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Ikons and idols

22 October 2007

Nic Paton contemplates ikons and idols in a recent blog post.

He quotes a book by Peter Rollins called How (not) to speak of God:

Idolatry can be understood as the sin of viewing something as that which renders God’s very essence visible to human experience […] either aesthetic (like the Golden Calf mentioned in the book of Exodus) or conceptual. In the later we make God intelligible by constructing a doctrinal image which we view as a manifestation of Gods essence.

Now I know nothing of Peter Rollins, but that sounds familiar. Orthodox theology insists that God is unknowable in his essence, and reveals himself only in his energies. One of the more accessible books in English that explains this is Nicolas Lossky’s The mystical theology of the Eastern Church, who says

We are therefore compelled to recognize in God an ineffable distinction, other than that between His essence and his persons, according to which He is, under different aspects, both totally inaccessible and at the same time accessible. This distinction is that between the essnece of God, or His nature, properly so-called, which is inaccessible, unknowable and incommunicable; and the energies, or divine operations, forces proper to and inseparable from God’s essence, in which He goes forth from Himself, manifests, communicates and gives Himself.

I am also reminded of what a friend of mine once wrote in a paper:

What can I say about God? That he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Yes, but this is no definition – it gives no account of God as a thing or even a concept, but only in terms of relationship. This is all he has shown us about himself. All heresies were, and are, religious attempts to say about God what he himself has refused to say, to soften the paradox, to make attractive fiction out of intractable truth. Truth, as Chesterton said, is always stranger than fiction, because fiction is a product of the human mind and therefore congenial to it. The Catholic Church has said, in effect: God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; what that means, we can’t say. It’s all we know and we’ll have to make do with it. We cannot understand God, he stands over us (Bishop John Davies, Religion versus God).

And that is the difference between an ikon and an idol. An ikon is not a conceptual thing. It is not a “visual aid” to help us to understand God. It is rather a window into heaven, to make us aware of the presence of God.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 22 October 2007 2:25 pm

    Well and good but what then does one make of the hypostatic union without making Jesus seem less than true God?

  2. 22 October 2007 8:54 pm

    What’s the problem?

  3. 22 October 2007 9:49 pm

    Now I think I see what you’re getting at. He’s God but we still don’t see his essence; it’d kill us. The Transfiguration comes close but that was still God’s energies not his essence. Am I close?

  4. 22 October 2007 11:42 pm

    Close enough. God’s energies, like his essence, are uncreated. What the disciples saw at the Transfiguration was the uncreated light of the Eighth Day, and it knocked them over (check the ikon).

    I once mentioned this to a rather fundamentalist Anglican and he wanted an assurance that a photometer would have measured the light. I told him that he was barking up the wrong tree even to ask the question — thinking that a created and man-made instrument could possibly measure the uncreated light of God’s energies. It’s a bit like asking if you could stick a clinical thermometer into the sun to take its temperature.

  5. 30 October 2007 1:27 pm

    Whats a good Orthodox Church to visit in Cape Town?

  6. 30 October 2007 5:50 pm


    There’s only one Orthodox Church in Cape Town I know of, in Mountain Road, Woodstock, and the servioces are mainly in Greek.


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