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 The Holy Icons were displayed and venerated in Christian churches throughout the world for almost 700 years before anybody raised a voice of opposition against them, a significant point of fact in itself.35  Some time between the years 726 and 730, however, the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Leo III the Isaurian ordered the removal of an Icon of Christ which had hung prominently over one of the main gates to the city of Constantinople, the imperial capitol. In a subsequent decree issued shortly after, he forbade the veneration of the Holy Icons altogether, although still allowing for the veneration of symbols such as the Cross.36

Christians throughout the Roman Empire and well beyond its borders reacted with shock and outrage at the Emperor's unprecedented move. St. Germanos I resigned his position as Patriarch of Constantinople. St. Gregory III, Pope of Rome at the time, held two synods in Rome condemning Leo and his actions. In some parts of the Empire, there were riots and even popular uprisings, often led by the monks, which group unanimously opposed Leo's attempted “reforms” of the Christian Faith. The ensuing chaos and Christian infighting continued for over an hundred years. However, as interesting as the history of the Byzantine iconoclast controversy is, it is not within our purview here to examine the events in detail; that topic has been excellently treated in very many other places.37 What matters to us are the arguments that each side used to support their position; many of these arguments are the same that today's iconoclasts continue to use.

It is not precisely known what motivated Emperor Leo to begin issuing his edicts against the Holy Icons. Some historians have posited that the Emperor may have been influenced by Islam, a strictly iconoclastic religion which was quickly rising in power and which the Emperor had encountered firsthand during his battles with the Islamic Ummayad Caliphate.38 Another likely motivating factor was the Emperor's apparent search for reasons why God's wrath had fallen upon the Empire in the form of Muslim victories and recent natural disasters; images seemed to him an obvious answer.39  The most obvious reason and the most widely cited by the iconoclasts themselves, though, was a strict and literal interpretation of the Second Commandment, which states (see Exodus 20:4-6 and Deuteronomy 5:8-10):   "You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments."40

The strict and literal interpretation of these verses of Scripture lays at the heart of and has been the key point in all movements of Christian iconoclasm, including the the original iconoclasm of the Byzantines, that of the Protestant Reformers, and that of modern iconoclasts.

The immediate problem with such a strict and literal interpretation, however, is that Scripture itself does not interpret this as a prohibition of images in a strict and literal sense. Where the Second Commandment occurs in the book of Exodus, for instance, God says only a few chapters later (Exodus 26:1):  "Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains woven of fine linen thread, and blue and purple and scarlet yarn; with artistic designs of cherubim you shall weave them."

And in another verse previous to that, God even associates his own presence with images (Exodus 25:22):  "And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, of all things which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel".

Clearly, Scripture can and does distinguish between an idol and an icon, just as the early Christians and Jews we encountered earlier did. Few, if any, Christians interpret the Sixth Commandment, which forbids murder, so strictly.41 Nearly all Christians accept that Scripture distinguishes here between murder and killing, forbidding the former while allowing for the latter in some limited circumstances; this is especially true in the light of later verses in which God directly orders the killing of certain groups and individuals.42  Why, then, if Protestants can allow for a distinction here between murder and killing in the light of later verses, do they refuse to allow for a distinction between idols and icons in the Second Commandment in the light of later verses allowing for and even ordering the production of religious images? This inconsistency smacks of hypocrisy and is indicative of certain readers interpreting their own presuppositions into the text rather than allowing the text to speak for itself.

And the text of Scripture certainly does interpret itself on this matter. Speaking to the people and repeating much of the Second Commandment to them, the Prophet Moses explains why it is that they are forbidden to make an image of God (Deuteronomy 4:1115-18):   "And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice. ...Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth."

According to the Prophet Moses, then, the reason that the Hebrews were ordered not to make an image is because they saw no image. They were unable to make an image of God because God was as yet unseen and even unseeable, and therefore undepicted and undepictable. However, approximately 2000 years ago, a remarkable event occurred which changed all of this: the Incarnation; in the words of the Holy Apostle John (Gospel of John 1:14):   "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."

God became man in the Person of Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. And, in becoming man, he took on all the properties of mankind, becoming like us in all things.43 Amongst the properties common to humankind is to have form and to be depictable; Christ, therefore, took upon himself the ability to be depicted in an image. We are no longer in the situation of the Hebrews in the Book of Deuteronomy who had only “heard the sound of the words, but saw no form;” we have now “beheld His glory.”

The truth of the Incarnation is fatal to any attempt at Christian iconoclasm and, necessarily, iconoclasts have traditionally, and dangerously, downplayed or altogether ignored it and its implications. The father of Protestant iconoclasm, John Calvin, for instance, wrote against images as if he were totally unfamiliar with the Incarnation of the Lord:

Therefore it remains that only those things are to be sculptured or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing: let not God's majesty, which is far above the perception of the eyes, be debased through unseemly representations.44

St. John of Damascus (ca. 646-749), one of the most important defenders of the Holy Icons during the Byzantine controversy, noted this betrayal of the prime truth of Christianity amongst the iconoclasts of his day and rightly declared:  "In times past, God, without body and form, could in no way be represented. But now, since God has appeared in flesh and lived among men, I can depict that which is visible of God. 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

One of the truly remarkable features of all iconoclastic movements, no matter which location or century, is their inevitable lack of emphasis on the Incarnation and resulting pseudo-Eutychian Christology, often approaching very close to outright docetism.46 A suitable example of this can be read in a short treatise forged by the 8th century Byzantine iconoclasts in the name of the 4thcentury Bishop and Church Father St. Epiphanius of Salamis: "I have heard it said that some people have ordered that the incomprehensible Son of God be represented: to hear and believe such a blasphemy makes one shiver.  How can anyone say that God, incomprehensible, inexpressible, ungraspable by the mind, and uncircumscribable, can be represented, him whom Moses could not look at?  Some people say that since the Word of God became perfect man born from the ever-virgin Mary, we can represent him as man. Did the Word become flesh so that you could represent by your hand the Incomprehensible One by whom all things were made?"47

The author here is apparently even aware of the Orthodox counter-argument formulated by St. John of Damascus and yet, rather than attempt to provide a decent answer to it, he simply ignores it and repeats the same thing he had said previously but with different phrasing, completely sidestepping the logical flaw in his own argument. If the Word of God “became perfect man born from the ever-virgin Mary” he took on all of the aspects of what it means to be a man, as we discussed above. Men are comprehensible, expressible, graspable by the mind, and circumscribable, therefore the Word of God, in order to be perfect man, had taken on comprehensibility, expressibility, graspability, and circumscribability. If he did not, then he did not become perfect man, which conclusion places us firmly in the camp of the docetists.

An argument to the same end which the Orthodox theologians and Church Fathers who fought against the Byzantine iconoclasts did not have at hand is the question of whether a photograph of Christ would have been permissible had the technology existed during his earthly sojourn. If not, the iconoclast must answer the question of “why?” Would it have been physically possible? If not, then Christ must not have been fully human, therefore not perfect man. Would it have been permissible by the laws of God? If not, then different rules must apply to Christ's humanity than apply to ours, making his humanity unlike our own instead of “like [us] in every way,”43 and so not real humanity at all.

Each time without exception that iconoclasm has cropped up within Christendom, its followers have found themselves dangerously close to denying or at least minimizing the most central truth claim of Christianity, the Incarnation, and, resultantly, placing themselves within or startlingly close to the realm of docetism. The Holy Icons are a necessary safeguard of the most central doctrines of Christianity and to deny them causes a subtle but monumental alteration in Christology and theology as a natural implication. In the words of one historian, Richard Chenevix Trench, himself in fact a Protestant clergyman (Anglican, to be specific), commenting on the end of the Byzantine iconoclast controversy:

Had the Iconoclasts triumphed, when their work showed itself at last in its true colours, it would have proved to be the triumph, not of faith in an invisible God, but of frivolous unbelief in an incarnate Saviour.48

The Kontakion49 for the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy (celebrated on the first Sunday of Lent), the commemoration of the restoration of the Holy Icons to the churches following the conclusion of the Byzantine iconoclast controversy, succinctly summarizes the Orthodox argument against the docetism of the iconoclasts:

No one could describe the Word of the Father;
but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos, He accepted to be described,
and restored the fallen image to its former beauty.
We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.





35 Until fairly recently, it has been a common supposition that St. Epiphanius of Salamis (ca. AD 310-403) and Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. AD 263-339) were, in some sense, “proto-iconoclasts.” This thesis, though, has been sufficiently addressed and dismissed by Bigham, Steven. Epiphanius of Salamis, Doctor of Iconoclasm?: Deconstruction of a Myth. Rollinsford, N.H.: Orthodox Research Institute, 2008. However, even if we permit two dissenting voices, which we nonetheless do not, the honest response is that it doesn't matter. In the famous words of Aristotle (Nicomacaean Ethics, Book 1, Chapter 7), “one swallow does not make a summer.” The point is that even if there were several dissenting voices in the early Church, which we have yet to discover, their trickle of difference is drowned out by the roaring river of the rest of Christendom. They are also unimportant in having had no large or lasting effect; either they were ignored entirely or, more likely, they didn't exist.

36 Treadgold, Warren T. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ., 2000.

37 For a concise but informative history, see chapter 9, “Iconoclasm,” in Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Knopf, 1997.

38 Von Grunebaum, G.E. "Byzantine Iconoclasm and the Influence of the Islamic Environment." History of Religions 2.1 (1962): pp. 1-10.

39 See the Chronicle of St. Theophanes the Confessor, in English translation: Turtledove, Harry (tr.). The Chronicle of Theophanes: an English Translation of Anni Mundi 6095-6305 (A.D. 602-813). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1982.

40 All quotations of Scripture contained in this essay are taken from the New King James Version (NKJV).

41 According to Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17, “You shall not murder.” This Commandment is traditionally number as the Sixth in the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments) by Orthodox Christians, Jews, and most Protestants, while Roman Catholics and Lutherans number it as the Fifth Commandment.

42 See, for instance, 1 Samuel 15:2-3.

43 Hebrews 2:17

44 Institutes 1.11.12

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

46 Eutyches (ca. AD 380-456), the founder of the heresy known as Monophysitism (mono [one] + physis [nature] = one nature [of Christ]). He posited that Christ's human nature had been “swallowed up like a drop of honey in the sea” of his divine nature, thereby denying the full humanity of Christ. Eutyches' flawed Christology was condemned by the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in AD 451. Docetism is a very early Christian heresy (late 1st/early 2ndcentury) which posited that Christ only appeared to be human but was not so in reality, being instead totally divine. Docetism was condemned by the early Christians even in the New Testament (see, for instance, 2 John 1:7).

47 For the full text of the iconoclastic treatise falsely attributed to St. Epiphanius as well as a cogent argument as to why this attribution can safely be ruled as false, see Bigham, Steven. Epiphanius of Salamis, Doctor of Iconoclasm?: Deconstruction of a Myth. Rollinsford, N.H.: Orthodox Research Institute, 2008.

48 (Trench. Mediaeval History, Chap. vii.) “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. 575, cf. 547f.

49 A specific type of hymn used in the Orthodox Church to commemorate a Saint or feast.

50 "OCA - Troparion and Kontakion." The Orthodox Church in America .


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Article posted in English on: 21-1-2015.

Last Update:  21-1-2015.