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The Lutheran Take on Icons: A Biblical and Historic Defense of the Use of Images in Lutheran Worship


The preserving air of the high Georgian desert wafts stoically through the massive expanse of caverns jettisoning out from the Vardzia mountainside. These caverns tell many stories about the history of those who inhabited them, but the most notable inhabitants happen to be the third century Christians who fled up these steep cliffs fleeing the invasion of Pagan armies both to the North and South. These caves, being easily defended, contained all that the people needed to survive; mountain springs, fish, as well as cattle grazing pasture below. But something that is still left behind for us to learn from is easily noticeable from every angle of the complex: an ancient church with a fully functioning monastery still active to this day.

Upon first glace from the outside, these rudimentary housings seem primitive in nature, and one would assume that they share a similar under-developed church architecture as in Jerusalem during the same period. But shockingly once you step past the cavernous nave, your senses are shocked into where you are truly standing: a nearly untouched Eastern church continuing in their same rituals, habits, and beliefs from the time of the First Council of Nicaea. The walls are painted with clear iconography both inside and outside the church walls, a stone iconostasis is present from the earliest days of Christendom, fully intact with images painted the walls ranging from the third-sixth centuries. And, if you are fortunate enough, you will encounter the same ancient hymnals being chanted by the current residents of the monastery, who to this day sing in the Georgian used in the earliest hymnals. A truly dead language made alive in these hallowed halls.

These ancient churches speak to the modern mind much about the ancient church and its practices. From the thick aroma of incense in the air to the blatant use of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, The Apostles, Angels and even their own Saints and kings adoring the walls. All of these indicate to the curious that indeed images in Christian worship are truly ancient. But how does the modern Lutheran, oft divorced from the use of images in worship within the American context, take in such imagery and align it with how the Second Commandment’s supposed prohibition on graven images? (Exodus 20:1-5) These Christians are clearly not foreign to said scripture, and yet they continue in this archaic practice. How did these early Christians understand the use of iconography in their worship, and is that view compatible with Lutheran practice today?

In this research paper the question of what exactly the second commandment means, as well as what clearly defines a violation of that commandment will be examined. It will continue its inquiry into the use of images more broadly in either worship or ritual within both the Old and New Testaments, finishing its conclusions within the age of the Patristics, preciously when these icons were painted at the Vardzia complex, to see how the Church Fathers understood, and interacted with, iconography in the worship life of the Church. Can a Lutheran utilize iconography in any capacity? We will begin our research with words of Scripture, where the prohibition on idolatry is most articulately composed: The Book of Exodus.

Iconography: A Second Commandment Violation?

Any line of inquiry into iconography in American Lutheran worship practice must commence with an even more succinct question: why would one not use any images in worship? What is the reason for being skeptical or taking issue with one worship practice over another? The answer lies in the Ten Commandments themselves but is fleshed out thoroughly throughout the Old Testament in the form of a violation of the Second Commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them nor serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, inflicting the punishment of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me... (Exo. 20:1-5 NASB, emphasis mine)

The idea of idol worship here is the basis for the most people’s aversion to iconography. Afterall, if anything of the sort would be a violation of such a foundational aspect of God’s Law as to be the second offense mentioned to Moses on the mountain: any Jew, or Christian for that matter, would gladly destroy an idol in their church. It would appear then, with most historic traditions accepting the use of images in both private and public worship to various extents, that they do not interpret this commandment in the same way as a party who finds valuable use in imagery. So then, what is the second commandment speaking about exactly? And what would constitute a breaking of this commandment as it was understood by the people it was directly given to? For this, a brief overview of some of the Hebrew words used in the text are critical.

The initial point of inquiry here begins with an honest discussion on idolatry. Somewhat foreign to the modern pallet, the text discusses what an Idol is constituted by:

לֹֽ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂ֨ה־לְךָ֥֣ פֶ֣֙סֶל֙ ׀ וְכָל־תְּמוּנָ֡֔ה אֲשֶׁ֤֣ר בַּשָּׁמַ֣֙יִם֙ ׀ מִמַּ֡֔עַל וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר֩ בָּאָ֖֨רֶץ מִתַָּ֑֜חַת וַאֲשֶׁ֥֣ר בַּמַּ֖֣יִם ׀ מִתַּ֥֣חַת לָאָֽ֗רֶץ ׃

“Not shall you make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness [of anything] that is in heaven above, or that [is] in the earth beneath, or that [is] in the water under the earth.1 2

An Idol, as defined within the commandment, is something made by man, carved as an image or likeness of something from heaven, or on earth, or that is in the water beneath it. This appears innocuous enough until you realize that God has commanded that man make graven images for use in worship. (Exo. 37:7-9, 40:1-3) This topic will be treated in much further detail in a later section, but for now you need only note that it does not appear that an idol is merely something man creates representing an image of something. If that were the case, God commanded the Israelites to sin whilst making their temple.

Clearly there is another aspect to what makes an idol. And that is revealed in the second part of the commandment:

לֹֽא־תִשְׁתַּחְוֶ֥֣ה לָהֶ֖ם֮ וְלֹ֣א תָעָבְדֵ֑ם֒ כִּ֣י אָֽנֹכִ֞י יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵד עֲוֹ֨ן אָבֹ֧ת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֹׂנְאָֽ֑י׃

“Not shall you bow down [worship] to them, nor serve them, for I, Yahweh, [am] a God, Jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the sons to the third and forth [generations] of those who hate me.”3 4

The question then lies in the actions done to these images: you shall not tistaweh (תִשְׁתַּחְוֶ֥֣ה), bow down nor taabedem (תָעָבְדֵ֑ם֒), serve them. But even with these clear prohibitions on what shall not be done to such images, we do have examples of both actions happening within the Old Testament further muddying the waters of idolatry, iconography, and frankly the proper use of images in worship.

The next logical question in our line of inquiry would be then, what does it mean to worship something? As American Lutherans we certainly have preconceptions brought with us to the question, ‘what is worship?’. It can range from swinging incense and candles on one side to electric guitars and raised hands on the other. But how did the ancient Jewish people who were told this prohibition understand its violation? It would benefit the scholarship presented in this paper to outline examples of what exactly is, and is not, worship in the Hebrew Canon so that we can then deduct exactly how iconography would be appropriately, and inappropriately, utilized in worship.

Iconography, Worship, and Idols in the Old Testament

The resistance historically against images within Christian worship or devotion typically springs from a guttural reaction, piously in most cases, to not break the Second Commandment of God. That is, to not worship any idols. But how exactly are idols, as well as worship, understood by the Jews who were commanded this? Some iconoclasts, people who disagree with the use of images in worship or churches, say that any image period would be a violation of this commandment. But scripturally speaking if God were not the author of confusion (Psa. 145:17), then He certainly would not give contradicting commands to His people. Yet on multiple occasions, He has commandment the creation of, and the use therein, of images in Worship.

One of the clearest examples of God commanding an image to be used within the context of worship comes to us in the command for the construction of the Ark of the Covenant in the Book of Exodus:

You shall make two cherubim of gold; make them of hammered work at the two ends of the atoning cover. Make one cherub at one end and one cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim of one piece with the atoning cover at its two ends. And the cherubim shall have their wings spread upward, covering the atoning cover with their wings and facing one another; the faces of the cherubim are to be turned toward the atoning cover. (Exodus 25:18-20 NASB, emphasis mine)

And then,

There I will meet with you; and from above the atoning cover, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about every commandment that I will give you for the sons of Israel. (Exodus 25:2ff NASB)

It is here that God commands an image of a heavenly being to be built. Moses was to make a golden figure in three dimensions out of Gold and place on atop the Ark. Thus, one must conclude that either God is commanding Moses to break His own Second Command to him, or the mere making of any image is not, therefor, sinful in and of itself. Beyond this, we have a second story about the Ark that is very telling in the account of the Temple being constructed:

You shall hang up the veil under the clasps, and bring in the ark of the testimony there within the veil; and the veil shall serve as a partition for you between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. You shall put the atoning cover on the ark of the testimony in the Most Holy Place. (Exodus 26:33, 34 NASB)

The Ark is not only constructed with heavenly likeness’ adoring its top, but it also has a central place in the worship life of Israel. This graven image sits in the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed to enter once a year on the Day of Atonement to offer sacrifices to God, who sat on top of it. (Lev. 16:2) This is a direct liturgical use of a created image within the context of worship in Ancient Israel, directly commanded by God.

We have more examples of images being commanded to be created by God in the form of the Bronze Serpent (Num. 21:6ff), and although he commanded its creation to save His people, this blessing over time indeed became a Second Commandment violation and needed to be destroyed by King Hezekiah:

He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, in accordance with everything that his father David had done. He removed the high places and smashed the memorial stones to pieces, and cut down the Asherah. He also crushed to pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel had been burning incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan.” (2 Kings 18:1-4, NASB)

We have a description of Hezekiah that precedes his story to allow us to understand his motives: he did what was right in the Lord’s sight, and he followed the example of King David. We know that he was attempting to follow God’s commands justly, and intentionally. In doing so, he found it right to destroy the sacred places and memorial sites of the Jewish people as well as destroy an idol of a female deity, Asherah. He found it necessary also to destroy the Bronze Serpent that God commanded Moses to make as there were Israelites making an incense sacrifice before it. So here, we have an image that God commanded to be made, but for a reason that developed as time went on, it needed to be destroyed. The reason the text gives for this is found in the following passages:

He [Hezekiah] trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel; and after him there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among those who came before him. For he clung to the Lord; he did not desist from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses. (2 Kings 18:5-6 NASB, emphasis mine)

Hezekiah trusted in the Lord alone, whereas his fellow Jews had sought their needs from the Bronze Serpent. This serpent’s construction and use was given by God to Moses, and it was just and right to do as God does not command His people to sin. However, humans all too frequently take his blessings and find new ways to turn them into sins. Here the Jewish people forsook going to God for their problems, and instead sought their needs from this statue.

This gives us an idea as to what a true violation of the command is: it has something to do with who you seek out when you are in need. Do the Israelites rely on God alone? Or do they seek something from this created image to give them what they need? We see Hezekiah did what was right, fully trusting in God and keeping His Commandments the same as Moses did by making the Serpent in the first place. But when the serpent was causing the Israelites to seek its provision, offering it these sacrifices rather than to trust in Yahweh for their needs, they broke the Second Commandment, and thus, the serpent necessarily needed to be destroyed. We also see this in the parallel to the fertility-god statue that Hezekiah also destroyed along with the sacred places and memorial stones. These were areas where Jews were using them inappropriately in the same way the Bronze Statue was abused. The people to one extent or another were using these spaces to get access to someone or something to meet their needs, thus not trusting in God alone leading to their inevitable destruction.

Therefore, it suits that it is not necessarily the actions associated with the worship, such as bowing or serving an image per-se, but to do such actions as-if the image is a god that breaks the Commandment. God has commanded the creation of images, instituted their proper use in worship and liturgy, but when you place your trust in the cherubim on the altar, a bronze serpent atop a pole, or in a specific sacred place of memory rather than the one true God; you are then breaking this commandment. The image itself nor its use inherently break this prohibition, but it is your trust in this created image which breaks it. Whether it be the Solomonic throne made of golden lions (1 Kings 10:19-20), the lions and bulls that supported the basin in the temple (1 Kings 7:25, 29), or merely the Cherubim which were to be centrally located in the worship service by a command of God: there truly was a biblical use of imagery in the Torah.

With this understanding in mind, we can now turn to the truly iconic case that aniconists use to attribute a Second Commandment violation to those who utilize iconography in their worship life: the golden calf in Exodus 32. In the narrative the Jewish people were gathering around Aaron, growing weary of waiting for Moses to bring word from Yahweh on what to do next, telling him “Come, make for us a god who will go before us; for this Moses…we do not know what happened to him”. (Exo. 32:1 NASB)

Put simply: they wanted their problems solved. They were impatient and decided to fashion a god themselves as the people proclaimed in their own understanding, “This is your god, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Exo. 32:4 NASB) In this instance Israel even tried making a means to answer their own problem saying it was indeed the God who led them out of Egypt. They attempted to craft not an altogether different god, but they desired to usurp the direct contact they had through Moses due to their own sinful impatience and decided instead to offer their offerings not to God directly, or in a way that He commanded, but on an altar in front of this infamous idol. As offerings are always offered to receive something they need from the person they are offering too, the Hebrews have ceased trusting in God alone by no longer trusting in Moses as the chosen means of mediation, and in doing so they now have sought their needs through offerings to this new god, this idol, they crafted. Their trust was no longer in Yahweh and His promises through Moses, but in something else, thus, breaking the Second Commandment in another way.

As we have shown thoroughly above merely bowing down or utilizing images are in and of themselves not breaking the Second Commandment. With commands all over the Old Testament as a witness to right and proper worship, it is inconceivable that merely bowing down to created things,5 6 7 servitude to another person or king (Gen. 39:4), or making an offering to someone (Dan. 2:46) is to be seen in the strictest sense as worship, or idolatry. These are postures to denote the paying of honor and respect that have been frequently done in the Old Testament without necessarily being associated with the worship due only to God in the Second Commandment. But is this the correct understanding of what constitutes worship? One need not look further than to the Word of God himself to discover what He understands this Commandment to mean.

A New Testament Clarification

We can see the proposed understanding in the New Testament example of Jesus’ temptations in the Book of Matthew. In this instance we see the Devil has come tempting the very Word of God in a futile attempt to illicit some sin from his responses. In the ninth verse the Devil says, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship (προσκυνήσῃς) me.” (Matt. 4:9 NASB, Greek emphasis mine) The Devil here is asking from Jesus the same thing that we mentioned in the first section of our paper, the bowing down, the paying of homage. Using our definition, the mere act of bowing down or revering is not in and of itself a breaking of the Second Commandment, but it is doing so as if the person was a god. So how does Jesus reply here? He rebukes the Devil, saying, “Go away, Satan! For it is written: ‘You shall worship (προσκυνήσεις) the Lord your God, and serve (λατρεύσεις) Him only.’” (Matt. 4:10 NASB, Greek emphasis mine)

The interesting thing about this text is Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 6:13 almost word for word from the Septuagint Greek rather than the Hebrew Torah. When you compare the two you can see a particular thing:

κύριον τὸν θεόν σου φοβηθήσῃ καὶ αὐτῷ λατρεύσεις (Deu. 6:13a LXX, emphasis mine)

Κύριον τὸν θεόν σου προσκυνήσεις καὶ αὐτῷ μόνῳ λατρεύσεις. (Matt. 4:10, NA28, emphasis mine)

Jesus here does something interesting when citing the text. Jesus changes firstly the word from φοβηθήσῃ, a word for fear or reverence, and exchanges it with προσκυνήσεις, the word in Exodus 20:5 in the same Septuagint translation Jesus was quoting from for what we are not to do to idols, (οὐ προσκυνήσεις [LXX, emphasis mine]). Thus, associating these two words for what the devil was asking him to do (Ταῦτά σοι πάντα δώσω, ἐὰν πεσὼν προσκυνήσῃς μοι, [Matt. 4:9 NA28, emphasis mine]). The Devil here was not merely asking Jesus to bow down to him, he was asking Jesus to do something else. Something that Jesus recognized right away and rebuked the devil with the true temptation that he desired: he desired Jesus’ φοβηθήσῃ, his fear and reverence.

After all, if Jesus wanted to cite scripture to merely say the bowing down, or paying homage to a person was sinful, why not simply quote the Second Commandment in Exodus 20:5? It contains the actual word that Satan used in his temptation with the explicit “do not” before it (οὐ προσκυνήσεις…), or why not keep the original wording in Deuteronomy 6 which uses that same word He was quoting? It is because even Jesus knew this was not a prohibition on an act such as bowing. Jesus rightly then replaces the word with what the Devil was truly after, he wanted Jesus to fear him more than God. Because if Jesus feared the devil, He would not be fearing and trusting in God above all else. In that deception lies the breaking of this Commandment.

To further support this idea, we need only look to other examples of this same word in either Greek or Hebrew to see that they are used frequently for acts that do not include a worship designed only for God. In Leviticus we have a reiteration of the command to honor our mother and father,

אִ֣ישׁ תִּירָ֔אוּ אִמּ֤וֹ וְאָבִיו֙ תִּירָ֔אוּ

καστος πατέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ μητέρα αὐτοῦ φοβείσθω,

“Everyone one of you his father and mother shall fear/revere…” (Lev. 19-3)

Where God commands us to fear someone other than him in the same way we are commanded to fear him in Deuteronomy 6: our very parents. We are to fear and honor them, as that is the same word Jesus is using in his rebuke of the Devil. If that fear and reverence was merely reserved for God alone, why would God command us to do it to our parents? Furthermore, why would Israel do it to Moses and Joshua after his installation,

בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא גִּדַּ֤ל יְהוָה֙ אֶת־ יְהוֹשֻׁ֔עַ בְּעֵינֵ֖י כָּל־ יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיִּֽרְא֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר יָרְא֥וּ אֶת־

έν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ηὔξησεν κύριος τὸν ᾿Ιησοῦν ἐναντίον παντὸς τοῦ γένους Ισραηλ, καὶ ἐφοβοῦντο αὐτὸν ὥσπερ Μωυσῆν,

On that day exalted Yahweh Joshua, in the sight of all Israel, and they feared/revered him as they feared/revered Moses. (Joshua 4:14)

The people of Israel did not fear or revere God alone, and they were not rebuked here for it either by Joshua, by Moses or by God who exalted both. Instead, they recognized that the fear from Deuteronomy 6 is not exclusive to God. They would, however, be breaking that commandment by fearing them as gods. This becomes even more the case when we look at texts that are involving worship and this word for fear: because it always involved a false god.

In The Book of Judges God reminds his people, ’I am the Lord your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But you have not obeyed Me.’” (Judg. 6:10, NASB), the same word used above but now with a prohibition: do not do this to their gods. We have an express command to do it to Yahweh in Deuteronomy 6, to our parents in Leviticus 19, even Paul commands us to give it to those to whom it is due in Romans 13:7. And yet, here we have the actual prohibition of the Second Commandment variety (i.e., to other gods). And by Jesus bowing down to the devil, He would have to stop fearing the Lord as God, and now show his fear in homage to the devil, which would now constitute an act of idolatry. Not because of the inherent bowing or paying of special reverence, but because if Jesus trusted in the Words of God given in Genesis 3 that he will crush the serpent’s head, he would need to forsake that and now bow to that serpent instead. Jesus, in perfect form, did not use the Devil’s terminology and instead exposed his true intentions: he desired Jesus to forsake his fear and trust of God above all else. That is what true worship, and idolatry, are constituted as.

Patristic Formulations of Iconography and Idol Worship

Throughout this paper the defining of the Second Commandment, both its prohibitions and affirmations, has been the chief focus. Namely how did the writers of the Bible, and the people who it mentions therein, utilize images in their worship and devotions? Moving forward from our defining of a proper Lutheran use of iconography we move past the biblical age into the patristic age, that of the Church Fathers, to seek out the opinions of the earliest Christian writers.

Beginning with the Western church, Eusebius (d. 260 AD) describes a statue of the bleeding woman that is praying to a statue of Jesus in his Church Histories, as well as “likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings”.8 St. Ambrose (d. 397 AD) describes a vision of the Apostle Paul that appeared to him one evening, recognizing him by the likeness to his pictures that Ambrose had seen.9 This seemingly innocuous insight denotes that during the time of Ambrose they were making images of the saints. St. Augustine (d. 430 AD) has multiple references to images of our Lord and the saints in churches in his De Consensu Evangelistarum and his Reply to Faustus.10 11 12 St. Jerome (d. 420 AD) has a tremendously important notation in his In Ionam where images of the Apostles are well-known ornaments of the churches in the area.13 St. Paulinus of Nola (d.431 AD) claimed to have paid for mosaics representing some Biblical scenes and saints in the churches he presided over as Bishop.14 Gregory of Tours (d. 594 AD) although not directly referencing the use of images, tells the story of a woman who built a church for St. Stephen. She told the artists who she hired to adorn its walls with painted images of saints, and even instructed them on how they should represent each saint out of a book of saintly images she had.15 Although these western accounts are not dogmatic theological statements in nature, they do show a singular truth: the images of Christ, as well as saints and Biblical figures were extremely common within the early church. Beyond this, the silence of these such minds in any attempt at a rebuke of such usage speaks tremendously loud to their theology.

From the Eastern churches we have an all too similar story. St. Basil (d. 379 AD) requested painters to do the saints a higher honor by making images of [St. Barlaam] better than he could describe by his own words.16 St. Nilus (c. 430 AD), a disciple of St. John Chrysostom, becomes an early example of some images over others being acceptable within the context of worship. Nilus blames a friend of his for wishing to decorate a church with profane decorations, and instead exhorts him to replace this one type of image with scenes from Scriptures.17 This commendable example shows that not all images are as appropriate for worship, but that any image used should be sacred, and held as such within a churchly context. St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444 AD) is another example of boundaries within the Eastern tradition, as he was such a fervent defender of iconography that his opponents accused him of idolatry as well!18 This accusation was addressed earlier in this paper and is the primary accusation of the parties typically opposed to the use of images within worship even in our day. This early example shows that not only is this tension quite ancient, the dominate tradition that remained was firmly on the side of Cyril, with the iconoclast position fading over the next three hundred years until its dogmatic declaration in the Second Nicaean Council.

Finally, we have St. Gregory the Great (d. 604 AD) who interacted with an iconoclast Bishop, Serenus of Marseilles, as word had gotten to Gregory of his destruction of sacred images within his Diocese. Gregory wrote to the bishop, Not without reason has antiquity allowed the stories of saints to be painted in holy places. And we indeed entirely praise thee for not allowing them to be adored, but we blame thee for breaking them. For it is one thing to adore an image, it is quite another thing to learn from the appearance of a picture what we must adore. What books are to those who can read, that is a picture to the ignorant who look at it; in a picture even the unlearned may see what example they should follow; in a picture they who know no letters may vet read. Hence, for barbarians especially a picture takes the place of a book (Ep. ix, 105, in P.L., LXXVII, 1027)

Gregory clearly was making a distinction in his use of iconography. Firstly, he states that in his understanding it has been a tradition since antiquity that stories of saints are to be painted in holy places, such as the church. He also established a limit to the use of these icons, in that adoration of them is to be condemned entirely. However, he states that it is the holy example to which one can learn from their likenesses. This is their proper use. The holy lives of the saints are an open book, an example for those who cannot read about their lives due to ignorance (i.e., illiteracy), yet teaches them silently about the one who they must adore: God. For the lives of the saints truly reflect the love and faith the saint had in Christ Jesus.

The above quote is often cited within Protestant circles to show a historical continuation of theology with the early church in terms of image use, but St. Gregory has a breadth of definitions that need to be considered as well that most Protestants might have a difficult time with. In a translation of his Regula Pastoralis by his friend Anastasius, Bishop of Theopolis (d. 609 AD), he quotes Gregory, We worship (proskynoumen) men and the holy angels; we do not adore (latreuomen) them. Moses says: Thou shalt worship thy God and Him only shalt thou adore. Behold, before the word 'adore' he puts 'only', but not before the word 'worship', because it is lawful to worship [creatures], since worship is only giving special honor (times emphasis), but it is not lawful to adore them nor by any means to give them prayers of adoration (proseuxasthai) (Schwarzlose, op. cit., 24, Greek addition original)

Gregory, in his citation of Jesus rebuking the devil, denotes an interesting use of the word “worship” here to the Protestant ear. The quote comes from the Deuteronomy verse we spoke of earlier in our own expedition into the original languages. Jesus connected the word for fear [φοβέω] and bow down, pay homage (προσκυνήσεις). Where Jesus, the very Word of God himself, added an only (μόνῳ) to the second half of the command, but not the first section. As we brought up earlier it is interesting that Jesus did not just provide the word in the original Deuteronomy text, as this is the word the Devil explicitly used, “…if You fall down and worship [προσκύνησης] me.” (Matt. 4:9 NASB, Greek addition mine) The “only” addition of Jesus thus cannot apply to the first half of the sentence, the fear or paying of homage, because then God would contradict Himself when we are called to do thusly to our parents. So, the only section, as Gregory masterfully points out, shows us that there is a distinction between the paying of homage and the latrian form of worship (adoration) that is reserved only for God.

This interesting verse used by Gregory to show a distinction in special honor being shown to someone, proskynoumen, and an adoration reserved to God, latreuomen, is one often cited today by many Orthodox church communions as a proof text for a distinction in veneration. For the Orthodox, a dulian act, that is, a veneration due to the saints and icons, and a latrian act, that is, an act of adoration or service reserved distinctly for God, are used to explain much of their practices with icons to the present day. From bowing down to images of saints, kissing their frames during services, and even praying to them (which we will cover in our final chapter). Earlier we treated the Hebrew words for the Second Commandment, but when viewed in the Septuagint Greek this distinction becomes clearer for the East: You shall not worship [προσκυνησεις] them nor serve [λατρευσης] them;” (Exo. 20:5a NASB with Greek LXX) Without needing to reiterate the many multitudes of examples of honoring or prostrations that are not sinful in the Old Testament here, the Orthodox view their reverence to their icons as not adoration, which is due only to God, but as veneration which is acceptable to a multitude of people for a plethora of reasons. In short, since they do not view the icon itself as a god, nor pay homage to them as such, there is no violation in their particular use of icons.

Now, this does not explain the relationship of prayers to the saints for the needs of the church militant. This will be addressed more thoroughly in the next section. Finishing with the patristic age should leave you with a sense that indeed iconography was widespread during the early formative years of the church. Along with this the fact that there was even a proper, and improper use of these images lends credence to its widespread practice. Not detracting from the uses which the saints exhibited, it does seem a tension began to develop even back in these early years. In the next section we will discover what the Book of Concord, the Lutheran book of confessions on the Christian faith, has to say about the Second Commandment, idols, worship and even prayers to the saints.

Can a Lutheran maintain the practice of Icons?

This far we have assembled from the scriptures and the early church a working definition of what constitutes a violation of the Second Commandment: worshiping someone or something as a god. Given the above extrapolations we see examples of the giving of honor, even an offering of incense from King Nebuchadnezzar to Daniel, where Daniel did not rebuke or repent of the action, and God did not show any dismay with it either. (Dan. 2:46). Clearly, using our definition from earlier, this would not break the Second Commandment because Nebuchadnezzar was merely paying respect to Daniel, and was not worshiping or adoring him as a god. Quite the contrary, he was honoring the true God whom he served by honoring His servant. In this way, the worship, the paying of homage or honor, to a man (or likewise even an image) would not necessarily constitute idolatry, unless you treated the object like a god.

According to our Large Catechism, Luther defines what it is to be a god in terms of a Second Commandment. He states,

Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. That is: Thou shalt have [and worship] Me alone as thy God. What is the force of this, and how is it to be understood? What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God?

Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.19

If this understanding be a true and accurate understanding on idolatry, then one cannot possibly take issue with the paying of honor (worship in the classical sense), or in the reverence properly paid to saints as Paul commends us to do in Romans 13:7.

This, however, does not necessitate the usage of iconography that has developed over the centuries in Rome or the East. The Eastern churches being significantly more decentralized in structure, and with their agreement with the Roman Catholic Church on this practice, one need only look to the Roman articulation for an accurate summation of their confession. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,

The witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today. They contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they have left on earth. When they entered into the joy of their Master, they were "put in charge of many things." Their intercession is their most exalted service to God's plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.20

The first sentence in this explanation on prayers to the saints sounds both vaguely familiar to the Augsburg Confession as well as Gregory the Great in his letter to the iconoclast bishop Serenus. The Lutheran Confession states, “…Of the Worship of Saints they teach that the memory of saints may be set before us, that we may follow their faith and good works, according to our calling, as the emperor may follow the example of David in making war to drive away the Turk from his country.”21 In this statement both formulations are present as early as the time of Gregory on the benefits of images of the saints in replicating their example. It is in the following lines that the Roman tradition develops away from the Lutheran formulation extensively. The Confession continues, “But the Scripture teaches not the invocation of saints or to ask help of saints, since it sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Propitiation, High Priest, and Intercessor…He is to be prayed to.”22

The Saints, as both Gregory and the Lutheran Confessions state, are wonderful examples of faith to be emulated by Christians. In addition, Gregory states that they are truly worthy to have their images set inside the church, even that it is proper to do so, for the instruction of the ignorant. Rome as well as the East, however, move into philosophical proofs drawing from the early testimony of St. Basil the Great’s assertation that honor paid to an image passes to its prototype.23 Augustine argues against such an understanding fervently, stating that prayer to an image expecting that it will be heard is indeed idol worship when he writes about the pagans, “…while, by considering these works [images] themselves as deities, and worshipping them as such, they serve the creature more than the Creator, Who is blessed for ever. But who worshippeth or prayeth with his eyes upon an idol, who is not so affected, as to imagine that he is listened to, as to hope that what he desireth is given him by his idol?”.24 This philosophical argumentation continues to develop to the extent that not only are images of saints to be prayed to, but they are also almost seen as magical in and of themselves. There were accounts of paint chips being placed into communion wine and bread and fed to the faithful.25 These views are nowhere to be found in the affirmative either before, or leading up to, the Seventh Ecumenical Council where iconography was thoroughly reestablished in the church catholic after a pervasive iconoclasm swept Byzantine Christendom.26 27 28 29 30 31

The saints then took on a role of intercessor for our needs, in a sense. People were encouraged to ask them to intercede for us on behalf of a need that we have. An in-depth look into the practice is out of the scope of this research paper but continuing in the thread of the idolatry above we can see how relying on any created image, or even a created being for your needs above God constitutes a violation of the commandment prohibiting idols. When one moves from revering an image of a beloved member of God’s church or looking to it for silent into petitioning it rather than God directly, you are committing the same sin that caused the golden serpent to be destroyed by Hezekiah. The Jews believed God when he promised that those who looked upon it will be healed, not that this luxurious snake would save them. It was the promise of God attached to this physical object, the promise of God which healed them. God was the actor, not the image. In like fashion the people in Hezekiah’s day relied on the snake for their needs, and not in the Word of Yahweh and His promises. Therefor an idol was born that required its destruction.

Keeping these boundaries is crucial for a proper Christian use of Iconography. If one can look to icons for instruction in holy living and can even show reverence to them as we do to photos of our own family members, keeping them close and important because they are truly our distant relatives in Christ, then they serve the purpose of Gregory, of the early church writers, and even of our confessions. But if one moves beyond that boundary to relying on either the image or saint in our distress and need rather than God Himself through Jesus Christ, His established mediator, we run the risk of erring as the Jews in the age of Hezekiah did.


Within American Lutheranism the tendency to shy away from a use of iconography in worship has been either intentionally, or perhaps subconsciously, most often adopted from a reformed perspective rather than a Biblical or historical one. Although this hesitancy is predominantly pious in nature that does not necessarily need to follow in a confessional Lutheran context. From the Old Testament practice of commanded statues to be made for use in liturgical worship, to the ultimate image of God in Jesus Christ: the use of iconography has been widely used throughout church history without the same hesitation shared by many today in American Lutheranism.

This use, always being optional, should not bring one with a historic Christian faith to turmoil but rather enrich their personal and collective worship and devotional life by invoking with the eyes what is felt in the heart by hymns and songs. In the Lutheran attempt to piously follow the commandments to a level extrapolated not from the scriptures themselves or from the history which cradled it from author to ear, a simple glance to the East can do much in terms of visual instruction on the faith through this doubtlessly ancient practice.


1. 2021. Exodus 20:4 Parallel Hebrew Texts. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 September 2021].

2. 2021. Exodus 20:4 Parallel Hebrew Texts. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 September 2021].

3. 2021. Exodus 20:4 Parallel Hebrew Texts. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 September 2021].

4. 2021. Exodus 20:4 Parallel Hebrew Texts. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 September 2021].

5. 2021. 1 Kings Chapter 1. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 September 2021].

6. 2021. Genesis Chapter 42. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 September 2021].

7. 2021. Genesis Chapter 18. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 September 2021]; 2021. Bereishit – Genesis - Chapter 18. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 September 2021].

8. “His. ecc.”, VII, xviii, Matt, ix, 20-2

9. “Ep. Ii”, Ambrose of Milan, in P.L., XVII, 821

10. “De cons. Evang”, Augustine of Hippo, x in P.L., XXXIV, 1049;

11. Contra Faustum”, Augustine of Hippo, Book XXII.73

12. “De mor. Eccl”. Augustine of Hippo, cath.", xxxiv, P.L., XXXII, 1342

13. “In Ionam”, Jerome, iv

14. P.L., Paulinus of Nola, LXI, 884

15. Hist. Franc., II, Gregory of Tours, 17, P.L., LXXI, 215

16. “Or. in S. Barlaam", Basil the Great, in P.G., XXXI

17. Epist. IV, Nilus, 56

18. Schwarzlose, "Der Bilderstreit" i, 3-15

19. 1st Commandment | Book of Concord". N.p. 2020. Web. 07 September 2021. < > Sections I & II.

20. Church, C. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section IV, Article iii, 2683

21. Article XXI.1 Of the Worship of the Saints | Book of Concord". N.p. 2019. Web. 07 September 2021. < >

22. Article XXI.2-3, Of the Worship of the Saints | Book of Concord". N.p. 2019. Web. 07 September 2021. < >

23. ‘The painter, the stone carver and the one who makes statues from gold and bronze: each takes matter, looks at the prototype, receives the imprint of that which he contemplates, and presses it like a seal into his material.’ (Second Refutation of the Iconoclasts, Basil the Great, para. 11)

24. Expositions on the book of Psalms, Augustine of Hippo, published 1847-57, Oxford: John Henry Parker, Kelly Library; Toronto, MSN, University of Toronto, Vol. 5, pages 282-283. (Emphasis mine) <>

25. “They have removed the holy cross from the churches and replaced it by images before which they burn incense.... They sing psalms before these images, prostrate themselves before them, implore their help. Many dress up images in linen garments and choose them as godparents for their children. Others who become monks, forsaking the old tradition — according to which the hair that is cut off is received by some distinguished person — let it fall into the hands of some image. Some priests scrape the paint off images, mix it with the consecrated bread and wine and give it to the faithful. Others place the body of the Lord in the hands of images from which it is taken by the communicants. Others again, despising the churches, celebrate Divine Service in private houses, using an image as an altar” (Mansi, XIV, 417-22).

26. Kitzinger, Ernst, "The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm", Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 8, (1954), pp. 83–150, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, JSTOR

27. "Internet History Sourcebooks Project". N.p. n.d. Web. 07 September 2021. < > Council of Hieria, Canon XIX

28. Second Council of Nicaea, Canon VII.

29. Ibid., Canon IX

30. Warren T. Treadgold (1997). A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford University Press. p. 388. ISBN 978-0-8047-2630-6. Retrieved 27 January 2013.

31. “His. ecc.”, VII, xviii, Matt, ix, 20-2

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