Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Orthodoxy Protestantism and Watchtower

Are holy icons “idols”?

Is veneration worship?

It is customary for Protestants to accuse Orthodox Christians of supposedly ‘worshipping’ icons, or saints. However, this is an unfair accusation, which has its roots in people’s ignorance on the subject.  In this study, we will demonstrate the true meaning of “veneration” and “worship”.


“Worship” is one thing, “Veneration” is another

We need to distinguish between these two different words, from the very beginning.

“Veneration” does not always imply “Worship”!  It could imply worship, but it could also refer to an honorific bow. When a hotel porter bows to a guest, surely he isn’t actually worshipping the guest!  He is merely honoring him, with a respectful bow.  In the case of God, however, this respectful bow is also a gesture of worship.

When a Christian bows before one of God’s (sanctified) people, he is not worshipping that person; he is merely honoring that person as a person of God. In the same way, when he bows before the icon of a Saint, he is not worshipping the icon; he is paying homage to the person portrayed on it.

But : if the icon portrays the Lord Jesus Christ, then only is the portrayed person worshipped; not the image, but the actual person that it portrays.


What kind of veneration is forbidden by the Holy Bible?

Let’s take a look at a few passages of the Holy Bible that are used by contemporary iconoclasts, in their attempt to convince us that veneration is the same as worship.  They make reference to the incident in Acts, 14:11-15, where the crowds attempted to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas (because they thought those two were the gods Jupiter and Mercury), but the two Christians outrightly refused.

In this instance, the sacrifice that was going to be offered was in the context of worship, as the people had mistaken them for gods. This was not a case of honorific veneration, hence it was only natural that they would refuse a gesture befitting God only.

In Exodus 20 :  4,5, in one of the 10 commandments, it refers clearly to likenesses of  anything found in the skies, or the earth, or the sea: “you shall not prostrate yourself before them, nor worship them.”

Here, we have the following comment to make:  To begin with, (even though the 10 commandments were still in force), this passage again implies a prostration of worship, and not just an honorific veneration.  This can be seen in  Deuteronomy 4: 12-19. It is very clear, that it refers to a likeness of god, and not of creations. It is therefore speaking of a prostration of worship, which is what is forbidden. Honorific veneration is not forbidden. It speaks in exactly the same way, wherever prostration of worship is addressed to a likeness of gods. (for example Isaiah 4: 9-20)

The phrase “you shall not prostrate yourself before them, nor worship them” is a Hebraism; a characteristic, Hebrew form of speech, where the same thing is repeated, using different words which have a slightly different significance. Here, the word “prostration” is used along with the word “worship”, consequently implying a prostration of worship.  

Another, similar Hebraism is found in the familiar words of the Lord’s mother, when she prophesied together with Elizabeth in Luke, 1: 46,47:My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced, in God my savior”.  We also notice the same thing in Hebrews, 13:5: “I shall not leave you, nor shall I desert you”.  The examples are many more.

The passages therefore that we examined, do not prohibit any kind of veneration; only the veneration/prostration that accompanies worship. They forbid prostration of worship.


Which veneration of creatures is forbidden?

“Well, why did the angel refuse John’s veneration/prostration in Revelations 19:10”?, one might ask.  

Well, to begin with, we have to say that John – despite the angel’s reluctance – attempted a second time to prostrate himself before the angel, in 22: 8.9.  But the angel again didn’t let him do it.  If veneration were indeed the same thing as worship, could it be, that the apostle John intended to worship the angel and thus disrespect God?  Are we to assume that today’s opposers of veneration are better acquainted than John, as to what is forbidden and what is permissible?  Even if we did assume that John intended (perhaps out of ignorance) to worship the angel even though the angel hindered him, then why did John re-attempt it?  Was he such an unrepentant idolater, that disciple “whom the Lord loved”?

It is naturally out of the question, that the apostle didn’t know that only God is worshipped. Consequently, his prostration was not of worship; it was his honorific veneration of the angel!  And the angel had respectively declined this veneration, not because it was a sin, but because out of humility, he declined to be venerated by a saint.  But the apostle also deemed it proper - despite the angel’s reluctance - to repeat his attempt to venerate the angel, since this was not a sin.

As opposed to the above, the angel that is referred to as the Commander-in-Chief of the hosts of the Lord, conceded to the prostration of Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15) “And Joshua fell prostrate on the ground before him, and venerated him”.

So that there is no doubt left whatsoever that the veneration of Saints is permissible as an honorific gesture, let’s see what our Lord Jesus Christ’s opinion is: It can be found in Revelations 3:7-10. There, the Lord Jesus Christ speaks to the “angel” of the Church of Philadelphia, who is the Bishop of the local Church and not some heavenly angel (as confirmed by verse 10, where the “angel” is numbered among those “who inhabit the earth”. If he inhabited the earth, he was definitely a human!)

Since the Lord is praising him for his works, He says the following, important words: “..behold,  I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie, indeed, I will make them come and worship before your feet, and they will know that I have loved you.”

Take notice here!  The Lord Himself claims that He will make people fall prostrate before the feet of the Bishop of the Church of Philadelphia, because God has loved him. Is it possible that God would not have known if this was a sin? Would God have made them worship the Bishop as a god?  Of course not! God clearly stated that they would be made to “worship” him, so that they would see that God loved him.  This obviously means that they would honorifically “worship” the Bishop, as a servant of God, and not as a god.

If, therefore, our critics believe that they are better versed than the Lord, then they may continue to criticize the honorific veneration that we bestow on the servants of God.


Is there such a thing as dead saints?

“But the Lord was speaking of a living person, not someone deceased! You Orthodox venerate the images of dead Saints!”

Are we to believe that whoever makes such statements is the kind of person who would venerate the living?  Or does he consider that to be idolatry as well?  We have certainly made no distinction between living and “dead” Saints, simply because there are no dead Saints!

If there were dead Saints, then the Lord must have lied to Lazarus’ sister, when he said that “whomsoever is alive and believes in me, shall not die, for all eternity (John, 11:26)  For everyone lives in God” and “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living(Luke, 20:38).  John the apostle also indicates that all the faithful are alive, and that they observe and they pray in heaven (Revelations, 6: 9-11. 18: 20. 19: 1,4,6. 20: 4-6 etc.).

The fact that their body is dead does not mean that they too are dead! “…if the housing of our terrestrial body is abolished, yet from God we HAVE (=present tense, =as of our present life on earth; imagine in the future, in heaven) an eternal, non-handmade house in the heavens.” (Corinthians II, 5: 1-4).

The saints are most certainly alive!  And if the above examples from the Holy Bible speak of venerations of living saints, then the veneration of rested (not dead) saints is even more appropriate. They remained “faithful to the death” and received the “wreath of life (Revelations, 2: 10).  And if they are referred to as “rested”, the term pertains to their physical body, which is laying at rest until the day of its resurrection, and not their soul.  They are presently “the kings and priests of the Lord (Revelations, 20: 4-6), and they deserve the appropriate honor.

In Revelations, 6:  9-11, it appears that the “rested” (in body) vigilantly observe from heaven whatever takes place on earth, and they pray for it.  As for God, He “judges their judgment” (Revelations, 18:  20.21) when hearkening to their prayers, and He acts according to their prayers. (Revelations, 8:  3-5). This is apparently where the fire that burns in the celestial altar – as well as whatever happens on earth – is the result of those prayers.

All of the above are clear proof that the saints live and reign, alongside the Lord.


The prayers of the saints

“But, only Jesus is the mediator between God and mankind! How can you pray to the saints?” someone might persist in asking.

He should contemplate here:  Don’t we often ask our brethren to pray for us?

Although we do agree that only Jesus is the mediator, how is it that we ask our living brethren to pray for us? Isn’t that a relatively similar mediation also?  Aren’t we asking them to stand before the Lord for our sake?

Even the Apostle Paul used to ask for the prayers of the Christians (Thessalonians I, 5: 25).  If, therefore, we ask and we accept the prayers of our brethren (who have not yet proven to be faithful to the death) toGod for our sake, shouldn’t we even more so ask our “slept” brethren (who have proven themselves Saints to the death) for their prayers for us? Won’t the Lord hear their prayers more certainly?


Honoring holy relics

“And why do you honor their relics (remains)”?  a mistrustful reader may ask.

Well, because they literally were “temples of God” (Corinthians I,  3:16), just like any saint’s body.

These relics remain the vessels of divine Grace; for example, when they placed the corpse of a man inside the prophet Elisha’s grave and it touched the bones of the buried prophet, the dead man was resurrected! (Kings II, 13 :21). This occurs much more frequently now, in the New Testament.  .

And let no-one wonder, why we honor the objects that belonged to the saints and have been preserved to our day. The same was done by Christians during the time of the Apostles, when they brought various items of the apostles to heal the sick, or used even their shadow!!! (Not to mention their images). (Acts, 5: 15. 19: 11,12).  Both the bodies therefore of the Saints, as well as the objects that belonged to them, are all vessels of divine Grace, and this is why we honor them. (We do NOT worship them however).

Finally, we would like to point out that in every era, God –through miraculous signs and revelations- ensures that we are kept informed of which saints He desires to make known to us, so that we may call upon them as assistants in our hour of grief, and difficulty.  We do not arbitrarily select whom we will honor as saints. Our prayer however, is firstly addressed to God, and afterwards to them. And just as we ask for their prayers, we in turn pray for them, as the Lord Himself and the Church itself unite us all, whether we are in heaven, or on earth.


Text: N.M.

Translation by A.N.

Greek text

Article published in English on: 26-8-2005.

Last update: 26-8-2005.