Is ICON VENERATION Necessary for Salvation? Eastern Orthodoxy Discussed

Street Theologian
13 min readApr 26, 2024
All images are from Wikimedia Commons unless mentioned otherwise

How exclusive is Eastern Orthodoxy?

Christianity is an inclusive religion in the sense that it broke down the divide between males and females, slaves and free, Jews and Gentiles (Gal. 3:29). Christ, with an open heart, humbled himself to the point of utter humiliation for the salvation of others.

Yet, Christianity is also exclusive as salvation comes through Christ and Christians are followers of Christ.

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Christ claimed to be YHWH (Matt. 21:16; Psalm 8:2). Christ came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). Christ claimed to be the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). Paul preached anathema (accursed) on those who proclaimed a different gospel to what was received (Gal. 1:9).

How arrogant of you to think every other religion is wrong

Eastern Orthodoxy

In recent times, an increased number of Protestants and even Roman Catholics have explored or even adopted Eastern Orthodox beliefs. Eastern Orthodoxy seeks to present itself as somewhat of an untouched safe haven preserved since ancient times.

While many Protestant churches place comparatively little emphasis on church history, Eastern Orthodox churches present themselves as being deeply rooted in history.

I consider myself to have brothers and sisters among the Eastern Orthodox Church and hugely value the contribution of many exceptional Eastern fathers and theologians. I think there is much to learn from eastern church history.

The big question- who is in and who is out?

Yet, there is a big question those either exploring Eastern Orthodoxy or already among the fold need to ask themselves- do they think other “Christian” groups are really Christian?

This is an issue that Eastern Orthodox apologists who espouse the benefits of being part of the “One True Church” following an unbroken, undivided tradition since the time of the apostles do not seem to provide a consistent answer on.

Some, such as Craig Truglia, affirm there is no salvation outside of Eastern Orthodoxy. Truglia when questioned by Gavin Ortlund 22 minutes into a dialogue, affirmed he believes CS Lewis, Tolkien and Gavin Ortlund are damned to hell and there is no salvation outside of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

However, others such as Johnathan Pageau, affirm Orthodoxy possesses the “fullness of faith” but that people from other branches of Christianity can still be Christian. Pageau exclaims, “I don’t think that people who aren’t Orthodox aren’t Christian or that they’re all going to hell.

The central question

The question of what is needed to be saved or stay saved is a central question of the faith and it can be confusing for people exploring Orthodoxy to be getting mixed answers on what a Christian is.

Filioque

This involves a variety of issues. The Filioque or belief held by Roman Catholics that the Spirit emanates from the Son and the Father has been considered a damnable heresy by Orthodox theologians in the past.

Paisius Velichkovsky who died in 1794, asserted:

“All the holy ecumenical teachers who have interpreted the Scripture as if with one mouth say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, and nowhere have they written that he proceeds from the Son also..Thus, if Uniates think exactly like the Romans in such a serious heresy, what hope do they have for salvation, unless they openly renounce this Spirit-fighting heresy and become united again with the Holy Orthodox Eastern Church?”

Schema-monk Metrophanes, Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky: The Life and Ascetic Labors of our Father, Elder Paisius, Archimandrite of the Holy Moldavian Monasteries of Niamets and Sekoul (1976), 201

Interestingly, even Johnathan Pageau admits, contrary to Velichkovsky, you will find some Filioque style teaching in Eastern Fathers.

Jeremiah II and the Lutherans

Jeremiah II, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, in a dialogue with Lutheran theologians in the 1570s and 80s, urged the Lutherans to follow the “Holy Seven Ecumenical Synods”, emphasising the truth lay within the Orthodox church. By contrast, the Lutherans addressed Jeremiah as a brother.

Jeremiah alluded to the “unfragmented, unshakable, and steadfast” truth held by the Orthodox Church and referred to a “blessedness reserved for the Orthodox faithful.” In the end, Jeremiah asks the Lutherans not to cause him any more grief, nor write to him again concerning doctrinal matters. Jeremiah alludes to anathemas at least three times in the exchange.

Veneration of icons

Yet, today we will mainly discuss the veneration of icons.

The Eastern Orthodox hold to seven Ecumenical Councils. The seventh is the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.

The Council concluded (Schaff’s Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol 14, p.550–551):

This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the orthodox, this is the faith which hath made firm the whole world. Believing in one God, to be celebrated in Trinity, we salute the honourable images! Those who do not so hold, let them be anathema. Those who do not thus think, let them be driven far away from the Church. For we follow the most ancient legislation of the Catholic Church. We keep the laws of the Fathers. We anathematize those who add anything to or take anything away from the Catholic Church. We anathematize the introduced novelty of the revilers of Christians. We salute the venerable images. We place under anathema those who do not do this. Anathema to them who presume to apply to the venerable images the things said in Holy Scripture about idols. Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images. Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols. Anathema to those who say that Christians resort to the sacred images as to gods. Anathema to those who say that any other delivered us from idols except Christ our God. Anathema to those who dare to say that at any time the Catholic Church received idols.

Goodreads

Anathema for talking to people who disagree with icon veneration

On page 534 we read even talking to people you know who disagree with icon veneration is worthy of anathema:

Anathema to those who knowingly communicate with those who revile and dishonour the venerable images

What does anathema mean?

To define anathema, we will look to the Council.

On page 531 we read:

anathema of the whole Catholic Church, which consigns.. to that outer darkness which is prepared for the devil and his angels.

Page 532 likens canonical censure or anathema to sending to the fires of Gehenna or hell:

lay it low with canonical censure, and send it to file fires of the future Gehenna

Page 573 claims no one can even debate the matter further and that anathema is nothing less than complete separation from God:

And if anyone does not so believe, but undertakes to debate the matter further and is evil affected with regard to the veneration due the sacred images, such an one our holy ecumenical council (fortified by the inward working of the Spirit of God, and by the traditions of the Fathers and of the Church) anathematises. Now anathema is nothing less than complete separation from God.

What’s included among the venerated icons?

Page 541 outlines the icons including images of Jesus, Mary, Angels, Apostles and holy men :

These honourable and venerable images, as has been said, we honour and salute and reverently venerate: to wit, the image of the incarnation of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and that of our spotless Lady the all-holy Mother of God, from whom he pleased to take flesh, and to save and deliver us from all impious idolatry; also the images of the holy and incorporeal Angels, who as men appeared to the just. Likewise also the figures and effigies of the divine and all-landed Apostles, also of the God-speaking Prophets, and of the struggling Martyrs and of holy men.

As can be seen, placing an anathema is equivalent to considering someone to be damned.

In effect, one must venerate icons to be saved (or at least keep salvation) and not just icons of Jesus but icons of Mary, angels, apostles and holy men! Failure to do so means you will find yourself outside of God’s kingdom.

Veneration v Adoration

The Eastern Orthodox make a distinction between veneration and adoration. Veneration or “proskyneio” can involve bowing down to. This can at times be translated as worship.

Adoration or “latreia” is due to God alone.

In the Bible, this distinction is not so neat and needs to be assessed in the context of each passage. Jesus is bowed down to (proskyneisan) after illustrating his divinity while walking on water with the disciples exclaiming truly he is the Son of God (Matt. 14:33). The disciples also bow down to Jesus to worship him after his resurrection (Matt. 28:17).

Proskyneio can also refer to people worshipping God (John 4:20; Rev. 7:11, 11:16).

Meanwhile, the likes of Peter and an angel of God refuse to accept proskyneia.

However, the word can also describe bowing before a king or a master (eg. Matt. 18:26).

Thought experiment

Let’s say, for example, you think any of the following and see where that leaves you under Nicaea II:

You think venerating icons is too similar to the bronze serpent the people of Israel were burning incense to (2 Kings 18:4), that Hezekiah destroyed. Hezekiah is praised for following the commandments of God and not departing from the law given to Moses (2 Kings 18:6).

Or that it’s too similar to Exodus 20:4–5 in the first set of commandments or Exodus 34:17 in the second set of commandments.

You shall not make for yourself a 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. — Exodus 20:4–5

Note: The Septuagint or the version of the Old Testament the Eastern Orthodox Church promotes, includes the word proskyneiseis (bowing down/ veneration) in Exodus 20:5. The same action prohibited in Exodus 20:5 is promoted in Nicaea II. Given the tabernacle contained images, the prohibition appears to be against images made for the purpose of bowing down to or venerating. Psalm 99:5 which refers to worshipping or bowing at the LORD’s footstool does not contradict this for the presence of God was physically present in the ark of the covenant but God no longer dwells in temples made with hands (Acts 7:48). Psalm 99:5 is about humbling ourselves before the feet of God, not venerating angels.

Or that you want to follow the apostolic example set by Peter who refused to be bowed down to (proskyneisen) by Cornelius, claiming he is only a mortal (Acts 10:25–26).

Or you follow the angel’s words in Rev. 19:10 who told John he should not bow down (same Greek word as venerate) before him but worship (proskyneison) or venerate God!

Or you find it strange that the Synod of Elvira in 305–6 AD concluded in canon 36:

Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration.

Especially, if keeping images in churches for veneration was an unbroken tradition since the apostles.

Or perhaps you find it strange that the Second Council of Nicaea, which apparently embraced an unbroken teaching from the time of the apostles, took place three decades after the Council of Hieria of 754 and had considered itself the seventh ecumenical council.

Comprised of 338 members, the Council of Hieria deemed the spiritual and liturgical use of iconography to be heretical! 33 years before the Second Council of Nicaea, it speaks against anyone who “shall endeavour to represent the forms of the Saints in lifeless pictures with material colours which are of no value (for this notion is vain and introduced by the devil), and does not rather represent their virtues as living images in himself.

Furthermore, the Council of Frankfurt in 794, rejected the conclusions of the Second Council of Nicaea.

Or you find it bizarre that:

  • There is minimal evidence for veneration of icons in church groups, in the first 3 centuries of Christianity. This indicates it was likely not a prevalent or commonplace practice amongst Orthodox Christians.
  • The primary group described as having icons in the early church were the heretical Gnostics (Irenaeus, c.180 Adversus Haereses, I.25.6)
  • Clement of Alexandria purported c. 203AD “Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine” (Stromata, VII.5)
  • Tertullian referred to an image of the “Shepherd” of Hermas prostituting the communion sacrament (c. 210 AD De Modestia 7,10)
  • Origen, claimed Christians are “those who, being taught in the school of Jesus Christ, have rejected all images and statues (Contra Celsum, VII.41).” Basil and Gregory of Nyssa quote Origen on other occasions.
  • Eusebius (c. 313 AD), Bishop of Caesarea sternly wrote in the Letter to Constantia who requested an image of Christ, “Can it be that you have forgotten that passage in which God lays down the law that no likeness should be made either of what is in heaven or what is in the earth beneath? Have you ever heard anything of the kind either yourself in church or from another person? Are not such things banished and excluded from churches all over the world..?
  • Fourth-century bishop, Epiphanius of Salamis, after discovering a church building claimed, “I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore and image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loth that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ’s church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person (Letter to John, Bishop of Jerusalem, 394 AD).” This quote was considered genuine by Jerome who translated it into Latin.
  • Contrary to claims Luke painted the first icon of Mary and handed it down the church, Augustine purported in the 5th century, “Neither do we know the countenance of the Virgin Mary (De Trinitate, VIII.5).”

Epiphanius spoke against icons

Thought experiment conclusion

If you think any of these things as outlined above or even want to debate them, where does that leave you under Nicaea II? Anathematised? That’s how the Council documents appear to read.

Make no mistake about it, anathema is total separation from God according to the Council. Disagree with this? Then you risk going against the unadulterated faith of the apostles according to Eastern Orthodoxy.

What if all this is leaving you confused? Make Jesus your foundation first and foremost

Christ has the words of eternal life according to the apostolic tradition of Peter and Paul as found in the Scriptures.

In John 6:67–69, Jesus asks the twelve if they also wish to leave him. Peter explains there is no one else to go for Christ has the words of eternal life.

Press into Christ. Jesus claimed, whoever believes in him has eternal life (John 6:47). He will not cast such a person away (John 6:40–50).

In Acts 16:30–31, when the jailer asks Paul what he must do to be saved, Paul urges him to believe in the Lord Jesus.

Paul wrote to the Romans:

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

To the Ephesians, he wrote:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Salvation produces fruits. However, there is not the slightest indication in the New Testament that this involved icon veneration. Despite there being lists of people excluded from the kingdom of heaven of works of darkness (1 Tim 1:9–10, 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, Rev. 22:15, Gal. 5:19–21) and lists of virtues and fruits of the Spirit (2 Peter 1:3–11, Galatians 5:22–23), none of these include anything for or against icon veneration.

The historical evidence we discussed also casts significant doubt on the existence of an unbroken chain of oral tradition from the apostles regarding icons.

When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and assert that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For they allege that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents but orally..” Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, III.2 c.180AD

You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! — Jesus, Mark 7:9

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Street Theologian

Theology and apologetics for those who want to get their hands dirty