What the Council Decreed
The council decreed that similar veneration and honour should be paid to the representations of the Lord and of the Saints as was accustomed to be paid to the “laurata” and tablets representing the Christian emperors, to wit, that they should be bowed to, and saluted with kisses, and attended with lights and the offering of incense. But the Council was most explicit in declaring that this was merely a veneration of honour and affection, such as can be given to the creature, and that under no circumstances could the adoration of divine worship be given to them but to God alone.
The Greek language has in this respect a great advantage over the Hebrew, the Latin and the English; it has a word which is a general word and is properly used of the affectionate regard and veneration shown to any person or thing, whether to the divine Creator or to any of his creatures, this word is proskynesis ; it has also another word which can properly be used to denote only the worship due to the Most High, God, this word is latreia . When then the Council defined that the worship of “latria “was never to be given to any but God alone, it cut off all possibility for idolatry, mariolatry, iconolatry, or any other “latry” except “theo-latry.” If therefore any of these other “latries” exist or ever have existed, they exist or have existed not in accordance with, but in defiance of, the decree of the Second Council of Nice.
But unfortunately, as I have said, we have neither in Hebrew, Latin, nor English any word with this restricted meaning, and therefore when it became necessary to translate the Greek acts and the decree, great difficulty was experienced, and by the use of “adoro” as the equivalent of proskyneo many were scandalized, thinking that it was divine adoration which they were to give to the sacred images, which they knew would be idolatry. The same trouble is found in rendering into English the acts and decrees; for while indeed properly speaking “worship” no more means necessarily divine worship in English than “adoratio” does in Latin (e.g. I. Chr. xxix. 20, “All the congregation bowed down their heads and worshipped the Lord and the King” [i.e. Solomon]; Luke xiv. 10, “Then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee “), yet to the popular mind “the worship of images” is the equivalent of idolatry. In the following translations I have uniformly translated as follows and the reader from the English will know what the word is in the original.
Proskyneo , to venerate; timao, to honour; latreuo, to adore; aspaxomai to salute; douleuo, to serve; eikon , an image.
The relative force of proskynesis and latreia cannot better be set forth than by Archbishop Trench’s illustration of two circles having the same centre, the larger including the less (New Testament Synonyms, sub voce latreuo).
To make this matter still clearer I must ask the reader’s attention to the use of the words abadh and shachah in the Hebrew; the one abadh, which finds, when used with reference to God or to false gods its equivalent in latreuo ; the other shachah, which is represented by proskyneo. Now in the Old Testament no distinction in the Hebrew is drawn between these words when applied to creator or creature. The one denotes service primarily for hire; the other bowing down and kissing the hand to any in salutation. Both words are constantly used and sometimes refer to the Creator and sometimes to the creature–e.g., we read that Jacob served (abadh) Laban (Gen. xxix. 20); and that Joshua commanded the people not to serve the gods of their fathers but to serve (abadh) the Lord (Josh. xxiv. 14). And for the use of shachah the following may suffice: “And all the congregation blessed the Lord God of their fathers and bowed down their heads and worshipped (Hebrew, shachah; Greek, proskyneo ; Latin, adoro) the Lord and the King” (I. Chr. xxix. 20). But while it is true of the Hebrew of the Old Testament that there is no word which refers alone to Divine Worship this is not true of the Septuagint Greek nor of the Greek of the New Testament, for in both proskyneo has always its general meaning, sometimes applying to the creature and sometimes to the Creator; but latreuo is used to denote divine worship alone, as St. Augustine pointed out long ago.
This distinction comes out very clearly in the inspired translation of the Hebrew found in Matthew iv. 10, “Thou shalt worship (proskynesis) the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve (latreuseis ).” “Worship” was due indeed to God above all but not exclusively to Him, but latria is to be given to “Him only.”
I think I have now said enough to let the reader understand the doctrine taught by the council and to prove that in its decree it simply adopted the technical use of words found in the Greek of the Septuagint and of the New Testament. I may then close this introduction with a few remarks upon outward acts of veneration in general.
Of course, the outward manifestation in bodily acts of reverence will vary with times and with the habits of peoples. To those accustomed to kiss the earth on which the Emperor had trodden, it would be natural to kiss the feet of the image of the King of Kings. The same is manifestly true of any outward acts whatever, such as bowing, kneeling, burning of lights, and offering of incense. All these when offered before an image are, according to the mind of the Council, but outward signs of the reverence due to that which the image represents and pass backward to the prototype, and thus it defined, citing the example of the serpent in the wilderness, of which we read, “For he that turned himself toward it was not saved by the thing that he saw, but by thee, that art the Saviour of all” (Wisdom xvi. 17). If anyone feels disposed to attribute to outward acts any necessary religious value he is falling back into Judaism, and it were well for him to remember that the nod which the Quakers adopted out of protest to the bow of Christians was once the expression of divine worship to the most sacred idols; that in the Eastern Church the priest only bows before the Lord believed to be present in the Holy Sacrament while he prostrates himself before the infidel Sultan; and that throughout the Latin communion the acolytes genuflect before. the Bishop, as they pass him, with the same genuflection that they give to the Holy Sacrament upon the Altar. In this connexion I quote in closing the fine satire in the letter of this very council to the Emperor and Empress. St. Paul “says of Jacob (Heb. xi. 2I), ‘He worshipped the top of his staff,’ and like to this is that said by Gregory, surnamed the Theologian, ‘Revere Bethlehem and worship the manger,’ But who of those truly understanding the Divine Scriptures would suppose that here was intended the Divine worship of latria? Such an opinion could only be entertained by an idiot or one ignorant of Scriptural and Patristic knowledge. Would Jacob give divine worship to his staff? Or would Gregory, the Theologian, give command to worship as God a manger!” (Introduction to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, 2. NPNF II [Vol. 14] pp. 523-528)