July 7, 2007

On Worship and Veneration

Some time ago, I posted on icons and discussed my attempt to understand the difference between what Catholic and Orthodox believers call "relative worship" or "veneration" and the "true worship" which belongs to God alone. I mostly failed to understand any real difference here.

Today, I did something I should have done a long time ago: I read the decree of the Second Council of Nicea (the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which reinstated the veneration of icons). I found something interesting. In the Greek, the council makes a distinction between veneration and worship, as is to be expected. However, the words used are the Greek proskuneo for "venerate" and latreuo for "worship". The words are used together in Scripture in both Matthew 4:10 and Luke 4:8, which are identical quotations of Deuteronomy 6:13: "You shall worship [proskuneo] the Lord your God and him only shall you serve [latreuo." It's interesting that both Matthew and Luke use the word proskuneo (whose meaning we shall discuss below), when the Septuagint uses phobeomai which means "fear" (the verse is otherwise identical).

So what does proskuneo mean? Well, in Homeric and Classical Greek it usually refers to making obeisance to a king (in Attic, usually the King of Persia - the Greeks, especially the Athenians, prided themselves on the fact that they didn't make obeisance to kings like slaves). It can refer to any of various reverential acts, most commonly falling prostrate on the ground. Now this is just etymology - the Second Council of Nicea was in the 8th century, some 1200 years after the classical period. However, the word probably became a technical term with a pretty crystalized definition at least a few centuries earlier. In the New Testament and the ante-Nicene Fathers (that is, the period from the beginning of Christianity to AD 325) according to BDAG it means "(fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully." Examples are given of uses regarding human beings who are recognized as "belonging to a superhuman realm," kings, God or gods, idols, the devel or Satanic beings, and Jesus. It seems to have a religious overtone of sorts.

Philip Schaff's Introduction to the Seventh Ecumenical Council seems to imply that the word was in use with regard to the honor paid to the Byzantine Emperor. He remarks that "The council decreed that similar veneration and honour should be paid to the representations of the Lord and of the Saints as was accustomed to be paid to the 'laurata' and tablets representing the Christian emperors, to wit, that they should be bowed to, and saluted with kisses, and attended with lights and the offering of incense." Later he also says, "To those accustomed to kiss the earth on which the Emperor had trodden, it would be natural to kiss the feet of the image of the King of Kings. The same is manifestly true of any outward acts whatever, such as bowing, kneeling, burning of lights, and offering of incense."

Now, here's the point, and it's a good one: if you perform some act of reverence to the emperor, then why not to the saints? And if to the symbol of the emperor, why not to the symbols of the saints? And if to the saints and their symbols, how much more to God and his symbols, whether these are the cross and the Bible (the two most important icons in Orthodoxy) or paintings seeking to represent Christ according to his humanity. This sounds good, but it leaves me with three questions: (1) is the treatment of the emperor and his symbols idolatry to begin with? If it is, the whole argument will collapse. (2) Can one still apply this as an American who is not accustomed to making obeisance to anyone? (3) Is this actually the doctrine and practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church today? I'm going to answer these questions as "maybe", "yes", and "no", respectively.

Regarding question (1), it is not at all clear to me, but I would be very uncomfortable with undue reverence being shown to a ruler. On the other hand, it is not clear to what degree my discomfort is based on my biases as a Protestant or my biases as an American and to what degree it is based on my faith as a Christian. In any case, it is clear that it is possible to pay excessive reverence to political leaders and symbols so that this becomes idolatry, and many Christians were executed prior to Constantine for refusing to burn incense (or whatever) before the image of the Pagan emperor. Is the case with the Christian emperor so much different? Nevertheless, as I shall discuss next, we do appropriately give reverence and respect to political leaders and symbols in ways that are clearly not idolatrous, so the argument must in some degree be successful.

Regarding question (2), it is indeed true that Americans are not accustomed to paying obeisance to anyone. If you meet the President, you shake his hand and call him "Mr. President" - not "your highness" or "your excellency." They say that people used to bow to George Washington, but that's been a while back. However, there is a political object to which many Americans do give a kind of reverence: the flag. There is a complex etiquette, not enforced by legal penalties, but frequently followed nonetheless, about respecting the flag. Flags are not to be thrown away, but rather "retired." A flag is not supposed to touch the ground, and if it does it is to be retired immediately. Flags are retired by ceremonially burning them, and the burning is to be carried out by certain specified groups (I believe the only groups are military units and boy scout troops). The flag is folded a particular way, and hoisted on a pole ceremonially in a particular way. There are varying degrees of ceremony depending on what group you are in. I believe regulations do require that government departments treat flags in this way.

Honoring the flag is a way of honoring the country and the ideals it stands for. People have different ideas about what those ideals might be, but they people with many different political stances honor those ideals by honoring the flag.

My conclusion is that we American Protestants ought to treat the Bible, the cross, and perhaps also any images of Jesus or the saints we might have (we tend not to have them, but let that go) with at least the degree of reverence and honor with which we treat the flag. We ought, in fact, to treat the Bible and the cross with the very highest degree of reverence and honor with whcih it is permissible to treat any material symbol - but we must continue to gaurd against idolatry.

With regard to question (3), I believe, as I have indicated above, that Eastern Orthodox Christians want to say something stronger than what I have just said. Here's twentieth century Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov:

The veneration of the holy icons is based not merely on the nature of the subjects represented in them, but also on the faith in that gracious presence which the Church calls forth by the power of the sanctification of the icon. The rite of the blessing of the icon establishes a connection between the image and its prototype, between that which is represented and the representation itself. (The Orthodox Church, p. 163)

The Orthodox Christian Information Center has a page summarizing the function of icons in Orthodox worship. The seventh and final function is described as follows:
Finally, the icon has a liturgical function, it is a means of worship and veneration. This is one of its primary functions, more important than the first. Like sacred hymns and music, the icon is used as a means of worshipping God and venerating His saints. As such, it is essentially symbolic, leading the soul from the visible to the invisible, from the material to the spiritual, from the symbol to the prototype or original which it represents.

Venerating the icon as somehow being a means to worship God is what I discussed in my previous post, and I still don't think I fully understand it (and insofar as I do understand it, I disagree with it), but I bring it up here not to grapple with it again or to argue against it, but simply to point out that it goes beyond what I have discussed above: what I have discussed above is merely the propriety of giving respect to an object on account of what it represents and that is certainly easy to understand and, within the proper bounds, appropriate.

In sum, I conclude that it is quite proper to show great respect to objects which in any way represent or symbolize God or, to a lesser degree, the great saints of ages past, and likewise there is nothing wrong, per se, with having such objects, but this is not sufficient to justify the practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Now that everything is all wrapped up in a nice conclusion, I want to add two relevant points that I couldn't figure out how to fit into the main part but thought I should mention.

Firstly, there is a precedent for what I'm talking about in Judaism: the reason most Orthodox Jews will not write out the word 'God' (they typically write 'G-D' instead) is that when something has the word 'God' written on it it becomes a holy object and must be treated according to all sorts of rules for respect, much like the flag rules only more intense (I'm not familiar with the specifics).

Secondly, the word proskuneo is used in Revelation 19:10 where a voice (presumably of an angel?) instructs John not to 'venerate' him. His instruction, however, doesn't seem to be on the grounds that this would be idolatry, but rather on the grounds that he and John are to be regarded as equals: "I am a fellow slave with you and your brothers who have the testimony about Jesus." John is then instructed to 'venerate' God instead, "because the testimony about Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." (Whatever that means.) This verse does provide important considerations against the veneration of saints, I think, but not against the veneration of icons of Christ.

Posted by Kenny at July 7, 2007 1:21 PM
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I Peter does say to honor the king. I don't remember offhand what verb is used there, although I doubt it's the same one, and I'm sure it would stop short of the kind of respect the emperor was commanding, which was indeed idolatry, since it was worship of him as a god.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at July 8, 2007 9:30 PM

1 Peter uses the verb timao. Certainly this stops short of the respect the emperor was commanding at the time Peter wrote, since, as you note, the Roman emperors from Augustus up to (but not including) Constantine demanded to be worshipped as gods. The primary question, however, was about the respect paid to the Christian emperor in the 8th century when the Second Council of Nicea met, and about that I am almost entirely ignorant, though I assume he, being (at least nominally) a Christian didn't demand that his subjects worship him as a god.

Posted by: Kenny at July 9, 2007 2:01 AM

Some differences: An Orthodox Christian can venerate a saint or an icon, but I don't think he can worship a saint or an icon. We venerate the Mother of God, but do we worship her?
I think God can be both venerated and worshipped, but I think "worshipped" is better.

Just for reference: Bulgakov wrote books on John the Baptist and on the Mother of God with the subtitles: "On the Orthodox Veneration of Forerunner" and "On the Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God."

Posted by: Boris Jakim at August 2, 2007 7:35 PM

Boris - I would be interested in Bulgakov's books. I have read excerpts from his The Orthodox Church and liked it very much. As to whether the Orthodox worship a saint or icon, that is precisely the point at issue. Certainly they would never use the word worship to describe what they do, but that is merely a verbal point. What I'm trying to understand is whether there is a difference in reality in addition to the difference in language, and on this point I remain uncertain, despite various people attempting to dispel my uncertainty.

Posted by: Kenny at August 2, 2007 7:40 PM

Hi Kenny,

In my opinion (and I'm sure this is the view of the Orthodox Church), anyone who worships another human being or an object like an icon is suffering from "prelest" (a Russian theological term signifying a delusion brought on by demonic possession. In the old days, this was a common disease of monastics.)

Bulgakov's theological works are now being published in English translation by Eerdmans. You may want to look at "The Bride of the Lamb" (on ecclesiology) and "The Comforter" (on the Holy Spirit). They constitute a contemporary "mystical theology."

Posted by: Boris Jakim at August 2, 2007 7:56 PM

Jesus said, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, but give to God what is God's". Thus, we give the saints the proper honor and respect that we would give to any honorable (worthy) person-- but we give God the highest glory that is reserved for Him Alone.

In the case of Mary, given her special and unique role as the Mother of Jesus, we afford her a special level of respect and honor in the same way that we have a special love and respect for our own mother over, say, our cousins. Yet even Mary is not worshipped in the same way as we worship God Himself. As for icons, statues and other religious objects, we treat those with the proper respect and dignity that is afforded to any holy object that helps us to further our devotion and adoration to the One True God. For many who cannot read, these items serve as a means to bring them closer to God. They ASSIST in worship, but they are not themselves to BE worshipped. Icons serve the purpose of setting a tone for proper worship, as a visual representation of what we are worshipping. Statues of the saints and of Mary help us to make these people more "personal" and "real". We honor (venerate) the saints as living examples of the virtues that God instills in us. It's really no different than having a close friend who has a special value that we wish to emulate, and asking them for their help to foster those same values in us, for the Glory of God who alone is ADORED (key word here).

The word "pray" in its general sense means "To ask (someone) imploringly; beseech". Now often used elliptically for I pray you to introduce a request or entreaty: "Pray (I plead you) be careful. Also, to make a devout or earnest request for something. We pray to saints for their intercession, or for them to ask God for something on our behalf-- enlisting their support in our request. How many times have we asked someone to do something or to speak up for us on our behalf? Same here. In the same way that we are not "worshipping" our friends (as we worship God) when we ask or pray that they do something, we are not worshipping the saints in the same way that we worship God.

Posted by: schrodinger at January 14, 2011 9:03 PM

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