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Comparative Theology, book by H. H. Pope Shenouda III
75- Pictures and Icons
Our brethren the Protestants do not believe in the pictures and icons in the Orthodox Church or in the statues in the Catholic Church. They consider them against the second commandment, in which the Lord says: “You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Ex.20: 4,5); (Deut.5: 8,9).
There was a war waged against icons in the 8th century in 726 A. D. during the time of Emperor Leo III. It continued for a few centuries then calmed down. It was revived in Protestantism since the 15th and 16th centuries and has remained among their beliefs till this day. Some of our Protestant brethren consider icons as remnants of paganism. They reproach Orthodoxy and Catholicism for venerating icons, kissing them, lighting candles in front of them and kneeling before them.
We will try to reply to all these points, showing the spiritual benefits of icons and why the Church keeps them.
(1) In order to reply to the subject of icons, we must consider the following:
(a) What does the verse, which our Protestant brethren use imply? Why was this verse said and what is its purpose? The reason behind our questioning is the Apostle's phrase “the letter kills” (2Cor.3: 6).
(b) What are the other verses which, if put beside this verse, will complete its meaning and make us realise the spirit and not the letter in the Lord's commandment? We have previously explained the danger of using one verse.
(2) What was God's aim in banning images and statues? The Lord's aim is clear in His words: “You shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” Therefore the commandment is not broken if the purpose of using them is far from worship.
There is no doubt that this forbidding is one of the Lord's Ten Commandments. It was given in an era in which paganism abounded and there was so much anxiety that the believers might apostate that it was forbidden to engrave any stone, even in ordinary buildings or in constructing the altar.
(3) We see that God Himself, who commanded the people not to engrave any idol or form, ordered Moses in the incident of the enormous snakes to “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live” (Num.21: 8). So Moses did this and he was not breaking the second commandment.
Moreover, the Lord Jesus Christ teaches us that this act was a pattern of His sacred cross. He says: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John.3: 14,15).
(4) When the Lord ordered Moses to build the Ark of Covenant, He asked him to make cherubim of gold on top of it. He said: “And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work you shall make them at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub at one end, and the other cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim at the two ends of it of one piece with the mercy seat. And the cherubim shall stretch out their wings above, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and they shall face one another; the faces of the cherubim shall be toward the mercy, seal. You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I will give you. And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, of all things which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel” (Ex.25: 18-22). And it was done.
Forming the images of these two cherubim was not a transgression of the second commandment which orders not to make an idol in the form of anything in heaven above, because the aim was not to worship the angels represented by these two cherubim, and we have discussed this issue before here on st-takla.org in other pages. On the contrary, the image of the two cherubim was formed upon a Divine command in the same way that the snake was made upon a Divine command.
(5) In the same manner, Solomon built the Temple and decorated it from within: “he made two cherubim of olive wood, each ten cubits high. One wing of the cherub was five cubits and the other wing of the cherub five cubits: ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other... both cherubim were of the same size and shape. Then he set the cherubim inside the inner room; and they stretched out the wings of the cherubim. Also he overlaid the cherubim with gold” (1Kin.6: 23-28).
(6) It was not only a matter of two cherubim, but the Holy Bible says: “Then he carved all the walls of the temple all around, both the inner and outer sanctuaries, with carved figures of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers” (1Kin.6: 29). He made two doors for the entrance and “carved on them figures of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, and overlaid them with gold” (1 Kin.6: 32,35), and we have discussed this issue before here on st-takla.org in other pages. Thus the house of the Lord was decorated with images, paintings and carvings and the people still worshipped God. They did not worship these images or carvings. They did not disobey the second commandment.
(7) Likewise the Ark of the Covenant, which was respected by priests, people and kings, did not at all represent pagan worship. The Holy Bible tells us that after the Israelites were conquered at Ai, Joshua, the son of Nun and the successor of Moses, together with the elders of Israel, knelt down and prayed to the Lord before the Ark of the Covenant till evening (Josh.7: 6). The Lord did not say to Joshua: “You have broken the second commandments”. But on the contrary, the Lord talked to him, performed a miraculous sign in revealing the sin of Achen, son of Carmit, gave Ai into Joshua's hands and lifted up Joshua's head.
Joshua did not sin by kneeling before the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord because he was not worshipping the Ark but he was worshipping the Lord who came and spoke from between the cherubim. Likewise David the Prophet did not sin when he celebrated the return of the Ark, leaping and dancing in front of it (2Sam.6: 12-15).
(8) Similarly, we say that we do not worship the pictures or the icons, but we venerate them, thus venerating those to whom they belong, according to the Lord's words to His disciples: “If anyone serves Me, him MY Father will honour” (John.12: 26). If the Father venerates His saints, should we not venerate them?
(9) We say the same regarding the cross, of which St. Paul the Apostle says to the Galatians: “O foolish Galatians... before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified” (Gal.3: 1).
(10) We thank God that our Protestant brethren now raise the cross on top of their churches without considering it a carved image.
(11) We thank God that in their Sunday Schools, our Protestant brethren distribute pictures of the Lord Jesus Christ, the angels, the prophets, Noah's Ark with its animals, the Good Shepherd and the sheep, David feeding his sheep, Elijah and the ravens looking after him, Poor Lazarus and the dogs licking his wounds, Balaam, and the Devil tempting the Lord Jesus Christ in the wilderness. In distributing these pictures they are not worried or in any doubt that they may be breaking the second commandment by having pictures of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath.
(12) We cannot disregard the effect of pictures as lessons explaining the events of the Holy Bible and the lives of the heroes of faith and history. An icon may leave a more profound effect on the soul than reading or listening to a sermon.
Icons connect the believers on earth with the angels in heaven and the righteous who abide in Paradise. They give us a strong inner motive to carry out the Apostle's words: “Remember the leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Heb.13: 7).
(13) In venerating pictures, we are in effect venerating their owners. When we kiss the Gospel, we show our love to the word of God and to God who gave us His commandments for our guidance. When we bow down before the cross, we bow down, as one of the Fathers said, “to Him who is crucified on it”. The commandment “You shall not bow down to them or serve them”, does not apply to us at all when we do these things.
(14) It is well known that icons have been recognised since the Apostolic Era. It is said that St. Luke the Evangelist was an artist and that he portrayed more than one picture of the Virgin Mary. Tradition tells us about the image of the face of the Lord Jesus Christ imprinted on a handkerchief.
If you study the history of icons you will find that the strongest eras in faith were those in which people venerated icons. Their faith was not affected but on the contrary, they were virtuous people.
(15) Why should we deprive artists from sharing in activating the spiritual life of people? Pictures give spiritual feelings that affect the soul and effectively transfer to people the life-stories of saints.
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