Monday, October 14, 2013

Lesser Known Fathers VII: St. Theodore the Studite on Icons

For those of us on the Gregorian calendar this past Sunday was the Sunday of the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in the Byzantine rite. This Council once and for all condemned iconoclasm and affirmed the right and necessary place of holy images in the Divine worship. Unfortunately the circumstances surrounding the iconoclasm controversy would eventually lead to the Photian schism, the effects of which continue to our present time.

We have already covered the writing of St. John of Damascus on the Holy Icons, but the significance of the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the celebration of its Fathers this week inspired the Rad Trad to examine briefly the writings of St. Theodore the Studite on the matter, perhaps the last major writer concerning the icon controversy. Theodore was born in 759 and raised for a bureaucratic career, but diverged from the set path and joined his uncle Plato's monastery. Circumstances brought Theodore to Studios monastery in Constantinople. Emperor Constantine VI exiled Theodore for opposing his divorce and re-marriage, holding that an emperor had not the competence to override the decisions of the Church concerning marriage. The next emperor, Michael II, permitted Theodore a partial return from exile, but would not permit the Saint to enter the Byzantine capital. Theodore died on November 11, 826, the day before his current feast.

For practical purposes, this post will be shorter than previous installments of the Lesser Known Fathers series, given that much of what St. Theodore says has already been said by St. John of Damascus.

Studios monastery
First, Theodore refutes the common objection that the creation and veneration of icons violates the second commandment, which prohibits the worship of images and idols. Not all images are made equal. The commandment against the fashioning and veneration of idols and images does not equate with images as the Christian is acquainted with them. Theodore establishes that the veneration of an image or icon for the Christian is actually veneration of the prototype of the image through veneration of a replica. The attention and worship is directed toward the prototype, be it God, a mystery, an angel, or a saint. The Christian does not glorify and give honor to a plank of wood or smudges of paint. His devotion seeks the original through the copy.

This contrasts with the second commandment because, when considered in context, the second commandment has little application in the realm of icons. The Jews were forbidden images, more or less, because no one had "seen God at any time" prior to the coming of the Second Person of the Trinity (John 1:18). Without any comprehension of God in a form discernible to human beings the veneration of images would eventually slip into idolatry, the worship of images as though those images were gods in themselves. Even during Old Testament times God exempted the Jews from this commandment under His Divine providence. For example, God explicitly commanded the Israelites to fashion two cherubim, forming the "Glory Seat" on the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18). Similarly, He demanded the same Israelites create a bronze serpent which healed snake bitten persons (Numbers 21:8). Given the proper intention and disposition, God is glorified in the veneration of holy icons and images.

This gives way to the second, and far more interesting, aspect of the iconoclast controversy: how an image relates to its original, its prototype. St. John of Damascus briefly touches upon this topic in his third discourse, but does not delve. St. Theodore does.

An image can be venerated as a proximate to the original because the original is intelligible to those who offer it their honor. The iconoclasts, among whom Orthodox translator Catherine Roth nearly counts St. Gregory of Rome, insisted that icons were ill-suited for Divine worship because God cannot be circumscribed to human understanding and human reason. Man cannot know God.

St. Theodore constructs a dialogue between an iconophile and an iconoclast—who he plainly calls the "orthodox" and the "heretic" respectively—in his second treatise in order to set up an explanation for how mankind can know God. He quotes St. Gregory of Nazianzus in saying Christ is God "Circumscribed in the body, uncircumscribed in the spirit (Treatise 2.1, Gregory ep. 101). Similarly those who respected the image of the Byzantine emperor did so because they knew the emperor to be a flesh-and-blood person who could be seen with human eyes (Treatise 2.28).

Is there not a circumscription to the risen Christ? Eastern, and Western, theology holds that Christ's resurrected body was a renewed, transformed one, so glorious and different that it was unrecognized by the Lord's own disciples (St. Mary Magdalen at the tomb) or even by His Apostles (on the road to Emaus). This body could appear and disappear at whim. Surely the resurrected Lord's image should not be venerated (Treatise 2.41-47), but rather treated with the same alien respect as the Jews treated God, in their vague understanding, in the Old Testament. No! This same Christ walked and talked and ate as His Apostles and as He Himself did prior to His Passion. Even the risen Christ is very knowable through the human senses.

Given that the common objectors to images, be it iconography or Roman statues, are protestants in our day, one argument of the iconoclasts is amusing: "'We grant,' the heretics say, 'that Christ may be represented, but only according to the holy words which we have received from God Himself; for He said, 'Do this in remembrance of me,' obviously implying that He cannot be represented otherwise than by being remembered. Only this image is true and this act of depiction sacred'" (Treatise 1.10). Effectively, iconoclasts believed the Eucharist to be the only viable depiction of Christ because the gifts on the altar are Christ. Of course, Theodore rebuts, the Eucharist is the most fitting remembrance of Christ, but an image need not be of the same essence as the original, as the Eucharist is of Jesus (1.10-11).

One last point of interest is the Cross. Some apparently worried that veneration of the mysteries of Christ and of the saints would detract from veneration of the Cross (1.15), which is done at the end of Divine Liturgy. Of course there is a limited amount of wood from the True Cross to venerate, so the faithful adore fabricated crosses. If this is acceptable, why would icons not be? Christ hallowed the cross by making it worthy of His passion. Is not the same true of His other mysteries?

We are beginning to see that written theology has progressed beyond the first millennium and the Fathers. Yet these men and their writings remain singularly important, not just for tracing what the "early Church" (as though it is not the same as today's Church) believed, but how the Church believed. The average quasi-secular person today, when he walks into a parish to observe a Mass, is not going to ask about Aquinas' concept of form-matter-intent for the Sacraments. He is going to ask more basic questions: does God exist? Why worship Him? How does He matter to you? Why do you Catholics do what you do? The writings of the Fathers are more instinctive and accessible for the layman.

Some time in the next week I hope to put up a post on five random Sunday Masses from the Parisian Missal and a review of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.

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