St John of Damascus: On Holy Images 5

As the last post sharing the words written by St John almost 1300 years ago, I make no apology for this being a LONG ONE! It is clear and understandable if we go slowly and carefully, and explains why icons are so powerful. I am incredibly glad that their place in our spiritual lives is being recognised and accepted outside the Orthodox Church and I have worked closely with other denominations on icons for use in worship and in private prayer before. I hope this will continue! Those who sign up for the newsletter will be able to see the icon before it is listed for sale in the online shop this coming week…

As we are treating of images and their worship, let us draw out the meaning more accurately and say in the first place what an image is; (2) Why the image was made; (3) How many kinds of images there are; (4) What may be expressed by an image, and what may not; (5) Who first made images. Again, as to worship: (1) What is worship; (2) How many kinds of worship there are; (3) What are the things worshipped in Scripture; (4) That all worship is for God, who is worshipful by nature; (5) That [92] honour shown to the image is given to the original.

1st Point.–What is an Image?

An image is a likeness and representation of some one, containing in itself the person who is imaged. The image is not wont to be an exact reproduction of the original. The image is one thing, the person represented another; a difference is generally perceptible, because the subject of each is the same. For instance, the image of a man may give his bodily form, but not his mental powers. It has no life, nor does it speak or feel or move. A son being the natural image of his father is somewhat different from him, for he is a son, not a father.

2nd Point.-For what purpose the Image is made.

Every image is a revelation and representation of something hidden. For instance, man has not a clear knowledge of what is invisible, the spirit being veiled to the body, nor of future things, nor of things apart and distant, because he is circumscribed by place and time. [93] The image was devised for greater knowledge, and for the manifestation and popularising of secret things, as a pure benefit and help to salvation, so that by showing things and making them known, we may arrive at the hidden ones, desire and emulate what is good, shun and hate what is evil.

3rd Point.-How many kinds of Images there are.

Images are of various kinds. First there is the natural image. In everything the natural conception must be the first, then we come to institution according to imitation. The Son is the first natural and unchangeable image of the invisible God, the Father, showing the Father in Himself. “For no man has seen God.” (Jn. 1.18) Again, “Not that any one has seen the Father.” (Jn. 6.46) The apostle says that the Son is the image of the Father: “Who is the image of the invisible God,” (Col. 1.15) and to the Hebrews, “Who being the brightness of His glory, and the figure of His substance.” (Heb. 1.3) In the Gospel of St John we find that He does show the Father in Himself. When Philip said to Him, “Show us the Father and it is enough for us,” [94] our Lord replied, “Have I been so long with you and have you not known Me, Philip? He who sees Me, sees the Father.” (Jn. 14.8-9) For the Son is the natural image of the Father, unchangeable, in everything like to the Father, except that He is begotten, and that He is not the Father. The Father begets, being unbegotten. The Son is begotten, and is not the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the image of the Son. For no one can say the Lord Jesus, except in the Holy Spirit. (I Cor. 12.3) Through the Holy Spirit we know Christ, the Son of God and God, and in the Son we look upon the Father. For in things that are conceived by nature,* language is the interpreter, and spirit is the interpreter of language. The Holy Spirit is the perfect and unchangeable image of the Son, differing only in His procession. The Son is begotten, but does not proceed. And the son of any father is his natural image. Thus, the natural is the first kind of image.

The second kind of image is that foreknowledge which is in God’s mind concerning future events, His eternal and unchanging counsel. God is immutable and His counsel [95] without beginning, and as it has been determined from all eternity, it is carried out at the time preordained by Him. Images and figures of what He is to do in the future, the distinct determination of each, are called predeterminations by holy Dionysius. In His counsels the things predetermined by Him were characterised and imaged and immutably fixed before they took place.

The third sort of image is that by imitation (kata mimhsin) which God made, that is, man. For how can what is created be of the same nature as what is uncreated, except by imitation? As mind, the Father, the Word, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, so mind and word and spirit are one man, according to God’s will and sovereign rule.

For God says: “Let us make man according to our own image and likeness,” and He adds, “I and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the birds of the air, and the whole earth, and rule over it.” (Gen. 1.26)

The fourth kind of image are the figures and types set forth by Scripture of invisible and immaterial things in bodily form, for a clearer apprehension of God and the angels, [96] through our incapacity of perceiving immaterial things unless clothed in analogical material form, as Dionysius the Areopagite says, a man skilled in divine things. Anyone would say that our incapacity for reaching the contemplation of intellectual things, and our need of familiar and cognate mediums, make it necessary that immaterial things should be clothed in form and shape. If, then, holy Scripture adapts itself to us in seeking to elevate us above sense, does it not make images of what it clothes in our own medium, and bring within our reach that which we desire but are unable to see? The spiritual* writer, Gregory, says that the mind striving to banish corporeal images reduces itself to incapability. But from the creation of the world the invisible things of God are made clear by the visible creation. We see images in created things, which remind us faintly of divine tokens. For instance, sun and light and brightness, the running waters of a perennial fountain, our own mind and language and spirit, the sweet fragrance of a flowering rose tree, are images of the Holy and Eternal Trinity.

[97] The fifth kind of image is that which is typical of the future, as the bush and the fleece, the rod and the urn, foreshadowing the Virginal Mother of God, and the serpent healing through the Cross those bitten by the serpent of old. Thus, again, the sea, and water and the cloud foreshadow the grace of baptism.

The sixth kind of image is for a remembrance of past events, of a miracle or a good deed, for the honour and glory and abiding memory of the most virtuous, or for the shame and terror of the wicked, for the benefit of succeeding generations who contemplate it, so that we may shun evil and do good. This image is of two kinds, either through the written word in books, for the word represents the thing, as when God ordered the law to be written on tablets, (Deut. 5.22) and the lives of God-fearing men to be recorded, (Ex. 17.14) or through a visible object, as when He commanded the urn and rod to be placed in the ark for a lasting memory, (Ex, 16.33-34; Num. 17.10) and the names of the tribes to be engraved on the stones of the humeral. (Ex. 28.11-12) And also He commanded the twelve stones to be taken from the Jordan as a sacred token. (Jos. 4.20ff) Consider the prodigy, the greatest which befell [98] the faithful people, the taking of the ark, and the parting of the waters. So now we set up the images of valiant men for an example and a remembrance to ourselves. Therefore, either reject all images, and be in opposition to Him who ordered these things, or receive each and all with becoming greeting and manner.

Fourth Chapter. What an Image is, what it is not; and how each Image is to be set forth.

Bodies as having form and shape and colour, may properly be represented in image. Now if nothing physical or material may be attributed to an angel, a spirit, and a devil, yet they may be depicted and circumscribed after their own nature. Being intellectual beings, they are believed to be present and to energise in places known to us intellectually. They are represented materially as Moses made an image of the cherubim who were looked upon by those worthy of the honour, the material image offering them an immaterial and intellectual sight. Only the divine nature is uncircumscribed and incapable of being represented in form or shape, and incomprehensible.

[99] If Holy Scripture clothes God in figures which are apparently material, and can even be seen, they are still immaterial. They were seen by the prophets and those to whom they were revealed, not with bodily but with intellectual eyes. They were not seen by all. In a word it may be said that we can make images of all the forms which we see. We apprehend these as if they were seen. If at times we understand types from reasoning, and also from what we see, and arrive at their comprehension in this way, so with every sense, from what we have smelt, or tasted, or touched, we arrive at apprehension by bringing our reason to bear upon our experience.

We know that it is impossible to look upon God, or a spirit, or a demon, as they are. They are seen in a certain form, divine providence clothing in type and figure what is without substance or material being, for our instruction, and more intimate knowledge, lest we should be in too great ignorance of God, and of the spirit world. For God is a pure Spirit by His nature. The angel, and a soul, and a demon, compared to God, who alone is incomparable, are bodies; but compared to material [100] bodies, they are bodiless. God therefore, not wishing that we should be in ignorance of spirits, clothed them in type and figure, and in images akin to our nature, material forms visible to the mind in mental vision. These we put into form and shape, for how were the cherubim represented and described in image? But Scripture offers forms and images even of God.

Who first made an Image.

In the beginning God begot His only begotten Son, His word, the living image of Himself, the natural and unchangeable image of His eternity. And He made man after His own image and likeness. (Gen. 1.26) And Adam saw God, and heard the sound of His feet as He walked at even, and he hid in paradise. (Gen. 3.8) And Jacob saw and struggled with God. It is evident that God appeared to him in the form of a man. (Gen. 32.24ff) And Moses saw as it were the back of a man, (Ex. 33.24ff) and Isaias saw Him as a man seated on a throne. (Is. 6.1) And Daniel saw the likeness of a man, and as the Son of Man coming to the ancient of days. (Dan. 7.9, 13) No one saw the nature of God, but the type and image of what, was to be. For the Son and Word of [101] the invisible God, was to become man in truth, that He might be united to our nature, and be seen upon earth. Now all who looked upon the type and image of the future, worshipped it, as St Paul says in his epistle to the Hebrews: “All these died according to faith, not having received the promises, but beholding them afar off, and saluting them.” (Heb. 11.13) Shall I not make an image of Him who took the nature of flesh for me? Shall I not reverence and worship Him, through the honour and worship of His image? Abraham saw not the nature of God, for no man ever saw God, but the image of God, and falling down he adored. (Gen. 18.2) Josue saw the image of an angel, (Jos. 5.14) not as he is, for an angel is not visible to bodily eyes, and falling down he adored, and so did Daniel. Yet an angel is a creature, and servant, and minister of God, not God. And he worshipped the angel not as God, but as God’s ministering spirit. And shall not I make images of Christ’s friends? And shall I not worship them as the images of God’s friends, not as gods? Neither Josue nor Daniel worshipped the angels they saw as gods. Neither do I worship the image as God, but through [102] the image of the saints too, show my worship to God, because I honour His friends, and do them reverence. God did not unite Himself to the angelic nature, but to the human. He did not become an angel: He became a man in nature, and in truth. It is indeed Abraham’s seed which He embraces, not the angel’s. (Heb. 2.16)

The Son of God in person did not take the nature of the angels: He took the nature of man. The angels did not participate in the divine nature, but in working and in grace. Now, men do participate, and become partakers of the divine nature when they receive the holy Body of Christ and drink His Blood. For He is united in person to the Godhead,* and two natures in the Body of Christ shared by us are united indissolubly in person, and we partake of the two natures, of the body bodily, and of the Godhead in spirit, or, rather, of each in both. We are made one, not in person, for first we have a person and then we are [103] united by blending together the body and the blood. How are we not greater than the angels, if through fidelity to the commandments we keep this perfect union? In itself our nature is far removed from the angels, on account of death and the heaviness of the body, but through God’s goodness and its union with Him it has become higher than the angels. For angels stand by that nature with fear and trembling, as, in the person of Christ, it sits upon a throne of glory, and they will stand by in trembling at the judgment. According to Scripture they are not partakers of the divine glory. For they are all ministering spirits, being sent to minister because of those who are to be heirs of salvation, (Heb. 1.14) not that they shall reign together, nor that they shall be together glorified, nor that they shall sit at the table of the Father. The saints, on the contrary, are the children of God, the children of the kingdom, heirs of God, and co-heirs of Christ. (Rom. 8.17) Therefore, I honour the saints, and glorify the servants and friends and co-heirs of Christ servants by nature, friends by their choice friends and co-heirs by divine grace, as our Lord said in speaking to the Father. (Jn. 17)

[104] As we are peaking of images, let us speak of worship also, and in the first place determine what it is.

On Adoration. What is Adoration?

Adoration is a token of subjection,–that is of submission and humiliation. There are many kinds of adoration.

On the kinds of Adoration.

The first kind is the worship of latreia, which we give to God, who alone is adorable by nature, and this worship is shown in several ways, and first by the worship of servants. All created things worship Him, as servants their master. “All things serve Thee,” (Ps. 119.91) the psalm says. Some serve willingly, others unwillingly; some with full knowledge, willingly, as in the case of the devout, others knowing, but not willing, against their will, as the devil’s. Others, again, not knowing the true God, worship in spite of themselves Him whom they do not know.

The second kind is the worship of admiration and desire which we give to God on account of His essential glory. He alone is worthy of praise, who receives it from no one, being Himself the cause of all glory and all good, [105] He is light, incomprehensible sweetness, incomparable, immeasurable perfection, an ocean of goodness, boundless wisdom, and power, who alone is worthy of Himself to excite admiration, to be worshipped, glorified, and desired.

The third kind of worship is that of thanksgiving for the goods we have received. We must thank God for all created things, and show Him perpetual worship, as from Him and through Him all creation takes its being and subsists. (Col. 1.16-17) He gives lavishly of His gifts to all, and without being asked. He wishes all to be saved, (I Tim. 2.4) and to partake of His goodness. He is long-suffering with us sinners. He allows His sun to shine upon the just and unjust, and His rain to fall upon the wicked and the good alike. (Mt. 5.45) And being the Son of God, He became one of us for our sakes, and made us partakers of His divine nature, so that “we shall be like unto Him,” (I Jn. 3.2) as St John says in his Catholic epistle.

The fourth kind is suggested by the need and hope of benefits. Recognising that without Him we can neither do nor possess anything good, we worship Him, asking Him to satisfy [106] our needs and desires, that we may be preserved from evil and arrive at good.

The fifth kind is the worship of contrition and confession. As sinners we worship God, and prostrate ourselves before Him, needing His forgiveness, as it becomes servants. This happens in three ways. A man may be sorry out of love, or lest he should lose God’s benefits, or for fear of chastisement. The first is prompted by goodness and desire for God himself, and the condition of a son: the second is interested, the third is slavish.

What we find worshipped in Scripture, and in how many ways we show worship to creatures

First, those places in which God, who alone is holy, has rested, and His resting-place in the saints, as in the holy Mother of God and in all the saints. These are they who are made like to God as far as possible, of their own free will, and by God’s indwelling, and by His abiding grace. They are truly called gods, not by nature, but by participation; just as red-hot iron is called fire, not by nature, but by participation in the fire’s action. He says: [107] “Be ye holy because I am holy.” (Lev. 19.2) The first thing is the free choice of the will. Then, in the case of a good choice, God helps it on and confirms it. “I will take up my abode in them,” (Lev. 26.12) He says. “We are the temples of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in us.” (I Cor. 3.16) Again, “He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of diseases, and all manner of infirmities.” (Mt. 10.1) And again, “That which I do you shall do, and greater things.” (Jn. 14.12) Again: “As I live, God says, whosoever shall glorify Me, him will I glorify.” (I Sam. 2.30) Again: “If we suffer with Him that we may be also glorified with Him. (Rom. 8.17) And “God stood in the synagogue of the gods; in the midst of it He points out the gods.” (Ps. 82.1) As, then, they are truly gods, not by nature, but as partakers of God’s nature, so they are to be worshipped, not as worshipful on their own account, but as possessing in themselves Him who is worshipful by nature. Just in the same way iron when ignited is not by nature hot and burning to the touch, it is the fire which makes it so. They are worshipped as exalted by God, as through Him inspiring fear to His enemies, and becoming benefactors to the faithful. It is love [108] of God which gives them their free access to Him, not as gods or benefactors by nature, but as servants and ministers of God. We worship them, then, as the king is honoured through the honour given to a loved servant. He is honoured as a minister in attendance upon his master–as a valued friend, not as king. The prayers of those who approach with faith are heard, whether through the servant’s intercession with the king, or whether through the king’s acceptance of the honour and faith shown by the servant’s petitioner, for it was in his name that the petition was made. Thus, those who approached through the apostles obtained their cures. Thus the shadow, and winding-sheets, and girdles of the apostles worked healings. (Acts 5.15) Those who perversely and profanely wish them to be adored as gods are themselves damnable, and deserve eternal fire. And those who in the false pride of their hearts disdain to worship God’s servants are convicted of impiety towards God. The children who derided and laughed to scorn Elisseus bear witness to this, inasmuch as they were devoured by bears. (II Kgs. 2.23)

Secondly, we worship creatures by [109] honouring those places or persons whom God has associated with the work of our salvation, whether before our Lord’s coming or since the dispensation of His incarnation. For instance, I venerate Mount Sinai, Nazareth, the stable at Bethlehem, and the cave, the sacred mount of Golgotha, the wood of the Cross, the nails and sponge and reed, the sacred and saving lance, the dress and tunic, the linen cloths, the swathing clothes, the holy tomb, the source of our resurrection, the sepulchre, the holy mountain of Sion and the mountain of Olives, the Pool of Bethsaida and the sacred garden of Gethsemane, and all similar spots. I cherish them and every holy temple of God, and everything connected with God’s name, not on their own account but because they show forth the divine power, and through them and in them it pleased God to bring about our salvation. I venerate and worship angels and men, and all matter participating in divine power and ministering to our salvation through it. I do not worship the Jews. They are not participators in divine power, nor have they contributed to my salvation. They crucified my God, the King of [110] Glory, moved rather by envy and hatred against God their Benefactor. “Lord, I have loved the beauty of Thy house,” (Ps. 26.8) says David, “we will adore in the place where his feet stood. And adore at His holy mountain.” (Ps. 132.7; 99.9) The holy Mother of God is the living holy mountain of God. The apostles are the teaching mountains of God. “The mountains skipped like rams, and the hills like the lambs of the flock.” (I Cor. 10.11)

The third kind of worship is directed to objects dedicated to God, as, for instance, the holy Gospels and other sacred books. They were written for our instruction who live in these latter days. Sacred vessels, again, chalices, thuribles, candelabra, and altars (trapezai) belong to this category. It is evident that respect is due to them all. Consider how Baltassar made the people use the sacred vessels, and how God took away his kingdom from him. (Dan. 5.2ff)

The fourth kind of worship is that of images seen by the prophets. They saw God in sensible vision, and images of future things, as Aaron’s rod, the figure of Our Lady’s virginity, the urn, and the table. And Jacob worshipped [111] on the point (epi to akron) of his rod. (Gen. 47.31) He was a type of our Lord. Images of past events recall their remembrance. The tabernacle was an image of the whole world. “See,” God said to Moses, “the type which was shown to thee on the mountain, and the golden cherubim, the work of sculpturers, and the cherubim within the veil of woven work.” (Ex. 25.40) Thus we adore the sacred figure of the Cross, the likeness of our God’s bodily features, the likeness of her who bore Him, and all belonging to Him.

The fifth manner is in the worship of each other as having upon us the mark of God and being made after His image, humbling ourselves mutually, (Eph. 5.21) and so fulfilling the law of charity.

The sixth manner is the worship of those in power who have authority. “Give to all men their dues,” the apostle says; “give honour where it is due.” (Rom. 13.7) This Jacob did in worshipping Esau as his elder brother, and Pharao the ruler established by God.

In the seventh place, the worship of servants towards their masters and benefactors, and of petitioners towards those who grant their favours, as in the case of Abraham when he [112] bought the double cave from the sons of Emmor. (Gen. 23.7, 12)

It is needless to say that fear, desire, and honour are tokens of worship, as also submission and humiliation. No one should be worshipped as God except the one true God. Whatever is due to all the rest is for God’s sake.

You see what great strength and divine zeal are given to those who venerate the images of the saints with faith and a pure conscience. Therefore, brethren, let us take our stand on the rock of the faith, and on the tradition of the Church, neither removing the boundaries laid down by our holy fathers of old, (Prov. 22.28) nor listening to those who would introduce innovation and destroy the economy of the holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of God. If any man is to have his foolish way, in a short time the whole Organisation of the Church will be reduced to nothing. Brethren and beloved children of the Church do not put your mother to shame, do not rend her to pieces. Receive her teaching through me. Listen to what God says of her: “Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee.” (Cant. 4.7) Let us worship and adore our [113] God and Creator as alone worthy of worship by nature, and let us worship the holy Mother of God, not as God, but as God’s Mother according to the flesh. Let us worship the saints also, as the chosen friends of God, and as possessing access to Him. If men worship kings subject to corruption, who are often bad and impious, and those ruling or deputed in their name, as the holy apostle says, “Be subject to princes and powers,” (Tit. 3.1) and again, “Give to all their due, to one honour, to another fear,” (Rom. 13.7) and our Lord, “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s,” (Mt. 22.21) how much more should we worship the King of Kings? He alone is God by nature; and we should worship His servants and friends who reign over their passions and are constituted rulers of the whole earth. “Thou shalt make them princes over all the earth,” (Ps. 45.16) says David. They receive power against demons and against disease, (Lk. 9.1) and with Christ they reign over an incorruptible and unchangeable kingdom. Their shadow alone has put forth disease and demons. (Acts 5.16) Should we not deem a shadow a slighter and weaker thing than an image? Yet it is a true outline of the [114] original. Brethren, the Christian is faith.* He who walks by faith gains many things. The doubter, on the contrary, is as a wave of the sea torn and tossed; he profits nothing. (Jam. 1.6) All the saints pleased God by faith. Let us then receive the teaching of the Church in simplicity of heart without questioning. God made man sane and sound. It was man who was over curious. (Eccl. 7.30) Let us not seek to learn a new faith, destructive of ancient tradition, St Paul says, “If a man teach any other Gospel than what he has been taught, let him be anathema.” (Gal. 1.9) Thus, we worship images, and it is not a worship of matter, but of those whom matter represents. The honour given to the image is referred to the original, as holy Basil rightly says.

And may Christ fill you with the joy of His resurrection, most holy flock of Christ, Christian people, chosen race, body of the Church, and make you worthy to walk in the footsteps of the saints, of the shepherds and teachers of the Church, leading you to enjoy His glory in the brightness of the saints. May you gain His glory for eternity, with the [115] Uncreated Father, to whom be praise for ever. Amen.

Speaking on the distinction between images and idols, and defining what images are, it is time to give proofs in question, according to our promise.*


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