Book Reviews

“The Veneration of Images in the East Syriac Tradition”

By Teule

It is sometimes reported that the veneration of images, as it exists amongst the Orthodox and Catholic Churches of Kerala, India, is a by-product of Roman Catholic and/or Syriac Orthodox influence during the post-Diamper period. It is further argued by Protestant apologists that these foreign influences were contrary to the original faith of the Malankara (Indian) Christians, and constitute an idolatrous modification of the faith. Most arguments pertaining to this “foreign influence theory” lack cogency and intellectual depth, instead appealing to various unsubstantiated myths (e.g., the so-called “purity” of the original Malankara Church, where purity is a euphemism that is taken to imply anything acceptable to “low Church” evangelical Protestantism).

The best arguments in favor of the “foreign influence theory” appeal to the common origin of all Syriac Churches in Malankara from the (East Syriac) Church of the East. The argument then runs like this:

  1. the Malankara Church was originally part of the Church of the East
  2. veneration of icons is against the tenets of the Church of the East therefore by (1) and (2) the Malankara Church never venerated icons in its pre-Diamper history.

The veracity of point (1) is well-supported by the available literary evidence [1]: the “original” Malankara Church (where by original we mean pre-Diamper, and before the split of the Church of the East in the 15th century) was certainly of the Church of the East. However, what about point (2)?:

On the surface, it does seem that (2) *may* be true. Protestant missionaries who visited the East Syriac Christians in the Middle East during the 19th century do seem to have reported that the churches they saw did not use icons or images. Visiting an Assyrian church today yields a similar result. However, such sparse sampling does not constitute proof—especially when one considers the strong influence that might have been exerted on the isolated East Syriac Church in the Middle East by the dominant Islamic culture which was opposed to the use of images of human forms, especially in places of worship.

The dearth of scholarly literature on this topic certainly does not help one make a positive or negative statement with any degree of certainty, either. Moreover, although East Syriac Christianity (at least, that part not in communion with Rome) does not—today—use images, one can not paint the entire Syriac Church in the same manner: the West Syriac Church most certainly does make use of images and icons. Further, as the history of the Mandylion shows, iconography was not rejected by the nascent Syriac Church that predated the “Nestorian” and “Chalcedonian” controversies. Hence, one can not dismiss the current use of iconography in the current Orthodox and Catholic Syriac Churches as being merely due to Byzantine or Roman influence.M

Fortunately, a new piece of scholarship by H. Teule [2] sheds some light on the matter. Since the original source article may not be easily accessible, this review seeks to bring out some of the salient points and, perhaps more importantly, the source material that Teule uses to show that in antiquity during the heyday of the Church of the East, the East Syriac Church certainly did employ iconography and images and, in general, did not condemn their veneration.

Teule first discusses the reports of Asahel Grant, Horatio Southgate, and G.P. Badger, Protestant missionaries who visited the Church of the East in the 19th century:

Southgate’s Grant’s and Badger’s observations concerning the absence of icons were undoubtedly correct for the 19th century modest churches in the Hakkari mountains of Eastern Turkey or the region around Urmia, the lands where they exerted most of their missionary activity, and any modern visitor of an Assyrian Church will agree with them that also in the present time the decoration of the Assyrian Churches is extremely sober.

He then discusses the pastoral letter of the Uniate Chaldean Patriarch Abdiso I Khayyath (1895-1898) defending the veneration of the Holy Cross and of images of Christ and the saints. The letter intended to convince the Chaldean Christians that the veneration of icons was not a Chaldean innovation born of Roman influence, and was not idolatry as the Protestant missionaries contended “but was based on the age old, venerable traditions of the Church of the East, the Mother Church of the Chaldeans.”:

Teule’s article then provides “an inventory of the East Syrian theological and historical texts, written in the Middle East, the heartland of East Syriac Christianity, which in different ways testifies to the veneration of icons until the 14th century by members of the Church of the East.” Teule gives a critical assessment of the following sources, including two negative treatises against icon veneration in his survey.:

  1. The Acts of Mar Mari
  2. The Abridged Ecclesiastical Chronicle (Muhtasar al-ahbara al-bi’c’iyya) dated to the 11 century
  3. Book of the Tower (kitab al-Majdal); 11th century
  4. Barhadsabba Arbaya
  5. Abraham of Bet Hale
  6. Isho bar Nun
  7. Text from the Hudra
  8. Service for the Consecration of the Altar (Catholicos Isoyahb III)

Next, one brings (on the altar) all the sacred objects necessary for the Holy Mysteries: the paten, the chalices, fans and the “icon above”, the stores, the veils of the chalice, the oravia and the vestments of the altar, except the cross and the book of the gospel.

Teule admits that it is not easy to determine the exact meaning of the “icon above”—yuqna da-l’el—but he positively refutes that this was a later Chaldean Catholic innovation since this is also found in the Taksa d-kahne of the non-Roman Church of the East.

9. Hunayn b. Ishaq
Patriarch Theodosius articulates the East Syriac attitude towards icons, when he explains to al-Mutawakkil that, when an educated person spits on an icon, he deserves to be punished since “he does not spit on the image but on Christ and Mary”. Apparently he believes that icons are instruments of the “real presence” of Christ or the Saints, which therefore are worthy of respect and veneration, an understanding that will be developed by later East Syriac theologians such as Iso-yahb bar Malkon.

10. Hasan bar bahlul:
Patriarch Khayyath even refers to the famous Syriac-Arabic Dictionary composed in the 10th cent by the East Syriac grammarian and lexicographer, Hasan bar Bahlul. Here we find user Praka (an idol’s shrine, temple) the following addition in Arabic: “a dome, and also the images of an idol or as we respect the image (sura) of Marta Maryam and other images.

11. Elias of Nisibis (against iconography):

12. Cathoclicos Elias II (1111-1131):

The Catholicos refutes the equivalence of icon veneration with idolatry, by illustrating it’s parallel purposes to the Muslim veneration of their Holy Scriptures; this is significant since the Muslims are rigorously against idolatry: That we venerate, kiss and honor them [icons, images] comes in the place of the honor, paid by our friends, the Muslims, to the copies of their Holy Scripture.:

13. Catholicos Denha:

Referring to a Church built by Denha in Arbela::

He built a Church in the citadel of Arbil … he spent an immeasurable amount of gold and silver and decorated it with beautiful things and images (surata).:

On reading further, Teule notes that for the East Syrians, images and icons functioned as biblia pauperum (i.e., the poor man’s book) for youngsters and illiterate peoples to understand the Scriptures.:

14. Catholicos Yahbalaha:

One night when he was sleeping, Mar Yahbalaha had a dream as if he entered a big Church. And in this Church, there were images (surata) of saints and among them a cross.:

15. Iso-yahb bar Malkon:

16. Saliba ibm Yuhanna:

17. Abdiso bar Brikha (negative):

Teule concludes:

After [the fourteenth century] there is a long period of silence until, in the 19th century, some East Syrians expressed themselves again on the issue of the veneration of icons, but this time only to condemn it … It is not easy to give a satisfactory explanation for this long period of silence … Most probably the conditions of extreme poverty, isolation, absence of schools, remoteness from the great centers of learning and, after the 16th century, the bad position of the Middle East in general under Ottoman domination, were important factors.

For the period before the 14th century we can formulate the following conclusions:

  1. Veneration of images and icons belong to the original tradition of the Church of the East. The earliest allusions date from the 6th (Barhadsabha Arbaya) and 7th (Catholicos Isoyahb III) centuries.
  2. Early reference only speaks of images of Christ. Later tradition also mentions icons of prophets, apostles, Mary and saints in general.
  3. Veneration of images is legimatized by referring to the Mandylion sent to King Abgar of Eddessa as well as to the practice of Mar Mari, the first to have decorated churches with images.
  4. The icon of Christ played a role in the liturgy.
  5. Veneration of icons was already a theme in East Syrian- Muslim discussions since the 8th century. Important elements … were the comparison of the veneration of icons with comparable Muslim liturgical or devotional practice, the emphases on the intention behind the veneration of images, which is addressed to the person represented and not to the material.
  6. Functioned as instruction to illiterate people.
  7. Distinction between the pagan adoration of idols and the veneration of images as practiced by the Church of the East.
  8. Icons and images had not only a liturgical role, but also one in personal devotion: to convey a feeling of nearness to the persons represented, whose deeds they are encouraged to imitate.
  9. No mention of miracle working images, like in the Byzantine tradition. Emphasis is more on remembrance and actualization of the life and deeds of the person represented.

Teule’s work is a welcome addition to the discussion of icon veneration in Christianity, since this issue is often amplified beyond its worth to paint icon-friendly Churches as being idolatrous and contrary to the “original” precepts of Christianity. Protestant apologists desiring an eastern example of quasi-Protestantism have often held the Church of the East to be demonstrative of the alleged similarly of Protestantism to primitive Christianity. Of course, recent scholarship into the doctrines and practices of the Church of the East, and the other Oriental Churches in general, show that no such similarly exists at any level of depth. With Teule’s work we have an excellent survey providing ample evidence of the antiquity of icon veneration in the East Syriac tradition. The general importance of iconography in the ancient Christian traditions—Eastern/Oriental Orthodoxy, Catholicism and the Church of the East—is clear.
[1] It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the various claims concerning the Church of the East’s influence in India before Diamper. It is sufficient to say that (1) all the available evidence on the matter points solely to the ancient connection between the Church of the East and Kerala, and (2) there is no evidence of the connection of Malabar with other Christian traditions prior to the 14th century. We refer the reader to the Srite project,, a scholarly endeavor headed by Dr. Istvan Perczel. This perhaps stands as the clearest, and least biased, exposition of the available literary proof concerning this very contentious topic.
[2] Herman Teule, “The Veneration of Images in the East Syriac Tradition,” in Die Welt der Götterbilder, pp. 324–346.

N. J. Mathai, Ph.D.

Prescription of Repentance

By Carla Newbern Thomas, MD.

(Editor’s Note: Here we present a review on a beautiful spiritual masterpiece written by a Harvard-educated physician whom God called to prescribe medications for physical ailments. This noble lady, whom this editor personally knows as a deeply committed orthodox Christian, has now decided to offer another kind of prescription, the Prescription of Repentance before anyone starts with drug therapy. Our reviewer is Fr. Alexander Lukashonok, the Assistant pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul Greek Orthodox Church at Glenview, Illinois, U.S.A.)

When dealing with a small “book” or pamphlet, it is easy to pass it off as simple and cursory, not giving it serious attention. However, when a small work is packed with great information and has a precise direction, it is a literary work with great impact; and when it is filled with pearls of wisdom, it is a treasure. Dr. Thomas has compiled a short and lucid work with the aim of teaching and expounding upon the Gospel Message, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” She gathers the Wisdom of the Church from many sources, the Holy Scriptures, the Liturgical hymns/texts and Church Fathers, ancient and recent, into a cohesive study for spiritual growth.

She connects the Gospel message of Repentance with the health of an individual, “real” health, the condition of the soul, or in other words, the matter of the heart. Can souls be sick? Can the heart be dirty, and polluted? If so, then what is the remedy? How can a man and a woman grow perfect, exchanging evil ideas and acts, or habits, for Wisdom, knowledge and God-pleasing actions? Reading this book, the reader will learn that repentance is a crucible, at times difficult, maybe painful, which everyone has need to go through, in order to be cleansed and become perfect. It is the work of a Christian, therapeutic action, which the Scriptures describe as God’s call “to come and follow ME,” and more specifically, as “denying oneself, picking up your cross, and following [Jesus Christ]” At the beginning of the Gospels, is St John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness, “Repent for the Kingdom of the Heavens is at hand.” (Mat. 3.2) Jesus Christ Himself will also begin with this same message (Mat. 4.17), therefore, it would follow that repentance lies at the very beginning of the Christian life. Yet, how often is it forgotten about, whether it is skipped in the conversion process of being re-born, or whether it has been skipped by Christians baptized in childhood, both who proceed to assume the position of Christian entitlement, expecting all of God’s blessings.

When speaking about the spiritual life, and a healthy heart, it is good to remember that it is only the Lord God who is able to truly know man. It is the Creator who sees into the hearts of men, and knows his inner thoughts and motives. In the Holy Scriptures, when picking King David to be his servant, a man who was strong and handsome, it is written that God looks at the hearts of men and not their appearances. Therefore, do not be quick to judge anyone, whether they are extremely beautiful or not, whether they have full abilities or be handicapped, physically healthy or sick and diseased. Dr. Thomas underlines St John’s metaphor of the Church as a hospital for the sick, for which all have need and are welcome.

This little book is bound to have a big impact on men and women, as non-Christians begin to seek a holistic approach to healthcare, a desire to become whole beings. To be physically healthy is already valued and sought after, but a healthy body, with a dirty and sick soul (heart) is only a partial understanding of one’s self, an incomplete view of the world. Healthcare which neglects the soul leaves a beautiful shell, with a huge emptiness inside. This emptiness is a soul waiting to be filled with Divine light. It is a soul thirsting to drink from the Source of Life, becoming strong and whole, with the ability to conquer this world. Taking in the Living Waters, which is in the terminology of the Church, being filled with the Holy Spirit, and becoming holy or perfect.

Dr. Thomas draws pearls of wisdom from the Tradition of the Church, the Record, if you will, of the Holy Spirit’s activity in the Church, connecting the earth with the heavens and supplying the light of knowledge to those who seek it. Having this great wealth of knowledge, Dr. Thomas uses it concisely to create a small literary work, which could be called a “small voice crying in the wilderness.” Just as St. John the Baptist with a simple, humble life, had a huge impact on the world because of his important message, so also this little book could have a great impact on our spiritual health because of its great message.

Fr. Alexander Lukashonok, M.Div.

Eastern Orthodox Priest

Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent

By John Garrard & Carol Garrard
Princeton Press 2008.

(Editor’s Note: We are honored to have been contacted by Princeton University Press to write a review on this book. Our scholarly readers have begun reading the book. We publish one review written by Rev. Father Alexander Lukashonok, M.Div., of Russian ancestry. We may publish other reviews as they come. As the reader may very well understand, we are committed to our Orthodox faith and tradition, and our reviewers definitely perceive the contentions of this book within their perspectives.)

This latest book from the team of John Garrard, a professor of Russian studies, and his wife, Carol Garrard, explores the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the “new” Russia, the Russian Federation. In 1991, the Soviet Union finally collapsed after a failed last ditch effort of some communist hardliners to cease control of a quickly changing nation. In this dramatic event, filled with tanks poised at the government, the Church’s spiritual leader, Patriarch Alexey II emerged as a national leader. He is credited with averting a great deal of bloodshed, and securing the end of the atheistic and totalitarian state. Even greater, the Patriarch showed that the Russian people would heed his voice, demonstrating the significant role the Church would play in the rebuilding of Russia. The Garrards aim to understand the new Russia, by looking at this new influential component of Russian society, the Orthodox Church and Her spiritual leader Patriarch Alexey II.

The authors’ aim is admirable, to understand a nation by studying its past, taking into account historical events and cultural view points. Not many take this perspective in international relations, either assuming that foreign cultures are the same as their own, or too strange to understand. Garrard takes a nation not well understood in America, after all are Russians Europeans or are they part of Asia? Are they Easterners or part of the West? Garrard has done a lot of research, and a good job dredging up interesting historical incidents not very well known. For example, he cites a correspondence between Ivan Grozny and the Roman Pope, as well as other events between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman and Reform Churches. However, he does not use these events for accessing the Russian religious mind, and aiding in today’s interrelations, but seems to get lost from his intended purpose. Instead of a culturally sensitive study, he uses sarcasm and ridicules the Church, its beliefs, its leaders, and its celebrations. He writes a book made for movie, complete with power struggles, deception and manipulation, where everything and everyone has ulterior motives intended for deception and gain. For Garrard, this is the story of a big conspiracy between a Church and the Russian state. One would think that a scholar would have a healthy respect for his area of interest, interpreting events objectively, and not reading into them his own ideas, obtaining fodder for a self ignited fire. Ultimately, he fails to let the facts lead him to create a picture, but rather has a picture already in mind, with which he reads into every event. Unfortunately, he fails to understand the new Russian nation.

Garrard does not view the Orthodox Church, or Patriarch Alexey, as a positive moral presence in the new Russia, constantly, connecting both to Communism and the Soviet Union. It is as if they both now have to live with the stigma of its former persecutor, and are penalized for surviving, similar to a rape victim who is then ostracized. The Church lived in a constant state of emergency during Communism, never knowing when the end was near. In the Soviet Union the Church was the victim, surviving through wave after wave of persecution. Christians and their religious leaders especially were at the mercy of a totalitarian regime dedicated to atheism and the eradication of all people of faith. Churches were closed, or blown up, leaders were shot, and Christians dispersed. The Church went underground, and lost any place in society, and any voice among its citizens, even the right to teach or express the faith. Therefore, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Church was finally freed, and slowly regained its role in rebuilding the morally bankrupt country. Patriarch Alexey emerged and spoke out, even before the total collapse, showing courage and wisdom. Even Garrard recognizes the role the Patriarch played in the Coup d’état, stating that he himself averted much bloodshed by his radio speech, albeit making fun of the Patriarch’s entreaty for the help of the Mother of God. A theme he’ll return to over and over again as a means employed by Alexey for consolidating power.

The time for rebuilding surely came and the Patriarch showed that the Church was going to be active in this transformation; after all, all Russia was responsible for it. The rebirth that has taken place in our lifetime is miraculous; as any transformation is miraculous. However, for the author, its only darkness to darkness, albeit, this time with a democratic face. Russia has shifted from one organization, the Party, to another the Church, without any real transformation of beliefs. He paints a picture where there is no change only manipulation, as influential people leave the Party and enter a different “party” filled with Church events (processions), and Holy Relics (St. Seraphim), and Icons (The Tikhvin Mother of God). Therefore, the Patriarch is, as the saying goes “once a KGB agent always a KBG agent,” with no understanding of what it meant to “cooperate with the authorities.” Did the citizens have a choice? What does it mean to be a communist? All citizens of the Soviet Union had to survive in a hostile environment, whether they believed in the system or not. If a Christian, Jew, or Moslem, then it was a struggle to survive, and had it even worse, they were in an all out battle, for subsistence, survival, for life itself. Maybe, a factory worker who answered the questions of a KGB interrogator, out of fear of reprisal, could also be considered a KGB informant. Such an intense and scary world, however, demands our understanding, especially as we learn to live with the many Russians, Ukrainians and Jews who have subsequently immigrated to the US. Are they all still communists? Some, maybe, but not all. Garrard frames up the Patriarch in this same picture, he must be a communist. It is well known, that any religious leader, Christian, Jewish, or Moslem would have had to agree to “cooperate with the authorities.” Therefore, whether Alexey was a real spy or not, may never be known, one could only guess by all of his actions.

Garrard looks for anything dark and manipulative in the Church and intimates ulterior motives to the return of the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God, which might have been there had he got the information correct. The miraculous Icon was returned by a priest of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and not ROCOR, as the author wrote. The OCA is an independent Church Body in America, unlike ROCOR who was in talks of reunification with the Russian Church. Garrard writes “the old magic worked again” to describes an historical and spiritual event in terms of manipulation and control. As an Orthodox Christian and a local Chicagoan, the city where the Icon had been located for over 40 years, I am familiar with the history and the constant desire of its return to Russia by prelates, long before the time of Alexey. The humble priest, and his family who had cared for the icon, had promised to give it back only after the rebirth and rededication of the Christian Church in Russia, and it had nothing to do with the politics of the day. Therefore, the truth is quite a different story but of very little use to the author in painting his picture.

Russians are coming to terms with the past, and quite honestly, an ugly past, filled with horrible events, the Patriarch aptly advised the medicine, “to reconcile ourselves to one another, to the truth and to God” (p. 204). Good spiritual advice on how to deal honestly with this ugly past, underscoring the place of truth, and the place of God in this healing process. Garrard fails to understand the Patriarch’s words, and twists them until he reaches his desired end. He quotes a famous theologian, dealing with a theological aspect of truth, and the limits of human rationale in pursuit of enlightenment, and turns it towards an idea that the Church is devoid of any concept of truth that would be “recognizable to the West. But this is language on another plane.” (p. 204). Garrard here totally discredits the Russian Church, depriving it of a forthright nature, filled with light and truth, but rather filled with falsehood, proving that he has no objective respect for a Christian Church. Without this respect, how can anyone treat a subject fairly?

Garrard will oftentimes treat Church practices with sarcasm and jeers. Granted for some in the West, under the influence of the Reformation, honoring and venerating the bones of the righteous may be foreign, yet it should be respected. Often, he describes the veneration of saints with mockery. He openly mocks and judges the actions of the Patriarch. On the occasion of the celebration of 850 years of the city of Moscow, Garrard openly accuses the Patriarch of using icons and worship services to manipulate and move his agenda (p. 91). In another place, Garrard facetiously “prophesies” that upon the death of the Patriarch that he will assuredly becalmed a “chudotvorets”[“wonderworker”] and that icons will be painted, making fun of the sanctity of the Church, and her saints, as well as of the patriarch himself.

Lastly, there is a theological bone of contention which demands attention that of the great Schism of 1054 between the Eastern and Western halves of the Church, today’s Roman Church and the Orthodox Church. Garrard tackles this problem with the surety of a theological scholar, stating that the whole problem stems from the conflicting claims of succession from the apostles. Garrard takes some of the rhetoric between a Tsar and a Pope in medieval times, and puts theological power behind it, ignoring any basic academic study on the subject. He attributes the sad split in the Church to the words of a proud tsar, who resenting Roman Catholic aggression in the Medieval times, illustrated the apostolic roots of the Russian Church. The tsar’s words proudly associate his Church with the Apostle Andrew, called “the first-called.” The Russian Church has apostolic succession through the missionary efforts of the Greek Orthodox Church, from the Baptism of Rus. Theologians, either in the Roman or Orthodox Churches do not even mention the argument of “who’s greater Andrew of Peter” as a cause of the schism, but for Garrard, the tsar’s words make for good drama.

All in all, there is a lot of information in this book. The author has done a lot of research into Russian and Russian Church history. Despite the fact that he puts his own slant on things, an attempt is made to judge current international events in light of a local history, culture, and religion. All three of which, cannot be easily dissected from any modern nation. As the West has been criticized for its ignorance of foreign cultures and the lack of this knowledge in its foreign policies, a book like this shows some progress. It is also refreshing to finally see some studies that attribute the Collapse of the Soviet Union, to anyone else other than Ronald Reagan, as if, Gorbachev, the Patriarch, the Church, the Russian people, all had nothing to do with it. Garrard does recognize many of the efforts of Patriarch Alexey, yet he stops at the point, where a “Saul” is no longer judged as such, but is recognized as the “Paul” that he has become. One of the Eastern saints has said, “it is not so important how a man starts his life, it matters how he ends his life.”

Fr. Alexander Lukashonok, M.Div.

Eastern Orthodox Priest