A Protestant Evangelical, a Monk, and the Problems of Icons

Editors Note: The Following is a review of St John of Damscus' Three Treatises on the Divine Images. Trans. Andrew Louth. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Press, 2003.

When in 726 Emperor Leo the Issurian ordered a picture of Christ taken down from a prominent gate in his city, he set off a bomb within his empire. His actions would seem a fairly cut and dried reaction to the charge of the Second Word of the Decalogue (or perhaps the first depending on who is doing the counting) that “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth” (Deut. 5:8, NAS). A Christian is to have no likenesses and so even the likeness of Christ must go. Yet the issue, as many involving scripture do, was not quite so easily understood or obeyed as he might have supposed. Not if a monk born in Damascus would have anything to say about it.

In his Three Treatises on the Divine Images, St John of Damascus launched a three-pronged attack upon this well-meaning but misunderstanding Issurian. The attack came upon three levels: the theological, the scriptural, and the practical. On a theological level John was concerned to impress upon his reader that the life of Jesus the Christ has if not necessarily changed; then, re-elaborated the important idea that our God is the God of the material world. As another John has said, “everything that was made was made by Him,” and it was called “good” by Him. Beyond that the human being has been described by Him as in his Image, designed according to His likeness. On a scriptural level, John hoped to blunt any accusations that the words and import of that first or second word had not escaped him. Repeatedly he fires away with the line that if God was unknown and an image created of Him; then, this would be bad. However, God is known, and has made Himself known in the flesh and in the word, and both of these stand as a first image upon which any artist may base his or her works. Last he spends much more time pointing at the many and varied ways in the church has and continue to worship and revere God without any threat of Imperial aggrandizement. If the Emperor can trust the people to do right by God in any of these ways, then why not trust them with icons?

It would seem that the monk has set himself on firm ground on both a theological and scriptural basis. His reasoning seems firm and clear. If God is a God of the material, then why should the material not praise him? Does not the Psalmist, himself, reach a similar conclusion when he says, “Let the sea roar and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, Let the mountains sing together for joy” (Psalm 98:7-8, NAS)? Should not the clay praise its potter?

John presented a choice for his audience, “Either do away with reverence and veneration for all these or submit to the tradition of the Church and allow the veneration of images of God and friends of God, sanctified by name and therefore overshadowed by the grace of the divine spirit” (30). Yet it is just here that the problem is met. Just what is right worship, and just what is just praise? This choice was not made any easier when one discovered John’s argument that the scriptures, the law, and even buildings and monuments, themselves, stood also as images of worship before God.

In this light the argument over icons was revealed to be about more than icons. Without this thought, one might be tempted to ask why even of this is useful or practical to today’s Western Evangelical. I find myself reading this work during the Thanksgiving holiday, and the look on my mother’s face when she saw me reading it was the same usually reserved for my enjoyment of the latest Star Wars fiction. Any son knows that little shrug and glimmer that says, “I may not understand your tastes; but, you are my son and I love you anyway.” Yet anyone who has sat in a darkened theater in Knoxville, Tennessee, and watched Mel Gibson’s Passion with an audience full of Southern Evangelicals should know that images are important, and they still matter to the Church. In this day and old of marketing and mass media, they may matter more than ever. I for one am not so quick to dismiss the thoughtful critique and analysis of the place of images in the Christian life. For that reason, if nothing else, St John’s work should remain in press and dare I say it, as an image to reflect the glories of our Lord and Savior.


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