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)
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.
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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