Part 6 of Nicea II and You: Conciliar Authority and Iconographic Devotion
By Fr. Mark Perkins
Editor’s Note: This piece concludes Fr. Mark Perkins’ no-longer-interminable series responding to Fr. Ben Jefferies’ essay “All That Is Not True About Nicea II,” which was in turn part of our ongoing discussion of the invocation of the saints. See Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here.
It is past time to accept that the Reformers got Nicea II wrong — badly wrong. The most likely and most charitable interpretation is that they were, generally, ignorant — relying on bad translations or prior misreadings of the Council. Other possibilities include dishonesty in deliberately misconstruing the Council or incompetence in failing to comprehend the Council’s biblical, incarnational theology. Obviously, some combination of the above is possible, and not all of the Reformers can be completely absolved of dishonesty, as I noted in my last post.
It is perhaps not overly surprising that our 16th-century forebears misread Nicea II, but it is quite remarkable that 21st-century Anglicans, who have every tool at their disposal to correct their ignorance, continue to misconstrue Nicea II. These misconstruals are not only erroneous; they are also deeply counterproductive. Accepting Nicea II does require letting go of the “Homily on Peril of Idolatry,” but the exchange is profoundly unbalanced: you give up a shabby residuum of 16th-century English history and receive, in turn, the Catholic and Apostolic faith of the undivided Church in the Anglican tradition.
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This is my final (final!) piece responding to Fr. Ben Jefferies’ essay “All That Is Not True About Nicea II.” I began this series by establishing the theology of iconography in Parts 1, 2, and 3. Part 4 defined the proper relation of the Ecumenical Councils to the Formularies (with some brief clarifications here). In Part 5, I evaluated the specific claims and anathemas of Nicea II, arguing that the Council’s Definition is not only Catholic in import but also Apostolic in character, “preserving and proclaiming the faith once delivered for all.” Here, finally, I consider Fr. Jefferies’ “argument from success” — as well as his fears that any departure from the Formularies encourage Anglicans to become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.
The Argument from Success
Let me start by briefly rejecting what Fr. Jefferies briefly argued in his conclusion — that the success of icon-skeptical movements of revitalization demonstrates “that there does not appear to be a heavenly ratification of the dictums of Nicea II.” While I have disagreed with Fr. Jefferies throughout our correspondence, this is the first time I find one of his arguments simply bad. Granted, the argument from success is appealing. For about a thousand years, Islam’s strongest arguments were not theological but rather quite pragmatic: success upon success upon success. But, while John 16:13 and Matthew 16:18 guarantee that Christ’s Church will endure and testify to the truth, there is no guarantee that every part of the Church will be free of error, even grievous error, nor that purity and visible success must go hand-in-hand.
Fr. Jefferies claims that “all bodies that hold false doctrine” have eventually “withered and dried up by cutting themselves off from the vine,” but when I think about the broad diversity of mutually exclusive Christian movements in recent centuries, my head spins! The “radical” reformers may have had less success than their “magisterial” rivals, but the movements they inspired have endured for five hundred years, and their denominational offspring have seen enormous worldwide growth for the past two centuries. Most of these groups reject or at least undermine St. Paul’s theology of the Body of Christ and our Lord’s Eucharistic teachings. Likewise, prosperity gospellers constitute one of the fastest growing segments of worldwide Christianity today, despite their profound errors and frequent heresies. The Pentecostal movement shows no signs of slowed growth a century after Azusa Street, despite serious theological error (not to mention the significant minority of Pentecostals who flat-out reject the Trinity).
To illustrate his point, Fr. Jefferies cleverly side-steps Protestant iconoclasts, turning instead to the icon-skeptical Cistercian order — a particularly striking example for me. Before each of my ordinations, I made a personal retreat to a Trappist monastery in Virginia. The austere monastery chapel has but one image: the Corpus adorning a large crucifix. It is sparse to a fault. Still, the crucifix reminds us that, while the Cistercians did prohibit images in their monasteries for a time early in their history (though not from the very start), the prohibition was eventually relaxed. Throughout this conversation I have maintained (as has Fr. Wesley Walker) that a temporary restriction upon images may at times be prudent. Iconographic devotion can be abused — even if it is unlikely to pass over into outright idolatry. The prohibition of images in twelfth-century Cistercian monasteries violated the Definition of Nicea II (assuming it was indeed complete), but it amounts to a temporary overcorrection of genuine abuses. Likewise, the iconoclasm that erupted at times during the English Reformation was erroneous and wicked, but religious imagery was never completely proscribed in worship in the Church of England.
More to the point, if Cistercian flourishing suggests divine favor, what are we to make of the endurance of Rome despite her errant teachings — teachings that have applied to the entire jurisdiction for centuries? I agree with Fr. Jefferies’ contention elsewhere that the Roman teachings on papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception — as well as the declaring of these two and the Assumption to be necessary dogmas — are profound errors. Does the ongoing perseverance of the Roman Church communicate divine sanction for papal claims? Does the simultaneous perseverance of the East imply God’s blessing upon their concilar and patriarchal model of authority? What about the explosive growth of Baptists in the past two-hundred years? Is God a congregationalist? Unless we serve an incoherent God, we must conclude that apparent success need not communicate divine sanction.
The Bosphorus, The Tiber, and The Thames
The driving force behind Fr. Jefferies’ opposition to Nicea II may not be the successes of icon-skeptical groups or the complexities of that Council’s historical reception or even the theological rationale behind Nicea II — “to throw shade on Nicea II,” he writes, “does not mean… that the theology that animated the council is itself inherently wrong.” It seems to me that the heart of the matter is Fr. Jefferies’ fear that “without the catholic restraint of our clear Anglican formularies, there is actually a positive force pushing for the swimming of the Tiber (or Bosphorus), resisted only by aesthetics or inconsistency.” To accept Nicea II, he suggests, “is to admit that dogma can develop. And, if it can develop thus, why can’t it also develop a higher view of the papacy, or of the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary?”
I share Fr. Jefferies concerns about theological innovation. If Nicea II were in fact a novel teaching arbitrarily added to the faith delivered once for all — if, that is, Nicea II were not Apostolic — then it would indeed be quite perilous to accept it. But, as I have argued, iconographic devotion is not an innovation or novelty but simply an inevitable extension of the Incarnation. Fr. Jefferies’ depiction of Nicea II as innovative not only misreads the Council itself and “overreads” the early Church’s silence in the historical record; it also rests upon an overly static view of the deposit of faith. Just as his concerns about the universal reception of Nicea II reflect an unrealistically rosy view of the reception of Nicea I and Chalcedon, so too does his description of iconographic devotion as innovative depend upon an implausibly simplistic description of the Apostolicity of Chalcedonian Christology. As I argued last time, the New Testament’s unavoidable Chalcedonian and iconographic implications are in no way diminished by the historical fact that the Church required serious and sustained theological contemplation in order to explicate these dogmas.
More to the point, there is something a bit odd about clinging to the distinctives of the Anglican tradition as a defense against Roman claims when the best counterweight is in fact the Ecumenical Councils themselves. This is evident not only in hindsight, as Fr Jefferies’ historical narrative demonstrates, but also in the proceedings of the Councils themselves. The Fourth and Seventh Councils both ignored attempts by the papacy to assert absolute supremacy over the Church. The fathers of Nicea II dismissed Pope Hadrian I’s attempt to assert Roman supremacy over the East, just as Chalcedon ignored Pope Leo I’s instruction to accept his dogmatic tome without debate. Both Councils embraced the theological reasoning of the popes in the disputed matters at hand while ignoring the attendant endeavors to enlarge papal authority. It seems to me that the conciliar model of the undivided Church embodies the proper disposition towards Rome: respect for the Bishop of Rome’s historic role as primus inter pares (at least in the West), expressed by seriously weighing the theological and pastoral claims advanced by popes, while never capitulating to innovative claims of papal supremacy.
In swimming the Tiber or Bosphorous, one accrues unfortunate theological baggage and leaves behind a blessed prayer book tradition. (This is no less the case in the Roman Catholic Ordinariate or in Western Rite Orthodoxy — as beneficial as these might be to other jurisdictions, the beautiful liturgies they preserve are not the prayer book tradition itself.) Nevertheless, the strongest answer to Roman and Eastern claims is not their theological errors nor our Anglican distinctives. It is simply in the Anglican Church’s valid claims to full Catholicity and Apostolicity. To leave the Anglican Church for Rome or for most Eastern jurisdictions, you must declare that you have never experienced any sacrament other than baptism, that every Eucharist of which you partook was counterfeit blasphemy, that your priests and bishops were nothing more than play-acting frauds. It seems to me quite impossible to arrive at that conclusion honestly — aside from simply deciding that Apostolicae curae was right because it was issued by the pope, evidence and theology be damned.
We Anglicans have the Scriptures, Creeds, Councils, Orders, and Sacraments. Rome and the East offer to add to our full Catholicity a larger global presence and the illusion of unity based on a fallacious understanding of the Pope or Patriarchs as the instrument of unity rather than the sacramental office of the episcopacy, and to offer these superficial goods at the cost of lying about your Anglican heritage. Moreover, on this side of the Thames, one can embrace those Councils received by the whole Church, East and West. Anglicans can recognize both Rome and the Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions as valid but fallible instantiations of Christ’s Church, whereas joining either requires one to condemn the other, along with one’s own Anglican tradition.
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I hope this series helps our readers see that Anglicans need not fear the Catholic and Apostolic faith decreed in the Seven Ecumenical Councils. The Anglican tradition can and does faithfully incorporate iconographic devotion and the invocation of the saints. But these essays, like all apologetic exercises, can only ever work negatively — by putting fears to rest or countering false claims. Anglicans know that prayer expresses and forms belief, and so, if we wish truly to understand the iconographic implications of the Incarnation, we must spend time on our knees praying to God through iconographic devotion. We must worship the Lord, aided by his holy icons — not only the sacred images on the walls of our churches, but also the living icons of Jesus Christ around us on earth and who surround us as a great cloud of witnesses in heaven.
I can think of no better way to finish this series than by returning to the words of Fr. Maximos Constas:
“In light of creation and Incarnation, icons reveal and convey the vision of the Divine Glory in which our world is immersed, and of which our world is a reflection, as if all things were enfolded within some great Living Being, whose tracks we see everywhere — of which we ourselves are the tracks and traces, because we too are images of the unimageable. We too are images and icons of that for which no image or icon can be made.”
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.