Our subject here is the Orthodox use of icons, and our source for Orthodox belief is a booklet called No Graven Image by Jack Sparks. We also now include consideration of an online "Icon FAQ" by John Whiteford, which is now a defunct link.
What exactly are icons? The visitor to an Orthodox church will see many depictions of Jesus, the saints, and Biblical events. Whiteford states: "An Icon is an image (usually two dimensional) of Christ, the Saints, Angels, important Biblical events, parables, or events in the history of the Church." On one visit to our local Orthodox church we observed an Orthodox clergyman and a parishoner standing before one of these pictures in prayer. Members of other Christian groups may take this as idolatry and a violation of the command against graven images in the OT.
But is this a correct assessment? Let us draw from our own essay on this subject, originally written in response to skeptic Dan Barker and later developed with respect to Mormon use of the word "image" to support the idea of a God who was a human being:
WHY were the Israelites commanded not to make graven images?...Graven images were the standard method of pagan worship. They were representations of false gods...an "image" NOT made for worship is acceptable. In fact, we should not really call things like the cherubims "images" at all -- an "image" in ancient thought is not merely something that has an appearance, like a statue or a picture, but something that serves as a focal point for the presence and power of a deity.
Thus for example ancient rulers in Egypt, Babylon, and elsewhere were referred to as the "image" of a certain deity, not because they looked like the deity, but because the deity's power and authority was thought to operate through them.
With this understanding in mind, does the Orthodox use of icons violate the command against graven images? Based on Sparks' and Whiteford's description, and even though they seem unaware of this understanding of "image," the answer seems to be no. Although Sparks correctly notes the use of cherubim on the Ark (which some atheists see as contrary to the restriction), as well as the fact that the other images were used as idols; and though he also notes the existence of paintings and statues depicting the likes of Peter and Paul, and notes that people were apparently "deeply moved" by them, he does not apparently know the background meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words for "image".
Still, if he did, it would not work against Orthodox use of icons as Sparks and Whiteford describe them. His defense offers these points, however:
- The icons make no effort to depict God. If they did, then they would be objectionable.
- Icons are actually word-pictures. In fact, Sparks uses the very proverb above ("a picture is worth a thousand words") to describe the purpose of icons.
On this accounting, reason 1 is a good point, but does not address the key argument. Reason 2 has a much stronger basis -- the early church (indeed the ancient world as a whole) was 90-95% illiterate. If icons are understood as memory aids, then they are far, far from being "images" of the sort forbidden by the Bible, no more so than would be a Children's Picture Bible.
Whiteford quotes Pope Gregory (590-604) as saying, "For what writing presents to readers, this a picture presents to the unlearned who behold, since in it even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in it the illiterate read." He then notes the problems of functional illiteracy today, and notes as well that many people (especially children) are pre-literate.
But that leads to the question, what of the parishoner I saw praying before the icon? What of those who kiss or bow before icons in reverence (and also may make the sign of the cross, recalling Christ's sacrifice)?
Sparks replies that icons are "windows to heaven, revealing the glory of God" and actually "help to protect us from idolatry" by pointing us in the right direction. They also "bring a revelation, a manifestation of the unseen heavenly host of angels, saints and martyrs--yes, even the eternal saving events--into our presence." [8-9] By comparison he points to Daniel and Joshua bowing in veneration before an angel of God, and the honor persons give one another in daily life (such as honoring one's father and mother).
Sparks' example of Joshua and Daniel is open to question; Joshua at least may have been seeing an example of the pre-incarnate Christ. Yet Sparks' description, if we take it as doing justice to the Orthodox view, does make it clear that icons and their use are not a violation of the graven images command, even if they appear to be on the surface.
Though Sparks' language is a little vague, it does not indicate that the icons are points of presence for a deity in the same sense that the ancient Baal or Dagon figurine was. As he describes them, icons are visual aids, and those who kiss and bow before them are giving respect, not worship. Whiteford compares it to an American saluting a flag as a "veneration" not of course of the cloth and dye, but of the ideal represented by the flag; or he compares it to Jews kissing their copy of the Torah.
Whiteford does, however, provide a rather questionable example as well. He notes that when Polycarp was martyred, several disciples tried very hard to retrieve his body. This actually reflects an ancient desire that ANY body should be buried honorably -- not any particular veneration for Polycarp. The ancients were deeply concerned for the preservation of ANY body for reasons of honor, and this was an honorable burial for a person deserving of honor, which to the ancients was as important as we would regard paying the bills (per the work of Malina and Rohrbaugh). The further observations of the date of martyrdom are a similar reflection.
Sparks notes the reply, "Why not just worship God?" His response: blank walls are of no use, for "such barrenness [does not] serve to speak of the presence of a living God."  One might remark in reply that the Holy Spirit indwelling the believer bespeaks of that well enough. B
ut if we follow Sparks' explanation, icons might be best described as visual aids for visual thinkers; the kissing and praying as a way (if rather emotional and by Western standards, excessive) of saying "thank you" and giving respect to those depicted, as one may kiss one's mother or father and give them a hug. And if that is all there is to it, the "no graven images" command is not applicable. (I will admit that as a "verbal" thinker I personally find the idea of icons pointless.)
Of course one would not say that some Orthodox adherent may not fall into the mistake of false worship through icons -- the line between simple respect and outright worship is not very well-defined, and Orthodoxy uses more Eastern modes of expression which Westerners find too "mushy" -- just as one may point out that any Southern Baptist may fall into the error of salvation by works or a God with a human body.
At the same time one cannot agree with Sparks that such things are "indispensable for those who sincerely pursue and desire the fullness of Christian worship"  -- for visually-oriented persons, or for the illiterate, such things may be eminently useful and helpful for worship, but they are hardly "indispensable."
In short: The Orthodox use of icons is no violation of the graven image command in and of itself; which is not to say that it is not, like anything else, open for abuse and subject to misuse or excess. Indeed, in the Western world it may be far more open for abuse than in the East.
A helpful reader has passed on some material that may be of interest, and express at the very least a cautionary note. We should note as well that some of these cites may reflect an understanding of "image" in a way not quite the same as that of the definition we showed in our work on Mormonism, and that these writers were writing centuries before the Church really worked out and resolved the issue in the iconoclast controversy.
"Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine." - Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata, 7:5)
"In a word, if we refuse our homage to statues and frigid images, the very counterpart of their dead originals, with which hawks, and mice, and spiders are so well acquainted, does it not merit praise instead of penalty, that we have rejected what we have come to see is error?" - Tertullian (The Apology, 12)
"We know that the names of the dead are nothing, as are their images; but we know well enough, too, who, when images are set up, under these names carry on their wicked work, and exult in the homage rendered to them, and pretend to be divine--none other than spirits accursed, than devils." - Tertullian (De Spectaculis, 10)
"For how could he [Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration] have known Moses and Elias, except by being in the Spirit? People could not have had their images, or statues, or likenesses; for that the law forbade." - Tertullian (Against Marcion, 4:22)
"But, they say, we do not fear the images themselves, but those beings after whose likeness they were formed, and to whose names they are dedicated. You fear them doubtless on this account, because you think that they are in heaven; for if they are gods, the case cannot be otherwise. Why, then, do you not raise your eyes to heaven, and, invoking their names, offer sacrifices in the open air? Why do you look to walls, and wood, and stone, rather than to the place where you believe them to be?...Wherefore it is undoubted that there is no religion wherever there is an image. For if religion consists of divine things, and there is nothing divine except in heavenly things; it follows that images are without religion, because there can be nothing heavenly in that which is made from the earth." - Lactantius (The Divine Institutes, 2:2, 2:19)
"Moreover, I have heard that certain persons have this grievance against me: When I accompanied you to the holy place called Bethel, there to join you in celebrating the Collect, after the use of the Church, I came to a villa called Anablatha and, as I was passing, saw a lamp burning there. Asking what place it was, and learning it to be a church, I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loth that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ's church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person. They, however, murmured, and said that if I made up my mind to tear it, it was only fair that I should give them another curtain in its place. As soon as I heard this, I promised that I would give one, and said that I would send it at once. Since then there has been some little delay, due to the fact that I have been seeking a curtain of the best quality to give to them instead of the former one, and thought it right to send to Cyprus for one. I have now sent the best that I could find, and I beg that you will order the presbyter of the place to take the curtain which I have sent from the hands of the Reader, and that you will afterwards give directions that curtains of the other sort--opposed as they are to our religion--shall not be hung up in any church of Christ. A man of your uprightness should be careful to remove an occasion of offence unworthy alike of the Church of Christ and of those Christians who are committed to your charge." (Jerome's Letter 51:9)
We close with these observations: One should not exaggerate the dangers of falling into idolatry, no matter how strange icon-veneration may seem to members of theological traditions that have traditionally been suspicious of liturgical art. Protestantism is the "unusual" party in this respect, not Orthodoxy (and specifically Evangelicalism: cf. e.g. the stained-glass windows, etc of Episcopalian Protestantism). It is a debate that should be approached with caution and not with our perceptions in the fore.