Was blind, but now I see.

4 : 12 December 2005




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M. S. Thirumalai

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M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.


This long article is a continuation of my four other long articles published in CHRISTIAN LITERATURE AND LIVING, Idols and Idol Worship, The Bible on Idol Worship, Early Arguments Against Idolatry Prior to the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 and Acceptance of Idol Or Image Worship Within the Church - Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.


An Ecumenical Council is generally a gathering of church fathers to decide on issues relating to the theology, doctrine and even general administration of the affairs of the church and the Christian world. There has been, generally speaking, no formal limitation of the topics, which should be or would be considered by an ecumenical council. However, most of the early ecumenical councils, confronted by heresy and schism, devoted themselves to a definition of what orthodoxy was, to lay down the correct theological positions on matters, with a view to maintaining unity and to eliminate heresy, and, if possible, the schism within the church. An ecumenical council, after much deliberation and as led by the Holy Spirit, issued decrees on various subject matters, which in the past have found acceptance by the church all over the world.

The first ever ecumenical council was the one convened at the initiative of Emperor Constantine in Nicaea in A.D. 325, which condemned Arianism and firmly affirmed Oneness of Trinity. There had been so far 21 ecumenical councils, with the Vatican II as the last one. The Council of Vatican II was opened in 1962 and was solemnly closed in December 1965.


While the ecumenical councils claimed to speak for the entire Christian church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, generally speaking, did not subscribe to the decisions of the councils subsequent to the seventh one held in Nicaea in A.D.787. From this time onwards until the beginning of Reformation, the decisions of various ecumenical councils became the basis for all theological orientations and norms of the Catholic Church in the West.

The Council of Trent held between A.D.1545 and 1563 reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church positions vis-a-vis the Reformation or Protestantism, and condemned Protestantism. The Reformation disowned most of the earlier positions of the Ecumenical Councils as regards tradition, image worship, intercessory functions assigned to the martyrs and the saints, Mariolatry, papal infallibility and supremacy and many other rites and festivities held central by the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, from the Council of Trent, the Ecumenical Councils became an institution subscribed to only by the Roman Catholic Church, so to say.


The Ecumenical Councils assumed that they had the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit and thus claimed that they were not subject to any error. However, from the early recorded proceedings of several of the ecumenical councils, it would appear that when it came to the repudiation of a viewpoint, there were clear and loud human orchestrations. More often than not, emotions ran high and there was a fanfare of showing opposition to the emerging schism or heresy, and the fathers vied with one another to show a unity of purpose. Demonstrations were not unwelcome, even amidst pious discussion.

The Councils generally took the position that they were not laying down any new doctrine or revealing any new truth. They were just clarifying the positions taken by the saints and found in the Scripture for the benefit of the Christian, so that none would have any doubt as to what the correct position was. The decisions were claimed to have been taken after much prayer and exchange of opinions and to have been an expression of the mind of the whole body of the faithful Christians. The decisions were claimed to be the ecumenical consensus, guided by the Holy Spirit and against which the gates of Hades would not prevail. The decisions, thus, were in the realm of the infallible. The ecumenical councils issued decrees and anathemas, based on the decisions of the Councils. The interpretations of these decrees and anathemas were seen directly relevant and restricted only to the decrees and the anathemas being interpreted; extensions of the scope of these were not generally looked upon with approval.

Many of these ecumenical councils were convened by the initiative taken by the secular rulers. They were confronted with the problems of the growing church and thus they wanted a resolution of these problems through consensus. Some of them used the councils to the betterment of their own positions.

We give below the decrees of various Councils and synods relevant to the subject of idol/image worship. Note that not all the Ecumenical Councils debated the issue nor was there any need for it in all the councils. More often than not, the doctrinal issues of the time alone came to the fore in these councils for discussion. Note also that there might have been other synods and general councils of church fathers prior to an ecumenical council and the decisions of these synods and councils could be ratified by the following ecumenical council and decrees issued.


After the death of the emperor Maximin, a council was held at Ancyra, the capital of Galatia, in A.D.314. This council was attended by a few bishops and issued several decrees, which were concerned with the issue of admitting those who lapsed during the persecution of the Church. One of the canons of this Council of Ancyra (canon III) was on those who worshipped idols and ate the meat offered as sacrifice to the idols.

The canon recognized that there might have been people who had been forced to receive the offerings or the meat offered to the idols. But these might have professed the Christian faith all along and this profession of the faith had been revealed in their dress and demeanor, and ways of life. They would have given evidence of their grief at what had been thrust upon them. If these persons were free from sin, these were not to be repelled from the communion; and if they had been repelled, they were to be re-admitted. The cannon said that this arrangement was applicable both to the clergy and the laity.

Canon IV of the same Council talked also of those who had partaken of feasts in honor of the idols, those who had been initially forced to partake of the food offered to the idols, but ultimately and subsequently did not show any feeling of grief for their act. Since these partook of the food offered to the idols with no morose for their act and with indifference as to the consequences for their own souls, the canon decreed progressive steps of integration with the church. It ordered that people who did not show any grief for their act of partaking food offered to the idols be treated as hearers for one year, prostrators for three years, and be communicators in prayers only for two years. After these progressive steps, they would return to full communion.

The Church, during the fourth century, had already established a kind of penal system for various lapsed persons. The penitents were of four different orders. The first order consisted of the weepers or hybernantes, who were not allowed to enter the body of the church and were asked to stand or lay outside the gates and were thus exposed to the elements of the weather. Sinners were to stand here and beg the prayers of the faithful as they went inside the church. The inside of the church was further divided into various sections. The first part after passing through the doors of the building had a narrow vestibule covering the entire width of the church. Jews, Gentiles, heretics and schismatics, Catechumens, and those affected by evil spirits, and the hearers were allowed to stand there. These were allowed to hear the Scriptures read, and to listen to the sermons, but these had to leave before the celebration of the sacraments.

The second division was the main body of the church. This was separated from the vestibule or corridor portion of the hearers by wooden railings. There were gates in the center. Immediately after the gates in the center, which separated the body of the church and the vestibule or corridor for the hearers, kneelers or prostrators were allowed. They joined in the prayers made for them.

The believers, who had the right to full communion, occupied the other parts of the body of the church. However, there could be a class of penitents standing with those who were in full communion with the church. These were called co-standers and were not allowed to have the communion or make their offerings.

Canon V of the same council (Ancyra Council, A.D.314, prior to the first ever Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea in A.D.325), gave the bishops powers to show lenience to such lapsed Christians. If the bishops were satisfied with their conversion, they could be leniently dealt with. If the conversion was not genuine then the penal time could be extended.

Canon VI made provisions for the admission into the church even for those, who, with just a sign of threat only, indulged themselves in idol worship and who had not repented until this synod. These could be admitted as hearers, upon their conversion. Canon VII made provisions for the admission of those who joined in the heathen feast for the idols, but ate their own meats. Canon VIII made provisions for the admission of those who sacrificed to the idols under compulsion. Canon IX talked of those who both apostatized and forced their brothers to follow them suit. These people, though guilty, could be admitted to the church as hearers for three years, another term of six years as prostrators, and another year as communicators without oblation. That is, they would be penitents for ten years. Note that all these canons aimed at retaining as many people as possible within the church fold.


The General Council of Gangra (A.D.325-381), held after the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea I, condemned any disposition against honoring the martyrs. In its Canon XX, the Gangra Council declared a person to be anathema if he or she condemned and abhorred the gatherings, the services and the commemoration in honor of the martyrs.


The Synod of Laodicea (A.D.343-381) decreed, in its Canon XXXIV, that no Christian should forsake the martyrs of Christ, and turn to the heretics. The Canon XXXV of the same Synod identified forsaking and going away from the church, in favor of assemblies for the invocation of angels as covert idolatry.

Another canon, Canon XXXVI, prohibited the priest or any member of the clergy to be magicians, enchanters,and astrologers. They were also prohibited from making amulets.

Note that a clear distinction between the honor paid to the martyrs and the practice of idolatry was made here. Idolatry was going away from the Christian faith and indulging in practices associated with pagan religion and worship of gods. On the other hand, veneration of the martyrs was considered to be the rightful duty of a faithful Christian. He could not compare the veneration of the martyrs with the worship of the pagan gods; how could he say that the rites associated with the veneration of the martyrs were similar to the rites associated with the worship of the pagan gods and the pagan religion?


The African Code of A.D.419, the canons of the church fathers who assembled at Carthage, affirmed the absolute necessity of divine grace for salvation, and pleaded for the removal of the idols and the abolition of heathen feasts. In its canon LVIII, the fathers asked the Emperors to order the destruction of the remaining idols in Africa. They also asked for the destruction of the temples.

In canon LX, the African Code noted that feasts had been induced by the heathen error and decreed that such feasts be stopped under the threat of punishment. These feasts were held even in Christian places of worship, they noted.

The African Code spoke also against the false memories of martyrs and wanted removing the remains of the idols. In its canon LXXXIII, it decreed that the altars having no deposit of the relics of the martyrs be destroyed, if this did not raise any public tumult.

Canon LXXXIV petitioned the Emperors that `the remains of idolatry not only in images, but in any places whatever or groves or trees, should altogether be taken away.'


The Quinisext Synod (the Council in Trullo) was held in A.D.692 in Constantinople. Justinian II called this. It was convened to complete the work of the fifth and sixth ecumenical councils; hence, the name quinisext council. It issued 102 disciplinary canons, several of which were directly concerned with idolatry, idolatrous practices of the pagan religion and worship, and a guideline as to how Jesus Christ as the Lamb should be portrayed. For these reasons, the decisions of this Synod are very important, although the decisions were later on rejected by Sergius I, the pope, during the period A.D.687-701). The Synod decreed that whoever gave himself over to a devil, in order to learn some art or secret would be anathema.

Canon LXII of the same Council decreed some of the assemblies for the celebration of heathen customs as anathema. It prohibited the dances of women in public. Dances by men and women in honor of gods were decreed to be anathema.

Canon LXIII of the same Council prohibited the public reading in church of the false histories of the martyrs. These histories aimed only at dishonoring the martyrs of Christ. Specifically, the `martyrologies made up by the ethnics shall not be published in church.'

Canon LXV forbid lighting fires on the new moon nights before the shops and houses.

Canon LXXIII of the same Council exhorted the Christian `to render due honor to that by which we were saved from the ancient fall. Wherefore, in mind, in word, in feeling giving veneration to it, we command that the figure of the cross, which some have placed on the floor, be entirely removed therefrom, lest the trophy of the victory won for us be desecrated by the trampling under foot of those who walk over it. Therefore those who from this present represent on the pavement the sign of the cross, we decree are to be cut off' from the church.

All the above canons were in the nature of reforming the conduct of the members of the church. These focused on the continuing influences of the pagan religion upon the believers and tried to eliminate such influence, while at the same time affirming the honor and veneration and related rites due to the martyrs.

One of the canons of the Quinisext Council was directly relevant to the visual representation of the Deity. Canon LXXXII decreed against showing Jesus Christ in the shape of a lamb. The canon said that

in some pictures of the venerable icons, a lamb is painted to which the Precursor points his finger, which is received as a type of grace, indicating beforehand through the Law, our true Lamb, Christ our God. Embracing therefore the ancient types and shadows as symbols of the truth, and patterns given to the Church, we prefer `grace and truth,' receiving it as the fulfillment of the Law. In order therefore that `that which is perfect' may be delineated to the eyes of all, at least in colored expression, we decree that the figure in human form of the Lamb who taketh away the sin of the world, Christ our God, be henceforth exhibited in images, instead of the ancient lamb, so that all may understand by means of it the depths of the humiliation of the Word of God, and that we may recall to our memory his conversation in the flesh, his passion and salutary death, and his redemption which was wrought for the whole world.

In other words, as the ancient epitome of this canon said, people should not represent Jesus Christ in the shape of a lamb: `thou shalt not paint a lamb for the type of Christ, but himself.' Note that this was decreed one century earlier than the iconoclastic controversy, of which we will discuss in the next chapter. Note that by this decree we come to know of the existence of the practice of visually representing the Deity and the veneration of such visual representations. It was not the visual representation but the manner and shape by which the Deity should be visually represented that became subject matter for consideration in this canon.

Canon 100 of the same council declared that our eyes should see only that which was right. The senses brought `their impressions into the soul.' Therefore the canon ordered that henceforth there shall in now way be made pictures, whether they are in paintings or in what way so ever, which attract the eye and corrupt the mind, and incite it to the enkindling of base pleasures. And if any one shall attempt to do this he is to cut off.

This canon too was in the nature of reforming an existing practice. More regulations were placed before the artists and the faithful Christian as regards the subject matter of visual representations. A recognition had been already made as to the importance of the visual mode and its influence vis-a-vis spiritual life.

These decrees were decidedly against pagan worship and religion. But these were not against the pagans only. These were intended to discipline those who were newly converted to the Christian faith from the pagan religion. These decrees aimed at disciplining and reforming the Christians and retaining them within the Christian fold. While proscribing a number of acts, these decrees, indeed, revealed the then state of Christian conduct, and worship.


Before we go on to a consideration of a very important ecumenical council that of Nicaea II held in A.D.787, and then on to a discussion of the Iconoclastic Movement in the next article we should present a most crucial and a very important turning point in approving the already existing image worship among the believers. This was the theological justification offered for image worship by John of Damascus.

An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith or Concerning the Orthodox Faith by John of Damascus (A.D.675-749) is a very important document for the study of idol/image worship within Christian traditions. This book makes more explicit the justification for the practices of both the Christian laity and the priest, adopted during post-Nicene period as regards the erection of images for Christian personages and their worship. While the early Post-Nicene fathers began to mention in an approving manner the construction of shrines for the martyrs, erection of images were not often explicitly mentioned.

As we pointed out earlier, there was strong opposition to representation of Christian personages in any medium, in the Pre-Nicene period. Even during the early post-Nicene period there were writings very much against representation of Christian personages. However, with the spread of Christianity through the good offices of the emperor Constantine came a tendency to support and even encourage such representations. Along with this tendency came also the justification for such representations.

John of Damascus was not providing any new arguments in favor of images, use of incense, etc.; he was only presenting the viewpoints of the many fathers preceding him, in his treatise. The comments of Almond, who provided an early translation of the work of John of Damascus are very illuminating in this regard. Almond says that

after the rules of Christian dialectic and the review of the errors of ancient heresies comes at last the book Concerning the Orthodox Faith.....Our author, however, did not confine himself to Scripture, but gathered together also the opinions of the holy Fathers, and produced a work marked with equal perspicuity and brevity, and forming an unexhausted storehouse of tradition in which nothing is to be found that has not been either sanctioned by the ecumenical synods or accepted by the approved leaders of the Church....

John of Damascus followed the early fathers when he said `that the Deity is incomprehensible, and that we ought not to pry into and meddle with the things which have not been delivered to us by the holy Prophets, and Apostles, and Evangelists.' He suggested that we would be able to express only according to our own limited understanding and custom. We often spoke as if God had a body. We used words such as sleep to refer to activities of God. There were many terms of this nature used in the Bible, which carried only a symbolic sense. This had led us to believe that God had a body of his own such as ours. Because we were in flesh it was impossible for us to speak otherwise, 'except by the use of images and types and symbols derived from our own life.' However, God was simple and formless, John of Damascus pointed out.

John of Damascus justified the use of the term Mother of God for Mary on the ground that calling her only as the Mother of Christ would deny the two natures of Jesus Christ. The denial would amount to accepting the Nestorian heresy, which would insist upon calling her Mother of Christ only. Calling the holy Mary the Mother of God fully reflected mystery of God's incarnation as Jesus Christ. `For how could God, Who was before the ages, have been born of a woman unless He had become man? ...The name in truth signifies the one subsistence and the two natures and the two generations of our lord Jesus Christ.'

For He was not first made like us and only later became higher than us, but ever from His first coming into being He existed with the double nature, because He existed in the Word Himself from the beginning of the conception. Wherefore He is human in His own nature, but also, in some marvelous manner, of God and divine. Moreover He has the properties of the living flesh: for by reason of the dispensation the Word received these which are, according to the order of natural motion, truly natural" (chapter 12).

The Appollonarian heretics had argued that if Christ had two natures, one did service to the creature in worshipping the created nature, or only one nature was to be worshipped. They assumed that the human nature of God the Word was subsequently created and was not coexistent from the beginning. Answering this heretical position, John of Damascus wrote:

Along with the Father and the Holy Spirit we worship the Son of God, who was incorporeal before he took on humanity, and now in His own person is incarnate and has become man though still being also God. His flesh, then, in its own nature if one were to make subtle mental distinctions between what is seen and what is thought, is not deserving of worship since it is created. But as it is united with God the Word, it is worshipped on account of Him and in Him (Book IV, chapter 3).

John of Damascus explicitly stated that people did worship the image of the Cross. The Cross was the most marvelous of all, because nothing else became victorious over death, removed from us the first sin of Adam, defeated hell and gave us the assurance of resurrection. The Cross had set right everything of the past. And the power of God is the Word of the Cross, either because God's might, that is, the victory over death, has been revealed to us by it, or because, just as the four extremities of the Cross are held fast and bound together by the bolt in the middle, so also by God's power the height and the depth, the length and the breadth, that is, every creature visible and invisible, is maintained.

For the faithful Christian the sign of cross on the forehead was like the circumcision given to Israel, John of Damascus said. The sign of cross was to be worshipped as sanctified, because of its contact with Christ's body and blood. It was not simply the cross only but also the nails, the spear, the clothes, the manger, the cave, and Golgotha were all to be worshipped.

For the resurrection comes after the Cross. For if of those things which we love, house and couch and garment, are to be longed after, how much the rather should we long after that which belonged to God, our Saviour, by means of which we are in truth saved.

We do not worship the Cross for the tree, but the image as a symbol of Christ.

For wherever the sign may be, there also will He be. But it does not behove us to worship the material of which the image of the Cross is composed, even though it be gold or precious stones, after it is destroyed, if that should happen. Everything, therefore, that is dedicated to God we worship, conferring the adoration on Him" (Chapter 11, Book 4, chapter 11).

Concerning the Mother of God and her veneration, John of Damascus wrote that Mary played the part of the Creator's servant and mother. In reality she was

God's mother and lady and Queen over all created things. But just as He who was conceived kept her who conceived still virgin, in like manner also He who was born preserved her virginity intact, only passing through her and keeping her closed. The conception, indeed, was through the sense of hearing, but the birth through the usual path by which children come, although some tell tales of His birth through the side of the Mother of God. For it was not impossible for Him to have come by this gate, without injuring her seal in any way.

John of Damascus argued that Mary remained virgin all through and that it was impossible for a woman who borne God as a child to receive the embrace of a man.

John of Damascus provided explicit justification for the veneration of the saints and their remains: The saints' honor was to be paid honor as friends of Christ, and as sons and heirs of God. The worshippers and friends and sons of God deserved to be held in honor. `For the honor shown to the most thoughtful of fellow-servants is a proof of good feeling towards the common Master'. God dwelt in them, walked in them and he promised to be their God. The souls of the just were in the hands of God and death could not take hold of them. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. Saints were the living temples of God. Thus we should honor the living temples of God.

The Master Christ made the remains of the saints to be fountains of salvation to us, pouring forth manifold blessings and abounding in oil of sweet fragrance: and let no one disbelieve this. For if water burst in the desert from the steep and solid rock at God's will and from the jaw-bone of an ass to quench Samson's thirst, is it incredible that fragrant oil should burst forth from the martyrs' remains? By no means, at least to those who know the power of god and the honor which He accords His saints.

The saints were not dead, they had fallen asleep in the hope of being resurrected. No dead body could perform miracles. On the other hand the saints did perform miracles. They drove away the demons, healed the diseases, the blind were given sight, the lepers were purified. Good gifts came from the Father through them to those who prayed with certain faith.

How much labor would you not undergo to find a patron to introduce you to a mortal king and speak to him on your behalf? Are not those, then, worthy of honor who are the patrons of the whole race, and make intercession to God for us? Yea, verily, we ought to give honor to them by raising temples to God in their name, bringing them fruit-offerings, honoring their memories and taking spiritual delight in them, in order that the joy of those who call on us may be ours, that in our attempts at worship we may not on the contrary cause them offence...God is most worshipped in such wise. Let us raise monuments to them and visible images, and let us ourselves become, through imitation of their virtues, living monuments and images of them.

John of Damascus wanted that not only the martyrs and the saints but also all the apostles and the Mother of God be honored with worship.

John of Damascus was aware that there were people who criticized honoring and worshipping the image of the Saviour. In chapter 16, Book 4, he tried to answer their criticisms:

But since some find fault with us for worshipping and honoring the image of our Saviour and that of our Lady, and those, too, of the rest of the saints and servants of Christ, let them remember that in the beginning God created man after His own image. On what grounds, then, do we shew reverence to each other unless because we are made after God's image? For as Basil, that much-versed expounder of divine things, says, the honor given to the image passes over to the prototype.Now a prototype is that which is imaged, from which the derivative is obtained. Why was it that the Mosaic people honored on all hands the tabernacle, which bore an image and type of heavenly things, or rather of the whole creation? God indeed said to Moses, Look that thou make them after their pattern which was shewed thee in the mount. The Cherubim, too, which o'ershadow the mercy seat, are thy not the work of men's hands? What, further, is the celebrated temple at Jerusalem? Is it not the hand-made and fashioned by the skill of men?

John sought to make a distinction between the practices indulged in by the heathen and the Christian. The Greeks sacrificed and the Jews also sacrificed. Whereas the Greeks sacrificed to the demons, the Jews sacrificed to the one true God. The sacrifices of the Greeks were rejected and condemned, but the sacrifice of the just was acceptable to God. When Noah sacrificed, God smelled a sweet savor. Likewise the graven images of the Greeks were rejected, since they were images of deities, which were rejected and forbidden by the Word of God.

In the Old Testament the use of images was not common, because a visual representation of the invisible, incorporeal, uncircumscribed, formless God was impossible. Hence if one tried to visually represent the Deity, it was correctly considered to be `the height of folly and impiety'. However, after God took the incarnation of man for our salvation,

not as he was seen by Abraham in the semblance of a man, nor as He was seen by the prophets, but in being truly man, and after he lived upon the earth and dwelt among men, worked miracles suffered, was crucified, rose again and was taken back to Heaven, since all these things actually took place and were seen by men, they were written for the remembrance and instruction of us who were not live at that time in order that though we saw not, we may still, hearing and believing, obtain the blessing of the Lord. But seeing that not every one has a knowledge of letters not time for reading, the Fathers gave their sanction to depicting these events on images as being acts of great heroism, in order that they should form a concise memorial of them. Often, doubtless, when we have not the Lord's passion in mind and see the image of Christ's crucifixion, His saving passion is brought back to remembrance, and we fall down and worship not the material but that which is imaged: just as we do not worship the material of which the Gospels are made, nor the material of the Cross, but that which these typify. For wherein does the cross, that typifies the Lord, differ from a cross that does not do so?

The honors we gave to Mary and to all the saints were indeed referred to God. The bravery of the saints stirred in us an urge to imitate them to glorify God. The honor given to the servants of God was proof of our good-will towards Mary. The honor rendered to the image passed over to the prototype, asserted John of Damascus. Finally, John rested his case by placing it on the strength of tradition:

This is an unwritten tradition, just as is also the worshipping towards the East and the worship of the Cross, and very many other similar things.

Did not the apostle Paul himself ask to hold on to the traditions (2 Thess.2:15); did he himself not hand down much that was unwritten, so argued John of Damascus.


The Seventh Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea in A.D.787 is of great importance for an understanding of the processes by which the veneration of images came to be firmly established. It was in this Council that the official seal of approval of image worship was given. It was in this Council that a detailed official elucidation of the Roman Church as regards its position of image worship was decreed.

The Second Council of Nicaea was held amidst the raging Iconoclastic controversy, the subject matter of our investigation in the next chapter. Briefly stated for purposes of continuity, the controversy raged in the Eastern Orthodox Churches from A.D.726 to 842. However the early phase of iconoclasm began in the rule of the emperor Leo III, the emperor of the Eastern empire, who ruled the empire between A.D.717 and 741. The historians point out that for political reasons and to enable the conversion of the Muslims to Christianity, he might have encouraged this trend. He proscribed the use of icons. Constantine V, son of Leo III, who ruled between 741 and 775, strictly and severely enforced this policy. Leo IV, son of Constantine V, who ruled the eastern empire from 775 to 780 was milder in enforcing this policy. Under Irene, regent and empress, the second Nicaea Council held in A.D.787 reestablished the veneration of images. John of Damascus provided the theological support for the reestablishment of the veneration of images and iconodules.

The second phase of the iconoclastic controversy began in A.D.841 under Leo V. this was continued under Michael II, who was emperor during 820-829. Theophilus, son of Michael II, emperor 829-842, continued the policy. However, under Theodorea, wife of Theophilus and regent, the veneration of images was once again established and the decisions of the second Nicaea Council were affirmed. Theodore of Studios was the leading theologian during this time for the reestablishment of the veneration of images.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicaea was called by the Roman emperors Constantine and Irene with the approval of Pope Hadrian and was attended by the Patriarch of Constantinople. The other Patriarchs were not represented. The Council's decrees were adopted by an unanimous vote of the three hundred and fifty bishops. The Pope accepted the decisions immediately. For nearly a thousand years, the decisions approved by this Council were in operation -- that is, until the Reformation questioned these decisions and made an issue of the Council's decisions. However, just as other Councils, the Nicaea II was in session to counter what the then fathers felt to be a threat to the Roman church. Iconoclasm was considered to be a heresy and was seen to be imposed on the Church by the successive emperors for personal and political reasons. The veneration of the images had taken such deep roots within the Roman church that any talk against worship of idols was considered a heresy. Worship of idols and icons received their official approval and doctrinal elucidation in clear and explicit terms in the Seventh Council.

An imperial letter from the emperor Constantine VI, and Irene called the Council, the mother of the emperor, with the approval of Pope Hadrin. In their imperial letter addressed to Pope Hadrian, the emperors said that the Pope knew of the value the images were given, in the past, and how that the rulers immediately preceding them destroyed the venerable images and subjected them to disgrace and injury. These rulers influenced the people and up to the time in which God enabled them to occupy the throne this heresy continued, Constantine VI and Irene claimed. Thus it was given to these to uphold what the apostles and other teachers had taught, that the images of the saints, of the Mother of God and of Jesus himself be venerated. They sought the help of the Pope to come up to them to aid them in `the confirmation and establishment of the ancient tradition of venerable images.'

The first session of the Seventh Council began with the reading of the Imperial Letter addressed to the bishops assembled. This letter claimed a unity of thought prevailing between the Pope in Rome and the Eastern Patriarchs as to the urgent need to convene a synod to denounce the iconoclasts. There were also dramatic confessions by three bishops who were led astray by the iconoclasts, affirming their faith in the veneration of images. They confessed that they were misled and that they now held firm to the belief of the Roman See as regards the veneration of the images.

In his confession, Bishop Basil of Ancyra said that he wanted to be united to the Catholic Church. He made his confession in one God - the Triune God, one in essence. He asked for the intercessions of the Holy Mother of God, and the holy and heavenly powers and all the Saints. He said that he received the holy and honorable relics with all honor, and venerated them with the hope that he would have a share in their holiness through acts of veneration. Likewise he declared that he would pay honor to the venerable images of Lord Jesus Christ, in the humanity he assumed for our salvation; he would honor the images of the spotless Lady, the holy Mother of God and of the angels like unto God. He would also honor and venerate the sacred images of all the holy Apostles, Prophets, Martyrs, and of all the Saints. He would reject and anathematize the people who gathered themselves against such veneration of images.


Bishop Basil made the following anathemas as part of his confession:

`Anathema to the calumniators of the Christians, that is to the image breakers.
`Anathema to those who apply the words of Holy Scripture which were spoken against idols, to the venerable images.
`Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images.
`Anathema to those who say that Christians have recourse to the images as to gods.
`Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols.
`Anathema to those who knowingly communicate with those who revile and dishonor the venerable images.
`Anathema to those who say that another than Christ our Lord hath delivered us from idols.
`Anathema to those who spurn the teachings of the holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church, taking as a pretext and making their own the arguments of Arius, Nestorius, Eutches, and Dioscorus, that unless we were evidently taught by the Old and New Testaments, we should not follow the teachings of the holy Fathers and of the holy Ecumenical Synods, and the tradition of the Catholic Church.
`Anathema to those who dare to say that the Catholic Church hath at any time sanctioned idols.
`Anathema to those who say that the making of images is a diabolical invention and not a tradition of our holy Fathers'.

Note that Bishop Basil's confession was orchestrated even before the deliberations of the Council began and the confession indeed was presented as the sign of things to come as decrees of the Seventh Council.


Theodore, Bishop of Myra, also read the same confession and was received as member of the church. Another bishop, Theodosius, also made a confession, which said among other things that he confessed and agreed to receive, salute and venerate the images of Lord Jesus Christ, the holy Mother of God, the Apostles, prophets, and martyrs and the fathers. He would not venerate them no as gods, But he would ask all these to pray for him. He would ask for their intercessions. Likewise he would venerate, honor and salute the relics of the Saints. He further declared that there should be images in the churches of the Lord Jesus Christ, Mary which could be made in every type of material, gold and silver and of every color, `so that his incarnation may be set forth to all men. Likewise there may be painted the lives of the Saints and Prophets and Martyrs, so that their struggles and agonies may be set forth in brief, for the stirring up and teaching of the people, especially of the unlearned.'

People went out to honor the images of the emperors with lights and incense, when these images were sent to the cities or rural areas. Their acts were not intended to honor these images, but the emperors themselves. They were not showing honor to the wax or the gold or the silver, but the emperors represented by these images. How much more was it necessary that in the churches the image of God, Mother of God and the saints be kept and painted so that the people would go there and pay honor to these venerable personages? He quoted St. Basil as eulogizing the works of art and of the artists, and the saints. And Chrysostom also praised the saints, and declared that they were not dead but alive. He cried out, `Let them who do not venerate the holy and venerable images be anathema! To those who dare to attack and blaspheme the venerable images and call them idols, anathema! To the calumniators of Christianity, that is to say the Iconoclasts, anathema! To those who do not diligently teach all the Christ-loving people to venerate and salute the venerable and sacred and honorable images of all the Saints who pleased God in their several generations, anathema! To those who have a doubtful mind and do not confess with their whole hearts that they venerate the images, anathema!'


Pope Hadrian in his letter to the emperors Constantine and Irene, which was read to the Council, said that if the sacred and venerable images were erected once again and if the venerable icons were placed in their place, the emperors would be partakers of the name of Constantine I.

Tarasius the holy Patriarch declared, among other things: that he would venerate with affection the images of Jesus Christ, Mother of God, the angels, and the saints, giving his adoration and faith to the one true God.

Constantine, the bishop of Constantia in Cyprus, while agreeing with the sentiments expressed by the speakers said in session III that he consented to saluting with honor the holy and venerable images. But he would reserve the worship of adoration only `to the supersubstantial and life-giving Trinity.' While this sounded a little different from the confessions made and the letter of Hadrin's letter, this position was part of the final decrees.


The deliberations brought out several other arguments apart from the ones already listed in the confessions of the bishops, in favor of worshipping the images. One of the arguments was from the life of Gregory Nyssen. Theodore the bishop of Catnea said that Gregory was moved to tears at the sight (visual representation) of the story of Abraham (his sacrifice of Isaac) in a painting. If this were so, how much more would a painting of the incarnation of our Lord Christ would move the people to tears?

Another argument was that the images wrought miracles and hence were to be worshipped. However, some might say that not the images did perform miracles. Tarasius the Patriarch answered that, as the Apostle had said, the signs were for those who did not believe, not for believers. Those who approached the images with unbelief were given a sign through the images, `to draw them to our Christian faith'. But `an evil and adulterous generation that seeketh after a sign and no sign shall be given it.'

Tarasius the Patriarch forcefully argued against `those affected with the sickness of ignorance' saying that the venerable images helped people to recollect the incarnation of Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection, and his saving grace.


At the close of the session (session IV) various anathemas were pronounced. The Council called those who were opposed to the veneration of images as `Jewdaizing conciliabulum.' It reaffirmed its resolve to continue to `salute the image of the honorable and life-giving Cross, and the holy relics of the Saints; and we receive the holy and venerable images: and we salute them, and we embrace them, according to the ancient traditions of the holy Catholic Church of God, that is to say of our holy Fathers, who also received these things and established in all the most holy Churches of God, and in every place of his dominion.' It declared the God's incarnation as Jesus Christ saved humanity from impious idolatry. Through these visual representations people would be led back `in memory and recollection to the prototype, and have a share in the holiness of some one of them.'

The decree of the Seventh Council called the monuments as God-approved ornament and declared that it was only those who were led by carnal sense, `failed to distinguish between holy and profane, styling the images of our Lord and of his Saints by the same as the statues of diabolical idols. ...'

The Council claimed that those who assembled there and held on to the decisions to venerate the images, indeed held on to the ecclesiastical traditions handed down in writing or verbally. these traditions agreed to and accepted the making of pictorial representations, and found such acts very useful in many respects. More specially, the incarnation of the Word of God was shown forth as real and not merely imaginary. The Council decreed that the images and visual representations of Jesus Christ, Mary and all the saints and apostles be erected or inscribed in all places, more the better. It resolved that

just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honorable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honorable reverence, not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented...
If any cleric worked against this decision he should be deposed; if any laity worked against the council's decree, he should be denied communion. The atmosphere was charged with excitement and emotion, excitement that finally the iconoclastic heretics were thrown out. The Holy Synod cried out that this was the faith of the Apostles, faith of the orthodox, and this was the faith, which had held firm the whole world. It shouted:

We salute the venerable images. We place under anathema those who do not do this. Anathema to them who presume to apply to the venerable images the things said in Holy Scripture about idols. Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images. Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols. Anathema to those who say that Christians resort to the sacred images as to gods. Anathema to those who say that any other delivered us from idols except Christ our God. Anathema to those who dare to say that at any time the Catholic Church received idols.


The Synod of the Seventh Council sent a letter to the Emperors Constantine and Irene, in which the rationale for the decisions, especially those relating to images and their worship, was presented. This letter discussed at length the various meanings of the terms used to refer to worship, and veneration.

It concluded that the Divine Scriptures taught us to give veneration to God, but it did not add the word only. The word, which stood for veneration, had a number of meanings and was applied to in several contexts. Hence the Scripture added that we should serve only God `for to God alone do we render latria.'


The next most important stage in asserting the image worship within the Roman church was caused by the Reformation. As part of the moves to counter the Reformation, Ecumenical Council was convened in Trent in 1545, and this took stock of the situation and reaffirmed the decision taken in the II Nicaea Council. The Catechism issued on the authority of the Trent Synod emphasized the intercessory role and invocation of saints, the honor paid to relics, and the lawful use of images. The Catechism called upon all to teach that the saints offered their own prayers to God for men. It was always good and useful prayerfully to invoke them, seek their help in obtaining benefits from God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. It was only impious thinking, which denied the intercessory role of the saints, it declared. These impious men taught that to ask for their help was idolatry; they also taught that such prayers to the saints was repugnant to the word of God. All those who preached against honoring and venerating the saints, their relics, their sacred shrines should be condemned, as in the past, the Council declared.

Moreover, the images of Christ, the Virgin Mother of God and the other Saints should be kept particularly in temples, and that due honor and veneration be paid to them. The Trent Catechism explained that

Not that any divinity or virtue is believed to be in them, on account of which they are to be worshipped; or that anything is to be asked of them; or that confidence is to be reposed in images, as was of old done by Gentiles, who placed their hope in idols; but because the honor which is shown unto them is referred to the prototypes which they represent.

The Catechism said that the paintings and other visual representations of Jesus Christ, Mary and the saints helped people remember and continually recollect on the articles of faith. There were two distinct benefits, which accrued to us from the veneration of the images, the Catechism said. First of all, the people were admonished. Secondly miracles were worked through these visual representations.

The Catechism warned against the superstitions that might surround the veneration of the images. If there were any superstitions, (no specific types were mentioned) such beliefs should be abolished. The veneration paid to the images should not be a source of monetary gain. No images, which supported false doctrines, should be installed. People should be taught that the images did not represent God, for God could not be `perceived by the eyes of the body, or be depicted by colors or figures.' Lasciviousness in representations should be avoided. the representations should not be made `with a wantonness of beauty.'

The Catechism further demanded that no unusual image be erected in any church or place. All such images should have the prior approval of the bishops. It insisted that the prayers addressed to God and the saints be distinct from each other. The prayer to God should begin Have mercy on us, hear us, whereas the prayer to the saints should begin with Pray for us.

For nearly a thousand years the decrees of Nicaea II had been observed. The Reformation challenged, among other things, the practices of idol worship. This led to the reaffirmation of Nicaea II by the Roman Catholic Church in Trent.


Next crucial stage in the adoption of image worship in the Roman Catholic Church was its reassertion in the Vatican II Council (1956-1965). Vatican II considered the fine arts to rank among the noblest expressions of human genius. The religious art, of which the highest achievement was sacred art, was related to God's beauty. The sacred art, certainly a human effort, tried to express the boundless beauty of God, the Council declared. Men's hearts were sought to be turned to God, by the sacred art. Hence the art brought glory to God.

Holy Mother Church had always been the friend of the fine arts, Vatican II affirmed. The Church always trained the artist, and for good reason had reserved itself the right to pass judgment upon the arts, `deciding which of the works of artist are in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws, and thereby suited to sacred purposes.'

The holy Roman Catholic Church was not against changes in materials, style, or ornamentation, which the progress in technical arts had brought about. However the Church was emphatic that such changes should serve the dignity of worship.

Note that this is an oblique criticism of the Eastern Orthodox Church wherein standardization of the icons, and prohibition to change the patterns of icons are strictly adhered to. The Council declared that the Roman Catholic Church had not adopted any particular style of art as her very own. These could vary according to the talents of the artists and the contexts in which the works were made. These could also vary according to the needs of the various rites. The treasury of art which had been with the Church should, however, be preserved. In addition, the contemporary arts `from every race and region', should be encouraged and given place in the Church, on condition that these shall also be given free scope in the Church, provided that these were becoming of the dignity of worship.

Now as regards the manner of representation, it was the noble beauty rather than extravagance that should govern decisions as to what should adorn the church and what should be accepted. This principle was applicable also to the sacred vestments and ornaments. Any work that was repugnant to faith, morals and piety should be removed.

Bishops had been enjoined to take the initiative to instill artists with the spirit of sacred art and of the sacred liturgy. Priest, `gifted with a knowledge and love of art,' could be used for this. The Church was called upon to establish schools of sacred art for the training of artists. The artists who wished to serve the Lord were called upon to always bear in mind that they were `engaged in a kind of sacred imitation of God the Creator.' The Council also called for an early revision of the canons and ecclesiastical statues, which governed, among other things, `the proper use of sacred images, embellishments, and vestments.'

Priests were to be taught the history and development of sacred heard to enable them better appreciate the principles in the production of works and `preserve the Church's venerable monuments, and be in a position to aid, by good advice, artists who are engaged in producing works of art.'

The most important decree on sacred images and their worship followed the above decrees on use of the modern arts and creation of monuments suitable for God's people at worship. The decree given below is an additional dimension given to the decrees on the same subject both in Nicaea II and Trent.

125. The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they may be venerated by the faithful is to be firmly maintained. Nevertheless, their number should be moderate and their relative location should reflect right order. Otherwise they may create confusion among the Christian people and promote a faulty sense of devotion.

Thus, a hierarchy of images in terms of their relative hierarchy within the Catholic "pantheon" is asked to be maintained. It is the intention of such hierarchical placement of images to induce or promote a proper sense of devotion. However, this practice is no different from the hierarchical ranks of pantheons worshipped by pagans. This development was inevitable, for once "worship" of the Christian personages along with the Deity is permitted, naturally, there is a need to distinguish the Deity from the other personages. This distinction is sought to be impressed upon the minds of the worshippers through a judicious use of geographical space within in a church building in consonance with the relative status assigned to various personages. We noticed in our first article that such practices are/were quite common among idol-worshipping religions.

Another decree refers to the veneration of the relics of the saints:

111. The saints have been traditionally honored in the Church and their authentic relics and images held in veneration. For the feasts of the saints proclaim the wonderful woks of Christ in His servants, and display to the faithful fitting examples for their imitation.

These feasts should not, however, take precedence over the commemoration of the mysteries of salvation, the suggestion noted.

To conclude our discussion of the deliberations of various Councils concerning idolatry, we should state that the Ecumenical Councils, and through these the Roman Catholic Church, distinguished between idol worship and image worship.

Image worship was taken to mean the visual representations of real personages, whereas the idols represented only false/non-existent gods. The idol worship, prohibited in the Old Testament and decried in the writings of the Apostles in the New Testament, is not to be confused with the image worship followed and encouraged within the Church, so claimed the Roman Catholic Church.

Visual representation of Jesus Christ did not come under the prohibition found in the Old Testament against visually representing God, for God himself took the incarnation of Man and thus provided for his visual representation, it is claimed. Moreover, visual representation of various sorts had been sanctioned within the Old Testament, claimed the Roman Catholic Church. In any case, what had been sanctioned by the tradition, handed down by the Apostles and the fathers should be considered along with the Scripture. Scripture alone was not to be the basis for arriving at the truth of the matter. Since the apostles and the saints, while living on the earth, always sought the welfare of the faithful, it was but natural that they continued to plead for us even now after their death. Mary, the holy Mother of God and the Queen of Heaven, had a special place by virtue of her unique position that she bore the incarnation of God. All these personages along with the shrines and relics should be adorned with veneration, and prayed to for their intervention on our behalf. Their images should be venerated because the veneration paid to the images was not for the images but for the personages represented by these images. Incense, burning candles, and sacrifices of various sorts did please these and thus should continue to be offered, especially when such offerings were approved of in the Old Testament.



M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Bethany College of Missions
6820 Auto Club Road, Suite C
Bloomington, MN 55438, USA


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