Sunday, September 1, 2013

Historical Theological Defense of Icons

Though questions of politics and the locus of Church authority – that is, whether or not the emperor ought to have a deciding voice on doctrinal matters – weigh heavily in the historical dispute over icons, the doctrinal questions themselves are worthy of careful consideration. Furthermore, it is worth bearing in mind that, though it is intuitive to ascribe iconoclastic tendencies among Christians to external Jewish and Muslim influences, iconoclasm historically found as much support from within the Greek Christian tradition as from without it. Nonetheless, the Jewish origin of Christianity and the consequent Christian acceptance of Jewish scriptures certainly gave the iconoclasts the opportunity to point to the all-important prohibition of images found in the Decalogue as a proof-text. Christianity had inherited from Judaism an abhorrence of idolatry – which was shared by iconoclasts and iconodules alike. Earlier iconoclasts particularly focused on their claim that the veneration of icons was idolatrous.

Iconoclasts appealed to the authority of scripture and the early church fathers, which railed always and everywhere against the worship of idols. They neglected, however, to account for the images God commanded for use in worship (for example, the golden cherubim over the ark) in the very same books – especially Exodus – that condemned idolatry. This tension between right and wrong use of images exists already in the Old Testament along with the implicit acknowledgement that not all use of images is idolatrous.

Iconoclasts appealed to a particular understanding of the nature of images. Constantine Kopronymos went so far as to call an image homoousios with its subject. Icons, therefore, he considered false images, because a true image of Christ would be God himself, just as Christ, the image of the Father, is one in essence with the Father and is God. In a sense, Constantine V is not against worshipping images, but against worshiping icons, which are not, in his view, true images. Only Christ (and Christ in the Eucharist) is a true image. This is a failure to appreciate what an icon actually is and is not. An icon, as John of Damascus would later assert, is more like a mirror reflection of the one it portrays. It is an imitation. A painting of Christ is an image of Christ, who is an image of the Father. There is more than one sense of image. An icon is like an image of an image. It is not Christ himself, but his reflection. It is obvious that paint on a board is not one in essence with the Father! Iconodules were not suggesting otherwise. They worship God and God alone – God who has become man – man, who by his very nature can be imaged with paint on a board.

Later iconoclasts focused more on the Christological implications of iconography.  They claimed that because Jesus Christ is one person with both a divine and human nature, it is impossible to make an image of him. The divine nature cannot be circumscribed. Divinity is invisible by nature. It could only be, therefore, that an icon portrays only the human nature. This much is true, but the iconoclasts went on to assert that making such an image separates the two natures of Christ. Such an assertion fails to recognize fully the reality of the incarnation. It is, as John of Damascus said, a type of Docetism. Christ was visible to the eyes of his disciples both before and after his resurrection. This visibility, characteristic of human nature, also lends itself naturally to circumscribability. If the iconoclasts were right in thinking that portraying Christ’s image separated his humanity from his divinity, then Christ himself would have made this separation every time he appeared to his disciples in visible flesh. No. Rather, as a person both fully God and fully man, he is fully circumscribable in his human nature. This is the reality of the incarnation – a reality so profound that iconoclasts had difficulty fully accepting it. To deny that an image may be made of Christ is to deny that he is fully man. To deny that this image is worthy of veneration is to deny that his humanity is one with God. 

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