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
"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 Clements 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 its liturgy."
"So you dont 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 cant 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
"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
Gibeons 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
"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 didnt really deal with that. He just sort
of focused on the pomegranates. Guess he didnt have a good answer for that one. He
just acted like there wasnt much more images than these in the Temple."
"During the Second Temple era, that may be closer to correct, but
in Solomons 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 doesnt hold
"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 friends
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 Churchs 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. Im sure he is sincere in his concern for your move toward Orthodoxy
and doesnt 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 dont 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 Jerusalems 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 dont find any Protestant denomination which is so close. Im
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 dont 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
Ive 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
"Oh yes," Fr. Andrew quickly added, "I dont 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
"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
Gods 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).
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.