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In 726, Emperor Leo’s order to destroy the image of Christ at the imperial palace provoked a riot, and a long and virulent controversy engulfed the Eastern church. Not until the Empress Irene called the second council of Nicea in 787 was the issue settled in favor of images. Even then, a revival of iconoclasm followed and only in 843 was the turmoil finally ended by Patriarch Methodius, an occasion marked thereafter as the Feast of Orthodoxy. The controversy was savagely violent. Monks were publicly lashed to death or had their nostrils slit; one was torn to pieces by a mob, while Patriarch Constantine of Constantinople was publicly beheaded. The papacy was forced to ally with the Franks, rather than the East, for iconoclasm was alien to the West.

What caused these convulsions? In the previous century, images were increasingly seen as windows to the spiritual world; icons of Christ and the saints became objects of devotion, actively promoted by the church. The Quinisext Council of 692 decreed that Christ was to be depicted in human form “so that we may perceive through it the depth of the humiliation of God.” Leontius of Neapolis saw images of Christ as an extension — a reenactment — of the incarnation.

The iconoclasts objected. Emperor Constantine V argued that if an image pictures only Christ’s human nature, it severs his humanity from his person. If it portrays Christ in both natures, his deity is reduced to the level of humanity. The only real image of Christ is the one he gave us, the Eucharist. He called a council in 754 that condemned images as blaspheming the incarnation.

When Empress Irene came to de facto power, she called a council in 787. It ordered the restoration of images, since they showed the incarnation was real. Images were to be given “honorable reverence, not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains only to the divine nature…for the honor 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.” The council anathematized any who equated images with idols.

The council aroused opposition from the newly powerful Frankish Kingdom. Charles the Great had the Libri Carolini drawn up, which argued that only God can be adored; the principle that veneration is given to the image because of its relationship to the original is false and misleads simple people. These books rejected both the iconoclast council of 754 and the iconodule (those in support of icons) Nicaea II; Empress Irene had no right to teach men or call a council. However, the iconoclasts failed to appreciate the iconodule distinction between latreia (worship, adoration) and proskunesis (veneration of images). Latin had but one word, adoro, to translate both terms; it seemed to imply idolatrous worship.

To this day, the most prominent feature in an Eastern Orthodox church is the iconostasis, a tall screen across the whole room, towards the front. The iconostasis divides the sanctuary — the area behind it — from the congregation. Only the clergy can enter the sanctuary; no woman can go in. It symbolizes the divine world. The nave, where the congregation stands, is the image of the human world and all that is in it. Although divided by the iconostasis, these two are considered parts of one whole, the meeting place of heaven and earth. On the iconostasis itself — standing between heaven and earth — are several levels of icons, representing a great cloud of witnesses, pointing to the church opening out to eternity.

The theology of icons. From 726–730, John of Damascus emerged as the chief iconodule theologian. He carefully distinguishes between adoration (latreia) — due to God alone — and veneration (proskunesis) in its various degrees, a sign of the subordination and lowliness of the venerator. John insists that we worship only God.

John argues that an image of the invisible God would be serious error, but that an image of the incarnate God is different, for Christ assumed human flesh. Christians, he said, do not live under the old covenant, which prohibited images, but under the new age of grace. Man himself is the image of God. To argue that images are impermissible, according to John, is to say that matter is evil. Sacred images are means of instruction in the faith, memorials of Christian lives, incitements to lead a good life, and channels of grace by their sacramental power. The Son is the identical image of the invisible God; man’s created nature is a copy of God’s, the uncreated; the creation dimly reflects the divine.

The whole world is iconic. An image, John writes, is a likeness of the thing imaged, but there is also a dissimilarity between the image and the original since they are different things. We need images, John argues, since we are physical beings for whom the spiritual world is a mystery. Icons provide a window into this world, a help on the path of salvation. God is by nature bodiless. But according to John He gave us likenesses and images according to the analogy of our bodily nature. This entails a conception of the cosmos as semiotic, in which man, straddling the earthly and spiritual, is enabled to grasp invisible, spiritual reality through visible signs.

Before this, Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, had argued that the visible revelation of God in creation is superior to verbal revelation, since he thought language inherently ambiguous and so inappropriate to describe God. On the other hand, creation positively indicates his existence. Thus, the issue of icons points to deeper and far-reaching questions concerning God’s revelation.

Issues at stake. The East agrees that worship of images was prohibited in the old covenant but claims that images were objects of veneration. If all images were forbidden, they argue, there could have been no cherubim over the mercy seat and the ark of the covenant.

The incarnation has changed the picture momentously. God the Son has taken human nature, including a body, into permanent personal union. God now has permanent, visible, human form. The incarnation, according to the Eastern Orthodox, not only justifies icons but mandates them; to contend otherwise is to question the reality of the incarnation, implying that the Son’s humanity is not permanently and eternally real. It also supposes that the spiritual and material are in opposition.

The iconoclasts, for their part, insisted that icons were idolatrous and were forbidden by the second commandment. Indeed, they claimed that the loss of the eastern territories to Islam was God’s judgment for idolatry.

Reformed concerns. Reformed Christians have a number of problems with icons, chiefly their placement in the context of worship as the most prominent visual element in the church. This at best creates ambiguity. Secondly, the crucial point concerns icons of Christ. The Westminster Larger Catechism, question 109, opposes icons of the Trinity and — by extension — of Christ, since Christ is the eternal Son incarnate. However, the proof texts refer to Israel’s worship of false gods by means of material objects, a context different than Eastern iconography. Moreover, the Catechism does not reject icons of the saints, since these are not connected with worship.

According to the Eastern Orthodox, icons of Christ are not merely permitted — they are mandated by the incarnation. To oppose images of Christ is to deny the reality of the incarnation; His humanity would not be real but only apparent — the heresy of docetism. However, to make an icon of Christ is to abstract His humanity from His person (the eternal Son), and so to fall into Nestorianism. Here the Eastern Orthodox, who vehemently deny Nestorianism, argue that the person of God the Word in the flesh appears on the image and that this is not a depiction of God, since the Word is visible as man. Moreover, there is a likeness and a difference between the image and what it represents, evident in that icons are held to convey human nature transfigured with divine beauty. The icon is not a representation of the Deity, but indicates the participation of a given person in divine life.

Where We Agree. Reformed theology believes in icons too. The idea of image (eikôn) is a biblical category — man made in the image of God, Christ the image of the invisible God. However, beyond this, everything is iconic for the Reformed. God has imprinted evidence of His own beauty and glory throughout creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1–2).

What Calvinism did was to enable a this-worldly appreciation of beauty. By eliminating art and sculpture from church worship, it drove it into the world, placing the aesthetic in the context of general revelation, as the witness to God in the world rather than as the focus of the worship of God in the church. The result was the enormous flowering of creativity in post-Reformation culture, centering not on the supernatural realm of angels and demons, but on the world around reflecting the glory and beauty of God.