory. The Holy Spirit who led Christ into the wilderness also brought him off with victory. Satan seeks to defile the Christian’s conscience, and disfigure the image of God. God, however, uses the temptation of Satan in one sin, as a preventative against another. God is the saint’s true friend. He sits in the devil’s planning room and overrules Satan’s plan to the saint’s advantage. God also can use the fall of the saints as an encouragement, a drop of hope, to others from falling into utter despair. David’s sin was great, but he found mercy. Peter fell foully, yet is now in heaven. . . . God also allows Satan to trounce some of his saints by temptation in order to train them to help fellow-brethren in like conditions. He allows them to train under Satan’s lash, to get experience in the ways of Satan’s and their own hearts. No one handles poor souls so gently as those who remember the smart of their own heart-sorrows.”

William Gurnall

Does 1 Timothy 5 Teach That Women Can Be Elders?

One of the arguments for egalitarianism or the belief that there are no distinctions of roles between men and women in the church is Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 5:2 where he refers to a group of women as presbuteras. Since the word for an elder in the church is presbuteros, some argue that Paul is affirming in this verse that women can serve as female elders.

But there is a reason why scholars translate the word as “older women” rather than “female elders.” The word presbuteros in Greek simply refers to an older man. This word was chosen to describe the elders of the church because those who are pastors must be mature in their walk with the Lord. Whether it is being used to describe elders or older men in general as it does in 5:1 must be determined by the context. In 5:2, the feminine form of the word is contrasted with the younger women indicating that Paul has age in mind, not an office of elder. In 5:1, Paul is referring to older men in general because it is contrasted with younger men. The context in which Paul is speaking is that of widows who need to be taken care of by the church, not a position of pastoral leadership.

Another take on this passage is that of Robert Morey who argues that while women cannot teach men in the church, they can serve as female elders. He notes that verses 9-11 speak of an enrollment of certain widows in the church which distinguishes them from the rest of the older women in the congregation. This group is known as the order of widows who have all but disappeared from the modern church. Morey argues that the order of widows are female elders who are the counterpart to the male elders of the church. While Morey is correct that the order of widows has fallen into disregard (see canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea), he is incorrect that they are female elders.

It is true that the qualifications for an elder in 1 Timothy 3 parallel the qualifications for the order of widows in 1 Timothy 5:9-10, but they just as equally parallel the qualifications for a deacon. If one person can argue that the order of widows are female elders, another person could just as equally argue that they are female deacons. The qualifications demonstrate that this is about more than just taking care of older women. These women were called to serve the church through their gifts in their old age in exchange for being taken care of by the church. The money they were given would go towards supporting themselves and the orphan children they cared for. That is why they must have the gifts of hospitality and the ability to care for the afflicted. This order is different than the office of elder and deacon because these qualifications are distinct from them.

Because the order of widows is limited to older widows, limiting an office of female elders to these women alone would not make the feminists happy anyway. So, to conclude his essay by saying, “If this biblical program would have been carried out in obedience for the last 1,900 years, we would not have the feminist issue today” is simply untrue because egalitarians want for female elders to be able to do all the things that male elders can. Limiting female elders to those who are older widows and saying that they cannot teach men would not make egalitarians happy since equality is incompatible in their minds with role differentiation. The feminist issue is the product of the sexual revolution, not the church’s neglect of using its widows.