Sunday, June 21, 2020

THE ORTHODOX CHURCH: ICONS AND SCRIPTURES


 

In The Orthodox Church, a leading spokesman, Timothy Ware, lays out a description and a defense for Orthodoxy.

One area of contention is their use of painted images (icons), which have assumed a central place in Orthodox worship. In this regard, Ware cites Nicolas Zernov (1898-1980):

·       Icons were for the Russians not merely paintings. They were dynamic manifestations of man’s spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty and art. The colors and lines of the icons were not meant to imitate nature; the artists aimed at demonstrating that men, animals and plants, and even the whole cosmos, could be rescued from their present state of degradation and restored to their proper “Image.” The icons were pledges of the coming victory of a redeemed creation over the fallen one…. The artistic perfection of an icon was only a reflection of a celestial glory – it was a concrete example of matter restored to its original harmony and beauty, and serving as a vehicle of the spirit. The icons are part of the transfigured cosmos. (The Russians and their Church, SVS Press,1978, p. 107-108)

Ware tries to distinguish such worship from idolatry by claiming that it is not really the worship of icons but the veneration of icons:

·       When an Orthodox kisses an icon or prostrates himself before it, he is not guilty of idolatry; the icon is not an idol but a symbol; the veneration shown to images is directed, not towards stone, wood and paint, but towards the person depicted. (Ibid. 32)

This reminds me of my visit to the Hare Krishna temple. They too have their icons in the form of imposing statues to which they also show their veneration in many ways and explain that it is actually Krishna that they worship, who receives their worship through statues of stone and concrete. Perhaps the Canaanites would have given us a similar defense of their own devotion to their idols.

Does this violate the Second Commandment’s injunction against images for worship? I think so. I too had been inclined to conger up images of Jesus holding me as I’d go through traumatic events. However, I discovered that this actually replaced the Bible’s insistence that worship had to be according to truth (John 4:22-24) and not my imagination of Jesus. It is truth that transforms us and not images:

·       Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

It is the Word of God that transforms us:

·       Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:21; 1 Peter 2:2)

Consequently, I try to worship God by meditating on His Word (Psalm 1:1-3; Joshua 1:7-8) rather than finding my inspiration through images.

Perhaps the Orthodox Church esteems the role of icons, because it has a lesser esteem for the Scriptures. Ware insists that the Bible must play a subservient role to the Church and its traditions:

·       It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority. For it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of the Holy Scripture, and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority. (199)

To apply this faulty logic consistently, the Hebrew Scriptures also derived its authority from the Israelites – an absurdity. This is why the Scriptures are called the Word of God rather than the Word of Israel.

Besides this problem, the claim that only the Orthodox Church “alone…can interpret the Holy Scriptures” creates a conflict among other churches that make the same claim. Instead of together reasoning over the meaning of the Scriptures, their differences have become irreconcilable. Consequently, the Church has become divided without any hope of unity.

Instead, Jesus had made it plain to all, by means of His miraculous attestations, that it was the Apostles who would perpetuate the Words of God:

·       And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. (Acts 2:42-43; Hebrews 2:2-3)

Consequently, the fledgling Church didn’t have to wait for any authoritative church declarations to know which teachings came from God. According to the Scriptures, the Words of God are sufficient and supremely authoritative. Therefore, they should even direct our worship:

·       All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Why then does the Orthodox Church degrade the Scriptures making it subservient to ritual and worship? For one thing, Ware explains that:

·       While regarding the Church as the authoritative interpreter if Scripture, [it] does not forbid the critical…study of the Bible. (201)

As a result, the Church welcomes the judgments of the critics. Oddly, this Church is less welcoming of their own lay believers regarding what they have found in the Scriptures:

·       There are many sayings in the Bible which by themselves are far from clear, and individual readers, however sincere, are in danger of error if they trust their own personal interpretation. (199)

While it might be true that certain passages “are far from clear,” should we place our trust in the professionals to spoon-feed us? Wouldn’t these passages also be unclear to them? Instead, the emphasis of the Scriptures is upon the believer deriving a certainty in their own understanding, one which is between them and their God:

·       One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind…The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. (Romans 14:5, 22)

Instead of having a personal and direct relationship with their Savior through His Word, this Church and others claim that their relationship has to primarily be between themselves and the professionals, at least when it comes to interpreting the Scriptures.

Consistent with this view is the Orthodox opinion that their “Tradition” can be altered. Ware writes:

·       The Orthodox conception of Tradition is not static but dynamic, not a dead acceptance of the past but a living discovery of the Holy Spirit in the present. (198)

Does Scripture allow us to tamper with the Word of the Spirit? The Apostle Paul recoiled at such an idea:

·       But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:2)

Paul understood that Scripture is the inviolable Word of the Spirit, and so we are forbidden to contradict or go beyond it:

·       I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Corinthians 4:6-7)

The Apostle Peter concurred:

·       knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21)

Because the Scriptures are the Word of the Spirit and not the words of men, it could not be violated. This had been true of the OT (Deuteronomy 4:2) and it is also true of the New (Revelation 22:18-19):

·       And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)

This was why Paul had been able to speak with such authority:

·       If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. (1 Corinthians 14:37-38)

And Paul was able to perform many miracles to substantiate his authority. To the shame of many churches, we have comprised the authority of the Scriptures with the pronouncements of the scholars, the scientific consensus, and even the prevailing culture. If we do so, we can no longer call ourselves “Christian” or even “a follow of Christ.” To follow Him is to believe as He did. Never once did Jesus question the Scriptures. According to Him, it had all been given by God (Matthew 5:17-18), and it all had to be embraced as such:

·       But he answered [the devil], “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4 quoting Deuteronomy 8)


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