Lord's Voice | Diakonia | Links | Baptism | Multimedia







Origen, Eusebius and the Iconoclastic Controversy

George Florovsky, ‘ Origen, Eusebius
and the Iconoclastic Controversy',
Church History, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Jun., 1950), pp. 77-96

The Iconoclastic controversy was undoubtedly one of the major conflicts in the history of the Christian Church. It was not just a Byzantine conflict; the West was also involved in the dispute. It is true, however, that the West never followed the East in the theological argument, nor did it suffer all the im­plications and consequences of the Byzantine theology of the Icons. In the history of the Christian East it was, on the con­trary, a turning point. All levels of life were affected by the conflict, all strata of society were involved in the struggle. The fight was violent, bitter, and desperate. The cost of victory was enormous, and tensions in the Church were not solved by it. The Church in Byzantium has never recovered again her inner unity, which had been distorted or lost in the Iconoclastic strife.

Strangely enough, we seem to have lost the key to this momentous crisis of history. The origin, the meaning, and the nature of the Iconoclastic conflict are rather uncertain and obscure. Modern historians do not agree on the main points of the interpretation. It has been fashionable for several decades, since Paparrigopoulo and Vasiljevsky, to interpret the Iconclastic crisis primarily in political and social categories and to re­gard its religious aspect as a side issue. It has been variously suggested that originally the conflict had nothing to do with doctrine, and theological arguments or charges were invented, as it were, post factum , as efficient weapons in the struggle. Some historians went so far as to suggest that the religious problem was simply a kind of a “smoke screen,” manufactured and employed by the rival parties as a disguise to conceal the true issue, which was economic (1). Even quite recently, a prominent Byzantine scholar contended that theology “counted for nothing” in the dispute and that the whole controversy was “con­cerned with anything but philosophical speculation” (2). By­zantium was supposed to have been spiritually dead and ex­hausted long before the Iconoclastic controversy arose, and the conflict itself was merely a symptom of sterility of the Byzantine Church. A kind of deadlock had been reached in her develop­ment. “Intellectual curiosity was practically dead. On the Orthodox side there is scarcely a sign of it.” On the other hand, Iconoclasm “was in itself of little importance intellectually” (3). The Iconoclastic struggle, therefore, should not be interpreted in the perspective of the great doctrinal conflicts of the pre­ceding centuries; the old Christological heresies had been con­demned and were dead issues by that time. Their ghosts were invoked in the Iconoclastic dispute just for the sake of polemical efficiency (4). And finally, it is contended that we should not dig out these corpses again.

In the light of the recent research, these arbitrary state­ments are hopelessly old-fashioned and out of date. The theo­logical setting of the whole dispute has been rediscovered and reestablished by impartial scholars beyond any reasonable doubt. It is enough to quote the studies of George Ostrogorsky, Ger­hart B. Ladner and, especially, Lucas Koch, O.S.B. (5). Most modern scholars now recognize that the true problem under dis­cussion was specifically religious, and that both parties were wrestling with real theological problems. The Iconoclastic debate was not simply ecclesiastical or ritualistic; it was a doctrinal controversy. Some ultimate issues of faith and belief were at stake . It was a real struggle for “Orthodoxy.” St. John of Damascus, the Patriarch Nicephorus and St. Theodore of Studium were indeed true theologians, and not just contro­versialists or ecclesiastical schemers. It is very instructive that a close study of the works of Nicephorus (a large part of which is still unpublished) has compelled J. D. Andreev to revise and reverse his earlier interpretation of the Iconoclastic controversy. He began his studies in the mood of Paparrigopoulo, but ended with a firm conviction that Iconoclasm was an integral phasis of the great Christological dispute, that Patriarch Nicephorus was a “mighty exponent of the Greek genius.” Unfortunately, Andreev's book was never published and his manuscript, which was ready for the printer, seems to have been lost (6).

This new conclusion should not deny or minimize the political and social aspects of the conflict. But these aspects are to be viewed in proper perspective. All doctrinal move­ments in the Early Church (and possibly, all doctrinal and philosophical movements) were, in some sense, “politically involved” and had political and social implications, and even Monotheism itself was “a political problem” (7) . Yet, by no means were they just an ideological superstructure over a political or economic foundation. In the Iconoclastic conflict the political strife itself had a very definite theological connotation and the “Caesaro-papalism” of the Iconoclastic emperors was itself a kind of theological doctrine (8). Iconoclasm was, no doubt, a com­plex phenomenon. Various groups were associated with the movement, and their purposes and concerns, their motives and aims, were by no means identical. Probably, there was no real agreement inside the Iconoclastic party itself, if there was a party at all or, at least, one particular party. As matter of fact, we know there was considerable disagreement. And therefore, the recovery of a theological setting or perspective does not settle all problems at once. It brings, rather, some new problems to the fore. We have to admit frankly that our knowledge of the epoch is still very inadequate and incomplete.

There is here still much to be done before we could attempt an inclusive historical synthesis. Even the major theological docu­ments of the epoch have not yet been properly studied. We have no reliable book on the theology of St. Theodore of Studium, and no monograph at all on St. Patriarch Nicephorus. And much of the available information has been overlooked or misinterpreted, owing to certain prejudices and presuppositions, which were never seriously scrutinized.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that, on the whole, we know and understand the position of the Iconodules much better than the theology of the Iconoclasts. The theological contentions and aspirations of the defenders of the Holy Icons are, more or less, clear and comprehensible. They were plainly stated and summarized by the prominent writers of the time. We know what they stood for and what they opposed, and what their reasons were (9). The theological position of the Iconoclasts, on the contrary, is still rather obscure. Of course, this is due primarily to the scarcity of information. Our docu­mentation is fragmentary and scanty. The original writings of the Iconoclasts were almost completely destroyed by their antagonists and are to be reconstructed only upon the evidence of their enemies. To some extent this has been done (10) . Still we do not know, exactly, what was the starting point of the Iconoclastic argument nor the real perspective of that argu­ment. This missing perspective usually has been supplied by the conjecture of historians, as it were, by analogy. Judaic or Moslem hatred and repudiation of sacred images, on one hand, and the later Puritanical condemnation of the sacred art, on the other, seemed to provide a relevant analogy, especially because there were parallel movements of a similar type in other contexts, almost contemporaneous with the Iconoclastic out­burst in Byzantium. The main problem for a historian, how­ever, is this: what was the main inspiration of those Church groups, which committed themselves to the Iconoclastic cause? It would be a precarious endeavour to use analogy, before this first question is settled. It is a gratuitous assumption, and a too easy solution, if we simply suggest (as it had been so often done) that they were led mainly by the desire to please the Emperor (11) . T his assumption does not do full justice to the obvious facts. Bishops, as we know, did not go as far as some politicians, and yet they seemed to be quite sincerely against the Iconodulia. Even Kopronymos had to justify his policy and convictions by theological arguments, obviously, not so much to impress his opponents, as to make a convincing appeal to his prospective supporters, and he had to speak their idiom, even if it was not his own, i.e. even if his main reason was not ultimately a theological one. And we know that the pseudo­council of 754 did not follow the Emperor's lead completely (12) .

It is not the purpose of this paper to make an attempt at synthesis. Its scope and purpose is very modest and limited. I am going to bring to the fore some neglected evidences and suggest some fresh lines of research. It is to be a programme of study, not a report on achievements. We shall begin with a concrete question: What was the main authority of the Iconoclasts? It was an appeal to antiquity, and this was pos­sibly the strongest point both of their attack and of their self-defense. It was a double appeal to the Scripture and Tradition. It is usual, in modern interpretation, to give priority to their scriptural proof. Their patristic references were rather neg­lected. They seemed to be less instructive and convincing. But in the eighth and ninth centuries the patristic proofs would carry full weight. It seems to me, we should have given much more attention to these references, not to pass a judgment on the fight, but to ascertain the reasons and aims of the contending parties.

First of all, some few comments on the scriptural proofs will not be out of place. The Old Testament prohibition of images comes first, and the defenders of the Icons themselves gave much attention to this point. They re-interpreted in many ways this Old Testament witness. Yet, can we be sure, that it was the real focus of the debate, and was it not rather a borrowing from other literary sources? What I mean, is simply this: there was a controversy between Jews and Christians, on that very point immediately before the outbreak of the Icono­clastic movement in the Byzantine Church. Obviously, in this controversy the Old Testament witness had to have an indis­putable priority. We have every reason to admit that in this debate the Christian apologists developed some standard argu­ments and compiled some patristic testimonia to vindicate the Christian position (13). We have no direct evidence to prove that the internecine strife within the Church was an organic continuation of the earlier Judaeo-Christian controversy. Yet, of course, it was quite natural for both sides to use or apply the readily available arguments and “proofs.” But was this really the point of the Byzantine controversy? Usually, the whole Iconoclastic argument is reconstructed as a “Semitic” objection against the “Hellenistic” re-paganization of the Church. Iconoclasm then appears to be merely Oriental re­sistance to a more or less acute Hellenization of Christianity. We have to concede that, in some respects, it is a very plausible hypothesis (14) . Iconoclasm was born in the Orient, and its first promoters were Phrygian bishops (Constantine of Nacoleia and Thomas of Claudiopolis). Yet, let us not overlook the strange fact that their names completely disappear in the later docu­ments—probably because they would not appeal too much to the new strata which were sustaining the Iconoclastic cause in its later phase (15) . Again, the Iconoclastic movement in Byzantium was preceded by a persecution of a similar character in the Caliphate. Still, no direct link with the Moslem op­position has been detected—there was no more than a parallelism and “analogy” (16) . Even the defenders of an Oriental in­spiration concede that the role of the Orientals in the later development of the struggle was nul (17) . On the other hand, the first theologian of the Icons emerged in the East, in a Moslem environment, and St. John of Damascus was by no means an exceptional figure. We should not forget also that, at least in the later period of the struggle, the Iconoclastic cause was popular in the Hellenized quarters, in the court circles, and in the army, whereas in the lower classes it never had flourished, even if there are recorded some cases of violence among the masses. This observation was made by Schwartz- lose (18). Even if the initial impetus came from the Orient and from the masses, the movement grew rapidly on Greek soil and was supported mostly by the learned. This was the main reason for Paparrigopoulo to construe Inconoclasm into an early system of Enlightment. In any case, we have to warn our­selves against easy generalizations. The situation seems to have been more complicated than an Oriental hypothesis can explain. It remains to determine precisely, why and how the Iconoclasm could appeal to the higher clergy and other intellectuals in Byzantium. They were the opponents with whom Nicephorus and Theodore had to debate the issue. The subservience and opportunism of these men is not an explana­tion. It simply explains away an unwelcome question. It has been customary to look for the “sources” of the Iconoclasm in the most remote quarters: Judaism, Islam, Paulicianists and other Oriental heresies (19). But Hellenistic precedents or “sources” have been overlooked or ignored.

Let us turn now to the patristic references of the Icon­oclastic party. Most of them are colourless and irrelevant— detached phrases taken out of their original context. There are only two references which are of importance and can sub­stantiate a theological thesis. First, a letter of Eusebius of Caesarea to Constantia Augusta. Secondly, quotations from Epiphanius or “Epiphanides” or Pseudo-Epiphanius, if we have to agree with Ostrogorsky on the point of the authorship. The witness of Epiphanius was discussed extensively by Holl and Ostrogorsky, and we can leave it aside in the present study. We have, however, to remember that, for Holl, the witness of Epiphanius (which he regarded as authentic) was a proof of a dogmatic connotation of the whole problem of Images, as early as the fourth century (20). The evidence of Eusebius, strangely enough, was never given much attention. It has been often quoted, but never properly analyzed. There is no reason whatsoever to question its authenticity (21) . It seems to be the key-argument in the whole system of the Iconoclastic reasoning. It was hardly an accident that St. Nicephorus felt compelled to write a special “Antirrheticus” against Eusebius. The name of Eusebius demands attention for another reason: the whole Iconoclastic conception of the Imperial power and authority in the Church goes back to Eusebius. There was an obvious trend of archaism in the Iconoclastic policy.

The letter of Eusebius is not preserved in full. Some parts of it were quoted and discussed at the Council of Nicea and again by Nicephorus, and all excerpts available were put to­gether by Boivin and published for the first time in the notes to his edition of Nicephorus Gregoras' History (1702). The text has been reproduced several times since, and a critical edition is badly wanted (22) . This time, however, we are not concerned with the exact reading.

The letter cannot be accurately dated. It was a reply to Constantia Augusta, a sister of Constantine. She had asked Eusebius to send her an “image of Christ.” He was astonished. What kind of an image did she mean? Nor could he under­stand why she should want one. Was it a true and unchangeable image, which would have in itself Christ's character? Or was it the image he had assumed when he took upon himself, for our sake, the form of a servant? The first, Eusebius remarks, is obviously inaccessible to man; only the Father knows the Son. The form of a servant, which he took upon himself at the Incarnation, has been amalgamated with his Divinity. After his ascension into heaven he had changed that form of a servant into the splendour which, by an anticipation, he had revealed to his disciples (at the Transfiguration) and which was higher than a human nature. Obviously, this splendour cannot be depicted by the lifeless colours and shades. The Apostles could not look at him. If even in his flesh there was such a power, what is to be said of him now, when he had transformed the form of a servant into the glory of the Lord and God? Now he rests in the unfathomable bosom of the Father. His previous form has been transfigured and transformed into that splendour ineffable that passes the measure of any eye or ear. No image of this new “form” is conceivable, if “this deified and intelligible substance” can still be called a “form.” We cannot follow the example of the pagan artists who would depict things that cannot be depicted, and whose pictures are therefore without any genuine likeness. Thus, the only available image would be just an image in the state of humiliation. Yet, all such images are formally prohibit­ed in the Law, nor are any such known in the churches. To have such images would have meant to follow the way of the idolatrous pagans. We, Christians, acknowledge Christ as the Lord and God, and we are preparing ourselves to con­template him as God, in the purity of our hearts. If we want to anticipate this glorious image, before we meet him face to face, there is but one Good Painter, the Word of God himself. The main point of this Eusebian argument is clear and obvious. Christians do not need any artificial image of Christ. They are not permitted to go back; they must look forward. Christ's “historical” image, the “form” of his humiliation, has been already superseded by his Divine splendour, in which he now abides. This splendour cannot be seen or delineated, but, in due time, true Christians will be admitted into that glory of the age to come. It would be superfluous for our present purpose to collate the parallels from the other writings of Eusebius (23) .

This testimony of Eusebius was disavowed by the Ortho­dox and rejected as heretical, as betraying his impious errors. It was emphasized that Eusebius was an Arian. We would phrase this charge somewhat differently. Eusebius was an Origenist, and his letter to Constantia was composed in an Origenistic idiom. Now, we have to ask this question: was the letter of Eusebius just an accidental reference discovered (by the Iconoclasts), post factum , and brought forward, along with many others, to vindicate a thesis that had been formu­lated quite independently? Or, do we have here one of the original sources of the Iconoclastic inspiration, at least in its later theological form? Should we not explain the obvious popularity of the Iconoclastic bias among the learned bishops and clergy (whom it would be ridiculous to associate with either the Moslems, Paulicianists, or other obvious heretics) on the basis of their Origenistic leaning? To do this, of course, one would have to go through the list of all the bishops and clergy concerned and ascertain to what extent this suggestion could be substantiated in each particular case. We are speaking now especially of the prelates present at the Iconoclastic pseudo­councils of 754 and 815. This inquiry cannot, however, be undertaken in the present preliminary study. In any case, Origenism was by no means a dead issue by that time. Origen's spiritual ideal, through Evagrius and St. Maximus the Con­fessor, was integrated into the current Orthodox synthesis. For St. Maximus himself, Origenism was still a living theol­ogy and he had to wrestle with its problems and shortcom­ings quite in earnest. It is not yet quite certain, whether he had actually overcome all of them (24) . This was but a century before the outbreak of the Iconoclasm. The Orient especially was infected by Origenistic ideas of all sorts. It is true, the name of Origen was never mentioned in the Iconoclastic debate, and Nicephorus treated Eusebius simply as an Arian and does not mention Origen. We are not concerned at this point, however, with what Nicephorus had to say against Eusebius (25). The Origenistic character of the letter in question is beyond doubt. Obviously, the Iconoclasts would have condemned themselves, if they had dared to claim for themselves the authority of Origen. Yet, the whole tenor and ethos of Origenism was undoubtedly favorable to that course of theo­logical reasoning which was actually adopted by the Iconoclasts. Therefore, the defense of the Holy Icons was, in some sense, an indirect refutation of Origenism, a new act in the story of the ‘Origenistic controversies.”

First of all, Origen's Christology was utterly inadequate and ambiguous. The whole set of his metaphysical presupposi­tions made it very difficult for him to integrate the Incarna­tion, as an unique historical event, into the general scheme of Revelation. Everything historical was for him but transitory and accidental. Therefore the historical Incarnation had to be regarded only as a moment in the continuous story of per­manent Theophany of the Divine Logos—a central moment, in a sense, but still no more than a central symbol. In the perspective of a continuous Divino-cosmic process there was no room for a true historical uniqueness, for an ultimate de­cision, accomplished in time, by one major event. No event could, in this perspective, have an ultimate meaning or value by itself as an event. All events were to be interpreted as symbols or projections of some higher, super-temporal and super- historical, reality. The historical was, as it were, dissolved into the symbolic. Now, a symbol is no more than a sign, pointing to a beyond, be it eternity or “the age to come,” or both at once. The whole system of symbols was something provisional, to be ultimately done away. One had to penetrate behind the screen of symbols. This was the major exegetical principle or postulate of Origen. The exegetical method of Origen, by whatever name we may label it, was meant precisely for that ultimate purpose—to transcend history, to go beyond the veil of events, beyond the “letter” which would inevitably kill even under the New Dispensation of Grace, no less than sub umbraculo legis . The reality or historicity of the events was not denied, but they were to be interpreted as hints and signs and symbols. It would be an obvious injustice, if we imputed to Origen a neglect of history, of the “historic Jesus” and him Crucified. As Bigg has aptly remarked: “the Cross in all its wonder, its beauty, its power, was always before the eyes of Origen” (26) . This symbolism of Origen had nothing docetical about it. Yet, the “historic Cross” of Jesus was for Origen just a symbol of something higher. Only the simpliciores, “who are still children,” could be satisfied, in Origen's opinion, with the “somatic” sense of the Scripture, which is but “a shadow of the mysteries of Christ,” just as the Law of old had been a shadow of good things to come. The more advanced are concerned with the truth itself, i.e. with the “Eternal Gospel” (or a “Spiritual” Gospel), of which the historic Gospel or Evangel is but an enigma and shadow. Origen emphatically distinguishes and contrasts an “external” and a “hidden” Christianity. He admits, it is true, that one has to be at once “somatic” and “pneumatic,” but only for educational reasons and purposes. One has to tell the “fleshly” Christians that he does not know anything but Christ Jesus and Him Crucified. “But should we find those who are perfected in the spirit, and bear fruit in it, and are enamoured of the heavenly wisdom, these must be made to partake of that Word which, after it was made flesh, rose again to what it was in the beginning, with God.” Ultimately, we have to “transform” the “sensual” Evangelium into the “spiritual;” (27) that is to say that the New Testament is to be interpreted in the same manner as the Old—as an anticipation. This basic orientation towards the future, towards that what is to come, implies a definite devaluation of the past, of that which had already happened. It implies also an ultimate levelling of the whole temporal process, which is but natural since everything temporal is but a symbol of the eternal, and at any point one can break into the eternal. The whole “allegorical” or rather symbolical method of interpretation implies a certain equality of the two historical dispensations: they are both, in an ultimate sense, but provisional, and should be interpreted as such. Both are but “shadows,” if in a different sense. And Origen con­cludes, therefore, that in the Old Testament the whole truth was already available for the advanced. The prophets and the sages of the Old Dispensation have actually seen and known more and better than “somatics” in the Church, “and could see better than we can the realities of which (the happenings of their times) were the shadows.” They have seen the glory of Christ, the image of the invisible God, “advanced from the introduction they had in types to the vision of truth.” He dwells at length on this topic and concludes: “those who were made perfect in earlier generations knew not less than the Apostles did of what Christ revealed to them, since the same teacher was with them as He who revealed to the Apostles the unspeakable mysteries of godliness.” The only advantage of the Apostles was that “in addition to knowing these myster­ies, they saw the power at work in the accomplished fact” (28) . The allegorical method was first invented in order to interpret the promise. It could not suit the new purpose: a Christian exegete had to interpret an achievement. In other words, a Christian allegorist was approaching the Gospel as if it were still nothing more than the Law; he approached the New Testa­ment as if it were still the Old; he approached the achievement as if it were but a promise. There was indeed a further promise in the achievement, yet the fact of the accomplishment should not have been disregarded. And it was at that point that the “allegorical” method was bound to fail. We may describe the allegorical method as “Judaic,” i.e. as an approach to the Gospel in the spirit of Prophecy. Of course, this “Judaism” was in no sense “Semitic;” it was a typical Hel­lenistic approach. “For the mere letter and narrative of the events which happened to Jesus do not present the whole view of the truth. For each one of them can be shown, to those who have an intelligent apprehension of Scripture, to be a sym­bol of something else.” We have to ascend from the narratives themselves to the things which they symbolized (29). The story or narrative is but a starting point. One begins with Jesus of the Gospel, with Him the Crucified, but his aim should be to arrive at the vision of the Divine glory. The humanity of Jesus is but the first and lowest step of our spiritual understanding, which is to be transcended (30) .

In fact, we have to deal here not only with the steps and degrees of interpretation. Jesus himself has transcended the state of his humiliation, which had been superseded and, as it were, abrogated by the state of his glorification. His humanity has not been laid aside, yet it was exalted to a higher perfection, in an intimate blending with his divinity (31) . This is strong language indeed. “And truly, after his resurrection, he existed in a body intermediate, as it were, between the grossness of that he had before his sufferings, and the appearance of a soul un­covered by such a body.” And therefore, after his resurrection, Jesus simply could not appear to the people “in the same man­ner as before that event.” Even in the days of his flesh he “was more things than one,” i.e. he had no standing appear­ance, “nor was he seen in the same way by all who beheld him.” His external outlook depended upon the measure of ability to receive him. His glorious transfiguration on the Mount was but one instance of the adaptability of his body. “He did not appear the same person to the sick, and to those who needed his healing aid, and to those who were able by reason of their strength to go up the mountain along with him” (32). These vary­ing appearances of Jesus are to be referred to the nature of the Word, who does not show himself in the same way, or indif­ferently, to all, but to the unprepared would appear as one “who has neither form nor beauty” (to the “sons of men”) and to those who can ascend with him in a “surpassing love­lines (33) .

As strange and forbidding as this interpretation may seem to be, it has been preserved in the tradition up to the later ages. We find it, for example, in St. Maximus. He speaks of the mystical experience, but his phrasing is almost a literal quotation from Origen. The Lord does not appear to all in his present glory, but to those who are still under way he comes in the form of a servant, and to those who are capable to follow him up to the mountain of his transfiguration he would appear in the form of God, in which he existed before the world began (34) .

For Origen, even in the days of the earthly life of Christ, his body was “an altogether miraculous body” (35) . After the resurrection it was assumed into his divinity, and could no more be distinguished from it (35a). 35a “ Ideo omnia quod est in Christo jam nunc Filius Dei est” (36) If he was truly man, he is now man no more, and therefore we also are no more men when we fol­low his words, for he, as the prototokos of all men, has trans­formed us into God (37) . “ Si autem Deus est qui quondam homo fuit, et oportet te illi similem fieri, c quando similes ejus fuerimus, et viderimus eum sicut est' (I Jo. 3:2), te quoque necesse erit Deum fieri, in Christo Jesu ” (38). For our immediate purpose, there is no need to go into any further detail. The main con­tention of Origen is clear. And we could not fail to observe the close and intimate resemblance between Origen's ideas and those in the letter of Eusebius to Constantia. Origen's Christ- ology was the background and presupposition of Eusebius. He drew legitimate conclusions from the principles laid down by Origen. If one walks in the steps of Origen, would he, really, be interested in any “historical” image or “ikon” of the Lord? What could be depicted was already overcome and superseded, and the true and glorious reality of the Risen Lord escapes any depiction or description. Moreover, from the Origenist point of view, the true face of the Lord could hardly be depicted even in the days of his flesh, but only his image accommodated to the capacity of a “somatic” and “fleshly” man, which “ap­pearance” was in no sense his true and adequate image. Of course, Origen himself was not concerned with the pictorial images. Yet, what he had to say against the pagan images could be very easily used against the icons (39) . Again, there was an obvious parallelism between the two problems: the problem of the Scripture and the problem of pictorial representation. It was the same problem of “description.” We know that this was a major topic of the whole Iconoclastic controversy. St. John of Damascus had clearly seen the connection of the two topics and problems: Scripture itself is “an image” (40) . If we apply the exegetical method of Origen to the problem of the artistic and pictorial “description,” we shall have at least to hesitate. Possibly, we would have no difficulty in accepting “symbolic” representations, just as the Bible is to be taken as a book of symbols, which, by their very nature, compel us to go beyond. But, surely, we shall be most seriously embarrassed by a “his­torical” image. This was exactly what had happened at the Iconoclastic pseudo-councils in 754 and 815. The very point of their argument was this: they felt very strongly the utter disproportion between all historical (“sensual”) images and the “state of glory” in which both Christ and his saints were al­ready abiding. One instance will suffice: was it permissible, so asked the Iconoclastic bishops in 754, to depict the saints, who already shine in the glory ineffable, and to recall them thereby again to earth? (41).

The Iconoclasm was not just an indiscriminate rejection of any art. There was a wide variety of opinion among the op­ponents of the icons. Yet, in the main, it was rather a resist­ance to one special kind of religious art, namely the icon- painting, an “icon” being a representation of a true historical person, be it our Lord or a saint. This type of Christian art was growing at that time. Its birth-place was probably in Syria, and its distinctive mark was, as Louis Brehier put it recently, “ la recherche naive de la verite historiqne ”—a special emphasis on the historic truth (42). One of the favorite subjects was the Crucified Christ. It was not necessarily a “naturalism,” but it was bound to be some sort of a historic realism. This was the main contention of the new trend. A true “icon” claimed to be something essentially different from a “symbol.” It had to be a “representation” of something real, and a true and ac­curate representation. A true icon had to be, in the last resort, a historic picture. This accounts for the stability of the iconographic types in the East: there is no room for an artistic “invention.” The iconographic types belong to tradition, and are stabilized by the authority of the Church. Only the execu­tion belongs to the artist. Thus was it formulated at Nicaenum II (43) . The final appeal is not to an artistic imagination or to an individual vision, but to history,—to things seen and testified. In this connection, canon 82 of the Council in Trullo (691-692) is illustrative. It deals directly only with one particular case (the immediate circumstances of the decision are uncertain), but, at least by implication, it establishes a general principle too. The Council forbids a symbolic representation of Christ as a Lamb. Apparently, the Council was objecting to a semi-his­torical scene: St. John the Baptist pointing to the coming Christ, and Christ represented symbolically. The reasons for prohibition are highly instructive. The lamb is a “typos,” or an “image” or figure of the coming Grace, which signifies the very Lamb, Christ. Now, the old “types” and “shadows,” i.e. symbols and signs, must be respected. Yet, priority belongs to “grace” and “truth,” which is the fulness of the Law. The Council prescribes that Christ should be represented or de­picted as man, instead of the “ancient lamb,” in remembrance of His incarnation, passion and redeeming death, and of the uni­versal redemption, thereby accomplished (44) . It is much more than an ordinary canonical regulation, it is a doctrinal state­ment and pronouncement. It is a doctrinal programme, a true preamble to all subsequent literature on the Holy Icons. Strange­ly enough, this canon was completely overlooked by the his­torians of the Iconoclasm. The case, to which the Council refers, seems to be very special. But the canon lays down a principle. There must have been some reason for that. What is remarkable, is that the painting of icons is emphatically linked with the relation between the “types” and the (historic) “truth,” or possibly between the two Testaments. We touch again upon an exegetical problem. All ancient “types” are already over, the Truth had come, Christ, the Incarnate and Crucified. It was a solemn approbation and encouragement of the new “historical” art. The phrasing seems to be deliberate. An emphasis on the “human form” of Christ was quite natural at the time when the last Christological controversy had been

in the process of being settled. It directs the painter's attention to the historical achievement.

It is commonly agreed that theological defense of the Holy Icons, especially by St. Theodore, but earlier by St. John of Damascus, had been based on Neo-platonic presuppositions. The whole conception of the “protype” and the “image” (reflection on a lower level) was platonic. On the whole, this statement is obviously fair. Yet, it needs a qualification. In any case, the argument includes an open reference to the (historic) Incar­nation. The Iconodules were not speaking simply of “images” of some “eternal” or “heavenly” realities. They were speaking precisely of the “images” of some “earthly” realities, as it were, of historic personalities, who lived in time on earth. And this makes a difference.

At this moment, we are not concerned with the doctrine of the Iconodules. Let us admit that they were platonic or rather pro-platonic. Unfortunately, it has been overlooked that there was, in Neo-platonism, an obvious Iconoclastic tendency as well. Porphyrius, in his “Life of Plotinus,” tells us that Plotinus, it seemed, “was ashamed to be in the flesh,” and it is precisely with that statement that Porphyrius begins his biography. “And in such a frame of mind he refuses to speak either of his ancestors or parents, or of his fatherland. He would not sit for a sculptor or painter.” Should one make a permanent image of this perishable frame? It was enough that one is compelled to bear it (45) . Plotinus would gladly forget that he had an earthly biography, parents or fatherland. The philosophical aspiration of Plotinus must be carefully distin­guished from an “Oriental” asceticism, Gnostic or Manichean. Plotinus was not a dualist. Yet, his practical conclusion was still that we should “retreat” from this corporeal world and escape the body. Plotinus himself suggested the following analogy. Two men live in the same house. One of them blames the builder and his handiwork, because it is made of inanimate wood and stone. The other praises the wisdom of the archi­tect, because the building is so skillfully erected. For Plotinus this world is not evil, it is the “image” or reflection of the world above, and perhaps the best of all images. Still, one has to aspire beyond all images, from the image to the prototype, from the lower to the higher world, and Plotinus praises not the copy, but the pattern or exemplar (46) . “He knows that when the time comes, he will go out and will no longer have need of any house” (47) . This was why he was unwilling to sit for a paint­er. The picture of this “perishable frame” could never be his true “image,” an image of his immortal self. No picture can ever be taken of the very self of man. And therefore, all pic­tures are deceiving. They would imprison man's imagination in a “perishable frame.” Now, is not this admirable passage of Plotinus a good introduction to the Iconoclastic mind? A Christian would, of course, put the whole problem a bit dif­ferently. Possibly, instead of a “world above” he would speak of the “age to come.” Yet, to the same effect. Origen, at least, was not so far from Plotinus at this point. It is inter­esting to notice that among the ancient testimonia , collected by the Iconoclasts, there was one of an obvious “platonic' 7 in­spiration and of an undoubtedly heretical origin. It was a quotation from the “Acts of St. John.” It was an exact parallel to the story told of Plotinus by Porphyrius. A pic­ture was taken of St. John, without his knowledge. He did not approve of it, nor could he recognize at once that it was really his picture, as he had never seen his face in the mirror. After all, it was but a “picture of his body.” But man had to be the painter of his soul and to adorn it with faith and other virtues. “This, however, which thou hast made, is childish and imperfect; thou hast painted a dead picture of a dead thing” (48) . It has been usual to interpret the Iconoclastic movement as an Oriental or Semitic reaction and resistance to an ex­cessive Hellenization of Christian art and devotion, to the Hellenistic involvement of the Byzantine Church. But, we find nothing specifically “Semitic” in Iconoclastic theology; both the arguments and the proofs seem to be rather Hellen­istic. The Iconodules were Platonic to be sure. But was not the Iconoclastic attitude also rather Platonic? And are we not to interpret the whole conflict rather as an inner split within Hellenistic Christianity? Iconoclasm was, of course, a very complex movement and its various components are to be carefully analyzed. But the main inspiration of the Iconoclastic thought was Hellenistic. We must reverse the current inter­pretation. It was Iconoclasm that was a return to the pre- Christian Hellenism. The whole conflict can be interpreted as a new phase of an age-long process. Sometimes it has been styled as an Hellenization of Christianity. It should be de­scribed rather as a Christianization of Hellenism. The main feature of the process was obviously the split in the Hellenism or its polarization. In the Iconoclastic controversy,—at least, on its theological level—the two Hellenisms, as several times be­fore, met again in a heated fight. The main issue was between symbolism and history. The Iconoclasts represented in the conflict an un-reformed and uncompromising Hellenic position, of an Origenistic and Platonic trend. It was not an immediate continuation of the Monophysite tradition. Yet, Monophysit- ism itself, as far as its theology was concerned, was a kind of Hellenism, and its roots go back to the early Alexandrian tradition, and therefore it could be easily amalgamated with Neoplatonism. The Iconodules, on the contrary, stood definitely for the “Historic Christianity.” A particular topic was under discussion, but the major issues were at stake. This accounts for the bitterness and violence of the whole struggle. Not only the destiny of Christian Art was at stake, but “Ortho­doxy” itself. In any case, the struggle can be understood only in the perspective of an age-long Auseinander set sung between Christianity and Hellenism. Both parties were “Hellenistically- minded.” Yet there was a conflict between a Christian Hel­lenism and an Hellenized Christianity, or possibly between Orthodoxy and Syncretism (49) .

The only contention of this brief essay is to raise the ques­tion. More study will be required before an ultimate answer can be given (50) .


(1) Ê . N. Ouspensky, Sketches on Byzantine Bistory, Part I, Moskow 1917 (Russian), 237 ff. Ouspensky's book on the history of the Iconoclasm, to which he refers, seems never to have been published.

(2)Henri Grégoire, in Byzantium, edited by Norman H. Baynes and H. St. L. B. Moss (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948), 105. All articles in this volume were written before the war.

(3) E. J. Martin, A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy (London: S.P.C.K., s.d.), 3-4.

(4) Grégoire, Byzantium (1948), 105.

(5)G. Ostrogorsky, Studien zur Geschichte des byzantinischen Bilderstreites , Breslau, 1929 (Historische Untersuchungen, Hf. 5); “Connection of the question of the Holy Icons with the Christological dogma, ” Seminarium Eondakovianum, I (1927); “Gnoseological presuppositions of the Byzantine controversy about the Holy Icons', Ibidem, II (1928)—both articles in Russian; “Les debuts de la Querelle des Images', Melanges Diehl, vol. I, Paris, 1930; G. Ladner, “Der Bilderstreit und die Kunstlehren der byzantinischen und abendlandisehen' Theologie, Zeitschrifi fur die Kirchengeschichte, B. 50 (1931); “Origin and Significance of the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy,77 Mediaeval Studies, II (1940), Sheed & Ward; P. Lucas Koch, “Zur Theologie der Christus-ikone', in Benediktinische Monatschrift, Beuron, XIX (1937); 11/12; XX (1928), 1/2, 5/6, 7/8; “Christusbild-Kaiserbild', Ibidem, XXI (1939), 3/4.

(6)A brief note on Andreev's unpublished work has been given in the Russian Historical Journal (probably by V. Beneshevich) , VII (Petrograd, 1921), 215-218 (in Russian).

(7)This is the title of an admirable booklet by Eric Peterson, Der Monothcismus als politisches Problem (1935).

(8)Cf. Lucas Koch, Christusbild , etc.—The author uses extensively the book of André Grabar, L'Empereur dans l y art Byzantin (Paris, 1936).

(9) The best presentation of the Orthodox theory of icons is in the articles of P. Lucas Koch.

(10) See B. M. Melioransky, Georgij Kyprianin i Ioann Jerusalimskij, dva maloizviestnykh borza za pravoslavie v 8 viekie (St. Petersbourg, 1901); and Ostrogorsky, Studien .

(11) Cf ., e.g., A. Vasiliev, Histoire de l'Empire Byzantine ( Paris: Picard, 1932 ), I, 379: “ Quant au parti de la cour et an haut clergé, on peut dire que ces fonctionnaires du gouvernement et évêques n'obeirent pas pour la plupart aux ordres de leur conscience , mais qu'ils professerent les doctrines qui s'harmonisaient avec leurs crainte et leur ambitions' . ' This view is widespread in the literature.

(12) This point has been emphasized by H. Grégoire in his review of Ostrosorsky's “Studien,” in Byzantion , IV, 765-771.

(13)Cf. F. Vernet, “Juifs (Controverses avec les), 77 in D. T. C., VIII. 2, c. 1878 s.; and Sirarpie der Nersessian “Une Apologie des images du septième siècle, in Byzantion, XVII (1944-1945). See also J. B. Frey, “La question des images chez les Juifs', in Biblica, XV (1934).

(14) It is a commonplace in the literature. See, in recent times, Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe (London: Sheed & Ward, 1946 (1932), 136: “It has behind it, not the explicit doctrines of a theological school but the vague and formless spirit of an oriental sectarianism which rejected the whole system of Hellenic dogma'. Cf. George Every , The Byzantine Patriarchate , 451-1204 (London: S.P.C.K., 1946) , 105 : “The Iconoclastic schisms of 730-86 and 815-43 were not the schisms between East and West, but between an Asiatic party at Constantinople and the Greek and Latin party in Greece, Italy and Rome'.

(15) Cf. Ostrogorsky, Melanges Diehl , p. 236: “Le rôle , joué au début de la querelle des images par le clergé iconoclaste d'Asie Mineure , tombe dans l'oublie dans les siècles suivants'. See also Melioransky, Georgia Kyprianin .

(16)Cf. J. M. Sweetman, Islam and Christian Theology, P. I, v. I, Lutterworth Press, London & Redhill, 1945, p. 63.: “One would rather see in this movement something parallel to Islam' etc.

(17)Cf. Vasiliev, Histoire, 380.

(18) Karl Schwartzlose, Der Bilderstreit (Gotha, 1890), 77-78.

(19) In any case Paulicians were invoked in vain, for it is most doubtful, whether they had any iconoclastic tendencies, as much as that would have agreed with their dualistic presuppositions. See Henri Grégoire, in Atti del V Congresso internazionale di Studi Bizantini (Roma, 1939), 177; and recently D. Obolensky, The Bogomils (Cambridge, 1949), 53.

(20) See Karl Holl, “Die Schriften des Epiphanius gegen die Büderverehrun' 1916), in his Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kirchengeschichte (Tubingen: Mohr, 1928), II, 351-387, and Ostrogorsky, Studien , 61 ff.

(21) Holl, 387, ç . I. “ An der Echtheit des Briefes hat nur Befangenschaft zweifeln können. Sprache, Standpunkt, Aaffassung stimmen ganz mit dem unangefochtenen Eusebius iiberein. Wäre das Schreiben in einem spateren Jahrhundert gefalscht so miiszte die dogmatische Begriindung scharfer gefaszt sein . ' '

(22) Excerpts from the Letter of Eusebius read at the Nicaenum II (787): Mansi, XIII, c. 314 or Harduin IV, 406; an enlarged text (following cod. Reg. 1980) was published by Boivin (Nic. Gregoras, Hist. Byz . XIX, 3, 4 (reprinted in Migne, S.Gr. CXLIX and in C. S. Ç . B., Bd. XIX. 2); Card. Pitra, Spicilegium Solesmense , I, 383-386 (as cap. 9 of Nicephorus Antirrheticus contra Eusehium ); see also inter opera Eusebii—Migne, S. Gr. XX, c. 1545-1549, and in Kirsch, Enchiridion, n. 471. Cf. Hugo Koch, Die altchristliche Bilderfrage nach den literarischen Quellen (Gottingen 1917; F.R.L.A.N.T., Neue Folge 10) ; W. Elliger, Die Stellung der alten Christen zu den Bildern in den ersten vier Jahrhunderten (Ficker's Studien iiber Christliche Denkmaler, Hf. 20; Leipzig 1930).

(23) See H. Berkhof, Die Theologie des Eusebius von Caesarea (Amsterdam, 1939).

(24) See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Liturgie Cosmique, Maxime le Confesseur (Paris: Aubier, 1947); or the German edition (Freiburg i/Br.: Herder, 1941).

(25) Pitra, Spicilegium , I, 371-504.

(26) Bigg, The Christians Platonists in Alexandria .

(27) In Jo. Comm., I, 9 and 10: cf. in Matt. Comm. XVI, 20 and 24; See also C. Cels. II, 62: ‘ God the Word was sent, indeed, as a physician to sinners, but as a teacher of divine mysteries to those who are already pure and who sin no more '.

(28) In Jo. I. 24.

(29) In Jo. VI. 2; cf. C. Cels. II. 69 and in Jo. X. 4.

(30) In Jo. XIX. I.

(31) C. Cels. III. 41.

(32) C. Cels. II. 64; ef. in Matt. II. 6 and XII. 30 & 36.

(33) C. Cels. VI. 77; cf. IV. 16, 18.

(34) S. Maxim. Cap. theol . II, 13, Migne S. Gr. XC, 1129-1132 .

(35) C. Cels. I. 33.

(35a) In Jo. XXXII. 17; cf. C. Cels. II.9.

(36) In Rom. Comm. 1.6.

(37) In Jer. horn. XVI. 6.

(38) In Luc. horn. XXIX: nunc autem homo esse cessavit .

(39) See especially C. Cels. VIII. 17 and 18: “in all those, then, who plant and cultivate within their souls, according to the divine word, temperance, justice, wisdom, piety, and other virtues, these excellences are the statues they raise, in which we are persuaded that it is becoming for us to honour the model and the prototype of all statues: ‘the image of the invisible God' God the Only-begotten . . . And everyone who imitates Him according to his ability, does by this very endeavour raise a statue according to the image of the Creator, for in the contemplation of God with a pure heart they become imitators of Him. And in general, we see that all Christians strive to raise altars and statues as we have described them, and these not of a lifeless and senseless kind,” etc. Cf. Elliger, Die Stellung , 41 ff.

(40) St. John of Damascus, De imaginibus, III.

(41) Mansi, XII, 277 D.

(42) Louis Brehier, in Histoire de I'Eglise, by Fliche & Martin, Y, 442.

(43) Mansi, XIII, 252.

(44)Ed. Alivisatos (Athens, 1924), 121.

(45) Porphyrius, Vita Plotini , I.

(46)Plotinus, V.8.8.

(47)Plotinus, 11.15.

(48)Acta Joannis, cap. 28-29; cf. Mansi, XIII, 168. Cf. A. F. Findlay, Byways in Early Christian Literature (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1923), 214 f. The document is of the second century.

(49)Cf. the stimulating book of Endra Ivanka, Hellenisches und Christliches im Frühbyzantinischen Geistesleben (Wien, 1948). On Iconoclasm see 105 ff.

(50)The new and important book by P. Henri De Lubac, Histoire et Esprit, L'intelligence de l'ecriture d' après Origène (Paris: Aubier, 1950), which is highly relevant for our problem, unfortunately became available to me after this paper was ready for the printer. I have not found there, however, any­thing to compel me to change my description. See its pertinence to pp. 88-92 of this article.

For receiving news, offerings and in general any actions regarding the Organization please fill in the next fields. For protection of data see here.

{ technical support        contact