Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Defense of the Holy Icons (Part VI - Dangers of Idolatry)

Previous installment: Part V (Necessity of Veneration)


Before we close this essay, it seems worthwhile to take note of the dangers of excess which can lead us to idolatry, as icons can certainly be made into idols. In part, it may have been some of the abuses and perversions related to iconography in the Middle Ages that inspired Emperor Leo III the Isaurian to launch the Byzantine iconoclast controversy in the first place. For example, there are accounts which indicate that icons may have served as godparents at baptisms on multiple occassions.53


Such abuses and perversions are, as stated, idolatrous; their possibility does not, however, preclude the display and veneration of the Holy Icons altogether, as some iconoclasts would aver. On the contrary, iconoclasts are just as capable of falling into idolatry as are iconodules (that is, those who venerate the Holy Icons). In fact, it may be somewhat easier for an iconoclast to fall into idolatry as he is much more susceptible to the danger of making a false image of God, most likely created in his own image, whereas for the iconodule an image is already present. All the iconodule must do is make certain that he doesn't turn this image into an idol.


Of all the senses, sight is perhaps the most used by and more important to human beings. Images are natural to us. Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation, wrote:


I am convinced that it is God's will that we should hear and learn what He has done, especially what Christ suffered. But when I hear these things and meditate upon them, I find it impossible not to picture them in my heart. Whether I want to or not, when I hear of Christ, a human form hanging upon a cross rises up in my heart: just as I see my natural face reflected when I look into water.8


This not only makes the iconoclast's position an inconsistent one, as he places a ban on external images but knows himself incapable of stopping the natural rising up of images in his mind, but also makes it more difficult for him to avoid idolatry. In the Orthodox Christian iconographic tradition, creativity and imagination are strongly discouraged; an iconographer's goal is essentially to copy previous images and, in the few cases in which news ones are needed, to stick as closely to traditional guidelines of color, symbolism, style, etc. as possible. Insofar as he departs from these standards, his quality as an iconographer decreases. In short, iconography is the art of imitation, not innovation.54 Iconoclasts, on the other hand, having no traditional image to which to look, are forced to create their own image fresh each time, allowing for the creation of a great variety of false images and the danger of worshiping a false god; this is idolatry.


The Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in the city of Nicaea in 787, in finally giving the Church's official endorsement to iconography in opposition to the Byzantine iconoclasts, was careful with its language and its stipulations on two particularly important points. Here is the relevant portion of the Decree of the Holy Seventh Ecumenical Council:55


We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence, not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented. For thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which from one end of the earth to the other hath received the Gospel, is strengthened. Thus we follow Paul, who spake in Christ, and the whole divine Apostolic company and the holy Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received.


Note the two portions I have placed in boldface.


First, notice the list of figures which the Council gives permission to depict, namely, Christ, the Theotokos, Angels, Saints, and “pious people.” The Council does not give permission to attempt to depict the divine essence of God (that is, the inner workings of the Trinity) nor the Father and the Holy Spirit. The only Person of the Trinity who can be depicted directly is the Son, the Word of God who became flesh, because He is the only one who has revealed an Image of Himself.


The second portion I have bolded is unequivocal; it is even more unequivocal in the original Greek. The veneration shown to the Holy Icons is not the same as the worship given to the divine nature. You may recall St. John of Damascus' words cited earlier in this essay (section IV):


I do not venerate the matter, but I venerate the Creator of matter, who became matter for me, who condescended to live in matter, and who, through matter accomplished my salvation; and I do not cease to respect the matter through which my salvation is accomplished.45


The Icon itself is not to be confused with the person or Person who is depicted on the Icon. To return to our earlier illustration (section V), this would be the equivalent of preferring a photograph of your wife to actually being with your wife! Or, worse, confusing a photograph of your wife for actually being your wife!


Next installment: Part VII (Conclusion)



Notes

8 "I have myself heard those who oppose pictures, read from my German Bible. . . . But this contains many pictures of God, of the angels, of men, and of animals, especially in the Revelation of St. John, in the books of Moses, and in the book of Joshua. We therefore kindly beg these fanaties to permit us also to paint these pictures on the wall that they may be remembered and better understood, inasmuch as they can harm as little on the walls as in books. Would to God that I could persuade those who can afford it to paint the whole Bible on their houses, inside and outside, so that all might see ; this would indeed be a Christian work. For I am convinced that it is God's will that we should hear and learn what He has done, especially what Christ suffered. But when I hear these things and meditate upon them, I find it impossible not to picture them in my heart. Whether I want to or not, when I hear of Christ, a human form hanging upon a cross rises up in my heart: just as I see my natural face reflected when I look into water. Now if it is not sinful for me to have Christ's picture in my heart, why should it be sinful to have it before my eyes?" Martin Luther, quoted in Ohl pp. 88-89.

45 St. John of Damascus, Apology Against Those Who Decry the Holy Images, Part I.

53 Avenarius, Alexander. The Byzantine Struggle over the Icon: on the Problem of Eastern European Symbolism. Bratislava: Academic Electronic, 2005. pg. 32.

54 "'Imitate; Don't Innovate': Safeguarding the Integrity of the Orthodox Faith."Orthodox Christian Information Center Home Page. Web. 30 June 2010. .

55 “The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church,” trans H. R. Percival, in NPNF2, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, (repr. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), XIV, p. 549

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