If It Quacks Like A Duck…

… incense is worship.

One of the arguments I hear from my Eastern Orthodox friends (and because they are my friends, I write this) is that to venerate an icon or pray to a dead saint is not worship or not the same worship we give to God alone.  For example:

From “The Orthodox Companion”
by Rev. David F. Abramtsov

We do not worship or pray to Icons; we do not believe that there is in them any divinity or virtue to be worshipped; or that anything ought to be asked of them, or that trust should be reposed in them, as was done of old by the Gentiles who placed their hope in idols. The honor which we show Holy Icons is referred to that which they represent. Thus when we kiss them, uncover our heads before them, prostrate ourselves before them, we worship Christ and venerate the Saints whose likeness they bear. The outward reverence we show to an Icon of Christ or to a Crucifix, for example, is the mark of the inward love and gratitude we wish to bestow upon Our Lord Himself.

We are in need of visible and tangible representations of those Holy Persons to whom we offer our prayers. Holy Icons remind us of these Holy Persons or events, just as ordinary pictures remind us of people we love. As a loving son find an outlet for his affection by imprinting fond kisses upon the faded photograph of his mother, so does the true child of God express his love for the Saviour and His friends, the Saints, by tender veneration of their representations. We honor Icons in much the same way that we respect the portraits of those whom we love or esteem. Just as no one would say that we are worshipping the statue or portrait of some national hero when we salute it or uncover our heads before it, so we cannot be accused of adoring the sacred portrait of a hero of the Church. When we venerate the Cross we are worshipping Him Who died thereon. When the book of the Gospels is kissed, it is the Word of God therein contained that is venerated. And when incense is burned or tapers lighted before Icons, it is a symbol of the light of the Holy Spirit and the virtues with which the Saints were endowed. It is not from the Icons themselves that we ask help, it is from God, through the intercessions of the Saints.

(Note:  This is pure sophistry:  “It is not from the Icons themselves that we ask help, it is from God, through the intercessions of the Saints.”  How can it be said that you are asking God alone for help?  What are you asking the saints to do if not help you in your petitions?)

As I noted earlier, I have been reading the Ante Nicene Fathers a bit and have found nothing to indicate that icons were venerated or Saints invoked for intercession.  In fact I have found just the opposite.  Those who used images in worship were considered idolaters and were heretics, according to Irenaeus who lumped them together with the Gnostics.

I am finding the same thing regarding incense.   To the early church fathers incense was a tool of worship and nothing less.  In fact, this was a bone of contention between the early Christians and the pagan government of Rome.  The charge against the Church was that  Christians did not burn incense before any God, including their own God “the Maker of the Universe”, and were therefore atheists. Justin Martyr writes in his First Apology:

What sober-minded man, then, will not acknowledge that we are not atheists, worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe, and declaring, as we have been taught, that He has no need of streams of blood and libations and incense; whom we praise to the utmost of our power by the exercise of prayer and thanksgiving for all things wherewith we are supplied, as we have been taught that the only honour that is worthy of Him is not to consume by fire what He has brought into being for our sustenance, but to use it for ourselves and those who need, and with gratitude to Him to offer thanks by invocations and hymns for our creation, and for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons; and to present before Him petitions for our existing again in incorruption through faith in Him. Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ… (emphasis added)

Irenaeus decried the use of incense as well, stating that the prayers of the saints are incense.  I have not found one 2nd Century Father of the Church speak favorably of the use of incense in any aspect of worship either of Christ or in the so called veneration of the Saints.  None.

Not that this carries as much weight with everyone, but of the over 140 times the Bible references incense it is always being used in worship.   Note that the Orthodox writer, quoted at the beginning of this post, used the phrase “when incense is burned or tapers lighted before Icons.”   To do something “before” another is to perform in that one’s presence.  John did so in Revelation:

Now I, John, saw and heard these things. And when I heard and saw, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel who showed me these things.  Then he said to me, “See that you do not do that. For I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren the prophets, and of those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.”

To burn incense is worship, to do so before an icon is worship of the icon or at least what or whom that icon represents.  They are your fellow servants.  Do now bow down to them.  Worship God.

Up next…  Tertullian and the Third Century Fathers

al sends


4 responses to “If It Quacks Like A Duck…

  1. Pr. Al,

    I’m not one of your Orthodox friends, but may I comment anyway?

    It seems there are two things going on in this post, first a critique of incense, and second a critique of incense before saints.

    Regarding the first point, I’m not qualified to speak. I don’t think anyone would say that incense is required in a service, but that it is good. Also, given Justin Martyr’s linking incense with libations and blood and with God’s need for it. It seems like he’s working on a slightly different plane than we are.

    Regarding the second, I don’t have any idea whether at the time of 2nd Nicea the distinction between latria and dulia was a real distinction that people could actually understand. But at least for English speakers it’s merely a nominal distinction, and we need a new terminology to discuss such things. (We are afterall talking about practice, not strictly about theology, and so abstract distinctions like between “ousia” and “persona” don’t have a place here. We need to be able to describe the things we actually do.)

    Given that fact, I think that it is completely true that Orthodox and Catholics worship saints. The question is whether worship of saints is legitimate like a wife’s worship of her husband. “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”

  2. Matt,

    I don’t know how far we will get if we cannot even determine how Scripture describes the use of incense. While no one says that incense is required, I doubt you will find a worship service in a Roman Church or an EO Church that refrains from the practice. Can you show me any use of incense in the bible that was not tied to the worship of either God or false gods?

    The distinction given by Rome and the EO Church to latria and dulia seems to be justification of a practice that took root as the Church was assimilated into Roman culture. Israel did the same thing did they not, keeping the worship of Yahweh somewhat central, but adding their home idols into the mix?

    Ezek 14 is interesting in that God points to the people of God setting up these idols in their hearts. I think in my last post I mentioned that idolatry is more a matter of the heart than it is an icon or statue. The icon makes it visible is all.

    Ezek 14:1-5 Now some of the elders of Israel came to me and sat before me. 2 And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 3 “Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and put before them that which causes them to stumble into iniquity. Should I let Myself be inquired of at all by them?

    4 “Therefore speak to them, and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “Everyone of the house of Israel who sets up his idols in his heart, and puts before him what causes him to stumble into iniquity, and then comes to the prophet, I the LORD will answer him who comes, according to the multitude of his idols, 5 that I may seize the house of Israel by their heart, because they are all estranged from Me by their idols.”‘

    Concerning the Justin Martyr quote, my purpose is simply to show that as far as we know the early church did not use something as crass as incense in their worship and were called out for it because the pagans knew that burning incense was as much an act of worship as libation and bloody sacrifice.

    We are going to have to get past the 2nd century before we find the Church explicitly sanctioning the use of incense in worship. Perhaps we will find it in the 3rd century. I have made it through a good bit of the 3rd century writers and it is not looking good for the Rome team for either the use of incense or the veneration of the saints through icons.

    al sends

  3. Pr. Al,

    Actually it would be hard to find a Catholic parish that used incense regularly. Because of the pograms against orthodoxy and tradition that (wholly illigitimately) followed Vatican II, most Catholic churches are probably lower church than yours. Many of them have evening services. It may be a real eye-opener for you to go to one. (And I don’t in any way mean that it would make you sympathetic to Catholics. But they aren’t anything like we picture them.)

    As for the Orthodox:

    Do you think that having a church building is required? (For a CREC church.)

    I would imagine not, but still, it would be good to have one. And so if you have the oppertunity, you should have one. I think the Orthodox would take a similar approach to incense. If you are too poor, or too remote, or too new, to get incense that’s ok. But if you have the oppertunity, it would be insane to pass it up.

    Regarding the rest of your post, I’m not sure my last post was any good.

    I’m not sure that the latria/dulia is a false distinction made to justify false practices. But it clearly is a foreign one to us.

    Regarding icons:

    Like I asked before: Would you object to stomping on a crucifix or Christ icon? Why?

    At the end of The Pirates of Penzance an image of Queen Victoria is produced. Was it treason against the queen for everyone to fall down before that image?

    And finally, what if an image of Queen Victoria and an icon of Christ had been produced. What would it have said if everyone knelt before Queen Victoria, but refused to bow before Christ? How should they have responded in that case?

    (Assuming icons are acceptable for the sake of argument) Regarding prayers to the saints, candles before icons of saints, and incensing saints:

    I agree that it is a form of worship. But it is worship of the Body of Christ.

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