Friday, November 16, 2012

Mary, and Icons, and Saints -- Oh my! (Journey to Orthodoxy, part 5)

Icon of St. Gregory of Nyssa
Some common stumbling blocks for Protestants examining or approaching Orthodoxy are the high mariology, the presence and veneration of icons in worship, and the practice of praying to and asking for the intercessions of the saints -- all three of these having certain points of intersection with each other. From a Protestant perspective, certain aspects of these practices and doctrines are usually outright objectionable, while other aspects are seen as tolerable, but simply unnecessary or superfluous. From an Orthodox perspective -- as I've come to understand it -- these are not simply matters of optional worship preferences which the Orthodox happen to have adopted, but are vital elements of the life and mind of the Orthodox Church and are consistent with the fullness of the Faith as it was once delivered to the Saints.

For Protestants -- and for myself, when beginning to explore Orthodoxy -- the question immediately would be what the Scriptural basis for the beliefs and practices are. As earlier entries in the series attempted to explain, given how the Orthodox understanding of Scripture, its relationship with tradition, and how authority is derived within the Church, it's unsurprising that there would be areas of significant divergence between traditions. Which is not to say that there is no Scriptural basis for the practices and beliefs. Orthodox would just say that the scriptural basis are all the verses that are not regularly underlined, or exhaustively cross-referenced, or are poorly understood due to a divergent hermeneutic. For example, some Orthodox note that Mary takes up approximately 10% of both Matthew and Luke's gospel, and that the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) declares that all generations will call Mary blessed. This, admittedly, seems less of a prescription and more of a description, but nevertheless, why not regularly -- rather than once a year -- call Mary blessed given her amazing role in bringing Salvation to the world? This is just one example of how Scripture accords with and provides a basis for the practices. For other examples check out series on the Ancient Faith Radio program Our Life in Christ, which has series on all these topics. That's a good starting point, anyway.

In addition to this, Orthodox would appeal to the Apostolic tradition and the Faith as it was handed down -- some of which by word and not epistle -- all of which accords with scripture, but which can't necessarily be plucked from it absent the proper hermeneutic within the life of the Church.

Icon of Christ's Baptism
At the council of Nicaea, before a canon of the New Testament existed, it was established that, for example, Christ is homooúsios with the Father, or "of one substance". The language of homooúsios isn't Biblical language, but it is still confessed by all Christians and deviations from this belief are considered heretical by virtually all of historic Christianity. There is, of course, a rich and bountiful Scriptural basis for this doctrine, but the doctrine was established before an authoritative canon of Scripture was. So just as the persons of the Trinity are homooúsios with one another, and just as this doctrine was established and settled by the conciliar model of ecclesial authority, via Apostolic tradition, so too with the veneration of icons, intercessions of the Saints, and a high mariology.

Just as the First and Second Ecumenical councils, at Nicaea and Constantinople, gave us the Creed, which is the standard ecumenical confession of the faith of Christians, the Seventh Ecumenical Council declared iconoclasm to be heresy. Just as the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon established the canon of Scripture -- which all Christians adhere to -- the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus established that Mary is theotokos -- the birth-giver of God. That is, not merely the mother of Jesus's human nature and not the divine Logos -- as Nestorius was teaching -- but of God the Son.

Protestants take issue with these beliefs and practices on various levels. They might not object to calling Mary theotokos, for example, but they will object to praying to her or the Saints. They might not have a problem with making icons, or adorning churches with them (though they don't do it), but they do have a problem with their veneration because it seems like idol worship to them. This is approximately where I was when I began attending orthodox services, though by that time I had adopted the stance of a learner and was open to the possibility that I was ignorant. With this in mind, I sought answers on these issues.

Icon of Mary, the Theotokos, with Christ.
A very brief theological defense of a high mariology and of the place of iconography in worship is this: the Incarnation. Both of these elements of doctrine and praxis are consequences of an affirmation of the Incarnation. If Christ is fully man and fully God, then Mary can properly be called the mother of God, or theotokos. If Christ is, as St. Paul says, the "image [or icon] of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), then the invisible God -- who can not be pictured -- now can be in the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ.

Also, where the iconography and the mariology merge -- in icons of Mary -- Christ is virtually always depicted with Mary. She is significant because of Christ's significance, and Orthodox veneration of her always points to Christ. She was an obedient and pure servant of God's, but it's ultimately about what God has done through her and which she cooperated with. She was the first believer; She was the culmination of Israel's lineage and was chosen to bear God the Word; Christ took his human nature from her flesh; the uncircumscribable and uncontainable God was circumscribed and contained in her womb. These are magnificent, holy mysteries and it is a disservice to Christ and the reality of his Incarnation to diminish or downplay them in any way.

Of course, many evangelicals might say "well yeah, I affirm most of those things about Mary", which points to a broader issue with evangelicalism. If you affirm that, then why is it omitted from your prayers and worship? This is a separate issue, one that is somewhat touched on in earlier posts, but in my experience it is unhelpful to officially affirm doctrines on your doctrinal statement -- "Christ was born of the Virgin Mary", perhaps -- which then have no consequence in the language or shape of liturgical worship and life. If it is a truth and it's something you affirm, then let it loose, don't keep it quietly locked away on the Church website.

As for Protestants who wouldn't affirm Mary as theotokos or -- to bring up another issue -- her ever-virginity, one wonders why they don't seeing as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Wesley all did.

Returning to the issue of icons and their veneration, the chief issue here is that the 2nd commandment says not to make a graven image and worship it. Orthodox venerate icons but don't worship them, as worship belongs to God alone.

If God's truth can be contained and transmitted through Scripture, which of course it can, then why can it not be contained and transmitted by image? Orthodox see both scripture and iconography as different vessels of the same truth, the truth of the Gospel. One are words written by human hands, hands belonging to members of Christ's church who have the Holy Spirit; the other are images written by human hands, hands belonging to members of Christ's Church who have the Holy Spirit. Both bearing witness to the same truth(s).

As for veneration of icons, I found this illustration helpful: when a World War II fighter pilot kissed a photograph of his wife, was he committing adultery? Was he confused? Did he love the photograph more than his wife? Was he unaware that the image is an icon of a living reality that is not contained by the image? Of course not. The same is true of Orthodox veneration of icons. Icons transmit the Gospel, they are a window to the spiritual realm, they are a testament to the fact that the saints are alive in Christ and not dead, they affirm the reality of the Incarnation, and they are a monument to the beauty of God. Thus when Orthodox venerate them they are affirming these truths and simultaneously ascribing honor and veneration to the living truth which the icon images forth.

As this post is getting lengthy, I will cut it off here and address prayers to the Saints, intercessions of the Saints, and the Orthodox understanding of death in the next post (all of which ties in to the issue of icons, since much iconography in the Orthodox Church depicts saints and martyrs of the Church). I may also touch on an issue I said I would address but neglected, that of the Great Schism and the filioque.

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