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 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.
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. 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