The Sin of Idolatry
and the Catholic Concept of Iconic Participation

The Sin of Idolatry and the Catholic Concept of Iconic Participation

by Steven Todd Kaster

San Francisco State University
Philosophy of Religion 500
Doctor Epstein
December 13, 2000 (Revised March 10, 2002)


This paper is intended to supply for some of the many deficiencies which I believe are present in the article in the Philosophy 500-1 Course Reader entitled, "The Sin of Idolatry," by Theodore Roszak (see, CR 130-145).  In my initial discussion of this reading in the class I indicated eight points which were not adequately covered by the author of the article as it relates to the Catholic tradition and its views concerning the use of icons.  To cover all of my original eight points would require a paper the magnitude of which would far exceed the present assignment.  Thus, I have chosen to limit myself to three of what in my opinion are the most important points:

(1) the Catholic theology of Icons, and its connection to the theology of the Incarnation of God;

(2) the distinction between absolute and relative worship; and

(3) the Eucharistic mystery, which Theodore Roszak seems to be unable to fully grasp.

It is my intention, in the first part of this paper, to fill in some of the gaps in the article as it relates to the Catholic tradition and its understanding of icons as participated manifestations of the divine.  This view in many ways mirrors the position that the article indicates is held in the animistic religions of the ancient and modern world.  To do this I will examine the classical position of the Church as it was taught by her greatest theologian of icons St. John of Damascus, with a brief mention of the theology of Icons as it was formulated by St. Theodore Studite, a monk of the 9th century.  In the second part of the paper I will highlight the Catholic distinction between absolute and relative worship, which is not only a Catholic concept, but also a fundamentally Jewish idea.  Finally, I will briefly explain the necessary distinction that must be made between icons and the Eucharist.  

Before I begin the body of the paper I feel it is necessary to I emphasize that I am not in disagreement with the author of the article as far as it concerns his view that modern Western culture lacks a sacramental understanding of nature. Where I differ with him is in the identification of the ultimate cause of this failing within Western culture. The secularized currents of thought that effect modern culture can be found mainly in the 16th century European Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, and both of these movements in my estimation are responsible for the desacralization of nature and time. This secularized attitude elevated man to a level of dominion over creation that was contrary to the view held by the Church for the first 1,500 years of her existence.


In this part of the paper, as I indicated above, I will first examine the positive aspects of the Iconic theology of St. John of Damascus, and after that I will briefly summarize the teaching of St. Theodore Studite.  I have chosen to concentrate on St. John's writings because he is representative of the fully developed Catholic theology of Icons.  I will also attempt to highlight the Incarnational elements within St. John's theological system; since, ultimately it is the mystery of the Incarnation which enables him to justify the use of images in the Church's liturgical life.  I will emphasize this Incarnational idea because in my view it is the most important part of his work, and in this way he helped to lay a solid foundation for the Church's theology of Images for centuries to come.

After looking at his positive theological achievements I will then briefly explain some of the Christological problems inherent in the Iconoclastic position. I will also examine St. John's views concerning the Old Testament prohibition on the use of images and how he shows that the Church's use of images does not contradict the Mosaic legislation.  It is important to note that Judaism never prohibited in an absolute way the use of images and symbols in its worship of God, this fact of course is contrary to what Theodore Roszak states in his article, but anyone who reads the portions of the book of Exodus concerning the construction of the Temple can quite readily see that the earthly tabernacle was designed to be an image, an icon, of its heavenly prototype.  

In the opening portion of his first apology St. John uses an argument from authority in his defense against the attacks of the Iconoclasts, and thus defends the Church's traditional use of images in her liturgical life and piety.  So the first weapon in St. John's arsenal is the perennial "teaching of the Church, through which salvation is planted in us, as both foundation and pillar" [St. John, 14].  He then explains how terrible it would be to suppose that the Church could fall into error and thus commit the sin of idolatry, for as he puts it, "if she declines one iota from perfection, it would be a blot on her unblemished face, destroying by its ugliness the beauty of the whole" [St. John, 14].  This argument is a very powerful one, from a theological viewpoint, and what he is asserting is the infallibility of the Church in determining how the faith should be practiced; while at the same time he is asserting that the Church is the guardian of orthodoxy and that she cannot abandon the ancient tradition which sanctions the use of icons because she is ultimately guided in her practice of the faith by the Holy Spirit.

After putting forward a defense based on authority St. John next expresses his own revulsion toward idolatry, and then he refers back to the Old Testament prohibitions against images.  Idolatry is not founded upon the idea of ascribing a participated connection between an icon and God, but is based on worshiping something other than God, as if it were God, even if it is done only in a participated manner.  In the Old Testament period itself, the Temple was the abode of God, and was thus itself honored, much as the Wailing Wall is honored to this day.  The honor historically given to the Temple and presently given to the Wailing Wall is not idolatry, because each of them in some sense participates in the divine majesty, because the Temple was the abode of the Shekinah, the presence and glory of God on earth.

St. John then does something quite interesting, he states that the Old Testament prohibitions were instituted by God because of the Jews "proneness to idolatry" [St. John, 18], but in the dispensation of the New Testament inaugurated by the Incarnation of God the Son, these laws are not applicable in exactly the same way as they had been before.  It is here that he begins to develop a doctrine of icons based on the mystery of the Incarnation.

In the Old Testament period, God forbids "the making of images because of idolatry, and [because] it is impossible to make an image of the immeasurable, uncircumscribed, invisible God" [St. John, 17]. He then asks, "How can the invisible be depicted?  How does one picture the inconceivable? How can one draw what is limitless, immeasurable, infinite?  How can a form be given to the formless?  How does one paint the bodiless? How can you describe what is a mystery?" [St. John, 18].  All these questions present obstacles to the artistic depiction of God in the Old Testament, but it is through the Incarnation that a change in the ability to produce an image (eikon) of God is achieved. As St. John says, "It is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you can depict Him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw His likeness" [St. John, 18].  As a consequence of God's self-emptying in the Incarnation, it becomes possible to iconically depict God in the flesh, and so one can make images of Him at the various stages of His earthly life: His birth, His miracles, and His death, can all be artistically rendered.

In his theology St. John recognizes a unity of relation between an icon and its prototype, for "an image is of like character with its prototype, but with a certain difference.  It is not like its archetype in every way" [St. John, 19].  As St. Theodore Studite puts it, "The artificial image is the same as its archetype in likeness, but different in essence" [St. Theodore, 100].  The icon and its prototype are identical in a relational sense (i.e., in likeness and name), but they are distinct at the level of essence.  It is because of this relational connection that one can offer veneration to an icon, and the honor thus given to the image passes immediately to its prototype in heaven.  St. Theodore's theology is very compelling, in that he uses the Church's Trinitarian theology; in which there is a distinction of relation among the three persons and a unity of essence, but when he applies these concepts to icons he simply reverses the order, and as I said above he explains that icons are distinct in essence from their prototype, and yet they are one in relation.  In reading St. Theodore's writings on icons it is quite evident that he is heavily indebted to his theological predecessor from Damascus.

The best summary of St. John's thinking concerning the implications of the Incarnation in making it possible for man to depict God, can be found in paragraph 16 of his first apology where he states that, "In former times God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted.  But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see" [St. John, 23], and this is not a form of idolatry because, "I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter" [St. John, 23].  This second quotation is especially instructive in that St. John is applying sacramental theology to the use of icons.  In the sacraments God uses material elements in order to convey grace to the members of the Body of Christ, thus deifying man by raising him through the sacramental economy to a participation in the Godhead.

Thus for St. John, icons, which are themselves sacramental in nature, bring mankind into contact with that which is signified by the image in such a way that man himself is truly associated with the archetype through the medium of the material object which manifests it.  This is true because an icon participates in the reality of its prototype, as Fr. Louis Bouyer pointed out,

"An eikon is not an external image, foreign to its model, made from without and therefore without life in itself.  An eikon is the living image of the model through which the model is present, through which it imposes itself on the material which is to receive it" [Bouyer, 88].

It is in this sense that St. John explains how the veneration of images must be understood if one is to remain orthodox in faith and practice.  He basically teaches that in venerating an image of Christ, or of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the saints, the honor given to the image passes on to its prototype in Heaven; and in support of this view he quotes St. Basil the Great (circa 330-369 AD) who said, "'the honor given to the image is transferred to its prototype'" [St. John, 29]. By quoting St. Basil he shows the logic of his position, while he simultaneously proves its antiquity in opposition to the innovations of the Iconoclasts.

After showing the antiquity and orthodoxy of his position, he moves on to show that the Iconoclasts were in some sense denying the consequences of the Incarnation, and in doing this they were unwittingly falling into a form of the Docetic heresy, a heresy which denied the reality of the Incarnation and which said that Christ only appeared to have become man.  Because the Iconoclasts denied the possibility of depicting God the Word made flesh, they were in a sense denying the fact of the Incarnation.  Another consequence of their denial was that they tended fall into the heresy of Monophysitism, this heresy held that the reality of the human nature of Christ was absorbed by the divine nature, so that the humanity of Christ actually ceased to exist.

Because the Iconoclasts insisted so strongly on the idea that man could not depict Christ artistically, they were ultimately failing to recognize that Christ is one divine person in two natures.  The theological position held by the Iconoclasts led them into various Christological heresies, which the veneration of icons as put forward by St. John Damascene helped the Orthodox and Catholic Churches to avoid.  St. John's theology of Icons protects the full truth concerning the Incarnation of the God-man, because he is able to distinguish between what is proper too each of the natures in the one person of Christ, while the Iconoclastic position cannot.


Now I will examine how St. John defends his position by looking at a couple of examples from his apology in which he clarifies the relationship between the prohibitions of the Old Testament against the making of images and the use of images by the Church. In the ancient documentation section which follows his first apology he says that ". . . the commandment not to make images was given to lead the people away from idolatry, to which they were prone, but the serpent lifted on high was an image of our Lord's sufferings.  Listen to what I say, for the making of images is no new invention, but is an ancient practice known to the most holy and eminent of the fathers" [St. John, 45].  Here St. John takes the Old Testament biblical pericope about the bronze serpent, which God commanded that Moses make in order to cure the people of the snake bites they had received because of their unfaithfulness, and uses it to illustrate the fact that not all images were forbidden under the Old Covenant.

He also mentions the fact that the Lord commanded Moses to have images of the cherubim put on the Ark of the Covenant. Neither the bronze serpent, nor the cherubim, both of which the Lord commanded to be made are in any way idolatrous.  Here is where it is important to note St. John's theology of worship and the distinction he makes between absolute worship (Latria) and relative worship (Proskenysis or Dulia).

In the words of St. John, "Absolute worship is [the] adoration, which we give to God alone" [St. John, 82]; while relative worship is the veneration which we give to the Virgin and the saints, "since they are truly gods, not by nature, but because they partake of the divine nature" [St. John, 84], and this veneration is given to them, "not because they deserve it on their own account, but because they bear in themselves Him who is by nature worshipful" [St. John, 85].  This is why the type of honor given to the Theotokos (the Mother of God) and to the saints is not a form of idolatry; instead, by honoring them one honors God who made them holy. This distinction between absolute and relative worship is also a Jewish idea, in that in Judaism one is required to honor one's parents, and also to honor civil authorities, but this honor of veneration is a distinct form of worship, differing in essence from the worship given to God alone.

The subtlety of St. John's theology is quite impressive, but it is still quite easy to see its relationship to the ancient and modern animistic views of the nature of images and their participated connection to the deity which they represent. The distinction which exists between the Catholic view and the animistic view mainly concerns the Catholic theological tradition's more highly formulated and technical way of expressing this reality, and its emphasis on the mystery of the Incarnation of God; the two religious systems (Catholic and animistic) are substantially in agreement as it concerns the ability of an image to manifest the presence of its prototype.  But they differ with each other in one major point, because the animistic religions honor what they do not know or understand, as St. Paul pointed out in the New Testament when he preached at the Aeropagus [Acts 17:22-28], while Catholicism honors the true God who has revealed Himself in Christ Jesus. The Church has always held that grace restores and perfects nature, it does not destroy it.


Next it is necessary to briefly correct a misconception found in Theodore Roszak's article (see pages 136 and 137 of the Course Reader) as it concerns the nature of the Eucharistic mystery.  In this part of his article he connects the Eucharist to the Church's theology of Icons, in doing this he shows that he has failed to grasp the faith of the Church in this vital area, for as St. Theodore Studite pointed out to the Iconoclastic heretics in the early 9th century, the Eucharist is Christ, it is not an icon of Him.  The Eucharistic species (i.e., the bread and wine) prior to their consecration can be seen as icons of Christ [cf. Stone 1:171-175], but after their consecration through the Eucharistic prayer in which the words of Christ are repeated and the invocation to the Spirit is made, the bread and wine are no longer icons of Christ; instead they are substantially changed into the very body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ.

In his First Refutation of the Iconoclasts, St. Theodore explains the Iconoclastic position when he says,

"'We grant,' the heretics say, 'that Christ may be represented, but only according to the holy words which we have received from God Himself; for he said, Do this in remembrance of Me, obviously implying that He cannot be represented otherwise than by being remembered. Only this image is true and this act of depiction sacred'" [St. Theodore, 29]

But St. Theodore shows why this view is in error when he asks a rhetorical question in reference to the Eucharistic elements, as he puts it in his treatise,

"Are they [i.e., the Eucharistic elements] an image or the truth?  If they are an image, what absurdity!  You go from blasphemy to blasphemy, like those who step into some sort of mud, and in trying to get across fall with both feet into something even more slippery" [St. Theodore, 30].

He goes on to explain the Church's view as it concerns the Eucharist, when he says that,

". . . we confess that the faithful receive the very Body and Blood of Christ, according to the voice of God Himself--why do you talk nonsense as if the sacraments of the truth were mere symbols?"  [St. Theodore, 30].

The bread and wine prior to their consecration can be seen as 'symbols' or 'icons' of Christ, but after they are consecrated they are Christ Himself. St. Theodore Studite's point, which clearly shows the deficiency in Theodore Roszak's article, is that the Eucharist is Christ, it is not simply an icon of Christ, the latter view is the heretical view of the Iconoclasts, and in various ways it is the view held by the Protestant Reformers.

The Church Fathers clearly rejected the idea that the sacraments were mere symbols, and this holds true of the Eucharist in particular because by the words of Christ Himself the elements are transformed.  Even the eminent Protestant scholar Adolph Von Harnack admitted this, and did so in spite of the fact that he personally rejected the ancient sacramental theology of the Church, but he clearly understood that for the Fathers, as he explained, "The symbol is the mystery and the mystery was not conceivable without a symbol," but more importantly he went on to say that, "What we now-a-days understand by symbol is a thing which is not that which it represents; at that time [i.e., the patristic age] symbol denoted a thing which, in some kind of way, really is what it signifies" [Harnack, 2:144].

Thus for the ancient Catholic Fathers a sacramental sign contained what it signified.  Clearly then, based on the words of Christ at the Last Supper, the Eucharist is not simply a participated reality in the way an icon is understood to be; instead, it is the very person of Christ, who is substantially present under the appearances of the bread and wine; and as a consequence of this truth, it follows that absolute worship (Latria), the worship of adoration, can be given to the Eucharist, and this is something that cannot be done with an icon.


With the clarifications I have put forward in my paper, I feel that Theodore Roszak's chapter on idolatry is not only improved but is more accurate theologically as well, though I still see deficiencies in the way he speaks about other Christian doctrines within this chapter; such things as, the fall of man, the distinction in Catholic theology between the natural and the supernatural realms, the Jewish origin of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the theology of remembrance which is connected to the ancient view of the ritual re-presentation of mythic events through liturgical rites, to name just a few.

If I had more time I would write in greater detail about these elements as well and bring a bit more balance to his treatment of Christianity in the article.  But I would like to reiterate what I said in the beginning of this paper; I do not want to leave the false impression that I disagree with Theodore Roszak as far as it concerns the loss of the sense of the sacramentality of nature in the modern world, on that issue I agree with him wholeheartedly.


Louis Bouyer.  Liturgical Piety.  (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1955).

Adolph Von Harnack.  History of Dogma.  (New York: Dover Publications, 1961). 7 volumes bound as 4.

St. John of Damascus.  On The Divine Images.  (Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997).

Darwell Stone. A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1909).
2 Volumes.

St. Theodore the Studite.  On The Holy Icons.  (Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1981).

Philosophy 500-1 COURSE READER   Pages 130-145

Excerpt from:  Roszak, Theodore.  Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Post-Industrial Society. (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1972), Pages 109-141.

Steven Todd Kaster

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