Admiration, Veneration and Adoration15 July 2015
Imagine that a non-Orthodox friend sees you bowing before and then kissing an icon, lighting a candle and burning incense before, and then addressing it in prayer. What explanation will you give when your friend asks, “Why do you worship that block of painted wood?”
Father Anthony Coniaris, in his excellent catechism, Introducing the Orthodox Church, rightly answered, “Orthodox Christians do not worship the Theotokos and the Saints; rather they venerate them. God alone is worshiped.” However, Fr. Coniaris does not elaborate on what the difference is between “veneration” and “worship.” This problem is also found in other Orthodox apologia—there is little or not mention of how veneration is different from worship in definition or principle. Further obfuscating the issue is the fact that English dictionaries list “veneration” and “worship” as synonyms. So what does it mean to venerate something as opposed to worshiping it?
There are degrees of honor: from admiration (honor), to veneration (high honor), to adoration (highest honor). Admiration is the honor we give to people because of their position of authority, their exceptional achievement, or their remarkable courage. There are many examples of people we honor: notable presidents, war heroes, talented artists, top athletes, and various historical figures (inventors, explorers, conquerors, etc.). We praise—applaud, commend—these individuals as role models of what it means to be outstanding members of society. We honor them by observing holidays named after them, by standing at attention and saluting them, by reading their biographies, by having pictures of them on our walls, by erecting statues of them, and so forth.
The Bible also gives examples of honor: The sons of Jacob honored their brother Joseph (Genesis 43:28). The fifth commandment states we should honor our parents (Exodus 20:12). The high priest was honored by the vestments he wore (Exodus 28:2, 40). Israel was to be honored among the nations (Deuteronomy 29:19; Zephaniah 3:19; 9:6; 14:4; 2 Chronicles 18:1; 32:27). The courage of Mordecai was honored (Esther 6:6-11). The insight of the prophet Daniel was honored (Daniel 2:46). And church leaders are honored for their “Labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17).
It is important to honor individuals as a means of motivating people to strive for excellence. Almost everyone wants to be special in some way, to stand out from the crowd, to be admired. However, the qualities that bring recognition from society are often different from those that earn “favor and honor” from God (Psalm 84:11). The world tends to measure worth based on productivity, talent, leadership ability, physical strength, stamina, or appearance, whereas God measures us based on the virtuousness of our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Peter 3:4). God bestows honor on those who strive for wisdom, heed correction, avoid strife, pursue righteousness and kindness, and are humble (Proverbs 3:35; 4:8; 13:8; 20:3; 21:21; 22:4). This difference between worldly honor and godly honor is one of the reasons saints are venerated rather than merely admired.
To venerate means to have reverence for peple, places, or things because of their sacredness (being set aside for a godly purpose), their witness of supernatural realities, or thier example of how to live a godly life. To venerate—proskuneo in Greek—literally means “to kiss.” Proskuneo was the word chosen at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nice, AD 787) to differentiate such veneration from worship—latreuo—or adoration. The council found it was appropriate to venerate the life-giving cross, the Book of the Gospels, and other holy objects, as well as “holy images set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and hangings and pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honorable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people.”
To venerate something really means to have great spiritual affection for what it represents. It is this transcendent and symbolic aspect that differentiates veneration from admiration. We praise—exalt, hallow—the saints, religious objects, and sacred places because they signify something divine or of eternal importance. They testify to the mystery of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, the affection shown toward what is venerated must supersede the honor given to individuals within the world. We do not merely kiss what is venerated, we also ritualistically light a candle, cross ourselves, and burn incense before it—all actions we would not perform for those we only admire. However, it is never the material thing that is being revered; rather it is always that which the object represents. The Seventh Ecumenical Council decreed, “The honor which is paid to the image passes on that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres the subject represented.”
The Bible give examples of venerable objects: the tabernacle curtain “woven with an artistic design of cherubim” (Exodus 26:31), which had incens and oil lamps continually burning before it; the serpent on a pole that healed those who gazed at it (Numbers 21:8,9; Wisdom of Solomon 16:&); King David showing his veneration for the ark of the covenant by dancing before it with “all his might” (2 Samuel 6:12-15); the relics of Elisha restoring a dead man to life (2 Kinks 13:20); the healing handkerchiefs or aprons of St. Paul, which cured people of illness and demonic possession (Acts 19:11,12); and the healing of the hemorrhaging woman who merely touched Jesus’ cloak (Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48). (Note that Christ never rebuked the woman for believing His miraculous power could be received through an object created by man.)
The chief way we venerate the saints is by asking them to pray for us. “To pray” simply means “to ask” in old King James English. The Orthodox Church believes the “dead” saints of this world are alive with Christ (Ephesians 2:4-7). Out of our spiritual affection for what they represent, we ask/pray that the departed saints intercede to God for us, much as we would ask/pray a follow believer to do so. We ask standing before icons because visual images focus our concentration and so help keep us from praying in vain (Matthew 6:7). Yet in prayer before an icon, the image is never worshiped.
Adoration is the love and worship we give to God because of His ongoing work of renewing and preserving all of creation, because He is our judge who will punish or reward us, and because He has power to forgive and transform our lives. God receives highest honor. Scripture states, “Indeed heaven and the highest heavens belong to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 10:14). The highest heaven was seen as the ultimate seat of power and authority. Praise was directed there when the angels proclaimed at the birth of Christ, “Gory to God in the highest” (Luke 2:14), or when Christ entered Jerusalem and the crowd shouted: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who come in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:10; Luke 19:38).
There is not only a quantitative difference between adoration and veneration—a matter of degree or frequency of praise—but there is a qualitative difference as well. There is a sense of awe—fear and wonder—associated with glorifying God. This is due to His supernatural works and His matchless nature:
Among the gods there is none like You, O Lord; Nor are there any works like Your works. All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, and shall glorify Your name. For You are great, and do wondrous things; You alone are God. (Psalm 86:8-10).
There are more that 100 verses in the Bible admonishing us to fear God. Many of them are found in the Psalms, where the fear of God is connected with worship of Him—for example, “You who fear the Lord, praise Him! All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him, and fear Him, all you offspring of Israel! (Psalm 22:23). Holy Scripture makes it clear that we should fear God rather than men (Isaiah 8:13,13; Luke 12:4,5). Awe is not to be given directly to the saints nor to religious objects; however, indirectly, these things can lead us to be in awe of God as we see how He miraculously works through His creation.
A second qualitative difference is the fact that sacrifices are made to God alone. In the Old Testament, some type of plant or animal was sacrificed in worship to God (Genesis 4:3,4; Leviticus 1-7). Life was given back to God in return for the life He gives us. With the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, an end was made to the sacrifice of life (Hebrews 9:1-10:18). Yet the sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15), thanksgiving (Psalm 69:30), and good deeds (Hebrews 13:16) continues.
But here a careful distinction needs to be made: Like God, the saints are praised and inspire good deeds, yet it is always due to what God has done through them and nor to any inherit quality in the saint. What is honored about the saint is that she or he acted in the name of Jesus (John 1:12; 14:14; 15:16; 16:23). Therefore, an Orthodox Christian in reality is praising the Source of the saint’s exemplary life and not just the saint him/herself. The saint is but the child of God of whom Christ said, “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me” (Mark 9:37).
In Defense of Veneration
Many Protestants erroneously believe lighting candles and burning incense before icons is a type of sacrifice to the saint. While it is true that lighting oil lamps and offering incense were associated with Old Testament sacrifice, it is not true that Orthodox Christians sacrifice those items to the saints. Again, veneration is made to an icon for what it represents. Similarly, lighting candles and burning incense are actions which represent a spiritual reality and as such are directed to God.
Light is the most common symbol in Scripture for God (John 1:5,9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 12:46). Light also signifies the Christian life, for example: the path of righteousness (John 11:9,10), salvation (Psalm 27:1), God’s word (Psalm 18:8), and the Kingdom of God (Colossians 1:12). The followers of God are called “children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). So lighting a candle represents everything associated with God and godliness. Similarly, burning incense represents our prayers before God, as when David sang, “Let my prayer be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2). Though lighting a candle and burning incense before an icon in part honors the saint, in actuality the symbolism directs our focus back to the adoration of God.
Worship is not a matter of physical gestures, but an attitude of the heart (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8,9; Mark 7:7). Christ said, “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (John 4:23). When we place our complete faith—our full hope, trust, or confidence—in God, then we worship Him in “spirit and truth.” Orthodox Christians do not depend on icons or other religious artifacts for their salvation.
Worship is different from veneration because worship is based on an actual meeting with God, whereas veneration is given to something or someone representing God or His Kingdom. To give and example, we typically treat ambassadors of a foreign nation with less honor than we treat the ruler of their country. Yet we are likely to treat an ambassador with more honor than a common citizen. There is more or a desire to get close to an ambassador because he is in a better position to represent our interests to the head of stat. Orthodox Christian venerate saints, like St. Paul of Tarsus, because of their position as ambassadors of God (Ephesians 6:20).
“Rightly therefore do we honor the Saints of God as it is written ‘How dear are thy friends unto me, O God’ (Psalm 138:17, LXX). . . . For we do not honor the Saints as though adoring them, but we call upon them as our brothers, and as friends of God, and therefore we seek the divine assistance through these, our brethren. For they go between the Lord and us for our advantage” (The Orthodox Confession of the Faith of the Catholic and Apostolic Church of the East).
Originally published in Again magazine, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter 2007.
This article was posted here with the direct permission of Michael Bressem, Ph.D.