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Invocation and Icons of the Saints

Part 3 of "Nicea II and You: Conciliar Authority and Iconographic Devotion"

By Fr. Mark Perkins

Editor’s Note: In this series, Fr. Mark Perkins responds to Fr. Ben Jefferies’ essay “All That Is Not True About Nicea II,” his latest salvo in our ongoing discussion of the invocation of the saints. Having grounded iconography in the theology of the Incarnation in Part 1 and described the nature of an icon in Part 2, Fr. Mark here argues for the iconographic veneration of the saints. Read Part 4 here, Part 5 here, and Part 6 here.

As a young child, I remember worrying about how much I loved my own mother. I knew I was supposed to love Jesus more than I loved her, but that sure didn’t feel true. The cult of the saints provokes the same suspicion among many Protestants — that such devotion amounts to a disordered, idolatrous love.

Nothing I have written so far addresses these concerns directly. St. Basil the Great, St. John of Damascus, and the fathers of Nicea II all taught that icons are venerated but not worshipped, and that the veneration given to an icon passes through the image to the archetype. Thus, we can venerate icons of our Lord without compunction — but that does not tells us anything about icons of his saints. When I kiss an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I am not idolizing an image — but am I not idolizing our Lady herself? Does devotion to her and to all the saints detract from devotion to our Lord?

Although I am still laying theological groundwork rather than directly addressing Fr. Ben Jefferies’ “All That Is Not True About Nicea II,” this essay makes more sharply disputed claims — specifically, that devotion to icons of the saints further extends and affirms the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. My argument builds upon Fr. Wesley Walker’s previous contributions to the conversation — in particular the arguments from Scripture and Tradition and Anglican history in his second essay (see #5 in our link round-up).

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It’s worth noting here that these questions were not part of the iconoclastic controversies of the first millennium, because the great majority of iconoclasts, as represented in the “Mock Council” of Hieria (AD 754), affirmed the cult of the saints in prayer and devotion, as did all of the iconodules. In other words, for at least the thousand years leading up to the Reformation, the Church universally endorsed invocation and did so without any real controversy, as I have argued before. Nevertheless, the Church did not, Fr. Jefferies notes, make invocation part of the dogmatic declaration of any of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. One could argue that the Holy Spirit intervened to protect the Church from error. I argue instead that the universality of invocation suggests its propriety — but that it must remain a matter of “pious opinion” rather than an authoritative and binding teaching.

Let me grant at the outset that the cult of the saints can be abused, and that, as Fr. Wesley and I have each acknowledged, there are times and places where the Church may wisely modify her devotional practices to curb such potential abuses. However, devotion to the saints is unlikely to pass over into outright idolatry, so long as it remains rooted in the life of the Church expressed in her creeds and liturgies.

Idolatry as Excessive Love?

One cannot love the Blessed Virgin Mary too much. As our rector is fond of saying, Jesus loves his Mother far more than any of us do. You cannot outstrip Christ’s love of Mary. You can only fall short of it. So it is for all the saints, and indeed for everything. Contra my childish apprehensions about loving my mother too much, it is simply not possible to love anything too much!

“Wait a minute,” you might object, “doesn’t St. Paul warns against that very thing when he lists ‘inordinate affection’ (Col. 3:5-6) among the causes of God’s wrath?” Now if you go ahead and type “inordinate” into Google, you’ll find the following definition: “unusually or disproportionately large; excessive.” That definition, while colloquially acceptable, is imprecise. The English word inordinate means not excessive but rather disordered. (The Greek is pathos, which the ESV, NRSV, and others straightforwardly though ambiguously translate as "passion;" the KJV attempts to capture the New Testament tendency to use the word in its disordered sense.)

C. S. Lewis (1898 – 1963)

The best descriptions of inordinate affection that I have found come from C. S. Lewis. The Great Divorce includes a brief portrait of a mother seemingly condemned to hell because of her excessive affection for her son. As the interaction between the narrator (who is Lewis himself in a dream state) and this mother develops, we come to see that the mother’s problem is not an excess of love but rather a disorder — she does not love her son too much but rather in the wrong way. This disorder slowly but surely corrupts and poisons this mother’s love so fully that, eventually, it becomes indistinguishable from outright hatred. Her son has ceased to be the object of her love and has become an instrument for self-gratification — in particular, for her self-understanding as a “good mother.” And that, in turn, renders her incapable of accepting the love of Jesus. Likewise, Lewis’s masterpiece, Till We Have Faces, can be read as a lengthy meditation on the subtle but deadly distinction between genuine love for others and an abusive, disordered desire masquerading as love — as well as our superb ability to hide the truth about ourselves from ourselves.

This is key: inordinate affection — disordered love — eventually turns out not to be love at all.

While one cannot love anything too much, one’s ability to rightly order the affections partly depends upon knowing the right order of loves! Love seeks another’s best, but ignorance about what is good for people can have disastrous effects. If, for instance, we believe that indulging one’s appetites constitutes the highest good, then our love for another will encourage them to pursue a path that leads inexorably to their own destruction. Alternatively, we might have an unrealistically high estimation of those we love, leading us to expect more from them than they are capable of doing or giving.

The latter mistake perhaps constitutes the primary fear of Protestants: not so much that we love the saints too much but rather that we expect from them that which we can only receive from God.

Idolatry as Misplaced Expectations?

Only recently did I notice that, apparently, no member of the Trinity is present in Lewis’ The Great Divorce. This meditation on heaven and hell lacks the explicit presence of the Almighty. Lewis’ dream guide to the afterlife is not Jesus Christ but rather George MacDonald. And in this dream world, saints and not the Savior are sent to draw wayward souls into Paradise. One might worry, then, that The Great Divorce is not about God at all but is instead an idolatrous elevation of the saints over God!

That entire line of reasoning, however, proceeds from a false division between the agents of God and the actions of God. God chooses to intervene through others. Consider the old joke about the man who drowns in a flood because he trusted in God to save him — not his own canoe or his neighbor’s boat or the rescue helicopter.

I recently encountered this approach “in the wild,” if you will, in a devotional talk by a gentleman who, when he encounters puzzling passages in his Bible reading, makes a conscientious point of not taking steps to resolve his confusion. He does not ask his pastor or discuss it with a friend. He certainly would not read commentaries or consult scholarship, much less plumb the writings of the Church fathers! Instead, he waits for God to reveal it to him directly — because, he said, God wants us to rely on him and not others. (The example he gave to illustrate his point, however, was not an unmediated insight beamed directly from heaven into his brain but rather his mother, unprompted, passing on a video clip of a pastor discussing the passage in question.)

This is not, perhaps, a mainstream evangelical practice. My Presbyterian friends read commentaries and even — gasp! — consult patristic sources! Nevertheless, Protestant concerns about saintly intercession displacing God, like this gentleman’s rejection of human counsel, reflect a misunderstanding of how God acts in history. Both, at bottom, reject the principle of mediation, and a desire for unmediated grace ultimately reflects a desire for disincarnate religion.

Idolatry as False Mediation?

That is a rather polemical claim, and concerned Protestants would object that they do not oppose mediation as such — much less the Incarnation! — but rather any mediation apart from Jesus Christ. After all, there is but one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). As the BCP affirms, Jesus Christ is “our only Mediator and Advocate.” (75). But we have to understand what this does and does not mean. Prior to the Incarnation and absent any knowledge of Jesus, creation testifies to God, as we learn in various Psalms (8, 19, 104, etc.) and in Romans. And if creation manifests God’s presence, does this not violate the principle of Jesus Christ as the sole mediator between God and man? The answer is obviously no, and for a number of reasons.

The mediation about which 1 Timothy 2:5 most directly speaks is Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice through which we have redemption of sins. Christ alone atones for our sins; there is no other Redeemer. Creation, meanwhile, testifies to God, but, by itself and within itself, creation does not contain the means of redemption.

1 Timothy also implicitly indicates a deeper mediation, for behind the text and undergirding the redemptive power of the cross lies the Incarnation. There is only One who, through the hypostatic union of divine and human natures, bridges the unbridgeable gap — not so much the gap between condemnation and righteousness but rather the more fundamental, prelapsarian gap between the creature and the Creator. Creation obviously cannot bridge the gap between creation and Creator. Only the Incarnate One can do that.

If we think, however, that 1 Timothy 2:5 means that the heavens cannot declare the glory of God (contra Ps. 19), then not only do we pit Scripture against Scripture, but we also pit creation against the Agent of creation, the Logos. As John 1 reveals, Jesus is the Word through whom all things exist, and so all the divine speech poured forth by creation comes through the Second Person of the Trinity, without whom “was not any thing made that was made” (Jn. 1:3). And so, even as we recognize that the testimony of creation is not the kind of mediation described in 1 Timothy 2:5, we must also recognize that creation mediates not independently of but rather precisely through the one Mediator, Jesus Christ.

This principle of God working through materiality was established in creation and spectacularly confirmed and expanded in the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, he permanently brought created materiality — human flesh — into the internal life of the Trinity. In Christ, the Christian, and the Church, E. L. Mascall notes that the union of the Christian with God — the mutual abiding of which St. John so often speaks — happens by means of three analogous but distinct unions. The first is the internal, unbroken, and eternal union of the Trinity itself. The second is the hypostatic union of two natures, human and divine, in one divine Person. And the third is the grafting of the Christian into that Person’s Body. The Christian is thereby brought into the very life of the Trinity, becoming a partaker of the divine nature (2 Pt. 1:4). The Incarnation provides the means necessary for such union. What’s especially remarkable — and somewhat surprising, given Old Testament witness to the death-inducing glory of the divine (Ex. 33:20) — is that this union does not destroy human nature but rather glorifies it. As Mascall says elsewhere, for God to assume human flesh means that human flesh must somehow be assumable by nature, which turns out to be the ultimate meaning of the Imago Dei (36).

The Christian’s life points to God not only as a consequence of deification — but also as a result of living truly and fully human lives. Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) — he reveals God to man, as I have argued in previous essays. But he also reveals true humanity (Bulgakov 61-64; see also Marc Cortez’s ReSourcing Theological Anthropology). Our Lord’s Incarnation actually turns out to be a restoration and fulfillment of the original creation of the human person in God’s image. Somehow, human beings have always “imaged” the divine. Somehow, humanity must always have been open to participation in the divine life.

Hence, Leonid Ouspensky concludes that “a saint is more truly a man than is a sinner, since, by reassuming likeness to God, he achieves the original purpose of his being, is clothed in the incorruptible Beauty of the Kingdom of God, in the creation of which he participates with his life” (35; see also St. John of Damascus 32f, 44f). Just as icons of Christ show us the glorified Christ, so too do other icons present us with the “deified” saint — the saint in heaven participating in the divine life. The lives of Christians point to Christ, but we do so imperfectly. The icon teaches us that the saint now does so perfectly, having been glorified. Hence icons are not idealistic but realistic — a symbolic and apocalyptic realism, but a realism nonetheless.

Fr. Maximos Constas puts it beautifully: “In light of creation and Incarnation, icons reveal and convey the vision of the Divine Glory in which our world is immersed, and of which our world is a reflection, as if all things were enfolded within some great Living Being, whose tracks we see everywhere — of which we ourselves are the tracks and traces, because we too are images of the unimageable. We too are images and icons of that for which no image or icon can be made.”

Through the Incarnation, then, we find a radically and qualitatively different instantiation of the basic point that God works through his agents. The trees in my backyard testify to their Creator, as do I. But I, by the grace of God and through baptism, have been grafted into Jesus Christ himself and become a living member of His Mystical Body. Every Christian act of witness is the act of Christ, which is why the sins of Christians are treated with such startling gravity in the New Testament. What so scandalizes St. Paul about the sexual immorality of the Corinthians is that their actions sully the very body parts of Jesus Christ — “shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot?” (1 Cor. 6:15).

Turning to the saints for aid no more constitutes a turning away from God than seeking out the aid of my rector or my wife constitutes practical idolatry. The rationale behind rejecting icons and the intercessory aid of the saints strongly implies that we ought also reject the aid of the living saints who surround us — not only their prayers but also the aid of the special graces and gifts God grants to each Christian. Both share in a fatal false dilemma, distancing our Lord from his own Mystical Body and divorcing Bridegroom from Bride. Both, then, reject the implications of the Incarnation — and thus are but a short step from a wholesale rejection of the Incarnation itself.

Idolatry as Misplaced Worship

We love the saints because of their love for Jesus, and we love them because they lead us to God. We cannot love them too much. We cannot expect anything from them apart from Christ. Whatever aid they give us — whether by their examples or their prayers — is precisely the work of Christ.

Having established the cult of the saints as — like iconography — in general an affirmation and extension of the Incarnation, we must ask the same question we asked of icons of Christ. Do we worship the saints? Clearly the answer is no, but my foregoing summary could be misread as suggesting that idolatry of the saints is logically impossible — as though worship given to the saints would automatically pass through the saints to the Savior. This is not the case, as St. John of Damascus and the fathers of Nicea II unambiguously affirmed. The veneration proper to saints and icons is always qualitatively distinct from the worship owed to God alone. Misplaced worship constitutes true idolatry, and so we must ask whether the cult of saints can become idolatrous.

We image God through participation in Jesus Christ. We are deified by ingrafting and adoption, whereas God is divine by nature. And though the gap between humanity and the divine was permanently bridged in the Incarnation, the gap between divinity-by-nature in the Trinity and divinity-by-participation in the Church is absolute. This gap constitutes the proper boundary between worship and devotion. It is therefore theoretically possible for our devotion to the saints and our petitions for their prayers to slide into worship, which is indeed idolatry.

Having acknowledged that, let me suggest that the division between healthy devotion and idolatrous worship is far more stark than Protestants fear. The principle that all creation participates in the divine through the Son’s creative action obviously does not eliminate idolatry as such. All trees exist by means of the Son, but one can nevertheless make an idol of a tree. This happens when the tree is severed from its proper place in the divine economy and becomes an object of disordered love (which love inevitably becomes poisonous and destructive). Still, no matter how much a Christian might love trees, it is difficult to imagine faithful Christians sliding into actual tree-worship. They would have to see the goodness of trees as separate from the Creator’s goodness. Likewise, to turn the cult of the saints into idolatry, one would have to sever the saints from their Savior and to see their holiness as entirely separate from Jesus and from his Mystical Body. When we grasp the intimate union between Christ and His Body, and when the cult of the saints is part of the life of the Church — framed by her creeds and liturgies and sacraments — it is nigh impossible to slide into outright idolatry.

I remember realizing with relief that my love for my mother — and for my wife and my children — was in no sense competing with my love for God. To the contrary, one way we love God is precisely by loving his creatures. Our love for them — and in particular for his saints — gives us further reason to thank and praise and love God, and so our love becomes yet another means of worshipping and giving glory to God.

The Real Danger: Instrumentalization

Nevertheless, if it is difficult to end up in actual idolatry, we can easily abuse the cult of the saints in other ways. We do this not by loving them too much nor by turning to them when we should turn to God but when, instead of loving them as fellow members of the Body of Christ, we use them as means to an end. I am indeed personally uncomfortable with elements of the cult of the saints that appear to cast them as a heavenly host of handy helpers, ready to assist with a chore here or drum up a parking space there.

But let’s be clear — this problem is not solved if we instrumentalize God directly rather than instrumentalizing his saints. The difference between “Hail Mary full of grace, help me find a parking place” and “God, let me get a spot close to the store!” is not a difference between idolatry and genuine worship. It is not clear to me that God has granted his saints the particular gifts and graces of popular Roman Catholic piety — i.e. St. Anthony, finder of lost things — but such gifts, if they do exist, would not substantially differ from the varied gifts of the Body described in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and elsewhere in the New Testament. Whatever aid we might receive from the saints would be God’s own aid.

Instrumentalization, then, is not really a problem with the saints. To whatever extent it is present in the cult of the saints it is likely just as present in your local Baptist church. It is not a Catholic problem or an Orthodox problem or a Protestant problem. It is a human problem, and it applies just as much to our relations with friends and family as it does to the saints and to God. Our tendency to instrumentalize others does not disappear when, instead of treating the Blessed Virgin as our magical wishgiver, we turn God himself into the Almighty Genie. Consider the analogous and ruinous misconception that lust becomes love when the object of such desire is your own spouse and not your neighbor’s. All these abusive intrumentalizations do tend towards a particular kind of idolatry — the idolatrous worship of self.

This is not an easily resolvable problem. What could seem the obvious solution — not bringing our needs and petitions and intercessions to God or to anyone else — is catastrophically misguided. We should cast all our cares on him who cares for us (1 Pt. 5:7). We should ask our brothers and sisters to pray for us. We should do so in humility, recognizing that what we tell others and ourselves about our motivations and purposes does not always fully reflect the state of our hearts. This humility ought obviously to extend to our judgments of others — there is a rather astonishing degree of arrogance in the tendency of some Protestants to speak as though they had direct and unmediated access into the hearts of those who invoke the saints.

This obscurity regarding our own intentions is why we begin the Mass petitioning Almighty God to “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy Holy Name.” Common prayer is our guide. It teaches us to pray for the right things and in the right way, shaping us into people who place our trust in God’s sovereignty and provision and not our own fleeting affections. Common prayer protects us from instrumentalizing God; it likewise provides the framework for our devotion to the saints, ensuring that we always see these saints of God as members of Christ’s own Body, and that our devotion to them deepens our worship of the Triune God.

What we must ask next, in conversation with our friend Fr. Jefferies, is what room Anglican Common Prayer leaves for invocation of and devotion to the saints and their icons.

Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.


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