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Distinguishing between the "created" and the "Uncreated" and the Theology of the Icon

Introduction to the works of Saint John of Damascus,

“To the vilifiers of holy icons, three homilies”

By Michael Mavroforakis

Homily No.157 - Transcript of a radio broadcast by the Church of Piraeus – from the series of radio broadcasts titled “ Orthodoxy and Heresy”, by “Biblical B” and collaborators.

Dear listeners, greetings!

In today’s program we will continue discussing the topic that we began last time; and specifically, we shall examine the matter regarding the holy Icons.

1. Introduction to the empirical Theology of the Icon

We have already mentioned in our previous broadcast that the guide text we will be using and studying for this topic is “To the vilifiers of the holy icons, three homilies by Saint John of Damascus”.

Today we shall continue, by commenting on these texts as an opening, but also on the clime as well as the prerequisites that existed for this topic.

We noted in the previous broadcast that Orthodox Theology (as a charismatic function of the Church) is first of all empirical and realistic. And to use the term used by Saint Gregory Palamas (that major Father and Theologian of our Church), “the function of the Church is evidential”. That is, in Orthodoxy, “theology” is not perceived as a philosophical contemplation or ideological forms or personal subjective interpretations that originate from purely human thoughts.

Orthodox Theology contains the concept of experience. It contains the concept of “living the experience”, it contains the meaning of “revelation” (that is, of the knowledge provided by the Creator Himself, by God Himself).

Thus, Theology is evidential, because it is founded in Theognosy (knowledge of God), which is nothing more than the sighting of events, the experiencing of situations and Theopty (sighting of God).  And these are not merely views and perceptions; they are the very experience of the Church Herself, which is evident even in the very first writings of the Ecclesiastic authors - including the Apostles of course. But it is evident even later on, in the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaios and the others who directly interpreted a revelation by God as a revealing of Divine Glory in dramatic events, through Theophanies (manifestations of God). These Theophanies are a common experience of all the Saints of the Church, whether we are referring to the era of the Old Testament, or the era of the New Testament.

Therefore two basic consequences arise from the relation between the Uncreated divine Energies and all the creatures (all of Creation).

The first is that Theognosy (Knowledge of God) as something empirical or as “experience” takes place charismatically through the prophets and the saints, either through a direct and immediate sighting of the divine energies, or through events, with forms, with symbols, with the mysteries (Sacraments) and with images within natural and historical reality.

The second consequence is that this Theognosy, which leads to salvation and to the perfection of all of creation – both the one we can see with our physical eyes, but also the one that we can’t perceive with our senses; that is, both the tangible as well as the spiritually understood one, is not static or fossilized. It is not simply an element of the past; it is in fact realized during a dynamic and creative progression.

Theophanies (divine manifestations) comprise the central core of History overall – the entire course of history of Israel. The interpretation of Orthodox Theology is based precisely on these Manifestations which take place within Creation at a historical point in time.

Thus, the incarnation of the Logos was easily and naturally regarded as an organic continuity of the history of the Theophanies of the Old Testament.  Consequently, the partaking (methexis) in the Divine Glory - as this Glory reveals itself - does not take place only with a direct sighting of it, but also with the specific imprint of the Energies, during in the natural and historical reality and in the activities of worship and the Mysteries of the Church. That is because worship, with its mysteries are actual Theophanies within tangible and specific activities.

Besides, even those who in a direct manner see Divine Glory (that is, the Prophets and the Saints), see images - as clearly mentioned in Saint John of Damascus’ works, as we shall ascertain in the forthcoming broadcasts. Likewise in the 7th Ecumenical Synod, with its mention that “the prophets saw God in virtual images”.

Thus, even centuries before the appearance of the Iconomachy and its argument that visual representations were “idols”, John the Evangelist had already written that “Isaiah had seen the Glory of Christ”; in its fight against the Judaic and idolatrous concepts, Orthodox Theology had interpreted God’s manifestations in the Old Testament’s occurrences as “theophanies” (manifestations of God) or “photophanies” (manifestations of the Light); as “Theopties” (sightings of God) and experiences of very specific events – in symbols, forms and types. Even the fleshless presence of the Logos (the endemic Logos, as referred to by Saint Maximus the Confessor), is historical and is portrayed in forms and in virtual representations brightly illuminated. Consequently Orthodox Theology as life and experience – but even as a scientific description of the products of that experience - is linked to the vision and the sight of a reality. And it is precisely within that cadre that iconography is also placed. 

2. Distinguishing between created and Uncreated in Orthodox Theology

Let’s now proceed to clarify certain points that we mentioned above; first and foremost, about the relation between the Uncreated Creator and Creation.

This relation - between the Uncreated Creator God and all creations, from the tiniest stone (we could say) to a spiritual angel, always through the Uncreated Energies - imposes the ineffable union of the physical and the metaphysical within Creation and History.

God alone is the absolute truth and benevolence. All of Creation, all of created reality partakes of that truth and benevolence, progressively. The truth is imprinted within this progressive course, which is why there is an organic relation between the “form” and the “truth”.

In Orthodox Theology the “form” is not a vacant thing. It is not without contents – in any phase of the history of Divine Providence. Nor is it a simple depiction, but is rather a precedent phase in which the truth is dynamically realized – and always in relation to whatever takes place in the future. All of History is continuous, uniform and organic. Thus, the history of The Old Testament is the “form” of the events of the New Testament, while the world of The New Testament is the “form” of the future.

From the aforementioned, one can easily perceive that within all creations, their created status and their relativity play a leading role; things become upgraded between themselves as they interact. For example, when comparing the soul to the body, the soul is bodiless and immaterial.  But compared to God it is corporeal and material. The same applies for an angel, as clearly stated by Saint John of Damascus in his positions on the matter: Only God is actually immaterial, being the “Uncreated” One.

As such, the basic distinction according to Orthodox Theology is not between the tangible and the intelligible; the material and the spiritual; the visible and the invisible; the body and the soul; but between the created and the Uncreated.  Only God is literally immaterial and intelligible. All of Creation has the same created essence, which is differentiated by degrees and receptivity.  Thus, for example, when divine Energy is dominant - as a perfecting and deifying energy – all beings are linked to it, according to their material, schematic, virtual and intelligible dependencies. For example a stone becomes a substance “in the image of”, whereas the creation that is “in the image and in the likeness of God” does not only become a substance; it also becomes perfected when deified, given that it possesses the analogous receptivity.

This relation between energies and creations when judged and viewed from a philosophical and scientific aspect introduces a truly revolutionary world theory and a radical anthropology.  There are no idols any more; no “substances and archetypes” that determine things and relations. There are only “activated occurrences”. Not only is man unable to become acquainted with God’s essence (because that is man’s borderline state, his limitation), but also with the essence of His creations.  Thus, man’s relations are all based on activated occurrences and events.

At any rate, we have already seen in previous broadcasts these discernments between the state of being created (Creation) and the Uncreated Creator, but also the borderline state of man and of everything created that seeks to know the essence of the Uncreated Creator, when examining Saint Basil the Great’s discourses against the heretical Eunomios.

Creation overall, therefore, cannot be confused with the divine essence, nor can any part of it be rendered a god, like an idol. It merely partakes of the Divine Energies, according to its “being” and its “well being”. It continuously becomes something, and that something can lapse, given that nothing absolute exists. Only God is absolute and indescribable. But an image describes the boundaries and the progress of every created reality. The description and the depiction of the fleshless and incarnated presence of the Logos pertain to created beings and not to the Divine Nature. It is through forms and images that “methexis” (partaking) takes place in the uncreated Divine Energies and in the sighting of those Energies.

Therefore, meanings, forms and every kind of depiction are linked to what Theology calls “prototypes”. That is exactly how every notion of “idolatry” is dismantled, given that Creation (as mentioned previously) has nothing absolute but on the contrary is characterized by the aforementioned relativity of things.  Icons, therefore cannot constitute “idols” for Orthodox Theology in any manner, because they too comprise part of Creation, and everything created is at an infinite distance from the Uncreated Creator.

Every kind of depiction of persons and events throughout the history of Divine Providence preserves the memory of the Ecclesiastic community. The community thus experiences History, as well as the same truth and perpetually refers to that truth and to the “methexis” of Divine Energies.  Depictions do not pertain to any idol, but to life, to the truth and to actual achievements.  That is why the icon is linked to a lasting triumph within the bosom of natural and of historical reality, as described in an excellent manner by Saint John of Damascus in his discourses that we shall examine further along.

3. The incompatibility between Neoplatonism and Orthodoxy

At this point we should note that Orthodox Theology of the icon is intensely Anti-Manichaic. And this is evident in Saint John of Damascus’ polemics, also in Saint Theodore the Studite’s, but is also evident in the decisions of the 7th Ecumenical Council. One can easily see that the arguments by the defenders of holy icons have no essential dependence on Neoplatonic models. Unfortunately however, the researchers who have paradoxically accepted this dependence are not few. These researchers seem to be misinterpreting the much discussed position of the Orthodox, on the link between “the depiction and the original”. But this link – per its content – in no way is regarded Neoplatonically.

The original and the “surmise” according to Neoplatonic is one thing, and the “icon” of the Orthodox is another, with regard to the Uncreated Divine Energies where we have the uniting of the physical and the metaphysical in a reality that is continously changing.

The “surmises” according to Neoplatonic philosophy are simple figures of unintelligent matter. They are stamps and imprints on shapeless and disposable matter. But in Biblical and Orthodox Theology there exists the world of the created in all its gradations: material-bodily, intelligible-bodiless, which, in relation with the energy nexus of the Uncreated Triadic God is reformed, perfected and depicted, on this perfecting course.

The transition of the icon to the original that it portrays signifies perfection and brightening on the one hand, and on the other hand, an “expression” and a representation of this transformational course. As such, it is impossible for one to detect any Manichaic and Neoplatonic models.

4. The intertwining of created and Uncreated “in the light”

According to the Orthodox Theology, God is light, and everything lives, moves, develops and becomes perfected in relation to their receptivity, through illumination. This precise Theology is persuasively and overwhelmingly expressed by Orthodox iconography; thus, the study of Orthodox Theology is linked to the study of iconography.

The innovative style of Byzantine painting, with its illumination of faces and objects, highlights the unity and the fullness of every reality. Everything exists and is elevated because it partakes of the light directly, and itself becomes a luminous form. Matter and light can be seen as functionally intertwined.

In Byzantine iconography one will not see shades in the colours, or perspectives, or vagueness, and no intensity whatsoever between light and dark. Light calmly illuminates the portrayed topic that exists and is being elevated; in this instance, Orthodox hagiographers who live the dogma in the life of the Church triumph with the description of that which the intertwining of the physical and the metaphysical.  The veneration of icons as an act of honouring the persons and the salvific events depicted on them presupposes participation in the corpus of Ecclesiastic life. 

An icon displays the light and the illumination, thus exhorting us towards the aforementioned participation. An icon is not only the book of the illiterate, but also a grand reminder of the Theological truth. That is precisely why the depiction of the persons, objects and events cannot be a naturalistic one, nor outside of an illuminated and transformed reality. Thus, the Theology of Byzantine iconography is simultaneously the Theology of light. Signs of the transformed reality are imprinted in the icon on the tangible forms, given that there is nothing of Creation that is omitted from the salvific and Divine Energies.

This is the truth expressed by Orthodox iconography and by extension all of Byzantine art. Finally, all of Creation - according to the gradation of its receptivity – preserved and transformed in this relation between creation and Creator.

5. Theological extensions of Orthodox Theology on created-Uncreated and imagery.

It is well known (but will become more apparent in our firthcimg broadcasts also, where we will analytically examine the matter of holy icons from within the discourses of Saint John of Damascus), that Orthodox iconography is based on the Christological dogma.

But because it has repeatedly been emphasized by Saint John of Damascus and the others that the Logos was incarnated, the depiction of Christ and the Holy Trinity is absolutely legitimate, inasmuch as the Logos is the One Who reveals the Trinity. Nevertheless, the supporters of icons did not merely base themselves solely on the incarnation, and of course the dogmatic Condition of the Council of Chalcedon. Orthodox Theology developed Christology, by placing the Theophanies of the Old Testament as its starting point.

The Logos indwells in the patriarchs, in Moses and in the prophets, but fleshlessly. Thus, depiction is legitimate and possible, because this kind of revelation - in forms, in types and in virtual representations – applies to historical events. The fleshless and the incarnated presence of the Logos is found in the same, uniform temporal dimension.

The Christology of the Church was rejected from the very beginning by the heretical Docetists of the 1st century, who were confronted firstly by Saint John the Evangelist.  These Gnostics did not accept any possibility of God having relations with matter, and had accepted the incarnation as a “seeming” one, and how one “thinks it is”. One such Docetist could never accept a depiction that refers to a relationship of Creation with the uncreated Divine Energies and also denotes the progressive transformation of created beings.

The heretics of the 5th century – on whose account the dogmatic condition of Chalcedon was drafted - appear to initially have overcome the Docetists’ difficulties, in that they do not regard the incarnation as a seeming one. But, while they have kicked out Docetism “through the door”, they have introduced it (or perhaps because they cannot reject it) “through the window”.  They are now discussing “how” the incarnation took place or “how” humankind and godhood were joined in the one hypostasis of the Logos, and they end up in a camouflaged Docetism, and every iconography of persons and salvific events is now problematic.

Nestorians and Monophysites remove nature, History and the flesh from the history and the transforming grace of God.  The former (Nestorians) with their theory regarding hypostases – or, more precisely, about “the two sons” – the man Jesus and the Son Logos, who are joined with the uniform bearer of willing accord, and not with the union of the two natures in essence. And in that manner they guide the interpretation of salvation precariously towards moralism.

The latter (Monophysites), by eliminating human nature can effortlessly reject even the incarnation. And all this signifies that Theology ceases to be theopty – the sighting of the Light – in the specific relationship between created and Uncreated.  But Orthodox Theology is clear: patriarchs, prophets, apostles, saints, friends of God – every one of them without exception – savour the sight of God from within their gifted body. This signifies the bonding of physical and metaphysical – historical reality.  It is within this historical reality that theopty, savoring, experiencing, meanings, symbols, forms, icons and activities take place. And it is within this precise dimension that Orthodox iconography sprouts from.

All that we have said previously one could locate –so to speak- in the Three Discourses on Icons by Saint John of Damascus, which we intend to study analytically in the forthcoming broadcasts.  We shall study them from within the edition of the Philosophical and Theological library - from which we had drawn introductory comments for this broadcast also.


Translation :  E.M.

Article published in English on: 23-6-2018.

Last update:  23-6-2018.