Are Icons Idols? An Explanation of this Valid Orthodox Practice

Within Eastern Orthodox Christian culture there are numerous depictions of Christian history, culture, its current state, and the past which have been preserved as icons.

These icons are often decried as idols and, and Orthodox Christians are frequently accused of idol worship on their account.

Why are these accusations launched?

Many scholars believe it’s because there doesn’t seem to be a clear divide between icons and idols. However, it is important to note that, biblically speaking, Christians are strictly forbidden from worshiping idols in the Ten Commandments, which means that a physical manifestation of religious icons needs to be for adoration, rather than worship.

Icons are not idols. Orthodox Christians do not pray to icons. The icon is meant to signify the real presence of its subject within the church. Icons typically represent saints so that their memory will be retained, and worshipers who see them remember the heritage of their faith and church.

Now, the Bible clearly asserts idol worship was severely punished throughout the Old Testament. This is why Orthodox Christians today take claims of idol worship very seriously. They are not willing to risk the righteous wrath of God just so they can worship whomever they please while still claiming to be Christians.

Every Orthodox priest will affirm that to claim Christ as a Saviour while offering worship to idols, turns the worship being offered up into something extremely displeasing to God. 

 

The Old Testament Forbids Idolatry

The Old Testament provides unambiguous insight on this topic during the scene in which the people of Israel grow impatient while waiting on God, so they erect a golden calf to worship it. Upon seeing the children of Israel worship the golden calf, God commanded Moses to return to the people of Israel. Upon returning the calf was burned and the people were forced to drink its ashes mixed with water, thereby receiving a bitter consequence for a sour offense. 

Now let us begin to draw an important distinction between the two subjects of our writing.

What are idols?
What are icons?

In the following sections, we will provide an Orthodox delineation between these two topics.

 

What an Icon Is

Icons are typically sacred images of angels, saints, Jesus Himself. Others are commonly shown depicting different biblical stories. An icon depicting a person can only ever be made of a subject who specifically one who existed in Christian history and supported and honored the life of Christ. Icons also serve a practical effect within churches where they are placed because they create an air of mystery and remind the viewer of the deep connections which were kept by the early Christians between themselves and God.

 

What an Idol Is

Idols are material entities which people offer worship to as though the idol was worthy of worship because of its intrinsic properties. To worship an idol is one of the worst sins a person of faith could commit. Idols were most used throughout Christian history as a way to oppose and offend God, which is why committing the “sin of idol worship”, has such severe consequences throughout the history of God’s people. 

 It is important to remember that Eastern Orthodox Christian icons are not idols – they can, however, be interpreted that way. Christian icons can appear to be idols to those who are not familiar with the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith, especially when they are often displayed so prominently in religious buildings and Christian homes. 

 

Icons & the Orthodox Christian

The obvious display of idols in many Christian buildings and homes, along with the encouragement of their production from within the church, frequently prompts the accusation of idolatry to be haphazardly thrown at Orthodox Christians. In the Orthodox perspective, icons are reminders of the sanctification which a human may attain by transforming into the likeness of Christ, and this transformation is enabled by Christ’s being, so to appreciate the icon is an extension of one’s recognition of Christ’s greatness.

Even the recreation of Christian icons in various types of art can be seen as an act of worship. Not worship of the art itself, but rather the creation of the art. Bringing a piece of God and those who follow Him to life can be a wondrous act of worship that is directed towards the Holy God. 

To enhance our understanding of the difference between an icon and an idol, here are three considerations one should remember when discerning between an idol and an icon

Incarnation

For Christians, this is speaking of the Holy God who became flesh through his son Jesus Christ, who walked as a man on the earth for 33 years. Christ came to give hope, bring blessing, and conquer death through the giving of his own life. This is the reason images of Christ can be seen throughout history and in various manifestations. Thus, an icon is the personification of the Holy God, to whom all prayer and supplication are given.

Depiction

Depictions are imitations and reproductions of material being. Another way to identify whether something is an idol or an icon is by identifying whether the subject depicted is based on something material. The Old Testament reminds Christians that idolatry was punishable by death during the early days of the Israelites. God emphasized the importance of this rule by delivering it to Moses as the second of the Ten Commandments.

Icons, on the other hand, are not created to pay homage to the depiction themselves. They are meant to honor the role they have played in Christian history, and to the current Christian faith. Mary, for example, has not been depicted in pieces of art for people to worship her – but rather as a reminder of the incredible role she played in the coming of Christ. The same rule applies to saints, angels, disciples, and even the outline of the cross. Those symbols, the people – they were all set aside to celebrate God and to bring witness to His name. This is why Eastern Orthodox Christians use these as icons, to serve as a reminder and to bring that focus back to prayer.

Adoration vs. Worship. 

Another key factor in determining the difference between an icon and an idol is whether one is worshiping or showing adoration. Orthodox Christians have chosen to worship the Holy God, and in doing so, they also show adoration for the various icons which are recognized within the Orthodox Christian faith. In the case of an icon, Orthodox Christians use them as a tool that encourages them to focus on God. By keeping their minds on the saints and icons, Orthodox Christians are aided in bringing their focus back to prayer and turn their thoughts towards God.

 

Icons & the Orthodox Church

Having established what the difference is between icons and idols, it is also important to see how icons play a role with the liturgical lives of Orthodox Christians. 

Orthodox Christians often see icons see them manifested in stained glass windows, artwork, and carvings. But many icons have very distinct and important roles to play in the Orthodox Christian faith. Saints, after all, are not random people who were bestowed with the title of “saint”. 

These are men and women who devoted their lives to God and spread the truth of His word to those who needed to hear it. Not only that, but many saints have biblically-based writings of their own, with which to encourage other Christians to stay strong in their faith. It often seems to those unfamiliar with Orthodox Christian practices, that saints are people approaching God in their perfection of virtue – when in actuality, they are regular men and women, who, seeking God, and trying to do what is best. They make mistakes, but they also have so devoted their lives to God, that they seek Him for counsel at every turn. This adds to the fact that they have been ordained by God to speak His truth to those who believe in Him.

Given that these icons have been set apart to bring one’s focus back towards God, it is critical to remember that this connection is also a key component in strengthening an Orthodox Christian’s relationship with God. It allows them to be reminded that they are not alone in their faith journey, as they can see the visage of the numerous people who have gone before and traveled the road of faith. 

 

Review of Icons & Orthodoxy

Icons are not to be considered idols because they depict different subjects and serve different purposes. The Bible clearly forbids Christians from paying homage to anything other than God himself, and subsequently God the Son – Jesus. However, throughout Christian history, there have been depictions of Christ, the cross, disciples, saints, angels, Mary – the Mother of Jesus – and more. Even early Christian architecture was believed to carry representations of what we would consider icons. 

Numerous verses instruct readers on how certain aspects of the temple, the ark of the covenant, and even homes were to be built. Included were instructions for crafting veils within the temple, adornments for the ark of the covenant, and accents for the exterior of the temple – all things which could be considered icons. Icons that would bring the focus back to God, which is what an icon is set out to do. An icon’s entire existence is to remind those who are studying it, to bring their focus back to prayer, back to God. If an icon isn’t doing that, and the person taking it in finds themselves worshiping the intimate object in front of them, it has turned to idol worship, not icon veneration. Though there can be a slight “gray area” here, if one is careful to study the Word of God, seek biblical counsel, and retain clear knowledge of the meaning for icons, then icons can serve as an important fixture in the spiritual life of any devout Christian.

Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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