There is no question that the Bible, called the ‘verbal ikon’ of the Word of God, is without equal as the source of our knowledge about the nature of God the Holy Triad and the salvation that is open to all. There would be no Church fathers, no worship or doctrine, no ikons, in short, no knowledge of Christ, or of our deliverance from sin and death through Him, without the Bible.
It is folly when some church authorities insist that the Bible is ‘the Church’s book’ and that only the Church can interpret it, meaning only their church. The same is true of those who say, ‘The Church was there before the Bible was, and that’s why the Church owns it and uniquely can understand it aright.’
We find that Mary the Theotokos (God-bearer) gave birth to Christ (God) in the flesh. Do we ever find her claiming to own Him, or to be the only one who understood Him aright? Yet, in time, she did precede Him. So did John the honorable forerunner and prophet. Yet he also said, ‘He that comes after me is greater than I.’
In the same way, though the Church, even considered institutionally, though it may have preceded, in time, the compilation of the books contained in the volume of the Bible, and though some members of it (the holy apostles and evangelists) wrote the parts of it called the New Testament, cannot consider itself the ‘owner’ of the Bible, nor its unique interpreter.
Instead, that which the Church ‘gave birth to,’ the Holy Scriptures, has come through her, the Church, as Christ the Divine Logos came through the Virgin Mary, to be her Lord, her Master, her only Teacher, her Rabbi, the Messiah. This proves the utter primacy given to the written Word of God, which is the original ikon of Christ the Divine Logos (Word of God), within the Church.
God is One, revealed to us as the Holy Triad of Father, Son and Spirit. The Second Person of the Holy Triad is Jesus Christ. He is the Word of God. The Bible is the ikon in human language of the Word that He is, written and therefore interpreted by the Third Person of the Holy Triad, who is the Spirit.
That Spirit can and does live in us, the people of God, sanctifying us and setting us apart as the New Israel of God. It is He, the Holy Spirit, who interprets the Bible for us and in us, making us participants in the acts of God described there.
Without the Holy Spirit’s unique work in us, the Bible would be only a book, maybe even the greatest book, but still only a book. The Church includes everyone in whom that Spirit lives, and to the extent that we follow the leading of that Divine and Holy Advocate (Paráklitos), to that extent we understand the Bible, the written ikon, aright, we have correct teaching (Orthodoxía), and we live rightly (Orthopraxía). All this comes from the Holy Scriptures.
What are the other holy ikons? Why do we encounter the Word of God in them as we encounter Him in the Bible, and how?
Ikons that are pictures painted on canvas or wood are written, using pigments and forms, and can never be anything except that which conforms to the Word of God as expressed in the Bible, and in the verifiable history of the Church.
The history of the Church extends from our first parents Adam and Eve, down to the people of God living at this present moment in chrónos time. Anything beyond that, even if it is painted in an ikonographic style can never be an ikon, only a religious picture, because it cannot be trusted.
That’s the first point. Ikons are pictures that must conform to what is literally revealed in the Holy Scriptures, or in verifiable history. Their validity as a ‘Word-event’ hinges on this fact. But ikons are still only pictures, unless the Holy Spirit who authored them in the mind and hands of the ikonographer gives them life, drawing us into the events they portray.
This is a matter of faith, not superstition. The superstitious receive nothing for their trouble in kissing and venerating ikons, leaving flowers, lighting candles, in front of them, even praying before them, if they pray not to the Heavenly God, but to the images themselves.
Thus, the second point about ikons is that it is only by the work of the Holy Spirit, their divine Author, that we can be drawn into the eternal reality of the events portrayed in them—eternal reality because before God all things are present. That’s why some people describe ikons as ‘windows to Heaven.’
In the Jewish Passover, the participants are told that it is not with their ancestors who came out of Egypt that the covenant was made, but with them, and that it is not their forefathers but they themselves whom YHWH delivered from slavery to pharaoh. This is straight out of the Bible.
In the same way, in the Orthodox Christian Pascha, the participants are told that it is we, the people of today, who have witnessed the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ is directly experienced by those living today, through the work of the Spirit of God, if they respond to His invitation.
These two examples underscore the idea that the Holy Spirit makes Scripture come alive, and through faith inserts us into the biblical narratives. The historical gap is bridged by faith when one is lifted out of the present and placed into the Bible. The biblical world and the contemporary world run together.
This is one Orthodox understanding of how we approach the Holy Scriptures, and how we approach the holy ikons. Yet, in spite of having the Bible and the ikons, we are taught ‘not to have any image of God in our minds as we approach Him in prayer,’ but to present ourselves, imageless, before Him as we are, so that we can receive Him, the King of all, solely as He is.
Giving us this kind of instruction, it sometimes makes me wonder why the Church got stuck on ikons in the first place, but I think biblical illiteracy had something to do with it. In an odd sort of way, I think sometimes that people today are drawn to our ikons for the same reason—they've given up ‘living in the Word of God’ (the Bible), and are trying to fill the void created by their biblical illiteracy.
As Luther said, ‘Anyone not ceaselessly busy with the Word of God must become corrupt,’ is still the hard and fast truth, for Orthodox Christians, and for everyone. Outside of that, all our works and thoughts lead us only to bondage and vanity.