On Icons: The Christological Argument

This argument is by far the most theologically grounded argument for the use of icons relying heavily on the fact that God became incarnate and was depicted as perfect God and perfect Man in space and time. As such, it is also, ironically, the least used argument by the laity and the least recognized argument by detractors. I want to start off listing the argument and then I’ll list responses to the practice in general and end with a concluding statement regarding the Christological argument and the use of icons.

The Theology of Icon Usage
Before the incarnation, whenever people saw God we know they didn’t really see God—John makes this point pretty clearly. Going back to the Old Testament texts we can see what he’s talking about: that as Moses saw God, he was really catching, as it were, the tail end of God while God’s “hand” covered him in an uncomfortable cleft; when Isaiah saw God he saw, as it were, the train of God’s “robe” filling the temple; when Abraham saw God, he saw a man who ate but then disappeared—no one had seen God (John 1). Even Daniel, seeing God, really saw a man as if the Ancient of Days; he didn’t really see God.

So no one could depict God because it would just be drawing from nothing, conceiving of God in the image of whatever.

Until the incarnation, that is. For it is only at the incarnation where we can hear the word of God speaking audibly; where a person could literally hold onto the living, breathing God. It was at the incarnation that, if someone saw him, they automatically saw God incarnate and knew what He looked like. God became three dimensional to save the three dimensional.

The use of icons then becomes possible, and allowable (say its supporters), because God has made himself visible, tangible and able to be depicted. St. John of Damascus says it this way in his First Apology: But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter: I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.

If God is to be worshipped in spirit an truth (John 4) and the truth is that he revealed himself in matter (John 1), then God is not to be worshipped merely in the projected mental image but in the object that speaks of the reality of the incarnation: in the fact that God has become visible and the focus of our confession (Rom 10).

In light of this, it is obvious that the mandate of the second commandment has been repealed since God is the one who made the recording of images of Himself possible via the incarnation.

This argument is strong since it doesn’t justify itself on the basis of other people’s practices or what occurred (or didn’t occur) with the text; it is concerned with what occurred in time and what the Apostles say about it. I’d go so far as wish that more people used this argument to support the use of icons than obfuscating the issue with matters of worship vs. veneration or grandmothers and paintings of angels. At least this argument supports the practice on the reality of God.

Responses to The Theology
Now, from the fact of the incarnation happened we can draw certain points, surely, but I think that the users of icons have jumped the gun in what conclusions could be properly drawn.

First, I readily grant the point that Christ became incarnate so that he can be properly worshipped as a man but that only means that He is to be worshipped as a man. It doesn’t necessarily mean that one can now make images to remember Christ in worship of Christ.

Indeed, some of the earlier responses to this whole controversy were that a depiction of Christ only focuses on his humanity but doesn’t depict his deity—to which John of Damascus response about matter became important. The icon isn’t depicting humanity, he noted, that’s a mistake; it is depicting material and as such properly reflects that God is being worshipped in his becoming material (which is why I underscored three dimensionality above). So it’s not that the material focuses on some portion of Christ, it focuses on the whole materialized God.

Even so, my response still stands. If God materialized it doesn’t mean that now material is to be venerated. There were shovels that became holy when used in the tabernacle’s ash pit but not every shovel became holy on account of the shovels that did become separate.

But John of Damascus furthers this  argument by saying I also venerate the matter through which salvation came to me, as if filled with divine energy and grace. This is exceedingly problematic and leads to my second concern regarding the leap from incarnation to icons: The fact that Christ became material doesn’t mean that now material is the justified object of adoration.

The fact that God incarnated just means that God, at his appropriate self-representation, decided to do so as a tangible, material, historical (I don’t mean past, I mean in the flow of time) person. That doesn’t make a piece of wood at the same level, and those who make icons should know that but based on John of Damascus (and others) reasoning, they might not.

That is why there is a specific process for making icons, inserting the proper symbolism, inserting multiple life events and making sure that you’re not making a photorealistic depiction; you’re making a representative depiction. But in so doing, what are you doing to the piece of wood besides adding more material? Nothing whatsoever. So the rules for creating a proper icon say things like making sure to avoid inserting shadows but allowing the icon to glow with the inner glow of the Saint via the light and glory of Christ (a point I’ll address below).

So the fact that people make an icon of Christ does nothing to underscore Christ—it just underscores material layered with material, which Christ came to redeem surely, but doesn’t support worshipping it to get to Christ nor even worshipping it because Christ is material.

Third, the Icon Supporters say that they are worshipping through the material to the reality which the material represents, which flies in the face of the very strong Christological argument.

Christ is God, He came as material: if you want to worship Him, you worship Him and you are automatically worshipping God. When you pray and enter into the Holiest of Holies approaching God, you are praying to Christ—not through Christ to God. And when you pray to the Father, you come with the name and authority of Christ, not through Christ but because of Christ. If you want the glory of God, you look to Christ, full stop.

This whole thinking that the icon glows with it the saint’s inner light via the glory of Christ winds up effectively tearing apart the use of the material and starts to support the idea that you don’t use the material for much more than a bounding board into the invisible Spirit behind it all—in which case, there is no use for the icon save as some form of focal event to get to that specific target…something that unfortunately starts to have the negative sound of magic.

Fourth, even if I grant (which I won’t) the revelation of the incarnate God justified the use of material to worship through in worshipping God, that doesn’t justify the use of material to depict other people for veneration-which-is-not-worship (allowing the category to stand apart from worship). The persons may conceivably be justified in depicting God, but I don’t see any justification in depicting Mary, St. Paul or St. George.

The argument that is usually put forward is that by the fact that God was depicted as a material man, God is, as it were, lifting the ban on depicting things, persons and beings in heaven with images. What’s interesting here is that it both acknowledges that something is going on with icons that wouldn’t have been allowed in the Old Testament (which is further proof against the argument that the text doesn’t speak about the practice or that the Church allowed the practice therefore it is allowed).

God told the Israelites to create certain images but doing so didn’t repeal any mandates on creating images in depicting God: all it did was reveal that the only authorized image was the image that God wanted portrayed. This argument relies on the fact that people had eyes and Christ came in a time where people would have an image attached to the thought of who God is.

But isn’t it just as possible to argue that since Christ didn’t come in the age after photographs, that God was saying something about the image which could only be said back then? Sure, the Icon supporter would say, that’s why the Icons aren’t Photo Realistic: they depict reality while not looking like reality. And yet, the image that the people would have had in their heads regarding Christ would have been the photorealistic image. Not only that, the image that others would have had (Paul for instance) would have been no image at all (maybe light or the image of other Jews in the neighborhood).

So this leads to my last response in regard to the silence of situations. We can just as easily argue that since Christ’s earliest resurrection act is eating fish therefore we should not only eat fish, we should encourage the eating of fish. It’s just a really strange way to get to the support of an action on account of God’s actions in a specific time and place. Personally, I would place this as the weakest of the five extrapolated points from the Christological argument and yet is one that I see coming up.

So in conclusion, I think the Christological argument is actually the strongest argument for the use of images—and should technically be the only argument that icon users should seek to support. The other arguments wind up being fraught with fallacies but this one actually finds some solid support from God’s activity in time. But, I think that icon supporters have overstepped the appropriate conclusions of the incarnation and have jumped to this strange area to support a (then) contextually understandable practice.

I think the use of icons is fine as illustrations that teach history, as memorials of people in the past, as objects that reminds us of the shoulders on which we stand, as lessons for those who can’t read—but I do not think that they should be used as objects of veneration-often-confused-for-worship and indeed, as I said in another post, think they should be avoided because of real Spiritual concerns. If people keep confusing the categories and using them as real windows into the real Spiritual realm, then I think that for all intents and purposes, Icons should sadly be put away until a point such spiritual windows can be shut.

There is one more matter that I have to deal with in regard to the Christological argument and that is the overturning of the second commandment.

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3 thoughts on “On Icons: The Christological Argument

Rey, thank you for this. It was charitable, and it obviously took time. Let me share some thoughts. They are off the cuff and not necessarily the most important or needful of those, which might be offered.

You write: First, I readily grant the point that Christ became incarnate so that he can be properly worshiped as a man but that only means that He is to be worshiped as a man. It doesn’t necessarily mean that one can now make images to remember Christ in worship of Christ.

There are two things that are asserted by the church regarding the human element in the Logo’s incarnation. The first is signified by anhypostasis. The second with the term enhypostasis. Christ came as man, and as a man. Throughout this reflection you deal only with the later- it almost seems that you deny the former. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

You’ve combined two distinct things (though understandably so, considering the place of Icons) 1. The depiction of Christ and 2) the use of those depictions in worship.

You simply make an assertion here, and I think its wrong. The fact that God became man and a man certainly does mean that he can be depicted. This is the great central truth of our faith- the word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. Really, really. Really became flesh. The stories of apostate Judaism and Islam make such a claim idolatrous and blasphemous. We can worship (will worship on day) God by bowing at the pierced human feet of Jesus. We have seen his glory.

Seen.

The fact that it was possible to see and thus depict God is the great dividing line between Christianity and all other conceptions of God.

This is the considered and ancient position of God’s people. It can’t be swept aside by a mere assertion. You need to demonstrate that ‘denying that God can be depicted, is not the same that he he really, really became flesh.

It seems to me that at best it can be argued that though he once could be depicted, described, touched, smelled, or recognized by the shaped of his nose, sound of his voice and color of beard, we can no longer envision him in such human terms.

What would become of the God who became flesh in such a prohibition? You’ve not attempted that, though.

The question of whether such depictions ought to be allowed in worship is a separate question. This seems to be a matter of discretion (I’m familiar with the Regulative Principle. Been there; done that.; but its lost its allure)

Anyway, I can appreciate the concern. Perhaps its justified.

You write: Indeed, some of the earlier responses to this whole controversy were that a depiction of Christ only focuses on his humanity but doesn’t depict his deity—to which John of Damascus response about matter became important. The icon isn’t depicting humanity, he noted, that’s a mistake; it is depicting material and as such properly reflects that God is being worshipped in his becoming material (which is why I underscored three dimensionality above). So it’s not that the material focuses on some portion of Christ, it focuses on the whole materialized God.

I think the response to these sorts of criticism was the Hypostatic Union of both human and divine. It is the person of Jesus Christ that was seen, could be described and depicted- not simply his human nature.

These sorts of evaluations lead to Nestorianism (at best) and Doceticism (at worst). The humanity of Christ did not exist apart form the Hypostatic Union with the divine Logos (enhypostasis) and the humanity was real- it could be touched drawn, smelt, etc.

You write: Even so, my response still stands. If God materialized it doesn’t mean that now material is to be venerated. There were shovels that became holy when used in the tabernacle’s ash pit but not every shovel became holy on account of the shovels that did become separate.

The Incarnation made explicit (though this is not all) the reality that had existed through out eternity- all of creation is in union with Christ. It came into existence through Christ and continues to have its being in him. There is nothing that exists apart form him. There is nothing that moves behind his back. In the Incarnation he furthered this connection by taking it into himself, hypostatically. That is, personally.

The second person of the Godhead exists in personal union with matter. This is what the Incarnation teaches.

You write: But John of Damascus furthers this argument by saying I also venerate the matter through which salvation came to me, as if filled with divine energy and grace. This is exceedingly problematic and leads to my second concern regarding the leap from incarnation to icons: The fact that Christ became material doesn’t mean that now material is the justified object of adoration.

The material world was created as God’s love to us. Bread is God’s love made bread. Breasts are God’s love made breasts. The entirety of Creation was meant to bring God to us. The entirety of creation is charged with the glory and grandeur of God. Sin entered the world when our first parents grasped for matter apart from the God who gave it to us. The cause of redemption is not served by making that separation a fundamental point of our faith.

All things were meant to be Holy. In Christ all things are once again holy. One day, the entire world will work as the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of Eucharist do. We will see creation for what it really is- precious gift, love and blessing. There is noting in God’s world that is ‘just stuff.’ There is nothing in God’s world that isn’t worthy of our adoration, protection and reverence. This is the case because of the one who made, sustains and personally unites himself to it.

You write: The fact that God incarnated just means that God, at his appropriate self-representation, decided to do so as a tangible, material, historical (I don’t mean past, I mean in the flow of time) person. That doesn’t make a piece of wood at the same level, and those who make icons should know that but based on John of Damascus (and others) reasoning, they might not.

Anything that affirms ‘just means’ in terms of the Incarnation ought to be viewed with some suspicion. :-) It is the great mystery of all time. It is the purpose and end of all of creation.

Anyway, you begin to confuse veneration/respect/adoration with worship. I think that this continues though out the rest of your comments. I’ll point a few out when we get to them. The hypostatic union of God and man does not deny the creature/creator distinction. There is no confusion of the ‘same level.’ The difficulty of this orthodox affirmation is the stumbling block of our faith.

You write: So the fact that people make an icon of Christ does nothing to underscore Christ—it just underscores material layered with material, which Christ came to redeem surely, but doesn’t support worshipping it to get to Christ nor even worshipping it because Christ is material.

This reflects a significant difference between the ancient church and the more modern splits. The contemplation of the ancient church has centered on the person of Christ. Affirming that God became flesh is the central fact of our faith. It is the focus of the Christ we wish to underscore.

You write: Third, the Icon Supporters say that they are worshipping through the material to the reality which the material represents, which flies in the face of the very strong Christological argument…

Icon’s are not worshiped. The veneration of Icons is used in Orthodox worship.

You write: Christ is God, He came as material: if you want to worship Him, you worship Him and you are automatically worshipping God. When you pray and enter into the Holiest of Holies approaching God, you are praying to Christ—not through Christ to God. And when you pray to the Father, you come with the name and authority of Christ, not through Christ but because of Christ. If you want the glory of God, you look to Christ, full stop.

This is only half the truth, and a full stop leaves us only half reconciled.

Jesus is not simply God. His actions are not simply man ward. Jesus is also man and a man. His actions are also Godward.

God hasn’t simply come to us in Christ. Man has come to God in Christ. He offers to God all that we aren’t and can’t. We live through Christ in us.

Again, this is a serious Christological oversite, and its not a coincidence that it comes up in this discussion.

You write: Fourth, even if I grant (which I won’t) the revelation of the incarnate God justified the use of material to worship through in worshipping God, that doesn’t justify the use of material to depict other people for veneration-which-is-not-worship (allowing the category to stand apart from worship). The persons may conceivably be justified in depicting God, but I don’t see any justification in depiction Mary, St. Paul or St. George.

You are an artist; you depict people all of the time. The real problem here is that you don’t believe the heroes of our faith are worthy of remembrance, emulation or adoration in the context of community or in a way that involves something other than our minds.

You write: The argument that is usually put forward is that by the fact that God was depicted as a material man, God is, as it were, lifting the ban on depicting things, persons and beings in heaven with images…

There has never been a ban on depicting things, persons and beings in heaven. The Old covenant is filled with such depictions. The tabernacle was made according to what?

You write: God told the Israelites to create certain images but doing so didn’t repeal any mandates on creating images in depicting God: all it did was reveal that the only authorized image was the image that God wanted portrayed. This argument relies on the fact that people had eyes and Christ came in a time where people would have an image attached to the thought of who God is…

All of this is tangential to the argument and speculative. The question is Christological. Did God become man? Does this involve being capable of being depicted.

You write: So this leads to my last response in regard to the silence of situations. We can just as easily argue that since Christ’s earliest resurrection act is eating fish therefore we should not only eat fish, we should encourage the eating of fish. It’s just a really strange way to get to the support of an action on account of God’s actions in a specific time and place. Personally, I would place this as the weakest of the five extrapolated points from the Christological argument and yet is one that I see coming up.

This underlines the differences in what is deemed important. The central tenet of our ancient faith is the person of Christ. The incarnation was not one example of things God did. It was not a step along the way. It was not preparation for something more important. The person of Christ is our reconciliation. He, himself, is that.

You write: So in conclusion, I think the Christological argument is actually the strongest argument for the use of images—and should technically be the only argument that icon users should seek to support. The other arguments wind up being fraught with fallacies but this one actually finds some solid support from God’s activity in time. But, I think that icon supporters have overstepped the appropriate conclusions of the incarnation and have jumped to this strange area to support a (then) contextually understandable practice.

The Christological argument is the argument for Icons. In the paper from the Westminster Seminary prof that I offered to Jande, it is acknowledged that the force of this hasn’t been felt by Protestants. He seeks to correct that; in my opinion he falls way short.

It’s interesting though, that he acknowledges that the real justification for abandoning the practice of the church had yet to be discovered.

I think the use of icons is fine as illustrations that teach history, as memorials of people in the past, as objects that reminds us of the shoulders on which we stand, as lessons for those who can’t read—but I do not think that they should be used as objects of veneration-often-confused-for-worship and indeed, as I said in another post, think they should be avoided because of real Spiritual concerns. If people keep confusing the categories and using them as real windows into the real Spiritual realm, then I think that for all intents and purposes, Icons should sadly be put away until a point such spiritual windows can be shut.

Rey, you’ve moved from absolute prohibition to ‘it might be wise’. That seems significant.

I hope you know that no one requires that Icons be used or venerated. The Incarnation requires that it is now possible to depict God, because he really became a man. In addition respect for holy things ought to require that we, well… show respect for them.

The question left is ‘Can stuff be worthy of respect or is it simply nothing but atoms, chance and time.

Our materialistic age starts at its own presuppostions to answer that question. Our ancient faith starts with her most basic presupposition- Jesus Christ, the son of Mary is of one substance with the father.

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