As follows are some reflections that are, to me anyway, the toughest words in the Scriptures pertaining to religious art. Unlike the passages often cited as evidence against the Orthodox practice of iconodulia, Wis 14 offers a much more problematic critique. It condemns art (types) that are actually real (i.e. have prototypes). Hence, a criticism of iconodulia based upon Wis 14 circumvents the standard Orthodox apologetic given since Saint Theodore the Studite.

The ignored context. The passage begins with an interesting positive reference to sailors who are at God’s mercy despite the careful design of the ship:

Again, one preparing to sail and about to voyage over raging waves calls upon a piece of wood more fragile than the ship that carries him. For it was desire for gain that planned that vessel, and wisdom was the artisan who built it; but it is your providence, O Father, that steers its course, because you have given it a path in the sea, and a safe way through the waves, showing that you can save from every danger, so that even a person who lacks skill may put to sea. (Wis 14:1-4)

A juxtaposition is made: A ship made by man’s ingenuity and God’s sovereignty over its goings. The significance of this juxtaposition is not a literal condemnation of men using their ingenuity, but rather their using of ingenuity contrary to the will of God. (cf Gen 11:1-9) One may infer this in the following passage:

It is your will that works of your wisdom should not be without effect; therefore people trust their lives even to the smallest piece of wood, and passing through the billows on a raft they come safely to land. For even in the beginning, when arrogant giants were perishing, the hope of the world took refuge on a raft, and guided by your hand left to the world the seed of a new generation. For blessed is the wood by which righteousness comes. But the idol made with hands is accursed, and so is the one who made it. (Wis 14:5-8)

The stage is set. When man uses creation (even his own, such as Noah’s Ark), but does so trusting in God, righteousness and blessedness is the result. The idol and its maker are “accursed,” presumably because they do not follow the rule the first eight verses of the chapter lay out. What follows suggests this is the case:

For equally hateful to God are the ungodly and their ungodliness; for what was done will be punished together with the one who did it. Therefore there will be a visitation also upon the heathen idols [εἰδώλων], because, though part of what God created, they became an abomination, snares for human souls and a trap for the feet of the foolish. (Wis 14:9-11)

The idols are condemned as though they are created out of what could be wood that brings righteousness, they rather become snares to the faith of many.

For the idea of making idols [εἰδώλων] was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life; for they did not exist from the beginning, nor will they last forever. For through human vanity they entered the world, and therefore their speedy end has been planned. (Wis 14:12-14)

The reason idols became snares is explicitly attributed to the intent of their creators, using their ingenuity for evil (like the constructors of the Tower of Babel) instead of good. Their ingenuity exhibits their trust in princes and sons of men (i.e. themselves), and not their trust in God. In summary, the context demands an understanding that the critique which follows pertains specifically to wrongful use of something that can otherwise be used rightfully. This is an interesting dichotomy, because if understood it potentially undercuts the iconoclastic interpretation of the passage.

Is Wis 14:15-21 Against Icons? I would not accuse someone of dishonesty for looking at the following passage and arriving at the conclusion that Orthodox iconodulia is completely inconsistent with its admonishment. I myself am the first person I know to have posed this passage as problematic in an apologetics context (when I was Protestant). I have found no other similar critique anywhere else, though it appears it was one of the critiques from the actual iconoclasts. (Windows on Eternity, p. 23) I am not aware of any response made to a seemingly devastating prooftext against icons:

For a father, consumed with grief at an untimely bereavement, made an image [εἰκόνα ICON] of his child, who had been suddenly taken from him; he now honored as a god what was once a dead human being, and handed on to his dependents secret rites and initiations. Then the ungodly custom, grown strong with time, was kept as a law, and at the command of monarchs carved images were worshiped. When people could not honor monarchs in their presence, since they lived at a distance, they imagined their appearance far away, and made a visible image [εἰκόνα ICON] of the king whom they honored, so that by their zeal they might flatter the absent one as though present. Then the ambition of the artisan impelled even those who did not know the king to intensify their worship. For he, perhaps wishing to please his ruler, skillfully forced the likeness to take more beautiful form, and the multitude, attracted by the charm of his work, now regarded as an object of worship the one whom shortly before they had honored as a human being. And this became a hidden trap for humankind, because people, in bondage to misfortune or to royal authority, bestowed on objects of stone or wood the name that ought not to be shared. (Wis 14:15-21)

Two different icons (the literal word being used) are condemned, both interestingly having types. Perhaps Saints Theodore the Studite and Nicephorus who hinged their defense of icons on the prototype-type distinction left this passage unaddressed. Nicea 2 did not address it. The passage has a nuanced point that appears not to be addressed apologetically by anyone I know of: an image can be made of someone real, but it becomes an idol because it is “honored as a god.” Kings, seizing upon this being done among the ancestor worshippers, demanded similar cults for themselves while living. Additionally, the images of the monarchs were merely honored, but this elevated into full-blown “worship.” The passage literally ends with the warning that what was an icon improperly given mere honor became the idols given worship warned about in verses in 11 and 12.

If the preceding is not clear enough, after a discussion of the excesses of pagan worship revolving around the aforementioned images, the passage closes on this point:

For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil. For their worshipers either rave in exultation, or prophesy lies, or live unrighteously, or readily commit perjury; for because they trust in lifeless idols they swear wicked oaths and expect to suffer no harm. (Wis 14:27-29)

While ignorant debates on icons revolve around the mere existence of images and confusion over the latra-dulia distinction, the preceding offers a seemingly more profound objection to Orthodox veneration practices. They allegedly begin as improper veneration, but elevate to blasphemous worship.

A Contextual Response. While the preceding may sincerely feel like the Scriptural death knell to iconodulia, I’d like to bring the beginning of the chapter back into the conversation. The whole issue was staged as a juxtaposition between the trust in human ingenuity versus trust in God. Visible matter was not condemned. In fact, it could be rightly used for righteousness—a piece of wood used to survive shipwreck and the ark of Noah as examples. Immediately following this conversation is a condemnation of visible matter used for unrighteousness, this unrighteousness increasing in matter of degree.

For the juxtaposition that sets the stage to make sense, one would be compelled to infer that a mention of an image of a dead ancestor or king is not necessarily bad any more than the aforementioned ship. It is how they are used which is point at issue. The passage certainly condemns both their vener0ation and worship. Like King Hezekiah destroying the bronze serpent, something good can become bad due to its use. This principle has huge ramifications and may be why the Orthodox Church has blessed the used of icons, but not statues in veneration (as according to their actual matter, nothing should technically forbid it).

And so, while the thrust of the passage is clearly not endorsing the proper use of visible images, its logic appears to demand that there must be a proper use of visible images. Additionally, for the juxtaposition to make sense, the condemnations of honor and worship being given to images must similarly be understood to imply that there are right ways to give honor and worship (in the latter case for us Orthodox, not to the image itself, but the image being used on something specific to worship, such as the chalice).

I think someone could rightly argue that this does not seem to be the actual intent behind the passage. Being that Wisdom was written in a preincarnational world, I agree. Most saints were still in Hades/Sheol and could not hear prayers. There was no visible God to depict. It was almost as if the juxtaposition was made in ignorance of its ramifications. “For blessed is the wood by which righteousness comes,” surely was prophesied without full knowledge that this was in reference to the cross. Wis 2:12-24 contains a similar prophesy. Like many things written in the Old Testament, the fulfillment of prophesy is the only thing that makes its teaching clear.

Protestant apologists may object that this is “eisegesis,” but this would be no different than any standard Christologically-centered eisegesis applied to other Old Testament texts. Is 7:14 appears to be fulfilled in the very next chapter—however, due to being in a post-incarnational era of history, we know better. Therefore, we ought to know better with Wis 14.

Conclusion. Wis 14 indeed contains what appears to be a profound attack on not only the misuse of idols, but the very theology of iconodulia itself. However, such a conclusion appears to contradict the context of the whole passage, which establishes a juxtaposition between the right and wrong use of human ingenuity. The passage, clearly containing a prophetic element (in light of a traditional Christian reading of Scriptures), demands a post-incarnational reading in light of the same tradition. Therefore, one must come to one or the other conclusion: a traditional reading is indeed possible as the passage allows for the rightful use of religious art; or the passage makes a much more generalized juxtaposition—vaguely approving of the work of man’s hands but not art in any sense. Obviously, Orthodox would affirm the former, but not the latter.

A common ground between Orthodox and Protestants is that we ought to agree that in principle is that Christian art can be misused. The normative Orthodox prohibitions on icons of the Father and the veneration of statues are examples of these. On the theoretical level, the possibility that people catechized wrongly could improperly treat icons is serious and it is precisely this that Protestants are leery of. Perhaps, by acknowledging such improper treatment and the Scriptural discussion of exactly this point in Wis 14 is a good way to lend credibility to Orthodox iconodulia.