“Another one for stump the rector. I know you address this in your class but I wanted to revisit since I’m reading Deuteronomy right now. Deut 5:8 forbids making a graven imaging of ANYTHING. As one who loves icons (and pictures for that matter) how are we to apply this ancient precept to our modern (very graven) lives?”
The first step in dealing with this topic is to compare Scripture with Scripture in order to determine if we have a correct understanding of the passage. If Deuteronomy 5:8 is a ban of making an image of ANYTHING, as you say, then how can we explain the Lord ordering Moses to make two cherubim of hammered gold and place them on the ends of the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:178-22)? How can we explain the Brazen Sea, which was for washing of the priests as they entered the Temple, being placed on the back of 12 bronze oxen (1 Kings 7:25,26)? Or how can we explain God ordering Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a stick so that all who look at it would be healed (Numbers 21:8,9)?
Unless we want to accuse the Lord of contradicting Himself for forbidding all images and yet directing that images are made, we must look for an alternative understanding of the Deuteronomy passage. It comes into clearer focus when we read the rest of the commandment. “You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I the LORD am a jealous God and will not tolerate your affection for other gods.” (Deut 5:9 NLT). When God makes the reference to “other gods” then we understand that what God is banning is not all images but all idols.
As Anglicans we also look to holy Tradition, to see if the Spirit has spoken through the Church on this matter, and it turns out that He has. Of particular importance to us are the Seven Ecumenical Councils. These Councils were called to settle theological disputes and because they occurred before the Church was divided between East and West in 1054AD, they show us the mind of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council met in Nicaea in 787AD. One of the topics they addressed was the appropriate use of icons and images and whether or not they violated the Commandments. These Holy Fathers determined that sacred images were not idols and they wisely made a distinction between veneration and worship.
Let me give you a current example because modern puritan types say that there is no difference between veneration and worship. If you are a patriotic American, you place your hand over your heart when the American flag passes by or when you say the Pledge of Allegiance. Is that an act of worship? Of course not, it is an act of respect. You also know full well that you are not making a pledge to the piece of colored cloth but to the ideals, laws and nation that the flag represents. The flag becomes a vehicle through which you show honor to your country.
As Christians we worship God and God alone. We venerate or show respect when we bow to the Cross. As with the example of the flag, we are not worshipping a piece of wood but we are showing honor to Who and what that Cross represents; Our Savior and the redemption of the world.
So the Seventh Council said that it is permissible, even desirable to have sacred images and the honor we give to them goes to what the image represents. St. John of Damascus sums it up for us.
“Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone. We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.” —St. John of Damascus