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What Does Nicea II Require of You?

Part 5 of Nicea II and You: Conciliar Authority and Iconographic Devotion

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. Having established the theological groundwork related to iconography and the cult of the saints in Parts 1, 2, and 3, Fr. Mark most recently considered the place of the Formularies in the Anglican tradition. Here he evaluates the specific claims and anathemas of Nicea II. A final installment (honest to God) will consider Fr. Jefferies’ “argument from success” — as well as his fears that any departure from the Formularies impels one to swim either Tiber or Bosphorous (see Part 6 here).

Christ Pantocrator: St. Catherine's Monastery (Sinai Peninsula, 6th-century)

In “All That Is Not True About Nicea II,” Fr. Ben Jefferies shifts from questioning the Catholicity of Nicea II in terms of its universal reception to challenging its Apostolicity. That is, Fr. Jefferies denies that Nicea II’s teachings represent the one faith handed down by Jesus Christ to his apostles. Of course, Apostolicity and Catholicity are properly inseparable, such that proving one implicitly proves the other. While there is something a bit incongruous about the post-Reformation Church of England presuming to know the Scriptures better than the voice of the undivided Church in Ecumenical Council, it is nevertheless important to demonstrate not merely the authoritative interpretation and universal application of Nicea II but also its fidelity to the faith delivered once for all — so that we might deepen our confidence in Christ’s Church, and so that Nicea II may exercise in practice the authority over all Anglicans which she already has in reality.

The Definition and the Anathemas

To achieve that end, we need to describe the ecumenical teaching of Nicea II with a bit more precision, detail, and accuracy than has so far been done. As Fr. Jefferies helpfully and correctly notes, “not everything that is mentioned at an Ecumenical Council is ecumencially binding.” He goes on to claim that “the definition of the Faith and the corresponding anathemas… are of ecumenical and eternal significance.” In the case of Nicea II, however, the anathemas are distinctly not part of the ecumenical authority of the Council’s Definition (also called the Decree).

Fr. Jefferies imprecisely describes the anathemas of Nicea II as being “attached” to the Definition, which could be taken to mean that they are included in the Definition. That is not the case. They are, rather, appended to the Definition — not part of but rather following it. After the Definition was read out at the seventh session of the Council, the assembled bishops signed it. Only after this were the anathemas declared as part of the Conciliar acclamations. (New Advent once again muddies the waters by including the anathemas under the heading of “The Decree,” but the notes clarify that the signing of the Definition precedes the anathemas. Papal Encyclicals Online is less thorough in its excerpts, but its design more clearly indicates the distinction between Definition and anathemas.)

This perhaps seems a minor technicality, but it is quite important. As Sergius Bulgakov rightly claims, because each anathema “only belongs to the ritual of the Council,” they, like all the other proceedings outside of the Definition, do not ecumenically bind all Christians (2, 27). (Bulgakov also dubiously argues that, while the Definition itself is correct, the theological reasoning throughout the Council’s sessions is not.) The anathemas, like all aspects of the sessions, are extremely important as part of the historical records of the first-millennium Church and, in particular, for understanding the rationale behind and context for the Definition. But they are not finally authoritative, and we are free to depart from them without rejecting Nicea II itself.

The Definition does not anathematize anyone, but it does affirm that the display of images is a dogmatic element of the faith. The heart of this claim is important and complex enough to warrant quoting at some length (from Tanner’s translation):

“We decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways. These are the images of our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration.”

Nowhere in the Definition is this “tribute of salutation and respectful veneration” precisely defined or described. Consequently, as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger argues, the West need not follow the East in every post-Nicea-II development of devotional theology and practice (134; my omission of his papal title simply reflects that he was not pope at the time of writing). The particular forms that iconographic devotion and church architecture took in the East, while generally unobjectionable, are not explicitly affirmed by Nicea II, nor are they inevitable or necessary outgrowths of it. Nowhere, for instance, does Nicea II require belief in miracle-working icons of the sort widely attested in the East.

Having said that, I agree with Bulgakov that the greatest iconographic miracle is the spiritual encounter it enables between the devotee and the icon’s archetype [88-89]. Every icon is a kind of spirit-bearing matter and therefore miracle-working in the most profound way. Incidentally, the Anglican theologians at the 1984 ecumenical dialogue with Eastern Orthodox theologians in Dublin accepted “that it is legitimate to regard the icon, not merely as a decoration, but as a means of entering into relationship with the person or event it represents” and even held “that in response to the faith and prayer of the believers, God through the icon, bestows his sanctifying grace” (113).

The Definition only specifies what veneration is not:

“Certainly this is not the full adoration {latria} in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature.”

The Definition further qualifies this veneration by noting that

“the honour paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.”

This reticence to say more, which I would call discrete, others have found to be hopelessly imprecise. It is true that the Definition itself does not define or defend the distinction between veneration and worship, but, in the other sessions, the fathers of Nicea II offer the same eminently biblical rationale given earlier by St. John of Damascus (as I have already argued). That rationale is not ecumenically binding but, contra Bulgakov, it is convincing.

Thus, veneration or reverence is affirmed but not precisely described, except to distance it from worship. Furthermore, while the Definition unambiguously affirms the legitimacy of veneration and instructs that images be exposed, it does not actually require all Christians to practice veneration. We obviously should not push this point too far. After all, one of the explicitly stated purposes of exposing icons is to draw Christians into veneration. The Definition certainly affirms that Christians should venerate, and it presumes a clear spiritual relation between icon and archetype. To denounce veneration would explicitly violate the Definition, as would any irreverent treatment of icons. Nevertheless the subtle restraint exercised here is worth our attention, particularly given the “full precision and care” with which the Council fathers issued their decree.

Consider the difference between saying, “Christians should read their Bibles every day” and declaring that “all Christians must read their Bibles every day.” The former statement is obviously true, and to deny it would be quite perilous — but the latter statement simply is false. It is not dogmatically necessary that all Christians read their Bibles on a daily basis, despite the fact that all would profit from doing so. We would rightly recoil at the claim that, to be an orthodox Christian, one must read Scripture every day. Likewise, while all Christians ought to venerate icons, Nicea II refrains from requiring veneration of all as a matter of the faith — even while the Definition absolutely affirms the theological value of veneration for all.

It seems to me, then, that the Anglican reticence to require iconographic veneration is eminently in keeping with the spirit of Nicea II. Indeed, compulsory veneration was the only objection to icons advanced by the Anglican contingent in the 1984 Dublin Statement (see 79-87 and especially 113; obviously I do not agree with the positions on the Ecumenical Councils advanced by the Anglican side of that conversation). We should have images on the walls of our churches, and we ought to educate our parishioners about iconography and encourage them towards iconographic veneration. But we should refrain from requiring our parishioners to engage in veneration, and we should not expect all churches everywhere to look like Eastern ones. Even putting aside the obvious practical differences between a poor, rural parish in the English countryside and a wealthy, urban cathedral, it is simply the case that Nicea II leaves room for an enormous degree of latitude. But that all churches ought to display images is an unavoidable teaching of Nicea II.

We now turn to considering whether the exposure of images required by Nicea II can be rightly affirmed as Apostolic.

Are Images Apostolic?

Fr. Jefferies’ reading of the New Testament and the history of the early Church suggests that images are not Apostolic. His entire New Testament argument is one of silence — “the New Testament, while it gives plenty of instructions to the Church, including things like the regular public reading of Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13), says nothing about the necessity of making and honoring images.” Likewise, the “invaluable collection of ‘Apostolic Fathers’... says nothing about the necessity of making and honoring images.”

As the old historical dictum goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In relation to 1 Corinthians 11, E. L. Mascall notes that “if someone had not come to the sacrament at Corinth the worse for drink, there would be no evidence whatever that the Eucharist was known to St. Paul” (125n1). The old assumption that iconoclasm would be the default position of the early Church depended upon a now-outdated view of second-temple Judaism as monolithically iconoclastic (see Ratzinger 116-117). Silence could even signal a completely uncontroversial place for images in the early Church. For example, we only know with certainty of the mono-episcopacy’s role in the Apostolic Age because some were denying the authority of their bishops. Laurie Guy makes much of the vigor with which St. Ignatius of Antioch affirms episcopal authority, suggesting that this very stridency betrays the mono-episcopacy's controverted status (40-43). One suspects that, with either silence or affirmation, historians will find what they are looking for.

Fr. Jefferies declares that “icons as we know them today seem not to have existed in any way until the late 4th century at the earliest.” By contrast, Leonid Ouspensky claims, “Already in the IVth century a whole series of Church Fathers, such as Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom and others, refer in their works to images as to a normal and generally accepted institution of the Church” rather than as a recent innovation (26; cf. Bulgakov 8). Likewise, the early-fourth-century historian Eusebius claimed, “I have seen a great many portraits of the Saviour, of Peter and of Paul, which have been preserved up to our times” (quoted in Ouspensky 25). Eusebius, it seems, believed these portraits were originals from the New Testament era! (A well-written icon can certainly last longer than three centuries.) Of course, Eusebius could have been wrong about the origins of these portraits, and he himself was uneasy about the use of religious imagery, but it certainly suggests that these images were already well-established in the Christian tradition by the early fourth century.

Indeed, Fr. Jefferies acknowledges the presence of religious images in the Roman catacombs, but he says that “they are all typological representations of Old Testament scenes, I.e. indirect portrayals of Christian truths, and therefore were almost certainly not reverenced with gestures.” This is simply incorrect. The catacombs of Domitilla, for instance, contain a second-century fresco of the Last Supper (pictured below) and the earliest extant image of the Good Shepherd — an explicit icon of Christ — from the third-century, as well as the famous third-century medallion bearing the images of Sts. Peter and Paul (above), along with many other images (see also Ouspensky 25-27). It is true that most images in the catacombs are more indirect, but this may only reflect the secretive tendencies and tenuous status of the pre-Constantine Church. Fr. Jefferies’ position relies upon an overly sharp distinction between religious imagery such as that found in the catacombs and classical, Eastern iconography, as well as an implicit definition of “veneration” that pushes far beyond what Nicea II specifies. Of course, Eastern Orthodox polemicists affirm this distinction — and I happen to agree with them that the classical style of iconography is theologically superior — but, as Ratzinger suggests, it is not intrinsic to Nicea II. The catacombs do not present us with classical Eastern icons, but they certainly expose images on the walls of cultic sites. And, while we do not have explicit evidence of a developed iconographic devotion in the early Church, there is nothing there to suggest that images were treated irreverently.

Of course, the New Testament gives us no explicit mention of “the Trinity,” nor is the doctrine of the hypostatic union explicitly declared. Long ago in this conversation, Fr. Jefferies stated, “Sure, St. Andrew might not have utilized the very phrases of the Athanasian Creed, but he taught one and the same doctrine. If he could have read the Athanasian Creed, he would have certainly uttered a loud ‘Amen’.” I am indeed confident that St. Andrew and the apostles would have affirmed the Chalcedonian Definition, but Fr. Jefferies’ depiction seems a bit unrealistic. The Nicene Creed and Chalcedonian Definition do so perfectly reflect the biblical data that any statement contrary to them would be ipso facto contrary to Scripture. Nevertheless, it is hardly impious to suppose that the apostles might have required some reflection before uttering their “amens.” As Fr. Maximos Constas says, summarizing Cyril of Alexandria, “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). The four centuries between our Lord and Chacledon do not modify or add to the deposit of faith, but that faith was applied in new contexts to new questions, and it was not always immediately evident how best to understand it in those contexts. Orthodoxy in every age must be extended in order to wrestle with the unprecedented challenges of that era. As Mascall says, “The Definition of Chalcedon is the truth and nothing but the truth, but… it is not the whole truth” (29). Mascall characterizes Chalcedonian Christology as both fertile and flexible in its implications, commenting that, “while it must not hastily and timidly capitulate to every fashion and pressure of the circumambient culture, it must be sensitive to unfamiliar needs and attitudes and responsive to new discoveries and insights” (52).

Fr. Jefferies does acknowledge in passing that the relation of the apostles to icons “might be a disputed case.” Given this ambiguity — we cannot draw definitive conclusions from the New Testament texts or the Apostolic Fathers — we must ask whether the iconographic theology that undergirded Nicea II faithfully embodies the biblical and conciliar doctrine of the Incarnation. And it does. Whether or not St. Andrew actually practiced iconographic devotion, I am confident that he would affirm the Seventh Council’s iconographic theology as a perfect expression of the Incarnation. The making, displaying, and reverencing of icons is already implicit in the act of worshipping at the feet of Jesus. As the Anglicans at Dublin affirmed, “the theology of the icon is founded upon, and intended to safeguard, the doctrine of the incarnation” (113). To expose them in churches is to affirm the Incarnation. To refuse to expose them inevitably puts one in danger of denying the Incarnation.

As I have argued, the first-millennium iconoclasts’ problems with portrayals of Christ equally apply to the visible body of the terrestrial Christ in his earthly ministry. Hence, despite what the iconoclasts claimed, their problem was not with images but with the Incarnate Lord. Protestant iconoclasts make different arguments, yet they too tend towards a deficient incarnational theology. The most important iconoclast among the Magisterial Reformers was John Calvin. As James R. Payton, Jr. convincingly argues, Calvin’s treatment of the conciliar arguments of Nicea II was not only tendentiously dishonest, it also utterly failed to grapple with the core of iconographic theology. Though generally attentive to how Christ’s coming reframed the Mosaic Law — he argues that Christ’s advent revises the applicability of the fourth commandment, for instance — Calvin nevertheless completely elides Nicea II’s christological arguments related to the second commandment. Despite the first-millennium iconoclastic controversy being almost wholly christological in nature for both parties, Calvin’s only consideration of Nicea II in his definitive 1559 edition of the Institutes is restricted to Book 1 on God the Father. He does not even acknowledge that the Council saw Christ’s incarnation as transformative for understanding the second commandment. That Calvin so dramatically misses the point — despite his otherwise “thorough familiarity with the ancient ecumenical councils” (233) and his claim to have carefully considered the actual records of Nicea II (234n68) — strongly suggests a willful ignorance, a deliberate choice to avoid wrestling with the unavoidably iconographic implications of our Lord’s incarnation.

And it can work in the other direction too, as in the case of Anglican priest and philosopher Don Cupitt, whose denial of the Incarnation’s bridge between Creator and creation leads him to condemn Christian art and iconography in particular as a blasphemous portrayal of that which still cannot be portrayed (Mascall 37).

While not all who distrust icons are so extreme, I suspect that most of them do suffer from an insufficient theology of Christ’s Incarnation, just like their iconoclastic forebears. If you play out their arguments long enough, you will likely find somewhere along the way that the claim too scandalous to countenance in its fullness is simply that “the Word became flesh.”

Excommunications and Anathemas

Given these stakes, the Definition concludes by disciplining those who reject the Council’s decrees: “We order that they be suspended if they are bishops or clerics, and excommunicated if they are monks or lay people.” These are serious measures, but they are not anathemas, and they do not necessarily fall upon all who refrain from icon veneration. This conclusion to the Definition further emphasizes that the anathemas which follow do not bear the ecumenical authority of the Definition — otherwise these suspensions and excommunications would be senseless and unnecessary.

Having said that, the anathemas, while not binding, are part of the Council’s proceedings. As such, they tell us something about the mind and reasoning of the Council which promulgated the Definition.

The Church excommunicates for at least two reasons: first, to prevent unworthy reception of the Eucharist and, second, to bring those living in sin to repentance. (In certain circumstances excommunication may also be done to prevent scandal.) An anathema, on the other hand, is not delivered with the anathematized in mind but rather for the clarity and benefit of the Church. Anathemas strongly suggest that those anathematized have made themselves obstinate enemies of Christ. Anathemas, like absolutions, describe reality. They state what is already the case, rather than creating a new reality that did not exist before. So, for instance, St. Paul’s anathemas in Galatians did not suddenly transform good Galatian Christians into the accursed. Rather, the troublemakers who so disturbed the Galatian church made themselves into Christ’s enemies. The anathema simply clarifies that reality, and an authoritative anathema requires the Church to recognize and act upon it. Although St. Paul’s anathemas do not bring about a new state of accursedness, they do obligate the church at Galatia to treat these false brethren as such.

The Council’s anathemas respond to the iconoclasts’ rejection of the Incarnation. Because we are not bound by the anathemas of Nicea II, we are not obliged to view all who balk at iconographic veneration as accursed. Not every objection to icons amounts to outright heresy. Many simply reflect ignorance, as was surely the case with the ludicrously irrelevant “Homily on Peril of Idolatry.” In other cases, a hesitance towards iconography might reflect a prudential and temporary pastoral act. Throughout this conversation, Fr. Wesley Walker and I have acknowledged that, in certain circumstances, good practices (iconographic devotion, invocation of the saints) might be curbed or perhaps even suspended in the face of abuses. In the long run, for instance, the Cistercian minimization of images reflects a reaction against the abuses of popular piety. We can likewise recognize that, whatever their ignorance of Nicea II and iconographic theology, our Anglican forebears were reacting against similar excesses. The Anglican ban on images was never universal — Queen Elizabeth, as previously indicated, apparently enjoyed some use of images in worship (Moorman, 212; Davis, 90) — and, as the aforementioned Dublin Statement of 1984 reflects, Anglicans today generally recognize the contextually specific nature of the prohibitions.

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In my final installment, I will consider Fr. Jefferies’ “argument from success,” as well as his underlying concerns about “development” and the appeal of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Here let me reiterate that what Nicea II most explicitly requires is the display of images in our churches paired with encouragement towards veneration. No specific style of image is mandated by the Definition of Nicea II, nor are any precise acts of veneration described. Individual Christians are not explicitly required to engage in any particular act of veneration — though Nicea II absolutely prohibits irreverence towards images or an outright rejection of veneration as such. While disciplinary punishments are meted out to those who reject Nicea II, the Council’s anathemas are not ecumenically binding.

Just as hesitancy to hail the Blessed Virgin Mary as Theotokos ultimately reflects hesitancy about the full implications of the Incarnation, so too does iconoclasm inevitably entail one Christological heresy or another. We should expect to be confronted with icons of Christ and of his saints in our churches — to be confronted, that is, with the concrete reality and profound mystery of the Incarnation — so that we may more truly worship our Incarnate Lord. We do so in the full assurance that, when the undivided Church spoke in Ecumenical Council, her decrees were both Catholic and Apostolic, preserving and proclaiming the faith once delivered for all.

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

1 Comment

Fr. Ben Jefferies
Fr. Ben Jefferies
Mar 03, 2021

Dear Fr. Mark --

Much of what you said positively about icons in the earlier pieces, I completely agree with. I have many icons (and crucifix, etc.) up on the walls of my church and my home. They bless my devotion to God all the time.

The untenable part of your argument (as I see it) as to the binding quality of Nicea II on Anglicans is when you derogate the anathemas of an ecumenical council. Bulgakov -- whom you cite -- is not here a trusty guide. Familiarity with the Conciliar writings themselves shows that the anathemas are not some mere "appended" afterthought to the Definition. The very contrary is the case: The Anathemas clarify and reveal the teaching…

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