“He Has Become Visible for Us”: On the Christological Heresy of Iconoclasm and the Triumph of Orthodoxy

In the eighth century, there arose in the Christian East the new mania of iconomachia, an unprecedented movement in Church history characterized by its violent opposition to the ancient Christian custom of the veneration of icons of Christ, the saints, and the Mother of God. The rise of iconomachia constituted a decisive break with universal and apostolic tradition; indeed, replying to a letter from the iconoclastic Emperor Leo III, who had asked him why the six ecumenical councils held theretofore had said nothing about icons if their veneration was truly apostolic in origin, Pope Gregory II replied, “Do you not see that they … did not occupy themselves with that which is adopted and admitted by everyone?”1 The century of widespread iconoclasm was nothing short of a cultural revolution which took the Christian East by storm.

As with all such revolutions, the iconoclastic revolt can be interpreted according to many different lights and from a multiplicity of perspectives. For example, the sociological and historical angle suggests that Islam, Christianity’s principal rival in the East, with its stringent prohibition on the use of representative images in worship, might have exerted a gradual influence on the Eastern Churches, leading to the sudden and decisive break from their traditional iconodulia to fanatical iconomachia. No less a theologian and historian than Alexander Schmemann points to “the decision of the [Byzantine] authorities to reach a compromise with Islam”2 under Leo III as a historical cause of the iconoclasm which followed; in those days of the declining fortunes of the Byzantine Empire, many of the Christian faithful in the East were no doubt beginning to feel themselves inferior to their Muslim neighbors, “who presented themselves as the representatives of a purer religion.”3 Ordinary Christians may thus have been more susceptible to their claims that the worship of icons was to blame for their Empire’s apparently inexorable calcification and decline, “considered as the punishment of God for the idolatry of the people.”4 In this light, iconoclasm may have appeared as a progressive, reforming force, a movement to remove those falsifying corruptions which had accreted to Christian piety and restore Byzantine Christianity to the glorious purity of the apostolic faith. However, such analyses, while illuminating, must ultimately take second place to considerations of a theological and especially Christological nature, for the arguments employed by the iconoclasts to justify their radical position were ultimately founded on a misunderstanding or else misuse of the Christological teaching of Chalcedon on the natures of Christ. 

The Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, held in 451 AD—almost three centuries before the outbreak of iconoclasm—solemnly taught “that one and the same Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, must be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion or change, without division or separation.”5 This concise definition served to dispatch both the Nestorian and Monophysite heresies which had hitherto plagued the Church. On the one hand, Nestorianism, which had already been condemned twenty years earlier by the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, was definitively excluded by the Chalcedonian teaching that Christ is to be acknowledged “in two natures … without division or separation”; on the other hand, Monophysitism, that Christological overcorrection propounded by Eutyches and his disciples, was ruled out by the teaching that these natures are united in Him “without confusion or change.”6 As the definition of the Council explains, “The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one Person and one hypostasis.”7 This magisterial teaching on the hypostatic union of Christ’s human and divine natures, called the “Chalcedonian synthesis,” clarified definitively how Christ is to be understood at once as fully God and fully man.

Yet precisely this “christological problem [of the union of the two natures in the one divine person of the Word] was implied in all the discussions about images”8 of the iconoclastic period. The acts of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum of 754, the first official attempt to develop an adequate theological justification for iconoclasm, held that any iconographer who dares to make an image of Christ “either depicts the Godhead which cannot be depicted, and mingles it with the manhood (like the Monophysites), or he represents the body of Christ as not made divine and separate and as a person apart, like the Nestorians.”9 Consequently, the one who makes the image and the one who venerates it alike are held “guilty of a double blasphemy–the one in making an image of the Godhead, and the other by mingling the Godhead and manhood.”10 

St. John of Damascus, an early and ardent defender of orthodoxy against the iconoclasts, argued in the beginning of his first treatise in defense of the holy icons that the iconographer “represent[s] God, the Invisible One, not as invisible, but insofar as he has become visible for us by participation in flesh and blood … 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 [our] nature.”11 This argument is founded on a truly orthodox understanding of the synthesis of Chalcedon, which confirmed that the visible human nature, assumed by the divine person of the Word, “came together in one hypostasis”12 with his invisible divine nature. Icons of Christ, then, do not represent the invisible and indescribable Godhead, which the iconoclasts were surely right in condemning; “if someone dares make an image of the immaterial and incorporeal divinity, we repudiate him,” St. John himself wrote elsewhere.13 Rather, they represent “what is visible in God (θεοῦ τὸ ὁρώμενον),”14 namely, the humanity assumed by the Word, which is not mixed with His divine nature, but is hypostatically united to His divine person. Therefore, one who venerates an icon of Christ truly gives worship to God, that is, to the divine person of the Word, made visible in the humanity He assumed.

It is most interesting that both the iconoclastic and iconodulist arguments, summarized here in their strongest forms (as set forth by the iconoclastic council and by St. John Damascene, respectively), were presented in the language of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. The council taught that

when … [the iconographers] are blamed for undertaking to depict the divine nature of Christ, which should not be depicted, they take refuge in the excuse: We represent only the flesh of Christ which we have seen and handled. But that is a Nestorian error. For it should be considered that that flesh was also the flesh of God the Word, without any separation, perfectly assumed by the divine nature and made wholly divine. How could it now be separated and represented apart? … They fall into the abyss of impiety, since they separate the flesh from the Godhead, ascribe to it a subsistence of its own, a personality of its own, which they depict, and thus introduce a fourth person into the Trinity. Moreover, they represent as not being made divine, that which has been made divine by being assumed by the Godhead.15

Whether by malice or by ignorance, however, the would-be defenders of Chalcedon at this iconoclastic council were in grave error about what Chalcedon had taught. Their error may be seen plainly in the choice of words in the above quotation, that the humanity of Christ was “perfectly assumed by the divine nature and made wholly divine.16 This formulation “seems to ignore completely the main assertion that Chalcedon had borrowed from the Tome of Leo: ‘each nature preserves its own manner of being’ and ‘meets the other [nature] in the single hypostasis.’”17 For this reason, lacking “the conception of a properly hypostatic union, implying a real distinction between nature and hypostasis, and making possible the preservation of the natural characteristics of the divinity and of the humanity within a single or personal hypostatic existence,”18 iconoclastic Christology regards the divine nature, and not the divine person of the Word, as the subject of the union. They have failed to assimilate that crucial distinction between person and nature, hypostasis and substance. Thus also their conclusion that the iconodules must regard the assumed human nature of Christ as  “a subsistence of its own, a personality of its own,”19 confuses the terms of Chalcedon, mistaking the human nature—assumed and hypostatically united to the Word, yet remaining distinct from the divine nature—for “a fourth person [in] the Trinity.”20 This, however, does not follow from a truly orthodox interpretation of the Chalcedonian synthesis, which holds that the human and divine natures are united in the person of the Word “without confusion or change, without division or separation.”21 

In the end, then, “while formally accepting the decisions of the councils of Chalcedon and of Constantinople” and framing their arguments as a defense of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, “iconoclastic Christology places itself clearly on Monophysite or Monothelite positions.”22 The necessary corrective to iconoclasm was a full and orthodox appropriation of the teaching of Chalcedon, above all that “the human nature of Christ is precisely hypostatized in the Logos’ hypostasis, and it is the latter that is represented in the image,”23 which was provided by such valiant defenders of orthodoxy as John Damascene and Theodore of Studium. In the words of that latter saint, “every portrait is, in any case, the portrait of a hypostasis, and not of a nature,”24 for one can only see a nature insofar as it is made concrete and individual in a person. It is precisely for this reason that icons of Christ to this day are inscribed with the letters Ὁ Ὤν, “He who is,” the Greek translation of the Divine Name. The holy icons of Christ are icons of a divine person, God the Son, “the visible of the Father,”25 made visible to us in the human nature He assumed. Therefore, on the first Sunday of Great Lent, 842, the holy Synod of Constantinople formally condemned iconoclasm and restored the holy icons to their places of honor in their churches—a feast that is kept in perpetuity in the Eastern Churches as the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.


Footnotes

  1. Karl Joseph von Hefele, Histoire des conciles de l’Eglise, trans. Dom H. Leclerq (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1907),3:671-72, qtd. in Blagoy Tschiflianov, “The Iconoclastic Controversy—A Theological Perspective,” in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 38, nos. 1-4 (1993), 243.
  2. Alexander Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 200. 
  3. John Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975), 174.
  4. Tschiflianov, “The Iconoclastic Controversy,” 231. Cf. L. Brehier, “Sur un texte relatif au debut de la querelle iconoclast,” Echos d’Orient 37 (1938), 17-22. 
  5. H. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, 43rd edition, ed. Peter Hünermann (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), DS 148.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 177.
  9. “Epitome of the Definition of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum, Held in Constantinople, A.D. 754,” from The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, trans. H. R. Percival, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace (repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), XIV, pp 543-44, at Internet Modern History Sourcebook, 1996.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Qtd. in Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 179. Cf. Or. I, PG, 94, col. 1236 c.
  12. DS 148.
  13. Qtd. in Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 184. Cf. Or. III, col. 1332 b.
  14. Qtd. in Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 179. Cf. Or. I, col. 1245 a.
  15. “Epitome of the Definition of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum,” at Internet Modern History Sourcebook, 1996.
  16. Ibid. Emphases mine.
  17. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 181-2.
  18. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 182.
  19. “Epitome of the Definition of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum.”
  20. Ibid.
  21. DS 148.
  22. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 182.
  23. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 188.
  24. Qtd. in Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 188. Cf. Theodore Studite, Antirrh., III, col. 405 a. 
  25. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, IV, 6, trans. Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut, from Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885, at New Advent, http://newadvent.org.

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