The fact then that these ancestors of ours worshiped idols is simply a sad fact. What is even more disappointing is to hear folks insulting our mutual ancestors. Perhaps I should be more specific. The specific insult that I hear comes up when I point out that certain folks, by make and worshiping images purporting to be of the Son of God are doing what is prohibited in Scripture: "... keep yourselves from idols." (I John 5:21)
The insult comes in this form: we're not worshiping the statue, crucifix, or icon: we're worshiping the one who is represented by the statue, crucifix, or icon, and consequently we are not engaging in idolatry.
How foolish and insulting!
Who honestly thinks that any of our mutual ancestors thought that what they had just carved from wood was the deity itself? Who thinks they were that stupid. Of course most idolators don't think that way. If you asked the Greeks if the statue of Zeus was actually Zeus, they'd laugh at you - or perhaps treat you as a madman. They were clear that Zeus dwelt on Mt. Olympus, not in their temples - these are just representations of their gods, not the gods themselves. In some cases, they would even go so far as to claim that even Zeus the arch-type of the statue was merely symbolic of something greater (Augustine addresses this view, as I've discussed elsewhere).
But God does not wish to be worshiped that way. Stephen recounted among Israel's failures that "... they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice unto the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands ... " (Acts 7:41). Paul makes the same criticism more explicit: "God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things..." (Acts 17:24-25).
Thus, the Synod of Elvira in 305-06 promulgated the following:
Canon 36: Ne picturae in eclessia fiant.
Placuit picturas in ecclesia esse non debere, ne quod colitur et adoratur in parietibus depingatur. (It has seemed good that images should not be in churches so that what is venerated and worshiped not be painted on the walls.)
Later, Gregory the Great (bishop of Rome from 590 - 604) wrote to Serenus, Bishop of Massilia (who had destroyed the local images). Gregory defended the images, not for worship but just for education: "Aliud est enim pieturam adorare, aliud per picturam historiam quid sit adorandum addiscere." (For to adore a picture is one thing but to learn through the story of a picture what is to be adored is another.)
Calling itself the 7th Ecumenical Council, a large council was convened in Constantinople in 754 and forbade the worshiping of images:
THE DEFINITION OF THE HOLY, GREAT, AND ECUMENICAL SEVENTH SYNOD.Sadly, another council was held in Constaninople only a few decades later, in 787, and condemned this council and institutionalized iconography in the churches. This council was at first opposed in the West, but ultimately came to be accepted. One of the aspects of the Reformation was casting off this error of idolatry.
The holy and Ecumenical synod, which by the grace of God and most pious command of the God-beloved and orthodox Emperors, Constantine and Leo, now assembled in the imperial residence city, in the temple of the holy and inviolate Mother of God and Virgin Mary, surnamed in Blachernae, have decreed as follows.
Satan misguided men, so that they worshipped the creature instead of the Creator. The Mosaic law and the prophets cooperated to undo this ruin; but in order to save mankind thoroughly, God sent his own Son, who turned us away from error and the worshipping of idols, and taught us the worshipping of God in spirit and in truth. As messengers of his saving doctrine, he left us his Apostles and disciples, and these adorned the Church, his Bride, with his glorious doctrines. This ornament of the Church the holy Fathers and the six Ecumenical Councils have preserved inviolate. But the before-mentioned demi-urgos of wickedness could not endure the sight of this adornment, and gradually brought back idolatry under the appearance of Christianity. As then Christ armed his Apostles against the ancient idolatry with the power of the Holy Spirit, and sent them out into all the world, so has he awakened against the new idolatry his servants our faithful Emperors, and endowed them with the same wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Impelled by the Holy Spirit they could no longer be witnesses of the Church being laid waste by the deception of demons, and summoned the sanctified assembly of the God-beloved bishops, that they might institute at a synod a scriptural examination into the deceitful colouring of the pictures ( omoiwmatwn ) which draws down the spirit of man from the lofty adoration ( latreias ) of God to the low and material adoration ( latreian ) of the creature, and that they, under divine guidance, might express their view on the subject.
Our holy synod therefore assembled, and we, its 338 members, follow the older synodal decrees, and accept and proclaim joyfully the dogmas handed down, principally those of the six holy Ecumenical Synods. In the first place the holy and ecumenical great synod assembled at Nice, etc.
After we had carefully examined their decrees under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we found that the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation--namely, the Incarnation of Christ, and contradicted the six holy synods. These condemned Nestorius because he divided the one Son and Word of God into two sons, and on the other side, Arius, Dioscorus, Eutyches, and Severus, because they maintained a mingling of the two natures of the one Christ.
Wherefore we thought it right, to shew forth with all accuracy, in our present definition the error of such as make and venerate these, for it is the unanimous doctrine of all the holy Fathers and of the six Ecumenical Synods, that no one may imagine any kind of separation or mingling in opposition to the unsearchable, unspeakable, and incomprehensible union of the two natures in the one hypostasis or person. What avails, then, the folly of the painter, who from sinful love of gain depicts that which should not be depicted--that is, with his polluted hands he tries to fashion that which should only be believed in the heart and confessed with the mouth? He makes an image and calls it Christ. The name Christ signifies God and man. Consequently it is an image of God and man, and consequently he has in his foolish mind, in his representation of the created flesh, depicted the Godhead which cannot be represented, and thus mingled what should not be mingled. Thus he is guilty of a double blasphemy--the one in making an image of the Godhead, and the other by mingling the Godhead and manhood. Those fall into the same blasphemy who venerate the image, and the same woe rests upon both, because they err with Arius, Dioscorus, and Eutyches, and with the heresy of the Acephali. When, however, they are blamed for undertaking to depict the divine nature of Christ, which should not be depicted, they take refuge in the excuse: We represent only the flesh of Christ which we have seen and handled. But that is a Nestorian error. For it should be considered that that flesh was also the flesh of God the Word, without any separation, perfectly assumed by the divine nature and made wholly divine. How could it now be separated and represented apart? So is it wish the human soul of Christ which mediates between the Godhead of the Son and the dulness of the flesh. As the human flesh is at the same time flesh of God the Word, so is the human soul also soul of God the Word, and both at the same time, the soul being deified as well as the body, and the Godhead remained undivided even in the separation of the soul from the body in his voluntary passion. For where the soul of Christ is, there is also his Godhead; and where the body of Christ is, there too is his Godhead. If then in his passion the divinity remained inseparable from these, how do the fools venture to separate the flesh from the Godhead, and represent it by itself as the image of a mere man? They fall into the abyss of impiety, since they separate the flesh from the Godhead, ascribe to it a subsistence of its own, a personality of its own, which they depict, and thus introduce a fourth person into the Trinity. Moreover, they represent as not being made divine, that which has been made divine by being assumed by the Godhead. Whoever, then, makes an image of Christ, either depicts the Godhead which cannot be depicted, and mingles it with the manhood (like the Monophysites), or he represents the body of Christ as not made divine and separate and as a person apart, like the Nestorians.
The only admissible figure of the humanity of Christ, however, is bread and wine in the holy Supper. This and no other form, this and no other type, has he chosen to represent his incarnation. Bread he ordered to be brought, but not a representation of the human form, so that idolatry might not arise. And as the body of Christ is made divine, so also this figure of the body of Christ, the bread, is made divine by the descent of the Holy Spirit; it becomes the divine body of Christ by the mediation of the priest who, separating the oblation from that which is common, sanctifies it.
The evil custom of assigning names to the images does not come down from Christ and the Apostles and the holy Fathers; nor have these left behind then, any prayer by which an image should be hallowed or made anything else than ordinary matter.
If, however, some say, we might be right in regard to the images of Christ, on account of the mysterious union of the two natures, but it is not right for us to forbid also the images of the altogether spotless and ever-glorious Mother of God, of the prophets, apostles, and martyrs, who were mere men and did not consist of two natures; we may reply, first of all: If those fall away, there is no longer need of these. But we will also consider what may be said against these in particular. Christianity has rejected the whole of heathenism, and so not merely heathen sacrifices, but also the heathen worship of images. The Saints live on eternally with God, although they have died. If anyone thinks to call them back again to life by a dead art, discovered by the heathen, he makes himself guilty of blasphemy. Who dares attempt with heathenish art to paint the Mother of God, who is exalted above all heavens and the Saints? It is not permitted to Christians, who have the hope of the resurrection, to imitate the customs of demon-worshippers, and to insult the Saints, who shine in so great glory, by common dead matter.
Moreover, we can prove our view by Holy Scripture and the Fathers. In the former it is said: "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth;" and: "Thou shall not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath;" on which account God spoke to the Israelites on the Mount, from the midst of the fire, but showed them no image. Further: "They changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man,... and served the creature more than the Creator." ...
The same is taught also by the holy Fathers. ...
Supported by the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers, we declare unanimously, in the name of the Holy Trinity, that there shall be rejected and removed and cursed one of the Christian Church every likeness which is made out of any material and colour whatever by the evil art of painters.
(8) If anyone ventures to represent the divine image ( karakthr ) of the Word after the Incarnation with material colours, let him be anathema!
(9) If anyone ventures to represent in human figures, by means of material colours, by reason of the incarnation, the substance or person (ousia or hypostasis) of the Word, which cannot be depicted, and does not rather confess that even after the Incarnation he cannot be depicted, let him be anathema!
(10) If anyone ventures to represent the hypostatic union of the two natures in a picture, and calls it Christ, and fires falsely represents a union of the two natures, etc.!
(11) If anyone separates the flesh united with the person of the Word from it, and endeavours to represent it separately in a picture, etc.!
(12) If anyone separates the one Christ into two persons, and endeavours to represent Him who was born of the Virgin separately, and thus accepts only a relative ( sketikh ) union of the natures, etc.
(13) If anyone represents in a picture the flesh deified by its union with the Word, and thus separates it from the Godhead, etc.
(14) If anyone endeavours to represent by material colours, God the Word as a mere man, who, although bearing the form of God, yet has assumed the form of a servant in his own person, and thus endeavours to separate him from his inseparable Godhead, so that he thereby introduces a quaternity into the Holy Trinity, etc.
(15) If anyone shall not confess the holy ever-virgin Mary, truly and properly the Mother of God, to be higher than every creature whether visible or invisible, and does not with sincere faith seek her intercessions as of one having confidence in her access to our God, since she bare him, etc.
(16) If anyone shall endeavour to represent the forms of the Saints in lifeless pictures with material colours which are of no value (for this notion is vain and introduced by the devil), and does not rather represent their virtues as living images in himself, etc.
(17) If anyone denies the profit of the invocation of Saints, etc.
(18) If anyone denies the resurrection of the dead, and the judgment, and the condign retribution to everyone, endless torment and endless bliss, etc.
(19) If anyone does not accept this our Holy and Ecumenical Seventh Synod, let him be anathema from the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and from the seven holy Ecumenical Synods!
The holy synod cried out: Thus we all believe, we all are of the same mind. We have all with one voice and voluntarily subscribed. This is the faith of the Apostles. Many years to the Emperors! They are the light of orthodoxy! Many years to the orthodox Emperors! God preserve your Empire! You have now more firmly proclaimed the inseparability of the two natures of Christ! You have banished all idolatry! You have destroyed the heresies of Germanus [of Constantinople], George and Mansur [ mansour , John Damascene]. Anathema to Germanus, the double-minded, and worshipper of wood! Anathema to George, his associate, to the falsifier of the doctrine of the Fathers! Anathema to Mansur, who has an evil name and Saracen opinions! To the betrayer of Christ and the enemy of the Empire, to the teacher of impiety, the perverter of Scripture, Mansur, anathema! The Trinity has deposed these three!
But note that the ancients who opposed idolatry were not ignorant of what their errant professing Christan colleagues were doing. They rejected the idolatry that they saw, even while understanding that the idols were not the things themselves, but representations of the things. While they called those who worshiped with icons "worshipers of wood," and justly so, it was not because they thought that the icons' entire significance came from the material object.
We are in the same boat as they are. Based on Scripture, we reject the use of images for worship, and particularly we reject all making of any representational likeness purporting to be of the incarnation. The only authorized icon of the Incarnation is the bread and cup.