[First part of Icons in Worship] Second Part:
This brief critique of the Orthodox understanding and use of icon is designed to be helpful in finding potential application for the use of symbol, and even icon, in an evangelical context.144 It is understood that an Orthodox person might consider this process inappropriate. However, for the purposes of this project, it is important that these questions are voiced. In any case, discussion surrounding these concerns is important for any person who desires to live in obedience to God.
The Implications of A Theology of Equality Between Image And Word
While there is significant and valuable history regarding the use of images in Christianity, it is somewhat of a leap to equate the authority of image and word. In Orthodox teaching, the word of God is understood as having been given but also as continuing to be given. Mostly, God’s word continues to be given through sacred tradition. This is central to the Orthodox understanding of tradition. The Orthodox Church has an extremely high view of the scripture, “… a fundamental view of the sanctity and authority of the bible.”145, but warns against bibliolatry. Unfortunately, the equation of tradition and the bible can be problematic. An evangelical understanding of the Word includes a foundational belief that it is without error. This cannot be said of church tradition. It would be fair to criticize Evangelicals for not holding the tradition of the church in a high enough place, but to equate word and tradition is also questionable.
144 I feel significant personal tension undertaking this part of the process. My interaction with Orthodox ideology and practice has resulted in great respect for the traditions. I would rather this “critique” be understood as more a series of important questions, rather than an attack or put down of Orthodoxy.
145 Coniaris, 1982, p. 155.
Contradictions in the Theology of Icons
While a foundational ideology of the icon is that matter and created things have potential to become sacred, some of the ideology actually implies that the physical world is a lower reality. Calian suggests that the icon seeks to convey a structure of ideas – a picture of the divine world order – a picture of how things are in their true state – in the eyes of God – and not as they appear.146 This implies that the way things appear (the material and physical) is just an image of reality. This is a Platonic idea that seems to be inconsistent with Orthodox theology. A further application of this thought might result in the conclusion that the reality of Christ was not evident in his physical body. His reality was as he appeared but his appearance was merely some kind of shadow of his reality. This appears in contradiction to other Orthodox teaching on the icon, which is very material and incarnational.
The physical characteristics of those portrayed in icons also reflect this problem. The persons in icons have a small mouth – teaching that the saint has no thought for his own life or what he may eat or drink, but seeks first the kingdom of God.147 According to Ouspensky, the role of the icon is not to bring us closer to what we see in nature (eyes, nose, mouth, ears, etc.) but to emphasize the absence from this world.148 Limouris suggests that the icon, according to OC thought, is to represent a plane above the physical – the spiritual “…which constitutes the highest truth.”149
146 Calian, 1968, p. 131.
147 Coniaris, 1982, p. 175.
148 Ouspensky, 1992, p. 178.
149 Limouris, 1990, p. 100.
The implication is that the physical (material) has less importance than the spiritual. It seems that this violates the idea of kenosis and the redeeming of creation. To relegate all human desire to the evils of the flesh seems in contradiction to the idea of the possibility of the redemption of creation. It seems highly possible that this reflects a problem of the acceptance of the physical as good. In light of many of the defenses of icons in the first millennium, this seems like a contradiction. The primary defense for icons includes the belief in the actual, physical incarnation of Christ. A reasonable conclusion from this is that the physical Christ had healthy, appropriate, physical desires and pleasures. Certainly we see examples of this in the Gospels. In fact, Christ participated in the joys of eating and drinking to the point that he was accused of being a glutton and drunkard (Matt. 11:19). Therefore, it seems unfair to portray Christ and others in icons as being free from such wholesome physical desires and pleasures. Impassionate portrayals of Christ and others seem to downplay the humanity of Christ. This singular emphasis on transfiguration seems somewhat unbalanced.
When we consider the theme of “other worldliness” in icons, it sometimes appears more like Nirvana than the Kingdom of God. The idea that the subjects of icons have “left this world” as purported by Zibawi (“In this solemn calmness, the whole being is listening to God.”150) contributes to this almost anti-world sentiment. It is almost as if listening to God means complete detachment from the physical, created world. This appears in contradiction to incarnational theology. A theology that accepts the incarnation of Christ as real and physical, must also accept the possibility of interaction with God, without departure from the physical world.
150 Zibawi, 1993, p. 54-55.
- Icons in Worship, a study by D. Dirksen – I
- St Gregory of Nyssa
- Schmemann, Orthodoxy is the Church of Byzantium
- Byzantine Hymns, Images, Places
- Byzantine Treasures : Athos Holy Mount
- Protestant and Orthodox iconography
- Orthodoxy and science: a changing relationship?
- St Symeon: knowing and teaching
- St Basil the Great
- St Gregory of Constantinople, the Theologian