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Icondulism: Reaching Out and Touching God

Does the church speak infallibly? No, only Scripture is infallible. The church can make mistakes, even grievous ones. But in time the church will repent of those mistakes. And in time the branches of the church that won’t repent will be pruned and finally cut off.

  • Greg Uttinger,
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January/February 2009

Does the church speak infallibly? No, only Scripture is infallible. The church can make mistakes, even grievous ones. But in time the church will repent of those mistakes. And in time the branches of the church that won’t repent will be pruned and finally cut off.1

In A.D. 787, the Empress Irene convened a council of bishops at Nicea.2 It has generally been recognized as the “Seventh Ecumenical Council” of the ancient church. That council committed a grievous error, one that the churches of the Reformation rejected: it insisted on the veneration of images.


By the 700s, popular religion, especially in the East, had embraced the making and venerating of images. In theological terms, this was iconodulism, giving dula (veneration) to icons, pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the apostles, and the other saints.3 Practically speaking, the roots of this practice were in the older paganism. Once Christianity became a legal and politically popular religion, many nominal converts, sometimes men of great prominence, brought their attachment to religious images with them into the church. The images were justified as teaching tools, for most men and women were illiterate. Soon the images were seen as devotional aids, crude symbols for a crude, unlearned piety. In time the Eastern monasteries became insistent on their use and profited from their creation. Eastern theologians, too, defended their place in the orthodox faith.

Theological and philosophical considerations were also at work: compromises with Hellenistic philosophy, particularly Neoplatonism, allowed for a new spin on icons. Icons brought the transcendent down to man; form became incarnate in the blessed particulars, and man had divinity at his fingertips … a convenient thing for those in church and state who saw themselves as the vicars of Christ. More of this later.

The Iconoclastic Controversy Begins

Iconoclasm is the name theology gives to the willful destruction of icons on religious or political grounds. What we call the Iconoclastic Controversy began in the East early in the eighth century. It lasted more than a hundred years, and the results of that conflict eventually touched the entire church. They are still with us today.

Leo (III) the Isaurian was the first of the iconoclastic emperors. Leo came to the throne of Byzantium in 717 and had to deal almost immediately with Muslim forces at his gates. Leo stubbornly and effectively resisted the siege, employing his Bulgarian allies against the Muslim armies and chemical warfare (“Greek fire”) against their supporting fleet. Epidemics and violent storms battered the Muslim forces, and after twelve months they withdrew. Leo was able to turn his attention to civil and religious reform. The frightening eruption of the island volcano Thera in 726 may have spurred him on to deal immediately with the iconodulism, for he saw it as idolatry.4

Leo at first legislated only against the worship of images (A.D. 726): he insisted that the images be put up out of the reach of touch and kiss. But later he struck out against their use altogether. When the patriarch of Constantinople opposed his policies, Leo deposed him from office (730).

Why the Emperor Leo decided to open a campaign against them [icons] is not entirely clear and has been much debated. It is noted that he was not a Greek but was from the East and it has been suggested that, having been faced with the taunts of Moslems and Jews that Christians were idolaters, he wished to remove the ground for that charge and thus to facilitate winning the support of Moslems and Jews for the Empire … Leo is reported to have been moved as well by a desire to make the throne master of the Church, to reduce the power of the monks, and to eliminate the control of education by the Church … Some have seen in the iconoclastic movement primarily an effort at religious reform.5

R. J. Rushdoony emphasizes the political angle, and certainly it was not lacking.6 Kenneth Scott Latourette addresses it as well:

The contest was in part from the conviction of many churchmen and especially of monks that the Church should be independent of the state, at least in matters of faith and religious practice, and the equally determined purpose of the Emperors to assert their authority over the Church. Monks, who had separated themselves from the world, were particularly active in their opposition to the icon-forbidding Emperors. The Emperors may have wished to curb monasteries because the latter drew so many men from the service of the state and, tax-exempt, reduced the imperial revenues. The army often sided with the iconoclasts, apparently because it wished its head, the Emperor, to be supreme and to be reverenced without the rivalry of veneration for the icons.7

Rushdoony argues that the political conflict was fundamentally a manifestation of Neoplatonic theology.

Neo-Platonism infected both church and state. For ecclesiastical Neo-Platonism, the church as the realm of spirit, represented the higher order … For political Neo-Platonism, the state represents the logos or structure of being.8

Both church and state saw themselves as manifestations of Christ, as extensions of His Incarnation. And so each tried to sever the other from its claims to represent divine immanence: each tried to destroy the other’s icons.

There were thus two institutional incarnations in the world, church and state, and in both East and West there was a struggle on the part of both to limit the extent of the incarnation of the other. The iconoclastic controversy was the form the struggle took in the East. Both sides were iconodules, venerators of icons; the imperial party simply became iconoclastic with reference to the church.9

Pope Gregory II denounced Leo’s iconoclasm: he accused him of ignoring the councils and the Fathers and of casting a stumbling block before the weak, who needed the icons as props to their faith. Leo responded with an appeal to the silence of the first six ecumenical councils on the matter and with an assertion of his own authority in both church and state. “He threatened to destroy the image of St. Peter at Rome and to imprison the pope.”10 Gregory called together a Roman synod that pronounced excommunication against any who destroyed or removed icons (731). Leo retaliated by transferring the Greek bishoprics in Italy and Sicily to the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople. But the province of Ravenna would not cooperate, and Leo lost a fleet in his efforts to subdue it. Leo spent the last years of his life ending the Muslim threat to his empire.

The Iconoclast Council

Upon Leo’s death in 741, his young son Constantine came to the throne. He continued his father’s war against icons, writing on Christological grounds against their use. In 754 Constantine summoned a council to denounce iconodulism. It did so with these words:

Wherefore we thought it right, to shew forth with all accuracy, in our present definition the error of such as make and venerate these, for it is the unanimous doctrine of all the holy Fathers and of the six Ecumenical Synods, that no one may imagine any kind of separation or mingling in opposition to the unsearchable, unspeakable, and incomprehensible union of the two natures in the one hypostasis or person. What avails, then, the folly of the painter, who from sinful love of gain depicts that which should not be depicted—that is, with his polluted hands he tries to fashion that which should only be believed in the heart and confessed with the mouth? He makes an image and calls it Christ. The name Christ signifies God and man. Consequently it is an image of God and man, and consequently he has in his foolish mind, in his representation of the created flesh, depicted the Godhead which cannot be represented, and thus mingled what should not be mingled. Thus he is guilty of a double blasphemy—the one in making an image of the Godhead, and the other by mingling the Godhead and manhood. Those fall into the same blasphemy who venerate the image, and the same woe rests upon both, because they err with Arius, Dioscorus, and Eutyches, and with the heresy of the Acephali. When, however, they 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? …Whoever, then, makes 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.
The only admissible figure of the humanity of Christ, however, 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. Bread he ordered to be brought, but not a representation of the human form, so that idolatry might not arise. And as the body of Christ is made divine, so also this figure of the body of Christ, the bread, is made divine by the descent of the Holy Spirit; it becomes the divine body of Christ by the mediation of the priest who, separating the oblation from that which is common, sanctifies it …
Christianity has rejected the whole of heathenism, and so not merely heathen sacrifices, but also the heathen worship of images. The Saints live on eternally with God, although they have died. If anyone thinks to call them back again to life by a dead art, discovered by the heathen, he makes himself guilty of blasphemy. Who dares attempt with heathenish art to paint the Mother of God, who is exalted above all heavens and the Saints? It is not permitted to Christians, who have the hope of the resurrection, to imitate the customs of demon-worshippers, and to insult the Saints, who shine in so great glory, by common dead matter.11

The Council’s argument from orthodox Christology is weak, and its understanding of the Holy Supper as a continuance of the Incarnation is absolutely wrong. But the Council denounced the veneration of images as idolatry on the level of the older paganism.12 In this, at least, it is to be commended.

The Tide Turns

Constantine counted his council as the Seventh Ecumenical Council. But Constantinople had no patriarch at the time, and Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem were under Arab rule. The pope sent no representatives.

In 775 the throne passed to Leo IV, but his own premature death five years later left the Empire to his six-year-old son. The queen mother, Irene, assumed the regency and ran the Empire. She moved quickly to restore iconodulism. In 787 she convened a council at Nicea: the council not only declared icon worship to be orthodox, it declared it to be mandatory. Here is what the council wrote:

We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define 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 Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all 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 honoruable reverence … not indeed that true worship of faith … which pertains alone to the divine nature, but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented. For thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which from one end of the earth to the other hath received the Gospel, is strengthened …
Those, therefore who dare to think or teach otherwise, or as wicked heretics to spurn the traditions of the Church and to invent some novelty, or else to reject some of those things which the Church hath received (e.g., the Book of the Gospels, or the image of the cross, or the pictorial icons, or the holy reliques of a martyr), or evilly and sharply to devise anything subversive of the lawful traditions of the Catholic Church or to turn to common uses the sacred vessels or the venerable monastries, if they be Bishops or Clerics, we command that they be deposed; if religious or laics, that they be cut off from communion.13

The acclamation from the members of the Council is noteworthy:

We salute the venerable images. We place under anathema those who do not do this. Anathema to them who presume to apply to the venerable images the things said in the Holy Scripture about idols. Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images. Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols. Anathema to those who say that Christians resort to the sacred images as to gods. Anathema to those who say that any other delivered us from idols except Christ our God. Anathema to those who dare to say that at any time the Catholic Church received idols.14

Those who would not salute the icons were anathematized. “Orthodoxy” now required the veneration of images.15 But if Christ is in the image, the requirement is not without reason.

The Arguments of the Iconodules

Henry Chadwick summarizes the arguments of the iconodules as follows:

  1. We venerate not the icons but those whom they depict;
  2. Honour addressed to Christ’s servants the saints is relative, not an absolute worship;
  3. Icons are a necessary consequence of the invocation of saints;
  4. If value is ascribed to relics, why not also to icons?
  5. The second commandment was only temporary legislation;
  6. Icons aid devotions and are universally used.16

What shall we say to these things?

First, the argument that worship passes from the image to God Himself is the basic assumption of paganism. Few sophisticated pagans actually believed that the statues were gods. They were points of contact, means of communication, ways of reaching out and touching the divine. And it was in exactly this context of pagan thought that God forbade idols, whether they were images of false gods or images of Himself.

Second, though God allows us to bow in respect to other men—being the true image of God—He forbids us to treat them as divine, and He forbids us to bow to any image of them. Indeed, He forbids us to bow down to the image of any creature at all.

Third and fourth, icons, relics, and the invocation of saints do belong together. To Protestants, at least, this is an argument against the use of icons. They belong to the magic of pagan priestcraft, not to the gracious gospel of Jesus Christ.

Fifth, the second commandment is by its very nature eternal. God is transcendent and invisible in His essence (John 1:18). Though all of creation reflects something of His glory, He does not look like anything He has made (Isa. 40:18, 25; 46:5; Acts 17:29). Any attempt to portray Him in visible terms must necessarily misrepresent who He is. Any picture of God is, therefore, a lie (Hab. 2:18; Isa. 44:20; Rom. 1:25). In the New Testament, as in the Old, idolatry is sin (1 Cor. 5:10-11; Rev. 21:8; 22:15). But does the second commandment apply to pictures of Jesus in His humanity?

In the person of Jesus Christ, God took on true humanity: He became visible. Men saw Him; they touched Him. He was not an apparition or a phantom. It might be argued, then, that although we cannot picture Christ’s deity, we can and may picture His humanity.17

But Jesus Christ is a divine person. His human and divine natures cannot be separated. This, as Leo’s council argued, was the heresy of the Nestorians.18 If we portray Christ’s humanity, we portray His person. If we portray Jesus of Nazareth, we portray the Son of God, the Creator of the universe. The Reformed and Presbyterian confessions, following similar logic, see such portrayals as violations of the second commandment.19 Lutheran and Anglican traditions demur, however, as do most American evangelicals. But when it comes to bowing down to such images or lighting candles before them, there should be no argument: the second commandment has not been abrogated.

Sixth, whether or not icons are devotional aids is the very question at issue. If God does not approve of them, then they do not aid personal devotion and piety at all—no matter how would-be worshippers may feel when they use them. The claim for the “universality of their use” is certainly overstated, but in ages of apostasy many superstitious and useless practices find a wide reception within Christendom. That large numbers of professed Christians clung to these images only makes the issue a more pressing one to understand Biblically; it does not, in itself, tell us who is right. For that, we need the Bible. We need to listen to what God actually says.

Epilogue: The Natural Logic of Image Worship

The attempt to worship the God of the Bible through images is ancient. First, there was Aaron: “These be thy gods,20 O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (Exod. 32:4). Five hundred years later Jeroboam tried the same pitch as a political move to maintain his newly acquired kingdom (1 Kings 12:28). Both Aaron and Jeroboam were pointing at a golden calf. Now no one actually thought that God was a calf. The calf was just a reminder: it was strong and powerful; like God, it provided so much—meat and leather, pulling and carrying. More than that, it was the chief of the sacrificial animals. And God used gold in the Tabernacle and Temple. So golden cherubim, golden lampstand … why not golden lamb, or golden calf? The answer is, because God said, No.

Man in his rebellion wants to worship his own creative power. He wants to find divinity within himself; and so he makes “God” in his own image. What he finds in his idol or talisman or icon is exactly himself. The image reflects back his own thoughts and feelings. It will not chide; it will not command; it will not rebuke.21 Images are dumb. And yet for this very reason idols are tools of the power state: for if “God” will not speak, then someone must speak for him, as Jeroboam and his rag-tag priests knew only too well. Image worship, whether in its most blatant or most sophisticated forms, assumes a continuity between the divine and the human, and the human in question is usually the state. Christianity, on the other hand, insists on a radical discontinuity between God and man, between the Creator and the creature. Only in Jesus Christ did God become man, and that without any confusion of substance. And Christ comes to us in His gospel, not in images and icons. This is the Christianity of the first six councils; it is also the Christianity of the Reformation.

Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.

1. See Romans 11 and Revelation 2–3.

2. This was not the same Council of Nicea that in A.D. 325 produced the famous Christological Creed.

3. Roman Catholic theologians make a distinction between dula, veneration or honor, and latria, the worship that may be given to God only. See Rushdoony’s comments in Foundations of Social Order (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1998 edition), 158.

4. Medieval culture still regarded earthquakes and erupting volcanoes as signs of God’s wrath against sin.

5. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Beginnings to 1500 (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1975), 293.

6. See “Iconodulism” in R. J. Rushdoony, Foundations of Social Order (n.p.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1968).

7. Latourette, 293.

8. Rushdoony, 149.

9. Ibid., 150–151.

10. Albert Henry Newman, A Manual of Church History, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: The American Baptist Publication Society, 1933), 389.

11. Henry Percival, ed., The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, ed., The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. XIV (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1899), 544.

12. Cf. Rushdoony, 158.

13. The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, 550.

14. Ibid., 550–511.

15. The council met with resistance, particularly from Charlemagne’s empire, where a council meeting at Frankfurt in 794 allowed for pictures of Christ but completely rejected the idolatry of bowing to them.

16. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 283.

17. There is a crucial issue here that we may easily overlook: “can” does not imply “may”; ability does not imply permission. Wicked men could and did crucify our Lord. They were by no means right in doing so.

18. Rushdoony rejects the council’s conclusions at this point. See Foundations, 156–157.

19. The Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 109; The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 96–98.

20. Or, “This is your God.” The Hebrew word is Elohim.

21. James B. Jordan, The Liturgy Trap, The Bible Versus Mere Tradition in Worship (Niceville, FL: Transfiguration Press, 1994), 27ff.

  • Greg Uttinger

Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.

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