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Nicea II and You: Conciliar Authority and Iconographic Devotion

What are we arguing about when we argue about icons and invocation?

By Fr. Mark Perkins

Editor’s Note: In this series, Fr. Mark Perkins responds to Fr. Ben Jefferies’ essay “All That Is Not True About Nicea II,” his latest salvo in our ongoing discussion of the invocation of the saints. Here Fr. Mark grounds iconography in the theology of the Incarnation. See Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, Part 5 here, and Part 6 here.

Part I: The Incarnation and Iconography

One of Anglicanism’s greatest strengths is our willingness to “steal” from everyone. It is not at all uncommon to find yourself in an Anglo-Catholic church singing a Lutheran hymn while admiring an Eastern Orthodox icon adorning the wall. And why not? If Moses plundered the Egyptians and the church fathers plundered the Greeks, then surely we ought to plunder the Lutherans.

As is so often the case, however, our greatest strength is closely related to what may be Anglicanism’s greatest weakness: a kind of “broadchurch indifferentism” or latitudinarianism. Anglicans rightly recognize, celebrate, and appropriate the good in other traditions, but we have often been tempted to deny or suppress the significance of denominational differences altogether. If other traditions suffer from an overly expansive view of what counts as dogmatic, we may be too quick to dismiss controversies as adiaphora, “things indifferent.”

Many Anglicans today, both laity and clergy, instinctively view iconography as a matter of decorative taste — not just adiaphora, but indeed the most indifferent of “things indifferent.” One might first discuss whether the center aisle ought to be carpeted or not, then consider how amply cushioned the kneelers ought to be, and then move seamlessly into the question of whether to place icons on the walls of church and home. This perhaps seems a caricature. If so, then I must admit to having been such a caricature only a few years back.

Many other Anglicans would instead evaluate icons with an eye to the relative prudence of various devotional practices — perhaps adiaphora in and of itself, but nevertheless related to one’s understanding of idolatry and the cult of the saints. This seems to be the case with Fr. Ben Jefferies’ essay “All That Is Not True About Nicea II,” which affirms the general goodness of icons but not their necessity and worries about their potential for idolatrous misuse.

There are indeed prudential considerations related to iconography, but the real theological heart of the matter lies much deeper. When we turn to the iconoclastic disputes of the seventh through ninth centuries, we find that they have nothing to do with prudential fears of idolatry — that is, how likely it is that iconographic devotion could turn into a distraction from the worship of God. For both “iconoclasts” and “iconodules” — the haters and lovers of icons, respectively — questions about iconography strike at the very heart of the Incarnation. According to the iconoclasts, icons dissolve the hypostatic union of our Lord and must therefore be absolutely forbidden. By contrast, the iconodules consider icons an absolutely necessary extension of the Incarnation. This latter understanding affirms why, in the East, the Council of Nicea II (AD 787, the Seventh Ecumenical Council) is called “The Triumph of Orthodoxy” (Ouspensky, 31; emphasis added).

This essay begins a series responding to Fr. Jefferies’ piece on Nicea II and thereby reviving our dormant “Ora Pro Nobis” debate. In this first installment, however, I am not primarily arguing with Fr. Jefferies — I suspect he agrees with much of what follows! — nor am I specifically unpacking Nicea II. I intend rather to clear theological ground and establish the principles upon which further argument depends. Before we can consider the Definition of Faith declared by the Council of Nicea II, the anathemas promulgated by that Council, and their relation to the Anglican formularies, we must understand why the undivided Church described iconoclasm as a rejection of the Incarnation. My next essay will continue laying theological groundwork, explaining why and how the Church understood the iconography and invocation of the saints as a further extension of the Incarnation.

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As indicated by Fr. Jefferies’ citation of the “Homily Against Peril of Idolatry,” Protestants traditionally object to iconography because they believe it constitutes or at least tends towards idolatry. In this they follow the iconoclasts of the eighth century in believing that an icon of Christ is (or at least can function as) a mute idol — a lifeless, material object displacing God Almighty as the object of our worship. Those first-millennium iconoclasts argued that the second commandment (on “graven images”) constitutes a clear prohibition against iconography. Any claim that the second commandment absolutely bans images is incoherent, given the cherubim God commanded to be carved on the Ark of the Covenant, as well as the various images on the walls of the Temple (1 Kg. 6:29-30; cf St. John of Damascus, 28). Hence, the Old Testament clearly permits the representation of natural and spiritual realities. In Hebrews 9, furthermore, we are informed that the Temple itself was a model and prototype of heavenly realities! (See Bulgakov, 3-7; Ouspensky, 34.) What the second commandment really prohibits is the idolatrous use of images — which included any portrayal of our ineffable and un-portrayable God.

The iconodules, however, argued that the divine became portrayable precisely when God became incarnate in Jesus Christ. With the Incarnation, the divine becomes manifest. Thus, to reject the portrayability of God in Christ is to reject the Incarnation.

The iconoclasts disagreed. They vigorously claimed to uphold the previous six Ecumenical Councils and the fullness of the Incarnation. They asserted that the iconodules were the ones denying the Incarnation with their portrayals of Christ. Both sides agreed that God in his divinity is fundamentally unportrayable. As St. John of Damascus put it, “If we were to make an image of the invisible God, we would really sin; for it is impossible to depict one who is incorporeal and formless, invisible and uncircumscribable” (St. John of Damascus, 82). That being so, the iconoclasts argued that icons can only portray Christ’s terrestrial body. Hence, icons amount to a practical Nestorianism, severing Christ’s humanity and divinity and thereby defying the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451, the Fourth Ecumenical Council). Or, if an image was understood to portray Christ’s divinity in his humanity, this would destroy Chalcedonian orthodoxy from the other end, implying the Monophysite heresy of an amalgamated mixture of Christ’s divinity and humanity. Neither, they asserted, honors the delicate Chalcedonian doctrine of the hypostatic union.

Sergius Bulgakov (1891-1940)

The iconoclasts’ arguments were powerful. Indeed, Sergius Bulgakov, among others, argued that iconodules had no effective answer to these claims; the iconoclasts, though ultimately wrong, had the better theological argument, according to Bulgakov (see pages 1-25; I do not think Bulgakov is right, as I argue below, and his fascinating, often-helpful account is marred by his dense and controversial sophiology and onomatodoxy/imiaslavie). It is true that the iconodules did not resolve all of the iconoclasts' questions about how a portrayal of Christ could be a portrayal of God — but it is also the case that, despite what they claimed, the iconoclasts’ problems with iconography are ultimately “problems” with the Incarnation.

The objections the iconoclasts leveled against portrayals of Jesus apply just as readily to the disciples’ experience of the terrestrial Christ. When the disciples looked at Jesus, what were they seeing? When they worshipped at his feet, what were they worshipping? To claim that an iconographic portrayal of Christ only depicts his humanity absent divinity also implies that the disciples, in seeing the terrestrial Christ, only saw the humanity of Christ and not his divinity.

The answers to the iconoclastic objections lie in the very hypostatic union of Christ they claimed to defend, which unity justifies the patristic notion of “the communication of idioms.” This doctrine affirms that what can be said about the man Jesus can be said of God. It is this unity which justifies the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title as Theotokos — God-bearer or Mother of God. Even though our Lady was not the mother of Christ in his divinity, she is the mother of Jesus Christ and therefore the mother of God. Likewise, the divine nature of Jesus Christ did not perish on the cross, and yet because Jesus Christ is “Very God of Very God,” we can say that God died on the cross. Just so, in seeing the man Jesus, the disciples saw God.

This is precisely what Jesus himself claims: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). It is what the Fourth Gospel teaches: “No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (Jn. 1:18). Hence, St John of Damascus concludes, “If we make an image of God who in his ineffable goodness became incarnate and was seen upon earth in the flesh, and lived among humans, and assumed the nature and density and form and color of flesh, we do not go astray” (82).

The Council of Chalcedon affirmed that Christ is “known in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation.” Fr. Maximos Constas highlights the significance of the verb “known.” What is seen is an unconfused, undivided unity — but his two natures can be known. Fr. Constas, commenting on St. Cyril of Alexandria, writes, “The two natures of Christ are not two ‘objects’ or ‘things’ available to human visualization. Both in his person and at the level of human perception, Christ is one, and the duality of his natures can only be ‘known’ through a process of spiritual reflection, which Cyril generally calls ‘contemplation’” (64).

Analogously, every human person is a body-soul unity. A body absent a soul is a corpse (Constas, Art 65). Consequently, a picture of your grandmother is not merely a picture of her body but of her whole self — even though all that is immediately apparent is her body. Likewise, an image of Jesus Christ is a depiction of his whole self, which means that his divinity can be known through contemplation of the image itself. The iconodules were therefore right to argue that denying Christ’s depictability is synonymous with denying the Incarnation. (See Bulgakov, 100-101). As Leonid Ouspensky rightly claims, “once the Son of God became Man, it was necessary to represent Him as man” (32).

How an icon can portray God in Christ is a mystery, just as the Incarnation itself — true God and true man in Jesus Christ — is a mystery. Which is not to say there is no rational explanation; one has been given above. But the explanation will not satisfy those who cannot see with the eyes of faith, nor does the explanation eliminate the mystery and wonder for those who believe. The Incarnation is the climax of Scripture’s many “stumbling blocks” — those difficult paradoxes which arrest our attention and press us towards deeper reflection, contemplation, and prayer (Constas, Art 20-21). The icon affirms and extends the Incarnation, and therefore we should not be surprised to find that it too constitutes a stumbling block, that it too requires deeper reflection, contemplation, and prayer.

In my next installment, I will consider the implications of the foregoing for the veneration of icons of our Lord — and of his saints.

Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.


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