This Sunday marks “Sunday of Orthodoxy,” also known as “Triumph of Orthodoxy,” a date that meant nothing to me a few years ago because it is only observed in the liturgical calendar of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Two of my close friends, one who converted to Orthodoxy from his Nazarene background and the other who plans to convert from his Methodist background, acquainted me with this date.
Beginning the first Sunday of Great Lent, six Sundays before Pascha (Easter), Sunday of Orthodoxy celebrates—in the words of Greek iconographer Photios Kontoglou—“the restoration of the Icons and the victory of true religion over the Iconoclasts.” Notice the trumpet blast of ecclesial superiority in the description of this date: “true religion” does not refer to “mere Christianity,” the “Great Tradition,” or the “invisible church.” It refers to a single, visible church: Eastern Orthodoxy.
Protestants who either reject or conditionally accept the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Second Council of Nicea), which sanctioned the veneration of icons, are implicitly regarded as heretics and thus anathematized during the service on Sunday of Orthodoxy. For this Reformed Christian, the anathemas are hair-raising:
To those who mock and profane the holy images and relics which the holy Church receives as revelations of God’s work and of those pleasing to Him, to inspire their beholders with piety, and to arouse them to follow these examples; and to those who say that they are idols, Anathema!
Is veneration of the icons “agreeable to divine revelation”? It entirely depends on what is meant by “divine revelation.” If it means the Orthodox theology of incarnation, the answer is “Yes.” If it means the Seventh Ecumenical Council, elevated to the same authority as the Holy Scriptures, the answer is “Yes.” But if it means the Holy Scriptures alone, the answer is “No.” There are no “commands of God” to venerate icons; in the absence of such commands, I choose to abstain from what I regard as “traditions of men,” traditions which might facilitate worship or idolatry, a judgment that only God is fit to make (Mk. 7:6-8). I do not bend my knee before icons because I behold the image of God in the mirror of the Gospel, as John Calvin said. Abstention from the use of icons in worship is different than “those who mock and profane the holy images and relics.” Abstention is not a neutral position, but nor is it hostile. So I might not be a heretic after all—at least on this count.
Questions emerge that are both personal and pressing because of my friendships. Should the use of icons split the household of faith? Are the differences between iconoclasts and iconodules at the center or periphery of Christian faith?
To explore these questions in a broader context, I turn to a fascinating passage from James Davison Hunter’s forthcoming book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford, March 2010). Comparing American Christians in late modernity to Jews in Babylon (Jeremiah 29), Hunter urges the church to not only live with the tensions of exile, but to “deliberately and actively cultivate” them. Why? God is at work in the place of exile. If God’s purposes are being realized through the circumstances of late modernity, then “the welfare of those with whom we share a world is tied to our own welfare.” As Jews “pursued the shalom of Babylon, God would provide shalom for his people.” So too, Christians should pursue shalom in secular America.
The church has tensions with itself and with the world. Regarding the tensions with itself, Hunter observes that one tension “arises from its passion for truth and the way such passions tend to justify internal factionalizing. Unfortunately, schism seem to be part and parcel of Christianity and Christians, being who they are, this is not likely to change any time soon. Put differently, the problem of difference is an inescapable feature of its own identity and witness.”
Applied to the schism above, the “passion for truth” justifies the “internal factionalizing” between a Reformed Christian like myself, who is skeptical about veneration of icons, and an Orthodox Christian like my friend, who is resolute about veneration of icons. For me, the skepticism hinges on the Orthodox belief that the Incarnation repeals the Decalogue’s commandment against graven images, which creates an intractable dilemma in Christology, as William Baldwin writes:
It’s an amazing leap of logic from the premise (God has revealed himself once for all in his Son) to the conclusion (we may now make images of God). Yet the Orthodox do not seem to notice that they have leaped at all. They barely attempt to explain how to get from the premise to the conclusion. To them, the conclusion is obvious. And when they do attempt an explanation, they stumble into Nestorianism [the doctrine that there were two separate persons, one human and one divine, in the incarnate Christ]. This is almost inevitable. The only alternative is Monophysitism [the doctrine that there was only one nature in the incarnate Christ, wholly divine or subordinately human], of which they have an even greater horror. Yet one or the other error awaits them. To say that the Incarnation legitimizes icons is either to say that God’s nature changed when he became a man and thus is now depictable. Or it is to say that God became depictable as a man but remained undepictable as God.
What should we do with a schism that is “an inescapable feature of [our] own identity and witness”? Hunter offers a salutary answer:
The first implication is that a vision of the new city commons rooted in a theology of faithful presence would lead believers to hold many of these differences lightly. It is important to remember that Christianity—in its beliefs and practices—is defined from the center out. This is not to say that particularities on the periphery don’t matter—they do: they give social life complexity and personal life richness, and in so many respects we are defined by these particularities. But those particularities on the periphery matter less in a context of exile on at least two fronts. They matter less on the issue of formation and they matter less on the issue of public engagement. In the context of exile, and on these two matters, many of the schisms that have divided the church over time have become functionally irrelevant. This would include the great schism of the sixteenth century that divided Protestants and Catholics. It would also include the divisions between the Western Church and Eastern Church as well. Within the confessions of historic Christian faith—and on the matters of formation and engagement—the particularities on the margins of faith really do matter less. Unity around the core beliefs and practices of Christian faith can only serve the larger purposes of making disciples, on the one hand, and serving the common good, on the other.
The second implication is simply this: where differences remain there is the challenge to demonstrate love toward the other. Clearly, if Christians cannot extend grace and love through faithful presence within the body of believers, they certainly will not be able to extend grace to those outside.
When Christian beliefs and practices are defined “from the center out,” does the veneration of icons qualify as a particularity on the periphery? Our answer depends on what we affirm at the center. Regarding beliefs, I agree with Reformed theologian Michael Horton: “The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds still provide us with the best definition of orthodoxy. These creeds do not say everything we want to say, of course, but therein lies their strength.” Regarding practices, I submit that the ministry of Word and Sacrament (Baptism and Lord’s Supper) still provides us with the best examples of orthopraxy. I would also add the inward disciplines (meditation, prayer, fasting, study), outward disciplines (simplicity, solitude, submission, service), and corporate disciplines (confession, worship, guidance, celebration).
Based on the above delineation of beliefs and practices at the center, the veneration of icons is “a particularity on the periphery.” I anticipate that my Orthodox friends will object to this classification because the word “periphery” can—but need not—suggest insignificance. As Hunter reminds us, particularities on the periphery matter because “they give social life complexity and personal life richness, and in so many respects we are defined by these particularities. But those particularities on the periphery matter less in a context of exile.” The language here is one of degree: discerning what matters more or less. Even if Orthodox Christians insist that the devotional use of icons is a core practice, they are still challenged to “extend grace and love through faithful presence within the body of believers.” And what better proof is there of this grace and love than to desist from anathematizing Christians who do not venerate icons. Iconoclasm is no longer an existential threat to the Orthodox church, so the time is ripe to celebrate a different kind of triumph on Sunday of Orthodoxy: the triumph of love thy enemy.
Everything cannot be at the center, so we have a choice—as exiles—to band together in order to make disciples (formation) and serve the common good (public engagement) or to banish each other. We have a choice—as exiles—to hold our differences lightly, which is what the apostle Paul means when he exhorts us “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3), or to hold our differences tightly, which unleashes “corrupting talk” that grieves the Holy Spirit of God (Eph. 4:29-30).
I earnestly hope that those who use icons and those who do not will put away “all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander,” so they can “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:31-32). Love makes our schisms “functionally irrelevant.” As Michael Horton puts it, “In spite of the important differences between Christian churches, there is a place to stand together—like Athanasius—against the world for the world.”
Further Online Reading: