Soli Deo Gloria: For the Glory of God Alone
Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011 3:04 pm
The Messenger, March 24, 2011
Second Council of Nicaea: Part 2
By EMILY PRITZEL
Special to The Messenger
“He (Christ) is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” Hebrews 1:3a (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 participated in the iconoclastic Council of Constantinople, 30 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. They read aloud the determinations published by the Council of Constantinople: “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 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.
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. Join us next week as we look at the Reformation’s response to the use of images in worship.