Eastern Orthodoxy

William J. Baldwin
01 July, 2004 5 min read

.  Understanding the Incarnation

by William J. Baldwin

The Orthodox misunderstand the purpose and nature of the Incarnation. The Incarnation does not repeal the second commandment – it establishes it. When Hebrews calls Christ ‘the exact representation of [God’s] nature’ it does so in the context of the uniqueness of Christ.

God has spoken to us ‘in these last days’ (i.e. at the last) by a Son, rather than by a merely human prophet. Of which of the angels did God ever say, ‘this is the radiance of my glory, the exact representation of my nature’ (cf. Hebrews 1:1-5)? Christ is the unique image of God, an image that by definition cannot be reproduced.

Paul says the same thing: ‘And he is the image [eikon] of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created … visible and invisible’ (Colossians 1:15-16).

Only the firstborn over all creation, through whom the worlds were created, could ‘image’ the Creator. No created person or object can do so. Christ alone is qualified to present the image of God to the world.

The second commandment

In the second of the ten commandments, God forbade images of himself. He did so for two reasons:

1. That which is created cannot image the Creator in a way that merits worship. The second commandment therefore prohibits ‘any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth’ (Exodus 20:5).

This prohibition must still hold. Created icons cannot image God. To say that the Incarnation changes this is to imply that Christ was created. And indeed his body was created. But to make an image of that body that is not united to the uncreated divinity of Christ leads right back to a Nestorian division of his divine and human natures.

2. No one can adequately or accurately represent by an image the invisible God. This is the argument God uses in Deuteronomy 4:15ff. And it is still valid. The fact that God has chosen to represent himself visibly in the fulness of time in Christ, in no way removes the limitations of men.

John makes it clear that it is the prerogative of ‘the only-begotten God’ to ‘explain’ the God whom no one has ever seen (John 1:18).

God’s prerogative

The Old Testament saints waited for God to show his divine image. Now he has shown it. We have the report from those whose eyes have seen, whose ears have heard, whose hands have handled (1 John 1:1).

It is impossible for a man to take created things like paint and canvas and unite them to the divinity – so that it shines with the radiance of the invisible God. That would arrogate to man a prerogative reserved to God. It would amount to reincarnating Christ in a different body, denying the finality and sufficiency of the first Incarnation.

The Orthodox will reply that an icon does not unite the divine God to the material of canvas or wood. Rather, the medium acts as a ‘porthole’ on eternity. Stanley Harakas explains:

‘The icon deliberately changes the perspective and form so that it is not naturalistic. It does this so that it can point beyond the appearances of this world to the spiritual reality and truth of the holy person or event depicted in the icon.

‘Thus the icon becomes a “window to heaven” and helps us direct our attention to divine things.’

18The icon does not reincarnate Christ, they say, but points to his Incarnation. But this produces at least two problems.


Firstly, it destroys the whole argument from the analogy of the Incarnation. That God has revealed himself in his incarnate Son is an entirely different activity to our making pictures that point to that revelation.

The argument from Incarnation – if it holds any force at all – holds force by saying that graven images were forbidden until we knew what God in the flesh looked like. Now that we know, we ought to strive to be as accurate as possible – not distort that image as if to represent something that cannot be pictured.

But the Orthodox know there is no value in depicting the humanity of Christ apart from his divinity. So they try to make the physical do double duty.


The second problem is that most icons depict Christ in his state of humiliation. But Christ is no longer in that state. There is no present heavenly reality for such an icon to point to.

The Orthodox do not fix their eyes on a Jesus who has both authored and perfected the faith and has sat down at the right hand of God the Father. They do not look by faith upon an exalted Christ.

They fix their eyes on a Jesus who, again and again, takes a mortal body and walks this earth. But when Christ did so walk he said, ‘It is to your advantage that I go away’ – that the Holy Spirit might be sent (John 16:7).

The significance of Christ’s ascension and session is that we worship in Spirit and in truth. We no longer need the elaborate physical surroundings of an earthly temple or any Eastern Orthodox church. The simple elements of bread and wine are sufficient to provide us with a window on Christ.

Who can draw Christ now?

Even if the Incarnation implied a right and duty to make icons of Christ, then the resurrection and ascension rescind that right and duty. At the Incarnation, God took on a body such as we know and understand. We can, in theory, draw it.

But who can draw the body Christ has now? To be sure, it is the same body. But it does not look the same. Paul likens the difference between the ‘earthly’ and the ‘heavenly’ body to that between a grain of wheat and the stalk that grows from it.

He does so to emphasize that we do not yet know with what kind of body we will be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:35-49). It is such a heavenly body that Christ has now.

Even if we knew what Christ looked like once, we do not know what he looks like now. An icon is a denial of that truth, a re-humiliation of the Lord of glory.

Making an idol

Jack Sparks clarifies the Orthodox idea that icons point to Christ, but far from resolving the above problems he introduces a new one. He writes:

‘In the image we see the Prototype. An icon of Christ reveals to us the Original … Icons become for us windows to heaven, revealing the glory of God … Thus, we bow before the icon of Christ, seeing through it him and his Father.’


But wait a moment! This is not a description of an icon but of Christ himself. Christ is the one in whom the apostles beheld the glory of God (John 1:14). Even while visible on earth he was still ‘in the bosom of the Father’ (John 1:18) – so that when men looked at him they saw heavenly realities.

Christ is the one in whom men saw both him and his Father: ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’, he declared (John 14:8). The Orthodox have taken the true image of God and attributed his properties to an idol.

Daniel Clendenin relates the following anecdote in Eastern Orthodox Christianity: ‘The story is told of a Protestant who asked an Orthodox Priest what it was that his church believed. The priest responded that “it would be better to ask not what we believe but how we worship”‘

23.So, how do they worship?

Venerating idols

Benz gives the answer, describing how the Orthodox believer begins worship: ‘[He] first goes up to the iconostasis, the wall of paintings which separates the sanctuary from the nave. There he kisses the icons in a definite order: first the Christ icons, then the Mary icons, then the icons of the angels and saints.

‘After this he goes up to … the icon of the saint for the particular day … Here, too, he pays his respects by a kiss, bow and crossing himself. Then having expressed his veneration for the icons, he steps back and rejoins the congregation.’


Clearly, to the Orthodox, the difference between Christ on the one hand and Mary and the saints on the other is one of degree, not of kind. They may deny this as vigorously as they wish – but when we ask how they worship they confess by their actions that they neither understand nor acknowledge the uniqueness of Christ.

The proverb says ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. It appears that to the Orthodox, an icon is worth more than all the words of Nicea and Chalcedon combined.

The numbered notes can be found on the internet at: www.snurl.com/baldwin/papers Eastern_Orthodoxy.htm

Join the discussion

Read community guidelines
New: the ET podcast!