Monday, March 24, 2008


Easter has now come and gone. Easter is one of the times when pictures of Jesus and icons of all sorts come out of the woodwork. So, it seems like a nice time to review the controversy surrounding the use of icons.

The early church was against pictures and representations of any of the trinity. Clement of Alexandria (2nd century) stated, “The habit of daily view lowers the dignity of the divine, which cannot be honored, but is only degraded by sensible material” (Schaff Church History Vol. 2. Pg. 267-268.) Symbols, not direct pictures, began to make their way into the churches as paganism gave way to Christianity. However, there was always a large segment of the Christian Church that rejected these things. In 306 the Spanish Council of Elvira forbade pictures in the churches. The cross became one of the first signs used and accepted in the church as a whole. It started as a clever way of combining Greek letters and became an accepted symbol allowed in churches. This was beginning as early as the late 2nd Century, but again with some great opposition. Even pictures of Mary barely date back to the 3rd century. And they were not wide spread at that time as the controversy of whether Mary should be called the Theotokos shows the opposition to Mary, and ironically led to the promotion of Mary and the making of images of her.

The crucifix (the cross with Jesus still hanging upon it) does not date back beyond the end of the 6th century, but is fairly prevalent by the end of the 7th. Pictures of Jesus were completely rejected by the early church. Even Eusebius (early fourth century) scolded Empress Constantia for asking for an image of Christ. This means real opposition to images must have been still remaining because Eusebius adored Constantine and his family. There are also stories of bishops in the early 5th century still tearing up pictures of Christ as contrary to the Scripture. In the middle of the 5th century we begin to see pictures of Christ. The Greek churches had long loved paintings of biblical scenes, but had not yet accepted physical representations of Christ. With the settlement of the Christological controversies and the rise of depictions of Mary, came with it the pictures of Christ, often in the arms of Mary as a babe. The suffering Christ with thorns on his head also became popular. A theology of images was slowly worked out in the East beginning in the mid-6th century. Despite growing acceptance in the East, it never did become as accepted as one might think now, since they often show up even in Protestant churches, and will overwhelm you in Catholic ones. The church suffered through long wars and debates about icons in the 8th century thanks to Leo III Emperor of Constantinople. He had immediate support from many bishops, and in fact many of them were iconoclasts long before Leo came to power. Asia Minor particular appears to have been a place were images of Christ were not accepted. Constantine of Nacolia, Thomas of Claudiopolis, and Theodosius of Ephesus were all against images (see Seven Ecumenical Councils by Davis. Pg. 296). It is true that during the official policy of destroying images there were many who supported the images. John of Damascus is foremost among the iconophils, and Pope Gregory III had a council of Rome that condemned those who opposed images. In addition the monks stood in favor of images because they often made them in their monastaires. If the images had been forbidden, their source of revenue would have dried up. In 754 the Council of Hieria met. Here 330 bishops signed a statement saying the only proper represenation of Jesus Christ is the Eucharist. This council is often forgotten and overlooked since it is later overthrown by Empress Irene in the Second Council of Nicaea, but there are 330 names attached to that document. Even after the restoration of images in 787, they were still opposed by a great number of churches, bishops and never received support. Even in the East opposition to icons remained. John the Grammarian, a future Patriarch, led renewed opposition to the icons, and the 754 statement became the official position of the church again briefly after another council in 815. Only in 843 were icons restored. It bears noting that both times the icons were restored it was done by an Empress, never an Emperor

Of course the West had a more immediate rejection of the 787 restoration of images. Under Charlemagne the Libri Carolini was written that rejected images, but also rejected their destruction. In 794 Charlemagne headed the Council of Frankfurt where the use of images was rejected. A position that would continue under Louis the Pious. Another council condemned the use of images at Aix-La-Chappel. Theodulf of Orleans appears to be one of the leading spokesman against images during this time. Theodulf clearly believed the use of images was dangerous and would led to errors Pictures and representations of Christ contained errors while the Scriptures did not. Theodulf saw no reason to use a fallible source when an infallible one was available. Agobard bishop of Lyons was also around at that time and he wrote a book against images as well. Slightly later, about 840, we run across another icon-hater, Claudius Archbishop of Turin. Turin hated the images and went on the rampage against them. Even some of those who opposed Claudius, such as Jonas Bishop of Orleans, merely liked the images as decorations, but opposed the Eastern Orthodox use of them. Later Roman bishops would try to trace the Waldenses (12th century) back to Clauidius because the Waldenses also rejected icons and the pope and many other things that Claudius rejected. Thus, the West has a long standing tradition of opposing images on the grounds of the 10 Commandments, the one person and two natures of Christ, and as something degrading to God and Scripture.

It is sad that today’s Protestant churches so openly accept the idea of pictures of Christ. The heritage of the church speaks against them. The early fathers are unanimously against them, and the church itself has never fully embraced pictures of Christ. That is until the last century when the Protestant Church unthinkingly decided to use pictures and images of Christ willy-nilly. Now few churches continue the historic church’s teaching against the use of icons. Something to remember next time you are faced with Easter images of Christ.


James Frank Solís said...

Kenneth Myers, in his book 'All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes' includes as part of his discussion of contemporary pop culture, some of the similarities between our own times and the times during which images became popular among Christians. Images are preferrable -- for some people -- because they discourage thought. And those church leaders increasingly had reason to discourage thought.

You mention modern protestants. Myers sees a connection: In our times there are those who prefer emoting to thinking, including Protestants. This preference is rooted in the desire of evangelicals, a generation or so ago, to cease being a "ghetto" culture and connect with the larger American culture. American culture likes rock-n-roll; so do evangelicals -- it's "Christian" rock, of course. Americans prefer images to thought; so do evangelicals -- but they are "Christian" images, of course (even "Christian" soap operas). You see where he's going.

The modern pre-occupation with images is no accident. Everything in the surrounding culture pushes images over thought. And it is the discouragement of thought we should be most concerned about, not simply the presence of images.

Lee said...

Good point. I think you just added another book to my 'Must Read' list.

James Frank Solís said...

I'm happy to help out where and when I can. :)