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.