Icon Veneration: Apostolic or Development?

Patristics scholar, Fr. Richard Price, Professor of the History of Christianity at Heythrop College (University of London) had his translation and commentary on the 2nd Council of Nicaea (787) published through Liverpool University Press in 2020. A fascinating read. In his notes on the theological history of icon veneration, he summarizes the strength and weaknesses that exist in the debate between the iconoclasts versus the iconophiles (defenders of icon veneration). He writes:

“The real problem for the iconophile case lay elsewhere – in the poverty of support for their cause even in the golden age of the fathers. The iconoclasts were in a somewhat stronger position… The iconoclast cause has few adherents nowadays, outside the heirs of John Calvin. But the iconoclast claim that reverence towards images did not go back to the golden age of the fathers, still less to the apostles, would be judged by impartial historians today to be simply correct. The iconophile view of the history of Christian thought and devotion was virtually a denial of history, in favour of a myth of a religion that had been perfect from the first and needed no addition or subtraction.” – The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), 40 & 43.

I have to say, such commentary is discordant with how the Fathers at the Council themselves thought. Fr. Price completely understands this. He accurately describes them as thinking, as if it were axiomatic, that icon writing and their veneration goes all the way back to the practice of the 12 Apostles. For Fr. Price, this is historically untenable, and plainly so. He rests upon historical scholarship for this conclusion, particularly that of Heinz Ohme, a prominent German (Lutheran) historian who specialized in Byzantine history. Ohme himself claims icon veneration was a massive development of doctrine that took centuries, a development that he thinks the Bishops of the Church in the 8th century would not have been able to dream of (ibid., fn. 155 which cites Ohme, Heinz (1999) ‘Ikonen, historische Kritik und Tradition. Das VII. ökumenische Konzil (787) une die kirchliche Überlieferung’, ZKG 110:3-4, for you German readers).

The historical scholarship surrounding this subject has great pertinence to the contemporary dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox. If I had to share my prediction, I would say that most traditional Orthodox would simply say that Fr. Price and the majority of contempoary historical scholarship on this question are blinded by their skepticism and the large chasm that exists between them and the Church Fathers. In other words, I anticipate the Orthodox saying that they will trust the Council Fathers of Nicaea (787) over and against modern scholarship. And this is not at all to be ashamed of, since there might be some good reasons to do so. But I’m not here speaking to the righteness of wrongness of that particular point.

However, in light of the above, I would suggest that, as this relates to Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, we would see some more understanding from the Orthodox when modern scholarship equally denies the apostolicity of doctrines upheld dogmatically today by Catholics. Often times we see appeals to what this or that historian says about the late developments of Papal power which proceeded from little to no foundation in early Christianity, without a recognition that this feature can be said of beliefs on both sides. Now, we might appeal to valid versus invalid development, but how often is development of doctrine even conceded as a valid category by the East? It seems that if one is going to play along with the highest of historical scholarship on the subject of icon veneration, there is either the option of saying it was a complete novelty only traceable to the 7th century, or that there was a process of theological development from a time period where there was probably little to absolutely no practice of venerating icons to later stages where such practices were augmented and given fresh theological justifications.

Finally, if the option of doctrinal development were to be taken by the Orthodox to defend the apostolicity of icon veneration (which, admittedly goes contrary to the instincts and assumptions of the Bishops at Nicaea 2), then perhaps there should be less repulsion when Catholics, or even Protestants (arguing similarly to Newman, just in reverse), appeal to doctrinal development in order to show forth the historicity of their respective beliefs.


7 thoughts on “Icon Veneration: Apostolic or Development?

  1. After spending 1.5 years heavily investigating Eastern Orthodoxy, this issue was one of the reasons I decided to turn my attention towards an investigation of Catholicism. (N.B., I’m not saying this is why I became Catholic, but one of the reasons I decided I needed to look closely at Catholicism.)

    I was attending a very traditional/conservative Orthodox parish, meeting regularly with the priests. The priests there — wonderful Christians — simply believed everything contained in “holy Orthodox tradition” (that nebulous body of teaching) was literal history, never to be doubted. It was to be trusted above all else, no matter the evidence stacked against it. Luke was the first icon painter, no development has occurred (except in the most minor things), case closed.

    I struggled with this because I had recently left Mormonism where I often encountered a very similar attitude. Any evidence contrary to the narrative was simply to be subordinated to fideism. I had left Mormonism when I realized I simply had to grapple with evidence I found convincing, and it was very difficult to encounter similar attitudes in this Orthodox parish.

    It brought up questions like the ones you’re asking here: what is legitimate development? How do we interact with tradition? How do we read the Fathers? How do we cope with complex historical data?

    These questions eventually led me to step back from Orthodoxy in order to make a deeper investigation of Rome’s claims — something I’d neglected to do before, relying instead in Orthodox sources, which you can imagine do not paint the most accurate portrait.

    P.S. I know not all Orthodox exhibit this kind of simplistic reading of history and tradition. It was more the questions it raised, rather than any negative experience, that led me to Catholicism.

  2. As you know, anybody would object (not just Orthodox) to whatever passes for doctrinal development is if it used to defend false belief. If it is used to as a model for one or more generations to understand, embrace and proclaim right belief, nobody has an objection to that end. But that is within the understanding that is the Incarnation that makes the veneration of icons relevant, right and meaningful. Without the Incarnation, it would be idolatry.

    It certainly can be an interesting academic exercise to consider the degree to which 4th century Christians may or may not have weighted the veneration of icons in comparison to 8th century Christians. But this type of conversation is pointless at best and harmful at worst if it is not understood as something within the penumbra of the mystery of the Incarnation.

    The Incarnation is settled “right belief” to be a Christian, certainly at least as far as Catholics and Orthodox are concerned. Can the same be said for Papal claims, even among Catholics? That’s the issue, not whether or not development of doctrine is a worthy construct.

  3. Mary doesn’t even get mentioned by name in Paul’s epsitles but Catholucs would seek to convince us Paul worshipped Mary and kissed ikons of her. No Catholic could write an epistle to a church and not mention Our Lady of Some Place, The Sacted Heart of Mary, Queen of Heaven, CoRemediatrix, etc. 20 or 30 times, but Paul writes 13 epistles and doesn’t even mention her name, just only that “Christ was made of a woman, made under the law” and that’s it. But yeah, Paul was totally worshipping paintings and statues of the Queen of Heaven and baking cakes to her too! LOL! You should do stand up!

    • George, Catholics don’t worship Mary. As the Mother of God, the Temple of the Lord, who gave flesh to Our Lord, Mary is accorded a very special place. But don’t take my word for it. You may want to re-read a certain Gospel account how a rather important Angel of the Lord addressed Mary. Unless, of course, you ignore parts of the Bible you don’t like.

      • “George, Catholics don’t worship Mary.”

        Trads do. Vatican 2 Novus Ordos have shelved the Mary worship a bit to trick Lutherans and other baby baptizer Prots back into Rome. Then when the mergers are all finalized they will return to Trad theology when that is ackomplished.

      • George, that is a false claim. You have no evidence to back it up. Whereas if anyone reads or attends worship in any traditional rite, the evidence is very Biblical and the people, in their prayers, only worship the trinitarian God. Father, Son and Holy Ghost. For example, one of the oldest and most commonly used prayers among Trads and Novus Ordo Latin rite Catholics is the “Gloria”. In English, it begins “Glory to God in the highest”. It ends with “For you alone are the Holy One,You alone are the Lord,You alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, With the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father.” No mention of Mary in this most ancient prayer of worship. What evidence do you have to support your claim? None, I bet.

      • You could at least be honest, Stephan. Trads don’t worship Mary? They’ve created a whole religion around Fatima that’s all about worshipping Mary. Quit lying. You pull the same trick as Jews: isolate all worship to one prayer, and then say “Oi vey, what, we don’t pray that other thing in this one prayer, therefore you have no evidence.” Just like when they deny that they anathemetize Christians in the Siddur. Liars who isolate worship to one prayer to then say “you have no evidence” will all have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone. That includes Muslims who say “what, we don’t pray that violent thing in this one prayer, therefore we don’t pray it” when its just in a different prayer. You liars have prayers literally to Mary, so quit lying.

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