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Eastern Orthodoxy

June 2004 | by William J. Baldwin

Eastern Orthodoxy is self-consciously connected to the past. Its proponents pride themselves on their distinction from modern, rootless Evangelicals who neither have, nor seem to want, a doctrinal connection with the historic church.

Williams and Anstall make a typical comment: ‘Perhaps one of the most striking and unique things about Orthodox Christianity, especially in this age of rapid change and even change for its own sake, is its permanence and changelessness’.1

As far as they are concerned, the apostolic faith has been handed down, unchanged, in the East. So much so, that in a small volume subtitled ‘An Elementary Handbook on the Orthodox Church’, Father Thomas Hopko writes:

‘The dogmatic definitions … and the canon laws [of the Seven Ecumenical Councils] are understood to be inspired by God and to be expressive of his will for men. Thus, they are the essential sources of Orthodox Christian doctrine’.3

My purpose in this series of articles is not to critique these allegedly inspired sources directly. Rather, I will discuss the theology that contemporary Orthodox theologians derive from them, and see how that theology compares with biblical (and credal) orthodoxy.

In this article I consider the legitimacy or otherwise of icons and images of Christ.

Seven councils

The seven councils referred to above – which to the Orthodox bear the same authority as Scripture – include Nicea, Chalcedon and Nicea II. This last council affirmed the propriety in Christian worship of icons portraying Christ.

This immediately produces a tension which the Orthodox recognise – they must defend icons of Christ in a way that neither violates his divinity nor separates his natures. In my opinion they fail to make their case. What results is, ironically, an implicitly anti-Nicene and anti-Chalcedonian Christology.

The argument against icons takes the form of a syllogism, which runs along the following lines: Firstly, Scripture prohibits making images of God. Secondly, Christ is God. Therefore, Scripture prohibits making images of Christ.

In theory it is possible to get around this argument – to agree with the premises and reject the conclusion. This can be done if Christ is held to be ‘God’ in a lesser sense than the invisible Father. Then we could make images of Christ without breaking the commandment not to make images of the Father.

However, the Orthodox have no desire to make such a claim. They insist on the validity of the Nicene Creed, which asserts that at the incarnation, ‘[Christ] became a man, and thus He is at once fully God and fully man’.4

Images of Christ

Alternatively, one might argue that Christ is fully God, but he is also a man. The images, then, represent only his human nature. But again, the Orthodox explicitly reject this option as Nestorian.

Daniel Clendenin writes, ‘It is not solely [Christ’s] human nature that is portrayed in an icon (separating the human nature from the divine nature would be Nestorianism); rather, “the total divine-human person of Christ” is portrayed’.5

Clendenin rightly asserts that any attempt to portray only Christ’s human nature does violence to the union of that nature with the divine. He reminds the reader of Chalcedonian orthodoxy – namely that Christ’s two natures are ‘without confusion, change, division, or separation’.

And he concludes, ‘An icon, then, did not attempt to represent either the human or the divine nature alone, but instead the unity and totality of the natures in a single person’.

Sacred name

John Meyendorff speaks even more boldly – what appears on the image is the very hypostasis (or person) of God the Word in the flesh. In the Byzantine tradition the inscription around the halo surrounding the head of Jesus says: ‘The One who is’, which is the equivalent of the sacred name of God YHWH, the one whose person is revealed but whose essence is inaccessible.

That is, an icon represents neither God’s indescribable divinity nor his human nature alone, but rather the person of God the Son who took flesh.6 Yahweh, the eternal I AM, whose form was not seen, spoke from the burning bush. The Orthodox insist that he is the one whose image is seen in the icon.

They specifically assert that, whatever an icon means, it does not deny that Christ is ‘very God of very God’. And, whatever an icon does, it does not separate his natures. But then the dilemma remains. An icon of Christ is an image of his person, and the person of Christ is divine – therefore the icon is an image of God.

Prohibition removed?

How do the Orthodox respond to this? They might put their case in the following way: Firstly, Old Testament Scripture did prohibit images of God. But, secondly, Christ is God. Therefore the prohibition against making images of God must have been removed because God has himself revealed his image in his Son.

The Orthodox accept that it was both wrong and impossible to make a picture of God in Old Testament times, if only because no one knew what God’s image looked like! John Meyendorff writes, ‘To paint an image of the divine essence or of God before his incarnation is obviously impossible’.7

It was certainly impossible to paint a picture of that which was invisible. And it was probably blasphemous too, since God had not chosen to conceal his image during the Old Testament economy.

In their opposition to icons, the iconoclasts pointed to Deuteronomy 4:15-16 which grounds the prohibition of images in the invisibility of God: ‘So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image…’

Leap of logic

However, the Orthodox claim that the Incarnation changes things. Clendenin writes:

‘Whereas God spoke in a certain way in the age of law, in the age of grace he has spoken in a decisively new way (Hebrews 1:1-2). The once invisible God assumed a human body and in so doing became circumscribable’.9

Jack Sparks quotes John of Damascus to make this point: ‘It is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw his likeness’.10, 11

The second commandment, therefore, no longer applies. Clendenin concludes: ‘The commandment against graven images was construed as a temporal rather than a universal prohibition, one that was appropriate to the age of pagan idols but has now been superseded by the incarnation of God himself’.12

It is an amazing leap of logic from the premise that God has revealed himself once for all in his Son, to the conclusion that we may now make images of God. Yet the Orthodox do not seem to notice that they have leaped at all.

They barely attempt to explain how to get from the premise to the conclusion. To them, the conclusion is obvious.13

Errors either way

And when they do attempt an explanation, they stumble into Nestorianism. Nestorians believed that in Christ there were not only two natures, but two persons – one of which (the eternal Word) was divine and the other (the man Jesus) was human.

This is almost inevitable. The only alternative is Monophysitism, of which they have an even greater horror. The Monophysites held that Christ had only a single nature, in which the divine and human aspects were combined.

Yet one or the other error awaits them. To say that the Incarnation legitimises icons is either to say that God’s nature changed when he became a man and thus is now depictable; or it is to say that God became depictable as a man but remained undepictable as God.

Jack Sparks concludes his thinking this way: ‘It is incredibly important that we Christians be allowed the latitude to depict Christ’s humanity and work, because by his incarnation he revealed himself in and through material creation’.14

On the subject of depicting Christ’s divinity, Sparks remains silent. It is an eloquent silence. God became depictable as a man, but that doesn’t make his invisible divine nature any more depictable.

This tension trips Sparks into making a statement that at least has Nestorian overtones – namely, that the incarnation allows us to depict Christ only as a human being.

Finally, Meyendorff offers this defence: ‘[The Incarnation] means that he was a man like all of us, and can be represented on an image’.15But he does not explain why that conclusion is more valid than this one: ‘The Incarnation means that Christ was God, just like his Father, and cannot be represented on an image’.