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  TALK ON THE HISTORY OF

MANKIND AND THE CHURCH
PART 8

24th January 2008

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 THE ICONOCLAST CONTROVERSY AND THE

SEVENTH  ECUMENICAL COUNCIL

 
Last week we looked at the Monastic movement which began in the fourth century and then at the first Six Ecumenical Councils which with the exception of the sixth, were called to deal with matters of faith and especially the many heresies that troubled the Church and had to be condemned to safeguard the true faith and the teaching of salvation. Many of you found the talk difficult to follow which is not surprising since we heard strange heresies like those of the Arians, Eunomians, Eudoxians, Semi-Arians, Pneumatomachi, Sabellians, Marcellians, Photinians, Macedonians, Apollinarians, Nestorians, Monophysites, Monothelites, Millenarians and others. Today it remains for us to see the Seventh Ecumenical Council which was called to condemn the Iconoclast Controversy. Again this is not going to be an easy talk because we have to see what happened in the years before the Synod and also other Synods after it which some accepted and others rejected. We have talked about Icons before and then covered much of the troublesome history of the Icon and the decree of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, thus part of what you will hear today can be found in the previous talk.
Icons had always had its opponents in the Church especially from those with a puritan outlook who thought of Icons as a form of idolatry, but in general they were accepted as being essential items helpful in narrating the religious stories in pictures. In time they were accepted as representing the person portrayed in his absence, similar to the images of the emperor which under Roman law was a legal substitute used in place of the Emperor being there in person. This of course doesn’t mean that the Icon was used as a substitute for Christ and the saints: it was never worshipped as an idol, but was only a material symbol and the Church clearly taught that it should only be given relative honour and veneration but never to be worshipped in the same way that God alone is worshipped. But the Icon was something much more that just a symbol because as we shall see later, it had a doctrinal significance and was essential in teaching the true dogma on the incarnation and on man’s salvation.
The Iconoclast movement first appeared in 723 under Caliph Yazid II. Some eastern territories like Syria and Egypt where now under Muslim control and the Caliph ordered the removal of all Icons from his territory. The Eastern Roman Empire was now under the Emperor Leo III. Historians believe that he originated from eastern Asia Minor, near the border with the Moslem world, and had been exposed to Moslem influences, which from 700, forbade images and in particular the representation of the human form in pictures. He was probably also influenced by the Monophysite heresy which was very strong in the Eastern provinces. Leo, who believed that Icons where a form of idolatry, wanted to reform the Empire and rid the Church of Icons. He was supported by top clergymen among whom were three Bishops from Asia Minor, Thomas of Claudiopolis, Theodosius of Ephesus and Constantine of Nacolia. Constantine went to Constantinople to try and win over the Patriarch Germanos to the iconoclastic cause, but the Patriarch refused to accept any doctrine that contradicted the councils and the tradition of the Church and wrote a long letter in support of the holy images. This did not stop the unholy movement. The three bishops proceeded to destroy the images in their respective regions and the Emperor made his opposition to the veneration of Icons public by a series of speeches. His attempt to win over public opinion had failed: the people and the clergy were opposed to his plans. Leo then ordered the destruction of a greatly venerated Icon of Christ which was above the Bronze Gate in Constantinople. This immediately caused a riot resulting in the death of an officer. Leo ordered the punishment of the guilty persons, which resulted in arrests, tortures and executions.

Things were getting out of hand and the Emperor invited the Patriarch to the Senate to sign an act that prohibited Icons. The Patriarch removed his Bishop’s stole (omophorion) and refused to have any other faith that that which he received from the Ecumenical Councils. Some days later, Leo had a new patriarch elected from among those who were loyal to his cause. Now with the Emperor and Patriarch united in the one cause, icons were removed from the Churches and replaced with images of flowers, ornaments and birds. The citizens of Constantinople were ordered to bring their icons to a public place so that they could be burnt. Many who resisted were condemned, tortured and killed, while others were exiled or left the Capital.
The fight against the Iconoclasts was taken up by the new Pope, Gregory III, in 731. He convoked a council in Rome which condemned the Iconoclastic policies of the Emperor and excommunicated everyone who opposed the veneration of the icons and blasphemed and destroyed them. Leo was not pleased to say the least. To punish Rome, he took from the Pope's jurisdiction and ceded to the patriarchate of Constantinople the Greek provinces of southern Italy as well as Sicily and Illyricum.
Leo III died in 741 and his son Constantine V Copronymus now sat on the throne of the Roman Emperors continuing his father’s persecution of the Iconodules. Around this time another adversary of iconoclasm came to the defence of the holy Icons: St. John of Damascus. He lived in Palestine which was then occupied by the Arabs and was therefore outside the jurisdiction of the Emperor. St. John was an eminent Theologian and belonged to an equally eminent family. His father, Sergius Mansur, was a treasurer at the court of the caliph and after his death; John occupied ministerial posts at court and became the city prefect. John wrote three treatises entitled, “Against those who revile the Holy Icons.” John’s writings enraged the emperor, but since the author was not a Byzantine subject, the emperor was unable to lock him up in prison, or to execute him. John’s treatises set out a theology of the Icon that has been used by theologians ever since. He took all the arguments used by the Iconoclasts and proved through Holy Scripture and ancient testimonies that in reality they subscribed to Arian and Monophysite heresies. He showed that by opposing the Icon, as did the Iconoclasts, they were denying that God had become man which at the same time broke the union between God and man which Christ united in Himself. If man’s union with God is broken then that also means that man has no means to be saved, his salvation is lost and faith in Christ is in vain. John’s teaching can be summed up in the following lines that he wrote: “In former times, God, who was without form or body and was uncircumscribable, could never be depicted, but now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter; I worship the creator of matter, who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.” [St. John of Damascus]
The legitimacy of the Icon was therefore founded on the Incarnation which abolished the Old Testament law prohibiting images and changed the relation between the Creator and the creatures.
St. John’s writings along with those of Pope Gregory III were having their effect throughout the Church. As tensions mounted everywhere, the Emperor was forced to convoke a council to condemn those in favour of Icons. The Council was held in 754 at Hiera in an imperial palace near the Capital. They called the synod the Seventh Ecumenical Council, but it was never recognized by any of the Patriarchates and is commonly called the mock synod of Constantinople. The synod decreed that Icons were a blasphemy. The main argument was that if we have an image of Christ who is God-man, then that image represents both the created flesh and the Godhead which cannot be represented. They thus accused the Iconodules of Monophysite heresies and Nestorianism which in fact they were the ones who subscribed to these heresies by thinking that the Icon shared in the human or divine nature. They thought on material levels without understanding the true dogma concerning Christ’s two natures in one Person, one Hypostasis. The Icon therefore didn’t share in the two nature’s of Christ, but in the Person as was made clearer at a later date by another defender of Icons, St Theodore the Studite who we shall see later on.

The Synod which was composed of 338 bishops, all in favour of the Iconoclast movement, condemned the Icons and those who honoured them. With their closing Anathemas they singled out three defenders of the Icon for special anathemas and excommunication: They are the Patriarch Germanos, George of Cyprus and St. John of Damascus who they called by his family name Mansur. After the mock synod, a new wave of persecutions began. The Emperor singled out the more noted monks and required them to comply with the decrees of the synod. Everyone who opposed the Iconoclasts was now officially branded as a heretic and harsh punishments awaited them. As a result many were tortured, exiled or executed and many monks were forced into marriages. In 766 the Emperor exacted an oath against images from all the inhabitants of the Empire. The monks refused with violent obstinacy and Copronymus appears to have amused himself by treating them with ruthless harshness to the point of contemplating the extirpation of monasticism. Monks were forced to appear in the hippodrome at Constantinople hand in hand with prostitutes while the people spat on them. The monastery relics were thrown into the sea and the monasteries themselves which had became centres of resistance were destroyed, turned into army barracks or stables. Other stories tell of how monks were gathered together, forced to wear white and then being presented with wives were forced to choose between marriage and the loss of their eyesight.
The Emperor died in 775 and was succeeded by his son Leo IV the Khasar. Leo was also an Iconoclast but he applied the decrees in a more liberal fashion. His short reign is marked by the easing of the persecution. He died in 780 and the regency was assumed by his wife Irene because their only son Constantine was still only six years old. The Empress Irene came from Athens and was a devoted and faithful laywoman and a supporter of Icons. She planned to change the state of affairs, but had to carry out her policy with great caution. A whole generation had grown up accustomed to a Church without images; it was not going to be easy to bring them back to venerating Icons, but she was helped by a series of miracles performed by re-emerging relics and Icons that had been thrown into the sea. When the Patriarch died she had Tarasius elected as the New Patriarch. Tarasius had until then been the Patriarch’s secretary and was still a layman at the time of his election. He immediately abolished the iconoclast decisions of the mock synod and with Irene called together a truly Ecumenical Council which was held in 787 at Nicaea and is recognized by all as the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The Council was attended by 350 Bishops, monks and other representatives from Rome and all the other patriarchates.
Using texts from Holy Scripture and the fathers, the council proved that the veneration of Icons was a legitimate practice, but they were most explicit in declaring that this veneration was merely a veneration of honour and affection which can be given to the creature, but under no circumstances could the adoration of divine worship be given to them which is reserved for God alone. In the words of the council this is what was unanimously decreed: “We define the rule with all accuracy and after thorough examination, that in a manner similar to the precious and vivifying cross, the venerable and Holy Icons, painted or mosaic, or made of any other suitable material, be placed in the Holy Churches of God, upon sacred vessels and vestments, on walls and panels, houses and streets, both of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and of our undefiled Sovereign Lady, the Holy Mother of God; and also of the Holy Angels, and of all the Saints. For the more often and frequent their representation in an image is seen, the more those beholding are led to remember the originals which they represent and for whom the person beholding begets a yearning in the soul and grows to love them more. Also such persons are prompted to kiss and pay them honorary veneration, not the true adoration which according to our faith, is proper only to the one divine nature, but in the same way veneration is given to the image of the precious and vivifying cross, the Holy Gospels and other sacred objects, which we honour with incense and candles according to the custom of our forefathers by way of manifesting piety. For the honour given to the Icon is passed on to the original, and whosoever bows down in reverence before the Icon, is at the same time bowing down in reverence to the person represented on it”.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council was originally accepted by all, but certain political events lead to a distancing between the east and the west which resulted in the Frankish kingdom questioning the Orthodoxy of the Council. For many years, the Frankish court towards the Greeks had been more than just unfavourable. There were bad feelings and memories between Irene and the Frankish king Charlemagne after Irene broke off an engagement between her son and Charlemagne’s daughter. Charlemagne it seems was unaware of the Seventh Ecumenical Council until he was sent by Pope Hadrian a copy of the acts translated into Latin in order that he might signify his acceptance of the Council. But the translation was so badly done that either the translator was ignorant of Latin as well as Greek or the translation was purposely changed to discredit the Greek Council. It contained such errors as using the word “worship” instead of “venerate” and quotes from bishops meaning exactly the opposite of what they actually said. Charlemagne cannot be blamed for the translation, but it has been said that he also had in his possession a copy of the original Greek text which he probable ignored. He also had serious grievances against Irene and with the translation of the Acts of the Council he found reasons to have her council rejected. As a result of these bad feelings Charlemagne ordered a written reply to the Pope and the Council, which have come to be known as the Caroline Books.
From the contents of the books, it is clear that the authors had never read the acts or decrees of the Seventh Ecumenical Council of which they were writing about and were also ignorant of the Mock council that took place in 754. They quoted things that were apparently said at the Seventh Council which were actually said at the Iconoclast Mock council and made such serious mistakes as attributing to Constantius the Bishop of Cyprus the monstrous statement that the sacred images were to be given the supreme adoration due to the Holy Trinity. The Caroline Books based on the false translation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council found the Greeks to be Idol worshippers and totally rejected the Seventh as being Ecumenical in character. Now this is a clear contradiction to how they began the Books. After praises and exalting the Roman See, they mention that the Roman See (that is the Pope) is the absolute authority of all matters pertaining to the faith of the Church. What they seemed to have forgotten is that at the Seventh Ecumenical council there were present representatives of the Pope and that the Pope himself accepted the Seventh as truly ecumenical. Their rejection now was also rejecting the Popes authority and placed him among those who they accused.
The Caroline Books lead to a council being held at Frankfurt in 794. This council devoted its attention to the question of veneration due to images and the claims of the Second Council of Nicaea (which is the same as saying the Seventh) to being an Ecumenical Synod. The second canon of this synod reads: “The question was brought forward concerning the recent synod which the Greeks had held at Constantinople concerning the adoration of images, that all should be judged as worthy of anathema who did not pay to the images of the Saints service and adoration as to the Divine Trinity. Our most holy fathers rejected with scorn and in every way such adoration and service, and unanimously condemned it.”
Now for a synod held to examine such important matters they should have done their homework beforehand so that at least they would have got their facts right. The recent synod they are referring to was not held at Constantinople but in Nicaea. What was held in Constantinople was the mock council. It seems these two synods were completely mixed in their minds. Another grave mistake was that neither of the synods decreed that the service and adoration due to the Holy Trinity was to be given to the images of the saints.
The fathers of the Frankfurt synod often made profession of acting under the obedience of the Roman Pontiff and even Charlemagne in his letter to the Spanish bishops said that in the first place he had consulted the pontiff of the Apostolic See and that “I am united to the Apostolic See, and to the ancient Catholic traditions which have come down from the beginning of the new-born Church.” If that were the case how could they condemn the very sacred Synod of Nicaea which had been confirmed by the Apostolic See of Rome? When the Pope received the Caroline Books and the acts of the Frankfurt Synod, he rejected the condemnation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
If Charlemagne had intended to discredit Irene and the Greek Church he only succeeded in showing that the Franks lacked the sharpness and theological understandings of the Byzantines. They were not aware of the Christological dimensions of the Icon and this was probably due to the fact that they never had to fight against the Monophysite heresies and Islamic influences. He also succeeded in worsening the relations between east and west.
Back at Constantinople, things were not all roses. Although Irene was the Empress and was even officially called Emperor, her son Constantine the VI was the official Emperor. When he came of age, he showed that he was a weak and cruel man, an incompetent commander of troops and a man afraid of responsibility: Irene had no intention of giving up her authority. He tried by force to overthrow her, but without success and in 797 she removed him from the throne by ordering his blinding.
In the west following lengthy negotiations and preparations the new Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Emperor in Rome, on Christmas day of 800. They claimed that the Imperial throne was vacant since the Emperor Constantine had been overthrown by his mother. Constantinople refused to recognize Charlemagne’s crowning and denounced it.
In 802, in order to reach a compromise, Charlemagne and the Pope dispatched to Constantinople ambassadors who brought a marriage proposal between Charlemagne and Irene. The ambassadors' message said that that was the best way for the two parts of the Roman Empire to become again united. But the proposal had come too late: in October 802 Irene was forced to abdicate, she was succeeded by a competent top bureaucrat Nicephorus. Nicephorus Logothete as he was known and his successor Michael Rhangabe remained loyal to the decisions of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. In Constantinople the monasteries were again becoming centres of religion and power, most notable the monastery called the Studion with its abbots Plato and his nephew St. Theodore. After the death of the Patriarch Tarasius a simple lay hermit again called Nicephorus was elected as Patriarch. The monks protested claiming that the election was not canonical. When the New Patriarch by orders of the Emperor violated Church regulations by restoring to the Church a previously excommunicated priest on his own authority, St. Theodore and the Studite monks broke communion with the Patriarch and were imprisoned.
In 813 Bulgarian military leaders overthrew the Emperor Michael and set Leo V the Armenian on the throne who was an Iconoclast. He didn’t immediately impose his beliefs, but after a year in 814 he demanded the patriarch to either prohibit the liturgical veneration of Icons or prove that they were legitimate. There doesn’t seem to be much of a debate because the Patriarch Nicephorus was exiled and replaced with a layman Theodore in 815. The New Patriarch quickly called a council at Agia Sophia and confirmed the Iconoclastic mock council of 754 and rejected the Seventh. He then prohibited the veneration of Icons and the Second Iconoclastic period began. This time however, the Orthodox opposition was more solid with St. Theodore the Studite as the new defender of the images. He organized a procession for Palm Sunday in which 1000 monks carrying Icons took part. St. Theodore was summoned to the council of Agia Sophia, but he refused to go as long as the legitimate Patriarch was exiled. As a result Theodore himself was exiled.

St. Theodore is also well known for his treatise that he wrote on the Holy Icons. He took all the arguments used by the Iconoclasts and answered them with the Orthodox answers formulated by the fathers and especially those formulated by St. John of Damascus, but he also went one step further. The Iconoclasts claimed that any image of Christ must be of the same nature as Christ, so his image portrayed both his human and divine natures which was absurd. St. Theodore defined how the natures are not portrayed at all, but that the Icon shares in the Hypostasis of the person. In Orthodox doctrine God has one essence (nature) and three hypostasis (persons). Christ and the Holy Spirit have the same nature as the Father. Christ on the other hand also became a human so that he also has a human nature. But now in the human form Christ is not a different person, he is still the second person of the Holy Trinity. Christ has two natures but only one hypostasis in other words he is only one person. In helping us to understand how the Icon participates in the hypostasis and not the nature, St.Theodore the Studite gave us an example by using the image of a seal on a ring and its imprint. He said that if we take a ring which has carved upon it the image of the Emperor and make an imprint with the ring in wax or clay, the imprint would be the same n both the wax and the clay, but the two would still be different from each other because they are made of different materials. The wax has the image of the Emperor but it is still wax, and the clay has the image of the Emperor but it is still clay. In this same way, they are also different from the ring, which is the original (prototype). Neither the wax nor the clay image can be the ring; the only thing that all three share together is the image of the Emperor. It is the same with Christ and His Icon: the Icon is the image, or as in the case with the ring, it is the imprint, but it cannot be more than this, that is, it cannot be His human body or His divine nature.
In 820 Leo the Armenian was murdered by his own soldiers, and was replaced by the equally impious though tolerant emperor Michael II Traulos (the Stammerer). The new emperor freed all the Orthodox Fathers and confessors from prison, but he prohibited icon veneration in the capital. He was himself an Iconoclast, but he wanted to reconcile the Orthodox and Iconoclasts by bringing them together in a council. St. Theodore refused to meet his enemies and demanded that the question of Icons should be submitted to the judgement of old Rome. In his letter to the western emperor Louis the Pious, Michael wrote that he allowed the use of holy images but refused to venerate them liturgically, which he felt was a practice that had degenerated into superstition. A council was held in Paris in 825 which was acceptable to both emperors but not to the Pope who was at that time Pascal I. What happened at this synod is not altogether clear, but its seems that this council also rejected the Seventh Ecumenical Council accepted by the Pope and further charged the Pontiff with having commanded men to adore superstitiously images and asking the reigning Pontiff to correct the errors of his predecessors.
The emperor Michael the Stammerer died and was succeeded by his son Theophilus in 829. Theophilus was considered a brilliant army leader, a good administrator, a great builder and art lover, but he lacked understanding when it came to religious matters. Probably influenced by the Patriarch John the Grammarian, he convoked a council in 832 to be held in the Church of the Mother of God known as Blachernae in Constantinople. The council was again called to renew the Iconoclastic decrees. The Orthodox responded by arguing the legitimacy of the liturgical veneration of Icons. The other Patriarchs of the east also responded by sending a letter to the emperor which was a treatise in favour of Icons. Irritated by this opposition Theophilus took measures to rid the churches and private homes of Icons and once again the prisons were filled with bishops monks and iconographers. The persecution however was limited to the capital and the surrounding area.
Theophilus died in 842 and with him died the Iconoclast persecution. Power passed into the hands of his wife Theodora and her three year old son Michael. Throughout the persecution Theodora had remained faithful to Orthodoxy and had secretly venerated icons. She wanted to re-establish the Icons in the Churches, but first had to overcome certain obstacles. After a year of preparations, Theodora convoked a Council and when the Patriarch John the Grammarian refused to take part, she had him deposed and replaced by Methodius who was a confessor of Orthodoxy and highly regarded in Constantinople. The council proclaimed the canons of all the Seven Ecumenical Councils and proved the legitimacy of venerating Icons. The Iconoclasts and all heretics were finally condemned. The only thing that Theodora asked for was that the memory of her husband should not be blackened with an anathema which she was granted. With the final victory of the Orthodox there remained only one more thing to do and that was to celebrate this great event. A great feast to celebrate this victory took place on the first Sunday of Lent, March 11, 843. This feast is still celebrated by the Orthodox Church on the first Sunday of Lent each year, which is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy or the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Church continues to celebrate this feast because it was not only the Icon that was being defended, but also the very dogma of the Incarnation [the church’s beliefs concerning God becoming man]. The Icon is directly connected to this dogma, which is the very foundation of Christianity and which all our hopes of salvation depend on.
The Orthodox Church is often called the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and although today some in the west have rejected it, it was accepted as being Ecumenical by both the Greek and Latin Churches for more than a thousand years. In 869 a Council was held in Constantinople, which both east and west then considered to be the Eighth of the Ecumenical Synods. The council was not called to deal with Icons but to restore peace within the Church. A few years before in 857 the Patriarch Ignatius had been deposed from office and in his place Photius was enthroned as Patriarch. Soon, however, discord arose within the Church, stirred up by the removal of Patriarch Ignatius from office. There followed councils that reinstated Ignatius and others that deposed him and accepted Photius. We don’t have time to look deeper into the conflict between Ignatuis, Photius and the Pope even though it is important because it involved the use of the Filioque in the creed by the Pope in Bulgaria which was being baptized by both Greek and Latin clergy. For the moment we will limit ourselves to the fact that this Council accepted not only the teachings of the Second of Nicaea, but also its rank and number.
Ten years later, another synod was again held in Constantinople which restored Photius and which was accepted by many Easterns as the Eighth Ecumenical Council. This synod again fully acknowledged the position of the Second of Nicaea. So after a hundred years from the meeting of the Seventh Synod, and despite all opposition, it was universally recognized and revered even by those who were rapidly drifting apart as were the East and West in the time of Photius and his successors. But even after the Great Schism of 1054, the west during the Council of Lyons in 1274 accepted all Seven Synods as a basis for union.