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Commentary on the Second Council of Nicaea

Daniel J. Castellano


1. First Iconoclasm
2. Iconoclast Council of 754
3. From Hieria to Nicaea
4. Dogmatic Content of the Second Council of Nicaea
5. Canons of the Second Council of Nicaea
6. Second Iconoclasm (814-842)
7. Aftermath

The last of the seven great ecumenical councils is distinctive in that it did not involve any Christological controversy, or indeed any doctrine of the faith. Instead, it focused on a matter of religious practice, namely the use of representational art in public liturgy and private devotion.

Depictions of Christ in his humanity date back to the second century, and Christian art proliferated after the persecutions ended, with scarcely a word of controversy. Although the Old Testament prohibitions against idolatry were well known, this was never construed by Christians as an absolute injunction against representing the human form, even that of Christ.

Modern men might look less favorably upon devotional art, seeing it as a lingering attachment to idolatry. The ideology of egalitarianism is so deeply engrained in our culture, that any act of veneration toward another human being or his image seems inappropriate. Yet the first Christian millennium was still a time when a social hierarchy of dignity was recognized, so there was nothing intrinsically idolatrous about bowing or genuflecting before one’s superior. Indeed, this was a sign of good social order. The custom of showing similar reverence toward images of rulers was promoted by the Roman emperors. Since the emperor could not be present everywhere, each city would have his statue, and citizens could pay their respects to the emperor by honoring his image. The Jews had fiercely resisted attempts to place royal or imperial statues in the Temple, for that would make a mere man assume the place of God. Yet there was no general objection among Christians to paying respects to the emperor’s image outside a house of divine worship, just as today one might show respect for a national flag or visiting monarch. Indeed, the Christians of the first four centuries were frequently anxious to prove that being a Christian was compatible with good citizenship.

In this ancient mentality, it was perfectly natural to give honor to the saints in heaven by showing respect before their images. There was no question here of worshipping an image as a god, since no one supposed that the saints were gods, with or without icons.

Still, viewed in terms of externals, there may seem to be little difference between a pagan worshipping his idol and a Christian honoring the icon of a saint. In fact, ancient language offered little basis for making such a distinction. In Greek, eidolon and eikonos simply mean “image,” and the ancient Greek and Latin words for “worship” and “piety” could be applied equally to honors given to mortals or to gods. (The same is true in Elizabethan English, where “worship” can refer to reverence toward a monarch.) Judaism and Christianity did not absolutely forbid the “worship” of human beings, but denied only that humans can be worshiped as gods. Although there were no words to distinguish these two modes of worship, the distinction could be felt just as surely as one may feel the distinction between man and god.

Images of Christ presented a unique situation, since Jesus was both human and divine. Thus displays of divine worship before icons of Christ were appropriate, in order to honor Christ’s divinity. This is not to ascribe divine attributes to the image itself, no more than the image is supposed to contain the reality of Christ’s human flesh. Rather, we honor Christ who is God by signs of homage before his image. Still, we can see how this might be construed as crossing the border into idolatry. Certainly Jews and Muslims would think so, but they do not recognize the doctrine of the Incarnate God. This is a specifically Christian problem.

No one seems to have been aware of a serious problem with Christian religious art until the eighth century. By that time, the veneration of sacred images was widespread, especially in the East. One might expect austere monasticism to resist the proliferation of religious art, but in fact the monks were among the greatest promoters of devotion to icons and relics. It must be understood that, in the East, icons were not seen as decorative paintings, so their presence was not incompatible with monastic aversion to sensualism. Rather, icons were holy on account of their subjects, and their function of raising our awareness toward heavenly matters. Thus icons would not have been perceived as occasioning the sin of worshipping the corporeal. On the contrary, they elevated us into contemplation of the spiritual and the divine.

1. First Iconoclasm

The first known Christian opponent of religious icons was the Byzantine emperor Leo the Isaurian. In 726, Leo issued the first of several edicts ordering the destruction of religious images, believing them to be idolatrous or at least facilitating idolatry. He thought that the volcanic eruption between Thera and Therasia was a sign of God’s wrath. It is not known if Leo came to his opinion about religious icons through Muslim or Jewish influence, but at any rate, it appears to have been motivated primarily by sincere religious scruples. His opposition to icons was supported by much of the aristocracy and even a section of the clergy, indicating that this opinion was already current in certain circles.

Another likely motivation for the suppression of religious art was Leo’s hostility toward monks. He complained that the monasteries took too many men out of the army and out of productive labor, while their increasing patrimony of lands became immune to taxation. The monks were widely resented by the Constantinopolitan aristocracy for similar reasons. A campaign against icons and relics would weaken monastic influence in society.

Leo’s edicts met tremendous resistance throughout Italy. Pope Gregory II excommunicated the emperor’s exarch and denounced the heresy of iconoclasm (“image-breaking”) in 727. Imperial officials were banished by revolts in various cities and new dukes were appointed. Leo’s new exarch led a military suppression of the revolts. Though this tempted the Italians to join forces with the Lombards, Pope Gregory was able to persuade the provinces to remain in allegiance to the empire in 729.

In 730, Leo deposed and replaced Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople for denouncing the iconoclastic edicts. Gregory II refused to recognize the replacement appointed by Leo. The pope’s successor, Gregory III, held a Roman Synod in 731, excommunicating anyone who opposed religious images.

The emperor sent a fleet to compel the Pope’s obedience in 732, but it was destroyed by a storm. Frustrated, Leo took some of southernmost Italy (already part of the Byzantine empire) away from papal jurisdiction and gave it to Constantinople. This resulted in a complete political breach between the Empire and most of Italy.

Leo’s iconoclasm was enforced only sporadically, but sometimes with extreme severity. The emperor already had a history of cruel persecution against the Jews and Montanists, and he did not shrink from doing likewise to orthodox Christians whom he believed to be idolaters. Sometimes monks were put to death, and saints’ corpses were desecrated in order to destroy their relics.

St John Damascene, of the laura of St. Sabas in Jerusalem, gave eloquent theological arguments against those who opposed holy images, showing that the Old Testament injunction against idolatry (Ex. 20:4) did not forbid all images whatsoever. Further, he argued:

In former times, God, being without form or body, could in no way be represented. But today, since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can represent what is visible in God. I do not worship matter, but I worship the creator of matter who became matter for my sake… and who through matter accomplished my salvation. Never will I cease to honor the matter which brought about salvation.

St. John also introduced a verbal distinction between the worship (latreia) proper to God alone and the veneration (proskinesis) that we may give to any excellent creature. Religious icons are owed only the latter, on account of the dignity of whom they represent.

What I see with my eyes I venerate, but not as God; I revere that which portrays what I honor. You perhaps, are superior to me, and have risen so far above bodily things that you have become virtually immaterial and feel free to make light of all visible things, but since I am human and clothed with a body, I desire to see and be present with the saints physically.

This is an attack on the perceived spiritualism of the iconoclasts, who showed undue disdain for physical representations. St. John reminds them that we mortals must think by visualizing.

2. Iconoclast Council of 754

Constantine V, son of Leo III, was even more hostile to icons. He condemned not only images, but also veneration of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints, forbidding prayer for their intercession. He also opposed monks for similar reasons as his father. He did not attempt persecution immediately, but waited until he had established successes during his first decade of rule.

In 754, the emperor convoked a council to decide the question of religious images. 338 bishops met in the imperial summer palace at Hieria for several months, deliberating without outside interference. They disagreed with Constantine on some things, upholding traditional belief about saintly intercession, and anathematizing anyone who denied the Blessed Virgin her title of Theotokos. Still, they agreed that the worship of images was “hateful and abominable,” and praised the emperor as a “thirteenth apostle” for protecting Christendom from idolatry. Such servility toward the emperor is unsurprising, as the office of the Constantinopolitan patriarch was vacant, and the emperor’s father Leo had already won the support of much of the secular clergy, especially in the capital, where monasticism had become unpopular.

The Council of 754 opposed not only the veneration of icons, but even their existence as architectural adornments. It forbade not only representations of divinity, but even those of human figures such as Mary and the saints. As such, its decrees were radically iconoclastic, and opposed to the practice of most of Christendom.

Although this council styled itself as the “Seventh Ecumenical Synod,” it was never approved by any of the five patriarchs or their lawful representatives. The patriarchate of Constantinople was sede vacante, and there were no papal legates, nor deputies from the patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria or Jerusalem. Since the other patriarchates did not merely abstain from the Council, but actively opposed its agenda, this cannot be seriously regarded as an ecumenical synod, either by Western or Eastern standards. Even at its zenith, iconoclasm was never more than a minority opinion in the universal Church.

The nineteenth anathema reveals the council’s insecurity about its legitimacy: “If anyone does not accept this our Holy and Ecumenical Seventh Synod, let him be anathema from the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and from the seven holy Ecumenical Synods!” No earlier ecumenical council makes such extreme claims, identifying its authority with that of the Holy Trinity, and contending that he who rejects this council is condemned by the earlier councils as well. The synod “protests too much” about its ecumenical authority. Such authority does not come from the severity of its threats, but from its lawful constitution and representation by legitimate ecclesiastical authorities.

Although the council’s pretensions of universal authority deserve to be dismissed, we may nonetheless consider its theological arguments on their merits. First, there is a rather elegant argument against depictions of the divine Christ.

He makes an image and calls it Christ. The name Christ signifies God and man. Consequently it is an image of God and man, and consequently he has in his foolish mind, in his representation of the created flesh, depicted the Godhead which cannot be represented, and thus mingled what should not be mingled.

...they take refuge in the excuse: We represent only the flesh of Christ which we have seen and handled. But that is a Nestorian error. For it should be considered that that flesh was also the flesh of God the Word, without any separation, perfectly assumed by the divine nature and made wholly divine. How could it now be separated and represented apart?...

If then in his passion the divinity remained inseparable from these, how do the fools venture to separate the flesh from the Godhead, and represent it by itself as the image of a mere man? They fall into the abyss of impiety, since they separate the flesh from the Godhead, ascribe to it a subsistence of its own, a personality of its own, which they depict, and thus introduce a fourth person into the Trinity.” Either (A) you are depicting the Godhead or (B) you are separating the flesh from the Godhead.

To better appreciate this argument, we must recognize that the act of naming an icon was not merely to apply a label, but to regard the icon as representing the person named. In Greek, this would have been evident as people addressed icons in the vocative case, which for Christ is Christe. He who makes an icon of Christ addresses it as “Christ,” yet Christ is both human and divine, so the icon devotee is guilty of making an image of human nature represent divinity, thus committing the Monophysite error of confusing the human and divine natures.

If it is objected that only Christ’s flesh is represented, the council responds that the flesh of Christ’s human nature was also the flesh of God the Word. To assert that one can represent Christ’s flesh without representing God the Word is to claim that Christ’s human nature is separable from his divine nature, which is the Nestorian heresy. The icon-maker would pretend that his work can represent Christ the man without also representing God the Word.

The council appears to have forced the icon supporters between the Scylla and Charybdis of Monophysitism and Nestorianism. The crux of the argument is as follows: if you address the icon as the one person who is Christ, you intend both natures. If you represent only one nature, then you cannot be representing Christ, for Christ’s humanity is inseparable from his divinity.

While it is certainly true that when we address the icon as Christ, we do intend both natures as the object of devotion, but it does not follow that we intend to represent both natures in the image. The council’s argument derives in part from a confusion between two functions of the icon: (1) pictorially representing a human form, and (2) serving as a surrogate for the person addressed. These are two distinct functions, and the fact that the person who is Christ is also divine does not imply that we are representing divinity pictorially. The iconoclasts may object that any pictorial representation of Christ’s human form is necessarily a pictorial representation of the Word of God, on account of the inseparability of the divine and human natures in Christ. Yet, as the Council of Chalcedon taught, the hypostatic union does not cause each nature to lose its respective characteristics, so the divine nature remains invisible, incorporeal, and impossible to represent pictorially, except by analogy or symbol. If it is said that the icon painter at least intends to depict the divine nature, though this is impossible, we must reply that this confuses the devotee’s intention when addressing the icon (i.e., as a surrogate for the person of Christ) with the intention in pictorial representation (where only an image of Christ’s flesh is intended).

Another sort of conceptual confusion is apparent when the council invokes the Eucharist as the only acceptable image of Christ: “The only admissible figure of the humanity of Christ, however, is bread and wine in the holy Supper. This and no other form, this and no other type, has he chosen to represent his incarnation.”

We must note that the Greek typos refers literally to the image that is made from a blow or impression. Standing alone, this quote might make one suppose that the conciliar bishops thought that the Eucharist is merely a figurative image or symbol of Christ. On the contrary, it evinces that ancient mode of thinking whereby an image is a real transmission of the substantive reality of a thing. This helps us understand in what sense the iconoclasts thought of icons as idolatrous. The act of representation was to make a real impression of the thing represented. Yet Christ had already chosen the Eucharist as the means of conveying his incarnation to future generations of Christians. An icon is interpreted by the iconoclasts as attempting a similar operation, transmitting something of Christ’s reality through vicarious representation.

The council opposes the “evil custom of assigning names to the images”. We have already seen the great weight it assigned to the act of calling an icon “Christ.” Giving names to icons, in the council’s view, is to ascribe personal qualities to them, which would be intrinsically idolatrous. Special confusion may arise if different icons of the same person have distinct names, in which case the icon rather than the person represented appears to be the object of devotion.

The earlier theological argument against depictions of Christ would appear to be inapplicable to icons of the saints. Since they are not divine, their icons cannot be said to idolatrously depict the divine nature. Nonetheless, the council finds such paintings to be a type of necromancy:

The Saints live on eternally with God, although they have died. If anyone thinks to call them back again to life by a dead art, discovered by the heathen, he makes himself guilty of blasphemy. Who dares attempt with heathenish art to paint the Mother of God, who is exalted above all heavens and the Saints? It is not permitted to Christians, who have the hope of the resurrection, to imitate the customs of demon-worshippers, and to insult the Saints, who shine in so great glory, by common dead matter.

Here the icon devotee is equated with the grossest idolater, who pretends to conjure his revered ancestors by representing them in lifeless matter. If this were indeed one’s intent, it would be blasphemy for a Christian, who should hope in the heavenly resurrection rather than the kind of immortality sought by conjuration. We do not have enough evidence about the beliefs of Byzantine peasants to determine whether they thought they were giving life to the saints on earth by making icons of them. There has long been a belief among many Orthodox that a saint can see through the eyes of a holy icon, but there is no record of any Christian believing that the icon gave life to the saint. At any rate, this certainly was not the belief of many medieval Christians who professed devotion to sacred images. The council does not make any distinction between those who may have had an idolatrous understanding and those who did not, so it evidently is not concerned with giving a fair representation of the actual motives of icon devotees. We have no reason, then, to suppose that there is any solid basis for the above quoted characterization.

The rest of the council’s arguments against icons are weak by comparison. It cites Old Testament prooftexts against idolatry (e.g., “thou shalt not make a graven image”), but no Christian ever doubted that idolatry was forbidden. It remained to be proven that the use of icons was in fact idolatry. The Council is unable to cite any authentic patristic evidence against the use of icons, and is forced to rely on some spurious citations instead. We are left with the strange thesis that no one in Christendom seems to have noticed that icons were idolatrous until the eighth century.

The weakness of the iconoclastic arguments—save that against depictions of the Godhead—suggests that the real basis of iconoclasm was not theological. Indeed, the early iconoclasts did not take much interest in producing theological arguments until they were confronted by arguments of St. John Damascene and other defenders of orthodoxy. From the entire tone of the decrees of the Iconoclast Council, it seems that there is an aesthetic predisposition to the idea that all religious icons are intrinsically idolatrous, regardless of how they are used. To the iconoclasts, this was so intuitively obvious that it seemed pedantic to require arguments. Thus we find that most of the Council’s arguments presume what they ought to prove.

The iconoclasts’ aesthetic aversion to religious images per se is proven by their deeds, for they destroyed even images that were decorative rather than objects of devotion. This aversion did not arise out of hostility toward opulence in churches, as was the case with the Protestants centuries later, for iconoclasm was most popular among the Constantinopolitan aristocracy. Rather, it came from the deep-seated sentiment that the mere presence of a human image in a place of worship was intrinsically idolatrous.

Apart from the question of iconoclasm, the Council of Hieria also faced the problem of its own authority. Since no patriarch approved this synod, the council had no basis for claiming any sort of ecumenical authority except by the authority of the emperor. Yet the emperor had never been considered a properly ecclesiastical authority, though he had the prerogative of convoking councils and the responsibility of guarding their authentic written acts. If the ecumenical authority of the Council were to be accepted, it would follow that the emperor had sufficient authority to convene and ratify an ecumenical council on his own, making him a properly ecclesiastical authority.

Naturally, Constantine did not overtly claim to be the supreme ecclesiastical authority. Rather, he claimed to be merely enforcing the canons passed by the Council of Hieria. Until now, iconoclasm had been enforced only by imperial authority, but now the emperor could pretend to have the blessing of the Church.

3. From Hieria to Nicaea

Constantine used his de facto ecclesiastical supremacy sparingly at first, executing only a few monks for icon-worship over the next decade. In 765, however, the emperor began a cruel persecution. Throughout Constantinople, religious images (most of which had been spared under Leo) were systematically destroyed, so there was practically nothing left of that city’s sacred art. Some church buildings had their relics removed and became secularized as arsenals and other government uses. Monks in particular were sought out for hidden relics or amulets on their persons, and were subjected to hideous tortures, severe even by the standards of the time. Monasteries and convents were confiscated and secularized. Monastic leaders, defiant to the end, were publicly mocked and executed. Other monks were exiled, while the less courageous were won over to secular life.

The next emperor, Leo IV (775-80), thought it prudent not to continue his father’s persecutions against monks until his power was well established. He began persecution in 780, executing icon devotees and destroying images, but this was cut short by his death in September. His widow, the Empress Irene, had a strong devotion to religious icons, and sought to restore the practice once her power was secured, while regent for her young son Constantine VI.

In 784, the Patriarch Paul of Constantinople resigned, and the Empress replaced him with Tarasius, the imperial secretary. Tarasius declared that the Iconoclast Council of 754 was illegal, and called for the restoration of peace and unity of Christendom, as iconoclasm had driven Italy away from the Empire. To this end, he proposed an ecumenical council in Constantinople.

Still, the army and some of the Eastern bishops remained staunch iconoclasts and opponents of monasticism. The first attempt at a council in 786 was dispersed by soldiers of the guard. To avoid a repeat of such rioting, the council was re-convened at Nicaea in 787, in the presence of papal legates. 350 bishops attended. In contrast with the iconoclast council of 754, this council included papal legates and representatives of the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem (all still under Arab rule).

The Council at Nicaea distinguished itself in authority from the Iconoclast Council of 754, saying of the latter: “For it did not have the assistance of the Roman Pope of that time, or those who were his priests around him, nor even by his vicar nor by encyclical letter, as the law of Councils prescribes.”[1] Here the churches of all five patriarchates reject Constantine V’s pretension that the emperor could suffice to give ecumenical ecclesiastical authority to a council. At the same time, they freely attest to an earlier law that ecumenical synods required the participation of the Pope, by legate or by letter.

4. Dogmatic Content of the Second Council of Nicaea

The Seventh Ecumenical Council, the second at Nicaea, reminds us of Christ’s promise to the Church: “I am with you every day until the consummation of this age,” and remarks:

To this gracious offer some people paid no attention; being hoodwinked by the treacherous foe, they abandoned the true line of reasoning, and setting themselves against the tradition of the Catholic Church, they faltered in their grasp of the truth.

The foundation of the Council’s teaching is the Church’s tradition, which is guaranteed to remain in truth by virtue of Christ’s promise. If the iconoclasts were to be believed, the whole Church had fallen into idolatry, in which case Christ can hardly be said to have remained with her. Iconoclasm, in this regard, is a sort of proto-Protestantism, supposing that there was no real Church of Christ between the apostolic age and the age of reform. Their error was to trust in their own reasoning rather than in the living tradition of the Church.

The Council presents itself as guarding the Church’s tradition rather than introducing a new teaching: “...setting for our aim the truth, we neither diminish nor augment, but simply guard intact all that pertains to the catholic church.” It reaffirms the teachings of the previous six ecumenical synods: “...we defend free from any innovations all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us.”

One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another's message.

If representational art were to be forbidden, we would lack a constant reminder of the reality of the Incarnation, tempting us to spiritualist errors akin to those of the Gnostics and the Origenists. Religious art should be seen as illustrating the Gospel, and therefore containing its message.

...we recognize that this tradition comes from the holy Spirit who dwells in her—we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God... these are the images of our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men.

The images of these personages are to be exposed no less than the sign of the cross. Since even the iconoclasts acknowledged the legitimacy of the sign of the cross, the Council invokes this as an analogy of icon devotion to show that no idolatry is intended.

The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration [latria] in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects.

First, we see a practical reason for the art, namely that people are reminded of these role models. Accordingly, they pay the images “salutation and respectful veneration.” Recall that such veneration was commonly given to statues of the emperor, as a way of giving homage to one who is not physically present. This is not the same as worship that is owed only to God. Instead, it resembles the honor given to the sign of the cross, the gospels, etc. This analogy is given because no one supposes that the cross is a god, or that the gospels are gods, etc. Not all displays of reverence are necessarily worshiping something as a god. They are signs of respect.

In modern egalitarian culture, it is less intelligible that someone may show such deferent, self-abnegating humility to one who is not a god. This is why all veneration of saints seems like idolatry. Yet this is because of a deficiency in our culture, which lacks a means of recognizing inequality and hierarchy among rational creatures.

Though we frequently speak of devotion toward icons, really the object of devotion is the person represented by the icon: “...the honour paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.” Clearly, the Christian who venerates an image does not intend to honor the painting per se, but rather the person represented.

All who persist in iconoclasm are excommunicated, since they reject a legitimate tradition of the universal Church:

Therefore all those who dare to think or teach anything different, or who follow the accursed heretics in rejecting ecclesiastical traditions, or who devise innovations, or who spurn anything entrusted to the church (whether it be the gospel or the figure of the cross or any example of representational art or any martyr's holy relic), or who fabricate perverted and evil prejudices against cherishing any of the lawful traditions of the catholic church, or who secularize the sacred objects and saintly monasteries, we order that they be suspended if they are bishops or clerics, and excommunicated if they are monks or lay people.

This excommunication is distinctive from those issued by earlier ecumenical councils, since it is not on the grounds of doctrinal heresy, but for rejecting an ecclesiastical tradition. Earlier councils included excommunication as a penalty for violations of disciplinary canons, but the present condemnation is made in the context of a solemn teaching, not in the canonical portion of the acts. Thus we find for the first time an ecumenical council confirming that Christians must adhere not only to the faith of the Church, but also to its traditional practices. This is clearly set out in the anathemas that follow:

  1. If anyone does not confess that Christ our God can be represented in His humanity, let him be anathema.
  2. If anyone does not accept representation in art of evangelical scenes, let him be anathema.
  3. If anyone does not salute such representations as standing for the Lord and His saints, let him be anathema.
  4. If anyone rejects any written or unwritten tradition of the Church, let him be anathema.

While no one, of course, can be expected to practice every traditional devotion in existence, the Council forbids that any Christian should reject or condemn a “written or unwritten tradition of the Church.” The qualification “of the Church” means that we are not dealing with locally or temporally contingent customs, but with practices held throughout the entire Church over the centuries. To claim that the universal Church could adopt religious practices or customs that are evil or idolatrous is to deny the truth of Christ’s promise that He will always remain with His Church. Thus anyone who rejects a long-held tradition of the universal Church cannot be an orthodox Christian.

In the case of icons, Christians are required to (1) admit that Christ can be represented in His humanity, (2) accept that representational art may be used to depict evangelical scenes, and (3) make a sign of reverence toward these icons in recognition of the fact that they stand for the Lord and His saints.

5. Canons of the Second Council of Nicaea

The canons of the ecumenical council are designed not only to restore the damage wrought by iconoclasm, but also to correct previous imperial attempts at usurping ecclesiastical authority.

The second canon prescribes that a bishop must be one who is already educated in the psalter, canons and other ecclesiastical matters. This is to address the iconoclast emperors’ practice of appointing pliant bishops from their own secular administration. Even Empress Irene was guilty of this practice, as she made her imperial secretary the Patriarch of Constantinople.

The third canon urges that in the future: “Any election of a bishop, priest or deacon brought about by the rulers is to be null and void...” Bishops are only to be elected by other bishops. Here we find an especially strenuous assertion against imperial interference in ecclesiastical appointments. The Greek Church now recognized the perils of imperial meddling, and clearly rejected the Erastianism that would later overtake it. The appointment of Photius as patriarch by the Emperor Bardas in 857 was a clear violation of this canon.

The fourth canon condemns he who “because of a demand for gold or something similar, or because of some private infatuation of his own, has excluded from the liturgy or excommunicated one of the clerics under his authority, or has closed off one of the holy churches, preventing the celebration of God's liturgies in it, pouring out his own madness against insensible thing...” The fifth canon denounces “those who boast that they have been appointed in the church by distributing gifts of gold, and who pin their hopes on this evil custom...” While these rejections of simony seem obvious, they addressed real concerns occasioned by imperial interference in appointments.

The sixth canon requires a minimum of one provincial council per year. It refers to Canon 8 of the Council in Trullo as a canon of “the holy fathers of the sixth synod”. This statement does not suffice to elevate the Trullan canons in toto to ecumenical status (see Commentary on the Council in Trullo), but only the one cited. At any rate, this canon was ignored in practice, as has been the fate of all canons attempting to require regular councils.

The seventh canon intends a restoration of the damage caused by errors derivative of iconoclasm, that “impious heresy of the defamers of Christians.” Relics are again required for consecrated buildings: “...in venerable churches consecrated without relics of the holy martyrs, the installation of relics should take place along with the usual prayers. And if in future any bishop is found out consecrating a church without relics, let him be deposed as someone who has flouted the ecclesiastical traditions.”

The example of relics shows that a practice need not date back to apostolic times in order to be an authentic tradition of the Church to which all must adhere. The traditionalism espoused by the Council is not an archaeologism or primitivism that would have our customs remain unchanged from the first generation. Rather, it attests that Christ remains with the Church even in the customs that she develops over time. Since the custom of consecrating a church with relics is an authentic unwritten tradition of the universal Church, it is to be recognized as salutary and not despised. (It almost goes without saying that Protestant ecclesiology and epistemology are completely incompatible with the teachings of the Council.)

The eighth canon addresses so-called Judaizers:

Since some of those who come from the religion of the Hebrews mistakenly think to make a mockery of Christ who is God, pretending to become Christians, but denying Christ in private by both secretly continuing to observe the sabbath and maintaining other Jewish practices, we decree that they shall not be received to communion or at prayer or into the church, but rather let them openly be Hebrews according to their own religion; they should not baptize their children or buy, or enter into possession of, a slave.

The inclusion of this canon among the Council’s acts hints that clandestine Judaism among the aristocracy was held to be at least partly responsible for the adoption of iconoclastic ideas. We lack sufficient evidence to determine if this was actually the case.

In any event, the adoption of Christianity requires the believer to abandon Old Testament rituals, insofar as these entail a denial that Christ freed us from such obligations, and that His sacrifice alone suffices unto our salvation. Those who wish to retain Old Testament practices should not profess to be Christians, but instead should live openly as Jews.

Jews are forbidden to own slaves because slaves were often Christians, and it was considered unfitting that the Jews should lord over a member of the body of Christ. Similarly, Jews are forbidden to baptize their children, so they may not have power over any Christian.

These restrictions on the Jews are not based on race, but on religion. They are removed for those who convert sincerely:

But if one of them makes his conversion with a sincere faith and heart, and pronounces his confession wholeheartedly, disclosing their practices and objects in the hope that others may be refuted and corrected, such a person should be welcomed and baptized along with his children, and care should be taken that they abandon Hebrew practices.

Jewish Christians are to be treated like any other Christians, and for this reason they should accept that they are free from the ritual obligations of the Old Testament, no less than any other Christian, as Christ’s sacrifice has supplanted them.

The ninth canon requires that iconoclastic writings “should be given in at the episcopal building in Constantinople, so that they can be put away along with other heretical books.” Note that heretical books were stored in an archive, not destroyed. The penalty for hiding such books is suspension for a cleric and excommunication for a layman.

Addressing another abuse under the iconoclast emperors, the tenth canon denounces those clerics “who despise the canonical ordinance, abandon their own dioceses and run off into other dioceses—something that happens with special frequency in this imperial, God-guarded city—and there they lodge with rulers, celebrating the liturgy in their chapels...” Any such transfers need the approval of the diocesan bishop and the patriarch of Constantinople. Even with such approval, transferred priests cannot take on worldly or secular responsibilities.

Under the twelfth canon, a bishop cannot transfer land to a secular ruler: “...if he pretends that the land is a loss and brings in no profit at all, let him make a present of the place to clerics or landworkers...” No pretext is to be admitted whereby a ruler may secularize church lands. It is better to give the land to the workers than to facilitate abuse of the civil power.

By the thirteenth canon, those who do not restore secularized church buildings are suspended or excommunicated.

The fourteenth canon defines some prerogatives reserved to priests: “...some, without the imposition of hands, are adopting the clerical tonsure while still youngsters, and without having received the imposition of hands from the bishop they are undertaking to read publicly from the ambo during the church service, even though they are acting uncanonically.” The imposition of hands is priestly ordination, so this canon forbids clerical tonsure before ordination. The non-ordained cannot adopt the specifically priestly function of reading publicly. Recall that the Greeks do not permit even deacons to read the Gospel during liturgy. This prohibition against reading only holds canonical or disciplinary force.

Early tonsure of adolescents was possibly practiced in analogy with betrothal customs—i.e., those too young to marry were nonetheless permitted to be engaged. It is possible for the parties to be old enough to give consent to betrothal, yet too young for marriage on account of physical immaturity. An analogous practice for the priesthood is unacceptable, however, since there is never any question of lacking only physical maturity. Priestly formation intrinsically requires a certain degree of mental maturity, which is defined by the canonical age requirements. Those who are beneath the canonical age lack what is necessary to give consent to Holy Orders. Further, unlike marriage, the reception of Holy Orders does not depend solely on the consent of the candidate. It requires a real imparting of the Holy Spirit by the bishop. Thus those who have not received the imposition of hands are in no wise clerics.

The fifteenth canon forbids clerics from holding office in two churches, a practice that was motivated by profit.

The sixteenth canon condemns some of the effete practices of Greek priests:

All indulgence and adornment bestowed on the body is alien to the priestly order . Therefore all those bishops and clerics who deck themselves out in brilliant and showy clothes should be called to order, and if they persist let them be punished. The same holds for those who use perfumes.

This restriction does not apply to liturgical vestments. The canon also condemns those who make fun of holy men who dress simply: “For the sinner, piety is an abomination.”

The remaining canons address monastic discipline, so that abuses by monks should no longer be invoked as an excuse for secular attacks on monasticism. In this vein, the seventeenth canon prevents people from founding their own monasteries simply to avoid having to obey their superiors. The eighteenth canon forbids keeping women in monasteries or in the bishop’s house, even for ostensibly innocent reasons.

The nineteenth canon forbids priestly or monastic orders to admit people in exchange for cash payments. This still allows parents to give “dowries” for their children, or the candidate to relinquish his personal goods, but these are to remain with the monastery regardless of whether the candidate remains there. Such donations impose no obligation on the monastic community to accept the candidate, so membership is still decided on the basis of character and aptitude.

The twentieth canon says there shall be no more “double monasteries;” i.e., adjoining male and female monasteries. Any existing double monasteries must have separate buildings for monks and nuns, and no monk should ever be alone with a nun, in order not to give scandal.

By the twenty-first canon, a monk should not leave his monastery for another. If this happens, the new monastery may offer hospitality, but it should not accept the monk into the community without the approval of his previous superior.

The first part of the twenty-second canon is directed toward the laity in general:

...it is not reprehensible that men and women should eat in one another's company; though they should at least say grace to thank the giver of their nourishment, and they should avoid certain theatrical entertainments, diabolical songs, the strumming of lyres and the dancing fit for harlots, against all such there is the curse of the prophet which says, “Woe on those who drink their wine to the sound of lyre and harp, those who pay no attention to the deeds of the Lord and have never a thought for the works of his hands.”

Here we see the reasons for the ancient Christian reluctance to have men and women dine together. It is not that this was intrinsically wrong, but it often occasioned dissolute revelries such as those described. In pagan antiquity, women at meals were seen primarily as sources of sensual pleasure and entertainment. Such practice is unacceptable for Christians, but men and women may nonetheless dine together if they do so chastely and with moderation.

For monks and priests, the rules for sharing meals are as follows:

Those whose mode of life is contemplative and solitary should sit and be silent, because they have entered into a contract with the Lord that the yoke they carry will be a solitary one. Indeed, all those who have chosen the life of priests are certainly not free to eat privately in the company of women, but at the most in the company of certain God-fearing and pious men and women, in order that such a meal taken in common may draw them to spiritual betterment.

Semi-eremetic monks should not socialize at meals, in order to keep their vows. Further, all monks and even priests should not dine in the company of any but the most pious women, and this only while in the company of other good men. One exception is allowed: “if a monk or even a man in priestly orders happens to be making a journey and is not carrying with him his indispensable provisions, and then wishes to satisfy his needs in a public inn or in someone's house...”

The prescriptions of the Second Council of Nicaea were generally accepted without controversy throughout Christendom. Yet this peace would only last a few decades, until a new emperor revived iconoclasm.

6. Second Iconoclasm (814-842)

In 813, Leo the Armenian, a general in the imperial army, forced the abdication of Emperor Michael I in the wake of the latter’s humiliating defeat by the Bulgarians. After briefly pretending to respect orthodox teaching regarding icons, the new Emperor Leo V restored iconoclasm in 814, claiming that his predecessors were defeated in war because God was displeased with their idolatry. Religious images began to be destroyed, and in 815 the emperor banished and replaced the patriarch of Constantinople. Leo persecuted the opponents of iconoclasm by exile or imprisonment, and he confiscated monastic property.

Among the exiled was St. Theodorus Studita, abbot of the Studium monastery in Constantinople, who presented the most eloquent arguments against iconoclasm to date. St. Theodore held that the iconoclasts were heretics, for they denied an essential element of Christ’s human nature, that it can be represented pictorially. This argument relied on the Chalcedonian definition that Christ’s human nature is preserved in its integrity, with all the attributes proper to that nature. Significantly, St. Theodore also argued against the iconoclasts that the secular ruler had no authority in matters of faith.

Leo’s new patriarch Theodotus held a synod repudiating the Nicene council of 787 and upholding the iconoclast synod of 754. In 818, Pope St. Paschal sent a letter to the emperor defending icons. Many of the persecuted orthodox Greeks responded with professions of loyalty and gratitude to the pontiff. This was one of the last times that such pro-Roman sentiment would appear in the East. It is precisely because Rome was independent of the emperor that she could serve in this role as preserver of the faith. Unfortunately, the Greeks would later forget this bitter lesson about the Church’s need for independence from the state.

The next emperor, Michael II (820-829), sought to appease both parties on the issue of iconoclasm, but persecutions resumed under his son Theophilus (829-842).

7. Aftermath

At last, it took another empress regent, Theodora, to put in an end to iconoclasm. In 842, she convened a synod, which reaffirmed Nicaea II. The iconoclasts were banished from office. They continued to exist as a party for a short while, but they never enjoyed imperial support again.

Iconoclasm was never especially popular except among aristocrats (including secular clergy) and the army. Its failure to win sincere popular support accounts for why it was never able to be sustained except through imperial persecution.

The persistence of orthodox Christianity, by contrast, suggests that its merits are not dependent on brute force, as some inept historians of religion have claimed. We have seen that religious views imposed only by violence tend to dissipate as soon as they lose the favor of the state. Orthodox Christianity, instead, has proven to have real staying power, even in the face of hostility from the state, as was proven by early Roman persecutions and again by the atheistic persecutions of the twentieth century. The existence of a confessional Byzantine state was no guarantee that orthodoxy would thrive solely on the basis of state support, as we have seen that even Christian emperors could become persecutors of the orthodox.

The upholding of Nicaea II over iconoclasm is a bittersweet victory, as it represents the last time that the Church was truly united from East to West. A short time later in the ninth century, the Photian schism would lead the balance of power in the Greek church to shift toward the emperors, who did not fear to exploit nationalist prejudices against the Roman popes. The loss of ecclesial unity in the East was occasioned not by the intrusion of some foreign heresy, but by the overly tight embrace of the Christian imperial state. Just as the first of the seven great councils was made possible by imperial endorsement of Christianity, so was this age brought to an end by excessive imperial meddling in ecclesial affairs. As if to remind us that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, the greatest disasters in Church history are preceded by misplaced confidence in political alliances.


[1] Sixth Session of Nicaea II, as recorded in Mansi, xiii, 207-209. The quoted text is also in the Greek acts. The Latin reads: Non habuit enim adjutorum illius temporis Romanorum papam, vel eos qui circa ipsum sunt sacerdotes, nec etiam per vicarios ejus, neque per enyclicam epistolam, quemadmodum lex dictat conciliorum. The Greeks recognized that papal participation is at least a necessary condition, while the Latins later elaborated that it is also a sufficient condition.

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