Thursday, June 22, 2023

The Iconoclast Controversy

The early church was very cautious with images. For example, the regional council of Elvira in Spain in 305 said, “Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration.” But over time, images came to be used more and more, and various practices developed. 

Beginning in 725, Byzantine emperors, who felt convicted that the worship of God by images was wrong, began to outlaw religious images of Christ and the saints. They and others who opposed the veneration of images became known as “iconoclasts.” They did not forbid all art (e.g. the emperor’s image), but argued against the use of images in religious worship on the basis of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-6) and also argued that “the only admissible figure of the humanity of Christ … is the bread and wine in the Holy Supper.” They said the other side was dividing the natures of Christ like Nestorians by portraying only one of his natures. The Council of Hieria (754) affirmed the iconoclast position and claimed to be an ecumenical council, though it failed to gain widespread recognition as such.

Those who defended the veneration of images claimed that the iconoclasts were secret Monophysites who denied the reality of Christ’s humanity. Those who venerated images also argued that the emperor was overreaching into the affairs of the church. They had their chance when emperor Leo IV died and his widow Irene became regent for her infant son. Irene favored the use of icons and a general council was called to resolve the matter. It met in Nicaea in 787, and so is known as Nicaea II. The council approved the veneration of icons, distinguished this worship (προσκύνησις) from the worship due God alone (λατρεία), forbade the appointment of bishops by the civil rulers, and ordered that in each province of the church a regular synod be held at least once a year. While its provisions for church government were good, its position on icons was unbiblical and out of accord with the earlier teachings and practice of the church (in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the second commandment uses these very words, προσκύνησις and λατρεία, and forbids them both with respect to images: “You shall not bow down to them or serve them…”).

Despite the the fact that the bishop of Rome assented to the council, the Frankish clergy in Charlemagne’s kingdom wrote against the image worship affirmed by the council. A council at Frankfort (794) allowed that images may be set up in churches as books of the illiterate but forbade their veneration and denounced Nicaea II. A synod in Paris (825) also denounced Nicaea II and reproved the Pope for assenting to the council. Northern Europe would not recognize Nicaea II as an ecumenical council until the 12th century, and opposition would return during the Reformation of the 16th century. Even in the east, Emperor Leo V revived iconoclasm in 813 and it was another mother regent who favored icons, Theodora, who would restore them in 843. After this, the veneration of icons would become a distinctive emphasis of Eastern Orthodox churches, one of several positions that distinguishes them from Reformed churches.

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