"Who are Idolators?" by Metropolitan Platon Levshin. (1737-1812)

[excerpted from Anthology of Russian Literature From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Leo Wiener, ed. and Tr. Pt. 1 (New York, 1902), pp. 300-304]

The second commandment forbiddeth idolatry, and every unlawful mode of worshipping God.

At one time, almost all nations were in such a state of error (and even now there are many in the same situation), that they worshipped the creatures as gods, such as the sun, the moon, fire, also the lower animals, as bulls, cats, crocodiles; and some even worshipped herbs, such as onion and garlic; and to all these they offered sacrifices, and paid other divine honours, or they made statues in the likeness of men and other animals, and bowed down before them as if they were divinities. But from these shocking and awful errors, the grace of Jesus Christ has delivered us (i Peter iv. 3)

Such persons also resemble those idolaters as labour for Mammon and their belly; that is, whose thoughts are all taken up about amassing riches, which they either do not make use of, or only sacrifice to their fleshly lusts. With such people, Mammon and the belly are the idols, to whom they devote all their services; and on this account the Holy Scriptures call the love of riches, idolatry (Col. iii. 5); and those also idolaters who make their belly their God (Phil. iii. 19).

This commandment also forbids the use of all unlawful means in the worship of God; that is, when anyone thinks of pleasing God by that which is not acceptable to Him, and which is not commanded in His Word. Such, for instance, were those Israelites who presented to God costly sacrifices while they led ungodly lives. And therefore God, through His prophet Isaiah, declared sacrifices presented from such hands to be hateful in His eyes; that is, their oblations were vain, their incense was an abomination and their fatted calves like dogs in His sight (chap. i. ii). Those persons consequently transgress against this commandment:

1. Who offer hypocritical worship.-Who utter long prayers, which of itself is pious, but suppose that they shall be heard for their much speaking, though at the same time they feel no contrition of spirit. Of a similar character, also, are those hypocrites who on every occasion show themselves zealous for the name of God, zealous for the faith, the glory and the interests of the Church, and who introduce all their speeches with spiritual observations (which in themselves are praiseworthy), but who with all this have nothing in view but the indulgence of a spirit of ostentation, or promoting their own interest in all that they do, and whose zeal consists only in words with which their conduct does not in the least agree.

2. Hypocritical observances of the fasts.-Who fast, that is, abstain from certain kind of food, and on that account hope for divine acceptance, though at the same time they live in every kind of iniquity. By them the real fast, which does not consist merely in abstinence from food, but in restraining the corrupt passions, is evil spoken of. Such, also, are those who adorn the churches, or cover the pictures of the saints with gold and silver, yet at the same time oppress the innocent, who are the Church of the living God, or leave the poor without food. It is in vain, however, for them to declare that they have done all that they should have done in order to be saved; for, according to the words of Christ " these ought they to have done, and not to leave the other undone " (Matt. xxiii. 23).

3. The superstitious.- Who invent certain miraculous kinds of appearances, for the sake of filthy lucre, or from some sort of extravagant ideas about the salvation of their souls, or who attach an unknown kind of sanctity to some particular places, believing that God will hear prayers sooner in one place than in another. In a word, all those who transgress against this commandment, who, according to the testimony of Christ, place their hope of salvation in externals, and " omit the weightier matters of law, judgment, mercy and faith." Therefore, respecting such characters, divine truth declares " This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matt. xv. 8, 9).

Reverencing the pictures is not contrary to this commandment.

We do not act contrary to this commandment, when, according to the ancient custom of Christians, we adorn our temples with the holy pictures. For, in the first place, we do not attempt to draw upon the canvas a representation of the unseen and incomprehensible God, whom we never can represent; but we represent our Saviour in the fashion of a man which He took upon Himself, or His favourites. Secondly, the pictures are made and placed in our churches, not for deification, but to commemorate the acts of God and of His chosen servants, that we, in beholding them (as, for instance, in looking on the picture of our crucified Saviour), may stir up our soul to piety and to the imitation of them in many acts of their lives. Thirdly, the obeisance which we make before the pictures we do not render to the pictures themselves, that is, to the boards, colours, ornaments or skill of the artist, but we render this to the person whom they represent, and to the pictures only an affectionate salutation. Thus, for example, I bow before the picture of my Saviour, but the devotion of my spirit, my faith, supplication and hope, and the obeisance which I pay, are all rendered to my Saviour alone, who is in heaven, and everywhere present, and the picture is only a kind of sensible incitement of my devotion. Moreover, it is necessary to be known that the obeisance performed before the picture of our Saviour, and that before the picture of any of the saints, though to appearances the same, yet in reality are very different indeed. For the worship which I perform before the picture of the Saviour consists in the deepest humility of soul before Him as Lord and Creator of all; but that which I perform before the pictures of the saints is a reverence which I render to them out of a loving heart as His favourites, and as of the same nature, and of the same Church, and members of the same body with myself.

Of such as err in reverencing the pictures.

But notwithstanding all that has been said, this lawful and holy reverencing of the pictures may be turned into the most abominable sin of idolatry. This is the case when anyone hopes in, or attaches all his respect to the holy pictures, and trusts in their material substance; when, for instance, anyone finds greater sanctity in one picture than in another, or places in them any hope of salvation. They, too, are chargeable with this guilt who bring their own particular picture into the church along with them, and only worship before it, or who respect those pictures more which are adorned than the unadorned, the old more than the new, or decline praying at all when they have not a picture before them. All these, and such like, are great transgressors, and prove a great disgrace to the real profession of the Christian faith.

In order to avoid the above-named errors, it is necessary to remember, 1st That the worship of God can never be sincere, unless it proceed from a contrite and unfeigned spirit. For all external rites of worship are only marks testifying our internal piety and sincerity towards God, without which they signify nothing. And therefore the gospel requires that the worshippers of God should worship Him in spirit (not externally alone), and in truth, or not in hypocrisy. 2nd, We must hold to the divine Word alone, and rest assured that it only contains the true rules by which we ought to please God. And therefore Christ said concerning the Holy Scriptures that in them is contained eternal life.

-From The Present State of the Greek Church in Russia, translated by R. Pinkerton.