Monday, May 4, 2009

Iconophiles vs. Iconoclasts

In a previous post I discussed (among other things) the Iconoclast notion of what an icon actually is, and noted both that their definition followed the pagan notion that underlies the prohibition of the first commandment and the mockery of Isaiah 44:13-19, and that it is contrary to what Catholics have always said about them. In this post I want to look closer at what the orthodox said during the iconoclast controversy about what an image is. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations (and most other material) in this post are from Pelikan's The Spirit of Eastern Christendom, pp. 118-122.

Although there were differences of wording among them, it seems that their definitions followed more or less what was said by John of Damascus, who said that an image is
a likeness, an illustration, and a representation of something, showing forth in itself that which is imaged.
Nicephorus, Pelikan says, was more thoroughgoing:
[An image is] a likeness of an archetype, having impressed upon it the form of what it represents by similarity, differing from it only by the difference of essence in accordance with the materials...or an imitation and similitude of the archetype, differing in essence and substance; or a product of some technical skill, shaped in accordance with the limitation of the archetype, but differing from it in essence and substance.
Elsewhere Nicephorus insisted that an image represents its archetype "in such a way that it also maintains some distinction from it."

Now obviously these definitions are completely unlike the iconoclasts' ideas about images, and the modern iconoclast is going to have to do better than to simply wave his hand and say that the distinctions that Catholics and Orthodox make are irrelevant. They're not. Nor will a simple appeal to the first commandment suffice, as I pointed out in my earlier post. (For that matter, an appeal to the "second commandment" [by their numbering] won't suffice either, since a Catholic doesn't accept the Protestant's numbering scheme.)

There were other arguments made, too. One Leontius of Neapolis compared veneration of icons (and, presumably, relics would fit here as well) to the reverence we show to articles of clothing (we might add photos today) that belonged to a beloved departed spouse. Damascene said something similar:
I have often seen those with a sense of longing, who, having caught sight of the garment of their beloved, embrace the garment as though it were the beloved person himself.
Well, does the bereaved love the clothing or the one who wore it? Does he love the photo, or the one pictured? Do we really have to ask these silly questions? Pelikan writes:
Christian worship of the icons was an instance of this same devotion, in which respect and affection were being paid to the garment, but were in fact addressed to the person of the departed, be it Christ or his mother or some other saint. ... Such arguments suggested that the use of icons in Christian worship was not a relapse into paganism, but a concession to the psychology of all normal men, whether Christian or pagan. [emphasis added]
But it was more than just human psychology that was in view, argues Pelikan:
When they put such an emphasis on the role of the senses in worship, the iconophiles were affirming the role of the body in salvation - of the physical body of Christ as the means of achieving it and of the physical body of man as a participant in it together with the soul. The iconoclasts claimed to worship the invisible God in a purely spiritual and mental way, disdaining the use of visual aids such as images. ... [But] Man was body as well as soul, and the means of grace were accommodated to this condition; therefore there was a baptism in water as well as in the Spirit, and therefore man also needed to see the divine represented in images. ... The spiritualism of the iconoclasts seemed to put them into the same class with the ancient Gnostics, who claimed that the body of Christ was not physical but heavenly, and who despised the physically minded believers as less spiritual than they.
Just so. Now of course modern iconoclasts aren't Gnostic (at any rate, I've never heard of any such). But it still bears saying, it seems to me, that when it comes to worship, they seem to loathe the body and anything physical. Hence they despise images; hence they deny the Real Presence; hence they deny that Baptism actually does wash us of our sins; etc.

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