Sunday of the 7th Ecumenical Council
Today the Church commemorates the holy and godbearing fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council, and of all the ecumenical councils more generally, who defended the true Christian faith from the delusion and heterodoxy of various heretics.
In today’s Epistle reading, the Apostle Paul tells us to “reject a heretical man after the first and second admonition” (Titus 3:10), and the great heresy that gave cause for the convocation of the 7th Ecumenical Council of 787 was iconoclasm. As you know, the second of the Ten Commandments says, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any idol, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4), and the iconoclasts considered the Christian use of holy icons as a breach of this commandments, and for this reason wanted to rid the churches of all iconography. Many modern heretics make the same argument.
As the Scriptures say, “No one hath seen God at any time” (John 1:18), since God is invisible and incomprehensible. This is why God in the Old Testament strictly forbade any form of depictions of the divinity — and this, you must know, continues to be the position of the Orthodox Church; the invisible divinity is never depicted.
How, then, can our churches be filled with images of Christ? The answer is simple. The invisible God cannot be depicted, but when God the Word becomes man, when he assumes a visible human nature from the Virgin Mary, then the Word of God becomes both visible and depictable. From the moment God becomes a man, we also become able to depict him.
To this argument, the iconoclasts answered as follows: Since only the human nature is visible, the use of icons constitutes either Nestorianism or Monophysitism (two great and opposite heresies of the 5th century). If an icon of Christ doesn’t depict the divine nature, but only the human, then the veneration of that icon separates the human nature of Christ from his divine nature, as if the human Christ depicted on the icon is one thing, and the Son of God who cannot be seen is another — this would be Nestorianism. If, on the other hand, you say that the icon does depict the divine nature, this would suggest that the two natures (divine and human) have mixed to form a third composite nature — this would be Monophysitism.
In the first instance (Nestorianism), there is no true union of God with humanity in the incarnation of Christ. We therefore remain distanced from God, and there can be no salvation. In the second instance (Monophysitism), Christ is neither truly God nor truly man, and again there is no salvation.
To this the Orthodox replied that, it is not natures that are depicted on the sacred icons, but persons. If I were to show you a picture now, I would not say, “Look, here is the human nature of Mary or George”, I would simply say, “Here is George. Here is Mary”. The same goes for prayer. When I pray, I am not praying to an abstract nature, but to the person of Christ. Therefore, what is depicted on the sacred icons is the divine-human person of Christ, in which the human and divine natures are united hypostatically, without division into two persons, nor mixture into a single nature; in other words, without compromising our salvation.
The question of icons, then, was not simply a question of whether certain objects were proper for use in worship, nor a question of religious art. These were not “foolish questions…unprofitable and vain” (Titus 3:9) such as those the Apostle Paul advises us to avoid in today’s Epistle reading. On the contrary, it was a question directly linked to our salvation, and with all the decisions of the previous ecumenical councils. This is why the hymns we heard at this morning’s matins made mention not only of icnonclasm, but all the different heresies, and this is why the 7th Ecumenical Council concluded that the liturgical use and veneration of sacred icons was not only acceptable, but necessary.
Fr Kristian Akselberg