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.