25 Orthodoxy Sunday - February 25, 2007

Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-12:2

John 1:43-51


On this the first Sunday of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church commemorates her victory over iconoclasm, the rejection of holy icons. This took place formally at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in the city of Nicea in the year 787. This victory was not easy, and even today, iconoclasm continues in many forms even among those who call themselves Christian.

There were (and are) different arguments made against holy icons. In the eighth and ninth centuries, some argued that it was impossible to depict the Christ in an icon because Christ’s humanity melted away in the brilliance of his divinity. It therefore cannot be represented in lines and colors. Lines and colors are not alive, and so they can only depict what is dead. Moreover, they argued, the attention of the true Christian must not be directed to Christ’s earthly image but to the contemplation of his divine glory.

Others believed it was impermissible to depict Christ. They argued that the icon was tantamount to idolatry. If Christ is God, so they argued, he cannot be represented in any form, for the Law of Moses forbids depicting God by any kind of image. On the other hand, there were other Christians who believed that Jesus was an ordinary human being joined to God in an extraordinary way. Therefore, to depict Christ in his human form was to divert attention away from his divinity toward his humanity, leading to the worship of the creature rather than God.

As you can see from this brief summary of the iconoclastic arguments against the holy icon, the controversy over icons was not over the interior decoration of the Church. It was a Christological controversy that cuts to the heart of the Christian faith. It is no accident that the controversy over holy icons broke out with a fury only after the Sixth Ecumenical Council of 681. The Sixth Ecumenical Council marks the conclusion to the centuries-long struggle of the Church rightly to define the word of truth, to make clear what the bible is saying about Jesus, to leave no room for fuzziness or vagueness, so that those who seek to know him as he has revealed himself can be led by the dogmatic words of the Church to the Christ of the bible and not to a false Christ; for false doctrines lead people away from the Christ of the bible. They lead people to set up and worship a false Christ, a Christ produced from the wisdom of human ideas.

The Christological dogma articulated by the holy fathers of the first Six Ecumenical Councils gives theological precision to the biblical teaching of Christ by employing philosophical terms and concepts taken from the milieu of human philosophy. Incorporated into the theological vision of the Church, these terms and concepts of human philosophy are transfigured; for, the meaning of these terms is subjected to the biblical revelation and filled with new meaning. No longer do they convey the philosophical opinions of Plato or Aristotle, Zeno or Plotinus, but they set forth a mental image of God in Christ Jesus that is faithful to the biblical revelation. The Christological dogma of the first Six Ecumenical Councils was therefore necessarily intellective with a philosophical form. The icon makes the mental image of the Christ drawn by the philosophical form of the Ecumenical Councils’ definitions of faith concrete – in the same way that the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, becomes concrete when he becomes flesh and dwells among us.

Icons have been an essential part of Christian worship from the beginning. Indeed, the Tradition of the Church points to St Luke the Evangelist as the first iconographer. But not until the Church’s teaching of Christ was rightly defined with dogmatic precision in the definitions of faith of the first Six Ecumenical Councils was it possible clearly to defend the holy icon against the different forms of iconoclasm as an essential element of the biblical testimony to the Incarnation of God the Word.

The iconoclastic controversy lasted for well over a century. It sorely disrupted the Church. Bloodshed, violence and compulsion from the imperial authorities marked the period of the iconoclastic controversy, which began in 726 and was not concluded until the Church’s ultimate victory over iconoclasm in 843 under Patriarch Methodius.[1] The Seventh Ecumenical Council, which restored the holy icon to Christian worship, took place in the midst of this long struggle, as I said, in the year 787.

Several years earlier, in 754, there had taken place an iconcolastic Council of Constantinople under the most iconoclastic emperor of all, Emperor Constantine V Copronymos. This council condemned icons as idols and ordered that they be removed from the churches and destroyed. It seemed then that iconoclasm was firmly established in the Church and that there was little chance icons would ever be restored. The policies of the iconoclastic council of 754 were continued under Leo IV. But in 780, Leo IV died and the Empress Irene assumed power in the name of her minor son, Constantine VI.

The Empress Irene was an iconodule, a defender of icons. She immediately set about to annul the work of the iconoclastic council of 754 and to restore icons in the Church. She changed the personnel of the government and of the Church, replacing iconoclasts in key positions with iconodules. In the year 786, she felt all was ready. She informed Pope Hadrian I of her intention to convoke an ecumenical council, which he thoroughly approved; and at the beginning of 786 she sent out notice throughout the empire of the scheduled council. The council opened in late July or early August of 786. But the Empress Irene had overlooked the matter of the imperial guard, which was still dominated by iconoclastic elements. Soldiers of the imperial guard broke into the Church with swords drawn and forced the 350 bishops who had gathered for the council to disband.

And so, the Empress Irene arranged for the transfer of the imperial guard to Asia Minor on the pretext that a campaign against the Arabs was about to begin. She brought to Constantinople the army that was in Thrace. This army was supportive of icons. Again, Irene sent out invitations for a new council that would meet in Nicea in 787. This was the Seventh Ecumenical Council. During the eight sessions of this council, the iconoclastic council of 754 was annulled, the theological defense of the icon as it had been formulated chiefly by such luminaries as St John of Damascus and St Theodore the Studite was upheld, and icons were restored to the Church, at least for a time. For, the Empress Irene was succeeded by another iconoclastic emperor under whom the Empire returned to iconoclasm until the final victory over iconoclasm was achieved in 843 under Patriarch Methodius and the Emperor Michael.

Important for understanding the attitude of western Christianity toward the icon is the fact that the acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council were not well received in the Latin West. The Gothic king, Charlemagne, was installed as emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire” in 800 and was anxious to justify his imperial title as Emperor and his realm that extended from the Italian peninsula up into Gaul as the Holy Roman Empire. His theologians did not read Greek and the meaning of certain key terms was lost in the translation of the acts of the council into Latin. But Charlemagne and his theologians had little understanding of the theology of the icon, anyway, and they accused the council of idolatry in service of their argument that they were the rightful heirs of the Roman Empire. The iconoclastic arguments of Charlemagne’s theologians against the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s defense of holy icons prevailed in the Latin West and would later take shape in the rejection of the icon by the Protestant reformers. John Calvin in particular rails against the icon as idolatrous in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and so expressed the theological tendency of Protestantism, which is marked as a whole by the heresy of iconoclasm, and which it expresses in many ways.

Why is the icon so essential to Orthodox theology? The reason is given in the Definition of Faith of the Seventh Ecumenical Council: “We keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial images, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects but especially in this: that so the Incarnation of the Logos of God is shown forth as real and not merely imaginary.”[2] And indeed, even though iconoclastic Christians claim to uphold the Incarnation of God the Word, in their rejection of the icon, they implicitly if not explicitly deny the historical reality of the Incarnation and reduce it to a phantasm, a mere appearance. Iconoclasm, in other words, is but the two fundamental heresies of early Christianity in a more sophisticated form: docetism, the view that God the Word only appeared to exist in the flesh; and adoptionism, the view that Christ was but an ordinary man blessed by an extraordinary relationship with God.

The icon in its production follows rigorous canons. One of those canons is that the icon’s subject – either the Savior, or the Theotokos, or the saints – cannot be drawn from the imagination of the artist. The icon must be faithful to its subject’s actual historical features. There are many pictures of Jesus today, one of which in particular can be found in many Christian homes. These are not icons, and may even be said to be heretical, because they are drawn either from the artist’s own imagination, or from some model taken from off the street. Moreover, the icon must also depict the spiritual reality of its historical subject. Thus, the icon is not a photograph. It is a theological interpretation of history. It is theology in color in the same way that the dogmas of the Church, which are intellective icons, are theology in words.

The icon is not just the holy pictures we find in an Orthodox Church. The Church herself is an icon throughout her hierarchical and sacramental structure. Because he took flesh and became fully human, body, mind and soul, the Word of God can be depicted in lines and colors; he can be expressed in the mental icons of the Church’s dogmas and in the ascetic disciplines of the Church. Through the yearly cycle of the Twelve Feasts orbiting round Pascha, the Church reveals time in its underlying essence as an icon of the Incarnation. In the architectural structure and materials of an Orthodox Christian temple, space is transfigured into an icon of creation renewed in the death and resurrection of Christ. By participating mindfully in the movements of Orthodox worship, such as making the sign of the Cross, making prostrations, standing in reverence before the holy altar we are incorporated into the icon of the Church and we become an icon of the body of Christ. By our gestures, by our words, by our artistry with wood and paint and with the architectural structure and materials of the Church building, the Orthodox faithful incorporate all of creation into their worship and bring out the essentially iconic character of creation. In the Church creation is given full voice to declare in all of her aspects, both sensible and intelligible, spatial and temporal, the glory of God who became flesh and dwelt among us.

“Depicting thy divine form in icons, O Christ,” so the Church sings on this Sunday in her Lenten Triodion, “we openly proclaim thy nativity, thine ineffable miracles and thy voluntary crucifixion. So the devils are driven out in fear.”[3] Because the icon is a true image of the Savior, it participates in the mystery of the Savior’s Incarnation. It is infused with the energies, the power, of the Savior. And so it is that the Church tells us: “If we hold fast to the icon of the Savior whom we worship, we shall not go astray.”[4] If we do not go after our own ideas but submit ourselves to the icons of the Church, we will come upon the Christ revealed in the words of the bible and find salvation.

For the Orthodox Church, the victory over iconoclasm is nothing less than the triumph of the apostolic preaching that proclaims in word and in deed the wonder of God the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. With the icon, we confess our salvation in deed and word, and we glorify God’s holy Incarnation, his Passion and his holy Resurrection by which he restored the sullied image of the creature to its ancient glory, filling it with divine beauty.

[1] Cf. Florovsky, Collected Works 9, pp. 284ff.

[2] Florovsky, 288.

[3] LT 304

[4] LT 300