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Cherubim and Arks

A Response to the Credenda Agenda

By Timothy Copple

The following is part of an extensive joint response to the Protestant Reformed journal Credenda Agenda. An entire issue of this journal was devoted to a critique of Orthodox Christianity. The author is addressing the article entitled "Pomegranates and Synagogues"...

Fr. Andrew realized that John had more on his mind than normal as he came into the living room. John sat down and sat quietly with a distressed look on his face, attempting to find the words to say what was on his heart.

"Father," he finally said, "...would you say that Orthodox worship is the same now as it was in the first century?"

"Well, I would say yes and no." he began. "What I mean is that the basic form, purpose and understanding of what ‘worship’ involved was there from the beginning, actually taken from the Jewish worship pattern. You get glimpses of this in Ignatius’ and Clement’s writings, around the end of the first century. Also Justin the Martyr around 147 AD gives a more detailed account of the liturgical practice which shows how synagogue and temple worship of the Jews forms the basic framework on the Christian liturgy. This same framework is still used today which is more than can be said for most modern day denominations. However, not every detail was there initially. Some things were added and grew over time which were in accordance to the theology of the Church and it’s liturgy."

"So you don’t think the liturgy came into existence ‘full-blown’ as it is today?" John asked.

"No, as I said, the basic framework was there, but not necessarily all the details and rubrics that we use today."

"But," John hesitated, "...does that mean that these things were in a ‘seed’ form in the early Church?"

"Well, you could say that."

"But can’t you prove anything from a seed argument, like say altar calls in some of the Protestant denominations?"

Fr. Andrew paused a bit, and then proceeded, "First, I would shy away from the idea that we are trying to ‘prove’ anything by saying that. That is based too much on a dependence upon our rational ability to verify things. Orthodoxy is not based upon the ability of a person to rationally figure things out, but on the trustworthiness of the testimony of the whole Body of Christ. What is does show is that what is done today is not out of sync with what was already in place in the early Church.

"Second, yes a person can prove anything from a ‘seed’ argument. But so can anyone prove anything from the Bible, and many do! But that can only happen when these things are taken out of context. For example, it can be shown that the concept of the altar call is based upon a theology of salvation which is not in sync with the understanding of the early Church..."

John broke in, "But what about icons, were these there in the early Church?"

"The testimony of the Church is that St. Luke who wrote one of the Gospels wrote the first icon, of the Virgin Mary."

"That would be fine, but my friend says that such a thing would have created a big debate in the Early Church since most of them were Jews and they had an aversion to the use of images in worship."

"Really!" Fr. Andrew gave John a look as if he had heard this one before. "Sounds like your friend is basing his understanding of the Jews on Gibeon’s history, or something like it. There is some truth to the concept that the first century Jews were iconoclastic. Some, like Josephus, were against the use of images in the synagogues. But that only gives you part of the picture, and just that by itself tends to be taken out of context."

"How so?" John asked in interest.

"First, the iconoclastic movement amongst the Jews of that time was more a reaction against the Hellenistic and Roman pagan worship of gods and idols more than it was an inherent facet of Jewish worship.(1) There is a recorded example of an image of Caesar being placed in a synagogue which did cause a big stir. But their aversion to such things was more against the fact that it was an image of Caesar than images as such.(2)

"Second, this is only characteristic of what is traditionally called the ‘Second Temple’ period. Both before and after that this aversion to the use of images and veneration is not so characteristic. From the third century to today there are many ‘images’ used in synagogue worship.(1) All you need to do is go visit such a service and you will see both images used throughout, as well as veneration of the Torah is made while it processes through the temple during the service. Before that time, you read in the Bible where images were used in the temple itself."

"Yea, my friend made a comment that ‘Paul did worship in the Temple where there were images of pomegranates, but the icons of the Orthodox are not images of pomegranates’"

"No, they are not," Fr. Andrew let out a little chuckle. "Neither, however, are images of cherubim equivalent to images of pomegranates. Did your friend deal with why there were images of cherubim all around the temple? Did he deal with why God even commanded that ‘graven images’ of cherubim were to be placed on top of one of the most venerated objects in Hebrew worship, the Ark of God? Remember, this ‘object’ was considered to represent, that is, icon, the presence of God for the people. This object with graven images was censed and held in the holiest place of the temple. Thus, it was a graven images used explicitly in a worship context. How did you friend reconcile these things with what he was saying?" (3)

"Well, I guess he didn’t really deal with that. He just sort of focused on the pomegranates. Guess he didn’t have a good answer for that one. He just acted like there wasn’t much more images than these in the Temple."

"During the Second Temple era, that may be closer to correct, but in Solomon’s temple the Bible commands that these things be there. Cherubim were embroidered on all the curtains, the doors, along with lions and oxen. (4) Like I said before, he is only looking at one segment of Jewish history on this thought, and a somewhat conservative period in relation to images used in worship. When you put it in the broader picture of all Jewish history in relation to this, this argument doesn’t hold water.

"The ‘Dura-Europos’ synagogue which has some fairly good size images placed on its walls points to the fact such images were not totally forbidden. This synagogue dates back to the end of the third century, just 200 years after the second temple period. (5) Many other synagogues of this time show extensive symbols and images.

"One cannot simply make such a blanket statement that all Jews were against the use of images, and without supporting evidence linking that with a theological prohibition against their use in worship. The interpretation of your friend’s information concerning the conservative use of images in the second temple period which the New Testament is set in assumes that it was due to an inherent Jewish prohibition against it rather than the reaction of the time against the Hellenistic influences. If it was due to an inherent prohibition against it, however, you would see a more consistent rejection of them through history rather than just during this 300-400 year period.

"Third, there were icons in the second century which have been uncovered, why did these not create a big stir and debate? These are icons found on the walls of the catacombs, one even of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child with a star above her and the prophet Isaiah point to her.(6) Yet we have no record of any big scandal over them. Thus, either a massive shift in the Church’s beliefs concerning images happened in less than a hundred years, if your friend is right, or they never were seen as violating the Jewish conscience of the early Church."

"Wow, guess my friend is just wrong."

"He is simply working on interpreting the facts he has within his own tradition. I’m sure he is sincere in his concern for your move toward Orthodoxy and doesn’t want to see you get into something that is wrong. He thinks such things are unscriptural, and if it were I would be right with him in telling you to avoid us. However, it is because of the Scriptures, because God Himself commanded that an image of cherubim, because the whole temple and its worship is to be an image of the Heavenly temple and worship, that the Orthodox also are required to image that same heavenly worship, where the saints from all ages worship around the throne of God as Revelations describes for us. The Orthodox Church is really following in the same Jewish tradition which is the foundation for what worship is. One could say that St. Paul would feel right at home in an Orthodox service, even if he would notice some differences. Yet he would recognize the basic structure and emphasis as being the same as he enjoyed in his own day. I don’t think he would find that in an Evangelical service."

John laughed, "Funny you should say that. He said just the opposite. Yet, when I read St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s catechism, where he describes baptism rites, so much he described there was what I saw and heard in the baptism service a couple of weeks ago, I realize how much has remained unchanged even from the third century. Yet, I don’t find any Protestant denomination which is so close. I’m not aware of any who even do triple immersions like they did back then."

"True, but in the end, the reason why we find that Orthodox worship is in conformity with the Early Church and with Jewish worship is that it is designed to icon the Heavenly worship. That is the basis for what worship is in the Old Testament, and because the Early Church was predominately Jewish, that same emphasis would have been in place. The icons are an indispensable part of bringing us into the presence of God and all the saints so that we don’t just go to Church, sing some good songs and hear a nice sermon. Rather, we encounter ‘persons’ who are living witnesses to who Jesus Christ is and we encounter God as well. We are there to encounter, not primarily to be entertained or instructed though that may happen in the process. As I said in the beginning, Orthodox worship is not based upon individual rational ability, but on relationships. Those relationship with God and all the saints do involve rational abilities, but they are not the foundation of it. Above all, that is what icons remind me of. I am there to meet the Body of Christ in humble submission to God. I know of no other basis for worship."

"I have noticed a different focus and purpose in worship since I’ve been going to Orthodox services. There does seem to be less focus on us and more upon God. The central place of the Eucharist also seems to focus us more on the person of Christ and encountering Him rather than on us being taught in a sermon, though we do that too."

"Oh yes," Fr. Andrew quickly added, "I don’t want to imply that the sermon is not important or is to be taken lightly. Instruction is good and needed. It is considered as one of the sacraments of the liturgy and any priest who does not take it seriously is not taking his ordination seriously. But it is based in the encounter of Christ in the Eucharist and does not stand alone. That is one of the big losses in many Protestant denominations. When the sermon takes the primarily place in worship, worship is shaped towards talking and learning about God rather than encountering God. This does not mean that it is impossible to encounter God in such a setting. Obviously many do. However, the focus and basis of the service does not promote that when you lose the Eucharist as the central part of the worship experience."

John seemed to be breathing easier now. "Thanks Father. I believe I understand. I wish my friend could understand these things. But I will pray for him and myself."

"Your friend will be more convinced by your experience than he will by his theology. Just live as Christ would have you live and be an icon to him of God’s love. God will do more thought that than anything. Remember, encounter is the key; not just talking about God and icons."

"Thanks a lot Father, I will see you tomorrow in the Liturgy."


1) Donald D. Binder, "Introduction," in Into the Temple Courts: The Place of the Synagogues in the Second Temple Period (Ph. D. diss., Southern Methodist University, 1997).

2) http://www.smu.edu/~dbinder/museum.html

3) Exo 25:10-22, Lev 16:11-17

4) 1 Kings 6:23-35; 7:23-45; Ezek 41:15-20, 25

5) http://www.library.yale.edu/exhibition/judaica/jcsml.2.html http://www.pitt.edu/~tokerism/0040/images2/213.jpg

6) Ouspensky, Leonid, Theology of the Icon, Vol 1, Crestwood, NY (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press), c1978, pp. 74-75.