The Seventh Ecumenical Council
The Seventh Ecumenical Council was convened in 787CE under the Empress Irene.67 Church leaders were brought together for the purpose of establishing the validity of the existence and veneration of icons. A key document dealing with this council is “Sacrorum Conciliorum noca et amplissima collectio” (The Acta Of The Council) edited by D. Mansi.68 Giakalis quotes Mansi in defense of the support of icon:
63 Ibid, p. 99-100.
64 Daniel B. Clendenin. Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), p. 84.
66 Ouspensky, 1992, p. 111.
67 Clendenin, 1994, p. 85.
68 This pivotal twelve volume set published in Florence and Venice from 1759-1798 is often referred to by writings on the Seventh Council. Although I found many references to this work, I did not find the work itself.
“The iconophiles, then, “represent those things which are seen and contemplated” primarily “as light” – that is to say, the bodies of Christ and of the saints, which already shine or will shine “like the sun” in accordance with the teaching of the Gospel.”69 A distinct theology of the use of icons in the church came out of this council. Key ideas in this theology included a strong sense of the potential sacredness of matter, the extension of veneration from existing objects (like the cross) to icons and an affirmation of the humanity of Christ himself. This council also considered Old Testament prohibition against the use of images and concluded that certain kinds of images were permissible because of the incarnation. This defense of icons will be discussed here in some detail.
Basically, the iconoclasts refused to allow that matter could be good at all. A root of this ideology was the Platonic idea that the physical world was a mere shadow of the ultimate reality, the spiritual world. In fact, Plato considered painters as contributing to an inferior degree of truth because the painter fostered an inferior part of the soul and impaired the possibilities of reason, which was the sole way to truth.70 Matter was seen as the antithesis of spirit, which was good. In other words, God (spirit) is indescribable. However, Zibawi suggests that, although God is indescribable, Christ is fully describable.71 This demonstrated that, through the incarnation, matter had the potential of being/becoming sacred. “It (the iconoclastic controversy) was not simply a controversy over religious art, but over the entire meaning and implication of the incarnation and its consequent significance for man.” God took a material body, proving that material can be redeemed.72
69 Giakalis, [Mansi, 12, 967C] 1994, p. 78.
70 Barasch, 1992, p. 129.
71 Zibawi, 1993, p. 27.
72 Calian, 1968, p. 137.
“Those who defended the veneration of the Holy Icons in the troubled times of the eighth and ninth centuries believed they were fighting for the truth of the Incarnation of the Son of God; and they believed that those who attacked the icons were attacking the reality of the Incarnation and the possibility of that revelation being communicated through matter.”73
L’Engle suggests that the “horrendous mistake” of considering that matter, the flesh, is evil while only the spirit is good “…has distorted our understanding of the incarnation ever since.”74 Of course, this is largely influenced by a theology of the fall of Adam (and all mankind) that includes the permeation by sin of all of created things. While there is some truth to this theology, there is Old Testament evidence, especially in the Psalms, that creation was still able to declare God’s glory. In other words, all good in creation (matter) has not been destroyed by the fall. It is possible that creation can contribute toward the glory of God. This is ultimately evidenced by the incarnation itself when God actually became part of created things. In fact, Ouspensky augments the significance of this by suggesting that the prohibition of images actually ends with the incarnation of Christ.75 In the eyes of the iconodules, the ultimate conclusion of the iconoclastic “heresy” was that it was not possible for God to become fully human in Christ. They went further to say that icons celebrated the incarnation by participating in the redemption of matter. In this sense, veneration of icons was a “…manifestation of honour” not of the image itself but of the person in the image.76 This person has the reality of God in him (or her, in the case of Mary and some of the saints).
73 Baggley, 1988, p. 23.
74 Madeleine L’Engle. Penguins and Bolden Calves: Icons and Idols. (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Pub., 1996), p. 30.
75 Ouspensky, 1992, p. 42-44.
76 Giakalis [Mansi 13, 56B], 1994, p. 124.
Another element of the defense of icons in the Seventh Ecumenical Council was that veneration already existed in the church and that it was appropriate to add icons to the list of items to be venerated. According to St. John of Damascus, whose teaching were heavily relied on during this council, veneration of the cross was common in the church. Apparently it was also common to venerate the “…lance, the reed, the sponge.”77 It was, therefore, no significant leap to venerate an image of the one who was on the cross.78 In the same way, “The Eucharist may be considered the image or icon of Christ…”79 “For the icon testifies to the basic realities of the Christian faith – to the reality of the divine penetration of the human and natural world, and to the reality of that sanctification which results from this.”80 Because it was acceptable to venerate the cross, it was defended that the veneration of icons was also acceptable. This allowed the possibility of the veneration of any material thing that was infused by the reality of God. In essence, this could even include a living person who exemplified commitment and service to God.
Old Testament prohibition against images was discussed in detail at the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Much of this discussion was based on the teaching of St. John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite. They refuted the charges that icon veneration was against Old Testament rules about idolatry with the following arguments:81 1. Pagan idols forbidden in the Old Testament were very different from icons.
77 St. John of Damascus, 1980, p. 64)
78 Ibid, p. 41.
79 Calian, 1968, p. 131. [quoting Philip Sherrard, “The Art of the Icon,” Series 4, No. 6 (1962), p. 295]
81 Clendenin, 1994, p. 85-93.
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