Controversy. Icons, Images, and Idolatry.
mosaic on display at Madaba, from nearby
Ma'in (likely Moabite Ba'al Ma'on).
History of the Controversy
The word "Iconoclast" literally means "image breaker" from the Greek words for "breaking of images". Beginning a few centuries after the time of Christ, the use of icons or images had become a widespread practice within the church of the east and west. These icons (Greek "eikones") are so-called sacred images representing or portraying saints, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary. Some of them were narrative in professing to portray or illustrate scenes in the life of Christ, especially the crucifixion. The objects themselves were crafted from diverse materials including ivory, gemstones, precious metals, enamel, marble, mosaic, and wood (including wooden panels). In size, they ranged from monumental to miniature, some worn as pendants, others mounted on poles to be carried into battle. Many permanent images decorated church interiors. Common usage and understanding of the icons held that they were aids in communication with the sacred figure(s) represented. Somehow the icon channeled petitions and prayers directly to the saint, from whom the devout sought help, good fortune, and miraculous healings. Ultimately, many of the icons where treated as good luck charms.
While there is dispute how the controversy started in the Eastern Church, over what had become a widespread almost universal practice, it centered on some who came to believe that their usage had become tantamount to idolatry. Possible political motivations aside1, icons were seen as a violation of the second commandment of the Decalogue.
The Byzantine Emperor, Leo III the Isaurian (683-741 A.D., emperor from 717-741 A.D.), banned the veneration of all icons including religious painting, mosaics, and statutes. This ban was enacted in 726 A.D.. The initial ban did not appear to seek the destruction of such images; rather it tried to restrict their popular use and veneration. For example, images in the churches were to be moved higher, out of reach of the people, so that it would be impossible for the people to kiss or touch them.
Orthodox sources acknowledge that the Emperor was defended in this ban on icons not only by political and aristocratic supporters but also by some of the clergy - whom they now refer to as heretics. Much opposition to the Emperor came from the primary source of support and propagation of icons, namely the monasteries. Public opposition appears to have led to a second decree in A.D. 730, which now ordered the removal of all images from churches, something that was often accomplished by military force8. The effects of this decree spread throughout not only the Eastern Church but into parts of the west. The Roman Catholic Church, which held unwavering support for icons, seems to have only kept Rome and part of Italy from the influence of the Byzantine Emperor in this regards2.
In spite of popular opposition, the ban on icons continued and was confirmed by Leo's son, emperor Constantine V (718-775, emperor 741-775 A.D), in 753 A.D.. This was followed by a synod he convened in early 754 A.D. which offered church approval of his continued policies. It was reaffirmed that icons of the Virgin Mary and the Saints were idols. This recommitment appears to have been prodded by a failed rebellion against the emperor in the decade prior. During this period relics and prayers to saints were deemed as heretical.
In 787 A.D., Empress Irene (wife of the late Leo IV and regent for her young son) overturned all these iconoclastic decrees, a decision reflected by the Seventh Ecumenical Council (also called the Second Council of Nicea). This gathering and its reversal of earlier decisions was eagerly embraced by the Roman Pope, Hadrian I, who sent representation, which is why the council could be called an "ecumenical" one.
The return of the Iconodules ("venerators of icons") in the east was only temporary, as renewed iconoclastic decrees were issued in 815 A.D. by Emperor Leo V (Alt. Leo the Armenian, 775-820 A.D., reigned 813-820 A.D.). His policies were slightly more moderate than those of Constantine V, yet still allowed for and implemented seizure of inconodule properties and monasteries. Following the rule and death of two subsequent iconoclastic Emperors, the next, Michael III (836-867, reigned 842-867 A.D.), who was only a child when he assumed the throne, quickly abandoned all iconoclastic policies in 843 A.D. Obviously it wasn't the child emperor that actually implemented this; it was his mother Theodora who governed the empire as empress and regent on his behalf. Through her efforts, the iconoclastic Orthodox Patriarch John VII of Constantinople was deposed and replaced with an inconodule supporter.
The Eastern Orthodox Church practices the veneration of icons and images to the present, considering these iconoclastic periods of their history as a time of heresy. This back and forth of church teaching, and even the subsequent Protestant condemnation of icons and images, still leaves a primary issue, one that the next section of this article addresses...
A quick overview of passages through the Old and New Testaments describe a biblical view of an idol and the usage of such, which is idolatry.
An Idol is...
An idol is an image, figurine, or object - manmade or natural - that is used as a sacred representation of a god, or God. This sacred object professedly portrays the deity or illustrates some attribute of that deity, when in fact the object or image is incapable of truly displaying them, subsequently distorting or misrepresenting the true being or nature of that deity.3 Idolatry is the act of worshipping or venerating an idol.
What an idol is not...
Bread and wine are prescribed, by God, to be used as part of worship in the Lord's Supper. If people start to worship or venerate the bread or the wine, this is idolatry. Not unsurprisingly today's veneration of the Eucharist arose parallel to the usage of icons within the ancient Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Crafted images of angels, the Cherubim, were ordered by God to appear over the Ark of the Covenant5. Again, if anyone started to worship or venerate these angelic statutes, they too would have been idols.
A perfect example of this was the bronze serpent that Moses was told to erect in the wilderness (Numbers 21:8-9). It was never to be an object of worship, yet over the following years it became such. Hezekiah ultimately had to have it destroyed to stop the idolatry associated with it (2 Kings 18:4).
Illustrations of created objects were a segment of the splendorous decorations within God's temple and a part of temple ritual4, but none of these illustrative decorations were ever to be worshipped. Whether a crafted item required by God, a handcrafted idol, or even the sun, moon, or stars, nothing of creation was ever to be worshipped. Simply put, only God alone is to receive any acts or intimations of worship.6
John the icon man...
John of Damascus (675/676 - 749/753 A.D.) was a vigorous supporter of the use of icons and images within the Byzantine Empire during the iconoclastic controversy (he was the son of a Muslim and he followed his father as an advisor to the Umayyad ruler in Damascus). To this day, John's writings (Discourses on Sacred Images, circa 730 A.D.9) are often cited in support of the resumed, and continuing, practice of icon and image usage in both churches. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches honor him as a saint and the last of the Greek Fathers.
John's arguments in support of icons and images, while seemingly appealing to Scriptures, are based mostly in tradition. He draws in professed Scriptural examples to try and justify existing practice rather than trying to understand what is explicitly taught in Scriptures. Nowhere does he try and reconcile the contradiction between expressly prohibited acts in Scriptures and his justification of the exact same acts in a different setting. Ultimately John's appeal rests solely on the developed concept that there are various types or levels of worship. With this logic, all the same external acts could be applied to an object or individual, but they were not really idolatry because they were not really worship of the type given to God. It is on this basis that "veneration" can be seen to have all the same appearance and actions as "worship" but be considered something altogether different.
A summary of John's arguments are as follows:
Again, it must be emphasized that the totality of John's appeal - while selectively using Scriptures - is based on the authority of the church, as he understood it, and its ability to appeal to church traditions and make them co-equal to Scriptures. The Roman Church, especially, claims this right to not only order belief and practice upon traditions but to establish new traditions on nothing other than its own authority. Even worship given to Mary and the saints is justified on this basis. John of Damascus makes clear that his defense of this practice was based solely in "unwritten tradition".
Lest any be persuaded by John of Damascus' argument that worship of Christ, who is the image of God, justifies worship of other images, there is a great difference. Christ can be worshipped because...
Even if someone made a painting, statute, or photo, of Jesus while on earth, as a secondary manmade creation it could not fully encompass His image, for He alone is uniquely the fullness of the image of God. Therefore, even a first hand manmade image would be an idol (for it would certainly be venerated or worshipped, if it existed); how much more those images and icons created solely from the imaginative minds of man?! There is no indication that those closest to Christ, including the Apostles, even attempted or advocated making an image - they appeared to understand the uniqueness of the person of Christ and God's ban on idolatry.
Can the cross be an idol?
During the Iconoclastic period, simultaneous to the ban on creaturely images, there was an increasing promotion of the cross as a primary decoration in churches. With this, and the modern penchant of cross wearing, comes the question, "can the cross be an idol?" The answer is unequivocally "yes", if it fits the criteria established earlier defining an idol. Wherein an individual utilizes it as more than a reminder of the event it symbolizes, certainly a cross can be the focal point of idolatry. Those wearing it, venerating it, or performing acts of worship towards it, meet the definition of making the cross an idol. This doesn't even take into consideration using it as a "good luck" charm, believing that the possession of such an item grants health, blessing or favor to the wearer or owner.
We are never called in Scriptures to carry around a physical representation of the cross. Jesus' call to take up your cross was representative of our need to lose our life to follow Him...
Believers are likewise never instructed to bring people a physical depiction of the cross, it's the message of the cross that we speak and live out before all - this alone we carry to the ends of the earth.
A related article is Idols Versus God
of the famous Madaba Map. Notice the two
fishermen that have been destroyed by the iconoclasts.
Another mosaic floor at Madaba. The bird was destroyed by the iconoclasts. Patterns and texts were okay.
1. Many who support the continued usage of icons in the church have speculated that Emperor Leo was acting out of ulterior motives, rejecting that he could simply believe that the practice was wrong Biblically. Some claim that he was influenced by Islam (which has an aversion to images); others take the opposite position claiming that he adopted it because he wanted to convert Jews and Muslims and saw icons as a chief obstacle to this. Many hold his motivation to be primarily political, hoping that a reorganization of the church would give greater influence to the state. Those making this latter claim fail to establish how rejecting images and icons would have effected such a reorganization of the church.
2. Roman Popes, Gregory II (pope from 715-731 A.D.) and Gregory III (Pope from 731-741 A.D.), fiercely opposed the emperor in regards to image veneration. These popes had councils in Rome to anathematize and excommunicate all iconoclasts in 730 and 732 A.D. [TIMELINE DATE]. Leo III, in retaliation, transferred southern Italy and Illyricum from the papal diocese to that of the Patriarch of Constantinople. This latter action did not hold up on the long term and was part of the popular defiance which subsequently ended Byzantine sovereignty over Rome, plus later emboldened the Roman pope to make an alliance with Carolingian Franks. Pope Leo III (pope from 795-816 A.D., not to be confused with Emperor Leo III) presided over the coronation of Charlemagne (king of the Franks from 768 A.D. onward) as emperor in 800 A.D..
3. Two common definitions of the word idol, "an image or other material representing a diety to which religious worship is addressed" and "Bible. a. an image of a deity other than God. b. the deity itself" are weak without clarifications (both definitions from dictionary.com). Biblically it is not necessary to be worshipping the article itself; performing acts of worship towards such an object, even if used as a representation of God, professing that this worship is going to God, still makes the object an idol. In the definitions of the second set, a clarification is necessary: God himself is not to be represented, even if someone is not professing the object itself to be God.
4. The robe of the high priest was decorated with pomegranates and gold bells, one a natural item, the second a crafted item. Neither was to be venerated or worshipped as doing so would make them an idol. The mere fact of their existence did not make them an idol; there was neither intent in their creation nor subsequent misuse in their application.
Cherubim were not only found over the Ark of the Covenant, they were part of additional decorations within the temple as well - also not idolatry.
6. An Ephod, a piece of clothing, was created at the behest of God for usage by the high priest as part of temple worship (Exodus 28:6-8). Again, this created article was not an idol or to be venerated or worshipped in any way. Yet when an Ephod had elements of worship applied to it, this Ephod became an idol:
7. Jesus, unique to any other person on earth, could say that He was born AND that He came into this world. The eternal pre-existence of the son, as part of the triune God, is confirmed throughout Scriptures, indeed placing Jesus as the one doing creation on behalf of the Father in the beginning.
8. Very few icons and images survived these periods of iconoclastic destruction. Saint Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai is one of the notable exceptions, as that isolated and relatively autonomous institution appears to have resisted all iconoclastic decrees and preserved its early icons.
The titles of the first two sections are: On Holy Images and The Fount of Wisdom.
2009 Brent MacDonald/LTM
All BibleIsTrue.com articles may be reprinted for non-profit purposes as long
as the source is cited: www.BibleIsTrue.com (Lion Tracks Ministries)