First, I think his point is well taken that whatever the second commandment means must be compatible with both a.) the rest of the Old Covenant law and b.) be evaluated again through the lens of the New Covenant. So this means that whatever the second commandment forbids it does not forbid the building of the tabernacle or temple of Solomon. In keeping with this, it does not forbid weaving artistic renditions of cherubim on the curtains of the tabernacle. It does not forbid the creation of the gold cherubim that are attached to the lid of the ark of the covenant. And it does not forbid the making of other statuary or images in the temple later on (lions, bulls, and other animals and garden imagery). The fact that all these things are “man made” is not a problem. In fact, arguably, it is the “man made”-ness of them that adds to the worship that is offered in them. They are human acts of obedience. At the same time, and St. John points this out, these artistic and architectural places of worship were “according to the pattern shown on the mountain.” They were not made up, dreamed up, etc. The Spirit that filled Bezalel and Aholiab was not a Spirit of “making stuff up.” It was a Spirit of following directions, obediently interpreting instructions, and creatively turning them into glorious realities according to the intentions of Yahweh.
Secondly, in this regard, St. John points out that there was some level of honor (veneration) offered these places of worship not because Israel worshiped gold, curtains, or cherubim, but because that was where God’s presence dwelt in a heightened way. But it’s here that I think St. John and the Orthodox who follow St. John overstate their case. St. John says that Israel “venerated” the tabernacle and all of its furniture and utensils. Now, if by “venerate” we mean that they took great care with all the house of God, and did not treat it as common, then yes, absolutely. The fact that particular Levitical families were tasked with the break down, set up, and transportation of particular pieces of the tabernacle is part of that. Furthermore, we know that the tabernacle was guarded carefully, and Joe Israelite was not welcome to just “drop in” to pay the Lord of Hosts a visit. And of course the Most Holy Place was honored and venerated in the sense that only the High Priest was welcome to enter once a year and incense was offered before the veil on a regular basis. Of course the blood of sacrifices was sprinkled and smeared and poured in various places in the tabernacle and on various pieces of furniture as acts of worship. We might even add the fact that at least during the wilderness wanderings after the people had sinned with the golden calf, Moses moved the tabernacle outside the camp of Israel, and each Israelite worshiped from a distance from the entrances of their tents (Ex. 33:10). The word for “worship” literally means “bow down,” and the implication seems to be that they bowed down toward the tabernacle when they saw Moses enter the tabernacle and the glory cloud of Yahweh descend to commune with Moses. Likewise, we know that much later, Solomon will refer to those who “pray toward” the temple throughout Israel and even in exile. Of course these sorts of honor and veneration are directed to God and not gold, silver, altars, curtains, or artistically rendered cherubim or lions or anything else. It is clear in those instances that the honor is for the presence of the Lord. But -and this is a big but- to extrapolate from this that it is right, fitting, and beneficial to make a common practice of kissing, bowing, and offering incense to a myriad of icons scattered throughout a sanctuary or even one’s own home is to make a fairly significant leap. If the icons are supposed to be memorials, witnesses of the faith of the saints, and regular reminders of our Lord and the fullness of the gospel, then all well and good, but to justify the kind of adoration of images that takes place in popular Orthodoxy with the justification that the tabernacle was “venerated all around by the whole of Israel” does not follow. St. John goes on, “What were the cherubim? Were they not right in front of the people? And the ark and the lamp stand and the table and the gold jar and the rod, looking towards which the people bowed down in veneration?” (70) But this is a vast overstatement. In fact, central to the tabernacle set up was the fact that these things were not right in front of the people. This was a central characteristic of the old covenant, that God dwelt with his people, but he did so with a certain degree of distance and privacy. I grant that St. John does offer a helpful corrective to some interpretations of the second commandment. Agreed. But his case does not actually defend the popular practice of bowing down to, kissing, and offering incense before particular objects. They took great care with the tabernacle, and they certainly appear to have bowed toward and prayed toward the entire house as the place where God’s Spirit Presence dwelt, but this leads us to consider the fulfillments of the tabernacle and temple in the New Covenant. To what do these places of God’s presence correspond in the New Covenant?
Thus, the second area that St. John brings into the discussion is that the impact of the New Covenant. He cites the fourth commandment as an example of such an instance where the incarnation has transformed this commandment into something new and glorious in the Christian era. He asks if his most vehement opponents want to return to requiring circumcision, seventh day sabbatarianism, as well as keeping cleanliness and food laws. This question – how has the New Covenant changed or transformed the second commandment (if at all) – is a very reasonable question. And the Orthodox insistence that the incarnation must be taken into serious consideration along with the many references to having seen Christ in the flesh is also fully understandable. But perhaps the greatest glaring absence, given all the other controversies surrounding the early church, is an address of these issues in the pages of the New Testament. St. John claims that the veneration of icons comes from the unwritten tradition of the apostles, but that is the very problem with unwritten tradition. Says who?
Lastly, one of my most significant beefs with John and those traditions which practice the veneration of icons is the insistence that Christians are not tempted by idolatry any more. John repeatedly insists that the second commandment was for Israelites who had particular temptations with regard to idolatry, but now in the New Covenant era, that temptation has been done away with. But the Apostles clearly did not think so. The council of Jerusalem specifically mentions abstaining from things polluted by idols. The exhortations of Paul in the Corinthian letters address the dynamics of remaining free of idolatry without countenancing demons or causing weaker brothers to stumble. Paul does not say that now that you’re all Christians that’s not a temptation any more. In fact, while he insists that idols are nothing to fear, he does say that we are to have no fellowship with them. He rejoices in the Thessalonians for turning from idols to serve the living and true God. St. John the Evangelist specifically urges his readers as “little children” to keep themselves from idols (1 Jn. 5:21). And given a number of indicators, it appears that John was addressing Jews in particular, not merely heathen gentiles who might feel a pull to return to the pantheon of their popular culture. To the churches of Pergamos and Thyatira, Jesus holds this against them that they like Israel of old have indulged in idolatry. Far from distancing Christians from this temptation, Jesus addresses this particular problem and tells them that they are acting just like Israel of old. Not only is it possible to fall into this sin, the early Christian Church did. Similarly, Revelation 9 references those who did not turn from “idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood, which can neither see not hear nor walk.”
It will not do to wave your hand and say that there is no idolatry involved in the veneration of icons. And it does not suddenly make it all go away, when you point out that this veneration is not of images of Jupiter, Baal, or Athena. Great, but we know from Scripture that idolatry also occurs under numerous guises. Paul says that covetousness is idolatry and elsewhere tells the Corinthians to flee the idolatry that is bound up in sexual immorality. It won’t do to say that Paul was talking about temple prostitutes, but the prostitute you’re seeing is not affiliated with any particular cult. O great, I’m sure Paul would understand. Similarly, St. John of Damascus and many other Orthodox tracts I’ve looked at seem to be wholly oblivious to the possibility that certain actions may be idolatrous. Yes, I know that no one officially “worships” images. But where are all the pastoral safeguards? Where are the tracts and books written to the faithful Orthodox warning them of these temptations, urging them to flee, and specific instructions indicating what sort of liturgical practices would tend toward that sin? Instead of that sort of pastoral sensitivity and apostolic realization of the very real dangers here, there are hand waving dismissals that this is something completely different, and that was the Old Covenant, and those were pagan gentiles who worshiped demons. We’re exempt from that error because our pictures are of Jesus and the saints. But that’s one of the reasons I often bring up the bronze serpent. St. John of Damascus mentions it briefly in defense of looking toward something man made in order to look to God for grace and healing (and that’s a reasonable point to be made), but what about the rest of the story (2 Kgs. 18:4)? Where are the Hezekiahs of Orthodoxy? Would Hezekiah be viewed as an evil iconoclast, disrupting the unwritten and unbroken traditions of the fathers? Or would he be praised for his faithfulness and courage? I strongly suspect it would be the former.