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A History of the Orthodox Church

The Church of the Oecumenical Councils

Introduction | History | Doctrine

The Establishment of the Imperial Church
Fighting against the heresies
1. Nicaea - The Defeat of Arianism
2. Constantinople - The Teaching upon the Holy Spirit
3. Ephesus - The Victory over Nestorianism
4. Chalcedon - The Triumph of the Orthodox Christology
5 & 6. Constantinople - Chalcedon Confirmed - The Victory over Monotheletism
The Dispute over the Holy Icons
7. Nicea - The Victory of the Iconophiles and the Final Triumph of Orthodoxy

The Establishment of the Imperial Church

In 312 an event occurred which utterly transformed the outward situation of the Church. As he was riding through France with his army, the Emperor Constantine looked up into the sky and saw a cross of light in front of the sun. With the cross there was an inscription: In this sign conquer. As a result of this vision, Constantine became the first Roman Emperor to embrace the Christian faith. On that day in France a train of events was set in motion which brought the first main period of Church history to an end, and which led to the creation of the Christian Empire of Byzantium.

Constantine stands at a watershed in the history of the Church. With his conversion, the age of the martyrs and the persecutions drew to an end, and the Church of the Catacombs became the Church of the Empire. The first great effect of Constantine's vision was the so-called 'Edict' of Milan, which he and his fellow Emperor Licinius issued in 313 proclaiming the official toleration of the Christian faith. And though at first Constantine granted no more than toleration, he soon made it clear that he intended to favour Christianity above all the other tolerated religions in the Roman Empire. Theodosius, within fifty years of Constantine's death, had carried this policy through to its conclusion: by his legislation he made Christianity not merely the most highly favoured but the only recognized religion of the Empire. The Church was now established. 'You are not allowed to exist,' the Roman authorities had once said to the Christians. Now it was the turn of paganism to be suppressed.

Constantine's vision of the Cross led also, in his lifetime, to two further consequences, equally momentous for the later development of Christendom. First, in 324 he decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire eastward from Italy to the shores of the Bosphorus. Here, on the site of the Greek city of Byzantium, he built a new capital, which he named after himself, 'Constantinoupolis'. The motives for this move were in part economic and political, but they were also religious: the Old Rome was too deeply stained with pagan associations to form the centre of the Christian Empire which he had in mind. In the New Rome things were to be different: after the solemn inauguration of the city in 330, he laid down that at Constantinople no pagan rites should ever be performed. Constantine's new capital has exercised a decisive influence upon the development of Orthodox history.

Secondly, Constantine summoned the first General or Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 325. If the Roman Empire was to be a Christian Empire, then Constantine wished to see it firmly based upon the one Orthodox faith. It was the duty of the Nicene Council to elaborate the content of that faith. Nothing could have symbolized more clearly the new relation between Church and State than the outward circumstances of the gathering at Nicaea. The Emperor himself presided, 'like some heavenly messenger of God', as one of those present, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, expressed it. At the conclusion of the council the bishops dined with the Emperor. 'The circumstances of the banquet,' wrote Eusebius (who was inclined to be impressed by such things), 'were splendid beyond description. Detachments of the bodyguard and other troops surrounded the entrance of the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of these the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the imperial apartments. Some were the Emperor's own companions at table, others reclined on couches ranged on either side. One might have thought it was a picture of Christ's kingdom, and a dream rather than reality." Matters had certainly changed since the time when Nero employed Christians as living torches to illuminate his gardens at night. Nicaea was the first of seven general councils; and these, like the city of Constantine, occupy a central position in the history of Orthodoxy.
The three events - the Edict of Milan, the foundation of Constantinople and the Council of Nicaea - mark the Church's coming of age.


Fighting against the heresies

The life of the Church in the earlier Byzantine period is dominated by the seven general councils. These councils fulfilled a double task. First, they clarified and articulated the visible organization of the Church, crystallizing the position of the five great sees or Patriarchates, as they came to be known. Secondly, and more important, the councils defined once and for all the Church's teaching upon the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith - the Trinity and the Incarnation. All Christians agree in regarding these things as 'mysteries' which lie beyond human understanding and language. The bishops, when they drew up definitions at the councils, did not imagine that they had explained the mystery; they merely sought to exclude certain false ways of speaking and thinking about it. To prevent people from deviating into error and heresy, they drew a fence around the mystery; that was all.

The discussions at the councils at times sound abstract and remote, yet they were inspired by a very practical purpose: human salvation. Humanity, so the New Testament teaches, is separated from God by sin, and cannot through its own efforts break down the wall of separation which its sinfulness has created. God has therefore taken the initiative: He has become man, has been crucified, and has risen again from the dead, thereby delivering humanity from the bondage of sin and death. This is the central message of the Christian faith, and it is this message of redemption that the councils were concerned to safeguard. Heresies were dangerous and required condemnation, because they impaired the teaching of the New Testament, setting up a barrier between humans and God, and so making it impossible for humans to attain full salvation.

Saint Paul expressed this message of redemption in terms of sharing. Christ shared our poverty that we might share the riches of His divinity: 'Our Lord Jesus Christ, though He was rich, yet for your sake became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich' (2 Corinthians viii, 9). In St John's Gospel the same idea is found in a slightly different form. Christ states that He has given His disciples a share in the divine glory, and He prays that they may achieve union with God: 'The glory which You, Father, gave Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and You in Me that they may be perfectly one' (John xvii, 22-3 The Greek Fathers took these and similar texts in their literal sense, and dared to speak of humanity's 'deification' (in Greek, theosis). If humans are to share in God's glory, they argued, if they are to be 'perfectly one' with God, this means in effect that humans must be 'deified': they are called to become by grace what God is by nature. Accordingly St Athanasius summed up the purpose of the Incarnation by saying, 'God became human that we might be made god."

Now if this 'being made god', this theosis, is to be possible, Christ the Saviour must be both fully human and fully God. No one less than God can save humanity; therefore if Christ is to save, He must be God. But only if He is truly human, as we are, can we humans participate in what He has done for us. A bridge is formed between God and humanity by the Incarnate Christ who is divine and human at once. 'Hereafter you shall see the heaven open,' our Lord promised, 'and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man' (John i, 51). Not only angels use that ladder, but the human race.

Christ must be fully God and fully human. Each heresy in turn undermined some part of this vital affirmation. Either Christ was made less than God (Arianism); or His humanity was so divided from His Godhead that He became two persons instead of one (Nestorianism); or He w as not presented as truly human (Monophysitism, Monothelitism). Each council defended this affirmation. The first two, held in the fourth century, concentrated upon the earlier part (that Christ must be fully God) and formulated the doctrine of the Trinity. The next four, during the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries, turned to the second part (the fullness of Christ's humanity) and also sought to explain how humanity and Godhead could be united in a single person. The seventh council, in defence of the Holy Icons, seems at first to stand somewhat apart, but like the first six it was ultimately concerned with the Incarnation and with human salvation.

1. Nicaea - The Defeat of Arianism

The main work of the Council of Nicaea in 325 was the condemnation of Arianism. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, maintained that the Son was inferior to the Father, and, in drawing a dividing line between God and creation, he placed the Son among created things: a superior creature, it is true, but a creature none the less. His motive, no doubt, was to protect the uniqueness and the transcendence of God, but the effect of his teaching, in making Christ less than God, was to render impossible our human deification. Only if Christ is truly God, the council answered, can He unite us to God, for none but God Himself can open to humans the way of union. Christ is 'one in essence' (homoousios) with the Father. He is no demigod or superior creature, but God in the same sense that the Father is God: 'true God from true God,' the council proclaimed in the Creed which it drew up, 'begotten not made, one in essence with the Father'.

The Council of Nicaea dealt also with the visible organization of the Church. It singled out for mention three great centres: Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch (Canon VI) It also laid down that the see of Jerusalem while remaining subject to the Metropolitan of Caesarea, should be given the next place in honour after these three (Canon VII) Constantinople naturally was not mentioned, since it was not officially inaugurated as the new capital until five years later; it continued to be subject, as before, to the Metropolitan of Heraclea.

2. Constantinople - The Teaching upon the Holy Spirit

The work of Nicaea was taken up by the second Ecumenical Council, held at Constantinople in 381. This council expanded and adapted the Nicene Creed, developing in particular the teaching upon the Holy Spirit, whom it affirmed to be God even as the Father and Son are God: 'who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and together glorified'. The council also altered the provisions of the Sixth Canon of Nicaea. The position of Constantinople, now the capital of the Empire, could no longer be ignored, and it was assigned the second place, after Rome and above Alexandria. 'The Bishop of Constantinople shall have the prerogatives of honour after the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is New Rome' (Canon III).

Behind the definitions of the councils lay the work of theologians, who gave precision to the words which the councils employed. It was the supreme achievement of St Athanasius of Alexandria to draw out the full implications of the key word in the Nicene Creed: homoousios, one in essence or substance, consubstantial. Complementary to his work was that of the three Cappadocian Fathers, Saints Gregory of Nazianzus, known in the Orthodox Church as Gregory the Theologian (?329-?90 Basil the Great (?330-79), and his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (died 394). While Athanasius emphasized the unity of God- Father and Son are one in essence (ousia) the Cappadocians stressed God's threeness: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons (hypostasis). Preserving a delicate balance between the threeness and the oneness in God, they gave full meaning to the classic summary of Trinitarian doctrine, three persons in one essence. Never before or since has the Church possessed four theologians of such stature within a single generation.

After 381 Arianism quickly ceased to be a living issue, except in certain parts of western Europe. The controversial aspect of the council's work lay in its third Canon, which was resented alike by Rome and by Alexandria. Old Rome wondered where the claims of New Rome would end: might not Constantinople before long claim first place? Rome chose therefore to ignore the offending Canon, and not until the Lateran Council (1215) did the Pope formally recognize Constantinople's claim to second place. (Constantinople was at that time in the hands of the Crusaders and under the rule of a Latin Patriarch.) But the Canon was equally a challenge to Alexandria, which hitherto had occupied the first place in the east. The next seventy years witnessed a sharp conflict between Constantinople and Alexandria, in which for a time the victory went to the latter. The first major Alexandrian success was at the Synod of the Oak, when Theophilus of Alexandria secured the deposition and exile of the Bishop of Constantinople, St John Chrysostom, 'John of the Golden Mouth' (?334-407). A fluent and eloquent preacher- his sermons must often have lasted for an hour or more - John expressed in popular form the theological ideas put forward by Athanasius and the Cappadocians. A man of strict and austere life, he was inspired by a deep compassion for the poor and by a burning zeal for social righteousness. Of all the Fathers he is perhaps the best loved in the Orthodox Church, and the one whose works are most widely read.

3. Ephesus - The Victory over Nestorianism

Alexandria's second major success was won by the nephew and successor of Theophilus, St Cyril of Alexandria (died 444), who brought about the fall of another Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, at the third General Council, held in Ephesus (431). But at Ephesus there was more at stake than the rivalry of two great sees. Doctrinal issues, quiescent since 381, once more emerged, centring now not on the Trinity but on the Person of Christ. Cyril and Nestorius agreed that Christ was fully God, one of the Trinity, but they diverged in their descriptions of His humanity and in their method of explaining the union of the divine and the human in a single person. They represented different traditions or schools of theology. Nestorius, brought up in the school of Antioch, upheld the integrity of Christ's humanity, but distinguished so emphatically between the humanity and the Godhead that he seemed in danger of ending, not with one person, but with two persons coexisting in the same body. Cyril, the protagonist of the opposite tradition of Alexandria, started from the unity of Christ's person rather than the diversity of His humanity and Godhead, but spoke about Christ's humanity less vividly than the Antiochenes. Either approach, if pressed too far, could lead to heresy, but the Church had need of both in order to form a balanced picture of the whole Christ. It was a tragedy for Christendom that the two schools, instead of balancing one another, entered into conflict.

Nestorius precipitated the controversy by declining to call the Virgin Mary 'Mother of God' (Theotokos). This title was already accepted in popular devotion, but it seemed to Nestorius to imply a confusion of Christ's humanity and His Godhead. Mary, he argued - and here his Antiochene 'separatism' is evident - is only to be called 'Mother of Man' or at the most 'Mother of Christ', since she is mother only of Christ's humanity, not of His divinity. Cyril, supported by the council, answered with the text 'The Word was made flesh' (John i, T4): Mary is God's mother, for 'she bore the Word of God made flesh'.' What Mary bore was not a man loosely united to God, but a single and undivided person, who is God and man at once. The name Theotokos safeguards the unity of Christ's person: to deny her this title is to separate the Incarnate Christ into two, breaking down the bridge between God and humanity and erecting within Christ's person a middle wall of partition. Thus we can see that not only titles of devotion were involved at Ephesus, but the very message of salvation. The same primacy that the word homoousios occupies in the doctrine of the Trinity, the word Theotokos holds in the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Alexandria won another victory at a second council held in Ephesus in 449, but this gathering- so it was felt by a large part of the Christian world - pushed the Alexandrian position too far. Dioscorus of Alexandria, Cyril's successor, insisted that there is in Christ only one nature (physis); the Saviour is from two natures, but after His Incarnation there is only 'one incarnate nature of God the Word'. This is the position commonly termed 'Monophysite'. It is true that Cyril himself had used such language, but Dioscorus omitted the balancing statements that Cyril had made in 433 as a concession to the Antiochenes. To many it seemed that Dioscorus was denying the integrity of Christ's humanity, although this is almost certainly an unjust interpretation of his standpoint.

4. Chalcedon - The Triumph of the Orthodox Christology

Only two years later, in 451, the Emperor Marcian summoned to Chalcedon a fresh gathering of bishops, which the Church of Byzantium and the west regarded as the fourth general council. The pendulum now swung back in an Antiochene direction. The council, rejecting the Monophysite position of Dioscorus, proclaimed that, while Christ is a single, undivided person, He is not only from two natures but in two natures. The bishops acclaimed the Tome of St Leo the Great, Pope of Rome (died 46i), in which the distinction between the two natures is clearly stated, although the unity of Christ's person is also emphasized. In their proclamation of faith they stated their belief in 'one and the same Son, perfect in Godhead and perfect in humanity, truly God and truly human ... acknowledged in two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference between the natures is in no way removed because of the union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature is preserved, and both combine in one person and in one hypostasis'. The Definition of Chalcedon, we may note, is aimed not only at the Monophysites ('in two natures, unconfusedly, unchangeably'), but also at the followers of Nestorius ('one and the same Son...indivisibly, inseparably').

But Chalcedon was more than a defeat for Alexandrian theology: it was a defeat for Alexandrian claims to rule supreme in the east. Canon XXIII of Chalcedon confirmed Canon III of Constantinople, assigning to New Rome the place next in honour after Old Rome. Leo repudiated this Canon, but the east has ever since recognized its validity. The council also freed Jerusalem from the jurisdiction of Caesarea and gave it the fifth place among the great sees. The system later known among Orthodox as the Pentarchy was now complete, whereby five great sees in the Church were held in particular honour, and a settled order of precedence was established among them: in order of rank, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem. A11 five claimed Apostolic foundation. The first four were the most important cities in the Roman Empire; the fifth was added because it was the place where Christ had suffered on the Cross and risen from the dead. The bishop in each of these cities received the title Patriarch. The five Patriarchates between them divided into spheres of jurisdiction the whole of the known world, apart from Cyprus, which was granted independence by the Council of Ephesus and has remained self-governing ever since.

When speaking of the Orthodox conception of the Pentarchy there are two possible misunderstandings which must be avoided. First, the system of Patriarchs and Metropolitans is a matter of ecclesiastical organization. But if we look at the Church from the viewpoint not of ecclesiastical order but of divine right, then we must say that all bishops are essentially equal, however humble or exalted the city over which each presides. All bishops share equally in the apostolic succession, all have the same sacramental powers, all are divinely appointed teachers of the faith. If a dispute about doctrine arises, it is not enough for the Patriarchs to express their opinion: every diocesan bishop has the right to attend a general council, to speak, and to cast his vote. The system of the Pentarchy does not impair the essential equality of all bishops, nor does it deprive each local community of the importance which Ignatius assigned to it.

In the second place, Orthodox believe that among the five Patriarchs a special place belongs to the Pope. The Orthodox Church does not accept the doctrine of Papal authority set forth in the decrees of the Vatican Council of 1870, and taught today in the Roman Catholic Church; but at the same time Orthodoxy does not deny to the Holy and Apostolic See of Rome a primacy of honour, together with the right (under certain conditions) to hear appeals from all parts of Christendom. Note that we have used the word 'primacy', not 'supremacy'. Orthodox regard the Pope as the bishop 'who presides in love', to adapt a phrase of St Ignatius: Rome's mistake - so Orthodox believe - has been to turn this primacy or 'presidency of love' into a supremacy of external power and jurisdiction.

This primacy which Rome enjoys takes its origin from three factors. First, Rome was the city where St Peter and St Paul were martyred, and where Peter was bishop. The Orthodox Church acknowledges Peter as the first among the Apostles: it does not forget the celebrated 'Petrine texts' in the Gospels (Matthew xvi 18,19; Luke xxii, 32; John xxi, 15-17) - although Orthodox theologians do not understand these texts in quite the same way as modern Roman Catholic commentators. And while many Orthodox theologians would say that not only the Bishop of Rome but all bishops are successors of Peter, yet most of them at the same time admit that the Bishop of Rome is Peter's successor in a special sense. Secondly, the see of Rome also owed its primacy to the position occupied by the city of Rome in the Empire: she was the capital, the chief city of the ancient world, and such in some measure she continued to be even after the foundation of Constantinople. Thirdly, although there were occasions when Popes fell into heresy, on the whole during the first eight centuries of the Church's history the Roman see was noted for the purity of its faith: other Patriarchates wavered during the great doctrinal disputes, but Rome for the most part stood firm. When hard pressed in the struggle against heretics, people felt that they could turn with confidence to the Pope. Not only the Bishop of Rome, but every bishop, is appointed by God to be a teacher of the faith; yet because the see of Rome had in practice taught the faith with an outstanding loyalty to the truth, it was above all to Rome that everyone appealed for guidance in the early centuries of the Church.

But as with Patriarchs, so with the Pope: the primacy assigned to Rome does not overthrow the essential equality of all bishops. The Pope is the first bishop in the Church - but he is the first among equals.

Ephesus and Chalcedon were a rock of Orthodoxy, but they were also a grave rock of offence. The Arians had been gradually reconciled and formed no lasting schism. But to this day there exist Christians belonging to the Church of the East (frequently, although misleadingly, called 'Nestorians') who cannot accept the decisions of Ephesus, and who consider it incorrect to call the Virgin Mary Theotokos; and to this day there also exist Non-Chalcedonians who follow the Monophysite teaching of Dioscorus, and who reject the Chalcedonian Definition and the Tome of Leo. The Church of the East lay almost entirely outside the Byzantine Empire, and little more is heard of it in Byzantine history. But large numbers of Non-Chalcedonians, particularly in Egypt and Syria, were subjects of the Emperor, and repeated though unsuccessful efforts were made to bring them back into communion with the Byzantine Church. As so often, theological differences were made more bitter by cultural and national tension. Egypt and Syria, both predominantly non-Greek in language and background, resented the power of Greek Constantinople, alike in religious and in political matters. Thus ecclesiastical schism was reinforced by political separatism. Had it not been for these nontheological factors, the two sides might perhaps have reached a theological understanding after Chalcedon. Many modern scholars are inclined to think that the difference between 'Non-Chalcedonians' and 'Chalcedonians' was basically one of terminology, not of theology. The two parties understood the word 'nature' (physis) in different ways, but both were concerned to affirm the same basic truth: that Christ the Saviour is fully divine and fully human, and yet He is one and not two.

5 & 6. Constantinople - Chalcedon Confirmed - The Victory over Monotheletism

The Definition of Chalcedon was supplemented by two later councils, both held at Constantinople. The fifth Ecumenical Council (553) reinterpreted the decrees of Chalcedon from an Alexandrian point of view, and-sought to explain, in more constructive terms than Chalcedon had used, how the two natures of Christ unite to form a single person. The sixth Ecumenical Council (680-81) condemned the heresy of the Monothelites, who argued that although Christ has two natures, yet since He is a single person, He has only one will. The Council replied that if He has two natures, then He must also have two wills. The Monothelites, it was felt, impaired the fullness of Christ's humanity, since human nature without a human will would be incomplete, a mere abstraction. Since Christ is true man as well as true God, He must have a human as well as a divine will.
During the fifty years before the meeting of the sixth Council, Byzantium was faced with a sudden and alarming development: the rise of Islam. The most striking fact about Muslim expansion was its speed. When the Prophet died in 632 his authority scarcely extended beyond the Hejaz. But within fifteen years his Arab followers had taken Syria, Palestine, and
Egypt; within fifty they were at the walls of Constantinople and almost captured the city; within a hundred they had swept across North Africa, advanced through Spain, and forced western Europe to fight for its life at the Battle of Poitiers. The Arab inasions have been called 'a centrifugal explosion, driving in every direction small bodies of mounted raiders in quest of food, plunder, and conquest. The old empires were in no state to resist them." Christendom survived, but only with difficulty. The Byzantines lost their eastern possessions, and the three Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem passed under infidel control; within the Christian Empire of the East, the Patriarchate of Constantinople was now without rival. Henceforward Byzantium was never free for very long from Muslim attacks, and although it held out for eight centuries more, yet in the end it succumbed.

The Dispute over the Holy Icons

Disputes concerning the Person of Christ did not cease with the council of 681, but were extended in a different form into the eighth and ninth centuries. The struggle centred on the Holy Icons, the pictures of Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints, which were kept and venerated both in churches and in private homes. The Iconoclasts or icon-smashers, suspicious of any religious art which represented human beings or God, demanded the destruction of icons; the opposite party, the Iconodules or venerators of icons, vigorously defended the place of icons in the life of the Church. The struggle was not merely a confiict between two conceptions of Christian art. Deeper issues were involved: the character of Christ's human nature, the Christian attitude towards matter, the true meaning of Christian redemption.

The Iconoclasts may have been influenced from the outside by Jewish and Muslim ideas, and it is significant that three years before the first outbreak of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire, the Muslim Caliph Yezid ordered the removal of all icons within his dominions. But Iconoclasm was not simply imported from outside; within Christianity itself there had always existed a 'puritan' outlook, which condemned icons because it saw in all images a latent idolatry. When the Isaurian Emperors attacked icons, they found plenty of support inside the Church.

The Iconoclast controversy, which lasted some Leo years, falls into two phases. The first period opened in 726 when Leo 111 began his attack on icons, and ended in 780 when the Empress Irene suspended the persecution. The Iconodule position was upheld by the seventh and last Ecumenical Council (787), which met, as the first had done, at Nicaea. Icons, the council proclaimed, are to be kept in churches and honoured with the same relative veneration as is shown to other material symbols, such as the 'precious and life-giving Cross' and the Book of Gospels. A new attack on icons, started by Leo V the Armenian in 815, continued until 843 when the icons were again reinstated, this time permanently, by another Empress, Theodora. The final victory of the Holy Images in 843 is known as 'the Triumph of Orthodoxy', and is commemorated in a special service celebrated on 'Orthodoxy Sunday', the first Sunday in Lent. The chief champion of the icons in the first period was St John of Damascus (?675-749), in the second St Theodore of Stoudios (759-826). John was able to work the more freely because he dwelt in Muslim territory, out of reach of the Byzantine government. It was not the last time that Islam acted unintentionally as the protector of Orthodoxy.

One of the distinctive features of Orthodoxy is the place which it assigns to icons. An Orthodox church today is filled with them: dividing the sanctuary from the body of the building there is a solid screen, the iconostasis, entirely covered with icons, while other icons are placed in special shrines around the church; and perhaps the walls are covered with icons in fresco or mosaic. An Orthodox prostrates himself before these icons, he kisses them and burns candles in front of them; they are censed by the priest and carried in procession. What do these gestures and actions mean? What do icons signify, and why did John of Damascus and others regard them as important?

We shall consider first the charge of idolatry, which the Iconoclasts brought against the Iconodules; then the positive value of icons as a means of instruction; and finally their doctrinal importance.

(1) The question of idolatry. When an Orthodox kisses an icon or prostrates himself before it, he is not guilty of idolatry. The icon is not an idol but a symbol; the veneration shown to images is directed, not towards stone, wood, and paint, but towards the person depicted. This had been pointed out some time before the Iconoclast controversy by Leontius of Neapolis (died about 650): We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross ... When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.' Because icons are only symbols, Orthodox do not worship them, but reverence or venerate them. John of Damascus carefully distinguished between the relative honour of veneration shown to material symbols, and the worship due to God alone.

(2) Icons as part of the Church's teaching. Icons, said Leontius, are 'opened books to remind us of God'; they are one of the means which the Church employs in order to teach the faith. He who lacks learning or leisure to study works of theology has only to enter a church to see unfolded before him on the walls all the mysteries of the Christian religion. If a pagan asks you to show him your faith, said the Iconodules, take him into church and place him before the icons. In this way icons form a part of Holy Tradition.

(3) The doctrinal significance of icons. Here we come to the real heart of the Iconoclast dispute. Granted that icons are not idols; granted that they are useful for instruction; but are they not only permissible but necessary? Is it essential to have icons? The Iconodules held that it is, because icons safeguard a full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. Iconoclasts and Iconodules agreed that God cannot be represented in His eternal nature: 'no one has seen God at any time' (John i, 18). But, the Iconodules continued, the Incarnation has made a representational religious art possible: God can be depicted because He became human and took flesh. Material images, argued John of Damascus, can be made of Him who took a material body:
Of old God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was not depicted at all. But now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among humans, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter but I worship the' Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation. I will not cease from worshipping the matter through which my salvation has been effected.'

The Iconoclasts, by repudiating all representations of God, failed to take full account of the Incarnation. They fell, as so many puritans have done, into a kind of dualism. Regarding matter as a defilement, they wanted a religion freed from all contact with what is material; for they thought that what is spiritual must be non-material. But this is to betray the Incarnation, by allowing no place to Christ's humanity, to His body; it is to forget that our body as well as our soul must be saved and transfigured. The Iconoclast controversy is thus closely linked to the earlier disputes about Christ's person. It was not merely a controversy about religious art, but about the Incarnation, about human salvation, about the salvation of the entire material cosmos.
God took a material body, thereby proving that matter can be redeemed: 'The Word made flesh has deified the flesh,' said John of Damascus. God has 'deified' matter, making it 'spirit-bearing'; and if flesh has become a vehicle of the Spirit, then so - though in a different way - can wood and paint. The Orthodox doctrine of icons is bound up with the Orthodox belief that the whole of God's creation, material as well as spiritual, is to be redeemed and glorified. In the words of Nicolas Zernov (1898-I980) - what he says of Russians is true of all Orthodox:

[Icons] were for the Russians not merely paintings. They were dynamic manifestations of man's spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty and art. The colours and lines of the [icons] were not meant to imitate nature; the artists aimed at demonstrating that men, animals, and plants, and the whole cosmos, could be rescued from their present state of degradation and restored to their proper 'Image'. The [icons] were pledges of the coming victory of a redeemed creation over the fallen one ... The artistic perfection of an icon was not only a reflection of the celestial glory - it was a concrete example of matter restored to its original harmony and beauty, and serving as a vehicle of the Spirit. The icons were part of the transfigured cosmos.'

7. Nicea - The Victory of the Iconophiles and the Final Triumph of Orthodoxy

The conclusion of the Iconoclast dispute, the meeting of the seventh Ecumenical Council, the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843 - these mark the end of the second period in Orthodox history, the period of the seven councils. These seven councils are of immense importance to Orthodoxy. For members of the Orthodox Church, their interest is not merely historical but contemporary; they are the concern not only of scholars and clergy, but of all the faithful. 'Even illiterate peasants,' said Dean Stanley, 'to whom, in the corresponding class of life in Spain and Italy, the names of Constance and Trent would probably be quite unknown, are well aware that their Church reposes on the basis of the seven councils, and retain a hope that they may yet live to see an eighth general council, in which the evils of the time will be set straight.' Orthodox often call themselves 'the Church of the Seven Councils'. By this they do not mean that the Orthodox Church has ceased to think creatively since 787. But they see in the period of the councils the great age of theology; and, next to the Bible, it is the seven councils which the Orthodox Church takes as its standard and guide in seeking solutions to new problems which arise in every generation.

Webmaster Note: This page was retrieved from www.archive.org after decani.yunet.com went defunct following the Kosovo conflict. This page was originally created by monks at Decani Monastery in Kosovo. It has been slightly edited for inclusion on this site. Abridged, from Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, Ch.2