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.