The Veneration of Images and the Biblical Gospel

In both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the veneration of icons and images is a central aspect of public and private religious life. These include images meant to represent Jesus Himself, but also images of Mary, revered saints, and heavenly angels to whom they believe honor is regularly due. They are careful to distinguish between the worship they give to God alone and the mere honor and veneration they offer to images, but however seriously one takes this distinction, the practice and its foundation in certain historical traditions come into serious conflict with the gospel itself.

Veneration of Images and Eternal Life

Both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox regard the proclamations of the 2nd Council of Nicaea (787 AD)1 as sacred and authoritative tradition. It was this council that met specifically to address a controversy over the veneration of images in Christian houses of worship. In its joint declaration, the council proclaimed:

"We salute the venerable images.  We place under anathema those who do not do this," (Decree of the Second Council of Nicaea)

And again:

"Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images," (Decree of the Second Council of Nicaea).

While one cannot assume that every member of these faiths holds to this strict of a position, this is the officially recognized and authoritative doctrine as presented at the council that defined it. Biblically, to be "anathema" is to be accursed. It is to be cut off or separated from Christ, though Roman Catholics often use the term more loosely to mean cut off from the church and the sacraments though not necessarily from Christ. In what sense is the anathema pronounced here? In the first session of the council, the Bishop of Ancyra puts forward as a confession of his faith,

"I believe, therefore, and make my confession in one God, the Father Almighty, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, and in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life.  The Trinity, one in essence and one in majesty, must be worshiped and glorified in one Godhead, power, and authority.  I confess all things pertaining to the incarnation of one of the Holy Trinity, our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, as the Saints and the six Ecumenical Synods have handed down.  And I reject and anathematize every heretical babbling, as they also have rejected them. I ask for the intercessions of our spotless Lady the Holy Mother of God, and those of the holy and heavenly powers, and those of all the Saints. And receiving their holy and honorable relics with all honor, I salute and venerate these with honor, hoping to have a share in their holiness.  Likewise also the venerable images of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the humanity he assumed for our salvation; and of our spotless Lady, the holy Mother of God; and of the angels like unto God; and of the holy Apostles, Prophets, Martyrs, and of all the Saints—the sacred images of all these, I salute and venerate," (Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, Session 1).

This confession includes prayers to Mary and the saints and the veneration of their images alongside Christian essentials like the Trinity, and just as he pronounces anathema on those who deny the Trinity, he says:

"Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images," (Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, Session 1).

He concludes:

"This is my confession [of faith] and to these propositions I give my assent.  And I pronounce this with my whole heart, and soul, and mind. And if at any time by the fraud of the devil (which may God forbid!) I voluntarily or involuntarily shall be opposed to what I have now professed, may I be anathema from the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and from the Catholic Church and every hierarchical order a stranger," (Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, Session 1).

He is unmistakably clear that the anathema he pronounces here is not merely separation from the church (though it is also that). It means to be accursed from the Triune God and cut off from Christ. The presiding Patriarch affirmed and praised God for this confession. Other similar testimony included phrases such as:

"To those who do not diligently teach all the Christ-loving people to venerate and salute the venerable and sacred and honorable images of all the Saints who pleased God in their several generations, anathema!  To those who have a doubtful mind and do not confess with their whole hearts that they venerate the sacred images, anathema!" (Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, Session 1).

Now, to be absolutely clear here, the council was not saying that images save us from our sins or that the saints or angels redeemed us along with Christ. Those present affirmed:

"For we confess that one of the same holy and consubstantial Trinity, our Lord Jesus Christ the true God, in these last days was incarnate and made man for our salvation, and having saved our race through his saving incarnation, and passion, and resurrection, and ascension into heaven; and having delivered us from the error of idols; as also the prophet says, Not an ambassador, not an angel, but the Lord himself hath saved us," (Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, Session 5).

And yet, though Christ alone saves us, if one does not venerate images of saints with full certainty of heart and teach others to do the same, one is not only cast out from the church but is cut off from the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One cannot plausibly argue that to be "accursed from the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" was not intended to communicate damnation on the person if they did not repent of the deed for which they were anathematized. According to the council, the person who does not turn from his refusal to venerate idols is cut off from Christ. In this way, though they affirm that Christ alone saves, they also assert that one cannot remain in His grace without both outwardly honoring and inwardly revering paintings and pictures of men and angels. The clarity and repetition of the anathemas indisputably declare that veneration of images is not merely permissible but is absolutely necessary to remain in God's grace and thus to ultimately receive eternal life. In this way, in spite of sincere professions that Christ alone saves, this council makes one's eternal salvation contingent on one's willingness to salute icons of created beings. If I refuse to venerate the images of Mary and the saints and die without turning from this alleged heresy, I am lost in my sin and eternally condemned. Both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy went on in further authoritative pronouncements to affirm not merely this council in general but also specifically the anathemas therein,2 thus upholding this necessity as the official position of both faiths.

Biblical Anathema and What Preserves Salvation

The New Testament is also clear on the concept of anathema. Paul, in his deep compassion for his own native people, writes: 

"For I could wish that I myself were accursed [anathema], separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh," (Romans 9:3).

Paul defines anathema as being separated or cut off from Christ. Paul loved his fellow Jews so much he would surrender himself to hell and judgment if it would somehow save them! To our point here, anathema plainly means cut off from the Grace of God in Christ. To be under anathema is to be damned. As we saw, this is the sense in which the Second Council of Nicaea was using the term as well. Paul applies this term to certain errors, for example:

"If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed [anathema]," (1 Corinthians 16:22).

One who rejects Christ is accursed. They are separated from God and condemned to destruction. But can we really imagine Paul saying, "If anyone does not love the Lord, or if they do not fall on their face before drawings of guys like me, they are to be accursed!" However one parses veneration versus worship or distinguishes between praying to Christian pictures and praying to idols, there is simply no room in Scripture or the Christian gospel to add that honoring portraits of men and angels is necessary to remain in God's grace. Indeed, Paul also wrote:

"But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!" (Galatians 1:8-9).

The heresy of the false teachers in Galatia was that, though they taught that you are saved through Christ alone, they added that you must be circumcised and enter the covenant of Moses to remain in God's grace. A gospel of salvation given through the grace of Jesus Christ but afterward maintained through some ceremonial work, even a biblical ceremonial work like circumcision, was to Paul a different Gospel. Ironically, Paul taught that those who preach such a gospel are the one's who are anathema. Paul is hard on the Galatians for being so deceived:

"Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Galatians 3:3).

We can all agree that the gospel is all of Christ and nothing else. My faith is to be in God through Christ alone. Why, then, would my remaining in His grace be dependant on my bowing to images of men, burning incense before them, and praying to them? The people these images depict, having already died, are in Christ's presence and need no glory or gift I could give them, so it is certainly no act of charity from me to them. Christ is my sole mediator before the Father and has fully secured my salvation through His death and resurrection, so there is no additional grace or merit they can impart to me beyond the work of Christ who alone is Savior. Failure to ceremonially honor and revere such images is not a lack of charity toward the brethren nor is it the denial of some needed source of God's grace. Why, then, would I be accursed for failing to venerate such portraits? If I can only remain in God's grace through my prostration before images, then one cannot escape the fact that honoring these images becomes a part of the gospel. That, then, is a different gospel. The Apostles did not preach a gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ that is afterward retained only so long as you continue in wholehearted veneration of sacred icons. My salvation is not only bought by Christ, it is also secured and maintained by Him.

"All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day," (John 6:37-40).

There is no anathema for the person who fails to burn incense before pictures of men and angels. There is anathema for those who fail to love Christ or who proclaim another gospel. We not only enter salvation through faith in Jesus, it is also the grace of Jesus Christ alone that keeps us there. Always, at every moment, I will trust wholly in Him alone:

"Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, 25 to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen," (Jude 24-25).


Inside the Bible

Jesus said
John 5:24, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life."

Paul said
Colossians 2:18-20, "Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to such decrees."


Inside CARM

Is praying to saints biblical?
Biblically, prayer is always offered to God and is a form of worship.  All religions view prayer as an act of worship to their god(s) since they contain petitions, confession of sin, requests of intercession, etc.,--things which are received and answered by God and not by created things.

Should Christians pray to God through images of Jesus, angels, and saints?
The Bible does not limit itself to condemning the worship of idols of false gods. It deals directly with the idea of making images that represent God Himself and the offering our worship to Him vicariously by venerating images.

Maintaining Salvation in Roman Catholicism
According to Roman Catholicism, after receiving initial justification in baptism, which removes original sin, grace is also infused into a person. However, with each sin a person commits after baptism, there is a loss of justifying grace...biblically, however, if you are adding any works into the act of salvation, it means that the work of God is not sufficient; but that it needs to be perfected--completed by human effort. This is why salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It cannot be by faith and any of our works.

  • 1. Not to be confused with the 1st Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, which met to affirm and clarify the issue of the Deity of Christ, the 2nd Nicaea met nearly 500 years later to address the issue of the veneration of images by Christians and in places of Christian worship, and shares its name with the 1st simply because they both met in the city of Nicaea.
  • 2. NPNF, Set 2, Volume 14, pg 551-553