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The use of sacred images in Christian worship. (The 3rd of 5 posts on Iconoclasm)

6 October 2010


(What follows is the second part of a five part series on Iconoclasm. The first part can be found here. And the second part can be found here.) 

John’s three articles against those who attack the holy Images which are grouped together and entitled “On the Defense of Icons”, became the most important arguments in favor of icon veneration. The first was probably composed immediately after the decree of Leo III the Isaurian against images, in 730. Before he wrote the second, he was most likely ordained a priest. The third treatise is a recapitulation of the arguments used in the other two. These three treatises were disseminated with the utmost activity throughout Christianity. The crisis would continue for long after John’s death, but his works lived on as strong assaults on the iconoclasts arguments. 

John of Damascus writes in, On the Divine Images, against people who attack the divine images. He presents the position of the iconodules as being the position of Orthodox Christianity. In it, he supports divine images on matters of practicality, Holy Scripture, theology, and authority. 

He first insists that images of Jesus Christ are especially helpful to the Church. John recognizes the power of images to teach the faith to those who are illiterate. He understands the enduring power of symbols to both communicate and inspire action. He knows the difficulty in teaching truths that cannot be seen with the eyes and recognizes the ability of images to give form or shape to that which would otherwise appear to most as formless or shapeless. Indeed, he suggests that the central tenet of Christian belief, the Trinity, frequently needs symbolic depiction precisely because of its seeming obscurity. Beauty is capable of illuminating truth. This is an early development of the Church’s willingness to people where they are, to speak to them using their own abilities and ways of understanding things. The loss of the icons would have limited the ability of the Church to make its teachings known. 

Concerning the matter of Holy Scripture, John addresses a central issue in the debate, namely, the second commandment’s limitation on graven images. He rejects a narrow or superficial reading of the prohibition. Considering the whole of the Hebrew Bible in light of the Spirit, John notices that the Jews did shape images of various objects and creatures, notably a bronze serpent lifted up in the desert, and cherubim fashioned by human hands that overshadowed the mercy seat. 

This seemingly contradictory practice of the Hebrew people points towards John’s argument that the prohibition was for idolatrous images: the lifting of created matter to the rank of Creator. John also notes the historical context in which the prohibition was given. He saw biblical Israel as predisposed to idol worship and thus unprepared for the proper use of divine imagery. He writes that the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament, the reception of the fullness of Revelation in Christ, has overtaken the old ban on images. The Jews should not have drawn an image of something that they could not see- i.e. God the Father, who only showed Moses his back. But Christians are those who have seen God in the Flesh, in the Second Person of Jesus Christ and so are now able to depict him for the spiritual benefit of others. 

Saint John Damascene.

John then draws out further the distinction in veneration when discussing theology. The worship of natural elements as gods is idolatrous to him. He also separates the veneration owed to the saints and the adoration properly given only to God. The way to be certain that the cult of saints never becomes idolatry is by recognizing the saints as servants of God. They are to be shown respect only in their appropriation of Christian virtue. He defends images of Christ, the Virgin Mary or the saints as a memory of the victory of those holy ones over Satan. 

To John, the reality of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, permits images of Christ to be used by the Church. If Christ humbled himself to take on matter, then surely the use of matter to keep his image before us was acceptable. John limited this to Christ, so writing that the invisible God, the Father in heaven, should not be depicted. John was clear and strong about the possible influence of Gnostic or Manichaean beliefs on iconoclasts. He saw a similarity between their disdain for created matter and the iconoclastic treatment of created images. 

The issue of authority is a central issue in John’s writing. John shows that the unwritten tradition of the Church and the works of the great fathers are also valid sources of the church’s authority. There is much unwritten teaching that is handed down from generation to generation in the church. He also points out that the former holy things, such as the tent and everything therein, were made by hands. Therefore, he grants authority on the unwritten divine images, and insists that no one can deny that they were venerated. And so, he criticizes images of the pagans because the pagans used them in a foul way, granting it the worship due to God alone. He describes that the pagans make images of demons which they address as gods, but we make images of the one true God who became incarnate. 

John’s treatise, On the Divine Images, was against those who attacked the divine images. Then as now many political leaders made theological decisions on the basis of political considerations. In 8th century Byzantium it was about Iconoclasm, in 21st century United States it may be about which protestant church or televangelist a political candidate embraces or repudiates. Several Byzantine emperors, especially the iconoclast Emperor Leo III, were the same. Islamic influence probably had a lot to do with why the emperors forbade and condemned the use of images. The power of Muslims was very strong and growing, and Muslims had a strong teaching against any physical representation. Also, the emperors might have wished to curb the power of the monks, who were almost unanimously in favor of images. Hence, the iconodules should defend their position not only theologically, but also practically and politically. John of Damascus insisted on the validity of the divine images and supported divine images on matters of practicality, theology, and authority. In the last part of his writing, he emphasized the tradition and authority of the church to resist paganism and authority contrary to it‘s tradition. 

. . . I’ll continue tomorrow. 

One Comment leave one →
  1. ivanovich200 permalink
    6 September 2011 9:55 am

    Так что здесь в нашей церкви, мы также используем изображения Христа и святых, но мы не поклоняться им как Бога. Мы честь им и помнить о них, потому что они герои нашей веры. Мы не молиться им, мы не склонятся к ним, мы всегда с нетерпением им напоминают нам о том, что Бог всегда с нами вдохновлять нас и помогают нам, чтобы мы никогда не забудем нашего христианского наследия. Ранних христиан сделал фотографии Христа и святых, и поэтому мы. Если вы считаете, что мы принадлежим к одной, Святой, католической и Апостольской веры, мы сохранять и поддерживать святых традиций, которые был вынесен нам ранних христиан и не просто верить в неправильные толкования Библии. Благослови тебя Господь.

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