by V. Rev. Fr. Dimitri Cozby
St. Anthony the Great Orthodox Church
San Antonio, TX


In the Orthodox Church we place great emphasis on the veneration of the Theotokos and other holy men and women. We also reverence icons of our Lord and of the saints. About twelve centuries ago a group called the “Iconoclasts” challenged the Church’s devotion to icons and her invocation of the saints. Their teaching was refuted at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in 787 in the city of Nicea. Each year, on October 11th or the Sunday following, we commemorate the work of that Council. Therefore, this seems an appropriate time to discuss the significance of icons and the meaning of the adoration of the saints.

The misunderstanding that most often arises in connection with icons is that they are a form of idolatry. This view asserts that paying honor to created things detracts from the devotion we owe to God. In reality, our veneration of the saints, their relics, and the holy icons does not detract from our worship of God. Indeed, in the Orthodox understanding, we affirm our faith in our Creator and Redeemer by honoring the saints and venerating the icons as testimonials of His loving care.

The Fathers assembled at the Seventh Council began by distinguishing our attitude toward God from that toward icons or saints. They went so far as to use two different Greek words to name these emotions: latreia (“worship”) was due to God alone, but proskynesis (“veneration”) could be paid to created things as well. They drew this distinction from the literal reading of Matthew 4:10: “You shall venerate (prokyneseis) the Lord your God, and Him only shall you worship (latreuseis).” The Fathers noted that the Iconoclasts ignored this distinction, when they attacked the icons through certain verses of Scripture such as the First Commandment (Exodus 20:4). The Fathers also evoked numerous passages in the Old Testament where God directed that representations of angels be made (for example, Exodus 25:18-20 and 26: 1; 1 Kings 6:23-32) and where high honor was paid to created beings, both earthly and heavenly (Numbers 21:8-9; 1 Chronicles 29:20; Hebrews 11:21; etc.).

St. Theodore the Studite sums up the Council’s position as follows: “Worship is unique and belongs to God alone; but other kinds of veneration belong to others. We venerate kings and rulers, servants venerate their masters, children their parents; but not as gods. Although veneration has the same outward form, it varies in intention. For these are human beings, and receive respect according to the honor due them, whether by law, by fear, or by affection.

The Council Fathers did not rest there, however. They sought to show that veneration of icons and honor paid to the saints was in fact worship of the one true God, but in another form. They borrowed an idea from a great theologian and bishop, Saint Basil the Great, who had lived four centuries earlier. Saint Basil wrote, “The honor given to the image is transferred to its prototype.” In other words, when we honor a representation of something, we are really thinking about the person or thing represented, not the image itself. When we look at photographs of a loved one or of scenes taken on some occasion, we immediately turn to memories of the person or events depicted. The emotions we feel – whether joy, sadness, discomfort or pleasure – do not come from the piece of paper in our hands but from our remembrances of the person or scene represented. If we treasure such a picture, we do so because of our associations with the people or scenes preserved there, not because we attribute some value to the photo itself.

The icons are the same. When we see an icon of our Lord, the emotions we feel – penitence, thanksgiving, comfort, peace, etc. – arise because the icon recalls to us Christ’s love and His many blessings. Likewise, when we venerate saints, we do so because we see God’s image reflected in them. We recognize that the sole source of holiness in their lives was divine grace, that the miracles they performed were the working of divine power, that the purity of their teachings sprang from their openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. We recognize too, that the same grace, power, and purity can be ours if we give ourselves to our Lord in faith as they did.

Our veneration is distinct from the worship of idolatry, in the first place, because the pagans adored many false gods. The Christian, in all things, offers praise and petition to the one true God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The pagans worshipped personifications of the forces of nature and of human character or endeavor, the gods of the storm and the sea, or of love or the harvest. They had no true concept of God as the great Creator Who is Himself totally distinct from His creation. Thus, it was easy for their minds to be trapped in the material representations, to honor the idol for its own sake and forget that there should be something behind it. The Christian, however, knows that his God is not identified with any part of His creation. Therefore, even when he uses material things or pays homage to a creature, the Christian’s mind is drawn upward to the Source of all things, of life and of holiness. As Saint Theodore notes, “The mind does not remain with the materials, because it does not trust them: that is the error of the idolaters. Through the materials, rather, the mind ascends toward the prototypes: this is the faith of the Orthodox.” In pagan materialism thoughts and prayers would be trapped in the world; for the Orthodox Christian, material things impel our thoughts and prayers beyond the material into the spiritual realm, toward our Creator and Redeemer.

Thus the Fathers’ vision embraced a whole way of looking at the world and its relationship to God. They saw in the icons and the saints, concrete proof that God had changed that relationship when He became man. With the Fall, sinful man had broken the link between the Creator and His creation. He had also shattered the unity of creation. The material universe would no longer be a blessing to man but a hindrance in his pursuit of life and virtue. “… cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:17-19).

Christ, however, became man and took to Himself our whole nature, both a spiritual soul and a material body. Thus, He took back to Himself all His creation. In His baptism He sanctified the waters; in His miracles and healing He annulled the Genesis curse and blessed anew the ground and the fruit which it bore. In His death and resurrection He opened to us the way of salvation. By sending the Holy Spirit He poured out upon all who accept Him the assurance of new life in this world and eternal life in the age to come.

A bishop at the Seventh Council called Iconoclasm “the worst of heresies for it subverts the incarnation of our Savior.” The Word of God became man in order to reclaim His creation, to reassert His Lordship, and to make His world again a repository of grace and love. In honoring the icons and the saints we honor God’s great work of restoring and saving the world. Denying the icons denies that He has done these things. Iconoclasm says, in effect, that material is unredeemed and unredeemable, that all it can do is weigh us down and obstruct our vision of God. It says that veneration of the saints can only draw us away from devotion to our Savior. The Gospel tells us something quite different. The Gospel affirms that Christ, having taken to Himself a physical Body, has sanctified matter and made it again a way to knowledge of Him and means by which His grace flows to us. The Gospel shows us men and women whose lives were transfigured and illumined by the power of the incarnate, crucified and risen Christ. The Gospel offers us these same men and women as models of the Christian life and intercessors before our common Lord.

The formal decision of the Council, proclaims that we venerate the icons ““ so that through the representations, we may be able to be led back in memory and representation to the prototype, and have a share in their holiness.” When our soul rises to God, He reaches out to us in return. Thus, by directing us toward God, the icons become channels by which His grace flows into us. Let us then allow the icons and the saints to fulfill their purpose in life. When we see the icons of our Savior, let us remember what He has done and has promised to do for us. When we see the icons of the saints, let us be assured through them that the life-renewing power and grace of Christ are truly present even in this age. When we venerate the icons and invoke the saints, let us do so in faith and love. By the honor we pay them, let us worship our one Lord and show our gratitude for all that our Savior has given us.

From The Dawn
Publication of the Diocese of the South
Orthodox Church in America
October 1998