A brief overview on the second Nicene Council can be found here and here. So what? What can we, as Christians, learn from a debate that seems to have been settled a good 1200 years ago?
The Second Council of Nicaea -- Part III of III
“You shall worship the Lord your God in spirit and in truth.” John 4:24 (ESV)
Although the second Nicene Council decided, in 787 A.D, that the veneration of sacred images and relics was orthodox, the debate was far from resolved. Iconoclasts continued to agitate in the Eastern empire for the next hundred years, further weakening the empire's political integrity. And images increased the division between the Eastern and Western churches; although the Eastern Orthodox Church eventually decided in favor of images, they disagreed with the Roman Catholic church's use of carved images.
In Europe, the most outspoken opponents of the Council's decision came from the Frankish, or early French, church. In 790, Frankish bishops writing for Charlemagne published Quattuor Libri Carolini in response to Nicaea II's decision. Any form of devotion or reverence directed toward images, the Quattuor Libri claimed, was superstitious and idolatrous. Unlike earlier iconoclasts, however, Charlemagne's book admitted a legitimate place for images, as “adornment” in churches and to instruct or recall Christian history.
By the late Middle Ages, however, the Roman Catholic church had entirely embraced Nicaea II's reverence of images. As devotion to saints and to Mary increased, so did devotion to relics and images; just as the iconoclasts feared, many images came to be viewed as sacred or imbued with power in themselves.
This worship of saints and images deeply offended more radical Reformers, including Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and John Knox. In fact, in 1549 Jean du Tillet – a French bishop and friend of Calvin – returned to the debate when he published the first printed edition of Quattuor Libri Carolini.
The Roman Catholic Church reaffirmed its injunction to worship saints and their relics and images in the 1563 Council of Trent, stating that the
“images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints, are to be had and retained . . . and due honor and veneration are to be given them; not that any divinity, or virtue, is believed to be in them; or that anything is to be asked of them; or that trust is to be reposed in images, as was of old done by the Gentiles, who placed their hope in idols; but because the honor which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent; in such wise that by the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head, and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ, and we venerate the saints, whose similitude they bear; as by the decrees of Councils, and especially of the second Synod of Nicaea, has been defined against the opponents of images.”
The Reformers stoutly maintained Christ alone was to be adored, and His intercession was alone sufficient for believers. Calvin addressed the issue at length in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin used Scripture to argue that God forbids human beings to create images of Himself, sculptural or otherwise, because He would thus necessarily be “represented falsely and with an insult to His majesty” (Vol I., xi.4).
Furthermore, Calvin argued, the human mind is so permeated with sin that it is naturally inclined to create an idol out of any representation of God or a god. The golden calf of the Israelites and the statues of the pagan nations all evidence man's disinclination to trust in the presence and providence of an invisible, all-powerful God. Idolatry is man's attempt to make a god “in his own image.”
Calvin did see a place for painting and sculpture to create instructive, morally uplifting images. However, he saw no place for them in worship. Using images to instruct the mind or emotions about God, as Nicaea II had directed, would yield a false understanding of God's nature.
“I confess, as the matter stands, that today there are not a few who are unable to do without such (images to teach them),” Calvin admitted. “But,” he continued, the unlearned believers' dependence on images is “because they are defrauded of that doctrine which alone was fit to instruct them.”
Calvin contended that we truly see Christ and His work not in pictures or statues, but “by the true preaching of the gospel” (I.xi.9). This was the heart of the Reformation – the “true preaching of the gospel,” making the word of God accessible to every Christian.
The Reformation put God's own representation of Himself in the hands of believers, in their own language. The glorious story of redemption needed no physical images to captivate their thoughts, seize their imaginations, and overwhelm their emotions with response to God's holiness and astonishing love.
For most Protestant denominations, the question of sacred images was decided during the Reformation. The issues informing that old debate, however, are very relevant, and we encourage readers to ponder a few thoughts after considering the decision of the second Council of Nicaea.
First of all, our knowledge of God must come from Scripture. We cannot rely on the thoughts that we “feel” must be true about God – we must first of all trust what He says about Himself.
Secondly, it is not appropriate to worship God in any way that “feels right” or moves our emotions in a positive way. As Calvin pointed out, sin makes even our best intentions an occasion for idolatry. Our worship, too, much be directed by what God Himself, through Scripture, tells us is acceptable. This principle is difficult but vital to apply. Our God is not “like us,” a being able to be contained or explained by anything human beings create, and to misrepresent Him is a fearful thing.
Finally, Christ's sacrifice is always acceptable. We can always approach God, in “fear and trembling” of His holiness, but also in confidence, knowing that we need no other access, no other mediation. God Himself, in the person of Christ, intercedes for us.
He (Christ) is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature
(Hebrews 1:3, ESV)
It was late in the year 787. The seventh great ecumenical council, called by the Byzantine empress Irene to address the legitimacy of sacred images in worship, was holding its fourth session. Attending were officials from the Western church, bearing the support of Pope Hadrian, as well as over 350 Eastern Orthodox bishops. Several bishops who had earlier participated in the iconoclastic Council of Constantinople, thirty years before, recanted their iconoclastic beliefs; they affirmed their support of the veneration of images and appealed to the forgiveness of Christ and the intercession of Mary and the saints. So far all attendees had been unanimous in their support of the images; today, the Council turned its attention to arguments against images. In the fourth session, they read aloud the determinations published by the Council of Constantinople. According to the iconoclastic Council, “the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation – namely the Incarnation of Christ.” Creating or venerating images of Christ was a wordless profession of the heresies of Nestorius and Arius, always a misrepresentation of His divine and human nature. More than that, venerating images of Mary or the saints was “a perpetuation of pagan idolatry.” The iconoclastic Council cited numerous Scriptures, including Exodus 20:2-6, numerous Old Testament passages against idolatry, and God's decree that His worshipers “worship ... in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). The Nicaean Council responded by referencing the images God commanded to be placed in the Jewish temple, especially the carved cherubim (e.g. Exodus 25). Images in themselves were not heretical, they argued: it was false worship that was anathema. The Council agreed that images of Christ in particular were the most perfect depiction of “the profundity of the abasement of the incarnate God for our sakes.” In fact, the Council argued less from Scripture than from the images' undeniable emotional force. They appealed to the support of early Church fathers, including a sermon in which St. Gregory Nyssen described a painting of the sacrifice of Isaac he could never view “without tears.” John, a representative of the Eastern church, pointed out that if an image could move an educated divine so powerfully, how much more useful it would be to instruct and move “ignorant and simple” believers. Most Christians in the ninth century were illiterate, unable to read the Scriptures or even, in Europe, able to understand the Latin preaching of their shepherds. Like previous councils, Nicaea II was concerned at its heart with defending the true nature and worship of Christ. Images themselves were never to be worshiped; instead, honoring images provided a priceless aid to the knowledge and emotions of believers. One by one, attendant bishops affirmed their faith with the words of the Nicene Creed, saluting Christ as the only savior of His people from the worship of false gods. Only “the incarnate God . . . went in and out among us, and cast out the names of idols from the earth, as it was written. But we salute the voices of the Lord and of his Apostles through which we have been taught to honor in the first place her who is properly and truly the Mother of God and exalted above all the heavenly powers; also the holy and angelic powers; and the blessed and altogether lauded Apostles, and the glorious Prophets and the triumphant Martyrs which fought for Christ, . . . and all holy men; and to seek for their intercessions . . . “Moreover,” the Council concluded, “we salute the image of the life-giving Cross, and the holy relics of the Saints; and we receive the holy and venerable images: and we salute them, and we embrace them, according to the ancient traditions of the holy Catholic Church of God. . . . Likewise also the images of the holy and incorporeal Angels, who as men appeared to the just. Likewise also the figures and effigies of the divine and all-lauded Apostles, also of the God-speaking Prophets and of the struggling Martyrs and of holy men. So that through their representations we may be able to be led back in memory and recollection to the prototype, and have a share in the holiness of some one of them.” Veneration of images continued to spread both in the Eastern and Western churches. The debate was not finished, however: there continued to be opposition to the images from within the church. Join us next week as we look at the Reformation's response to the use of images in worship.
For lack of anything else to post, here is the first of three articles i'm working on for our local paper. Our church in Troy has been running a series of articles on church history, specifically the history of the great ecumenical Councils that hammered out the nature of Christ and other essential Christian doctrines. Why even bother to inform yourself? The first article, by R.B. Tolar, addresses that very question. The entire "Soli Deo Gloria" series is archived here.
The seventh ecumenical Council, the second Council held in Nicaea, was convened in 787 AD to address the question of sacred images--two- and three-dimensional depictions of Christ, Mary, the saints and early martyrs--and their place in worship.
Y'all, it is HARD to write a 500word paper that says much of anything.
The Second Council of Nicaea: Part 1 of 3
“I am the LORD your God ... You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God ...” (Exodus 20:2-6, ESV)
As the history of the Church progressed, images of Christ, Mary, and early saints and martyrs became more and more important in Christian worship. Paintings and sculptures became tools to teach unlettered believers – in the vast majority! – to remind them of saints' and martyrs' faith, and to rouse emotions to increase their faith and devotion. Christians in Western Europe and in the East prayed in front of images, kissed them, and lit candles in front of them. Through images, believers could encounter holiness in a form they could see and touch. Just like the relics of the saints, local churches cherished certain images, looking to them for protection, healing, and blessing.
Church “doctors” were careful to point out that sacred images were aids to devotion; those who honored them were not worshiping or praying to the images themselves, but to Christ or the saints whom they could not see in the flesh. Practically, however, many less-educated worshipers drew no distinction between worship inspired by images and worship of images. Opponents of images, called iconoclasts – Greek for “image-breakers” – called the growing devotion to images nothing less than “idolatry under the appearance of Christianity” (Council of Constantinople, AD 754).
The iconoclasts and the image-lovers both accepted the six great Councils' declarations about Christ's nature and about the different kinds of reverence due to God, Mary, and the saints. What divided them was a violent difference about how it was appropriate to experience holiness. One of the great defenders of images, the hymn-writer John of Damascus, defended images of Christ as the most immediate and moving way to appreciate the both the fact and the implications of the Incarnation. Iconoclasts adopted a stringent interpretation of the commandment against images, viewing any attempt to depict divine nature as blasphemy. They pointed to Muslim military victories in the Holy Land as proof that God supported Islam's strict prohibition of representational art: Christian cities were defeated because God was judging the Church for idolatry.
Rulers' personal beliefs led to the ascendancy of iconoclastic laws in the Byzantine empire. In AD 754, Emperor Leo III called a council in Constantinople to establish firm doctrine about sacred images. Around 350 church leaders met to discuss Scriptures and apostolic tradition. They unanimously agreed that “the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation – namely the Incarnation of Christ.” Any image depicting Christ was blasphemy, bound to misrepresent His divine and human natures; any image of Mary or the saints was no different than pagan idolatry. Only the Lord's Supper, instituted by Christ Himself, was an acceptable representation of His nature.
Leo III implemented the Council's decision immediately and violently. Images were seized from churches and abbeys and destroyed; mosaics were painted over and replaced with blank walls or a simple cross. While the rulers of the Empire and their soldiers supported the Council's attitude toward images, however, most common worshipers and the lower ranks of the clergy grew to love the sacred images even more strongly.
Throughout the eighth century the debate continued. When Leo III's son, Leo IV, died, his widow Irene assumed the regency for her son Constantine. The Empress Irene was an ambitious, ruthless ruler who did everything possible to increase her power—including an attempt to blind her own son when he grew older. Her support of icons was probably informed by political factors. Whatever her reasons, Irene called another ecumenical Council to reexamine the question of images. Iconoclastic forces broke up a meeting in Constantinople; the following year, AD 787, she called for a meeting in Nicaea. 350 bishops – including many who had participated in the earlier iconoclastic Council, as well as representatives from Pope Hadrian – assembled to denounce iconoclasticism and the Council of Constantinople, and to issue a ruling to define and support the use of images in Christian worship.
Next week: the second Council of Nicaea, its discussions and its conclusions.