Years ago in a debate with Roman Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid, James White (a Reformed apologist) rejected the findings of the seventh ecumenical council as it pertained to the veneration of icons and the saints they represent. The Second Council of Nicea, in short, said that both God and the Saints can be served, God by worship (a Greek term called “latria,” which literally means “service”) and the saints by veneration (a Greek term called “dulia,” which also literally means “service.”)
This is a distinction that James White rejects, as he views both veneration and worship as one and the same. In James White’s own words, his argument as to why the preceding is true may be summed up as follows:
The Greek Septuagint does not differentiate between the translation of those two words [latria and dulia from the Hebrew word of worship, abad] and we are forbidden…to abad anyone other than God. (52:30)
When we come to the New Testament… we discover that there is absolutely no distinction made between [dulia and latria] relevant to religious worship.
Because of the preceding, White concludes, there is no basis behind the latria and dulia distinction as laid forth in the ecumenical council. Being that God is given both dulia and latria in the Scriptures, to give dulia to a saint is equivalent to worshiping God–therefore idolatry.
Is James White correct in his conclusion? In short, no–because he is incorrect in his assertion that latria and dulia have identical applications in the Scriptures.
Latria in the Scriptures. There is no need to belabor our discussion on latria. In short, even though in classical Greek the word latria was used in the context of serving mortals as well as gods, in the Scriptures it almost always pertains to the service of God Himself (only twice in the whole Scriptures does it refer to pagan gods; LXX, NT). The term may be translated as “worship,” but contextually the translation “service” always fits better and etymologically makes more sense.
In short, in the Scriptures latria is an act of service on behalf of a deity.
Dulia in the Scriptures. James White claims that dulia is used as a synonym for latria in the Scriptures, and therefore it is inappropriate to make the distinction between latria and dulia. This is a half truth. In the following, we will show that dulia is an act of service on behalf of anyone or anything. It lacks the strong worship connotation that latria has. Hence, dulia may be performed to a deity, but as we shall see, it may also be used in non-religious contexts and given to inanimate things as well as men.
Dulia and Serving God. When the Scriptures refer to the Triune God being served (dulia), we often do not see service being referred to explicitly in a worship context. After all, serving God is not always worship, though it is of course rightfully done. This is why we “serve [dulia] God and” not “money” (Luke 16:13), “serve (dulia) God’s Law” (Rom 7:25), “serve (dulia) Christ” in fastings (Rom 14:18), and “serve (dulia) Him under one yoke” (Zeph 3:9, LXX). In the preceding, it would not make as much sense to use the word latria in any of these contexts as service specifically pertaining to worship does not appear in view in the preceding passages. Hence, the choice of the word dulia and not latria.
However, the preceding is not universally true in the Greek. An act of service (dulia) may also constitute an act of worship, though worship and service remain mutually exclusive. For example, 2 Chron 33:16 in the LXX states: “He built up the altar of the Lord, and offered thereon sacrifices of peace offerings and of thanksgiving, and commanded Judah to serve (dulia) the Lord, the God of Israel.” We can obviously see that what is being spoken of here are liturgical services–the literal nitty, gritty of making sacrifices. Sacrifice is an act of service used for worship. So, dulia may be used in the worship context–it is just not exclusive in its meaning like latria.
Dulia and Serving Other Parties. In the Scriptures, dulia is frequently used in reference to serving people and false gods (LXX, NT). We do have Scriptures where dulia is referred to in a religious context (i.e. “But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served [dulia] those which by nature are not gods,” Gal 4:8). Yet, because the word dulia simply pertains to an act of service which may or may not be worship-related, it should not surprise us to see dulia used in contexts that are not religious at all (i.e. John 8:33, Rom 9:12, Ex 14:5 LXX).
We also see dulia pertaining to the service of other Christians, and not acts of worship (i.e. Phil 2:22, see also Gal 5:13 1 Tim 6:2). This is not true for a single usage of the term latria in the Scriptures, which mitigates against James White’s conflation of the terms.
It is worth interjecting here that the Orthodox position merely says we can service canonized saints akin to the way we serve living Christians (with reverence, respect, and love).
To sum up this section let’s cover passages that explicitly say when we serve (dulia) men we in fact serve (dulia) God Himself:
Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ…with goodwill doing service (dulia), as to the Lord, and not to men (Eph 6:5, 7).
Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve (dulia) the Lord Christ (Col 3:22-24).
Clearly, slaves are not being commanded to worship their masters, something that James White’s logic would demand in Eph 6:7 if dulia’s range of meaning was restricted to services that pertain strictly to worshiping God.
Rather, we may surmise that the Scriptural teaching is that when service is given to earthly men in certain situations, it by extension really serves God. This logic is clearly seen in the veneration of the saints, as Saint Jerome writes:
We, it is true, refuse to worship or adore, I say not [only] the relics of the martyrs, but even the sun and moon, the angels and archangels, the Cherubim and Seraphim…For we may not serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. [Romans 1:25] Still we honour the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are. We honour the servants that their honour may be reflected upon their Lord who Himself says:— he that receives you receives me [Matthew 10:40] (Letter 109, Paragraph 1).
Proskuneo (Reverence) in the Scriptures. James White does not really touch on the term proskuneo. Nevertheless, it is worth discussing because it helps us understand the the concept of worship within the context of Biblical language. Proskuneo is almost always used to mean “reverentially worship” in the New Testament. For example, Matt 4:10 states, “You shall worship (proskuneo) the Lord and Him alone you shall serve (latria).” The one key exception is Matt 18:26, where a servant falls on his knees (proskuneo) and begs his master to forgive his debt. Jesus in telling this parable was aware that the word commonly meant worship (as it is used throughout the New Testament), but otherwise may be legitimately rendered “prostrated.” We see this translation used in the Old Testament, such as in 1 Sam 20:41. In choosing this word in Matt 18:26 for the slave prostrating to his master, Christ was cluing His listeners that the master was a type for God Himself.
Conclusion. James White asserts that:
True Biblical worship includes both concepts [of dulia and latria] together. That’s why the Greek Septuagint does not translate it [abad] with one particular word, because the Hebrew word is richer than that. (55:19)
And what James White says here is true. Worship is a very rich word, and the way we worship God is sometimes an overt act and sometimes it is simply by how we live and treat others. Conceding this much, however, does not justify White’s opposition to the Second Council of Nicea.
It may be true to say that James White’s confusion stems from an overly simplistic treatment of the Greek terminology. After all, just because God can be served (dulia) that does not make the term equivalent to (latria) nor something done exclusively to God, as the preceding shows. However, we think there is something more profound behind Mr. White’s misapprehension of the distinction between dulia and latria.
I posit that the root cause of his difficulty in differentiating between latria and dulia is that he misapprehends what us true worship in the Scriptures.
When Orthodox offer dulia to the saints, we serve them through prayers and veneration–but we do not consider this worship. This is not because we are ignorant of the Scriptures. In fact, it is on Scriptural grounds that we do not consider simply paying homage and asking for prayer as exclusively worship-related. This is because the saints do not receive sacrifices, which is the proper and normative way in the Scriptures of worshiping any deity.
Service, unless it is sacrificial, is not worship. This is a Biblical distinction White does not make due to his own extra-biblical tradition.
Whether our sacrifice is financial, or an offering of praise or song, or Eucharistic, or whatever else it makes no real difference–a sacrifice is what constitutes true worship. “We know what love is in that Christ laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16). Sacrifice is the essence of love and devotion–this we give exclusively to God.
Service in a more general sense, though still a positive good, can be given to anyone or anything. We ask people we respect for prayers and pay them homage in varying ways all the time–and none of us confuse this is as worship. Rather, we honor God when we do these things rightly.
As Saint Jerome points out, service that brings honor to God’s people in fact honors God Himself. After all, if we may serve God by serving Earthly men, especially harsh slavemasters (1 Pet 2:18), it is right to serve God by serving our Christian brothers and sisters. And this being the case, how much more true is this for the saints, whose memories are worthy honor and whose prayers are heard in heaven by God Himself (Rev 6:9-11)?
James White may comfortably cite Saint Jerome when he argues that other (allegedly more ignorant) church fathers have the wrong Biblical canon. But, he will remain incapable of understanding Jerome’s view on the veneration of saints until he understands what worship really is. If we rightly defined what worship includes in the Scriptures, we would never confuse requests for prayers and lofty praises (something that James White himself receives from his listeners and fans) with literal idolatry.