Are Icons Christian imagery or idolatry as John of Damascus describes them?

trueseek1's picture

I have been reading John of Damascus document at . I had been taught by my evangelical teachers that icons came into the Church because christians compromised the faith and allowed Roman emperors to add idolatrous practices into Church worship. Most all of us Bible believers know that "Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath"(Exodus 20:4 and similar to Deut 5:7-9)" clearly condemns uses of any images when worshipping God of the Bible. So this practice has to be against God's revealed will. After reading John's exposition here, I am starting to find some problems with our belief and wondering if others might have some insights on this topic please?

List of Problems:
> Historically, from reading the message by John of Damascus above, it is clear that he was most concerned about godliness and was actually speaking in fear of emperor's powers, since the emperors had crushed forcefully any use of icons in Church for what seems like about 100 years. How can I believe it was the emperors who forced use of icons into the body of Christ, when it is obvious historically that they actually were forcefully disallowing icons at that time, rather than promoting it. And, it was actually Bible believing Christians, like John, who in fear and trembling in the manner of Esther, presented what seems like a strong Biblically Christian basis for the holiness of icons in worshipping God, to emperors and for the benefit of other believers? That is fairly obvious from reading the 1st few humble hearted introductory paragraphs.

Most important, his amazing and moving Biblical exposition pointed out certain passages I had never heard of in the same context before:

Abraham offered worship to a couple of ungodly men in Gen. 23:7 (cf Acts 7:16). Jacob worshipped (proskuneo) his brother Esau and Pharao, the Egyptian, but on the point of his staff. (Gen 33.3). Josue and Daniel worshipped an angel of God; (Jos 5.14) I looked up the Greek version of the Old testament and found the greek word used in Genesis and other places were "proskuneo" (strongs 4352) meaning literally or figuratively to prostrate oneself in homage (do reverence to, adore):--worship.

Now, I am also noticing that if our interpretation of Exodus 20 is right, why does God command the faithful to make graven images of cherubim to cover the mercy seat where God "would meet men"? Can read the whole beautiful chapter of Exodus 25, but from just the following verses it seems John was right that God only condemns certain forms of graven images that promote idolatry and never condemned believers' use of artistic imagery of heavenly things in the midst of our worship:

"18 And you shall make two cherubim (winged angelic figures) of hammered gold on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on each end, making the cherubim of one piece with the mercy seat, on the two ends of it. And the cherubim shall spread out their wings above, covering the mercy seat with their wings, facing each other and looking down toward the mercy seat. 21You shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I will give you. There I will meet with you and, from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the Testimony, I will speak intimately with you of all which I will give you in commandment to the Israelites."

How can I explain the fact that God would meet with us in the midst of such "idolatrous icons" as we call them when God calls us to use certain imagery in the very Word of God? Do we not all agree what God said about these "that thou make all things according to the pattern which was shown thee on the Mount." (Heb. 8.5; Ex. 25.40)"? Obviously God condemns any form of idolatry, but based upon these passages alone, it seems that he does reserve one form of worship for himself while allowing reverence even in the midst of such icons in the Bible, since it was made exactly as Moses was shown on the Mount by God himself.

What am I missing here (besides a few loose marbles :-)? In the most convincing words of John of Damascus: "We have passed the stage of infancy, and reached the perfection of manhood. We receive our habit of mind from God, and know what may be imaged and what may not. The Scripture says, "You have not seen the likeness of Him." (Ex. 33.20) What wisdom in the law-giver. How depict the invisible? How picture the inconceivable? How give expression to the limitless, the immeasurable, the invisible? How give a form to immensity? How paint immortality? How localise mystery? It is clear that when you contemplate God, who is a pure spirit, becoming man for your sake, you will be able to clothe Him with the human form. [HOWEVER]When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh [Incarnation of God in the flesh (John 1:14)], you may then draw a likeness of His form. When He who is a pure spirit, without form or limit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing as God, takes upon Himself the form of a servant in substance and in stature, and a body of flesh, then you may draw His likeness, and show it to anyone willing to contemplate it. Depict His ineffable condescension, His virginal birth, His baptism in the Jordan, His transfiguration on Thabor, His all-powerful sufferings, His death and miracles, the proofs of His Godhead, the deeds which He worked in the flesh through divine power, His saving Cross, His Sepulchre, and resurrection, and ascent into heaven. Give to it all the endurance of engraving and colour. Have no fear or anxiety; worship is not all of the same kind. " [bracket content mine]

John was clear of what he believed about the invisible God: "I believe in one God, the source of all things, without beginning, uncreated, immortal, everlasting, incomprehensible, bodiless, invisible, uncircumscribed, without form. I believe in one supersubstantial 5being, one divine Godhead in three entities, the Father, the Son, and the Holy [Spirit], and I adore Him alone with the worship of latreia. I adore one God, one Godhead but three Persons, God the Father, God the Son made flesh, and God the Holy Ghost, one God. I do not adore creation more than the Creator, but I adore the creature created as I am, adopting creation freely and spontaneously that He might elevate our nature and make us partakers of His divine nature." It is obvious that John of Damascus has no intention of lowering God away from His supernatural indescribable position and provides a wonderful declaration of God’s supernatural indescribable nature in the limits of human words.

Also, he says something I had not realized but does make a lot of sense and that is that every time we hear God's word describe the indescribable God, we obviously make some sort of mental images, but none of us condemns mental imagery, although imperfect they obviously are often:
"visible things are images of invisible and intangible things, on which they throw a faint light. Holy Scripture clothes in figure God and the angels, and the same holy man (Blessed Denis) explains why. When sensible things sufficiently render what is beyond sense, and give a form to what is intangible, a medium would be reckoned imperfect according to our standard, if it did not fully represent material vision, or if it required effort of mind. If, therefore, Holy Scripture, providing for our need, ever putting before us what is intangible, clothes it in flesh, does it not make an image of what is thus invested with our nature, and brought to the level of our desires, yet invisible? A certain conception through the senses thus takes place in the brain, which was not there before, and is transmitted to the judicial faculty, and added to the mental store."

So, would evangelicals have a hard time accepting John of Damascus' exposition here as the word worship must be put in context of different degrees of "worship". One kind is ONLY FOR GOD AND NONE ALONE, but other kinds of "worship" are more bowing down in reverene like Abraham did, and much lower forms of "worship", no where near the way believers would use towards Christ or any member of the Holy Trinity? In John's words:

"Worship is the symbol of veneration and of honour. Let us understand that there are different degrees of worship. First of all the worship of latreia, which we show to God, who alone by nature is worthy of worship. When, for the sake of God who is worshipful by nature, we honour His saints and servants, as Josue and Daniel worshipped an angel, and David His holy places, when be says, "Let us go to the place where His feet have stood." (Ps. 132.7) Again, in His tabernacles, as when all the people of Israel adored in the tent, and standing round the temple in Jerusalem, fixing their gaze upon it from all sides, and worshipping from that day to this, or in the rulers established by Him, as Jacob rendered homage to Esau, his elder brother, (Gen. 33.3) and to Pharaoh, the 14divinely established ruler. (Gen. 47.7) Joseph was worshipped by his brothers. (Gen. 50.18) I am aware that worship was based on honour, as in the case of Abraham and the sons of Emmor. (Gen. 23.7) Either, then, do away with worship, or receive it altogether according to its proper measure."

I have searched all over the web and the main argument I find among us evangelicals against John's godly use of icons seems to be the same verses he clearly showed us in context to be differentiating between godly icons and ungodly idolatrous graven images so far. Appreciate any thoughts or links that would help shed light on the subject of John's understanding of icons here.

humbly in His service,


Some things I think may provide clarity...

1) Confusions in the English language. "Worship" has a double meaning: a) to bow down in front of; b) to praise and exalt. The worship of idols / statues has never been encouraged in the bible, that I know of. However, I believe the worship offered towards Joseph, others was of a limited fashion. For example, we are to serve our employers (new testament says "masters"), but not to the same extent that we serve our Lord -- also provided, we were never to serve idols.

2) What is the difference between a statue and an idol? I would say, a statue is simply a work of art. An idol, however, is a statue that is also prayed unto, sacrificed to, praised, worshipped, and sang songs unto. Now then... when high priests sacrified unto YHWH, did they sing & praise the Ark of the Covenant / praise cherubim -- or, was it unto the invisible YHWH? If they did not worship the Ark of the Covenant DIRECTLY, then there was no idolatry.

Hope this helps-