There are many reasons people find themselves attracted to Eastern Orthodoxy, but one of them is the presence and veneration of icons. Entering a sanctuary full of religious art can seem visually stunning and feel refreshingly spiritual compared to kitschy banners or television screens or hospital-blank walls. For the westerner, icons suggest a certain “eastern” and ancient feel to worship. This can seem far more authentic.
The Orthodox since the 9th century have also been very ready to claim the rhetorical high ground of being faithful to the doctrine of the incarnation and embracing the materiality of salvation. God became a man. He literally, physically embraced the created world, matter, and was conceived in the womb of Mary. Therefore aesthetics matter, beauty matters, the material world matters, and even more significantly, because of the incarnation, matter is capable of mediating the presence of God to our senses, thereby granting people a share in the Divine life through prayer and contemplation.
All too often, the unsuspecting and untrained Protestant, sucking the fumes of modernity and postmodernity, finds himself starving for a more fully human experience of God and takes the bait and swims the Bosporus.
There is much here we might discuss, and many books have been written for and against the making and venerating of icons, including one I’ve just been scouring, the Roman Catholic Alain Besancon’s The Forbidden Image (about which more below). But let me just begin with a simple plea and then sketch one argument against the making and venerating of icons of Christ.
First the plea: do some serious study of the actual issues and arguments from both sides. This will take some time to do well. But if you are currently a Protestant considering taking the plunge, do yourself, your family, your current church family, and the catholic tradition the honor of really studying this topic. Can you summarize John of Damascus’ defense of icons? Can you explain where his defense is flawed (according to the Orthodox)? Can you summarize the iconoclastic argument of Constantine V? And what was flawed about his argument? Now sketch the contributions of Nicephorus the Patriarch of Constantinople and Theodore the Studite (abbot of the monastery at Studium). What did the Second Council of Nicaea actually decide? Be specific and trace the conclusion from Nicaea, Chalcedon, through John of Damascus, Nicephorus and Theodore. Now, are you familiar with the Western Carolingian response to the Second Council of Nicaea? Evaluate the claims in light of what you’ve already considered. Do your Protestant heritage the honor of reading the original Reformers on images. Summarize the views of Luther, Melanchthon, Oecolampadius, Bucer, and Calvin on the making and veneration of images. Finally, do some reading on the history of iconography itself. How widespread were the use of icons in the first three centuries? Does that matter? When the icon “triumphed” after Second Nicaea what stylistic changes did the icon undergo between then and the modern day? What does that mean?
So much for my plea. And related to all of this, spend time as you read and study comparing your notes with trusted counselors and friends, not just people who will smile and nod, but the kind of people who challenge you to think critically and carefully.
Now for the sketch of an argument.
In a recent blog post, Father Stephen Freeman extols the virtues of icons emphasizing the popular notion (going back to John of Damascus) that icons affirm the goodness of creation, but more specifically, that they (and all creation) participate in God’s divine life because of the incarnation. Therefore, Freeman claims, the veneration of icons is an invitation to communion with God, and by extension, an invitation to communion with God through the rest of creation. All of creation is “icon and sacrament” Freeman informs us.
Now it may be that Freeman is only waxing poetic and somewhat ecstatic, and doesn’t intend to explain the actual Orthodox dogma on icons. But the fact remains that at least part of what Freeman is extolling is explicitly not accepted by the Second Council of Nicaea. Now, it is most certainly true that the “heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1) and what may be known about God “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19-20). But the Orthodox Church hardly has a corner on the market of this kind of glory. This kind of creational glory is speaking every day in every language. But we should note that this creational revelation that speaks about God and invites us to know Him through His created order didn’t suddenly happen at the incarnation. It has been “clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world.” But that reality always stood happily right alongside the prohibition against bowing down to anything in heaven or on the earth or under the earth (Ex. 20:4-5). The heavens proclaim the glory of God day after day, and yet God’s people were not to bow down to them.
Alain Besancon notes that while John of Damascus continues to be one of Orthodoxy’s heroes, his actual articulation (some of which Freeman quotes) is actually more Neoplatonic than Biblical or Christian. The idea that creation and therefore icons “participate” in the being of God and become places of communion with God because of the incarnation is not what the Second Council of Nicaea actually affirmed. It was the militant Emperor Constantine V who seized on John’s language and objected that this left every door open in the house for idolatry and pantheism. Where does the divine nature begin and end? While John likely meant it in a very Greek (Neoplatonic) way, where parts of the universe participate by degrees as they find themselves further down the totem pole of being (ha), this is still not the biblical doctrine of the goodness of creation. Creation isn’t good or sacred because it participates in the Divine being. It’s good and sacred because God made it good and sacred. It’s good and sacred because in its own existence, it reflects and speaks truly about the goodness and glory and holiness of God. Constantine seized on the language of “nature” and “substance” as used at the first council of Nicaea and pointed out that if John was right, that icons participate in that Divine ousia (or “being”), the only way an icon might be properly made and venerated was if it fully participated in the divine substance and was therefore consubstantial or “homooussios” with God. In which case, as Besancon notes, no icons for anybody.
Constantine V tried to pin a couple of different Christological heresies on the iconodules which Besancon notes kept them busy for nearly a generation, but when Nicephorus and Theodore came on the scene, the tables turned and a bit more clarity emerged. Constantine said that if icons “circumscribe” the divine being then the iconodules have fallen into Monophysitism (attributing to Christ only one substance/nature) but if the iconodules claim they only portray Christ’s humanity, then they are slipping into Nestorianism (attempting to separate the divine and human natures). Nicephorus to some extent and Theodore to a greater extent replied by insisting that Constantine was the one actually verging on Christological heresy. A picture or icon, they replied, does not seek to circumscribe “natures,” but rather the “hypostasis” – a specific person. And in the case of Christ, Chalcedon made it clear that it was the one person, the Lord Jesus Christ in whom the divine and human natures were joined without confusion, without separation, etc. Besancon notes that Theodore drove this point home by insisting that an icon of Christ should not actually be called an “icon of Christ” but simply “Christ” since it is (or ought to be) the very hypostasis of Christ. In other words, the substance/being of the icon remains wood and paint and gold, but the “name” or “inscription” is Christ and therefore because of that correspondence, Christ rightly receives the honor bestowed to His icon. It is this view that the Second Council of Nicaea affirmed: “whoever bows down in adoration before the icon, is at the same time bowing down in adoration to the substance (or hypostasis) of the one therein painted.”
The point that Theodore labored to make is that it is the likeness or resemblance between the picture and the person represented that validates the veneration. The icon is not participating in the Divine being. Nor is the icon attempting to say something merely symbolic. To drift into symbolism would be to fall under Constantine’s critique of circumscribing or dividing natures. To say that an icon participates in the being of God in some way opens the door to all the criticisms of the iconoclasts regarding idolatry and down the path to pantheism. Theodore and Nicaea II sidestepped these critiques by claiming that an icon is not an abstraction, nor a symbol but rather is saying something specific and concrete, something true, and that is: this is Christ. Thus, to be in accordance with Nicaea II and Theodore, the Orthodox position really must insist that the icons of Christ are in fact true representations of the man Jesus Christ and that whenever they have seen His icon, they have truly seen Christ.
And here we arrive at long last at the problem. First, let us grant that if there had been photographers on site in Judea during the earthly days of Jesus it would have been fine to take pictures of Jesus, preserve those pictures, and venerate those pictures. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s argument is sound in principle. The question comes down to whether we have strong enough evidence to believe that the icons we now have are in fact accurate portraits of Christ. And very much related to that, did Jesus and the apostles intend for a central part of the ministry of the Church to be through the making and venerating of images? The actual historical evidence seems decidedly against this. As David Vandrunen notes in his article Iconoclasm, Incarnation and Eschatology, “The New Testament consistently, across genres and authors, speaks about the present invisibility of Christ in view of the eternal…. In speaking about the present age as one of being at home in the body and away from the Lord, with the hope of the resurrection looming, Paul states that ‘we walk by faith, not by sight’ [2 Cor. 5:7]… Similar remarks pertain to 1 Peter 1…. ‘Though not seeing him, you love him, and though not seeing him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy’ (1:8).” Likewise, Jesus Himself speaks of His ascension as a time when His followers will not see Him. And it would take several centuries after the Ascension before many icons would appear on the Christian scene, and only then contested, and many looking far different from what is now received as the authorized icon of Jesus.
In other words, there are hefty biblical and historical arguments against assuming that modern icons of Christ actually resemble the Jewish man they claim to. And if they do not, they are not in fact the hypostasis of Christ, and therefore we are left with millions of Christians praying in front of pictures of someone else. Either that someone else is real and exists (but we don’t know them) or else the canonized face of Jesus is the result of the composite imagination of artists. In either case, as Vandrunen notes, it’d be a bit odd for you to be on a long business trip carrying around the picture of another woman who is not your wife while insisting that she’s fine with it because you imagine that it’s her. And if you retreat to the position that it’s just a holy symbol, and it merely reminds you of Christ then you’ve rejected (or redefined) Nicaea II, and contrary to Freeman’s claim, icon veneration is not an invitation to contemplate the real material world but an abstraction, an idea.
While much remains to be discussed about whether and how Christian art and symbolism may or may not have lesser roles to play in the education or devotion of the faithful, the facile dismissals of voices within the catholic faith objecting to the making and veneration of images is not sufficient to answer the substantive historical and theological objections to the practice. If seeing Jesus was to be a central part of our worship, why was this not instituted from the beginning? And in its place why do Jesus and His apostles assume the exact opposite – that Jesus for the present is invisible, that we cannot see Him, and that we long to see Him face to face (e.g. 1 Cor. 13:12)? For Protestant Christians who oppose the veneration of icons, the alternative is not Gnosticism or anti-incarnational asceticism – though Besancon points out that ironically many of the first icons grew out of precisely that tendency to leave the world and physical bodies behind. Rather, a robust, incarnational Protestantism confesses with the church catholic that Christ has come in the flesh and Christ will come again in the flesh to renew all things. In the meantime, the original good creation groans, eagerly awaiting that redemption and the redemption of the bodies of the sons of God.
There is a way of knowing God in and through creation, and certainly God has manifested His determination to heal this broken world through the incarnation, death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus. And truly, creation was and is meant as a place of communion with the Triune God. But the best of the catholic tradition has not directed our gaze to contemplate theologically and historically ambiguous portraits. Rather, the best of the tradition points to the Word preached, water poured, bread broken, wine shared with thanksgiving and joy, and from there sends us out into the real world to dig, to plant, to paint, to build, to hike, to study, to invent, to eat, to drink, to play. The best of the Christian tradition longs to see Jesus face to face, longs to see creation healed, and in the meantime meets the risen Savior by His Spirit in the living, breathing icon of the Christian Church, His Body, the center of new creation life.