Palamas on Not Idoltry


“ ‘You shall not make an image of anything in the heavens above, or in the earth below, or in the sea’ (cf. Exod. 20:4), in such a way[1] that you worship these things and glorify them as gods” (324). So, begins Gregory Palamas’ discussion of the second commandment. With his additional comment upon the commandment, Palamas presented a view of the second commandment likely not to be found in any Post-reformation, Western Evangelical or even Mainline Protestant commentaries. The first instinct of such a reader may be to duck for cover and watch for lightning bolts from on high. Yet, this author has not been convinced that such actions are entirely wrong. That does not mean he has been convinced by Palamas and is ready to join the Eastern Orthodox Church anytime soon, either.

The stringency of the language of Palamas, which can be disconcerting, may be seen in its proper light in an examination of the historical setting of Palamas. The iconic controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries were at times quite bloody and bruising for the church. Both sides of the controversy had important doctrines riding on the debate, namely a view of what’s, how’s, and where for’s of that not-so-unimportant doctrine of the incarnation. How one viewed the icons could be seen as a pretext for one’s views of that all important doctrine. That is not to say that the issue was strictly doctrinaire. There was a fair amount of politicking to be done through the crisis. Charlemagne, for one, was not too shy to use the issue as a not-so-subtle tweaking of those who had deemed his crowning by the Pope as null and void. So with this in mind Palamas has come to a passage oft used to decry the wrongness of this doctrine, and if he seemed a little perturbed, then this author can understand the bad taste in his mouth.

Yet once one is past the strictness of the text there are questions which remain. One such question might be if Palamas would actually forbid anything? He does not in the passage, but the wording of the passage does provide some leeway. In such a way the use of images is good, Palamas wrote. A kind interpreter would then assume that even if not mentioned, that in another way there could be poor use of the images. A second question for Palamas might surround his discussion of the Old Testament. He highlights the Use of the Holy of Holies as an image. Yet one might then ask, “ just where is the Holy of Holies, now?” Has not the temple been destroyed and previously the veil destroyed. To that question then one might move onto his discussion of the cross. “For the cross is Christ’s great sign and trophy of victory. In fact one might just remind the Church of the long use of the cross as everything from an identifier to that of a talisman. If one disputes the use of the cross as a talisman, just watch any sport and see the use of necklaces throughout the event. Just walk into a Protestant Church on Sunday morning and look through the congregation and ask them about their jewelry.

The answer of course is that the misuse of the cross today, does not excuse the misuse in other places. It may have been with that very misuse in mind that Palamas took quill to hand and stated that one may use the icon “in such a way.” Palamas stated that “you must not, then, deify the ikons of Christ and of the saints, but through them you should venerate Him who originally created us.” The ikons are not meant for worship, they are meant to direct and focus one’s worship. That has been the standard answer of intellectuals throughout the ages. Before the late 1990s this author would have scoffed at the distinction and asked if that distinction was not one that readily and often was loss on the masses rioting because Emperor Leo, the Issaurion, has taken down the icon of Christ from the gates of the city. It was then that I found myself involved in a prayer ministry at Beeson Divinity School. The prayer room was decorated with pictures and paintings, and I must admit that on many occasions I come to my time in that room prayerless and exhausted by the loads of papers assigned. In the quietness of the room these pictures time and again provided a way to refocus and renew my strength and, yes, enter into a deeper and more fulfilling time of prayer.

So when I say that the writing of Palamas has merit, I am thinking of those refreshing times. Yet when I say that the writing of Palamas has concerns, I am thinking of some mobs of angry Constaninopleans . I wonder if they would have understood the careful distinction of Palamas, and in turn I worry about the brave, excitable masses of my own church and I worry. “In such a way” has often been a problematic and often necessary beginning. It always has been, and until that day it always will be.


[1] Italics mine

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Historical Papers

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