Icons and Words

Mikhail_Nesterov-Holy_RusWith this post I want to make a link between my last article, on how we “see” icons, and an earlier article, “Doctrine and Opinion,” in which I quoted the late Fr. Georges Florovsky who said, “Doctrine is a verbal icon of Christ.” I noted then that this presented a very different approach to doctrine and the usual reasoned treatments that accompany it. Human reason has a very vital role to play in our lives – but not as an independent agent. Reason must live as the “mind in the heart,” if it is to rightly apprehend and speak of the things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

The very fact that Scripture can be translated says something about the iconicity of language. It is interesting that the Christian faith (particularly as witnessed in the Tradition of the East) has always translated Scripture. Christianity has a history, in the East, of worshipping in the indigenous languages of people. When St. John Chrysostom (that great master of the Greek language) was Archbishop of Constantinople, he ordered that a Church be set aside for the use of Goths who served in the imperial army (and whose families comprised a decent minority of the population of the city) and that the liturgy there be served in their language. He was simply ordering something that was already the common practice of Eastern Christianity. Thus an alphabet for the Slavic peoples was born when Sts. Cyril and Methodius began their evangelization of the Slavs. St. Innocent of Alaska and others contemporary to him, created alphabets and written languages for the native peoples of Alaska nearly a millennium later, continuing what had always been Orthodox practice.

This principle of translation differs strongly from the attitude that was historically manifest in Islam. To this day, though the Koran is translated, it is usually seen as only properly read in the language in which it was originally written. Language is not iconic for Islam.

Thus when Christians take an attitude to Scripture as “infallible in its original languages and manuscripts,” they take a position that is somewhat removed from the Tradition of the faith. I sometimes suspect that the medieval encounter and debate with Islamic scholars brought some of this thought into Christianity.

I offer a short aside about my use of the word “iconic.” I mean by this (in applying it to language) that language “represents” what it says in the manner that an icon “represents” what it pictures. There is a reality, a hypostatic reality, presented in the icon or spoken in the language. It is this “represented” that is the meaning of the word or the content of the icon. Thus a thing is not just a thing (or a painting just a painting) and a word or a sentence is not just a word or a sentence. In each case there is something more, something greater that is made present. Things, pictures, words are windows (to use the language of icons). They are means by which we encounter the Represented. In contrast, our modern world (and its precursors) see things as things, paintings as paintings, words as words. For some, words may be given special reverence, but only on a literal level. The words are “God-breathed” but opaque. In Orthodox Christianity, the words are God-breathed but translucent.

In whatever way it is that language and translation work – it is a way such that the Scriptures in Greek and the Scriptures in Slavonic (and in English and in Yupik, etc.) – manifest the same Truth. That they do so is a witness to their iconic character rather than to a mechanical, literalistic character.

A translation must be faithful – and some translations are more faithful than others – and yet translations are not a diminishing of the Truth in Scripture. Icons have this same character. They are not painted (or “written” as some iconographers say) on the whim of the iconographer. There is a pattern (traditionally another icon) of which each newly painted icon is a copy. There are numerous icons of the Mother of God – but each is still an icon of the Mother of God and not an icon of someone else. The same, of course, is true of icons of Christ.

By the same token, the opening verse of the gospel of John is still the opening verse of the gospel of John, whether it says, “In principio erat verbum,” or “Im Anfang war das Wort.” It is sometimes the case, I believe, that a translation will reveal some things that are true that could not have been seen in the original language. There are relations between words and ideas within a language that will exist only in that language. I personally believe that such relations and meanings created by them should not be ignored simply because the same relations and meanings do not exist in the original languages. Such meanings are not sufficient ground for the formal dogma of the Church, but they cannot be utterly excluded from the revelation made known to us in the Scriptures.

None of this is possible, of course, in a worldview in which things are merely things and words have a single and strict meaning, etc. Those who suggest that reason is a sufficient hermeneutic of Scripture simply ignore the traditional Christian witness to the character of language. Fr. Georges Florovsky made much of the Church’s condemnation of the Apollinarian heresy. That heresy had taught that the Divine Logos served as the soul of the God-Man, Christ Jesus (or in some accounts, the Logos served as the “mind” of the soul). This the Church condemned proclaiming that Christ would not have been truly and fully human if he had not had a fully human soul. “That which is not assumed is not saved,” are the famous words of St. Gregory Nazianzus in response to this heresy.

The subtle problem with Apollinarianism is its distrust of the human capacity to bear the divine (capax divinitatis). The same mistrust runs as a common tendency throughout iconoclasm. The material world, the created order, is simply judged incapable of bearing the Divine. The Tradition of the Church with regard to the Eucharist was too strong in early years to allow for historic Iconoclasm (7-8th century) to question the Eucharist as God’s body and blood. It was the “only” icon they would recognize (the Orthodox countered that the Eucharist was no icon at all, but Christ’s true Body and Blood). However, by the time of the Reformation, iconoclastic tendencies would begin to reject any Divine reality to even the Eucharist itself.

The general thrust of this iconoclastic Apollinarianism, is the gradual creation of our modern two-storey Christian world-view. The Divine is exiled from the created world and relegated to a theoretical existence. Sacraments are reduced to “mere symbols.” In such a thrust, it is little wonder that the Scriptures themselves have undergone repeated attacks. Reduced to a rationalized literalism, they eventually can carry no more weight than is granted to any other element of our de-sacralized creation. Modernism is the final triumph of iconoclasm. God cannot enter the world for the world has been rendered God-proof.

The choice between a “literal” world and an “iconic” world is a choice between worlds in which God either cannot be encountered or a world in which God is constantly encountered. The rationalization or emotionalization of Divine encounter are both elements of a world in which no encounter is possible. Both are encounters with God that exist strictly “within the mind of the beholder.” It is very, very thin ice upon which to skate the Christian faith.

The iconic character of creation is an inherent part of the fullness of Christian witness. The Word became flesh, and in so doing bore witness to the capacity of the flesh to bear the Divine. Language is capable of speaking God. According to Fr. Georges Florovsky, “The word of God does not grow dim in the tongue of man.” Translation is of the very character of language. In whatever way language carries meaning – that same meaning can be carried by yet another language. Translation certainly has an effect on the meaning it carries – but that effect does not render translation useless. Every icon of Christ remains an icon of Christ.

God has made Himself known to us and has done so in a way that is truly born by creation. The world in which we live bears the Divine – He is everywhere present and filling all things. Iconoclasm, including in its many modern forms, should be rejected as simply one of many attempts to remove God from the world. God is with us. His windows are everywhere.

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.





18 responses to “Icons and Words”

  1. […] Icons and Words « Glory to God for All Things glory2godforallthings.com/2009/09/21/icons-and-words – view page – cached With this post I want to make a link between my last article, on how we “see” icons, and an earlier article, “Doctrine and Opinion,” in which I quoted the late Fr. Georges Florovsky who said, “Doctrine is a verbal icon of Christ.” I noted then that this presented a very different approach to doctrine and the usual reasoned treatments that accompany it. Human reason as a very vital role to play in our lives – but not as an independent agent. — From the page […]

  2. Damaris Avatar

    Thank you for this excellent post. You make very clear the mental/cultural steps toward iconoclasm and “two-storey-ism.”

    C.S. Lewis’ article “The Weight of Glory” was one of my first introductions to the idea of creation’s capax divinitatis (in print — I always knew through experience that the world was charged with the grandeur of God). It’s a great though challenging read.

  3. Henry Avatar

    For some time I have thought that the Bible wars that we conservative Protestants so enjoy are pretty pointless. This is particularly true in the post modern world that does not accept the concept of absolute truth. I will never convince my contemporaries here in Montgomery County that the Bible is the Word of God even if I knew what that statement really means. Even if they accept that the words are what should have been recorded, they will point out that the books that are included and excluded were not dictated by God but are the result of a historical process undertaken by a less than perfect church. I find it more useful to ask them if they have read the Bible, usually they are honest and say, “No.” If they say they have read the Bible, I ask, “All of it?” Again the answer is usually, “No.” At that point I offer to get them a Bible if they will read it. I suggest the gospel of John as a good place to start. If they say no, I have won the argument because they are being intolerant to cultural diversity, a very great sin. If they say, yes, I have won because the Bible is not so much a book that you read as a book that reads you.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar


    Most of the classic debates over the past 100-150 years simply won’t do. Some of it is post-modernism – literary theory has become far too insightful to treat most Protestant theories of inspiration with any seriousness. Some of it is just shallowness. Some theories of inspiration are as unimaginative as Islamic claims for the Koran (the likely source for some theories). I believe the Scriptures to be the Word of God but believe we have to wrestle with that as mystery and listen carefully to the fathers (which will be something far more serious than reciting a florilegium of sayings on the topic). I first wrote on the “iconicity of language” when I was at Duke back in the late 80’s and was encouraged by Geoffrey Wainwright to pursue the topic – it eventually yielded what would become my thesis there (The Icon as Theology). The near 20 years since have given me time to grapple more thoroughly with much of it. I think that the understanding of iconicity is very fruitful for Christian understanding and practice. There are almost no modern works that treat the topic (I am not enough of a scholar to do the job justice). St. Theodore the Studite, a contemporary of the iconoclastic controversies, is probably the single best thinker in the area.

  5. oruaseht Avatar

    Father, this is a profound post.

    I believe the Protestant push (especially within Lutheranism) for the centrality of the Word of God (written form) as the ONLY source and norm of authority was a reaction to Roman abuses in tradition. You covered this topic before in an earlier post on Authority.

    The result, though, has become this literal-iconoclasm of which you write. In Seminary, I argued with a professor that Scripture had various levels of meaning (especially John’s writings) . One of the Lutheran hermeneutical maxims is that Scripture has only ONE literal meaning. It is very ‘scientific’ to dissect the Word of God piece by piece. Hence Rationalism dominates while higher-criticism and academia divorce the Scriptures from the living faith of the Church.

    This modern iconoclastic literalism has left a huge gaping hole in Protestantism. People still quest for icon, trying to create the experience of the Divine through emotionally-driven “praise & worship” songs or through academic study & knowledge. Both are a failing facade though.

    I believe Orthodoxy’s strong emphasis on the Incarnation & Iconography stand poised to help many Protestants acquire the fullness of the Christian faith.

    Thank you for your post!

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you for the link.

  7. Lizzy L Avatar
    Lizzy L

    Wonderful post, Father. Thank you.

  8. Cheryl Avatar


    Could you blog sometime in more detail about this part:

    “The choice between a “literal” world and an “iconic” world is a choice between worlds in which God either cannot be encountered or a world in which God is constantly encountered. The rationalization or emotionalization of Divine encounter are both elements of a world in which no encounter is possible. Both are encounters with God that exist strictly “within the mind of the beholder.” It is very, very thin ice upon which to skate the Christian faith.”

    I often encounter the term “knowing God” in your writings, and it’s so hard for me to not put it in the ’emotionalized’ or ‘rationalized’ mindset in which I have been enculturated. It still is an idea that it fuzzy to me, I want to know God, but I feel like I fall so often into either looking for an emotional connect, or a rationalized contemplation of His attributes. I want to know God, I’m just never sure how to practically get there. And my mind is swirling with all my Protestant upbringing and the various ways [often conflicting] they told me how to get there…

    As a side note. At least in the West there is the concept of the “Dark Night of the Soul” does Orthodoxy talk about this at all?

  9. George Patsourakos Avatar

    I believe that an icon represents what it pictures. Moreover, the image presented in an icon — especially an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary — is more inspiring and has a greater impact on Christians than any printed words.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Though the “Dark Night” is never formally discussed, in my awareness, there are stories in the lives of various saints that have the quality of great spiritual difficulty. St. Silouan, for instance, had an experience of the torments of hell for nearly 15 years after seeing Christ. It is an account that is better read in full than in my very short description.

    What you are describing in the experience of “knowing” God is quite important and common. Probably one of the better reads on the topic is Archimandrite Meletios Webber’s little book, Bread & Water, Wine & Oil (Conciliar Press). He does a very good job of making some helpful distinctions as well as pointing in helpful directions. I will indeed be writing more on the topic and soon.

  11. Cheryl Avatar

    Thanks. Turns out I just ordered that book yesterday, go figure. =]

    Thank you for all your posts, they are so helpful.

  12. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    I sometimes think that it all boils down to: “Jesus is real, and he is a person.” We would never treat a note from our lover the way we do scripture. We know that if our beloved writes: “ I liked your funny hat, last we met.” that those words are not so much about our hat as they are about our special relationship and the time we had together. The words mean much more than what they say. They point to something far beyond words. They contain both the rational and emotional but also something beyond that. They point to an affair of the heart. They paint a picture in our mind. And they paint the same picture no matter what translation they are written in. And any one who has ever met their lover on a sandy beach, or for a walk in the park, knows their meaning.

  13. Victor Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for this posting. It resonates so deeply for me I can’t express it. I’ve been enjoying thinking about your words on the subject of there being something revealing about the act and result of translation. It makes me think of weeping and other miraculous icons. The particular icon, written faithfully according to the canons, nevertheless is already a unique expression of the truth into which every occasion/expression of that icon is meant to draw us. It manifests something special about what or whom it is meant to reveal, drawing us ever deeper. May God grant us hearts so open to every chanting of a psalm in the hours, every sermon preached, every liturgy celebrated, every butterfly seen, every sparrow in its flight…

  14. […] Stephen, Glory to God for All Things (blog), Read more here: https://glory2godforallthings.com/2009/09/21/icons-and-words/ St Irenaeus of Lyons Lex […]

  15. Nicholas Avatar

    What a series this has been. Thanks! Forgive the length, but my thoughts have been building up over the last few posts.

    I work in academia, and in a field where postmodern arguments are frequently made. All this talk of images and languages is strangely familiar, and yet radically different. Postmodernists contend that we constantly use languages and images to make sense of and to understand all the other language and images that we are inundated with. What you see, isn’t what I see. The end result is that everything is mutable and contingent on person, place, and time. Everything is relative, and truth doesn’t really “exist.”

    I suppose it ironic about postmodernism that rather than everything — language, text, images, everything – pointing to nothing, they are pointing to one and the same thing… to Christ Himself. The postmodernist lives in an iconic world but is convinced that all these icons point to nothing. The tragedy is that despite this multiplicity of icons all pointing to the same thing, we are rarely able to make out what this is.

    It seems that the Orthodox Church has recognized this apparent, but false, subjectivity. What we literally see IS subjective. What we literally see is not what really is. The rules for iconography attest to this. The iconographer is instructed not to draw literally. The iconographer draws a mandorla, and does not show a literal depiction of the saint, but purposely distorts visual perspective. At first, I was unable to see the inverse perspective, and the figures seemed rather flat to me. It took some time before I could “see” that the figure in the icon was both coming down to me from someplace larger than here, while also drawing me upward. We are to see past the painting, and to be drawn in to seeing the saint as (s)he truly is; in the communion of the Trinity and the Church. In the lives of the saints, we sometimes hear of them seeing, or being seen, in the uncreated light. I suppose that this also attests to the fact that what we literally see in this world isn’t to be trusted, that we are unable to see what really surrounds us. God can not be contained within the literal world we have inherited and continue to construct.

    The iconic view comes slowly to me. I suppose it does so for everyone. I am trying to see life happening around me and to wonder. I like to wonder. But it is very difficult. Icons help. Liturgy helps. Scripture helps. Nature helps. Some people help (I wish I was able to let more help).

    Again, thanks for this series.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar


    Many of the pieces of Orthodoxy first began to fall into place for me (on a functional level) in a post-modernist academic setting. I could see what the post-modernists were saying, and even agree to parts of it – but as you have noted – they do not see what their deconstruction should reveal. However, it helped me dismantle much of the illusion (delusion?) within the constructs of literalism and to understand why they were utterly unsatisfactory. It was in that context that my first and irrevocable decision to convert to the Orthodox faith took place – though it was another 7 or so years before that actually occurred. Much that was intellectually apparent then has gradually become existentially apparent – and more so with each passing year. And with each passing year it becomes less and less important that all of this be intellectually apparent and more and more important that it be existentially apparent. So I pray more and read less (and not enough of either).

    Liturgy definitely helps. Icons help. Scripture helps. Nature helps. Some people indeed help. And God helps – Deep calls unto deep – and the windows fill with light and the world that is suffused with meaning yields itself to a quiet heart.

    God bless you.

  17. AR Avatar

    Very dear father, this is important.

    Private interpretation renders such imprecision into mere license. That is, our Orthodox brand of Church authority is the only one that can fully support this non-rational approach to the ability of language to bear Divine inspiration.
    a) Where there is no church authority to speak of, or when it is limited to the local church, you must have strict rules about literal interpretation to assure yourself that your version of the faith is defensible and to protect yourself from the sludge that is pouring out of everyone-else’s keyboard.
    b) Where there is authoritarianism, the ability to rationally prove that the scriptures say something or don’t becomes the primary defense of the oppressed.

    In the Orthodox Church, it seems to me, Christ truly is the only One who holds full authority. As such, authority in the church is not merely the right to be obeyed. Rather, it is the trustworthiness that is inseparable from Christ’s being the Author of my faith and indeed of my whole being.

    This authority expresses itself in the church, generally as authenticity, and more specifically through Tradition, through the Mysteries, through the ministrations of the clergy, and through the love of the brotherhood. This is very different from the top-down “umbrella” approach. It’s more circular, or better yet like the weaving of a three-dimensional net, because each ‘node’ of authority supports the others. Only within this context can the scriptures be allowed to be iconic, because only in this context will human nature feel “safe” enough to refrain from turning the scriptures into a rigid wall of defense.

    Specifically, the idea that the scriptures are inspired “in the original language only” is a result of making the defense of inspiration to rest primarily on inerrancy (which is open to being verified or disproved.) This ‘original-language-only’ doctrine, as I’m sure you realize, is how more reasonable Protestants protect themselves from the abuses that result when someone takes the King James Version, for instance, as specially inspired and therefore inerrant.

    To comment more generally, thanks for this clarifying and encouraging explanation of how the scriptures “work” in the context of our holy faith.

  18. […] Stephen Freeman is a pastor in Tennessee. Two years ago he wrote an article on his website that changed even more how I look at language and culture. He wrote: […]

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