The Communion of Tradition

Christ_PantocratorThat which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life–the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us–that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have communion with us; and truly our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1Jo 1:1-3 NKJ)

There is an old saying in English, “He cannot see the forest for the trees.” The phrase often comes to mind when I am discussing the place and role of tradition in Orthodox Christian life. It is a reality that so surrounds and permeates our existence that we easily overlook it. We discuss tradition as though it were a tree, when, in fact, it is the forest. This is nowhere more true than in the Scriptures.

In some corners of the Reformation, tradition was accorded a place within the sources of authority. Classical Anglicanism (as expounded by Richard Hooker) described the so-called “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Reason and Tradition. Hooker rightly recognized that tradition could not be discarded when thinking about the Christian faith. How the Church read the Scriptures evidenced in the Councils was not something he was prepared to jettison. A number of other reformers recognized this same dynamic and sought to find ways to give a more nuanced expression of sola scriptura. A weakness within Hooker, and similar approaches, was to reduce tradition to a manageable body of knowledge. They sought to turn the forest into a tree.

It is this contextual character of tradition that makes it so difficult for people to understand. Tradition is the context in which anything takes place. If the context changes, then no matter how carefully all else is preserved, its essence has shifted and its meaning has changed. But context can be very difficult to perceive.

The Scriptures are a primary example of this phenomenon. What was the context in which the Scriptures of the New Testament came to be written? For although they are clearly the primary text of Christianity, they are not simultaneously their own context. The quote from St. John’s first epistle points to the primitive, indeed, the primal context of the faith:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life…

St. John is not referencing the Scriptures. He is speaking of the living experience of the incarnate Son of God – “which we have heard – which we have seen with our eyes – which we have looked upon – and our hands have handled…” It is this living experience that “we declare to you.” And the purpose of this declaration is more than the relay of information. St. John tells his readers that these things have been declared to them “that you also may have communion with us; and truly our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” [This is one of those sad verses where English translators have rendered koinonia (κοινωνία) as “fellowship” a meaning that is almost bizarre in its failure to render the Greek.]

The communion to which St. John refers is itself the tradition, the context without which his letter cannot be rightly read. And it is clear that St. John believes that this communion is something that can be given. His word for this transmission is rendered “to declare,” translating the Greek, apaggello (ἀπαγγέλλω – related to the word for gospel). St. John’s declaration is the equivalent of St. Paul’s favorite term, gospel (εὐαγγέλιον, evangel), which is itself frequently misunderstood in its meaning and import.

What does St. Paul mean when he says gospel, the good news? Our first instinct is to find a way to summarize his preaching. Thus the gospel is “Christ died for our sins,” or some such phrase. But St. Paul clearly has an almost global meaning for the word:

For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance,  (1Th 1:5 NKJ)

It is used to mean God’s revealed plan wrought in the death and resurrection of Christ. It is the preaching of Christ. It is the content of the preaching. But like St. John’s communion, the gospel is not “word only” but also “power.” Thus it is not the proclamation of an idea or a set of ideas, nor the announcement only of an event in history. Gospel is the living power of the communion with the Father through His Son in the Spirit. That living communion is our participation in the crucified and risen Christ.

But St. Paul is also quite clear that this gospel is given by tradition.

Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you– unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. (1Co 15:1-5 NKJ)

Here the Apostle uses the technical word delivered, translating paradidomi (παραδίδωμι), the verb form of tradition, paradosis (παράδοσις). The gospel preached is what St. Paul understands as that which has traditioned to the Corinthians. And it is this tradition which saves (if we hold fast to it).

The written words of the New Testament are a form which the tradition came to take. Interestingly, the verses that mention the “Scriptures” in the New Testament do not mean the New Testament itself, but the Scriptures of the Old Testament. The New Testament is a written form of the tradition, the gospel, the preaching, the declaration, the communion given by the Apostles to the Church, the living communion of the one gospel of Christ. But the context of that writing was the living tradition (gospel, preaching, declaration, communion) of the Church.

How did the primitive Church recognize the authenticity of writings presented to it? The question is extremely important. There is evidence of the question within the New Testament texts themselves. In both Colossians and 2 Thessalonians, the text refers to St. Paul’s own signature. St. John’s gospel has a closing affirmation by a community that his gospel is by the beloved disciple. But to a large extent, such tokens are but tokens and not by any means proof of authorship (forgeries were abundant in the ancient world).

Ultimately the acceptance of writings as authoritative rests entirely on tradition (particularly tradition as context). The Church recognized the authentic voice of the Church in the writings – i.e. the writings agreed with the gospel as it had already been received. St. Paul specifically describes this manner of recognition:

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:8-9 NKJ)

Here again, St. Paul uses gospel in a manner synonymous to tradition (paradosis). And he again invokes the technical word for the reception of tradition, paralambano (παραλαμβάνω). No writing, even from St. Paul himself, is to be accepted if it is not in harmony with the tradition as it has been received. That tradition (gospel, declaration, communion) judges all things for it is the true life of Christ within the Church. Christ promises this as a specific work of the Spirit:

However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. (Joh 16:13 NKJ)

St. John references the same thing in his first epistle:

But the anointing [chrism] which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing [chrism] teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him. (1Jo 2:27 NKJ)

This work of the Spirit is not the quasi-magical notion taught by many Pentecostals, nor is it the testimonium internum of Calvin. Both of these misinterpretations imagine an interior working or voice which warns the believer of error, etc. It certainly has an inner component, but it is not some unique charisma. Rather, it is the living witness, the abiding presence of the same Christ, the continuing, authentic voice of that which was once delivered within the Church. 

St. Ignatius of Antioch, immediate successor to the Apostles, writing in the early second century bears witness to the presence of this voice: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.” Ep. to the Eph. XV

All Christians have something of this authentic voice in their midst. Anyone who names Jesus as Lord with the full and true intent of those words affirms that authentic voice. But it is greatly diminished by the various ideologies and unexamined cultural assumptions that crowd contemporary Christianity. The ideologies of sola scriptura, in which the culture of the reformers or other latter-day leaders is substituted for that authentic voice create an alternative silence, a context in which the words of Scripture take on meanings foreign to gospel once delivered to the Church.

Many times we cannot see the forest for the trees. It is even more difficult if the trees have been transplanted into a strange land.


For an excellent description of the shape of the Apostolic context read Fr. John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ.



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.


25 responses to “The Communion of Tradition”

  1. Kurt Avatar

    I’m an inquirer into Orthodoxy and have been earnestly praying and seeking answers to some issues I’m struggling with. I read this on the heels of listening to an interview with Fr. John Behr and it seems to me that the Lord is providing the answers I’ve been seeking. Thank you for this excellent blog and especially for this blog entry.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you, Kurt. Fr. John is, I think, a very important voice in the Church and particularly in the academic world. I’ve recently been noticing the growth in popularity within academia of the theory of a primitive “multicultural” or “multi-point-of-view” Christianity, that was supplanted and suppressed by the “Orthodox.” I encountered this in a local scholar of great renown. But it’s not only a bogus theory (only one of many that make the rounds in academia). Fr. John has written and spoken eloquently in refutation of the notion.

    It is an idea that was more or less pioneered by feminist scholarship (they’ve never minded making things up, as far as I can see). But it postulates the “multi-Christianity” in order to argue for a more or less early version of the present state of liberal Christianity. A better case of special pleading by re-reading history I’ve never seen. Thank God for the solid scholarship of men like Fr. John. Of course, his scholarship will be ignored by the powers that be because they want their new theory to be true – it serves their own political purposes. But the truth serves those who want to know the truth – and thus earnest seekers will not be disappointed when they read or listen to Fr. John.

    I took some care (and length) in writing this article. I’m sure that the scope and breadth of Tradition would not be nearly as clear to me were it not for Fr. John’s work. He makes sense of so much. I am continuing to press forward with the Scriptural case – in which the abundant evidence of the formative, even formal, role of Tradition is brought out.

    I’m only a popularizer of the work of better scholars and holier men than myself. I’m just a writer. I urge you to continue your struggle. You’re probably on the right track. Perseverance won’t disappoint.

  3. James, the Brother Avatar
    James, the Brother

    The best to you Kurt. I am a convert of four years and found the journey exhilarating and just today was reminded with gratitude that the Church is my true Life Line in an otherwise crazy world.

  4. Dino Avatar

    What a fantastic, insightful and astute take on what Fr John Behr, and all of Orthodoxy holds to…!

  5. Mule Chewing Briars Avatar

    Father, bless –

    I think that the popular ‘multi-Christianity” that the modern scholars are so fond of seeing in ante-Nicene Christianity is actually Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy allows for a wide variety of practices and opinions and boundaries are set only when the diversity gets a little too diverse. I have often remarked that many modern congregations/parishes could become Orthodox with minimum dislocation to their beliefs or practices once they adopted one of the approved liturgies and began the cycle of the year.

    What is harder to accept is the “why “for everything we do in all of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is not a “holding pattern” until the Rapture or the establishment of a Just Social Order, but a foretaste of the destination. I think that is where tradition comes in.

  6. EPG Avatar

    “I’m only a popularizer of the work of better scholars and holier men than myself.”

    I, for one, am grateful for your work as a popularizer. Many thanks for your general clarity and concision, even if some of what you write causes me to add yet another title to my overburdened reading list.

  7. Westy Goes East Avatar
    Westy Goes East

    Father, thank you so much for popularizing, collecting, suggesting, recommending, exhorting, interpreting, and explaining all the things you do for us! You have no idea what a positive impact it has!

    I haven’t read the comments on your blog for awhile (I still read the blog – I just spend too much time reading comments, especially with the high traffic her on G2G, so I had to give it up or become a “blog potato”!). But I had to comment on this one, it’s wonderful. I really wish I could get my non-Orthodox friends to read this piece especially, but any of your articles. It’s frustrating that they look at me like I’m speaking Greek or something, I just can’t get through.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The inability to find words to communicate to many non-Orthodox is a problem. And yet it is not hard if they are wanting to know the Truth.

    People are strange, we tend to settle into something, become comfortable and don’t like to be moved out of our comfort zone. Even our sins become comfortable. We don’t quite know what we would do without them.

    We find it quite difficult to change thought patterns, behavior patterns, allow new loves or leave old ones.

    Perhaps it is not words the will get people’s attention.

  9. Andrew (@cathfacingeast) Avatar
    Andrew (@cathfacingeast)

    Excellent post Father!

    Since Tradition is mentioned 23 times, I thought it might be helpful (and as a way of bringing balance into the conversation) to say something about prayer, which is the means by which tradition is seated in proper context.

    Met. Kallistos offers an explanation of what this is, in the Orthodox understanding:

    “Prominent throughout the daily prayers of the Orthodox Church is the theme of light, understood both as a physical reality and as a symbol. The alternation of daylight and darkness is the primary way in which we experience the passing of time. Light is evoked in its many variations: the gentle light of evening, the light of dawn shining out of darkness, the full sunlight of midday.”

    “Symbol” here is not the inert element it is understood to be outside Tradition. Rather, it is that which reveals the only hidden reality (i.e. that “Christ (God) is in our midst!”).

    It is the means by which we are deified.

    “Ascending from the physical level we invoke God ‘the eternal light that never grows dim’, who ‘dwells in light unapproachable’ (1 Tim 6.16), and we welcome Christ incarnate as the light of the world.”

    It the means by which time is redeemed.

    “[Prayer] reveals to us time transfigured – time assumed into God, renewed, sanctified.”

    It is the undistorted cry of the human heart, beyond the good that can be imagined.

    “For this is what the world around us needs, not that we should say prayers occasionally, but that we should be at each moment a living flame of prayer.”

    Pentecost is the outpouring of divine grace in the holy Spirit.

    “Prayer is not what we do but what we are.”

  10. Andrew (@cathfacingeast) Avatar
    Andrew (@cathfacingeast)

    Also pertinent to add Jesus’ words in John 12:32:

    “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”

    This was to go beyond the covenantal promise to “raise up the tribes of Jacob” (Isa 49:6) it would also be a light to the Gentiles and salvation “unto the ends of the earth”.

  11. Jeff Avatar

    I’m going to get that book!, another author who works with others is Goerge demacopoulas .., a compilation of next generation authors who do not define orthodoxy by equalling anti western rhetoric , he actually debunks a lot of those cliches , and shows many Byzantine’s preference for Thomas and Augustine , and adds a lot of dignity back into religion ., I have friends who become orthodox , and the first thing they learn is to diss the pope, call the east mystical and the west rational, collapse history , …, it’s so refreshing called “orthodox constructions of the west “, very edifying to see good orthodox scholarship , another is ‘orthodox readings of Augustine ‘ and ‘inventing Latin heretics ‘ , more nuanced thinking ,

  12. […] The Communion of Tradition ( […]

  13. Robert Avatar

    You correctly point out Paul’s warning in Galatians that no other gospel should be received but what had already been preached to them. Paul includes himself as well as angels, such that if even he were to preach another gospel, they were to reject it. The subsequent history of the Church shows how often this test needed to be applied as many heretical movements surfaced. But, this same warning should be heeded when assessing the decisions, even of an ecumenical council. In that regard, how could the proclamations of the 7th Council not be rejected as contradictory to the entire witness of the Scriptures and the early Church tradition? Its distinction between “latreia” versus “proskuneo” is in direct contradiction with Scripture itself where the angel forbids John, as an example, from offering proskuneo. Yet the 7th Council requires us to do such to icons. This is not an argument from Sola Scriptura. The very Scriptures which the witness of the Church has determined to be in concert with the tradition of the apostles condemns this practice, as do the early church witnesses.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Oddly, your conclusion was not the conclusion of the fathers of that council (some of whom had been tortured by the previous Emperor to change their mind). Nor has it been the conclusion of the Orthodox Church. What you suggest is the conclusion of one stream of Protestantism that has a very sad, checkered history os destruction, persecution of others and even, many times, gross perversions of the gospel. The fruits of iconoclasm in Christianity, another way of judging a tree, seem to me to indicate that you are wrong. Your argument is a narrow use of “sola Scriptura,” in that it uses no context beyond Revelations to understand the actions of the Council. The Council uses what becomes a very precise meaning of proskyneo. That Revelations uses the verb in a less precise manner is not novel or even surprising. Homoousios, the key word in the Nicene Creed, was a heretical word just a century before. But words, since we have to work with them, can have their meanings shaped and altered by history. The word for person, “prosopon,” once meant “mask.” But as a Trinitarian reference, “mask” would be heretical. But “prosopon,” as used by the fathers regarding the Trinity has quite a different meaning that excludes “mask.” I could multiply the example.

    You clearly have not actually read the fathers and their writings surrounding the 7th Council. They were well aware of the use of proskyneo in the Scripture, and took care to speak to the issue. But you have not paid attention to the evidence available and sought instead to judge saints of the Church as idolators and heretics. It behooves a judge to hear the entire case before he issues his opinion.

  15. Robert Avatar

    I would not support what has been done by iconoclasts. The iconodules of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, however, did pronounce anathemas, eternal condemnations, to any who would not bow in veneration to icons, or even those who thought differently on this issue. No allowance was made for those who thought differently, since it was declared to be essential to the faith handed down by the apostles. After declaring this, they stated:

    “Those, therefore who dare to think or teach otherwise…we command that they be deposed; if religious or laics, that they be cut off from communion.

    The holy Synod cried out: So we all believe, we all are so minded, we all give our consent and have signed. This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the orthodox…we salute the honorable 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…We salute the venerable images. We place under anathema those who do not do this.”

    Your claim of a new definition for proskyneō notwithstanding, the act of John is clear in Revelation, i.e., bowing before an angel in veneration, which is exactly what was later commanded to be done to icons by the Fathers of the Seventh Council. And Revelation is not the only example of proskyneō being condemned when not done towards God. Acts 10:25,26 says, “As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, ‘Stand up; I myself am also a man.’” The word for “worship” here is proskyneō. Countering my Scriptural examples by saying, “Sola Scriptura!” does nothing to answer the Scriptures I cite, since they also are a part of Tradition, are they not? If we are to keep the Tradition of the Fathers, handed down by the Apostles, should we not follow the very Scriptures the Apostles left us?

  16. Dino Avatar

    it is exactly as Father explained.
    As a Greek, I see some potential for misunderstanding in English concerning the word ‘Proskynisis’ (Προσκύνησις), since [as with the word ‘Prosopon’ (Πρόσωπον) which can mean face, mask, person, hypostasis, countenance, front, appearance etc, so too] this word which -first and foremost- simply means “to bow” [literally to ‘motion/kiniseis towards/pros’] (from a slight head move to a full prostration) is usually connected to simple veneration. It is also sometimes used as a friendly acknowledgement (as seen in Asian cultures) and can also be connected to adoration as pertaining to God only.
    As a Greek -an Easterner- it also always makes me cringe when I hear Protestants objecting like this, as it never sounds like a pious misunderstanding but like something akin to secular reasoning.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Again, you are forcing the meaning in St. John. All of this was dealt with – including the whole of the Scriptural questions – in the work of the fathers before and after the Council. Read St. John of Damascus On the Holy Images, etc. Read St. Theodore the Studite on the Images. These small books are available from St. Vladimir Seminary Press.

    The Tradition is both the words of Scripture, and the sense of their meaning. You do not rightly understand the sense of their meaning, but oppose the fathers.

    I include here a passage from St. John of Damascus:

    Now adversaries say: God’s commands to Moses the law-giver were, “Thou shalt adore shalt worship him the Lord thy God, and thou alone, and thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath.”

    They err truly, not knowing the Scriptures, for the letter kills whilst the spirit quickens–not finding in the letter the hidden meaning. I could say to these people, with justice, He who taught you this would teach you the following. Listen to the law-giver’s interpretation in Deuteronomy: “And the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire. You heard the voice of His words, but you saw not any form at all.” (Deut. 4.12) And shortly afterwards: “Keep your souls carefully. You saw not any similitude in the day that the Lord God spoke to you in Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest perhaps being deceived you might make you a graven similitude, or image of male and female, the similitude of any beasts that are upon the earth, or of birds that fly under heaven.” (Deut. 4.15-17) And again, “Lest, perhaps, lifting up thy eyes to [7] heaven, thou see the sun and the moon, and all the stars of heaven, and being deceived by error thou adore and serve them.” (Deut. 4.19)

    You see the one thing to be aimed at is not to adore a created thing more than the Creator, nor to give the worship of latreia except to Him alone. By worship, consequently, He always understands the worship of latreia. For, again, He says: “Thou shalt not have strange gods other than Me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor any similitude. Thou shalt not adore them, and thou shalt not serve them, for I am the Lord thy God.” (Deut. 5.7-9) And again, “Overthrow their altars, and break down their statues; burn their groves with fire, and break their idols in pieces. For thou shalt not adore a strange god.” (Deut. 12.3) And a little further on: “Thou shalt not make to thyself gods of metal.” (Ex. 34.17)

    You see that He forbids image-making on account of idolatry, and that it is impossible to make an image of the immeasurable, uncircumscribed, invisible God. You have not seen the likeness of Him, the Scripture says, and this was St Paul’s testimony as he stood in the midst of the Areopagus: “Being, therefore, [8] the offspring of God, we must not suppose the divinity to be like unto gold, or silver, or stone, the graving of art, and device of man.” (Acts 17.29)

    These injunctions were given to the Jews on account of their proneness to idolatry. Now we, on the contrary, are no longer in leading strings. Speaking theologically, it is given to us to avoid superstitious error, to be with God in the knowledge of the truth, to worship God alone, to enjoy the fulness of His knowledge. We have passed the stage of infancy, and reached the perfection of manhood. We receive our habit of mind from God, and know what may be imaged and what may not. The Scripture says, “You have not seen the likeness of Him.” (Ex. 33.20) What wisdom in the law-giver. How depict the invisible? How picture the inconceivable? How give expression to the limitless, the immeasurable, the invisible? How give a form to immensity? How paint immortality? How localise mystery? It is clear that when you contemplate God, who is a pure spirit, becoming man for your sake, you will be able to clothe Him with the human form. When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw a likeness of His [9] form. When He who is a pure spirit, without form or limit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing as God, takes upon Himself the form of a servant in substance and in stature, and a body of flesh, then you may draw His likeness, and show it to anyone willing to contemplate it. Depict His ineffable condescension, His virginal birth, His baptism in the Jordan, His transfiguration on Thabor, His all-powerful sufferings, His death and miracles, the proofs of His Godhead, the deeds which He worked in the flesh through divine power, His saving Cross, His Sepulchre, and resurrection, and ascent into heaven. Give to it all the endurance of engraving and colour. Have no fear or anxiety; worship is not all of the same kind. Abraham worshipped the sons of Emmor, impious men in ignorance of God, when he bought the double cave for a tomb. (Gen. 23.7; Acts 7.16) Jacob worshipped his brother Esau and Pharao, the Egyptian, but on the point of his staff.* (Gen 33.3) He worshipped, he did not adore. Josue and Daniel worshipped an angel of God; (Jos. 5.14) they did not adore him. The worship of latreia is one thing, and the worship which is given to merit [10] another. Now, as we are talking of images and worship, let us analyse the exact meaning of each. An image is a likeness of the original with a certain difference, for it is not an exact reproduction of the original. Thus, the Son is the living, substantial, unchangeable Image of the invisible God (Col. 1.15), bearing in Himself the whole Father, being in all things equal to Him, differing only in being begotten by the Father, who is the Begetter; the Son is begotten. The Father does not proceed from the Son, but the Son from the Father. It is through the Son, though not after Him, that He is what He is, the Father who generates. In God, too, there are representations and images of His future acts,-that is to say, His counsel from all eternity, which is ever unchangeable. That which is divine is immutable; there is no change in Him, nor shadow of change. (James 1.17) Blessed Denis, (the Carthusian [i.e., Pseudo-Dionysius]) who has made divine things in God’s presence his study, says that these representations and images are marked out beforehand. In His counsels, God has noted and settled all that He would do, the unchanging future events before they came to pass. In the same way, a man who wished to [11] build a house would first make and think out a plan. Again, visible things are images of invisible and intangible things, on which they throw a faint light. Holy Scripture clothes in figure God and the angels, and the same holy man (Blessed Denis) explains why. When sensible things sufficiently render what is beyond sense, and give a form to what is intangible, a medium would be reckoned imperfect according to our standard, if it did not fully represent material vision, or if it required effort of mind. If, therefore, Holy Scripture, providing for our need, ever putting before us what is intangible, clothes it in flesh, does it not make an image of what is thus invested with our nature, and brought to the level of our desires, yet invisible? A certain conception through the senses thus takes place in the brain, which was not there before, and is transmitted to the judicial faculty, and added to the mental store. Gregory, who is so eloquent about God, says that the mind, which is set upon getting beyond corporeal things, is incapable of doing it. For the invisible things of God since the creation of the world are made visible through images. (Rom. 1.20) We see images in [12] creation which remind us faintly of God, as when, for instance, we speak of the holy and adorable Trinity, imaged by the sun, or light, or burning rays, or by a running fountain, or a full river, or by the mind, speech, or the spirit within us, or by a rose tree, or a sprouting flower, or a sweet fragrance.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I think you make the best point: the fruit of the practice. Veneration of icons within the sacramental life of the Church produces a humility of heart, an openness of soul and a deep appreciation for the Creator and His presence with us. That is the opposite of idolatry as described in Romans 1, i.e., Loving the created thing more than the Creator. Veneration of icons teaches us to love the Creator more than the created thing.

    Human beings are capable of making idols out of just about anything, even the Bible (loving the Bible more than God, Our Incarnate Lord, and the life giving Trinity). Loving the idea of the WORD OF GOD more than what is spoken and revealed.

    We are also, by the Grace of God, able to make icons out of anything God has created. The ultimate expression of this is giving Him Glory in all things–for all things.

    We either do one or the other. Human beings are icons made by the hand of God and enlivened with His Spirit. When we give thanks to God for another person, we are venerating icons. (IMO, much of the confusion of sin and therefore our own brokenness comes from the fact that we often try to do both at the same time–but we cannot serve two masters)

    Theology can either by an icon or an idol. It becomes an idol when it is divorced from the experiential reality of the Christian life and substituted for the encounter with the living, incarnate Lord or used to reject the experiences of others.

    The theology of icons is not something that a few men got together and made up, it is the verbal expression of the experience of the Church and the leading of the Holy Spirit as an integral part of the sacramental life of the Church. It is not and individual thing that people do in and for itself.

    The problem as I see it is that anybody who rejects sacrament and the sacramental life (as many Protestants do) cannot help but see veneration of anything as approaching idolatry, IMO.

    The darkness to which iconoclasm leads is easy to see: a denuded, lifeless world in which we have not only exiled God from anything important but allows us to begin to hate Him with a demonic rage.

    The destruction of the natural world through the consumer mentality, the violence against others, the sexual depravity, abortion, and other hallmarks of modern life are the result.

    Some may think I am overstating the case, but the nature and purpose of icons is to allow God to be with us and for us to acknowledge that fact. To constantly remind us that we are made in His image and likeness and depend on Him for everything; that we are not alone or bereft but part of a loving, holy community with Him at the center.

    It is not the thing, the painted icons alone of course, it is the attitude behind either the acceptance of rejection of icons.

    Idolatry, if it occurs, is the product of the orientation of one’s heart. We always have choice there: to recognize God and give Him glory, or to remain closed off from Him and seek our own will.

  19. Robert Avatar

    If I understand your responses correctly, you are saying that the actions of John in Revelation, and Cornelius in Acts, were wrong because they were worshiping (proskyneō) one other than God. But that was because the meaning of proskyneō in those passages is different from what it became by the time of the Seventh Council. Thus, it is rightly required of the faithful to proskyneō icons in the sense meant by that word later on? Would a better word for worship in those passages be latreia since the meaning of proskyneō has changed since then?

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    I don’t know about a better word – but the sense is that of “latreio” in those passages. The two words were not always used in the precise manner that the 7th Council came to use them.

    The development of precision in language becomes necessary often by the pressures created from heresies. The Church actually prefers to say nothing, to allow the Tradition to remain silent. The Councils and canons, etc., have always been “forced” on the Church by the errors of heresies. In the same manner, the fences created by “anathemas” are not meant so much to condemn someone to hell, but to create clear lines and boundaries of teaching.

    Orthodoxy has maintained this sense of things. It is one of the running disagreements that Orthodoxy has with Roman Catholicism, that RC often says too much (at least from the Orthodox perspective). We prefer to say very little, or as little as necessary. The whole of the Tradition is present from the beginning – and the bulk of it rests in silence.

    In the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch: : “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.”

  21. AR Avatar

    I think it is likely that St. Peter’s answer, as well as the angel’s, was not so much a moral teaching as an act of humility. From within the Church, that seems like a normal way of behaving. I don’t see in the text that the veneration is condemned, only that it is refused. In the case of the angel, it is refused on account of St. John’s equality to the holy angel, as a holy apostle of Jesus Christ. In the case of St. Peter it is on account of St. Peter’s awareness of his sinfulness and all that he has been forgiven, as well as the temptations to which he may still be subject.

    But to read the stories this way requires a certain enculturation, and to read the stories the other way requires its own enculturation.

  22. Robert Avatar

    So, to move beyond which word was used in the two Scriptures and how it changed by the Seventh Council, what would you say the difference in what John and Cornelius were “doing” (or how they did it, heart state, etc.) and what the Seventh Council says we are required to do before icons? I am trying to understand the meaning intended by both, and their differences. Thank you in advance for any insight you can provide.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    AR, you hit upon a really important point: context. Actions and beliefs taken out of the context in which they arose are always misunderstood.

    Thus the veneration of icons, the Councils, the Holy Scripture all arose within the context of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church which is and always has been sacramental and hierarchical (as in holy order).

    Icons in a non-sacramental tradition are superfluous.

    The veneration of icons is intimately connected with both the Incarnation of our Lord, the communion of the saints, and the sense of sacrament (mysteries) that is the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit.

    Jesus Christ is central to all of that an more.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    Sorry to be slow in responding. I have been traveling. A moment more in the Greek. The writers of the NT used the Greek translation of the OT (the LXX) when they quote the OT. It remained the dominant form of the OT Scripture throughout the early Church. It provides, if you will, an additional wealth and context for understanding the meaning of words. In Genesis 33 (just a random example that could easily be multiplied), we are told that Jacob “crossed over before them and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.” It is the account of Jacob’s reconciliation with Easu. The word “bowed” is simply προσεκύνησεν (proskynesis), the word the Fathers use definitively in the 7th Council for the act of honor or veneration, as distinct from latreio, or worship.

    Obviously, intention is important in this matter. For we can bow down before God in worship. We can refuse to bow down before the idol of the King as we refuse worship to any other. We can bow before our brother, in penance, sorrow, honor, veneration, etc., but not in worship.

    Thus, what is worship? Worship (latreio) is the honor that is due to God alone. It is the thanksgiving of the creature to its Creator. It is the praise that belongs to God alone, the loyalty that belongs to God alone, etc. Viewed from outside the act – it might look similar, as a physical expression, to acts of mere veneration (honor that is due to others – the king, a benefactor, a spouse, a saint, etc.). It is also true that there is hypocrisy. An act might appear outwardly to be worship, but is simply engaged in for show. Thus the act is not worship, but blasphemy. The act itself also takes its meaning from the state of the heart that accompanies it.

    The fathers, following the Tradition of Christian practice, declared that burning lights (candles), bowing, kissing, offering incense, singing hymns, etc., can be acceptable forms of veneration (proskynesis). If someone intended worship (latreio) by an outward act of veneration (proskynesis) then they would be sinning and should be corrected.

    I think in the case of St. John, because he was in the heavens themselves, and was shortly to behold the Lamb on the Throne, it was entirely inappropriate to offer honor to any other creature, no matter how honorable the being it might be. It is interesting, for example (more context), that in Orthodox liturgical practice, when a Bishop is present, it is considered wrong to ask a priest for the priest’s blessing or for the priest to give a blessing. To do so belongs to the Bishop and the priest would be usurping that honor, or the layman would be somehow insulting the bishop. Such “etiquette” belongs to a Church whose ethos has a very developed sense of hierarchy (holy order) – something that is true both of the NT and the historical Church. It is also almost entirely lacking in our culture. Thus we have a President who inadvertently makes a fool of himself in the presence of royalty (I can think of a famous faux pas with Queen Elizabeth).

    It is worth noting that in Orthodox practice, there are rules (largely unwritten) for both how and in what order icons are to be honored. These rules, for example, direct the manner in which the priest or deacon censes the Church and the icons in the Church. It is a grammar that recognizes that in heaven, nothing is equal, and that before God, all equality vanishes. It is a liturgical grammar, that when interiorized, instructs the heart in these matters and plays an important role in teaching us to rightly worship God, and honor others. It heals us.

    It is hard for our Protestant culture to get a correct feel for these things, precisely because we are not just iconoclastic, but also anti-hierarchical. We do not “give honor to whom honor is due.” We don’t like to honor anything. I strongly suspect that this deep suspicion of all honor also cripples our proper sense of worship.

    Orthodoxy (and the 7th Council) has a highly developed sense of honor and worship (and adapted language to articulate that expression). We are like barbarians, with little sense of these things at all.

  25. Andrew Avatar


    I would certainly encourage you to take your enquiries to its natural conclusion. I am a cradle Catholic who has occasionally forayed into the new Church scene.

    As a matter of fact, I very nearly converted to Orthodox Judaism a few years ago, when something happened just prior to one particular Sabbath that changed my life forever. That event was Pascha. Previous experience had affirmed, in equal measure, the validity of Judaism.

    I now gladly hold firm to Orthodox views and would strongly recommend that you look into the scholarship of Fr. John Romanides, who has championed the cause of the hesychastic fathers (and their transfiguring encounters with the uncreated divine light) and who also confirms the earlier orthodoxy of rabbinical Judaism which took the early church to the sharp edge of incarnational fullness.

    Christ is risen!

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