Today, everybody seems to love icons, often more for fashion than theological principle. It was therefore refreshing to read Christopher Benson’s post below, which returned some theology to the discussion. The author disagrees with an ecumenical which is to say worldwide Christian endorsement of icons. Hoping this won’t cause church division, he attempts to downgrade the matter of icons to a peripheral concern in order to promote harmony in the Body of Christ. Benson’s intentions are good, but his lack of engagement with the primary sources in the controversy at hand has lead to a very regrettable slip. Fortunately, however, his post contains the seed of its own correction.
Faced with a beautiful and persuasive defense of icons from Holly Ordway (comment #3), Benson bolsters his post with arguments from an online article on the subject. This argument against icons is as follows: To depict Christ is to succumb to the heresy of Monophysitism or Nestorianism. Benson does not seem to realize it (perhaps he does), but this argument is a direct regurgitation of the Iconoclastic argument used by Emperor Constantine V in the Iconoclastic Controversy. This argument, furthermore, was itself deemed heretical by the universal church, which (unless Protestantism sprung from the sixteenth century ex nihilo) includes Protestantism. The church, East and West, deemed the very argument that accused Iconophiles of Monophysitism or Nestorianism to be itself Monophysite and Nestorian. “The painted face does not ‘circumscribe’ divine nature or even human nature,” explains Alain Besançon. “It circumscribes the composite hypostasis of the incarnate Word. But it took time, tears, and blood for that error to be discerned and the truth confessed.” Those unfamiliar with these terms might benefit from a simplification: An essential property of being human is that a human can be depicted. Therefore, to suggest one cannot make an image of Christ is tantamount to suggesting that Christ was not fully human. It is like suggesting Christ did not have fingerprints, or that when one held a mirror up to his mouth, the mirror did not fog up.
Let us put aside the concerns as to whether the images we have of Christ are accurate (it’s hard to say), or whether or not all Christian must use icons in worship (they need not), or whether or not this position is consistent with John Calvin (I think it is). These are important, but secondary matters. What is primary is this: All Christians should be able to affirm that one could have, in principle, made a painting of or (anachronistically speaking) taken a photograph of Jesus. The advent of photography has only made this ancient argument more understandable, not less. Was Christ really there or wasn’t he? The Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 was not merely about aesthetics; it was Christological. Its relation to the first Coucil of Nicea, which gave us the Nicene Creed, is more than coincidental. When seen in this perspective, Benson’s proposal would be like regurgitating the arguments of Arius against the divinity of Christ, and then suggesting, for harmony’s sake, that the Trinity is not that big of a deal.
Am I accusing Benson of heresy? Actually, no. Though he is, “skeptical regarding the Orthodox belief that the Incarnation repeals the Decalogue’s commandment against graven images,” Benson takes an incredible risk. In his post, with a few clicks of a button, Benson has shown us an icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The medium, Marshall McLuhan understood, is the message. Benson may regard the issue of icons as peripheral, but the many martyrs and saints who suffered greatly on behalf of this crucial implication of the gospel are lined up on the bottom of that icon to remind us that it is not. If we look even closer at this image, we see that Benson is more Christologically informed than he lets on. By publishing this icon in a blog post, Benson has depicted a sacred icon of Mary, and not just Mary mind you, but the one she is pointing to, Christ. Benson the blogger has dared to depict the second person of the Trinity, but he was not wrong to do this. He is not idolatrously confining God to colorated pixels, but he is pointing us to the God who - wonder of wonders - depicted himself in the Incarnation, enabling us to, in turn, depict him.
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