Deification through icons

I have come to be aware that the theology of icons may go much deeper than the painted icons that are chiefly associated with the Orthodox Church. I am beginning to see that the theology of the icon goes to the very heart of our path to salvation (that is deification or union with God) in that we are saved through participation with and in icons. What does this mean? It means that man’s union with God is effected through icons both portrayed by other things, persons and by himself.

Here is a brief overview of how I am coming to see this.

The Son of God is the express image, that is icon, of God. We too become sons of God as icons of God by conforming to the likeness of the Image (Icon) of God, the Son of God. God is made present to us by icon as the Son of God incarnate when Christ walked among us and now through the Church in its various icons. The Church portrays two distinct aspects through icons one that points to God and the other to man. This represents the union of God and man in Christ and our deification united with God sharing His life in synergy while remaining man. The aspects that point to God reflect that He is One, that He is Lord, Teacher, Master and Overseer of us. The icons that point to man are those that represent obedience/humility yet co-rulers, and physical presence yet deified.

One of the chief icons is the bishop who is an icon par excellence of the God-man. The bishop represents the one God united to man in Christ. He represents God as teacher, lord, overseer and master in a concrete/incarnate form. He does not merely represent Christ but makes Christ present in a similar manner as a painted icon does. Thus, when the bishop blesses it is the blessing of Christ that we receive from Christ himself. If we separate from the bishop we separate from Christ. The presbyter is also such an icon as the bishop but differs in that the bishop represents the single source of grace, that is Christ, and ordains the presbyter whereas the presbyters represent the Apostles in receiving this grace from Christ. Nevertheless, in terms of a parish the presbyter is the source of grace for the laity as the Apostles were to others after Pentecost.

The church building (or temple) is also an icon of heaven and earth and the relationship between them. Thus, it requires a certain sense of form to correctly portray this icon and make real the presence of this relationship. Temple architecture needs to conform to a tradition as much as icons do to correctly betray the icon which they represent and if, with that likeness, make present.

The mysteries make Christ present through icons: baptism in the triple immersion as an icon of uniting to Christ’s three day death and resurrection, which, with the grace of the Spirit, begets one united to Christ as a son of God, baptism is also an icon of the triune God with whom we are united; and the Eucharist with the bread and wine mixed with water as icons of the Body and blood, which they make present by the Spirit.

Other icons occur in monastic life where the Abbot is the icon of Christ for the monks, who in turn are icons of man, that is they live in obedience and humility following the word of God which is made present in the Abbot. This synergy of Abbot and monks manifests the deification synergy of each with Christ. They adopt clothing to help define themselves as the appropriate icon just as priests vest in robes borrowed from secular nobility as appropriate to identify them as rulers and elders with other aspects associate with priests and shepherds. The Apostles are shown in philosophers robes to identify them as teachers and masters. The clothing we wear and even our grooming is part of the iconic image that we portray to make Christ present and to establish our participation in deification, which is not something only for the future but is something that we must participate in now to be completed in the coming age.

In marriage, the husband is the icon of Christ and the wife of man (that is the Church). Their relationship is defined in terms of presenting themselves as appropriate icons in the same manner as monks to an Abbot. The wife submits to her husband in all things as man submits to God in all things. The husband gives himself for the wife in love as Christ. The husband is responsible as teacher and lord of his household, although the wife shares in this in relation to the children in a similar pattern of Christ and Apostles or bishop and presbyters mentioned earlier. Like Christ the husband respects the freedom of his partner and that she will participate with him in reigning with God as man (using the word inclusively of all human persons) and that they will reign with God in the age to come together as sons of God, brothers with Christ, and co-heirs; not one as a slaves or servants to the other as well will live then in relation to God not as slaves but as sons. The home, like a monastery, is a place that manifests the process of deification and realises it in us.

Men (males) in general are the image and glory of God and hence they bare heads in prayer, as a fitting presentation of the icon to show the authority and rule of God, in which we too participate. Women are the glory of men, thus she covers her head as a fitting presentation of the icon of our being under the authority of God, in obedience, which is necessary for our salvation so that we become of one mind with Christ. Women present an icon to men of how we all should live in obedience to God and men to women of the sovereignty of God and that we all will participate in this. The two together unite to show the synergy of God and man in deification. Without the distinction we would not have a true icon of our salvation.

Each of us carries the responsibility to maintain themselves in likeness of our correct icon so that Christ and our deification is properly manifest in us. Just as an icon needs to have a certain likeness to be recognised and make present Christ or the saint whom they depict, we also need to conform to our appropriate icon for Christ to be present in us and to effect deification in us. This likeness is not only outer form, although this is also part, but also the development of virtues of living as Christ both in a manner of reflecting the divine and also of reflecting humanity. The different emphasis that we each have not only for our sake but for the sake of others who view us.

Without these icons we could not be saved because we could not know God except through His Icon the Son who is in turn known through icons conforming to Himself and is made present by them. To deny these icons is to deny the incarnation of Christ and that Christ is truly present with us; it is also to deny Christ as the icon of God and the very knowability of God in any manner. So, icons are the means through which we participate in deification becoming sons and icons of God united to Him through Christ in the Holy Spirit, who brings to life and reality each icon. The controversy about icons was not only about how to relate to painted icons but about the theology that underlies our salvation.


  1. Aren’t theological discussions fun! 😉 Anon, what I thought you were saying is that Fr. Hopko was teaching against a hierarchal transmission of grace but I’m not sure if you were saying his teaching was neo-platonic or that the hierarchal transmission was neo-platonic. What I understood Fr. Hopko’s point to be was that many in the past have taken an extreme view of this hierarchal transmission and that they based this idea on a incorrect view of what pseudo-Dionysius was actually saying. He was merely trying to bring some balance to this teaching.

  2. Interesting – David seems to have read the precise opposite meaning than I intended into what I said, taking me to task for not saying what I believe I said.

    Simultaneously, Fr Patrick seems to have understood me clearly and takes exception to the perspective that David seems to advocate.

    When I have time, I will try to find a sensible way to respond to both.

  3. Anon,

    Please expand on what you understand that Fr Hopko was trying to say. Was he meaning to say that ordination is not a hierarchal transmission of grace, or that chrismation is not a hierarchal transmission of grace, or that one does not need a bishop or presbyter to serve the Eucharist?

    Also, please expand on and explain what you find in this post that is contrary to Scripture and specifically Neoplatonic as opposed to Patristic?

  4. So, Anon, do you deny that an individual Christian can have access to God directly? That they must go thru a priest, who must go thru a bishop then thru the ranks of angels in order to get to God? That is the view of what many in the past have said pseudo-Dionysius was teaching. Fr. Hopko was working from what a modern day expert of Dionysius is claiming that he did not teach. Seems that those living around the time of Dyonysius did not think he was teaching that either. I’m curious as to your thinking here.

  5. With respect to:
    “The presbyter is also such an icon as the bishop but differs in that the bishop represents the single source of grace, that is Christ, and ordains the presbyter whereas the presbyters represent the Apostles in receiving this grace from Christ. Nevertheless, in terms of a parish the presbyter is the source of grace for the laity as the Apostles were to others after Pentecost”

    interesting to note that Fr Hopko seemed to be at pain to suggest that a model of hierarchical transmission of grace is wrong in his recent podcast on pseudo Dionysius – it certainly seems to directly contradict Scripture and reads like Neoplatonism run amock.

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