The Seventh Ecumenical Council
Dn. Michael Hyatt · February 14, 2009
Dn. Michael Hyatt discusses the seventh and final Ecumenical Council, which focuses on the use of icons in the Church.
Deacon Michael Hyatt: Well, we finally made it, thank God, to the Seventh Council. This particular council is, in theory at least, affirmed by all Orthodox, all Roman Catholics, and Protestants. You’d be hard pressed to talk to a Protestant that wouldn’t just kind of affirm it. And yet, really, it’s one of the more controversial ones particularly among Evangelicals today and really since the Reformation. There’s so much to talk about here, but I just wanted to give a couple things by way of background, and then we’ll get into the theology of it and the biblical part of it, obviously questions along the way, whatever you have, I’ll be glad to try to answer, or we can at least discuss.
First of all, just a word about terms. The term “icon” comes from the Greek word oikon which means simply image. That’s how it’s translated. It is a Bible word. It appears in the Bible a number of times, both in the Septuagint, the Old Testament (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and also in the New Testament. A couple of other terms though: an iconoclast, we’ve heard that. We use that in the vernacular today to speak of somebody who is anti-traditional, goes against the tide. As somebody who is an iconoclast, it means literally an icon-smasher. But somebody that opposes the use, technically, in the history of the Church is somebody who opposes the use of icons. An iconodule or an iconophile is someone who loves icons, conversely and uses them in worship.
Well, there are two major iconoclastic religions today: Judaism and Islam. Both of them disallow the use of images in their worship. The debate over images which we thought was settled in the eight century was actually revived again during the Reformation. You may remember that the Puritans particularly opposed the use of images and they scoured their churches, rid them of all symbols or images. And I would maintain, and we can talk about this further later that all they did was really replace them with another kind of image, and in fact, the use of icons is inescapable. It’s only a question of whether you’re going to have icons that reflect God, the saints, and the glory of the heavenly kingdom, or if you’re going to have earthly icons and more about that a little bit later. I will say this though. It’s kind of interesting in Russia, which of course for a thousand years really the citadel of Orthodoxy in the East, an entire Orthodox culture. Well, when the communists came in in 1918 and attempted to purge the culture of every remnant of Christianity, all they did was erect secular versions of the same thing. So that you have these giant icons of Lenin and Stalin and even in China where you have these images of Mao or in North Korea, you know? The use of images is inescapable.
Well, what about the use of images in the early Church? Did they or didn’t they? Well, according to our tradition, St. Luke the Evangelist was the first to paint an icon. He’s really considered the father of iconography. He painted, again, according to our tradition, I don’t believe any of these still exist, but he painted three icons of the Theotokos, and he painted an icon of the Apostle Peter and another icon of the Apostle Paul. But his first icon was called Directress, and it was an icon of the Theotokos and it is mentioned in the Paraklesis service that we say during the Dormition fast. You know the small Paraklesis service? There’s one of the hymns that we sing that says “speechless be the lips of the impious ones, those who do not reverence your great icon, the sacred one, which is called directress, and was depicted for us by one of the apostles, Luke the Evangelist.” So it’s a part of our tradition, and it reflects a very ancient tradition.
The first Christian images that we know of, that we have historical evidence for were painted in the second and third centuries, so still, very early. And the use of these images gradually increased more and more until we get to the seventh and eight centuries. This council, this seventh ecumenical council, met in 787 AD. Interesting to note: it met in Nicaea. So the first council was at Nicaea, the last council was in Nicaea, so the councils began and ended in the same city.
Here’s what happened though. Leo the III, who was the emperor of the Roman Empire from 717 to 741, suppressed the use of images by imperial decree. So he said, no more images, and many people think this was under the influence of Islamic thought, but he suppressed them. His son Constantine who reigned from 741 to 775 called a synod of bishops together to make this suppression official because it had been done by imperial decree, but the Church had really not ruled on it. So he summons together a council, Constantine the V, and they make the suppression official. Well then Constantine’s son, Leo the IV, who reigned only five years from 775 to 780, shared his father’s iconoclastic sentiments but began to entertain the possibility of once again legalizing the use of icons. Unfortunately, he died after five years in office.
His son was too young to assume the role of emperor, so his wife, Irene, became the regent for her son. She essentially ruled in the name of her son. And it was Irene who began the restoration of icons. But because the previous council, claiming to be ecumenical had abolished icons, the new council had to be called to restore them. This first council, the one that had been called by Constantine, claimed to be ecumenical, claimed to have universal authority, although it was never accepted in the West. She ends up calling this second council or encourages the calling of this council to restore the use of images in the Church.
So in 786—and this can show you how divided the political climate was—now this is the year before the council officially started, they attempted to start a council, and they met at the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople. However, soldiers in the imperial guard, now this is supposedly Irene’s staff, they show up and they break up the assembly. Which just goes to show you, just because you’re the emperor doesn’t mean you can always get done what you need to get done. And so she’s being opposed by the soldiers and her very own imperial guard because there was a lot of opposition, a lot of intrigue, and the phrase “Byzantine Intrigue” (ever heard of that?), it wasn’t for nothing that that phrase was coined.
So, being the smart woman that she was, she sent them on a campaign out of the city. She sent them on an errand, and she did it several months later so no suspicions were raised. She sends them out of the city, they’re gone. And so there’s another council that’s called the actual Seventh Ecumenical Council which is called in Nicaea. They still didn’t trust Constantinople, so they go out to this city close by, Nicaea, and they begin the council on September the 24th, 787. So this is several months later. Get this though: 350 bishops attended. This was a very well-attended council. 308 eventually signed the documents. The council meets seven times.
In terms of personalities, one of those most influential is St. John of Damascus who wrote a book called “On the Divine Images.” Has anybody here read that? Yeah, great book. Hugely helpful to me in coming from a reformed background to coming to Orthodoxy because I had been taught that any use of images was a violation of the second commandment. He really helped me understand kind of the biblical foundation and the theological foundation of the use and veneration of images in the Church which I’m going to go into here in a minute. Well, here was the issue. The use of icons was seemingly forbidden by the second commandment, and here’s what the second commandment says and this is Exodus 20:4-6.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, any likeness, of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them nor serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands to those who love me and keep my commandments.”
It seems like a clear prohibition. You’re not to make any likeness of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath. The confusing part of this or the apparent contradiction of this was that there are other passages that seem to mandate the use of images. So, for example, we have—just to start as the theological foundation, Genesis 1:26-27 where man is made in the image and likeness of God. So man himself is an icon of the invisible God. God made him as an image, so that in looking at man, we know much about God. He is a reflection, a mirror, an icon of the invisible. But then God even commands Moses and really just four chapters later in Exodus 25, God commands Moses to make golden cherubim over the mercy seat. I’m going to read this: Exodus 25 and verses 17-22. And this is God speaking:
“And you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold [this is in the inner part of the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies] two and a half cubits length and a cubit and a half’s width, and you shall make two cherubim of gold of hammered work. You shall make them at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherubim at one end and the other cherub at the other end, and you shall make the cherub at the two ends of it, one piece with the mercy seat.”
So, then he goes on to describe the use of these cherubs. So, wait a second. We’re prohibited from making likeness in anything in heaven above, and yet here Moses is commanded to make cherubs over the mercy seat out of pure gold. So, one interesting passage. In Exodus 26, just one chapter later, God again speaking: “Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with 10 curtains of fine woven linen and blue, purple, and scarlet thread with artistic designs of cherubim you shall weave them.” So not only the golden cherubim above the mercy seat, but now the very curtains of the tabernacle are to have the images of cherubim embroidered on them.
In addition to that, God commands Moses to make images of earthly things, and later Solomon who takes that tabernacle which was mobile and creates the permanent temple and kind of elaborates on what had already been built—Solomon’s later commanded to build also golden cherubim—but first God says that the priest’s garments had images of pomegranates sewn on them. Exodus 28:22-34. The temple had carved pomegranates on it. I Kings 7:18. By the way, it’s interesting. I did a word study on this this morning: pomegranates are a very favorite fruit of God. It is used scores of times, maybe 100 times in the Scripture and always in a positive context.
Question #1: One of the funny things I found out about making kolyva, commemoration of the dead we bring it to the Church and we use the pomegranates, I did look into it. Why pomegranates? And it resembles, it is said that they are the little drops of blood from our Lord put it into it. So even though the kolyva is man-made, in commemoration of our loved ones, it’s still the blood of Christ that covers them.
Dn. Michael: Yeah, that’s good. Interesting. I hadn’t put that together. Solomon in 1 Kings 6:34-35, Solomon had images of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers carved on the sanctuary doors of the temple. It’s interesting that it’s both a likeness of things in heaven and likeness of things on earth, and they’re comingled and they’re carved on these doors of the sanctuary. Which by the way, I think is instructive. It’s kind of like a seamless reality to Solomon and to the Jews of that time. You know, not this distinction, hard-and-fast distinction between heavenly things and earthly things, all part of one giant reality. All part of God’s creation, but these things were carved, which again it says, you shall not make yourself a carved image, again back to Exodus 20 the second commandment, any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath.
So it’s not just animals or people but it’s anything according to the second commandment, apparently, that is forbidden, and yet Solomon here depicts these things: cherubim and palm trees and open flowers. Then he took the seat, that bronze lever in the tabernacle becomes the seat, this giant bath in the temple, and it’s placed on the back of 12 cast bronze oxen. So right there in the temple you have these 12 oxen bearing this enormous bronze seat. And then you come over to, even in the New Testament, Colossians 1:15, where you also have the language of images also a very important passage and one that St. John of Damascus refers to, speaking of Jesus. Colossians 1:15 says “He is the image [literally in the Greek, the icon] of the invisible God. The firstborn over all creation.” Jesus is an icon. Just as we’re to be icons, we’re to reflect the glory of Christ, the glory of God, so Jesus himself was an icon. So much so that Jesus was able to say to his disciples: he who has seen me has seen the Father. He was an accurate representation, an accurate depiction of the Father. He reflected the Father’s glory in all respects. So he is in many ways, the ultimate prototype of an icon. We are little icons. That’s what we’re to be.
That, by the way, you find this theology of images permeates much of Orthodoxy. So that, for example, part of the reason we venerate our priests and kiss their hands is because they are an icon of Christ. It’s not that Father Stephen is anything special, but he’s special liturgically in the sense that he reflects, he images, he’s a living icon of Christ. This is why, by the way, in the pre-sanctified liturgy, when the priest brings the gifts out, his head is covered because there is an icon that is of more significance that he’s carrying and that is the body and blood of Christ. That is the primary icon. And so he covers his head just as a reminder that there is this more primary icon. When the gifts come out in the liturgy, those gifts are not yet sanctified, and that’s not the body and blood of Christ. That’s the bread and the wine that’s in the great entrance. Everybody get that? But in the pre-sanctified liturgy, those gifts have already been consecrated in the Divine Liturgy of the previous Sunday, and so when those are brought out at the entrance of the pre-sanctified gifts, that is the very body and blood of Christ. OK? And it all has to do with this image theology.
Hebrews 1:3 is another passage. Part of the reason I’m giving you all these Bible verses is because it’s really easy for those who are iconoclasts to want to take the high ground and quote to you only the second commandment, but I don’t think you can really understand the second commandment until you look at all these other verses because clearly the second commandment does not forbid the use of images just across the board. It can’t. Otherwise, why do we have all these other passages that command the use of images and why is this image language used in referring to Christ? Hebrews 1:3, speaking of Jesus. It says he was the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person. Express icon. An accurate icon. A true icon of the Father. So, how do we resolve this apparent contradiction? Well, St. John argues the council affirmed, that it’s not the use of images, it’s not even their veneration that is forbidden, but their worship. And St. John of Damascus goes into great detail in his book of differentiating between the prototype of the image and the image itself. Now, a child can understand this. This is not that complicated a theology.
If I carry with me a picture of Gayle, my wife, in my billfold, I don’t ever get tempted to confuse that picture with my wife. I’m not at home kissing that picture and my wife walks in the room, and I go, “I’m busy”, you know? No. My wife is the prototype of that photo. The same is true of icons. When we depict an icon of Jesus, that’s an icon, that’s not the prototype so that when we venerate or honor that image, St. John of Damascus says and the fathers affirm, that our veneration passes to the prototype. Now what’s forbidden in the second commandment is worshipping that image as an end in itself. Worshipping it as God. It doesn’t have an independent existence that is somehow magical. Same thing with the saints. You know, when we depict a saint like John the Baptist or the Theotokos, it can’t be confused: that’s not the Blessed Virgin, that’s not John the Baptist, that’s an image of those things or those people and they remind us of certain important things and when we venerate them, we are venerating, in fact honoring, the prototype.
Let me just read to you and then I’ll take questions here: here’s what the council said. This is a direct quote. “As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol [which interestingly enough even in churches that don’t use icons, you’ll often find them not completely devoid of symbols. There will be a cross there, banners, something else, jumbotron of the pastor, all kinds of images, but sorry] as the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images [notice so also should - this is not a matter of something being permitted but really a matter of something being mandated] so also should the images of Jesus Christ the Virgin Mary, the Holy Angels as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they are moved to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not however the veritable worship, which according to our faith, belongs to the divine being alone. For the honor according to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever adores the image adores it in the reality of what it is there represented.” Pretty simple? Pretty clear and I think resolves the apparent contradiction of the second commandment and yet all these other passages that seem to affirm the use of images in worship.
The thing that’s important to understand is that this seventh ecumenical council was really a continuation of the Christological debates of all the councils that had gone before it because the issue was, fundamentally, in all the councils, was Jesus Christ both fully God and fully man? And in the seventh ecumenical council the question was: did he really come in the flesh? I mean, if you had been there when he had walked on earth and you had the technology of a camera, could you have taken a picture of him? Absolutely. He wasn’t some spirit. He was that, but he was more than that. He was God Incarnate. He had a real body. And what this did theologically in the history of the Church is it really sanctified matter.
Our faith is not a neo-platonic faith where the things of the spirit are more real and these are merely a shadow of the real. Matter is sanctified. Matter will be redeemed. This sounds like a simple thing, but think about our burial service. I’m amazed today that so many Christians think that cremation is an acceptable form of disposing of the dead. It’s absolutely not. Why? Because it’s iconoclastic. That person has been made in the image of God. And it’s not just their spirit that’s made in the image: it’s their whole being, spirit, soul and body. At the resurrection, their body will be resurrected and joined together with their soul. God just doesn’t save the one and discard the other like a husk of corn, preserving the kernel. It’s the whole enchilada, to mix the metaphor.
That’s why, for us, cremation as Orthodox Christians would never be an option. It happens, you know, people burn up in fires and that’s God problem. He’s got to resurrect all those particles, but we don’t intentionally dishonor the dead, or more importantly dishonor the image of Christ that is in our bodies, by destroying our bodies because we too are icons. This is why it’s so important that we live lives that are well-pleasing to God. For some people, we’re the only picture of Jesus they’ll ever get. We’re the living icons. It’s not just that the icons are up there on the iconostasis, but we too are to be icons. And I think this preserves an incredibly important truth that we’ve lost in much of modern Christianity.
I think the benefits of venerating icons are several. One is they are a way to educate the illiterate. You know, everybody agreed to that even many of the iconoclasts agreed that they had value there, but they move us to a memory of the prototypes which is a good thing to reflect upon. And I think they remind us also of God’s presence among us. God is present in his saints among us. So, when we go into the temple today, it’s a reminder that what we see is not just what we get out here, but there is another reality that exists simultaneous with this earthly reality that is every bit as real.
Question #2: Even before I was Orthodox and I would get into conversations now and then with people about cremation, and they were Christians of some stripe, and I would say if you think about it, cremation is not found in the Hebrew or Christian tradition, I would say. You see, I was harking to tradition. And I have a personal aversion to cremation anyways, but if you’ve read the Old Testament, it was obviously the heathens that were practicing these things, the cremation of bodies, sacrificing whatever, and even in modern times, I remember when I was a little kid, I had the impression and I guess my mother must have talked about it, but it was that unbelievers cremated, and you’d hear stories about apparently very broad-minded people got into this point in their mind that cremation is good.
Dn. Michael: Yeah, it’s hard to know where that comes from because really you burn things that you’re done with, that you’re disposing of, and so, if you’re done with the body, dispose of it. You bury things that you intend to use later. It could be treasure, it’s in many ways kind of an implicit faith in the resurrection that we want to save this for later. I read this week in the book of Genesis of how Abraham and his wife Sarah died and he goes and purchases a field. It’s a big deal in the Bible. He didn’t just burn her up. It would’ve been a whole lot cheaper. But he pays a premium for a burial spot for her. And this happens over and over again in the Patriarchs where they are very careful to bury their fathers and to take care of the body and to respect them. So it does pass over from the Hebrew tradition to the Christian tradition.
Question #3: Unfortunately, my father-in-law was cremated about a month ago, despite our wishes. So what happens for people are cremated?
Dn. Michael: Sometimes we get into this situation. My in-laws were almost cremated, and they changed their minds, thank God, at the last minute. We implored them to, and they did. And many times it comes from a good heart. They want to save the family the expense, less expensive, and people have a lot of fears and weird things associated with the body resting in a grave somewhere, but the thing that I would say is that even though man may attempt to destroy it through burning, and it is a disrespectful act from a biblical perspective, you can’t ultimately destroy it. You know, so that again we know that in the Book of Revelation, the sea gives up its dead, the resurrection. No matter how a person may have died or what may have happened to the body, let’s face it, there were people that died thousands of years ago, those bodies are dust, but all we can know is that by faith God can resurrect that and pull it back together, and we will have a real body at the resurrection.
Question #4: Evangelicals get around it sometimes too that you can burn the body but the God of all creation who knows how many hairs we have on our head can recreate a body. They kind of dismiss it so it’s irrelevant because it doesn’t matter what state you’re in and a bunch of people are dust anyway.
Dn. Michael: That’s right. All things are possible with God. This isn’t an impediment to God. But it’s a reflection of our theology and our bad theology because we’re disrespecting the body. We’re therefore, really, by implication, disrespecting Christ who is imaged in that body.
Question #5: I think again, because my parents are dyed-in-the-wool Southern Baptists, and they tend to be cremated. I think it goes hand-in-hand with this idea this total separation of the physical and the spiritual. I mean I hear my dad say things like we’ll be done with this body. It’s kind of a misunderstanding that physical is bad and that spiritual is good and that we’re free. That at death we’re free of that nasty, old, physical body that you had so get rid of it, get it out of the way so that we can be this spiritual being.
Dn. Michael: Well this is a very Gnostic, Neo-Platonic, even Manichean idea that (all those are heresies by the way) you know the idea that matter is evil. The spiritual world is good, the physical world is bad, there’s this ultimate dichotomy between the two and that leads to all kinds of heresies and in fact, that was much of what the ecumenical councils were about. Because people would argue that well, he could’ve have really became flesh because flesh is bad. So, maybe he appeared to have flesh, but he didn’t really have flesh because that’s bad. Well, it all comes from Greek philosophy, it doesn’t come from Biblical and Hebrew thought.
Question #6: I just wanted to add too that we need to be careful as Christians when we see airplane accidents and things that happen that do obliterate the human body that we don’t take that as a sign of God’s displeasure with people. You know, I think the prayer “save me from dying suddenly and unawares”, and I think there’s a tendency also among some people to think worse of people who left this life in a form that left no body, you know what I’m saying, and to kind of go overboard? I mean, that shows you what God thought about them or something like that.
Dn. Michael: It’s interesting when Christ appears on the Emmaus Road, the disciples they don’t recognize him initially, but when do they recognize him? When they break bread. Then they recognize him.
Question #7: So does that mean we can eat?
Dn. Michael: Amen! Yes, lots of food! (Laughing)
Question #8: Maybe another little rabbit trail here, but like so many people I am a big C.S. Lewis fan. Do you think Lewis came close to some Neo-Platonism with his idea of real life hasn’t begun yet, and we’re in the Shadowlands and the bright reality of—did he play with that?
Dn. Michael: I could never call C.S. Lewis a Neo-Platonist, but I think there is that—the reason that Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism flourished was because there are some things in the Scripture that seem to give it life. You know, like St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “that now we see through a glass darkly, but then we will see face to face.” You know, kind of suggests that maybe this is maybe a shadow, and then in the Book of Hebrews, you know it talks about how the earthly things are a shadow of the heavenly things. There is some truth to that. I do think that there is a greater weight of reality that awaits us that is going to be greater than what we experienced in this life. But what we can’t do is create the dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. That’s the thing we have to avoid.
This particular council is celebrated as probably as you know on the first Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy and that’s where we affirm, actually, this decree and even speak it together as a congregation of these things that the seventh council affirmed. So, it was seen as a triumph of Orthodoxy. It was the capstone on all the other councils because they had wrestled through the Incarnation. They were not content to let it be this sort of affirmation that was in the first council, but they kept pushing it. He had two natures. He had two wills. It’s appropriate to depict him in images and it’s appropriate to venerate those images. Thank you all.