Presumptuous Propositions

A Reply to the Credenda/Agenda Concerning Icons

By Timothy Copple and Patrick Barnes

Receive as a single stream the testimony of Scripture and the Fathers; it shows you that the making and worship of images is no new invention, but the ancient tradition of the Church.—St. John of Damascus


In "Presumptuous Icons" (Credenda/Agenda Vol. 6, No. 5) Wes Callihan* critiques the Orthodox use of Icons in worship from a Reformed Protestant perspective. His main objections fall under the umbrella of Orthodoxy's ostensible "confusion over divine revelation": 1) Icons supplant the need for preachers and teachers; 2) Icons undermine the priority that propositional truth should hold, even dismissing it altogether; 3) Icons miss the point that Christ should be understood not as the Picture of God but as the Word of God; 4) Icons violate the Second Commandment. In what follows we address each of these claims in the order here listed. In the process an overview of the Orthodox teaching concerning Icons emerges.


Before addressing each of the four charges we must first say a few words about Mr. Callihan's overall approach to the subject. The confusion over divine revelation is not ours but his. This is because of the underlying grid—or network of presuppositions—through which he undoubtedly filters and interprets what he reads and observes. These presuppositions are integrally related to the traditional Protestant understanding of divine revelation. As we will see, this Reformed Protestant mindset is one that is entirely foreign to Orthodoxy and leads him astray on nearly every point. Here we will only mention the watershed presupposition concerning the Church and truth, noting that it is this one issue that is at the root of the classic Protestant disagreement with the Orthodox over the use of Icons. Commenting upon the four of the marks of the Church that are affirmed in the ninth article of the Nicene Creed ("And I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church"), Fr. Michael Pomazansky writes:

The Church is holy likewise through its pure, infallible teaching of faith: The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). The Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches, concerning the infallibility of the Church in its teaching, express themselves thus: "In saying that the teaching of the Church is infallible, we do not affirm anything else than this, that it is unchanging, that it is the same as was given to it in the beginning as the teaching of God" (Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs, 1848, par. 12).

Though Mr. Callihan may belong to a Protestant group that recites the Creed at Sunday morning worship, their understanding of the Creed—especially the ninth article—deviates sharply from the Christian consensus. From this deviation flows divers heterodox presuppositions that taint the waters of his understanding, e.g.:

  • Œcumenical Synods have erred on a number of issues. Therefore, the Seventh's** decrees concerning Icons are flawed and have no authority for Protestants.
  • There is not one visible church to which 1 Timothy 3:15 can be applied.
  • Oral Tradition carries no weight, despite what the Saints have clearly stated on this matter (e.g., St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, Ch. 27).
  • A corollary to this: there is no discernible consensus Patrum which carries any authority. To know the truth one should trust the Reformers' interpretation and selective use of the Fathers, or even worse—as is the case with much of modern Protestantism—trust one's own interpretation and selective use of the same, using only the Bible as a guide.

This last point is perhaps the most presumptuous. The opinions of Calvin and Luther with respect to Icons—formed some seven hundred years after these issues were definitively settled by the Church—are from the Orthodox perspective hopelessly shackled in a late medieval nominalistic framework. [1] They have very little continuity with the Tradition of the Church. That anyone would consider these opinions to be more reliable or truthful than the teaching that was for centuries held throughout the Christian world of the Church, often unto martyrdom, is lamentable.

Therefore, in considering how to respond to Mr. Callihan we do not assume that our reasoning will ultimately sway him unless and until the foundational questions of "What is the Church?" and "Where is the Church?"—questions that are integrally related to the subject of truth [2]—are resolved. However, we will still attempt to reason with him in hopes that some of what follows will sufficiently challenge his worldview and lead him to begin questioning its tenability. We also hope that other readers will benefit from this overview of Orthodox iconography. Nevertheless, we stress from the outset that a complete answer to Mr. Callihan was written by St. John of Damascus over twelve hundred years ago: the three apologies Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images. [3] There are also many fine modern works available on Orthodox iconography. Among the best is Leonid Ouspensky's two volume Theology of the Icon. [4] We can only assume that despite the wide distribution of these works Mr. Callihan somehow overlooked them in his research; and we readily admit that if these works were not persuasive to a Protestant reader, nothing we could add here would carry the argument.

We have two further preliminary remarks. First, Mr. Callihan is incorrect in his claim that the Orthodox argument for the necessity of Icons derives from pedagogical concerns (e.g., "books for the unlearned"). As we will have occasion to see, these concerns take back seat to ones that touch on the very core of Christianity:

Defending the icon in the period of iconoclasm, the Church was not defending merely its educational role, and still less, its aesthetic value; it was fighting for the very foundations of the Christian faith, the visible testimony of God become man, as the basis of our salvation. "I have seen the human image of God, and my soul is saved" says St. John of Damascus. Such an understanding of the icon explains the steadfastness and intransigence with which its defenders faced torture and death in the period of iconoclasm. [5]

Second, Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary defines the word "proposition" as "a statement of religious doctrine; an article of faith; creed; as, the propositions of Wyclif and Huss." We assume that this is how Mr. Callihan uses this term, noting at the outset that this is a very narrow type of truth. In fact the Church has always resorted to an apophatic, as opposed to cataphatic, approach to truth as much as possible. Bishop Auxentios of Photiki explains these terms:

In his now classical treatment of the subject [The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church], the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky makes a Patristic distinction between two ways of theologizing, these, in turn, based on corresponding approaches to knowing and experiencing of God. This distinction is so significant, that Lossky uses it as a focal point in every subdivision of his theological inquiry (e.g., Trinitarian theology, Christology, cosmology, anthropology, etc.). The first of these ways is the cataphatic or "positive" way, and corresponds to man's normal way of relating to his world. It involves, above all, affirmation. From this perspective, we would speak of God in normal cognitive categories, attributing to him such characteristics as supreme good, truth, justice, mercy, love, beauty, compassion, and so on. This first way, this "natural" way, Lossky argues, must rest on constant qualifications and is strongly limited by comparison to a second apophatic, or "negative," way. This second way is ultimately more appropriate to the objective of knowing God or of theologizing. From this more accurate perspective, the human language can only be used to deny or to express negation. Human cognition becomes a method of negation, rather than affirmation, and truth rises above (simply because it lies beyond) cognitive knowledge. Here, one who truly loves, experiences, and knows God (to the extent that such is humanly possible) is compelled to speak as follows: "God is not good, truth, justice, etc. It is not, of course, that God is the opposite of these things (evil, falsehood, injustice...); rather, these characteristics must be refuted, since they are the products of human experience of the created universe. God, being uncreated and, in His divine essence, wholly transcendent, cannot, in the depths of His being, in the internal life of the Trinity, be known in any cognitive manner whatever. [6]

Typically the Church resorted to the expression of truth in a "propositional" (cataphatic) way only when heresy threatened that which She had always known by experience and preserved in Her catholic consciousness. [7] Therefore, this restriction of truth to the "propositional" type is not in accordance with the way the Church has traditionally expressed Herself. It is unacceptable to Orthodox Christians. We have here another example of a Reformed presupposition that is "downstream" of the aforementioned watershed.

With these remarks in mind we can proceed directly to the four charges.


Anyone familiar with Orthodox worship can readily see that Mr. Callihan has put forth a false dilemma. In fact, if one reasons consistently from his words, the conclusion is easily drawn that there is no preaching or use of "propositional truth" at all in Orthodoxy!

First, we find his implication that Icons supplant the need for preaching to be entirely without basis in fact. The Orthodox Church reads and chants more Scripture in Her services of worship than any Protestant confession of which we are aware. Sermons (better, "homilies") are also regularly preached on Sundays. The Orthodox Church is adorned with numerous gifted preachers and teachers—Saints from every age. For example, St. John Chrysostom is one of Orthodoxy's greatest Saints precisely because of his powerful preaching and teaching that drew crowds from all over the Roman Empire. ("Chrysostom" is not St. John Chrysostom's last name but rather a Greek word which means "Golden-Mouthed.") Our history is replete with examples of such eminent preachers. Emphasis on the spoken and written Word of God is also commonplace in the writings of the Saints. The following remarks by the great Russian theologian and ascetic, St. Theophan the Recluse (fl. late nineteenth century), are characteristic of Orthodox writings on this matter:

Catechistic teaching must be heard unceasingly, and indeed, is heard, in Church. True believers will become established more firmly through it, whereas the fallen and the aroused will have an immediate, true guidebook. How vitally important is the duty of priests to proclaim God's salvific ways at any time, without an overreliance on presupposed general knowledge!

The Word of God, however, not only enhances all the methods shown; it can also replace them. It arouses more fully and distinctly. Through its affinity with the spirit, which also comes from God, it passes inwardly, to the division of soul and spirit. It enlivens the latter, and inseminates it so that acts of the spiritual life may come to fruition (that is why the Word is also called seed). The arousing force of it is the more significant in that it acts at once on the entire person, on his entire being: his body, soul, and spirit. Sound, or the audible component of the Word, strikes the hearing, and a thought occupies the soul. The invisible energy concealed inside this thought touches the soul, which, if it is attentive, after the Word has safely passed the rough barriers of body and soul, becomes aroused, and, by exerting effort, it bursts the bonds that hold it….

By virtue of its comprehensive general suitability for awakening sinners, the Word of God goes throughout the world and reaches our ears in various forms. It is heard unceasingly in churches at every divine service, and outside churches in every religious ceremony. It is heard in the sermons of the Fathers and in every enlightening book. It is heard in wholesome discussions and in popular, edifying sayings. It is in schools, pictures, and every visible object that represents spiritual truths. Judging by this, we are surrounded by the Word of God and filled with it from all sides. From everywhere the trumpet sounds come to us for the destruction of the strongholds of sin, as for the walls of Jericho. The Word of God has already shown and continually shows its triumphant power over the human heart. It is necessary only to take care that the paths by which the Word of God is disseminated are maintained without interruption, so that true preaching does not cease, divine worship is fulfilled according to rite and in an edifying manner, iconography is uplifting and pious, and the singing is sober, simple, and reverent. The fulfillment of this is the responsibility of those who serve at the altars. That is why they are the most necessary and powerful weapons for the conversion of sinners in the hands of divine Providence. It is necessary for them to acknowledge this and speak out not just in churches, but also in homes, using every opportunity both to describe the divine world, and to expose the seduction of our soul by the illusions of the mind and body. [8]

It is possible that Mr. Callihan is working with some old information. One of the authors recalls that in his Protestant college class on worship the Orthodox were characterized by not having a homily. This was also emphasized on a series that PBS did on world religions. However, this was a result not of the Orthodox denial of preaching, but of Communist prohibitions against any form of preaching. Most of that information came from outside observers of the Orthodox Church which was then predominately under Communist or Moslem rule. Traditionally the homily has always followed the reading of the Gospel and is considered an important part of the service. Nevertheless, being denied that form of communication during the Communist rule did not prevent the faithful from receiving the Gospel via the Divine Services, Lives of Saints, Icons, and oral Tradition. The strong presence of the underground Church in Russia during these years indicates that iconic teaching is well suited for the communication of divine truths. And where there are no prohibitions against public preaching, one will almost inevitably hear a homily preached at the Sunday morning Divine Liturgy, and occasionally at other services as well.

In short, the role that iconography plays in the instruction of the faithful is complementary and does not undermine the need for preaching and teaching. To better understand this, however, we need to touch upon the interplay between word and image. In so doing we will further address his overt penchant for hinging  arguments upon the necessity of using "propositional truth"—one of the traditional Protestant presuppositions concerning the means of conveying divine revelation.


St. Matthew records the question asked of Jesus by Pontius Pilate: "What is Truth?" (18:38). To our minds Mr. Callihan would undoubtedly answer "It is a system of propositional truths like the Westminster Confession of Faith." In other words, we infer from his article that the Protestant mind subconsciously reads Jesus' words thus: "I am the Way, the Propositional Truth, and the Life...." This may sound unfair, but such an implication is inescapable within his apparent schema—one in which Jesus Christ is effectively reduced to a mere "propositional truth of the Father." We turn now to address his "confusion over divine revelation," namely, the erroneous reduction of the "Word of God" to "propositional truth" and the exclusion of the correlatives, word as image, image as word.

Mr. Callihan makes use of the term "word" in a very strict sense and all without any reference to Scriptural context. Reasoning simplistically from Hebrews 1 he argues that "since the words spoken to the fathers through the prophets have culminated in the words spoken to us through His Son, and the transgression of those earlier words brought the severest penalties, how much more ought we to listen to the words of Jesus Christ and understand Him to be not fundamentally the Picture of God for us but the Word of God?" This is connected with his earlier assertion that "God holds, and wants us to hold, verbal and propositional truth in the very highest regard, and to dismiss that form of truth for pictorial representations is infidelity."

We have already addressed one of his false dilemmas. We now run up against similar logical fallacies. Can the reader not detect that he is again pitting "propositional truth" against the use of Icons—the "Picture" against the "Word,"—as if the latter negated or undermined the former?

First, we postulate that part of Mr. Callihan's misunderstanding stems from cultural differences of which he is unaware. In a chapter contrasting the Eastern and Western mindsets and appropriately titled "Image and Word," Fr. Anthony Ugolnik makes a number of brilliant observations which are apropos of this:

The Protestant mind, whether or not it approaches the Word of God through the filter of "inerrancy," imagines the Word as embodied within a text, a book, a bible. This is a cultural inheritance.

The Orthodox mind also gives primacy to the canonical, duly "handed down" and biblical Word. If Westerners bind their Word in denim or morocco, the Orthodox lift theirs—clad in gold and, of course, icons—before the assembly of worshipers. Their priests then chant a single word: Sophia in Greek, Premudost in Slavonic—in English, "Wisdom." But that wisdom comes in the context of the liturgy, the Word communally celebrated rather than individually encountered in the text. The Book is the repository of meaning, yet the Book is regarded and treated as if it were itself an image begetting images. The Book not only reveals but is itself "image-producing," transforming dead matter into the reflected image of Jesus Christ….

Biblical meaning takes shape in our minds, Orthodox and Reformed, in different ways. The Protestant mind concentrates on the message itself, the concrete word that is the utterance. The Orthodox mind takes into account a more peripheral vision: the Orthodox embrace the surroundings as well, the context within which this utterance is proclaimed. And for the Orthodox, the context includes the full range of the senses that shape meaning—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. In liturgy, which employs all these senses, the Word emerges dialogically rather than in individual, private encounter.

The community within which the Russian Christians live and the tradition which passed that Word on to them are the vessels wherein they receive and within which they understand that Word. The American Protestant mind is culturally and literarily disposed to envision the Word in terms of a book, the "text" of creation. The Russian Orthodox mind, through the veil of its own culture, interprets that Word in the light of the images that reflect it. American Christians obey the Augustinian injunction "Take up and read!" Their Russian counterparts are apt to concentrate upon the insight that follows the imperative "Look up and see!…" [9]

Nevertheless, however interesting these cultural observations may be they are merely symptoms of the western disavowal of images centuries ago. With this came the loss of an understanding of the essential interrelatedness of image and word. This relation is especially lost on bookish and rationalistic Protestants who have little awareness of the subtle yet sublime power of liturgical art. In drawing a sharp distinction between words and pictures, and in making the claim that "propositional knowledge of God…cannot be conveyed in any other way than words," Mr. Callihan fails to realize that the Church has always understood images to be very equally effective for relating truth. In some circumstances they are even more effective.

The [Seventh Ecumenical] council states that Holy Scripture and the holy image are "mutually revelatory." One single content is witnessed in two different ways—with words or with images—conveying the same revelation in the light of the same sacred and living Tradition of the Church. We read in the council's canons:

The Fathers neither transmitted to us that it was necessary to read the Gospel nor did they convey to us that it was necessary to make icons. But if they conveyed the one, they also conveyed the other, because a representation is inseparable from the biblical account, and, vice versa, the biblical account is inseparable from a representation. Both are right and worthy of veneration because they explain one another and, indisputably, substantiate one another.

Thus, the visible image is equivalent to the verbal image. Just as the word of Scripture is an image, so is the painted image a word. "That which the word communicates by sound, a painting demonstrates silently by representation," the Fathers of the council said, referring to St Basil the Great. Elsewhere they write, "By means of these two ways which complement one another, that is, by reading and by the visible image, we gain knowledge of the same thing." In other words, the icon contains and proclaims the same truth as the Gospel.

Like the Gospel and the Cross, it is one of the aspects of divine revelation and of our communion with God, a form in which the union of divine and human activity, synergy, is accomplished. Aside from their direct meaning, the sacred image as well as the Gospel are reflections of the heavenly world; the one and the other are symbols of the Spirit they contain. Thus, both the one and other transmit concrete, specific realities, not human ideas. In other words, what was asked was "How can the icon correspond to the Gospel and explain it, and vice versa?"

In the eyes of the Church, therefore, the icon is not art illustrating Holy Scripture; it is a language that corresponds to it and is equivalent to it, corresponding not to the letter of Scripture or to the book itself as an object, but to the evangelical kerygma, that is, to the content of the Scripture itself, to its meaning, as is true also for liturgical texts. This is why the icon plays the same role as Scripture does in the Church; it has the same liturgical, dogmatic, and educational meaning.

The content of holy Scripture is conveyed by the icon not in the form of a theoretical instruction, but in a liturgical manner, that is, in a living way, appealing to all the human faculties. In it, the truth contained in Scripture is conveyed in light of the entire spiritual experience of the Church, of its Tradition. It therefore corresponds to Scripture in the same way as the liturgical texts correspond to it, as we have said. Indeed, these texts do not merely reproduce Scripture as such: they are interwoven with it. By alternating and juxtaposing passages, they reveal their meaning and show us how to live the biblical preaching. By representing various moments of sacred history, the icon visibly conveys their meaning, their vital significance. Thus, Scripture lives in the Church and in each of its members both through the liturgy and through the icon. This is why the unity of the liturgical image and of the liturgical word is of crucial importance, because the two modes of expression control one another. They live the same life; in worship, they share a common, constructive action. The denial of one of these modes of expression leads to the downfall of the other. What happened among the iconoclasts of the eighth and ninth centuries—a total decline of the liturgical and therefore of the spiritual life—was the result of a repudiation of the sacred image.

To replace icons, the iconoclasts intensified preaching, religious poetry, and they introduced all types of music. On this subject, Pope St. Gregory wrote to Emperor Leo III: "You have entertained the people with vain discourses, futile words, citharas, castanets, flutes, with inaneness; instead of doxologies and thanksgivings, you have led the people into fables." This is how the liturgical tradition was broken, with everything it entailed. Indeed, the divine revelation penetrates into the believing people through the liturgy and the icon, the sanctifying life, giving things their true meaning, and thus becomes the fundamental task to be fulfilled by the faithful. [10]

It should be obvious that Holy Scripture does not read like a confessional statement. One finds instead stories about people, God's encounter with man and man's response to Him throughout redemptive history. In this way the entire Bible is a like a mosaic Icon—painting in words the beautiful portrait of God's Economy towards Man—pointing us always to the Word of God Incarnate—Truth Himself—through Whom we have access to God the Father. We catch a glimpse of this in the following passages from St. John of Damascus' first apology:

Again, visible things are corporeal models which provide a vague understanding of intangible things. Holy Scripture describes God and the angels as having descriptive form, and the same blessed Dionysius teaches us why. [Cf. On the Celestial Hierarchies, Ch. 1] Anyone would say that our inability immediately to direct our thoughts to contemplation of higher things makes it necessary that familiar everyday media be utilized to give suitable form to what is formless, and make visible what cannot be depicted, so that we are able to construct understandable analogies. If, therefore, the Word of God, in providing for our every need, always presents to us what is intangible by clothing it with form, does it not accomplish this by making an image using what is common to nature and so brings within our reach that for which we long but are unable to see? A certain perception takes place in the brain, prompted by the bodily senses, which is then transmitted to the faculties of discernment, and adds to the treasury of knowledge something that was not there before. The eloquent Gregory says that the mind which is determined to ignore corporeal things will find itself weakened and frustrated. [Theological Orations, 2] Since the creation of the world the invisible things of God are clearly seen [Rom. 1:20] by means of images. We see images in the creation which, although they are only dim lights, still remind us of God. For instance, when we speak of the holy and eternal Trinity, we use the images of the sun, light, and burning rays; or a running fountain; or an overflowing river; or the mind, speech, and spirit within us; or a rose tree, a flower, and a sweet fragrance.

Again, an image foreshadows something that is yet to happen, something hidden in riddles and shadows. For instance, the ark of the covenant is an image of the Holy Virgin and Theotokos, as are the rod of Aaron and the jar of manna. The brazen serpent typifies the cross and Him who healed the evil bite of the serpent by hanging on it. Baptismal grace is signified by the cloud and the waters of the sea. [I Cor. 10:1]

Again, things which have already taken place are remembered by means of images, whether for the purpose of inspiring wonder, or honor, or shame, or to encourage those who look upon them to practice good and avoid evil. These images are of two kinds: either they are words written in books, as when God had the law engraved on tablets and desired the lives of holy men to be recorded, or else they are material images, such as the jar of manna, or Aaron's staff, [Ex. 34:28; Heb. 9:4] which were to be kept in the ark as a memorial. So when we record events and good deeds of the past, we use images. Either remove these images altogether, and reject the authority of Him who commanded them to be made, or else accept them in the manner and with the esteem which they deserve. In speaking of the proper manner, let us consider the question of worship. [11]

No, the Bible was never intended by God to be a "theological textbook," standing on its own—apart from the Church—as "the pillar and ground of the truth." Familiarity with the early doctrinal controversies makes this point clear. Take, for example, the doctrine of the Blessed Holy Trinity. This most fundamental Christian doctrine is nowhere explicitly stated in Holy Scripture. It is, however, alluded to in many ways. The chief example is from St. Matthew's Gospel:

And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (St. Matt. 3:16-17).

The Church sings of this event at the Feast of Theophany (Baptism of Christ):

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father bore witness unto Thee, calling Thee the beloved Son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed His word as sure and steadfast. O Christ our God who hast appeared and enlightened the world, glory to Thee. (Troparion of the Feast)

As with most doctrines the teaching concerning the Holy Trinity was revealed to the Church through the Holy Scriptures as they were understood in the life of the worshipping Body of God's people. As members of this Body certain Holy Fathers were ordained by God noetically to perceive the mystery to an even greater degree. Using this gift they undertook apophatically to describe it within the limits of human language. The Church then affirmed these teachings at the First and Second Œcumenical Synods by drafting the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. It is noteworthy that no specific defense of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity as God was even written until the fourth century: St. Basil the Great's On the Holy Spirit. Parenthetically, although traditional Protestants purport to cherish this treatise, it contains at least one passage that must make them cringe. We quote here only a small part of it:

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us "in a mystery" by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay; — no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learnt the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed: to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents....

Time will fail me if I attempt to recount the unwritten mysteries of the Church. Of the rest I say nothing; but of the very confession of our faith in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, what is the written source? If it be granted that, as we are baptized, so also under the obligation to believe, we make our confession in like terms as our baptism, in accordance with the tradition of our baptism and in conformity with the principles of true religion, let our opponents grant us too the right to be as consistent in our ascription of glory as in our confession of faith. If they deprecate our doxology on the ground that it lacks written authority, let them give us the written evidence for the confession of our faith and the other matters which we have enumerated. While the unwritten traditions are so many, and their bearing on "the mystery of godliness" is so important, can they refuse to allow us a single word which has come down to us from the Fathers; — which we found, derived from untutored custom, abiding in unperverted churches;—a word for which the arguments are strong, and which contributes in no small degree to the completeness of the force of the mystery? [12]

Returning to our point, as with the teaching concerning the Holy Trinity so also with many other doctrines, not the least of which concerns the Person of Christ. Anyone even remotely familiar with the Christological controversies would acknowledge that the heretics were not lacking in Scriptural "proof" for their views. Fr. Michael Pomazansky remarks:

Of course, many truths of the Faith are so immediately clear from Sacred Scripture that they were not subjected to heretical reinterpretations; therefore, concerning them there are no specific decrees of councils. Other truths, however, were confirmed by councils. [13]

Is this fact concerning the expression and defense of dogmas by the Œcumenical Synods not a solid argument against the idea of Sacred Scripture as a compendium of propositional truths and for the necessity of the Church as the keeper and preserver of truth? If Christ is the very Word of God Incarnate, and the Church is His Body (Eph. 1:22-23), then the Church is in a very real sense the Word of God. As Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life" so also is the Church (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15; Ephesians). We cannot help wondering how Protestants can fail to see that without the Church they would not have the vestiges of the true faith which they have selectively retained from the Œcumenical Synods, nor would they have an authoritative Canon of Sacred Scriptures with which to attack the teachings of the very Church that bequeathed it to them! No wonder St. Augustine could say, "For my part I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the catholic church."

Finally, Mr. Callihan states that "...God revealed Himself through words to the prophets and apostles and required them, under direst penalty, to relate those words unaltered to His people." Though we do not necessarily disagree with this statement, it proves too much. Carried to its logical conclusion the Church would be forced never to translate the Scriptures into languages other than the original ones. After all, who will not admit that translating from the original language tends to alter the words and very often the meaning? Oddly enough, there is one group in America which claims that most Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics are not going to heaven simply because they have called upon the name of "Jesus" instead of "Yeshua"! Because "there is no other name under Heaven and Earth by which men might be saved" they conclude that anyone who has called upon "Jesus" has not called upon "Yeshua." Although we are quite certain that Mr. Callihan would not wish to take it this far, his premise certainly leads to that conclusion. Furthermore, his position ironically should lead him to throw out preaching since this medium always fails to relate the words of God "unaltered" (in the strict sense he employs).


In the fourth argument Mr. Callihan brings out the usual Protestant objections to Icons.

Fourth, their appeal to the incarnation fails to override the Second Commandment because in the Old Covenant itself Jehovah at times assumed a bodily, creaturely form. Though at the same time God took on a creaturely form (e.g., Gen. 15; 18; 32; Ex. 3; Is. 6), He strictly forbade His people to worship or venerate Him via images. He sets the terms of worship; we don't. Christ's Incarnation upholds rather than scuttles God's eternal commands.

As is typical in Protestant thought, the Incarnation changes nothing concerning the Second Commandment. If images were forbidden under the Old Covenant, so the argument goes, then since "Christ came to uphold the Law," the use of images other than the ones God explicitly prescribes is idolatrous. These objections were definitively answered long ago by the Holy Fathers during the iconoclastic controversy (eighth to early ninth century). Quite tellingly, Mr. Callihan admits that Calvin never factored in the implications of the Incarnation into his argument against the use of images.

First, we note that his rather odd and spurious argument that God assumed "creaturely forms" while at the same time prohibiting the use of images in worship proves nothing at all. Juxtaposing these two premises does not lead to the conclusion he draws. More importantly, his conclusion fails to recognize the infinite difference between these special Old Covenant manifestations and the Incarnation of the Logos. The most "incarnational" example he gives is the visitation of the three men to Abraham and Sarah's tents near the oak of Mamre (Gen. 18). However, these three men have never been viewed by the Church as a "pre-Incarnation" of the Holy Trinity but rather as an appearance of the Holy Trinity in the guise of three Angels, a temporary appearance manifested in order that God might speak with the holy patriarch. To view this in any other way is to be completely out of step with the entire interpretive tradition of Christianity. There is simply no comparison between this and the Second Person of the Blessed Holy Trinity—the very "Word of God"—permanently taking on flesh. It goes without saying that Mr. Callihan is making a huge leap of logic and redemptive history to associate the visitation of God in the Book of Genesis with the Mosaic proscriptions against the use of images. Such statements reveal that he has a very muddled understanding of the foundational doctrine of the Incarnation and its implications for Creation. This will become more clear as we proceed.

Second, Mr. Callihan incorrectly asserts that God "strictly forbade His people to worship or venerate Him via images." Let us examine the Second Commandment:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. (Ex. 20:4-6)

As St. John of Damascus reasoned against the iconoclastics of his day so do we:

Answer me this question: "Is there one God?" You will answer, Yes, I assume there is only one Lawgiver. What? Does He then command contrary things? The cherubim are not outside creation. How can He allow cherubim, carved by the hands of men, to overshadow the mercy-seat? Is it not obvious that since it is impossible to make an image of God, who is uncircumscribed and unable to be represented, or of anything like God, creation is not to be worshipped and adored as God? But He allows the image of cherubim who are circumscribed, to be made and shown as prostrate in adoration before the divine throne, overshadowing the mercy-seat, for it was fitting that the image Of the heavenly servants should overshadow the image of the divine mysteries. Would you say that the ark, or the staff, or the mercy-seat, were not made by hands? Are they not the handiwork of men? Do they not owe their existence to what you call contemptible matter? What is the meeting-tent itself, if not an image? Was it not a type, a figure? Well then, listen to the holy apostle's words concerning those things that are of the law! "They serve as a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary, for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God saying, 'See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain." [Heb. 8:5; Ex. 25:40] But the law was not an image, but the shadow of an image, for as the same apostle says: "For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of the realities . . ." [Heb. 10:1] If the law forbids images, and yet is itself the forerunner of images, what shall we say? If the meeting tent was a shadow and the image of an image, how can it be true that the law does not forbid the making of images? But this is not at all the case, for there is a season for everything; a time for every matter under heaven. [Eccl. 3:1] [14]

In other words, a strict "no image" interpretation of the Second Commandment runs into all sorts of contradictions. (Although this may be lost on iconoclastic Protestants, it was not lost on the Jews who translated the Old Testament into Greek [LXX, or Septuagint]: "graven image" was translated as "idol" and not merely "image.") St. John has written of the images used in the Tabernacle. Now consider further examples from Holy Scripture:

He who said, "You shall not make for yourselves a graven image," who condemned the golden calf, now makes a bronze serpent [Num. 21:4], and not in secret, but openly, so that it is known to all. Moses would answer that this commandment was given to root out material impiety and to keep all the people safe from apostasy and idolatry, but now I cast a bronze serpent for a good purpose—to prefigure the truth. And just as I have erected the tabernacle and everything in it, and the cherubim, which are likenesses of what is invisible to hover over the holy place, as a shadow and a figure of what is to come, so also I have set up a serpent for the salvation of the people, as an endeavor to prepare them for the image of the sign of the cross, and the salvation and redemption which it brings. As a sure confirmation of this, listen to the Lord's own word: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life…." [Jn. 3:14] Notice that the commandment not to make images was given to lead the people away from idolatry, to which they were prone, but the serpent lifted on high was an image of our Lord's sufferings. Listen to what I say, for the making of images is no new invention, but is an ancient practice known to the most holy and eminent of the fathers. [15]

The context of Second Commandment makes it clear that it cannot mean a prohibition of images per se but rather the making of images for oneself in order to bow down and worship them. St. John elucidates:

There is no doubt that they worshipped idols as gods. Listen to what Scripture says concerning the Exodus of the sons of Israel, when Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to pray for a time. While he was receiving the law, the stiff-necked people rose up and said to Aaron, the servant of God: "Make us gods who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." [Ex. 32:1ff] Then, when they had looked over their wives' trinkets, and made the calf, they ate and drank, and drunk with wine and madness, they made merry, saying in their folly, "These are your gods, O Israel." Do you not see that they worshipped idols, which are the abode of demons, as gods, and that they adored creatures instead of the Creator? As the divine apostle says, "They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles, and served the creature rather than the Creator. For this reason God forbade them to make any image, as Moses says in the book of Deuteronomy: "Then the Lord spoke to you, and out of the midst of the fire you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice." [Deut. 4:12] And again, "Take heed, and keep your soul diligently. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air." [Deut. 4:9, 15-17] And again, "And beware lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and worship them and serve them . . ." [Deut. 4:19] You see that the one object is that the creature be not adored in place of the Creator, and that adoration should be given to none but the Creator alone . In every case he is speaking of adoration. Again, "You shall have no other gods before Me; you shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness. . ." [Deut. 5:7] Again, "You shall make for yourself no molten gods." [Ex. 34:17] You see that He forbids the making of images because of idolatry and that it is impossible to make an image of the bodiless, invisible, and uncircumscribed God. "You saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke . . ." [Deut. 4:15] and St. Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, says: "Being therefore God's offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man." [Acts 17:29] [16]

Therefore, in order to prove that Orthodoxy is guilty of violating the Second Commandment one must prove that Icons are equivalent to graven images that are used in idolatrous ways. This is impossible given the clear distinctions that the Church has always held between veneration and worship, and Icons and idols. We continue with the apology of St. John:

Let us understand that there are different degrees of worship. First of all there is adoration [latreia], which we offer to God, who alone by nature is worthy to be worshipped. Then, for the sake of Him who is by nature to be worshipped, we honor [proskinesis] His friends and companions, as Joshua, the son of Nun, and Daniel bowed in worship before an angel, or as David venerated God's holy places, when he says, "Let us go to His dwelling place; let us worship at His footstool," [Ps. 132:7] or as when the people of Israel once offered sacrifices and worshipped in His tent, or encircled the temple in Jerusalem fixing their gaze upon it from all sides and worshipping as their kings had commanded, or as Jacob bowed to the ground before Esau, his elder brother, [Gen. 33:3] and before Pharaoh, the ruler whose authority was established by God. [Gen. 47:7] Joseph's brothers prostrated themselves in homage on the ground before him. [Gen. 50:18] Other worship is given to show respect, as was the case with Abraham and the sons of Nahor. [Gen. 23:7] Either do away with worship completely, or else accept it in the manner and with the esteem it deserves. [17]

In this vein Bishop Auxentios adds some helpful remarks:

St. John Damaskinos, in his apologetic discourses, concerns himself mainly with the accusation of idolatry leveled against the Orthodox by the iconoclasts, who, of course, had in mind the Old Testamental prohibitions against the making and worship of graven images. Examining the relevant passages from the Old Testament, St. John sees these Scriptural prohibitions as providentially anticipating their own abrogation. The prohibition in Deuteronomy against the fabrication and deification of images of creatures, be they beasts, birds, creeping things, fish, or astronomical bodies—all of which are simply creatures, or created things—, is immediately preceded by an explanatory passage which justifies the prohibition and, at the same time, intimates its undoing: "The Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.... Therefore, take good heed to yourselves. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire" (Dt. 4:12,15). "What is mysteriously indicated in these passages of Scripture," St. John asks:

It is clearly a prohibition of representing the invisible God. But when you see Him who has no body become man for you, then you will make representations of His human aspect. When the Invisible, having clothed Himself in the flesh, becomes visible, then represent the likeness of Him who has appeared.... When He who, having been the consubstantial Image of the Father, emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2: 6-7), thus becoming bound in quantity and quality, having taken on the carnal image, then paint and make visible to everyone Him who desired to become visible. Paint His birth from the Virgin, His Baptism in the Jordan, His Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor.... Paint everything with words and colors, in books and on boards.

Thus, if God is directly revealed in the Old Testament only by word ("you heard the sound of words, but saw no form" [Dt. 4: 12]), for St. John He is made manifest in the New Testament by both word and image, and so must be depicted and conveyed ("Paint everything with words and with colors, in books and on boards").

St. John of Damascus and, of course, Orthodox in general thus see a quantum distinction between the Old and New Testaments. Quoting St. John, who in turn cites the Apostle Paul, Leonid Ouspensky, the great Russian commentator on iconographic theory and theology, puts this very succinctly:

[The Israelites had] ...a mission consisting in preparing and prefiguring that which was to be revealed in the New Testament. This is why there could be only symbolic prefigurations, revelations of the future. 'The law was not an image,' says St. John of Damascus, 'but it was like a wall which hid the image. The Apostle Paul also says: "The law was but a shadow [skian gar echon o nomos] of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities" (Hebrews 10:1).' In other words, it is the New Testament which is the true image of reality.... That which David and Solomon saw and heard was only prophetic prefigurations of that which was realized in the New Testament. Now, in the New Testament, man receives the revelation of the Kingdom of God to come and this revelation is given to him by the word and the image of the incarnate Son of God. The apostles saw with their carnal eyes that which was, in the Old Testament, only foreshadowed by symbols.

Hence there are three stages in God's post-lapsarian relations to man. The first is depicted in the Old Testament and is characterized by symbol and shadow—symbolic prefigurations of the "good things to come." The second stage is embodied in the New Testament, which is characterized by the iconic (by image). Here we have the "true form [eikon, or icon] of these realities." The third stage of this relationship will, of course, be the Kingdom of God to come, in which man will see reality itself, "face to face." Clearly, with regard to iconography, the "symbolic" can occupy only a secondary position, since the significant quality of an icon par excellence is the fact that it constitutes a real image of that which it depicts. The image is in some way a "true" form of the prototype, participating in it and integrally bound to it. In the second stage of the iconographic controversy, as we shall subsequently see, St. Theodore the Studite elucidated this profound relationship between image and prototype. But before examining this relationship, let us look at yet another aspect of the icon as St. John of Damascus understands it, that of iconic function. [18]

His Grace alludes to the prohibition in Deuteronomy 4 against making an image of God. This prohibition is given for a special reason, the significance of which is not grasped by Protestants who oppose the use of images. They key phrases from this passage are highlighted as a clue:

And the LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude [form]; only ye heard a voice. And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone. And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that ye might do them in the land whither ye go over to possess it. Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air, the likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth: And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven (Deut. 4:12-19)

The point that God is making through Moses is that because they saw no form the Israelites should not presume to fashion something according to their own corrupt imagination or whims. Implicit in this warning is that had they a true form of God then an image would be permissible. Moses' warning is therefore an implicit prophecy of the Incarnation.

But besides this who can make an imitation of the invisible, incorporeal, uncircumscribed, formless God? Therefore to give form to the Deity is the height of folly and impiety. And hence it is that in the Old Testament the use of images was not uncommon. But after God in His bowels of pity became in truth man for our salvation, not as He was seen by Abraham in the semblance of a man, nor as He was seen by the prophets, but in being truly man, and after He lived upon the earth and dwelt among men, worked miracles, suffered, was crucified, rose again and was taken back to Heaven, since all these things actually took place and were seen by men. [19]

The Incarnation ushers in the second stage of God's post-lapsarian relations with man. If we accept Mr. Callihan's equation of the Old Testament appearances of God mentioned earlier with the Incarnation we effectively make the doctrine of the Incarnation meaningless. Holy Tradition—of which the Bible is the chief written expression—makes it clear that we now have a definitive form of God in the Person of Jesus Christ—a form quantitatively and qualitatively different from the Old Testament manifestations which Mr. Callihan cited. The following passages from Holy Scripture attest to this:

And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath born witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape (5:37).

Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father (6:46).

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him. Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father? (14:6-9)

As Christ is the image of the Father (hos estin eikon tou Theou, II Cor. 4:4; cf. Col. 1:15)— so much so that he who has seen the Son has seen the Father—so we are to be transformed into Christians—"little christs" who image the One Christ.

For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son [tes eikonos tou hiou autou], that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Rom. 8:29)

But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image [katoptrizomenoi ten auten eikona] from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. (1 Cor. 3:18)

And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him [eis epignosin kat eikona tou ktisantos auton]…(Col. 3:10)

By imaging the Son we are restored to the Imago Dei in which we were first created (Gen. 1:26-27). Salvation can thus seen as "image restoration," as St. Athanasius writes in his magisterial On the Incarnation of the Word of God:

What was God to do in the face of this dehumanising of mankind [due to the Fall], this universal hiding of the knowledge of Himself by the wiles of evil spirits? Was He to keep silence before so great a wrong and let men go on being thus deceived and kept in ignorance of Himself? If so, what was the use of having made them in His own Image originally?...

What, then, was God to do? What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Saviour Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image.

In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image. The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need. Here is an illustration to prove it.

You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself.... [20]

Icons play an important role in the process of salvation by imaging forth to us the heavenly realities, inspiring us "to press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:14)


Mr. Callihan finishes his article by insisting that the Protestant argument against the use of images is not a denial of creation. However, despite this protest he cannot escape the charge. Nor can Protestants offer any defense that such a position does not effectively deny the Incarnation. As we have seen, the Mosaic conditions were met in the Incarnation. God the Father can now be seen because God the Son has been born of the Virgin and has dwelt among men. As the Holy Apostle said in his first Epistle:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. (I John 1:1-3)

Therefore, it has always been the position of the Church that to prohibit the use of Icons of Christ—and by extension, of the Saints—in worship is the same as denying that Christ came in the flesh.

It is readily apparent from his writings that the depiction and veneration of icons is not, for St. John, something casual and optional. Both he and the iconodules in general envision the attack on sacred images as a veritable denial of Christ's Incarnation itself. For them, the iconoclastic controversy focuses on Christological issues, and those who reject the sacred images are but counterparts of the earlier Christian heretics who distorted or misrepresented the true nature of Christ and His Incarnation. Such a rejection is tantamount to a denial of man's salvation, for, the iconodules reasoned, in keeping with the tenets of Orthodox soteriology, salvation is possible only if man can partake of the Divine. If Christ was not fully God and man (Theanthropos), then man (a created being) can never come to partake of the Divine (of the uncreated). The fact that "the Word became flesh" is the very meaning of the icon, and to deny the use of the Church's icons, the iconodules further argued, is comparable to a denial of Sacred Scripture itself. The icon functions to reveal, embody, and express the Incarnation of Christ and the soteriological consequences thereof. The Scriptural message of the Incarnation and the icon are analogous, as two forms of Christian revelation, both acting to convey the salvific message to mankind:

...We who do not see Him [Christ] directly nor hear His words nevertheless listen to these words which are written in books and thus sanctify our hearing and, thereby, our soul. We consider ourselves fortunate and we venerate the books through which we hear these sacred works and are sanctified. Similarly, through His image we contemplate the physical appearance of Christ, His miracles, and His passion. This contemplation sanctifies our sight and, thereby, our soul. We consider ourselves fortunate and we venerate this image by lifting ourselves, as far as possible, beyond the physical appearance to the contemplation of divine glory.

Whatever the particular faculty of perception (hearing or seeing), the net result is the same, the sanctification of the soul. Scripture and sacred images are both part of the redemptive plan. And this sanctification is precisely, again, the result of participation in the divine energies, so that "contemplation," in the passage above, might better read "participation." Thus, the iconoclastic challenge against the painting and veneration of icons does nothing other than jeopardize the Church's very teachings about the nature of Christ and, at the same time, the sanctification of the faithful, which are both accomplished and established through the function if the icon. [21]

We also note that the relationship with God that St. John directs us towards is not one of cerebral acknowledgement of "propositional truths" but rather to one involving all of our senses. Such also is St. Athanasius' reasoning:

Men had turned from the contemplation of God above, and were looking for Him in the opposite direction, down among created things and things of sense. The Saviour of us all, the Word of God, in His great love took to Himself a body and moved as a Man among men, meeting their senses, so to speak, half way. He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body....

The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension—above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth; throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God. [22]

To deny the importance of visual art in the context of worship as a means of relating to God is to turn the Christian faith into a cerebral and Docetic one that does indeed show reflect disdain for creation and functional disbelief in the Incarnation.

But iconoclasm, both in its teaching and in its practices, undermined the saving mission of the Church at its foundation. In theory, it did not deny the dogma of the Incarnation. On the contrary, the iconoclasts justified their hatred of the icon by claiming to be profoundly faithful to this dogma. But in reality, the opposite happened: by denying the human image of God, they consequently denied the sanctification of matter in general. They disavowed all human holiness and even denied the very possibility of sanctification, the deification of man. In other words, by refusing to accept the consequences of the Incarnation—the sanctification of the visible, material world—iconoclasm undermined the entire economy of salvation. "The one who thinks as you do," St George of Cyprus said in a discussion with an iconoclast bishop, "blasphemes against the Son of God and does not confess His economy accomplished in the flesh." Through the denial of the image, Christianity became an abstract theory; it became disincarnate so to speak, it was led back to the ancient heresy of Docetism, which had been refuted a long time before. It is therefore not surprising that iconoclasm was linked to a general secularization of the Church, a de-sacralization of all aspects of its life. The Church's own domain, its inner structure, was invaded by a secularized power. Churches were assaulted with secular images, worship was deformed by mundane music and poetry. This is why the Church, in defending the icon, defended not only the foundation of the Christian faith, the divine Incarnation, but, at the same time, the very meaning of its existence. It fought against its disintegration in the elements of this world. "Not only the destiny of Christian art was at stake, but 'Orthodoxy' itself ." [23]

That Mr. Callihan's argument arises from careless, perhaps willful ignorance of Orthodoxy has been relatively easy to demonstrate. Standing in contradiction to the Christian consensus and evincing a lack of sound reasoning, it fails to hold up to close scrutiny. We can only encourage him to read the works cited herein and seriously reflect upon what we have said. To do otherwise and remain an iconoclast would indeed be the height of presumption.


1. See Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1961).

2. See Fr. George Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Vol. 1 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky,   ed. Richard S. Haugh (Vaduz, Europa: Buchervertriebsanstalt, 1987).

3. Published together as On the Divine Images, trans. David Anderson, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1980).

4. Trans. Anthony Gythiel and Elizabeth Meyendorff (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1992). Chapters 1, 2, and 9 are particularly relevant to our discussion.

5. Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, trans. G. E. H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky, The Meaning of Icons (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1989), p. 34.

6. Hieromonk [now Bishop] Auxentios, "The Iconic and Symbolic in Orthodox Iconography," Orthodox Tradition, Vol. IV, No. 3, pp. 52.

7. Fr. Michael Pomazansky, trans. Fr. Seraphim Rose, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994), pp. 35-37.

8. The Path to Salvation, pp. 120, 122-123.

9. The Illuminating Icon (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman's, 1989), pp. 50, 52.

10. Theology of the Icon, pp. 138-140. A footnote on p. 139 states: "It should be noted that the image has certain possibilities which the word does not have: it is a more direct form of expression, it has a better capacity for conveying general ideas than the word. Thus, an icon portrays directly and concisely that which is expressed in the entire liturgy of a feast." Also, it is worth point out that the Bible nowhere records Jesus writing anything or commanding anything to be written down.

11. On the Divine Images, pp. 19-21.

12. Chapter 27, section 66. Trans. the Rev. Blomfield Jackson, M.A., in Vol. 8 of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd ser., ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994 [1886]), pp. 40-42.

13. Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, p. 36.

14. On the Divine Images, pp. 22-23.

15. Ibid, pp. 44-45.

16. Ibid, pp. 55-56.

17. Ibid, pp. 21-22.

18. "The Iconic and Symbolic in Orthodox Iconography," pp. 54-56.

19. "The Fount of Wisdom," trans S. D. F. Salmon, John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, in Vol. 9 of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd ser., ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), p. 88.

20. St. Athanasius on the Incarnation, trans. and ed. by A Relgious of the C.S.M.V. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1993), pp. 40, 41-42.

21. "The Iconic and Symbolic in Orthodox Iconography," pp. 56-57.

22. On the Incarnation, op. cit., pp. 43, 44.

23. Theology of the Icon, p. 146.


* Read Wes Callihan's apology for writing his article, sent to the OCIC on February 26, 2006.

** The Oros of the Seventh Œcumenical Synod:

We retain, without introducing anything new, all the ecclesiastical traditions, written or not written which have been established for us. One of these is the representation of painted images (eikonikes anazographeseos), being in accord with the story of the biblical preaching, because of the belief in the true and non-illusory Incarnation of God the Word, for our benefit. For things which presuppose each other are mutually revelatory.

Since this is the case, following the royal path and the teaching divinely inspired by our holy Fathers and the Tradition of the catholic Church—for we know that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit who lives in it—we decide in all correctness and after a thorough examination that, just as the holy and vivifying cross, similarly the holy and precious icons painted with colors, made with little stones or with any other matter serving this purpose (epitedeios), should be placed in the holy churches of God, on vases and sacred vestments, on walls and boards, in houses and on roads, whether these are icons of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, or of our spotless Sovereign Lady, the holy Mother of God, or of the holy angels and of holy and venerable men. For each time that we see their representation in an image, each time, while gazing upon them, we are made to remember the prototypes, we grow to love them more, and we are more induced to worship them by kissing them and by witnessing our veneration (proskenesin), not the true adoration (latreian) which, according to our faith, is proper only to the one divine nature, but in the same way as we venerate the image of the precious and vivifying cross, the holy Gospel and other sacred objects which we honor with incense and candles according to the pious custom of our forefathers. For the honor rendered to the image goes to its prototype, and the person who venerates an icon venerates the person represented in it. Indeed, such is the teaching of our holy Fathers and the Tradition of the holy catholic Church which propagated the Gospel from one end of the earth to the other. Thus we follow Paul, who spoke in Christ, and the entire divine circle of apostles and all the holy Fathers who upheld the traditions which we follow. Thus, we prophetically sing the hymns of the victory of the Church: "Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, He has cast out your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more" (Zeph 3:14-15).

Thus, we decide that those who dare to think or teach differently, following the example of the evil heretics; those who dare to scorn the ecclesiastical traditions, to make innovations or to repudiate something which has been sanctified by the Church, whether it be the Gospel or the representation of the cross, or the painting of icons, or the sacred relics of martyrs, or who have evil, pernicious and subversive feelings towards the traditions of the catholic Church; those, finally, who dare give sacred vases or venerable monasteries to ordinary uses: we decide that, if they are bishops or priests, they be defrocked; if they are monks or laymen, they be excommunicated. (Theology of the Icon, p. 134-135)