The Role of Icons

iconoclasmIcons are not about art. Icons are not about left-overs of Byzantine style. Icons are not about the idolatrous impulse within fallen humanity. Icons are about the very nature of our salvation. The history of Western theology, particularly the opposition to icons within the Protestant movement, has removed one of the most traditional components of Christian theology and handicapped the modern imagination and understanding of our relationship to God.

Our encounters with God, when icons are not present, are relegated to an imaginary world of “spiritual things,” or replaced by models of experience which can be highly delusional if not blasphemous (I am here speaking of some forms of pentecostalism). Thus the modern choice is between a God of the mental world or a God of the psycho-physical world – extremes that are brought about by the iconoclasm that has become inherent to our modern ways of thought.

Icons, as stated above, are not about art. They are a way of seeing and understanding many things – indeed the whole of the universe – in which God is not absent but has made Himself present – without at the same time becoming the universe. The theology which underlies the making and veneration of icons also provides a key to the Patristic understanding of Scripture that escapes the confines of literalism on the one hand and the emptiness of modernist forms of criticism on the other.

Icons are utterly distinct from the sacraments – though in modern non-Orthodox theology the terms “icon” and “sacrament” are frequently used in a less-than-accurate manner. The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in offering a precise definition of icons and their place in the Church, made it abundantly clear that the Holy Eucharist is not an icon (the iconoclasts had said that it was an icon, and the only one that could be venerated). The Fathers of the Council were clear that the Eucharist is not an icon, but the true Body and Blood of Christ. Thus a sacrament offers something more than an icon.

But what is it that an icon offers that is less than a sacrament and yet more than nothing?

In short, an icon offers a means of seeing, interpreting and encountering the Truth of things, that is somehow less than the thing (for lack of another word just yet) itself. It is not a sacrament of which the Orthodox faith says, “make this bread to be the precious Body of Thy Christ, etc..” The sacrament does not point to something (or someone) beyond itself, but itself becomes the Body of Christ.

An icon does not become other than what it is – but its existence points towards something (or someone) else – and makes them present in a representational manner. [The precise theological language of iconic representation is that an icon is a hypostatic representation – in the language of St. Theodore the Studite – but I will refrain here from such a technical discussion].

In pointing us towards the Truth, an icon shows us what we might not see otherwise. Thus the icon of a saint, more than mere biography or photography, points us towards the reality of the risen life in Christ. It bears witness to the glorification in Christ of a person.

In the same manner, it is possible to speak of creation itself as icon (rather than sacrament) in that, through the eyes of faith, all of creation points beyond itself and bears witness to the glorification which it will have in Christ (Romans 8). Some particular things, places, events, have a very potent iconic function. Thus the tomb of Christ, though clearly having a pivotal historical role in our salvation, also points to more than the small edicule within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

It is, on earth, the center of our redemption, the womb of the world to come – but it points to a fullness of Pascha that broke every confine and lifted the definition of space beyond anything we imagine.

The veneration of icons is not about art, much less, idolatry. Icons are, like many things that were given us throughout the history of our salvation, markers that teach us how to see, how to know and how to love. The veneration of the saints in the Holy Icons is a lesson to the heart of how to venerate Christ in every person (who is made “in His image” [icon] ). Without the holy altar, and all that surrounds it, we would likely never learn to see the True Altar which is in heaven, and within the heart of every person. We would not know how to enter that Holy Place and sup there with the Lord.

The icons of the Church are a school for the human heart, teaching it how to see the world and yet to see more than the world. We live in a society that is quite familiar with veneration – but directed in the wrong place and for the wrong reason. We venerate talent, sexual beauty, money, even criminality at certain times. We venerate what is manufactured and sold to us – often no more than an illusion. Thus even actors and actresses frequently resort to “body doubles” in order to appear to be what they are not. We learn to venerate what is effectively – nothing. Little wonder that such veneration leaves us empty: it has the substance of cotton candy.

Interestingly, those who oppose the proper, Orthodox veneration of icons, are frequently themselves the venerators of false images presented by the world. Captive to the passions, they oppose what is true (icons of the Truth) and easily accept what is false (the images that cater to our passions). Nothing good or holy is protected by such iconoclasm. Instead, without the proper and complete understanding of icons as taught in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Christians stand unarmed in a world where images, most of them false, bombard us and our children at every turn.

I want my children to know the good from the bad. I want them to love the one and turn from the other. The Church has given us, by God’s grace, the proper instruments and understanding to school the hearts – both of our children and ourselves. Without the Holy Icons and the theology that supports them, Christians stand poorly armed to conduct spiritual warfare in a hostile world. May God give us grace to rightly see what is rightly depicted.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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28 responses to “The Role of Icons”

  1. luciasclay Avatar


    Forgive me eternally asking and talking about my thinking. If I should refrain I will. I asked many questions today of the Father in my parish, which he graciously answered.

    Icons, as I’ve said, are the biggest challenge for me. But I’m making progress.

    The iconoclasts seem to have opposed not only the veneration of the icon, of Christ or the saints, but even the production of a picture of Christ or saint. In the church or the home or anywhere.

    Most of the people I knew growing up all had a picture of Christ hanging in their homes. The face, or with the children on his lap in heaven, or what not. And we all kept images of our ancestors and other loved ones. All protestant churches keep the pictures of their founders somewhere to display.

    The iconoclasts would condemn even the protestants of today. Now the arguments such as pointing out the cherubim and angels on the inside of the temple and tabernacle, the other animal images carved in the temple, the serpent etc. make sense. The response to the iconoclasts was not a defense of the intercession of saints. It was simply a defense of the making of an image and activities relating to the image.

    The question of the intercession of saints was not considered in the 7th council. The iconoclast arguments included the statement that if one denied the profit of the invocation of saints he should be anathema. I take this to mean they held, along with the rest of the Church, including even Coptics, to the intercession of saints.

    Another Orthodox website pointed me to Hebrews 12 particularly v22-24, the understanding of city of God the Orthodox have being the Church ( I think ) then this is amazing. We have it all together including the blood of Christ ( the sacrament ).

    This is really an amazing thing.

    Please let me know if I am misunderstanding.


    Lucias Clay

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Correct. However, today’s modern Protestants, with the general exception of the Anglicans (and therefore Methodists) were iconoclasts and generally forbade images of Christ, even the cross. When I was a child you would not have ever seen a cross on the steeple of a Baptist Church. My father-in-law told me about a great parish battle in a Baptist Church to which he belonged over an architects depiction of a cross on the steeple.

    What has come to replace what was once a doctrinaire position, is the general acceptance of kitsch art, produced by a Christianity which is fast losing touch with its own roots, much less the Orthodox roots to which all Christianity must look.

    The Copts, by the way, are an interesting example. They were already in schism from the Orthodox by the time of the iconoclast controversy. They have always had images and never had problems over iconoclasm. They are a witness to the antiquity of the Tradition in the matter.

  3. Graham Cochenet Avatar
    Graham Cochenet

    If I undeerstand this post correctly, society venerates primarily with
    is mind, where as icon veneration would have a physical aspect to it.
    The further difference being the world does not realize its’ veneration.

    Certainly as a former Baptist, I never knowingly venerated any thing.
    Which makes icon veneration a strange land indeed.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar


    The world venerates with its mind and heart and body. It venerates with its money, it venerates by copying the actions it sees, it venerates by having love and adoration for its “icons.” Bowing three times and kissing something is simply an ancient middle eastern way of veneration which continues to be practiced in Orthodox Churches. And, it should be noted, that the physical aspect of venerating icons, should be accompanied with a proper attitude of heart – veneration.

    My contention is that everyone practices veneration, but because they have no teaching about veneration (which is not at all the same as worship) they do not know how to guard their heart, or that they should refrain from such things. They don’t know it’s wrong.

    Of course, as a former Baptist, you never knowingly venerated anything. How would you know? If you are now Orthodox, in time you’ll come to understand far more fully the role veneration has played in your life, though you didn’t know it.

    Again, my contention is that without the proper veneration of icons, in accordance with the teaching of the Church, Christians are unarmed, lacking an entire area of understanding and “heart training.” We are quite vulnerable to false veneration and the passions it engenders.

  5. luciasclay Avatar

    I think of the death of my great grandmother. After finding out on the phone while driving home I walked into the house, down the hall to our bedroom. On the way I grabbed her picture from the wall.

    I sat there in dim light. Holding the picture in my hands, looking at her, crying. I told her I missed her. I held the picture in my arms as if to hug her nd cried some more.

    I did this for a long while.

    This was in no way a logical or reasoned reaction. It was pure emotion.

    I suppose I could have remembered her without the picture. But I wouldn’t have had the full remembrance. Still not as full as having her wtih us but still fuller than only having the memories.

    Is this the same idea ?

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Lucias Clay,

    Quite similar.

  7. Ciprian Simut Avatar
    Ciprian Simut


    I have just bumped over your blog. Actually i found you by reading Dorin Piciorus’ blog. (we had a flaming interaction…much to my shame, but unavoidable, unfortunately. I do not intend to be an instrument of discord on your blog, so if you will chose to cancel or not publish, or even not answering my question that will be alright with me)
    I must say that i am most curious about you as a “western orthodox”, or at least an english speaking one. I am a reformed baptist, and i know great examples of orthodox priests and laymen, but i must confess: they are exclusively from Romania, and eastern europe.

    I am curios, and i hope i will get an answer from you, what is your conviction about protestantism, specifically reformed baptist. I am curious because, as i said, i have never met a “western orthodox”. Need I say I am quite happy and honored to meet you.

    Many blessings,
    Ciprian Simut

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Orthodox are Orthodox with some small cultural differences. Those of us in the West are probably more familiar with Protestantism because it is dominant in our cultures.

    That Baptists accept the doctrine of the Trinity and the Lordship of Christ is very much common ground. However, I would see weaknesses in the fact that Baptist theology and practice is a more or less modern invention, coming in the 16th century (with some precursors among the Anabaptists).

    Along with this late start is the problem of starting in the “middle.” Reading Scripture without the benefit of its proper setting in the context of the Church, but holding to some form of “soul competency” etc. But I have many Baptists friends. We have much to talk about.

    It is difficult for many Orthodox (particularly in Orthodox lands) when Baptists seek to convert Orthodox believers. They are, in these cases, seen as heretics who seek to steal sheep. Well-financed American missionaries are particularly disliked. After 70 years or so of oppression they have not had time to even begin to recover. Orthodoxy rejects the notion of denominationalism and thus does not welcome the establishment of “competing churches.” That’s the American model, but is foreign in Orthodox culture.

    Then there are those who tell the Orthodox that they are not “saved.” This to the Church from whom came the Creeds, and most of the martyrs through the ages. The reaction can be quite strong, needless to say.

    That there are plenty of Orthodox who are “cultural Orthodox” but not yet fully immersed in the life and faith of the Church, is noted by some missionaries. Of course, living in the Southeast United States, I know many “Baptists” who would fit this description. The Orthodox would tend to say, “Take care of your own, and let us do our work.”

  9. cruce? Avatar

    I must say i agree with much of your description…actually I have to admit i agree with all of it.

    I remember having an argument with a friend of mine over who is saved and who is not. I had to defend the fact that NOT ONLY BAPTISTS go to heaven. Needless to say that when it comes to missionaries, much to my discontent, plenty of them i dislike, not as people but as methodology.

    When it comes to the Church Fathers i have great respect for them. The creeds indeed came from the orthodox church, and i accept and believe in them.

    I have no problem whatsoever to call an orthodox “brother”, although it’s not “popular” in my circle. Quite frankly, i couldn’t care less.

    Truth stands: Christ died for our sins, He was bruised for our iniquities. Therefore the glory is His not ours.

    Thank you for your comment, it brought much delight and joy.
    With kind regards,
    and many, innumerable blessings from the Father of Light,
    Ciprian Simut

  10. Ciprian Simtu Avatar
    Ciprian Simtu

    I’m sorry for the nick in the previous post…it was left from another post.

  11. Damaris Avatar

    I’ve noticed in many contemporary evangelical churches these days the images displayed are all of nature. There are no icons or even pictures of Jesus or Bible stories, but there are slides of beaches, clouds, windy fields, etc. I find this interesting. Rather than venerating God and the saints, they are venerating God’s creation — and not even his real creation, but an airbrushed, idealized one. I have never seen a window in the churches that project nature images, so it can’t really be nature they desire. I think ultimately the effect created in church is of an insulated living room with the tv on. How different from the Orthodox dome, that encloses heaven, earth, and God’s people within it, or even the Gothic cathedral that points us to beauty higher than we can imagine.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar


    In so-called “seeker-friendly” settings, objects that are too clearly religious are feared to be a turn-off to those whom they seek to evangelize.

    Though St. Paul tells us to “become all things to all men,” I generally have difficulties with “marketing” the gospel. I understand that we need to start where people are so that they can understand – but either the Holy Spirit prepares hearts to receive Christ or He doesn’t. If you have to do a sales job – who would need God? Not only that, but in marketing Christ, or the message of salvation, how am I supposed to know what precisely another soul needs to hear?

    The conversions I have witnessed as an Orthodox priest – and there have been many – are pretty unpredictable. We worship, I teach, but as often as not the conversion happens on some level other than my teaching or preaching. Someone asked me once what our outreach program was for evangelism and I said, “I answer the phone.” Generally that’s the case. They come looking for God. If they seek Him they’ll find Him. My task, and that of my fellow Orthodox Christians, is to actually be a Christian, so that when someone comes looking for Christ they’ll be able to find what they seek.

  13. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    I want to ask this without seeming tit-for-tat, Father Stephen. It does seem, at least on the face of it, to be a little partisan to wholly condemn evangelical missionary work in former Eastern bloc countries (do you object, for instance, even to work specifically targeted at atheists?) when you yourself are part of a mission to a Protestant country. But no doubt you could explain yourself further.

    Anyway, my question is about your outreach program – and I am genuinely curious here. How many of these phone calls are from people who are not Christians, versus people who are Christians but are not satisfied with their churches?

  14. fatherstephen Avatar


    I think your point is quite fair. Several thoughts come to mind. Orthodox countries (or traditionally Orthodox) do not have a cultural experience of prosyletism (of other Christians) and generally have been targets (including 19th century) of Protestant missionaries – and occasionally Catholic.

    America, on the other hand, has a long cultural experience of constant proselytism.

    As for Orthodox mission in America – I have a number of families in the parish who first became Christians at St. Anne, others who have come from various backgrounds (Protestant and Catholic). But generally, I would say that they came to me, not me to them. We require a substantial time of inquiry and catechumenate and do not allow quick conversions. I have had some people to wait as long as three years until a spouse was ready and willing to come with them. I counsel patience in such instances. In that sense, there is no “sales pitch” that I’ve heard in Orthodoxy. We’ll take anyone who is interested – but the time involved tends to weed out those who are merely curious or are making hasty decisions.

    Of the first Anglicans who left the Episcopal Church and explored Orthodoxy when I converted (there were about 20 or so), I told them that I was flattered but that the only reason to become Orthodox was because you believed it to be the truth. I did not push anyone away, but made it clear that had my undying friendship and blessing if they did not want to become Orthodox. Of that 20 or so, 10 became Orthodox. I did not make strident denunciations when I left Anglicanism. I entered Orthodoxy as a penitent, not a triumphalist (though that tempation is always there).

    The current attitude among the Orthodox in America is far more missionary than in previous years – primarily because the Orthodox see the abandonment of the faith by many other churches (in some very specific fundamental points). The general attitude for many years was to leave others alone (Met. Kallistos Ware virtually had to beg his way into Orthodoxy). However, the modern period is devastating much of the faith and Orthodoxy feels a responsibility to preach the gospel where it is lacking or has been replaced with a false gospel.

    Virtually the entire Synod of Bishops of the OCA are from convert backgrounds, as is half the student bodies of our two largest seminaries. For those of us who are Orthodox, and yet come from non-Orthodox backgrounds, how do we not speak to our own kith and kin about the faith?

    Protestant missionary work continues in Orthodox lands despite institutional resistance. My comments were primarily to explain why this is so and why it seems so strange (even threatening) to Orthodox in those settings. For instance, Protestantism (particularly American style) seems drastically American and thus a foreign force in Russian culture. Many see this as a threat to a culture that is seeking to recover itself.

    But that is the setting in other places. America – even Western Europe – is quite a different story.

    I am not aware of Orthodox evangelism which would tell others that they are going to go to hell for not being Orthodox – while some missionaries tell people that the Orthodox Church is pagan, worships idols and is leading souls to hell (there are web sites dedicated to this). Certainly not all, and probably not even most missionaries. But it only takes a few to make things difficult.

    I consider this blog site to be a missionary work. Anyone is welcome to read and comment (within the rules of the blog). Some who are interested in Orthodoxy find it helpful. Thus far in my ministry I have not Baptized or Chrismated anyone who came to Orthodoxy in which the blog played a role. As far as I know, that privilege has been enjoyed by other priests.

    The rule I was given by my Archbishop, and which I joyfully obey, is “never turn down an invitation to go and share the faith.” Interestingly, my blogging came as a result of an invitation by a Catholic blogger who later suggested that I create this blog. I thought the suggestion seemed good. Frankly, it feels a lot better to have been asked than to have thought of it myself.

    Your points still stand, I think, though, as I note, the calls come to me, not the other way around. And if they want to become Orthodox they can, but slowly. Being angry or dissatisfied with a previous church is not sufficient reason to become Orthodox. You have to believe it. If someone doesn’t, I would be asking them to perjure themselves at Chrismation, when they take a solemn oath that they do believe the Orthodox faith.

  15. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    I’m still curious about whether you have had converts who were not some form of Christian beforehand. If not, that’s OK in my view – it may just be the role the Lord has for you. But I will be even more delighted, naturally, if you are getting calls even from non-Christians.

    On conversions back and forth from Orthodoxy, might I suggest a happier model? I remember talking to a friend of mine in the military who remarked of Jerusalem, “they’re never going to sort out all that mess”, and I suggested your reworking of that same sentiment “if we solve the problems of this city, we have solved the problems of the world” (or something to that effect). He looked at me and smiled and nodded – for the hopeful converse was every bit as true as his his despairing words.

    I can’t speak of Orthodoxy, but I do note a curious trend in Catholicism in America. The converts to Protestantism tend to be those who have been burned by abuses in the church in some way or another, and go to Protestantism to find fresh faith and freedom. But the converts to Catholicism tend to be those most active in their Churches and are simply looking for a fullness they find lacking – the “best and the brightest” so to speak. I mused to a Catholic friend: “You should thank God for us! We take your poor, your tired, your huddled masses, patch ’em up, and ship em back all nice and shiny!” There is some truth to it. I wonder if the same can’t be said for the situation with Orthodoxy. I don’t know.

    Anyway, I am sympathetic – for I admire your Church. Believe me, when we interview people for Christian work overseas at my Church, anyone wanting to go to Eastern Europe or Russia had better see Catholicism and Orthodoxy as allies, or they have no support from us. But I do wonder if some church leaders in traditionally Orthodox countries might see more sensible evangelicals as having something to contribute – fresh energy perhaps – in engaging a modern skeptical atheist culture, rather than always being parasites.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    As a matter of fact, I know Protestants who have gone and worked well with Orthodox in a common work of mission. It happens and the Orthodox welcome it. When I was an Anglican priest, my parish paid for the seminary education of 12 Russian seminarians in St. Petersburg (at that time it only cost $500 a year per student, including living expenses). Thus for $6,000 we were able to train a dozen. We did this, not in response to anything I said or did, but in response to a visit by the head of the SPCK (society for the promotion of Christian Knowledge, a very revered Anglican missionary society). I later met a Russian priest who had been one of our students.

    I do get calls from non-Christians and atheists. I also get calls from foreign nationals whose ethnic background is Orthodox but who themselves have never been Baptized. I hold as most dear a Russian family I Baptized 8 or more years ago.

    I also (when I feel brave or crazy or something) occasionally write articles here specifically meant to engage atheists in conversation (and include the tag “atheist” on them). Those who engendered some very interesting exchanges that I think have been as enlightening to me as I pray they were to those who responded.

    Many American atheists, particularly of my generation, are usually former something or others, who became atheist in reaction to bad theology. Thus I say to them, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in, I may not believe in that one either.”

    I will say that I have certainly Baptized more adults (non-church background) as an Orthodox priests (in 9 years) than in 19 years as an Anglican. It gives me a particular joy.

  17. Alex Anatole Avatar

    In the first chapter of Genesis, in verses 26 and 27, we learn that God created mankind in His own image.


    And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
    So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.


    We read this often, but who has stopped to consider its implications? What do these two verses have to do with anything? How do they affect us? What is their impact on the thousands of words that follow?

    I believe these verses to be nothing less than the key to the Scriptures. Unless we understand them, nothing in Christianity makes sense.

    Bearing in mind that the Greek Septuagint uses the word “icon” for “image,” let’s consider the key questions of Orthodox Christianity in the light of Gen 1: 26-27.

    1) Who is God?

    God is the Proto-Iconographer. God is the Maker of creatures who bear His image, living icons of their Creator.

    2) Who is man?

    Man is the creature of God who is made to be a living icon of his Creator. Our nature is nothing less than to be God-like. Scripturally, the natural potential to be God-like is the very definition of “human.”

    3) Why was Adam’s fall so tragic?

    Adam’s sin damaged, degraded, and disfigured him and his descendents as icons of God. His sin perverted God’s creation and made it impossible to fulfill God’s will that we all be perfect and unique icons of our Creator.

    4) Why does God love us?

    God loves us because we have the potential to be living Icons of Him.

    5) Why does God consider us worthy of being saved from eternal servitude to sin and death?

    He saves us because we are icons of Him. We are the creatures who reflect His glory, His wisdom, and His love.

    6) Why should we love one another?

    We must love one another because we are icons of God. One cannot love God and hate the icons of Him which He has created.

    7) What happened when God-the-Son became incarnate?

    The Son assumed our fallen human nature and perfected it in Himself. God became one with his own creation. In doing so, He healed the schism between God and man caused by Adam’s sin. He became the perfect Icon of the Father not only in His Divine Nature, but in His human nature. For the first time in the history of the universe, we could look at a human face and see God. We could look at the human face of the eternal Son and see the Father.

    8) What happened on the cross.

    God-the-Son died. He experienced the unnatural separation of human soul from human body which is the Orthodox definition of death. As happened to every man who died, the Son descended into Hell. And, for the first time, Hell encountered a Person with a human nature and a human soul over Whom Hell had no power, a living Icon of the Father Who could not be tempted into sin.

    9) What happened in Christ’s resurrection?

    For the first time ever, a Person with a human nature walked out of Hell, smashing its gates and freeing the righteous captives.

    10) Why is the ascension important?

    God-the-Son ascended to Heaven and took His rightful place at the right hand of the Father – and He did so both as God and as man. By doing so, He perfectly accomplished the Divine intent revealed in the first chapter of Genesis – He perfected humanity as the icon of God.

    11) Who are the Saints?

    The Saints are those who have answered God’s call to become icons of Him.

    12) What are the icons we find on the walls of Orthodox temples?

    They are our affirmation that God can now be seen face to face as the Incarnate Son, and that we are icons of Him.

    13) What are the Scriptures?

    Just as icons are theology written with color, the Holy Scriptures are an icon painted with words.

    14) What story do the Scriptures tell?

    The Scriptures tell the story of the Iconographer and His relationship with His icons.

  18. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W

    Fr. Stephen,

    I noticed that you made a reference to St. Paul calling Christians to “become all things to all men”. I was wondering if you could elaborate just a little on the meaning of this verse? I am assuming that we are to become all things through acts of self-less love, sacrificing our time, resources and even lives for the good of another. Is there any thing in this verse that would lead one to believe that we should try and accommodate cultural and personal preferences for the sake of the Gospel? How should the Orthodox view cultural accommodation and adaption? I think that as Orthodoxy grows in America the question will continually come up, as to, What can be adapted and what can not, while still holding up the full integrity of the church. Language has slowly been adapted into English- in America- but what of music and other cultural transplants from other countries? I know that this is a bit off topic. Maybe you have addressed these issues previously? These are question that would be specific to Orthodox Christians in America and may be out of the scope of this blog.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is some Orthodox music that is distinctly American. I recently heard some written at St. John’s Monastery in California that is described as “tonus Americanus.” I can think of others as well. The Obikhod chant used in most Russian Churches is not very old – Valaam Chant is far older. And there are modern Russian composers: Chesnikov (my favorite), Rachmaninov, etc.

    St. Paul’s statement was specifically about using an early form of what we would today call “economy” in order to minister to Jews and Gentiles.

    We cannot break the commandments nor jettison the Tradition, however, many things in any culture will be Baptized and grafted onto the tree of the Church. Always has, always will.

    There are things about all of the Orthodox in America today (including those that are quite ethnic in composition) that are uniquely American, not to be commonly found in the “old country.” And yet, it is the same Orthodoxy.

    The OCA, having been granted autocephaly by Moscow in 1970, was and is fully expected to be an “American” Church. Our mission is to America and, to a great extent, always has been. The Church, started first in Alaska by Russian missionaries, was primarily to serve the convert population in Alaska, not the Russians who had moved there. Thus St. Innocent began the work of translating the service into Aleut (creating an alphabet, etc.) and began immediately training and ordaining native clergy.

    Services were already translated into English within the 19th century, and, famously, around 1905 by Isabel Hapgood (an Anglican). But the great influx of immigration that moved the center of Orthodoxy from the West Coast (Alaska and California) to the East Coast, also brought a wave of Slavonic usage that only began to wane in the 1960’s.

    Americans behave like Americans, because we don’t know anything else and it would be weird if we acted like someone else. I am aware of distinct, subtle differences between various Orthodox cultures, but also am aware of American being one of those cultures.

    Just some observations…

  20. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W

    Yes, I have the CD from the Monastery of St. John. This is a wonderful CD and seems to really do what it sets out to. I also hope that, the new OCA Met. and founder of this Monastery, will give us some indication of the direction the OCA will take in the future. It seems that multiple jursidictions in America having such close ties to the mother lands, have slowed down the proccess of having a full American Expression of Orthodoxy. It does also seem like there is more and more healthy dialogue happening between jurisdictions. On the other hand, I often wonder if the slow change has not served as some type of protection of the faith. There is a tendancey with us Americans to have difficulty delaying gratification and being highly individualistic, we want things to happen before we are fully mature. The general American spirit seems to be foriegn to Orthodoxy and has not served other Christian churches to well in this country. I know of some who beleive that Orthodoxy here will eventually follow that same path. The fact that Orthodoxy is not a reaction to something else, I pray, will protect it from losing it’s true identity while being able to baptize that which is good.

  21. Damaris Avatar

    Just to add from my limited experience: I (not Orthodox) was told by a fond Orthodox relative that he could not believe I would go to Heaven because I was not a part of the Church. He saw no means of salvation outside the Church. I don’t know if his point of view represents his church (hey all speak Russian), but he holds it with great conviction.

    It didn’t discourage me, by the way. We’ll be happy to see each other in Heaven one day.

  22. fatherstephen Avatar


    You do see such things, though it is not the teaching of the Church. God alone knows the heart. The sacraments are the medicine of immortality but they are not magic, guaranteeing a proper legal status and thus entering heaven. It is the heart that matters. I believe the Orthodox faith is the fullness of Christianity as given by Christ – but it is given us that we might be reconciled with God – Who is not willing that any should perish.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar


    The new Metropolitan of the OCA is, from my conversations with him, very aware of the unique needs and challenges of Orthodoxy in America, but was also nurtured at Valaam Monastery in Russia. A convert (raised Episcopalian but converted as a teen), St. Vlad’s grad, speaks Russian, close ties to Valaam and through them to the Holy Trinity Lavra outside Moscow. From what I’ve read, Moscow was surprised and pleased with his election. I think those ties will be strengthened and at the same time I think he has a very bold vision for Orthodoxy in America and will, in time, be a mature voice for how we move forward. My hope is not in a man, but I believe his election was of God. I am very enthusiastic and excited about the work ahead.

  24. Romanós Avatar

    Wow! This excellent article on icons has sure unleashed a lot of discussion!

    Father, I just want to personally thank you for this post. I don’t think I’ve ever read an explanation of icons by anyone that covered all the bases so completely. I’ve always known that icons were supposed to be there, but except for the decree of the Council, I couldn’t understand why. Now, I understand better. I was especially helped by your reference to icons being there to prevent implausabilities from taking hold of the carnal mind while claiming to be the work of the Holy Spirit, “speaking of some forms of pentecostalism”, which I label “Christian” shamanism. I don’t know what effect it will have that Protestants are taking to icons, since they can only take the icons themselves and our explanations about them. Icons don’t seem to be able to function in a non-Orthodox environment, except as art. Orthodoxy is like the seemless robe of Christ: you cannot really tear out of it the parts you like and leave the rest. It’s all or nothing, it seems to me.


  25. coffeezombie Avatar

    Romaos: “Orthodoxy is like the seemless robe of Christ: you cannot really tear out of it the parts you like and leave the rest. It’s all or nothing, it seems to me.”

    That reminds me of my own time as a catchumen, coming from a Southern Baptist background. For the longest time, I simply would not pray to a Saint or venerate an icon. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it; I still felt, after 22 years as a Baptist, that it was wrong. For a while, I contented myself with the thought that, perhaps, I could just be an Orthodox Christian who didn’t venerate icons or pray to Saints. That lasted until the lesson in Catechism about the Saints, where I came to realize what you said here: that I can’t just take part of the Tradition. I can’t pick-and-choose what I believe in Orthodoxy like I could (or, should I say, was taught to do) as a Baptist. I would have given up and settled for Anglicanism except I just couldn’t shake the conviction that this is the Church. As one of my friends had said to me, “You’ve just gotta trust the Church.”

    I’m also reminded of a conversation this same friend had with a Presbyterian who had been visiting our parish. He admired a lot about Orthodoxy to the point that he wondered whether he could take some of what we do and incorporate it into his “Emerging” congregation. My friend simply responded, “No.” If I remember correctly, he went on to explain what was said here: you can’t just “cut up” Tradition and take what you like.

    I think this is the same sentiment behind statements I’ve heard like, “There is no such thing as ‘little-o orthodox.’”

  26. luciasclay Avatar

    In 1 Peter 5:14 “Greet one another with the kiss of love”.

    Is this part of the key to veneration of the icons ? The kiss is not something we practice in this country either in or outside of the church. But I know of some cultures which to this day greet with a kiss much as we shake hands.

    Are there cultures in the world today where I could walk into an orthodox church and find people kissing each other and also kissing the icons of those who are only there in picture and in spirit. If not now was it this way in the past ?

    Somehow that would make it much more obvious to me.

    I ask questions so much about this. Its the most visible thing that I wonder about. Father explained we can venerate, and probably should, even as inquirers or catachumen, the icons. I contemplate doing this on Sunday.

  27. Ben Avatar

    My girlfriend has been coming to one of the Orthodox churches with me recently. She has felt uncomfortable kissing the icons, but she chooses to bow to them, because this seems to be a more appropriate form of veneration for her. She grew up Roman Catholic, so it is not really an issue of “this is idolatry,” but really just a “I don’t feel comfortable” thing (though she does kiss the cross).

    I wonder, Father, do you know if bowing and such happens more in places like Japan, where personal boundaries are more enlarged and important culturally? (didn’t know if you knew or had been there). Is simply bowing acceptable?

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