In this regular feature Dave and Tom respond to questions from listeners and readers of The Berean Call. Here’s this week’s question: “Dear Dave and Tom: I visited an evangelical church recently with a friend who attends there regularly. There were reproductions of icon paintings throughout the building and in the sanctuary. My friend told me the pastor was teaching them how to pray through the icons. She seemed to have no problem with that, but quite honestly, the church reminded me of a modern version of a Russian Orthodox Church in the neighborhood where I grew up. Do you see any problems in learning to pray with icons?”
Tom: Dave, now this is one of the many letters that we get about something that’s taking over in the church—I mean, I won’t say taking over—I think on the last newsletter article you talked about mushrooming; well, I’ll use that phrase. These kinds of things are mushrooming all over throughout the country in evangelical churches. For example, it’s called the emerging church, that’s one aspect. And you can find in an evangelical church—you go into the basement, and for the youth they may have something drawn on the floor that would be called a labyrinth prayer device in which they learn to meditate and it’s part of the contemplative movement headed by Richard Foster, and so on. Dave, they have prayer stations, they might even have stations of the cross, particularly over this past Easter season. But the issue of icons, the whole idea here—and this is what I think we need to address—Does the Bible condone in any way the use of images to help your prayer? To see, as they might say, that this is a device to open the windows of heaven so that we can draw closer to God? Now, before you answer, Dave, let me just give you some of the instructions that go with praying with icons, and you just address them.
Dave: These are instructions from an evangelical church…that has gotten into it?
Tom: Right, but again, this is part of the mystical movement, the contemplative movement, they would call it, looking to sacred forms that create a sacred atmosphere so we can draw closer to God. It’s all experiential. It says we are to empty our minds, we’re to empty our hearts full of desire except for God, we’re to focus on an icon and imagine what that person in the icon, whether it be Jesus or Mary or the saints, whoever it might be, would want us to think about God. The icons are supposed us to imagine things about God, and so on. What does the Bible have to say about this?
Dave: Well, Tom, it’s shocking! I’ve been in a number of Orthodox Churches, I have visited the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Moscow, a couple of hours by car. I have never found any indication that these people know what salvation is all about. I’ve seen people walking on their knees around icons, actually….
Dave: I’ve seen them lined up to pay money to have some prayers said to a dead saint. I’ve seen them lined up to be able to touch the sarcophagus or whatever, the coffin of dead saints. In Romania, in one particular city, they bring out this body, you know, the remains—I mean it’s inside a container of this particular saint. People come by the tens of thousands.
I’ve seen what this does It draws people to the so-called saints. It draws people to the icons. I’m thinking of a young woman who was my interpreter on one occasion in Russia. When she became a Christian, she went to try to tell her grandmother, who all through the Soviet years her grandmother had faithfully gone to church, and she tried to tell her about Jesus and salvation, redemption through the blood of Christ. And the grandmother knew which icons to kiss first; she knew what candles to light, and so forth, and the prayers to utter. She had not even a clue of why Jesus died on the cross! In fact she said: The one thing that has been bothering me is why did God make that boy die on the cross?
Tom, I’ve seen the fruit of icons. It takes you away from God, away from His Word. Peter writes, 1 Peter 1: “We are born again by the Word of God that liveth and abideth forever. And this is the word that by the gospel is preached unto you.” Now I have not found the gospel in the Orthodox Church. Now there may be a few people who would understand it, but, Tom, they do not get it. In fact, if you go to Russia today, the major opposition to the gospel is from the Russian Orthodox Church.
Now, the Bible is what we need: “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, a light to my path.” We’re getting into imagination now. I’m think of Calvin Miller, his book, The Table of Inwardness. He says…chapter 7 begins with these words (I’m going by memory): “One door opens to the world of the spirit, imagination.”
No, I can imagine all kinds of things, what I need to do is let the Word of God teach me and transform me, and Jesus is the living Word. So, we’re not getting closer to Jesus and to God by interposing some physical image or device.
Tom: Dave, you know I grew up Roman Catholic, this is so close to my experience as a youth, whether it be candles or statues or images in the church, and so on, but specifically related to the Russian Orthodox church—just as you said—you’ve been in Russian Orthodox churches. They have a wall of icons that supposedly separate the sanctuary. In other words, it’s supposed to be set up as the temple where you have the Holy of Holies and then you have the veil and so on. It’s almost ironic that icons are the wall that keep us from God. So, you have to go through the saints first, you have to go through this imagery to get to God. That’s idolatry! That’s an abomination before God.
Dave: Well, Tom, it’s the opposite of what the Bible teaches. It talks about “Now we see through a glass darkly, then face to face.” Hebrews 2: “Now we see Jesus….” Is it talking about physically seeing Him. Would it help for somebody to paint a picture that doesn’t even look like Jesus? That’s certainly not what He looks like today. That is the opposite of what the Bible teaches. I need to get to know Him in my spirit by the Holy Spirit and through His Word, and this is taking us down the wrong path.