The First Commandment clearly forbids graven images, so wouldn’t images of Christ be considered idolatry? Fortunately, the church had an ecumenical council that resolved this matter over 1,200 years ago. The TL;DR of this article is that, at the Council of Nicaea II in AD 787, the church decreed that images of Christ are not idolatry since their usage is not for worship but veneration and, therefore, are permitted for use in churches and homes. What follows in this article is a basic historical overview of what precipitated the theological debate, the theological argument of both sides, and the final decision of the church.
Centuries before the Council of Nicaea II, the early church had already denounced graven images because they, too, were aware of the Old Testament Law’s forbidding of graven images. It wasn’t until around AD 200 that Christian art starting appearing and longer still until the 4th century that churches started to be filled with Christian art. It wasn’t until around the second half of the 4th century that Christian authors began speaking favourably of Christian art. Still, though, there was fierce opposition against religious images.
In the West, Eusebius of Caesarea (died ca. 340) argued these images ought to be forbidden because “any artificial image of Christ for Christ’s historical image, the form in which He underwent the humiliation of the Cross, has been superseded by His divine splendor, his humanity has been amalgamated with His divinity… Rather, Christians must look forward to that moment when we meet Him face to face in the glory of the age to come” (Davis, 292). Perhaps the greatest fault of Eusebius, however, is that his theology was undergirded by Origen’s Christology (ca. 184-253), who would later be condemned a heretic in the Council of Constantinople II in 553 for his Gnostic teachings.
Later, Pope Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) would commend sacred images since “they are a means of leading the illiterate to a knowledge of the truths of faith.” In a letter to a hermit, he wrote, “I know that you do not seek the image of our Savior that you may worship it as God, but by bringing to mind the Son of God you may keep warm in the love of Him whose image you desire to have before you. We bow before it not as before divinity but we worship Him of whom we are reminded by the picture that shows His birth or His throne” (Davis, 292-293).
The perspective of sacred images in the East, however, was entirely different than the West’s. Davis remarks, “Perhaps because of the insecurity of the times, people looked on the images as links to the realities of the spiritual world offering them help and protection. People longed more and more for the palpable presence of spiritual powers to cope with their anxiety. Images were moved from the walls of the churches into private homes where icons depicting Christ and the saints became objects of private devotion which escaped the direction of church authorities. With incense burning before them, they became the objects of ritual genuflections and prostrations” (p. 293).
By the late 600s, the church herself began to promote the use of sacred images for doctrinal reasons. For example, “In the eighty-second canon of the Quinisext Council of 692 it was decreed that Christ was not to be portrayed in merely symbolic form as a lamb but in human form, ‘so that we may perceive through it the depth of the humiliation of God the Word and be led to the remembrance of His life in the flesh, His passion and His death, and of the redemption which it brought to the world'” (Davis, 294).
Kitzinger comments that by this time, “‘the image had begun to be thought of not simply as a reminder of the Incarnation, but as an organic part, an extension, or even a re-enactment thereof. Slowly concepts had begun to evolve whereby the Byzantine religious image was to become a means of demonstrating the Incarnation not merely as past history but as a living and perpetual presence. The role of the image ceased to be purely didactic and was in the process of becoming sacramental like the Sacrifice of the Mass'” (Davis, 295). This thinking still persists in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which as Lutherans we do not confess. We maintain only the didactic and reverent function of sacred icons.
As support for sacred images rose, it would be Emperor Leo III who began his campaign of iconoclasm in 726. However, despite the Christological reasoning of the aforementioned theologians, Leo’s iconoclasm was not for Christological reasons but purely because it encouraged idolatry. Yet he faced theological opposition.
Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople based his argument on Christ’s incarnation: “In eternal memory of the life in the flesh of Our Lord Jesus Christ, of His passion, of His saving death and the redemption of the world, which result from them, we have received the tradition of representing Him in His human form, that is, His visible theophany, understanding that in this way, we exalt the humiliation of God’s Word.” It is permissible, Germanus argues, to make an image of the “‘only Son who is in the bosom of the Father’ because He ‘deigned to become man.’ It is not the image of the ‘incomprehensible and immortal Godhead’ that the Christian artist represents but the image of his human character testifying by this that God ‘really became man in all things,’ sin alone excepted… Just as the image represents the reality of the human in Christ, so it represents the reality of our faith: ‘For since we consist of flesh and blood, we are impelled to confirm by sight what we are wholly convinced of in the soul'” (Davis, 297; emphasis mine).
Back in the West, Pope Gregory II was also opposed to Leo’s iconoclasm, who write to the emperor: “You know that the dogmas of holy church are not the concern of emperors but of pontiffs, who ought to teach securely. The pontiffs who preside over the church do not meddle in affairs of state, and likewise the emperors ought not to meddle in ecclesiastical affairs” (Davis, 297).
John of Damascus (675-749) was perhaps the most powerful opponent of iconoclasm:
Between 726 and 730 he wrote three important works defending the veneration of sacred images. Basic to his defense is the Christological argument: “If we made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error, but we do nothing of the sort, for we are not in error if we make the image of the incarnate God, who appeared on earth in the flesh, and who, in his ineffable goodness, lived with human beings and assumed the nature, quantity, shape and color of flesh.’
…John argues that Christians no longer live under the Old Law with its limitations but in the new age of grace in which the tradition of the Church authorizes sacred images. Images are found everywhere: in God exists the image of the world which He creates; the world and humankind are the images of God. To argue that something merely material should not be honored is to fall into Manicheism, conceiving matter as evil.
The body and blood of Christ, His cross, the liturgical vessels, all material, can be the objects of honor and reverence. Yet certain distinctions must be made: adoration in the strict sense must be rendered only to God, but veneration is paid to persons and things of special dignity and excellence. Among things venerable are the sacred images which are means of instruction in the truths of faith, memorials of the triumphs of Christian lives, incitements to lead a good life.Davis, 298-299; emphasis mine.
Where we as Lutherans disagree with John of Damascus, however, is his assertion that these sacred images have “sacramental power” (Davis, 299). Unlike the three sacraments we maintain, sacred images lack Jesus’ explicit command and institution. Neither do they distribute God’s grace as is promised in Absolution, Baptism, and the Eucharist.
Leo responded with a silentium in January 730, which outlawed sacred images. When both Germanus and Pope Gregory II refused to sign the edict, Emperor Leo III “now began the systematic destruction of sacred images; only the Cross was approved as a sacred image” (Davis, 299). In 731, Pope Gregory II died and was succeeded by Pope Gregory III, who “convoked a synod at Rome” and “excommunicated all those who, despising the ancient custom of the Church, refused to venerate the sacred images and blasphemed, destroyed or profaned them” (Davis, 299-300). Thus, the Eastern and Western Church revitalised their schism.
After Leo III’s death in 740, he was succeeded by his son, Constantine V, who was arguably a greater opponent to icons. There was still heavy opposition against iconoclasm, however:
Artabasius, governor general of the Armenian province, rose in rebellion supported by the orthodox party opposed to iconoclasm. While Constantine in hiding began to rally his troops, Artabasius was crowned by the Patriarch Anastasius and began the restoration of the images. But within a year Constantine routed the usurper and regained Constantinople where he paraded Artabasius blinded along with his sons and had the treasonous Patriarch Anastasius flogged and seated backwards on a donkey. The emperor geared up iconoclasm once again, destroy icons and plastering over the art on church walls. Only the Cross, scenes of hunting, circus events or gardens full of birds and animals were permitted.Davis, 300
During his reign, Constantine wrote and circulated a doctrinal statement that was, unlike his father Leo, Christological. He argued: “If an image of Christ pictures only his human nature it severs that nature from the divine nature and is a false image of Christ [and therefore idolatry as well]. Any attempt to picture both natures, human and divine, in an image, is an attempt to reduce the divine to limits, to circumscribe the divine, something which is impossible. The conclusion is that Christ cannot be pictured. The only real image of Christ is the one which He Himself gave us, the true image not made by hands, the Holy Eucharist” (Davis, 301-302).
Yet Constantine V was still not content. So, he convened the Council of Hieria on February 10, 754. He claimed the council to be ecumenical, which is far from the truth since he did not allow either Patriarch, the Pope, or the Pope’s legates to attend. This is what the Council of Hieria decided:
…the bishops observed that it was Satan who first tempted humans to worship creatures instead of God, but that the Mosaic Law and the prophets undid this ruinous course. In order to save humankind God sent His Son who turned us from the worship of idols to the worship of God “in spirit and in truth.” The message of Christ left with the Apostles has been preserved in the Church by the Fathers and the six ecumenical councils. The faithful emperors impelled by the Holy Spirit have summoned the bishops that in council they might institute “a scriptural examination into the deceitful coloring of the pictures which draws down the spirit of man from the lofty adoration of God to the low and material adoration of the creature…”
In accordance with decrees of the six previous ecumenical councils and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the bishops declared: “we found that the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation—namely the Incarnation of Christ, and contradicted the six holy synods. These condemned Nestorius because he divided the one Son and Word of God into two sons, and on the other side, Arius, Dioscurus, Eutyches, and Severus because they maintained a mingling of the two natures of the one Christ.”
…One who makes an image and calls it Christ—a name signifying God and man—foolishly attempts to depict the Godhead which cannot be represented and mingles what should not be mingled. He is therefore guilty of a double blasphemy. One who argues that in depicting Christ he is representing only the flesh of Christ, is attempting to separate that flesh from God the Word and is guilty of Nestorianism. …The only admissible figure of the humanity of Christ, they argued, “is bread and wine in the holy supper. This and no other form, this and no other type, has he chosen to represent his Incarnation.”Davis, 302-303.
Thus, at least for a while, iconoclasm became the teaching of the church. As always, though, there was still opposition against iconoclasm. The aftermath following the decision of this “ecumenical” council was quite messy, which included the massive destruction of icons that quickly followed suit.
As Charlemagne rose to power (coronated AD 800), Pope Hadrian in 785 began arguing for the veneration of sacred images, basing his argument on the Scriptures and the writings of the Church Fathers. Leading up to this, Constantine V’s son, Leo IV, succeeded his father. After he died, his 10-year-old son Constantine VI succeeded, whose mother Irene seized power, thus becoming Empress. Arguing for the veneration of sacred images, Pope Hadrian wrote a letter to Empress-mother Irene demanding the condemnation of the Council of Hieria that took place 31 years earlier.
Eventually, the Council of Nicaea II took place on September 24, 787. After many lengthy deliberations from the Scriptures and patristic writings, it was decided at this second Council of Nicaea that sacred images could be used. Iconoclasts were also anathematisd. A letter was put together and sent to Irene and her pre-adolescent Emperor-son, Constantine VI, who approved the Council’s decision upon the letters reception. At the Council of Nicaea II, led by the Holy Spirit, the 258-335 bishops present, two papal legates, and the representatives of Antioch and Alexandria decided the following:
“To make our confession short, we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospels, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely phantastic…”
Following the authority of the Fathers and the traditions of the Church, in which the Holy Spirit dwells, the bishops defined “with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honorable Angels, of all the saints and of all pious people.
“For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honorable reverence, not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains only to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Books of the Gospels and to other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the images reveres in it the subject represented.”Davis, 309-310; emphases mine.
In short, at this Council the church, led by the Holy Spirit, decided that the veneration as merely reverence and not worship is permitted for use by the church and her people in their homes. Any iconoclasts who remain are thus anathematised.
So, there we have it. Sacred icons, including images of Christ, are not idolatry since the image itself is not being worshiped but, rather, the one whom the image is represented is merely venerated. As Lutherans, we subscribe to this ecumenical council and the six that preceded it. Therefore, to be confessional, one permits the use of sacred images in ecclesiastical and homely practice—again, not as worship, but merely veneration of the one whom it represents.
There was still much turmoil in the years following the Council of Nicaea II. The issue of sacred images was more than just the question on the physical portrayal of Jesus. Davis’ conclusion is noteworthy:
Theologically, the controversy was really an attempt to recover the meaning of Christ’s humanity. The old Antiochene Christology which had striven to do full justice to Christ’s human nature was in danger of being submerged beneath an exaggerated Cyrillian Christology in Monophysitism and Monothelitism. Imperial Iconoclasm tended to approach God only as an intelligibly apprehensible abstraction or to reduce the importance of Christ’s humanity to the thirty or so years He lived among us. But iconophil [pro-sacred images] theologians reasserted the permanent importance of Christ’s humanity. He is God become man and always remains so even when exalted to the Father’s right hand. Jesus, divine and human, was and is the way to the Father. The sacred images of Christ, portraying him as truly incarnate, truly reflecting their divine and human prototype, are a perpetual reminder of that fact.p. 319
Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990.