Is Veneration Idolatry?

The following is a short but insightful piece written by an up and coming scholar and friend of mine, David Armstrong. He deals with the issue of whether or not the Orthodox worship the saints. An issue which I have blogged about before here, going into a little in-depth on the assumptions at play. However David sets the biblical context and narrative that allow us to interpret these issues.

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When Protestant friends and acquaintances, old and new, discover that I am Orthodox, if they know the slightest thing about what that means, one of their immediate questions usually has to do with Mary and the Saints. Don’t we Orthodox (and Catholics) worship Mary as a goddess? Don’t we worship and pray to the saints? Doesn’t that make us idolaters?

Apart from the fact that this question misunderstands the nature of idolatry (which involves a lot more than simply worshiping other gods or making statues and pictures), my gut apologetic reaction is always “No, we don’t worship Mary or the saints,” and that is technically correct. We do not offer adoration (in Greek, the highest form of worship–λατρεία) either to the Mother of God or to any of the saints. Technically, the kind of worship or “veneration” (worship comes from the older English “worthship,” and can be used of many figures both heavenly and earthly who are not God–in the old Anglican marriage service, for example, the husband promises to worship his wife) that is offered to them is δουλεια (to the saints) and υπερδουλεια (to the Blessed Virgin Mary). These kinds of honor are distinct from the ultimate “service” shown to the one God, the Father, and to his coeternal, consubstantial Son and Spirit, the Holy Trinity. Indeed, to some extent, the honor we show to Mary and the Saints is derivative of the worship we offer to God–it is their role in salvation history and their role in the life of the Church, their cooperation with God, that elicits our respect for them.

But there’s another level on which I have to be honest and concede a point to Protestant sensibility: for Catholics and Orthodox, Mary is basically a goddess, and the saints are like gods. It is no accident that in many parts of the ancient world, cults of goddess worship and the worship of lesser gods were subsumed by the cults of Mary and the saints: statues repurposed, shrines reconsecrated, practices transformed. Many of the saints have particular patronages–cities, people, trades, the arts, animals, countries, love, suffering, and even finding your lost stuff. In Serbia, Orthodox Christians treat their family saints essentially like their pagan ancestors treated household gods. The Blessed Virgin is invoked so regularly and so ubiquitously for so many things that she both encompasses and transcends the purview of these lesser saints–she, strikingly, outshines Hera and Athene, Demeter and Kore, revealing their vice and stripping them of their virtue by her immaculate grace.

So, the question remains: aren’t we idolaters for thinking of and relating to the Theotokos (Gk: God-birther) and the saints in these ways?

My answer, as a scholar and an aspiring theologian, remains “No,” for two main reasons. First, biblical monotheism does not acknowledge the existence of one divinity and no other, but the existence of one divinity which is absolutely supreme in power, knowledge, and authority against which all other divinities are relative and derivative. The simple idea that there are other divine beings beside the one God–created by him, sustained by him, and limited in respect to their power, knowledge, and agency in ways that he is not (though, certainly, there is some sense in which God voluntarily limits himself to allow these beings to exist and act as independent moral agents)–appears throughout Scripture. We now call these beings “angels,” but this is a purely semantic difference: insofar as they relate to the one God, they are simply his servants and messengers (Gk: αγγελοι, angels), but insofar as they compare with us, as celestial, immortal beings, Scripture’s designation of them as “gods” is not inappropriate (e.g., Deut 10:17). 
Second, and closer to the issue at hand, Orthodox and Catholics hold such a high theology of Mary and the Saints because of what we believe Scripture and Tradition to teach about the nature of salvation. Simply put, the common hope of classical Judaism and Christianity was for the transformation of the righteous into divine and celestial glory–i.e., that the faithful should be transformed into gods. This was based, in part, on a belief that humanity itself had originally been created in the divine image and likeness and possessed a particular divinity (Gen 1:26-28), and that this godlike form came with a certain “splendor” or “glory” (Ben Sira 49:16). The idea that humanity lost a divine glory with which it was adorned at creation through sin which was to be restored in the eschaton is well attested in extracanonical literature on the subject. 

It is also a key teaching of the New Testament. So says Christ, following Daniel 12:3, the righteous will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). We are told by St. Paul that we will be conformed to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29) and will share his glorious, celestial resurrection body (1 Corinthians 15). St. Peter–or someone claiming to be him–says that God has given us his promises so that we may become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). 

A key part of this bodily transformation of believers into glory is their coming to share in the rule and reign of Christ over the world. The conqueror is promised in the Apocalypse to share in Christ’s rule over the nations (Revelation 2:26-28) and to sit on his throne together with him (3:21) who at present sits enthroned in heaven before his rule is to be publicly manifest on the earth (12:10). In the saints, then, the Church recognizes those of her members who, having conquered the world through their martyric witness, now share in Christ’s glory and rule in their souls (while still awaiting this glory in the body). In the Blessed Virgin, the Church, both East and West, has always recognized a unique privilege, in that she possesses in both soul and body the fullness of the glory promised to the Church, as part and parcel of other privileges which distinguish her from the body of the saints of which she is nevertheless Queen. But as the company of those already in some sense glorified and ruling together with Christ, Mary and the saints have taken a place of rulership in heaven and have been entrusted with the mediation of Christ’s messianic rule on the earth, if we believe the Scripture that that is what the faithful shall be enabled to do.
It is on *this* basis that the Church prays to them, asking for their prayers, and seeking their particular blessings. It is because, as members of Christ, Christ works through them and in them to mediate grace and blessing to the Church. As they have been deified and enthroned with Christ, they are uniquely privileged and empowered to act on Christ’s behalf. (This is not to say that Christ mediates grace through them exclusively: there are particular, immediate graces that Christ affords to his militant body. No saint, for example, is responsible for the mystery of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.) And it is in this sense, too, that veneration of the Blessed Virgin and the saints is in no way idolatrous, or distracting from adoration of the one God in Trinity. It is in fact because we are glorifying the Incarnate Christ, who having assumed human nature was crucified and then raised and exalted and so, too, exalted human nature with him, that we remember the saints: they are extensions of the mystery of the enfleshment of the Son of God, living exegeses of the truth of the Gospel. Christ was especially present as the sanctification of their lives and through them was especially present in the world, sanctifying it.

So for as much as Protestantism would like to protest that Catholicism and Orthodoxy are pagan or idolatrous for their attitudes towards the saints, I think that the counter response is equally weighty: Protestants are not incarnational and biblical enough in their theology of salvation. A true theology of glory will at the very least recognize what is going on in hagiography as an extension of incarnational and thus deificatory logic, rather than dismiss it. Protestantism that is uncomfortable with the glory of the Mother of God or of the Saints is really just uncomfortable with the glory of Christ, the God-man, and the glory that he offers to the human race. With this in mind I pray that the Blessed Virgin and the saints would become rather than a point of contention between Christians a point of unity between them–living images of the future that lay ahead of us, drawing us forward into the holiness that anticipates and makes present that future as we await it.

-David Armstrong.

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David is a talented Biblical Scholar, and Eastern Orthodox Christian for which to pay attention. He has good insights into ancient Judaism and its relation to Christian theology.

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