Symbolism and Orthodoxy


Years ago, I happened to be in a Quaker meetinghouse.  I was astounded at what should not have surprised me.  The building contained no Christian symbols, pictorial or otherwise.  Banners were hung in the fellowship area, but not one of them included a Christian symbol.  This experience reminded me that The Society of Friends gave up the Christian faith a long time ago.  They do not use creeds, nor, I believe, do they insist that their members believe the articles of the Christian faith as expressed in the Holy Scriptures and summarized in the creeds.

I wonder now if there is a relationship between symbolic poverty in a religious body and heresy.  The  poverty of symbols could be an effect rather than a cause of heterodoxy (false belief).  But, we can assert with some confidence that lack of symbols accompanies heterodoxy as in Islam which Saint John of Damascus describes as a Christian heresy.  Islam allows non-pictorial symbols; but, overall suffers from a destitution in worship and practice.

In the eighth and ninth centuries, the iconoclastic (An iconoclast is one who breaks images and is opposed to the use of images in worship and devotion) controversy raged in church and state in the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople (modern Istanbul).  Saint John of Damascus earlier defended the use of images against the teachings of Islam.  The iconoclasts in the Eastern Orthodox Church in the end lost the battle, undone by the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

Luther had to contend with Andreas Carlstadt in Wittenberg who encouraged the breaking of images.  Luther took a moderate position that defended the proper use of images.  In Lutheran churches in Germany today, images in the churches are common.

While some would say that images are prohibited by the Ten Commandments, defenders of their use like Saint John would point out that the Son of God came to us as a man. He is thus portrayable without idolatry, defined as the worship of images, though God in Himself can not be portrayed.

A symbolically rich tradition provides in its art a continual reminder of the essentials of the faith.  Images are not to be worshipped but should be provided for teaching and worship.

In your witness you may find images, pictures, icons, etc. as helpful in explaining to people the essentials of the Christian faith.  One time in Kensington, as I was working among  the street people, a young man approached me with copies of some of Rembrandt’s paintings of Christ that were published in a magazine.  He asked me, “Who is this?”  I explained.

Images can be used for worship and teaching without becoming the things worshipped.  They serve as reminders of our faith. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition they are windows into heaven, but definitely are not worshipped but point to that which is to be worshipped–the true God.  They help us keep on the path of truth without steering us into false teaching.  In short, from an evangelical Lutheran point of view, they are permitted.


Michael G. Tavella

January 4, 2022

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