This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 3/4 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
I examine John of Damascus’ defense of icons, upheld at the Council of Nicea II (AD 787). John argues that the making and honoring of images of Christ and the saints are in keeping with Scripture and Tradition. Contrary to the view that the second commandment prohibits images, John argues that a proper understanding of the commandment shows it is a prohibition on the worship of creatures. Because the context of the commandment is that God is unseen, so no image of Him is possible, the question emerges whether something has changed for those who confess that the Son of God has taken on flesh. John argues that the Incarnation not only makes images of the Son permissible but raises the question of whether resistance to such images indicates a faulty Christology. As for the honoring of images, John shows that Scripture, though prohibiting worship of creatures, approves the honoring of people, places, and things. But more profoundly, John highlights that the Eastern church fathers understand the Incarnation to bring human nature, and through it the world, into communion with the divine nature. This communion makes it possible for a creature to serve as a conduit for divine energy and grace. John argues that such conduits are rightly honored, not as God, but as creatures in whom God’s energy and grace reside. This view carried the day at Nicea II as a faithful representation of the teachings of the apostles and the fathers and remains the view and practice of the Eastern Church to this day.
John of Damascus is best known for his defense of icons in the eighth century,1 which won the day at the Council of Nicea II (AD 787), the last of the seven ecumenical councils. The dispute concerned icons, or images,2 and the Eastern Christian practice of not only making images of Christ and the saints but of venerating them — kissing them, prostrating before them, censing them (2.10; 3.9). The iconoclasts (breakers of icons) opposed such practices as idolatrous. The spark that ignited the controversy was the Arab–Byzantine wars. Emperor Leo III issued a series of edicts (726–29) outlawing icons in fear that mounting losses to the Muslims were due to the idolatry of the iconodules (servants of icons). Iconoclasm continued under Constantine V (741–75), and though condemned at Nicea II, it reemerged under Emperor Leo V, bringing a second period of iconoclasm (814–42). The restoration of the icons would be championed by Empress Theodora after the death of her husband, Emperor Theophilus — himself an iconoclast.
The central question John deals with is whether iconodulism is in keeping with Scripture and Tradition. Concerning the latter, one of John’s great contributions to patristic literature is his work as a systematizer of the Eastern church fathers.3 The consistent aim of his works is summed up well in his Dialectica: “I shall add nothing of my own, but shall gather together into one those things which have been worked out by the most eminent of teachers and make a compendium of them.”4 John’s defense of icons is no different. He penned three treatises in defense of icons, and in each, he catalogues quotes from the fathers to demonstrate an unbroken chain of iconodulism in the church (1.23–67; 2.24-66; 3.13–138), a chain John suggests is based on oral Tradition passed down by the apostles (2 Thess. 2:15) (1.23; 2.16; 3.11).
Even with the endorsement of the fathers, however, do the iconodule practices run afoul of Scripture? The most obvious challenge is the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the likeness [homoiōma] of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not venerate [proskynēseis] them, nor worship [latreusēis] them” (Exod. 20:4–5 LXX).5 On the surface, this commandment appears to prohibit the making of images. But John argues that this is a superficial reading. For God commands the making of images for the tabernacle — images of things in heaven and on earth (Exod. 25:17–21; 26:1, 31; 36:8) (1.16, 20; 2.9, 15; 3.9). But if the commandment does not prohibit images, what does it prohibit? Moses records its rationale in Deuteronomy 4:12–19:
And the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire. You heard a voice, but you saw not any likeness [homoiōma], only a voice. And he showed you his covenant, which he commanded you to do, and the ten words that he wrote in two tablets of stone….You saw no likeness in the day that the Lord God spoke to you in Horeb from the midst of the fire: Lest perhaps being deceived you might make a carved likeness, any kind of image [eikona], the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beasts that are upon the earth, the likeness of birds that fly under heaven, the likeness of creeping things that move on the earth, the likeness of fish that abide in the waters under the earth: Lest perhaps lifting up your eyes to heaven, seeing the sun and the moon, and all the heavenly bodies, you go astray and worship [latreusēis] them, and serve them, which the Lord your God created for the service of all the nations, that are under heaven. (LXX, emphasis added.)
The refrain that contextualizes the prohibition is you heard a voice but saw no likeness. The danger warned against is worship of what is seen — male or female, beasts, birds, creeping things, fish, or celestial bodies. In other words, God is invisible and uncircumscribed, evident in the experience at Horeb (1.15–6; 2.8; 3.7). Every image of visible and circumscribed entities will invariably bear the likeness of a creature, and the worship thereof will be worship of the creation, not the Creator. This, says John, is what the commandment prohibits, the worship of nature and demons (1.26; 3.7–8), errors into which the devil led mankind (2.1–4).
Such an explanation brings us to the crux of the matter. Divinity has taken on flesh. If the commandment prohibits images of the divine because God is unseen, does the Incarnation of the Son change this fact? John contrasts the prohibition in Deuteronomy with the words of the apostle John: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched, this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). To be sure, John of Damascus’ Trinitarianism distinguishes without confusion the Father from the Son. Though they share a common divine nature (ousia), they are discrete subjects (hypostases).6 Hence, John insists that images of the Father, who is not incarnate, still violate the commandment (1.4; 2.5; 3.2, 8).7 But, as John points out, the gospel proclaims that the Son took on flesh, color, and shape. As Paul declares, Jesus is the icon of the invisible God (Col. 1:15) (2.5; 3.2, 12). Hence, an image of the Son is now possible.
John contends that efforts to evade this conclusion invariably slip into heresy (2.2–6; 3.1–3). One could, of course, deny the divinity of Christ, as did the Arians, and thereby deny that icons of Jesus are icons of the divine. Such a claim would be heretical, but the iconoclasts do not make this mistake. They oppose images of Christ because they affirm His divinity (1.4–5; 2.4, 7; 3.2, 4, 6–7). Granting Christ’s divinity, one must cordon off His flesh from His person in order to say His icon is not of the Son. This road has a ditch on either side. The one side slips off into Manicheism, which denies the Incarnation as an illusion because matter is evil and cannot share in Christ’s person (1.16; 2.10, 13, 16). The other side slips into Nestorianism, which teaches that Christ has two natures and is two persons (prosopa), one divine and one human, fused together in the Incarnation (2.2). Both errors are contrary to the faith, which professes that Christ is only one person (hypostasis), the Only-Begotten Son of God, who has the same nature as the Father, and who took on human nature for our salvation (2.2–3). John writes,
I venerate together with the King and God the purple robe of his body, not as a garment, nor as a fourth person….For the nature of the flesh did not become divinity, but as the Word became flesh immutably, remaining what it was, so also the flesh became the Word without losing what it was, being rather made equal to the Word hypostatically. Therefore I am emboldened to depict the invisible God, not as invisible, but as he became visible for our sake, by participation in flesh and blood. I do not depict the invisible divinity, but I depict God made visible in the flesh. (3.6)
John sees no way of opposing images of Christ without denying the faith (2.6).
Even if the making of images generally, and of Christ specifically, is permissible, given the Incarnation, what about venerating images? John’s defense is threefold. First, he draws a distinction between proskynesis (honor) and latreia (worship). John grants that Scripture prohibits worship (latreia) of anything that is not God: “you shall honor (proskynēseis) the Lord your God and worship (latreusēis) him only” (Luke 4:8) (1.8). But John suggests that in Scripture, honor (proskynesis) is appropriately paid to people, places, and things. The most obvious examples include the people of Israel’s veneration of the tabernacle and other artifacts in which God worked miracles, such as Aaron’s rod that budded (1.17; 2.14, 22). But these are far from the only examples. John catalogues a host of instances in the Old and New Testaments.8 In like manner, says John, the iconodules honor holy places (e.g., Sinai, Bethlehem, Golgotha); sacred Scripture; instruments of liturgical worship; the wood of the cross and other material instruments of our salvation; and even fellow Christians as adopted sons of God (2.14, 19; 3.34–5, 37).9 John contends that icons are just as worthy of honor as any of these. For icons are means of instruction; books for the illiterate; memorials of God’s works and His holy ones; and anticipations of His future deeds (1.18; 2.4, 10; 3.2, 9, 36).
Second, John suggests that icons are a means of venerating the ones they image. His case is that there is a connection between an image and its archetype (1.19; 2.19). The point is perhaps most obvious in the example of shadows. What makes a shadow the shadow of an object is its relationship to that object. That the object casts it is an essential trait of that shadow’s identity. And John sees the same type of dependence between a likeness (homoiōma) and the one it is like. What makes a likeness the likeness of something is its relationship to that something. It is a likeness because it shares in the appearance of the one it images (3.16). Drawing on the biblical teaching that the tabernacle was a shadow of heavenly realities, John suggests that there is biblical precedent for the idea that one may honor something not seen by honoring its image, which is seen. Such was the function of the tabernacle, where the priest made sacrifice to God by making an offering before the icon of His throne, the Ark of the Covenant (Exod. 25:17–22) (1.15; 2.22–3). John also points out that the concern of the second commandment is not the worship of the material used to craft the idol, but of the thing whose likeness (homoima) the idol bears (1.26; 3.7–8). Hence, the commandment itself presumes that worship of the likeness is worship of the thing it is like. So in the same way, John calls the icons shadows of Christ and of His saints (1.18; 3.33), and one may honor these who are not seen by expressing that honor before their likeness which is seen (2.11; 3.1).10
The third feature of John’s defense of veneration moves into more metaphysical territory. Central to Eastern patristic thought is the essence–energies distinction. This distinction has a long history in Aristotle, Alexandrian Judaism, and the New Testament before echoing in the Eastern church fathers.11 In its basic form, it differentiates the nature (ousia, physis, morph) of a thing from its operative powers (energeiai). For example, there is a distinction between the nature of fire and its operations of heating and lighting, evident in the fact that these heating and lighting powers can be communicated to metal, but the metal remains metal, not fire.12 This distinction between essence and energies, and the related notion of communicable energies, became central to how Alexandrian Judaism and then Eastern Christianity understood the relationship between humans and spirits. As David Bradshaw explains, “the term [energeia] acquires a new sense of ‘active power’ or ‘cosmic force,’ and eventually ‘energy,’ conceived not just as a characteristic of action…but as a reservoir of power that can be shared by another.”13 Demoniacs perform superhuman feats because they are energized by devils, while prophets, apostles, and saints serve as conduits for divine grace because they are energized by God.14 The concept plays a central role in the Eastern Christian understanding of the faith. The Eastern fathers see the human condition primarily through the lens of being bound by corruption, and we escape corruption by partaking of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). This partaking is not of the divine essence but of God’s energies, a partaking that is made possible after the fall by the Incarnation.15
This doctrine is the basis for the metaphysical dimension of John’s defense of veneration. John points out that Christ not only took on our flesh but sanctified it (2.5; 3.2). In the Eastern fathers, sanctity or holiness comes only by participating in God’s holiness.16 Thus, when John says that Christ sanctified His flesh, John has in mind the deification of Christ’s flesh by its communion with His divinity. John writes, “I venerate the Creator, created for my sake, who came down to his creation without being lowered or weakened, that he might glorify my nature and bring about communion with the divine nature” (3.6).17 John’s identification of his own nature with Christ’s nature is key. Christ does not simply energize and heal His own flesh, but human nature — our nature — so that all of humanity might partake of divinity through Him. The deification of humanity through Jesus is precisely why John advocates the veneration of saints. For the saints are
those upon whom God rests, who is alone holy and “rests among the saints,” like the holy Mother of God and all the saints. These are those who…have become assimilated to God as much as possible, who are truly called gods, not by nature, but by adoption, as iron heated in the fire is called fire, not by nature, but by its condition and participation in fire….Just as they are truly gods, not by nature, but as partakers of God’s nature, so they are to be venerated, not by nature, but as having in themselves that which is venerable by nature. (3.33)
And again, “since the divinity has been united to our nature, as a kind of life-giving and saving medicine, our nature has been glorified and its very elements changed into incorruption” (2.10).18 The veneration of saints is not a veneration of their human nature or of them as God, but of them as ones “filled with divine energy and grace,” who have a share in that nature that makes one holy, namely God’s own (2.14). And according to John, to refuse to honor them is to dishonor the source of their holiness (1.19).
John does not limit the point to the saints but sees implications for the Christian understanding of matter generally. When Christ deifies our nature, He does not just deify its spiritual elements, but His flesh — which serves as an instrument of healing, is transfigured, and is ultimately raised incorruptible. And this deification extends beyond His flesh to even His garments, which are also transfigured with His body and serve as conduits of divine grace and healing (Mark 9:3; Matt. 9:20). John points out that the same occurs in the apostles. They not only perform miracles but energize aprons and handkerchiefs, even their shadows become means of liberation from demonic oppression (Acts 5:15; 19:12) (1.18; 3.33). In John’s assessment, this means that the Christian does more than deny the Manicheist claim that matter is evil. The Christian affirms that matter is good and a suitable instrument of divine energy and grace (1.16; 2.10, 13, 16). Thus, when John speaks of venerating holy people, places, and things that are significant in redemption history and the life of the church, he has in mind something more than just acknowledging their historical significance or liturgical function. Like the saints, these places and objects are set apart as holy because they are creatures that have communed with God and are “filled with divine energy and grace” (1.21; 2.14). Just as Moses blessed the artifacts of the tabernacle and the glory of the Lord descended upon them, making them holy by their communion with God (Exod. 39:13–23; 40:34–38 LXX),19 so the iconodules bless the liturgical artifacts of the church. These shadows of heavenly realities are set apart from common objects, just as the artifacts of old were. And just as artifacts before and after the advent of Christ served as conduits of divine energy and grace, so the icons of Christ and the saints, which John calls their shadows in the midst of the people, serve as conduits for divine energy and grace to God’s people (1.18; 3.33). In 787, Nicea II declared John’s defense a faithful representation of the teachings of the apostles and the fathers.
Nathan A. Jacobs (PhD in Historical Theology and in Systematic Theology, Calvin University, Grand Rapids, Michigan) is Visiting Scholar of Philosophy at University of Kentucky.
- John’s primary work on the subject is In tres orationes pro sacris imaginibus [Three Discourses on Sacred Images]. Citations of this work are embedded in the body of the essay, citing the treatise and section number(s); English quotations are based on Andrew Louth’s translation. Greek references to John’s works use Patrologia Graeca, volume 94.
- The Greek word eikn simply translates to “image.”
- The clearest examples include John’s Dialectica, which offers a catalogue of patristic terms; his De haeresibus, which catalogues heresies of the first eight centuries; and his Expositio accurata fidei orthodoxae, one of the first works in systematic theology, itself based on the consensus of the fathers.
- Patrologia Graeca 525a, based on Frederic H. Chase Jr.’s translation.
- Bible quotations are the author’s translation.
- On this, see my essay “Understanding Nicene Trinitarianism,” Christian Research Journal 41, no. 4 (2018): 22–26.
- On the history of images of the Father in Eastern Christianity, see Steven Bigham, The Image of God the Father in Orthodox Theology and Iconography (Oakwood Publications, 1995).
- John points to Genesis 23:7; 33:3, 19–20; 47:31; Joshua 5:14; Daniel 8:17; Acts 7:16; and Hebrews 11:21. His Old Testament citations presume the Septuagint, in which the Greek word proskynesis
- John also mentions other non-religious forms of honor, such as honoring authorities (3.38–39).
- This argument was especially prevalent in John’s contemporary, Theodore the Studite.
- See David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
- John uses this analogy in 1.21 and 3.33, as well as Fidei orthodoxae, 3.15, 17 (Patrologia Graeca 94:1046c–61d; 1068b–72b).
- Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West, 119.
- On the biblical precedent for such concepts, see David Bradshaw, “The Divine Energies in the New Testament,” Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 50 (2006): 189–223.
- On the Eastern patristic understanding of death, immortality, and Incarnation, see my essay “On Whether the Soul Is Immortal According to the Eastern Church Fathers,” Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly (forthcoming), passim, esp. §4.
- E. g., Basil of Caesarea, De Spiritu Sancto, 16.38 (Patrologia Graeca 32:136a–137b); Pseudo-Dionysius, De coelesti hierarchia, 10.3 (Patrologia Graeca 3.273c); Cyril of Alexandria, Quod unus sit Christus (Patrologia Graeca 75:1269); and Maximus the Confessor, De charitate centuria, 3.52 (Patrologia Graeca 90.1001b).
- By the Creator created for his sake, John means the Incarnation. That is, Christ joined Himself to a created nature, becoming one of us.
- The term John uses for the change in bodily elements is metastoicheio, literally “transelement,” which the Eastern fathers use to refer to the change in Christ’s resurrection body (Anastasius of Sinai, Hodegus, 13 [Patrologia Graeca 209c]; Gregory of Nyssa, De vita Moysis [Patrologia Graeca 44.336a]), the change in our resurrection bodies (Methodius of Olympus, Symposium, 2.7 [Patrologia Graeca 18.60b]; Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua [Patrologia Graeca 91.1332d]), and the change in the Eucharist (Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio catechetica magna, 37 [Patrologia Graeca 45.97b]).
- For the case that the glory of the Lord in the Old Testament is the divine energies, see David Bradshaw, “The Divine Glory and the Divine Energies,” Faith and Philosophy 23, no. 3 (2006): 279–98.