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History of Icons

Discussion in 'St. Justin Martyr's Corner: Debate an Orthodox Chr' started by JM, Jan 14, 2015.

  1. JM

    JM Absolute Predestinarian Supporter

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    The other day while discussing church history with a friend and fellow believer I was reminded of the Iconoclast Controversy or the Controversy Over Images that took place between 680 and 850ad. For almost 200 years the Greek State church argued over the use of images, specifically Icons and their purpose in the church…if they had any purpose at all. Many Western Christians are not familiar with this debate, at least not in detail, so I hope to give a very brief outline highlighting a few of the more interesting facts. Make no bones about it, I am unable to find any scriptural reason for the use of images, so the best I can try to do is be honest with the particulars as I have come to understand them.

    The debate took place between what modern historians call Iconoclasts and Iconophiles or those who rejected religious images often resulting in their destruction and those who believe religious images have a place in the Christian religion. This debate seemed bound to happen as the revelation of God in scripture came into contact with Greek culture and religion. The former rejects the use of images of the Divine and the latter wholeheartedly encourages images, statues and the like. Some Christians in both the East and West believed it was acceptable to create representations of Christ and the Trinity but there was also a group of Christians that denied any need for them. The Iconophiles believed icons were useful and even essential to worship while the Iconoclasts believed it was against the second commandment to do so. William R. Cannon points out, “A custom which primitive Christianity looked upon as idolatry was common practice in the eight century. Consequently what in ancient times had been an innovation was considered during this period as tradition.” (page 105)

    Diarmaid MacCulloch calls this rub of Hebrew and Greek culture the “fault line” for the old covenant forbids images of God in any sense while Greek paganism encouraged it. A similar debate can be found in the history of the Western church but it has not had the same impact on history as it had in the East. Some historians have suggested the numbering of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) might have contributed to the use of statues by Roman Catholics who, following Augustine of Hippo neatly tuck the First and Second Commandment into one and separated the Tenth into Nine and Ten. Lutherans use Augustine’s numbering of the Decalogue and take no issue with images either. I’m not sure if this really effects the views expressed by each group considering the Eastern Orthodox use the same numbering system as the Judaism and Protestantism but it was mentioned a few times by different authors so I mention it here.

    When you take a closer look at the details of the “controversy” it soon becomes apparent that matters of theology were passed from the Byzantine Emperor to the Patriarch of Constantinople. If the verdict was contrary to the wishes of the Emperor it was likely the Patriarch would be replaced. This happened more than a few times over the course of Byzantine history. From my reading on the subject it seems Leo (III) the Isaurian, Byzantine Emperor (717 – 741), saw a growing devotion and power ascribed to religious images. He believed this was mere superstition and tried to rid the empire of religious iconography with a series of edicts (726 – 729) forbidding the use of images in worship. Leo the III was not immune to superstition. It seems likely that Leo, having fought Islamic armies, believed that removing of images might lead to military victories. Whatever the reason behind the Controversy and it was always a political issue.

    The Iconophiles found a champion in John of Damascus (645/676 – 749) who offered a polemic for the use of images. Cannon describes John as one of the few strong theologians of the 8th century, not in the same class as Augustine of Hippo, but without equal in the West for the time period. Using a philosophical framework of categories and causes borrowed from Aristotle John of Damascus argued the Second Commandment was abrogated by the Incarnation of Christ. “If one accepted this vocabulary and Aristotelian framework, then devotion to visual images in Christianity was safe.” (MacCulloch, page 448) The Greek church essentially changed the language which framed the debate over images from art to theology. Skipping ahead the matter came to close as Irene of Athens, former regent and now Empress after having her sons blinded and imprisoned, assumed the throne. She was in favour of Icons and had a layman who was also in favour of Icons consecrated Patriarch. Patriarch Tarasios, with help from the State, held what was deemed an “Ecumenical Conclave” in 787 or what is often called the Second Council of Nicaea which effectively restored the use of images in worship. Some further political proclamations against Icons were made but Empress Theodora (843) restored again the use of images in worship. This last proclamation of the State church “effectively closed down the possibility of alternative forms of worship in Orthodox tradition.” (McCulloch, page 452)

    It soon becomes apparent the debate was heated and very political. Icons and other images had a cult following that garnered the support of the State. Ultimately it wasn’t the Bible that settled the issue for the church but two Empresses backing the Iconophiles. The idea that you could reach God through images is foreign to scripture. God “calls us back and withdraws us from petty carnal observances, which our stupid minds, crassly conceiving of God, are wont to devise.” (Calvin) Some are quick to point to the Second Council of Nicaea as a historical point of reference but we cannot forget the polemics against the use of images that predate the Reformation such as the works of Claudius of Turin, the Council of Frankfurt and Libri Carolini. With the Reformers cry of “scripture alone” and “all of scripture” the debate was reopened in the West during the Reformation. John Calvin is masterful in the Institutes on this subject and I have quoted pertinent sections below for your further reading. He rightly calls Empress Irene “a wicked Proserpine named Irene” in his French edition.

    Semper Reformanda,

    jm

    Sources:
    A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
    Diarmaid MacCulloch
    Penguin (2009)
    ISBN-13: 978-0141021898

    History of Christianity in the Middle ages; From the Fall of Rome to the Fall of Constantinople
    William R. Cannon
    Abingdon Press (1960)
    ISBN: n/a
     
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  2. JM

    JM Absolute Predestinarian Supporter

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    from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1:

    14. Enough, I believe, would have been said on this subject, were I not in a manner arrested by the Council of Nice; not the celebrated Council which Constantine the Great assembled, but one which was held eight hundred years ago by the orders and under the auspices of the Empress Irene. This Council decreed not only that images were to be used in churches, but also that they were to be worshipped. Every thing, therefore, that I have said, is in danger of suffering great prejudice from the authority of this Synod. To confess the truth, however, I am not so much moved by this consideration, as by a wish to make my readers aware of the lengths to which the infatuation has been carried by those who had a greater fondness for images than became Christians. But let us first dispose of this matter. Those who defend the use of images appeal to that Synod for support. But there is a refutation extant which bears the name of Charlemagne, and which is proved by its style to be a production of that period. It gives the opinions delivered by the bishops who were present, and the arguments by which they supported them. John, deputy of the Eastern Churches, said, “God created man in his own image,” and thence inferred that images ought to be used. He also thought there was a recommendation of images in the following passage, “Show me thy face, for it is beautiful.” Another, in order to prove that images ought to be placed on altars, quoted the passage, “No man, when he has lighted a candle, putteth it under a bushel.” Another, to show the utility of looking at images, quoted a verse of the Psalms “The light of thy countenance, O Lord, has shone upon us.” Another laid hold of this similitude: As the Patriarchs used the sacrifices of the Gentiles, so ought Christians to use the images of saints instead of the idols of the Gentiles. They also twisted to the same effect the words, “Lord, I have loved the beauty of thy house.” But the most ingenious interpretation was the following, “As we have heard, so also have we seen;” therefore, God is known not merely by the hearing of the word, but also by the seeing of images. Bishop Theodore was equally acute: “God,” says he, “is to be admired in his saints;” and it is elsewhere said, “To the saints who are on earth;” therefore this must refer to images. In short, their absurdities are so extreme that it is painful even to quote them.

    15. When they treat of adoration, great stress is laid on the worship of Pharaoh, the staff of Joseph, and the inscription which Jacob set up. In this last case they not only pervert the meaning of Scripture, but quote what is nowhere to be found. Then the passages, “Worship at his footstool”—“Worship in his holy mountain”—“The rulers of the people will worship before thy face,” seem to them very solid and apposite proofs. Were one, with the view of turning the defenders of images into ridicule, to put words into their mouths, could they be made to utter greater and grosser absurdities? But to put an end to all doubt on the subject of images, Theodosius Bishop of Mira confirms the propriety of worshipping them by the dreams of his archdeacon, which he adduces with as much gravity as if he were in possession of a response from heaven. Let the patrons of images now go and urge us with the decree of this Synod, as if the venerable Fathers did not bring themselves into utter discredit by handling Scripture so childishly, or wresting it so shamefully and profanely.

    16. I come now to monstrous impieties, which it is strange they ventured to utter, and twice strange that all men did not protest against with the utmost detestation. It is right to expose this frantic and flagitious extravagance, and thereby deprive the worship of images of that gloss of antiquity in which Papists seek to deck it. Theodosius Bishop of Amora fires oft an anathema at all who object to the worship of images. Another attributes all the calamities of Greece and the East to the crime of not having worshipped them. Of what punishment then are the Prophets, Apostles, and Martyrs worthy, in whose day no images existed? They afterwards add, that if the statue of the Emperor is met with odours and incense, much more are the images of saints entitled to the honour. Constantius, Bishop of Constantia in Cyprus, professes to embrace images with reverence, and declares that he will pay them the respect which is due to the ever blessed Trinity: every person refusing to do the same thing he anathematises and classes with Marcionites and Manichees. Lest you should think this the private opinion of an individual, they all assent. Nay, John the Eastern legate, carried still farther by his zeal, declares it would be better to allow a city to be filled with brothels than be denied the worship of images. At last it is resolved with one consent that the Samaritans are the worst of all heretics, and that the enemies of images are worse than the Samaritans. But that the play may not pass off without the accustomed Plaudite, the whole thus concludes, “Rejoice and exult, ye who, having the image of Christ, offer sacrifice to it.” Where is now the distinction of λατρια and δυλια with which they would throw dust in all eyes, human and divine? The Council unreservedly relies as much on images as on the living God.
     
  3. ArmyMatt

    ArmyMatt Regular Member Supporter

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    I wonder what Calvin would have said to Moses when he was commanded by God to put images of angels, animals, and plants in the Tabernacle, or Solomon doing the same in the Temple, or St Luke is the first iconographer (and we still have his icons)?
     
  4. Shieldmaiden4Christ

    Shieldmaiden4Christ Eastward bound

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    I'd always been taught in history class (AP World History and AP Western Civ) that iconoclasm was at least partially brought on by the Muslim conquests preceding and occurring during the era of iconoclasm.
     
  5. ArmyMatt

    ArmyMatt Regular Member Supporter

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    it certainly had an influence. icons have always been a part of Christianity, they are in the catacombs from the earliest centuries.
     
  6. ommnone

    ommnone Newbie

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    It's important to note the the Isaurian emperors manufactured the iconoclastic position primarily to redistribute some of the wealth of the empire from the provincial churches to the imperial household and the military. Cappadocian churches adorned with gold-pressed and gem-encrusted art were constantly at risk of and subject to raids by Arabs, a series of events which slowly sapped wealth from already impoverished provinces. Similarly, the Paulician movement in the Armenian, Pontic, and Cappadocian provinces targeted church buildings. On top of this, the empire's military and security situation was at a long time low, with Slavs and Bulgars deciding the empire's border in Moesia and Macedonia due to an inability for previous emperors to fund the army (and remain unassassinated).

    Prior to Leo III, the empire went through an authority crisis. Leo III and his court fabricated a much greater level of interest in already existent theological issue in the wake of invasion and natural disaster in order to repossess wealth, solidify his position as emperor, and fund the military. While alienating a good amount of the native clergy, the pope in the west, and much of the faithful particularly in western Asia Minor, the more politically minded nobility and clergy (along with the subjects in ever-raided eastern Cappadocia) supported his movement. He was successful in strengthening the position of the basileus and stopping the collapse of Byzantine authority on the imperial borders.

    His son, Constantine V, went considerably further replacing public images (he never went so far as to do this within the churches) of Christ and the saints with images of himself, his late father, and other members of the imperial household. Even by the 8th century, much of educated elite of Constantinople retained great appreciation of older pre-Christian Roman customs; Constantine V seemingly wanted to remake the (officially) long defunct imperial cult into a Christian institution-- placing the emperor as the primary head of the church (a powerful and, importantly, a very secure place in which to be in a political climate that constantly saw coups that overthrew emperors).

    This is the context which birthed the 8th century iconoclastic polemics.

    Eventually, the iconoclastic movement moved from a primarily political thing to primarily a theological thing, but one must be cautious in assuming the Isaurians actually cared about theological justifications or prohibitions of religious depictions, the veneration of relics, or prayers to saints. They needed to remove anything that was seemingly a ritual intermediary that they didn't have direct control over. They were politicians, statesmen, generals first and foremost. Despite being condemned for the theological views they patronized after their deaths, one just has to compare a map of the Byzantine Empire before Leo III took power to a map of the empire toward the end of the reign of Constantine V to see that the gambit had short term success.
     
  7. gurneyhalleck1

    gurneyhalleck1 sinner profoundly blessed by God

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    Is there a point to the rambling of the OP? JM, are you hear to learn about Holy Orthodoxy, or somehow trying to flex your Calvinist muscles and try to convert us? It would be quite helpful if you revealed your motivation and point to all this? You came into TAW blazing and insulting me, then you come in here with a rambling bunch of diatribe that reveals a lack of understanding about holy images and a sola scriptura approach wholly distanced from the ancient Fathers and early Church.

    Holy images DO matter, and did for 1500 years before the 'enlightened' De-formers came along with their iconoclastic ways and overreactions and went around the countryside of England and Germany and France bashing statues and burning the sacred beautiful images of Christ and His saints.

    Diarmaid MacCulloch is an OUTSTANDING author and his treatment of the Reformation was incredible. But if you glean anything from his writing, you should take away the sheer chaos and mess the Deformation created in Europe!

    Holy images are not an innovation of the Church. They were there from day one. St. Luke created the first icon if you bone up on icons. And sacred images ARE permitted because Christ has come. In the OT, images of God were prohibited because He was unknowable at that time, unseen, shrouded in mystery and at that time man was worshipping the creation over the Divine Creator! People worshipped beasts of land and air and see and created images representing lower things than God. So between an unknowable God and a culture of gross degradation with regard to art and beasts, representing God was a necessary taboo! By the time of Christ, sacred art was absolutely fine. Early Church catacombs show us images of the Theotokos, saints, martyrs, Christ preaching, the Good shepherd, you name it.
     
  8. gurneyhalleck1

    gurneyhalleck1 sinner profoundly blessed by God

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    Absolutely, along with Emperors and minions of imperials who lacked a proper Christian foundation for the understanding of sacred art.

    Thanks be TO GOD for icons!

     
  9. buzuxi02

    buzuxi02 Veteran

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    I only read the first paragraph, about 5 sentences of your first post. Two corrections so far. We have never condoned the depictions of the Trinity. Its impossible to do so, and the non existence of them is clear in the 7th ecumenical council.

    There were actually three groups in the controversy. Those that wanted to eliminate all images (except for the cross) influenced by the fast expansion of Islam who found the images blasphemous. Some believed like Leo the Isaurion the muslims were successful in conquest as a divine sign against icons. A second party existed that wanted to retain the images but not venerate them, they proposed to place images high up on the walls. And the Orthodox party of iconophiles that prevailed.
     
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2015
  10. buzuxi02

    buzuxi02 Veteran

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    After reading further I see the western bias. St John of Damascus was not in the same caliber as Augustine?? Augustine is a saint because of the prophecy given to his mother St. Monica. Not for his writings whose theology is amiss. How the roman church was able to so successfully market St. Augustine as some influential father is pretty remarkable.

    And Calvin was more of an ignoramus than I already thought. He could have actually read the acts of the 7th ecumenical council and see what was taught and what it specifically said. He could have looked into how greek words such as latreia and proskuneo were used at the time. Once I think western bias and ignorance isn't that bad, I read something like the above which reassures me of the heresies of the west.
     
  11. JM

    JM Absolute Predestinarian Supporter

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    Thank you for your response.

    It was my understanding that St. Justin’s was for discussion or perhaps polemics contra the Eastern Orthodox denomination and therefore the original post has served its purpose. I will continue to learn about the Eastern Orthodox denomination in the regular forum and will not raise debatable question there as it is your denominational forum. We all have underlying presuppositions. Mine are biblical and as you say “Western,” while the answers to the op are “Traditional” and “Eastern.”

    Yours in the Lord,

    jm
     
  12. Shieldmaiden4Christ

    Shieldmaiden4Christ Eastward bound

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    Again, Orthodoxy is not a denomination. It is the Church established by Christ in the New Testament.
     
  13. JM

    JM Absolute Predestinarian Supporter

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    Thank you folks for being kind with me.

    I want to say that I do not wish to create ill will toward me, but I do believe God uses means to convict a sinner and therefore I post with the idea that God might, in some small way, use my posts to further His Kingdom.

    When I was in my later teens I read the Gospels and thought they were believable and started attending an Anglican parish. A few years passed and I decided to continue reading and studying the Bible, by the time I got to Romans, the Holy Spirit convicted me of my sin and I became a Christian in the biblical sense of the word. I studied to be a layreader in the Anglican Church of Canada but found they lacked proper “tradition” so I went looking elsewhere. It was during this time that someone in the Anglican church called me a “Calvinist” but I had never heard of John Calvin and so denied it. I stopped at a Roman Catholic parish for a while but settle into a Greek Orthodox church for almost 2 years. (I still have my icons and prayer rope.) I believe God used different means throughout this period to bring me to a more scriptural faith and so I post with this in mind; that God may humble me and use someone I wrote to convict a sinner.

    Forgive my thrust replies for I often answer the forum from my cell phone. Forgive my sarcasm as well, it is something I’ve been working on for years.

    I understand that is what you believe and will create another post in this forum to discuss the claim.

    Yours in the Lord,

    jm
     
  14. ArmyMatt

    ArmyMatt Regular Member Supporter

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    well, I am glad you post on here, but the problem with Calvin is his writings are more about what he thinks than what the ancient Church actually believed and practiced. the Christian West departed and Calvinism is an even further departure from the Truth.

    it is historic fact that icons were used in the early centuries. they are in the catacombs, we still have at least one of St Luke's on Cyprus, we have direct copies of his such as the Tikhvin Icon, and they are in the OT Temple and Tabernacle where Christ Himself went to worship.

    if iconography were really idolatry, why would Christ have commanded images of the Israelites under Moses, and why would He have gone to those areas to worship when He was on earth?
     
  15. JM

    JM Absolute Predestinarian Supporter

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    This is part of the issue, Calvin uses the early church fathers and scripture. His Institutes are filled with quotations from the early church. The issue is not, "did the early church use images" but "which strain of tradition allowed for it and is it biblical."

    It is a historical fact that Arianism was considered "orthodox" whenever the ruling emperor was Arian. Does that mean orthodoxy hinges on politics as the op suggests?

    The images you mention where not used for worship and yes, they were commanded to be used in the Temple, not based on the whim of the creature. Remember what Paul had to say about the old covenant? That it was "weak and beggarly." The same is said in Hebrews. Why then would you have us return to the types and shadows of the old covenant when we have the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ?

    ArmyMatt, I would be interested in seeing the Old Testament passages you believe encourages us to make images under the new covenant.

    Thank you.

    Yours in the Lord,

    jm
     
  16. JM

    JM Absolute Predestinarian Supporter

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    That's one of the problems with tradition. Whose tradition? The East? West?

    Yours in the Lord,

    jm
     
  17. Shieldmaiden4Christ

    Shieldmaiden4Christ Eastward bound

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    The traditions of the Church?
     
  18. JM

    JM Absolute Predestinarian Supporter

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    The same prideful arrogance was displayed during the time of Christ’s earthly ministry. A group that opposed Jesus because they believed they had the correct tradition, the right priesthood, and a Holy Temple. It was all profane.



    Yes. In the West Augustine was a Doctor of the church, a saint and giant intellect. In the Eastern tradition he is often slandered.

    Yours in the Lord who saves to the uttermost.

    jm
     
  19. Shieldmaiden4Christ

    Shieldmaiden4Christ Eastward bound

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    We have scripture telling us to hold fast to the traditions of the Apostles...
     
  20. ArmyMatt

    ArmyMatt Regular Member Supporter

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    that's one of the problems, icons were venerated long before the New Testament that was canonized, and the council that decided what the NT canon was one that had icons.

    no, we do not hinge on politics, and remember that St Luke was the first iconographer. I think he knows more about Christ's teaching than Calvin.

    they aren't. there was no break in use of images so there is no return to the use. icons are the images of the OT illumined by the Light of Christ. and remember, even after the NT was established, the Apostles worshiped in the Temple (with images as Christ did) until they are kicked out, and set up house and catacomb Churches that had images. the problem for Calvin is that the use of icons goes back to the Apostles. so to say iconography is wrong is to say that they were wrong.

    there were none that said anything. what we know is that the OT makes a distinction between graven images that are worshiped in of themselves, and holy images that visually aide man in the worship of the True God, and are thus respected (venerated).

    neither, it's whatever Tradition (which St Paul tells us to maintain, both written and oral) that is consistent with what was deposited at Pentecost in its totality.
     
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