The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (9B)

As mentioned earlier, it is necessary to venerate icons to demonstrate our faith that Jesus is True God and True Man, God in the flesh. It we were to scorn icons we would be saying that Jesus Christ is either not true man or not true God, which would be heresy.​However, there is an important distinction to make, as those saints who defended icons say, there is a difference between worship and veneration.

​As noted above, the defense of icons was undertaken by many Christian clerics, monastics and lay persons. There are two saints especially connected to the theological defense of icons

​In the first period the great defender of icons was St. John of Damascus (676-749AD). St. John was a Christian and who was raised in Damascus under Muslim rule. These Muslim rulers were quite tolerant of Christianity and many Christian Arabs worked in the Muslim government. St. John’s father wanted a good Christian education for his son and hired a Sicilian monk to teach him both secular and religious subjects. As a result of his education and talent, St. John was given an important position in the Muslim Caliphate’s government. When iconoclasm started in Constantinople St. John wrote three “Apologetic Treatises Against Those Decrying the Holy Image”. In other words, defenses of the veneration of icons. Ironically, because St. John lived in the Muslim territory, the Byzantine emperor could not take action against him. However, the emperor forged a document claiming that St. John was conspiring against the Caliphate. The Caliphate dismissed St. John and had his right hand cut off. Tradition tells us that his hand was restored through the intercession of the Mother of God. St. John retired to St. Sabbas Monastery near Jerusalem where he lived until his death. In addition to his defenses of icons, St. John also wrote many other theological works, including many of the liturgical texts and hymns the Orthodox Church uses today.

​In addition to what was said earlier about the differences between worship and veneration of icons, St. John declared that he did not venerate matter, meaning the paint and wood of the icon, but rather the creator of matter, that is God. Also, he stated that it was permissible and even necessary to venerate material things because Jesus Christ had entered the material world so that matter itself can be a means of grace.

​The great defender of icons in the second iconoclast period was St. Theodore the Studite. St. Theodore was a monk and later abbot of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Studius, near Constantinople. St. Theodore made the Studite Monastery a center of scholarship and piety. Many of his writings are included in the Lenten Triodion, the service book the Church uses during Great Lent. When the second iconoclast period began St. Theodore wrote three “Refutations of Iconoclasm”. As a result of this St. Theodore was exiled and died in exile before the Triumph of Orthodoxy, which is writing had helped to accomplish. St. Theodore wrote that we can venerate icons because Christ became incarnate.

​“If anyone should say that when the image of Christ is displayed it is sufficient neither to honor nor dishonor it, those refusing it the honor of relative veneration, he is a heretic.”

​We can see that St. John of Damascus and St. Theodore the Studite gave verbal form to the church’s veneration of icons, defending it from ancient, as well as modern iconoclasts.

​Sometimes Orthodox Christians are accused of ‘worshipping’ icons. However. St. John made the point that worship (latreia) is due to God alone. We worship only God. However we offer veneration (proskynesis) to icons, as well as to relics, the Gospel book, and so on. And this is quite natural and human. We like to have photographs of our loved ones around us and may even kiss the photograph of our departed parents, for example. This is a natural kind of proskynesis. We stand and salute or place our hands on our hearts when the flag is raised. So it is quite natural that we ‘venerate’ objects which convey deep meaning to us.

​One of the things that the iconoclastic period shows us is that as important as the role of theologians, bishops and even empresses had played in the history of the Church, it is the whole people of God, clergy monastics and laity, have the duty to recognize and hold and defend the faith., In the iconoclast controversy the lower clergy and laity were not passive before a battle of emperors, empresses and bishops, but rather played an important role in the defense of the faith. Once again, we see that many Christians today are paying with their lives in defense of the faith. We should help them, as we can pray for them, and try ourselves to be knowledgeable about our faith.

Fr. John