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Category: Icons (Page 3 of 11)

Responding to Rev. John Carpenter on Icons – Round 2

A Friendly Conversation

Continuing the Conversation

Pastor John Carpenter recently published a lengthy article on the Gospel Coalition’s website “Answering Eastern Orthodox Apologetics regarding Icons.” The article is in part a response to my earlier article: “A Response to John B. Carpenter’s ‘Icons and the Eastern Orthodox Claim to Continuity with the Early Church.’” One could say that my article and Pastor Carpenter’s two articles represent an ongoing friendly Reformed-Orthodox dialogue, which we welcome. This article will be an assessment and response to his latest article.

Assessment

One common weakness in Reformed critiques of Orthodox icons has been either a superficial understanding of icons or reliance on caricatures of the Orthodox understanding of icons. As far as Reformed apologia engaging Orthodoxy goes, this article is one of the better ones. Pastor Carpenter appears to have done some homework as evidenced by the eighty-plus endnotes and his engaging a wide range of well respected Orthodox writers such as Steven Bigham and Gabe Martini. Carpenter’s scholarship is also evidenced by his willingness to cite secular sources such as Milette Gaifman’s 2017 article: “Aniconism: definitions, examples and comparative perspectives.” Despite some very real weaknesses, the quality of Carpenter’s latest article is such that it has helped refine this author’s pro-icon apologia.

In his article Pastor Carpenter approaches icons not just as religious images, but in the way they are used in worship. He concludes the introductory section with a sparse definition of an icon being “a sacred image used in religious devotion.” This focus on the function of icons plays a key role in Carpenter’s latest rebuttal of Orthodox pro-icon apologia. Orthodoxy has historically seen an inextricable connection between what an icon is with what an icon does – it sacramentally mediates the personal presence of Christ and the saints. So John Carpenter’s shift in focus is far from a minor tactical change in Reformed iconoclastic apologia, but one that must be taken seriously.

However, I found his understanding of “iconography” as the use of icons in worship rather eccentric. Conventional definitions of “iconography” focus on the images themselves, not the act of venerating the images in the context of worship as Carpenter would have it. The Cambridge Dictionary defines “iconography” as:

the use of images and symbols to represent ideas, or the particular images and symbols used in this way by a religious or political group, etc.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defined “iconography” as:

. . . the science of identification, description, classification, and interpretation of symbols, themes, and subject matter in the visual arts.

What Rev. Carpenter calls “iconography” would be more appropriately referred to as “icon veneration.”

One more terminological peculiarity of Carpenter’s article is his defining “iconoclasm” as the active destruction of images.

When this prohibition is enforced by the actual destruction of images, aniconism becomes iconoclasm. (§1)

The more widely accepted understanding of “iconoclasm” is either the rejection of religious images or their destruction. The Oxford Dictionary defines “iconoclasm”:

The rejection or destruction of religious images as heretical; the doctrine of iconoclasts.

This is important to keep in mind because it allows John Carpenter to disavow that he is an iconoclast in the general sense of the word by his insisting in his article that “iconoclasm” refers to just the active destruction of religious images and that his position is closer to rigorous aniconism. In this article I will be using the word “iconoclasm” in the more generally accepted sense.

 

A False Binary?

John Carpenter criticizes Orthodox pro-icon apologia for the “binary” nature of their arguments.

If EOAs [Eastern Orthodox Apologists] can frame the debate as a binary choice between radically rigorous aniconism or full-blown iconography [icon veneration], many people will succumb to the logic of iconography. Hence, they typically argue, “Icons are like family photos. Just like a deployed soldier may kiss a photo of his wife, we kiss icons of Saints who have fallen asleep in Christ.” This is, of course, a false dilemma. (Carpenter 2018; §1)

Carpenter counters Orthodox pro-icon apologia with the concept of aniconism. He argues that the presence of images in the Old Testament Tabernacle as well as in early Jewish and Christian places of worship are consistent with aniconism and do not necessarily indicate that these images were used for worship. To bolster his argument, Carpenter draws on Milette Gaifman’s comparative analysis of the use of images across various religious traditions. Drawing on Gaifman’s article, Carpenter writes:

So the discovery of decorations in catacombs or the synagogue and church of Dura Europos does not necessarily suggest iconography [icon veneration]. One can still be “aniconic” (opposed to icons) and allow decorations. Aniconism is the belief that images should not be used in worship; it is opposition to icons but not necessarily to all images. There is a spectrum of aniconism. Rigorous aniconism insists that the natural or supernatural world should not be represented in any visible way. . . . . When this prohibition is enforced by the actual destruction of images, aniconism becomes iconoclasm. (Carpenter 2018; emphasis added)

Aniconism, then, covers a range from rigorous aniconism in which all images are forbidden, including secular art, in any contexts, whether secular or religious, to mediating views of some images being acceptable in non-religious contexts; to the laxest form of aniconism, that images of all kinds are acceptable, even as decorations in places of worship but not used in worship. It is the prohibition on using an image in acts of devotion that is the sine qua non of aniconism. (Carpenter 2018; §1; emphasis added)

The concept of aniconism has the advantage of allowing us to come to grips with the complexity of the relationship between art and worship in early Christianity. The spectrum of moderate to rigorous aniconism gives us a more flexible framework for assessing so-called early Christian iconoclasm, e.g., Epiphanius, Clement of Alexandria, as well as archaeological evidence of images in early Christian places of worship. While there is some evidence for the presence of images in early Christian churches, it is harder to find evidence that the early Christians actively venerated these images. One could infer from the presence of these images that the early Christians venerated them but this is not evidence of the active veneration of the images. Later in this article, we will see that given Second Temple Judaism’s use of images there is reason to assume a continuity of practice which would provide the basis for the Christian veneration of icons.

Given the paucity of evidence for the active veneration preceding Emperor Constantine’s recognition of Christianity, the more cautious position to take is that early Christianity was originally aniconic and that the active veneration of icons emerged at a later date. It is hypothesized that the active veneration of images by Christians had two sources: early Christian aniconism and the cult of the martyrs, both of which had roots in Judaism. These two strands of Jewish traditions were retained by the early Christians and transformed through the prism of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection. The convergence likely took place in the sixth and seventh centuries when images of the martyrs shifted from being visual reminders into visual sacraments by which one could pray to the saints. Pagoulatos dated the introduction of images in Christian worship between the fifth and seventh centuries (p. 26). The convergence was initially a bottom-up phenomenon, that is, they sprung up among the laity independently of the hierarchy. It was only later that the Church’s hierarchy formally endorsed the veneration of icons at the Council of Nicea II in 787. This continuity with growth points to the dynamic nature of Orthodox Tradition.

 

Three Youths in Furnace – Christian Catacombs in Rome

The Cult of Martyrs

The cult of the martyrs has roots in pre-Christian Judaism. 2 Maccabees 7, which dates to 124 BC, recounts the courage of a mother’s seven sons who refused to eat pork because of their religious conviction. This incident was alluded to in Hebrews 11:35, which recounted the many instances of Old Testament saints’ faithfulness to Yahweh. The early Christian cult of the martyrs emerged as early as 155/156 with the early Christians treasuring the bones of Bishop Polycarp and coming together to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom (see The Martyrdom of Polycarp chapter 18).

One very early indication of the religious use of images can be found in the Acts of John, a Gnostic text dating to the early second century and regarded as part of the New Testament Apocrypha. In it is an account of a certain Lycomedes who commissioned a portrait of the Apostle John, then hung it in his bedroom with a garland of flowers (§27-28). While outside the pale of orthodox Christianity, this text points to the presence of what Rev. Carpenter would call “iconography” around the time of early Christianity.

Virgin with Child – Catacomb in Rome circa 200s

Another early evidence for the veneration of saints is Rylands Papyrus 470 which has been dated circa 250 – about the same time as the Dura Europos church. On this third century papyrus was a prayer addressed to Mary asking for her aid. See my article “An Early Christian Prayer to Mary.” One possibility is that the early Christians prayed to Mary apart from images and that it was not until the sixth and seventh centuries that there emerged spontaneously among the laity the practice of facing the image of the Virgin Mary when asking for her prayers. The practice of praying to the saint depicted in an icon represents the convergence of the martyr cults with moderate aniconism.

 

 

Kissing the Torah. Source

The veneration of icons in the form of kissing icons, a common practice in Orthodoxy, points to Orthodoxy’s historic continuity with Judaism. Kissing holy objects is a widespread practice among Jews. The Virtual Jewish Library notes:

To kiss a holy object displays veneration. This symbolically represents one’s devotion to Judaism and loyalty to God.

In Judaism it is a common practice to kiss the curtain of the Ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept) and to kiss the Torah scroll before reciting the blessing over it. If so, then the kissing of icons would not really be a radical innovation but more an application of a common devotional practice unto the already accepted presence of images in churches. Here we see the process of growth within capital “T” Holy Tradition.

 

Interior of Solomon’s Temple

The Emergence of Icon Veneration

Christian aniconism had roots in continuity with Judaism. Even with the Second Commandment’s prohibition of graven images, the Old Testament was not iconoclastic as evidenced by God commanding the installation of images in the Tabernacle in Exodus and later in Solomon’s Temple (Exodus 26:31-33; 2 Chronicles 3:7, 14; 1 Kings 6:29-32). From this precedent in the Temple, the Jews would continue to make use of images in the synagogues. Moderate aniconism in early Judaism prepared the way for the active veneration of icons. See my article “Early Jewish Attitudes Toward Images.”

Leslie Brubaker in Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (2012) notes that towards the end of the seventh century the Byzantine world saw a shift to a more positive attitude towards images. Among the laity there emerged the widespread practice of asking the martyrs aid as well as the use of candle, curtains, and incense to honor these images (p. 14). The veneration of icons in the 600s followed the passing of Graeco-Roman polytheism along with its depictions of pagan deities. Up until then the veneration of Christian portraits was avoided on the basis that it might be construed as “acting pagan” (Brubaker p. 13). What was new was not the sacred portraits, but their new function in Christian devotional practice (Brubaker p. 110).

One of the earliest evidences of the active veneration of icons can be found in a story in circulation in Constantinople in the mid or late 600s. The story goes that a soldier about to go into battle stood before a portrait of Saint George and spoke to Saint George as if he were there in person. That soldier miraculously survived the battle where thousands perished (Brubaker p. 14). In 626, the city of Constantinople successfully withstood attacks from the Avars and the Persians. The success was attributed to a miraculous icon, an icon not made by human hands (Brubaker p. 15). Brubaker views the rise of the veneration of icons as a response to the general climate of anxiety at the time.

This practice of praying to icons likely stemmed from the convergence of two streams within early Christianity: moderate aniconism and the cult of the martyrs. Both streams had pre-Christian roots in Judaism. Moderate aniconism was already present in Jewish synagogues and reverence for martyrs can be found in 2 Maccabees 7 (which has been dated to circa 124 BCE). The convergence of the two devotional practices took place among the laity independently of the clergy. The convergence of religious devotional practices stirred up resistance among the rigorist aniconists which would explain the presence of rigorous aniconism in early Christianity. In other words, rigorous aniconism was a reaction, not an established position of the early Church.

 

The Iconoclastic Reaction

This active veneration of icons among the laity sparked resistance among the clergy. The first recorded use of the word “iconoclast” was in a letter dated in the 720s to rebuke a bishop who had removed religious portraits without authorization (Brubaker p. 3). In the early 700s, Constantine, bishop of Nakoleia, was censured by Germanos, Patriarch of Constantinople, for refusing to honor icons by bowing before them. Thomas, bishop of Klaudioupolis, was chided by Germanos for removing icons from his churches (Brubaker pp. 22-24). The novelty here seems to lie with the iconoclasts’ hostility to icons than to the introduction of icons. One significant aspect of the iconoclastic controversy is the absence of objections to the introduction of icons. Rather, the controversy began with people objecting to the removal of already existent icons.

Much of the iconoclastic controversy centered on the sacramental nature of relics and icons. Were the martyrs truly present in their relics and in the icons that depicted them?

The ‘real presence’ of saints offered by miracle-working relics and images not-made-by-human-hands was expanded to include portraits painted by living people . . . . (Brubaker p. 18)

The Byzantine iconoclasts in reaction to popular piety which believed in the real presence of the saints in their portraits sought to emphasize the role of the clergy as intermediaries. Brubaker points out that it is questionable—in light of the available historical evidence—that the Byzantine iconoclasts engaged in the widespread destruction of icons attributed to them (pp. 120-124).

It should also be kept in mind that the 600s were times of anxiety for the Byzantine Empire. By the mid 600s, Arabs had conquered Egypt, the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. There were fears that the end of the world was near. This atmosphere of anxiety led to attempts to purify and regulate secular and religious affairs. The Quinisext Council of 691/2 issued regulation on religious images, e.g., prohibiting the decorating of floors with the cross (Canon 73) and the requirement that Christ be depicted in human form rather than symbolically (Canon 82). Brubaker notes:

While the urge to control and regulate is symptomatic of this unease, the decision to focus on the control of images is a direct response to the power of icons . . . . (p. 17)

The development of Tradition allows for a plurality of opinions until a theological crisis precipitates the refinement of what the Church believes resulting in the formal statement of dogma. The iconoclastic controversy led to the deepening of the early Church’s understanding of the implications of Christ’s Incarnation. One example of early Christian rigorist aniconism was Clement of Alexandria who opposed images on philosophical grounds. Gaifman notes:

Central to Robin Jensen’s argument is a notable distinction between narrative images and images used and venerated in worship. The former, such as scenes from the Bible on sarcophagi, were never a target of anti-iconism, and the argument against the latter was based on classical philosophers (often Plato), for instance the aneikoniston argument of Clement of Alexandria about the impossibility of representing the invisible God in visible form mentioned in the first part of this article. [Gaifman; emphasis added.]

It would not be until the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries that early Christian theologians realized the implications of the Incarnation. John of Damascus (676-749) wrote:

When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw a likeness of His form. When He who is a pure spirit, without form or limit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing as God, takes upon Himself the form of a servant in substance and in stature, and a body of flesh, then you may draw His likeness, and show it to anyone willing to contemplate it. Depict His ineffable condescension, His virginal birth, His baptism in the Jordan, His transfiguration on Thabor, His all-powerful sufferings, His death and miracles, the proofs of His Godhead, the deeds which He worked in the flesh through divine power, His saving Cross, His Sepulchre, and resurrection, and ascent into heaven. Give to it all the endurance of engraving and colour. (John of Damascus)

The transition from the Platonism of Clement of Alexandria in the early third century to that of John of Damascus in the early eighth century illustrates the development of the Church’s understanding of the Incarnation and the ramifications it had for the use of images in churches. Indeed, given the historic Jewish influence on the early Church and the contemporary Muslim’s gnostic hostility to all images, the Church Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council had a far better comparative context—than the Calvinists—by which to assess the nature and function of icons, and also the implications of the Incarnation of Christ for the salvation of humanity and the material universe.

How one views the development of doctrine in the 600s and 700s depends on one’s church affiliation. For many Protestants, Christianity of the seventh century occurred long after Constantine’s conversion in the early 300s which makes it very late and therefore highly suspect. For Orthodox Christians, early Christianity spanned from the Apostolic Fathers of the second century to the period of the Seven Ecumenical Councils which concluded with the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843. Orthodoxy views church history as one continuing flow unlike Protestantism which views church history in terms of two broken pieces resulting from some vague and unproven “fall” of the Church.

 

Baptistry – Dura-Europos Church

Reassessing the Dura Europos Images

John Carpenter points out the somewhat curious fact that the religious images at the Dura Europos church were to be found primarily in the baptistery, not in the large hall where assemblies were held. He cites the well-respected Orthodox apologist Steven Bigham’s book Early Christian Attitudes towards Images (p. 68). Carpenter also cites Michael Peppard who wrote The world’s oldest church: Bible, art, and ritual at Dura-Europos (2016). Peppard notes that the large assembly hall which could hold some seventy-five people contained a few graffiti but no “formal paintings” (pp. 17-18). Carpenter takes this as clear cut evidence for rigorous aniconism.

However, the situation is not all that simple. It should be noted, however, that the room’s eastern wall was not preserved leaving open the possibility that that wall had images on it. This strongly warns against making the four-bare-walls argument. The simplest explanation for the apparent iconoclasm was the illegal status of early Christianity. Dura Europos was a military outpost. Peppard underscored the fact that anywhere from a quarter to half of the town’s population were associated with the military garrison (p. 21). Bigham was aware of this possibility. Soon after noting that main hall of the early church was devoid of images, he explains:

The respective situation of the two religions is clearly set out by these two buildings: Judaism was a legal, rich and ancient religion having many adherents; Christianity, on the other hand, was an illegal, poor and new religion having few adherents (p. 69).

Thus, the likely reason for the absence of images was prudence, not iconoclasm. To openly depict Christian images might invite investigation and prosecution in times of persecution. It is somewhat surprising that Rev. Carpenter cites Bigham in support of Reformed iconoclasm (see footnote no. 45), but then failed to take note of the explanation that Bigham gives for the absence of images. Either Rev. Carpenter was hasty in his research or he conveniently passed over the explanation to gain an advantage in the debate. This is not a minor failing in scholarship. This lapse in scholarship is something that John Carpenter needs to address in a future article.

Determining the meaning of the Dura Europos images is not a simple matter given that they are interpreted through the perspectives of theological beliefs. Far from viewing the Dura Europos images as mere decoration (which would support Carpenter’s Reformed iconoclasm), Peppard in his conclusion argues that the images depicted in the baptistery were charged with theological significance.

In my overall interpretation of the artistic and ritual program of the Dura-Europos baptistery, these Christians emphasized salvation as victory, empowerment, healing, refreshment, marriage, illumination, and incarnation more than participation in a ritualized death. In early eastern Christianity, and especially before a cruciform spirituality began to radiate out from Jerusalem’s pilgrimage center, salvation was more likely to be conceived through “birth mysticism” than “death mysticism.” (p. 198)

One of the thrills of scholarship is discovering new authors. John Carpenter cites Michael Peppard’s book to bolster his argument for iconoclasm. Not being acquainted with Peppard, I read his book and came across passages that weakened Carpenter’s argument. Reading Peppard led me to two other scholars, Michael Squire and Steven Shoemaker, who enriched my understanding of the complex relations between religion, art, and text in ways that supported the Orthodox approach to icons. Here, I suspect that John Carpenter in his haste read his sources superficially overlooking the destabilizing implications of their findings.

Peppard offers some startling and even unsettling insights about how the Reformed tradition understands the relations between text and image. He quotes from Michael Squire’s critique of modern western analysis of ancient art:

. . .the critical problem . . . stems from the reductive definition of the image as simply a mode of communication after the manner of words. It is a definition that descends from the theology of Reformed Christianity, with its emphasis on the invisibility of faith and its faith in invisibility. (Squire in Peppard p. 196)

Following that, Peppard makes another provocative observation of the Protestant understanding of the visual arts:

Squire places the blame for our common privileging of text over image — and both of these over ritual — squarely at the feet of the Reformation, which itself was dependent on the printing press and the concomitant logocentric revolution. He aphorizes, “One simply could not be a Protestant in the Graeco-Roman world.” (p. 196)

To sum up, John Carpenter’s aniconic argument far from bolstering Reformed iconoclasm, actually weakens it. This suggests that it is time for Reformed pastors and theologians to reassess Reformed iconoclasm.

What I found surprising in Peppard’s conclusion is his bringing in the Orthodox understanding of salvation. He quotes from the historian Stephen Shoemaker who wrote:

It is through God’s joining Godself to the Creation and to the human race that both are again made whole and restored to God. . . . Human nature is healed by the Immortal One’s condescension to unite with the human race in the Incarnation, allowing the recreation, the recapitulation, as Irenaeus calls it, of humankind. . . . Far more important — and constant — in Eastern Christian soteriology is the notion of ultimate unification with God that is made possible through the act of Incarnation, rather than any compensation due to the devil or, in the case of Anselm [centuries later], the satisfaction of a debt that God must collect through the suffering and sacrifice of the Crucifixion. (Shoemaker in Peppard p. 198)

In footnote 66 (p. 245), Peppard cites Gerasimos P. Pagoulatos who argues that the baptisms carried out in the Dura Europos church represent “the earliest known iconophile service” (in Peppard p. 245). Pagoulatos notes:

The Byzantine service of Christ the Bridegroom as it appears in the third-century sources (that is, the initiation service of the Dura-Europos Christian House Baptistery), constitutes the earliest known Christian service that employed the arts in the communication of knowledge. The third-century service of Dura-Europos Christian Baptistery lies at the origins of a tradition of inclusive epistemology (use of word and image) and anthropology (human mind, body and the senses) in the communication of knowledge that continued later in Byzantium and today’s living tradition of Hellenism. Unlike Western theory and practice (with the exceptions mentioned above), images in Byzantium and in the Orthodox Church of today are thought to reveal divine knowledge. (Pagoulatos p. xxii)

As the later analysis will indicate, Christian apologists of the first three centuries, following Plato, criticised the use of images of gods in pagan Greek religion, implying a spiritual kind of Christian worship far from pagan superstitions. Nevertheless, in pre-Constantinian Christianity one may trace evidence for a type of Christian worship that used images and material means to transmit divine knowledge to the entire human being. (Pagoulatos p. 25)

This finding must surely give apologists like John Carpenter reasons to reconsider their advocacy of Reformed iconoclasm.

 

Iconoclasm and the English Reformation

Implications for the Reformed Iconoclasm

Early Christian aniconism presents a serious challenge to Reformed iconoclasm. While rigorous aniconism can result in the exclusion of images, there is no archaeological evidence that early Christian churches were totally devoid of images. Reformed apologists like Rev. Carpenter will need to present archaeological evidence that shows that the norm among early churches were four bare walls like modern-day Reformed churches. As it stands now, the very presence of images in the Dura Europos church baptistery and the catacomb churches of Rome undermine Reformed iconoclasm. This leads to the conclusion that Reformed iconoclasm lacks historical precedent in the early Church.

One striking aspect of Pastor Carpenter’s article is his position that the Old Testament and early Jewish and Christian attitudes towards images were aniconic. This apparent openness to images marks a shift away from the Reformed tradition’s iconoclasm. Furthermore, it suggests that early Christian aniconism is more consistent with the Anglican and Lutheran traditions which allowed for images in places of worship than the Reformed tradition which formally rejects icons (Heidelberg Catechism Questions 97 and 98; Second Helvetic Confession Chapter 4; Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 51; the Westminster Larger Catechism Questions 107 and 108; and the Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 23).

I suspect that the reason why Rev. Carpenter has devoted so much attention to refuting icons is because iconoclasm is the most visible marker of Reformed worship. Thus, contemporary Orthodox apologia has given considerable attention to the defense of icons because the Reformed tradition has made such a big deal of icons. We have also done so because of the pervasive influence of Reformed iconoclasm on Protestantism in the U.S. Orthodox apologetics has devoted considerable attention to defending icons because Reformed iconoclasm has prevented many inquirers from converting to Orthodoxy. Once a Calvinist is convinced that icons have a biblical basis and are consistent with historic Christianity then the door opens to converting to Orthodoxy.

 

Roman Catacombs circa 200s

 

Static Tradition or Development of Doctrine?

While Rev. Carpenter’s recent article shows a more balanced response to Orthodox pro-icon apologia, one weakness still persists – the partisan, oversimplified understanding of Tradition. In reading the recent article one might get the false impression Orthodox tradition is fixed and static. Carpenter concludes his latest article noting:

Perhaps most revealing, Eastern Orthodox claims notwithstanding, is the absolute lack of any description of anything like iconography by anyone in the early church. As yet, I’ve found no evidence of an early Christian using icons. Hence, the supposed strong point of Eastern Orthodoxy, their raison d’être for many evangelical converts to Orthodoxy, their claim to continuity with the early church, is actually their Achilles’ heel. At least as far as icons are concerned, their claim to continuity is baseless. Their practices are, in fact, in direct contradiction to the consistent convictions and practices of the early church. (Carpenter 2018; §9)

This regrettably is a straw man fallacy. Rev. Carpenter constructed the straw man through two tactics: (1) insisting on “early” evidence of images being used in Christian worship and (2) defining “early” Christianity as the period prior to Augustine of Hippo (354-430) (Note 8; Carpenter 2018). Carpenter’s definition of early Christianity has two weaknesses. First, it is quite arbitrary. Generally speaking, church history has been broken down into the following periods: the Apostolic Age (33 to 100), the Ante-Nicene Period (100 to 313), the First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325 to 787) with the Middle Ages commencing in 800. Source. Rev. Carpenter’s approach to early church history using Augustine as a major demarcation point is eccentric to say the least. Second, his arbitrary dating excludes important evidences like the writings of John of Damascus (676-749), Theodore the Studite (769-826), and the Council of Nicea II (787). In short, John Carpenter ignores or excludes much of the evidences right in front of him in order to stack the deck in his favor.

 

The Straw Man Argument Yet Again

Thus, for all the improvements in John Carpenter’s pro-Reformed apologia, several weaknesses remain: an ahistoric, static understanding of Orthodox Tradition and a refusal to consider evidences that point to historical continuity within Orthodox Tradition. This is much like to criticisms I made in my 2013 article: “Clearing the Way for Reformed-Orthodox Dialogue on Icons.” Here I reiterate what I wrote then:

What Rev. Carpenter wrote reflects a misunderstanding among Protestants as to how Orthodox Christians understand Tradition. This belief that Orthodoxy’s claim “unbroken continuity” leaves absolutely no allowance or room for any development has been a significant impediment to Reformed-Orthodox dialogue. Steven Bigham in Early Christian Attitudes toward Images (2004) counters that false characterization noting:

Few defenders of the idea of Tradition claim that nothing has changed since the beginning of the Church, and everyone recognizes that all the changes that have taken place have not necessarily been for the good. . . . . A healthy doctrine of Holy Tradition makes a place for changes, and even corruption and restoration, throughout history while still affirming an essential continuity and purity. This concept is otherwise known as indefectibility: the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. This theoretical framework, indefectibility, takes change and evolution into account but denies that there has been or can be a rupture or corruption of Holy Tradition itself (p. 15; emphasis added).

Rev. Carpenter’s static understanding of Tradition raises all sorts of problems. By that definition then the Nicene Creed can be considered an innovative add on. Furthermore, it would imply that the term “Trinity”–which cannot be found in the Bible—can be considered a departure from Apostolic Tradition. Also, for the first several centuries the New Testament canon was an open question with some books included by some churches and other books left out by others. It was not until the Sixth Ecumenical Council formally defined the New Testament canon that the listing was formally closed. All this goes to show that there is an element of elaboration and development of doctrine and practice in early Christianity that does no violence to indefectibility or unbroken-continuity. Carpenter’s portrayal of the Orthodox understanding of Tradition as static is historically incorrect and leads him to set up a straw man argument.

 

Living Mango Tree

Shifting the Focus of Reformed-Orthodox Dialogue

While icons may represent the most visible difference between the Reformed tradition and Orthodoxy, they do not constitute the most important difference. Of greater importance to Orthodoxy claim to apostolic continuity are: (1) continuity in worship, especially the Eucharist, and (2) continuity in apostolic succession via the episcopacy. I wrote in my 2013 response to John Carpenter:

If Pastor Carpenter wishes to challenge Orthodoxy’s claim to unbroken apostolic continuity, he should marshal his arguments against two claims made by the Orthodox Church: (1) its claim to unbroken episcopal succession from the original Apostles to the present day and (2) its teaching of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. For Orthodoxy the episcopacy and the Eucharist form the core of Tradition. Icons, on the other hand, acquired dogmatic significance in the later centuries.

Fossil

Contrary to Carpenter’s depiction of Orthodox Tradition as static continuity, Orthodoxy understands Apostolic Tradition—with the capital “T”, not the lowercase “t”—not static like a fossil, but rather a dynamic continuity much like the continuity one observes in a tiny mango plant growing into a huge, fully grown, fruit-bearing mango tree. Ironically, Carpenter’s introduction of the concept of aniconism has helped me to develop a more nuanced and flexible approach to handling the apparently iconoclastic evidence in early Christianity and to trace the process by which a full-fledged theology of the sacramental nature of icons that is so characteristic of Orthodoxy. It also points to the fact that Reformed-Orthodox dialogue can be fruitful and beneficial to both sides. I look forward to Rev. Carpenter’s future articles and hope that he will give more attention to capital “T” Tradition which constitutes the heart of Orthodoxy. This, not icons, is the core difference between the Reformed tradition and Orthodoxy.

Robert Arakaki

 

References

Robert Arakaki. 2013. “Clearing the Way for Reformed-Orthodox Dialogue on Icons.” Reformed-OrthodoxBridge.
Robert Arakaki. 2013. “Early Jewish Attitudes Towards Images.” Reformed-OrthodoxBridge.
Robert Arakaki. 2015. “An Early Christian Prayer to Mary.” Reformed-OrthodoxBridge.
Steven Bigham. 2004. Early Christian Attitudes toward Images.
Leslie Brubaker. 2012. Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm. Bristol Classical Library.
Milette Gaifman’s 2017 article: “Aniconism: definitions, examples and comparative perspectives.”
Acts of John. §27 [Early Gnostic document]
Jewish Virtual Library. “Jewish Practices & Rituals: Kissing Holy Objects.”

John of Damascus.  Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images.  Fordham University.
Gerasimos P. Pagoulatos. 2009. Tracing the Bridegroom in Dura: The Bridal Initiation Service of the Dura Europos Christian Baptistery as Early Evidence of the Use of Images in Christian and Byzantine Worship.
Michael Peppard. 2016. The world’s oldest church: Bible, art, and ritual at Dura-Europos.
Stephen J. Shoemaker. 2008. Between Scripture And Tradition: The Marian Apocrypha Of Early Christianity in The Reception and Interpretation of the Bible in Late Antiquity.
Michael Squire. 2009. Image and Text in Graeco-Roman Antiquity.

 

 

Orthodoxy’s Official Response to Calvinism — The Confession of Dositheus (1673)

Cyril Lucaris

 

The Orthodox Church has made two major responses to the Protestant Reformation. The first response was to Lutheranism when the Lutheran theologians of Tübingen and Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople exchanged letters from 1573 to 1581.  The exchange ended in an impasse due to irreconcilable theological differences. See the “Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue in the Sixteenth Century.” The second response was to the Reformed tradition almost a century later in 1672 when a synod of bishops gathered in Jerusalem to respond to Cyril Lucaris’ Calvinistic 1629 Confession. The council resoundingly rejected Reformed theology and drafted a formal statement known as the Confession of Dositheus. It soon acquired the status of being Orthodoxy’s definitive stance on Reformed theology.

In this article, I will be examining the Confession of Dositheus to understand why Calvinism was rejected and the rationale for these rejections. The Jerusalem Synod made lengthy responses to three issues: (1) sola scriptura, (2) double predestination, and (3) icons and praying to the saints. In addition, it made shorter responses: (1) sola fide, (2) church government, (3) the sacraments, and (4) prayers for the dead. To assist the reader, certain parts of the quoted excerpts have been emphasized.

 

Cyril Lucaris

Cyril Lucaris (1572-1638) was born in Crete, which at the time was occupied by the Venetian Republic. His education was far ranging. He studied in Venice, Padua, Wittenberg, and Geneva, where he encountered the Reformed faith. For a brief period of time he was a professor at the Orthodox academy in Vilnus, Lithuania. He was ordained to the priesthood under the patriarchate of Alexandria. He later served as Patriarch of Alexandria from 1601 to 1620. Then from 1620 to his death in 1638, he served as Patriarch of Constantinople. Cyril’s tenure as Patriarch of Constantinople was a tumultuous one marked by his being deposed and reelected to the patriarchate several times. His unstable tenure reflects the intrigues of Turkish rule and Roman Catholicism’s efforts to extend its influence into Russia and the Ottoman Empire. In 1638, the Sultan ordered Cyril’s execution out of fear that he would stir up the Cossacks against him.

 

Cyril’s Confession

In 1629, Cyril’s Confession was published in Latin in Geneva. In the next several years, it would be translated into French, German, and English. Cyril’s Confession generated considerable controversy among the Orthodox. Between 1638 and 1691 six local councils condemned it (Ware p. 96). In 1638, a synod in Constantinople declared: “Anathema to Cyril, the wicked new iconoclast!” (Pelikan p. 285) Cyril’s embrace of Calvinism can be attributed to three factors: (1) the appeal of Reformed theology, (2) the lack of precision up till then on certain points of Orthodox theology (Pelikan p. 283), and (3) the advantage of currying the support of Protestants against Roman Catholicism.

Cyril’s Confession was controversial in other ways as well. There were some who believe that Cyril’s Confession was a forgery. It should be noted, however, that the Confession had been in circulation for about nine years prior to Cyril’s death in 1638. Furthermore, there is no evidence of Cyril having disavowed his Confession in writing. In his favor was the fact that Cyril was not deposed by a synod of bishops but by the Turkish Sultan.

A recent assessment of Cyril Lucaris can be found in Fr. Josiah Trenham’s Rock and Sand (2015). As a graduate of Westminster Seminary (Escondido, CA), Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS; Orlando, FL), and having received his doctorate under the supervision of Andrew Louth at University of Durham, England, Fr. Josiah is in a good position to assess the controversy about Cyril Lucaris’ theological leanings. He wrote:

Historians have differed on the authenticity of this confession, some affirming the authorship of Lucaris, and others noting that we have a large body of books and letters from the Patriarch in which he does not advocate Calvinist positions and is a defender of Holy Orthodoxy. There is no doubt that the Jesuits were seeking to undermine Lucaris and to brand him as a Calvinist and a betrayer to Holy Orthodoxy so that his valiant opposition to Latin intrigues would be weakened . . . . Though Patriarch Lucaris is said to have disavowed authorship of the Confession orally on several occasions, this was never done in writing.

There is some ambivalence as to Cyril’s posthumous status in Orthodoxy. The Patriarchate of Alexandria recognized him as a saint and martyr, but the other Orthodox jurisdictions have yet to accept this judgment of Cyril. I found several convoluted attempts to prove that Cyril was falsely accused of being a Protestant. In light of the absence of evidence that Cyril’s Confession was a forgery along with the absence of any evidence of Cyril disavowing the Confession, I lean towards Cyril’s 1629 Confession as a genuine evidence of Cyril’s having embraced the Reformed faith. I also find it noteworthy that two prominent scholars—Metropolitan Kallistos Ware and Yale professor Jaroslav Pelikan—assumed Cyril to be the author of the 1629 Confession. However, the main focus of this article will be the 1672 Synod’s response to Reformed theology rather than the status of Cyril Lucaris’ beliefs.

 

The Confession of Dositheus

The Jerusalem Synod was convened in 1672 to respond to the controversy generated by Cyril’s Confession. It met 108 years after Calvin’s death and not long after the Reformed tradition had drawn up two major doctrinal statements: the Canons of Dort (1619) and the Westminster Confession (1646). In other words, the Synod was addressing Calvinism at a time when it had attained mature expression. The Jerusalem Synod issued the Confession of Dositheus which explicitly condemned the teachings of John Calvin. The document took its name from Dositheus Notaras, the Patriarch of Jerusalem who presided over the Synod.

The Confession of Dositheus consists of: an opening paragraph, eighteen decrees, four questions, and an epilogue. The Confession in no uncertain terms denounced John Calvin and the Reformed tradition.

. . . but would be the Church of the malignant {Psalm 25:5} as it is obvious the church of the heretics undoubtedly is, and especially that of Calvin, who are not ashamed to learn from the Church, and then to wickedly repudiate her. (Decree 2; Leith p. 487)

Here the Orthodox synod recognized Calvin’s acquaintance with the Church Fathers then it criticized him for abandoning the patristic consensus. Even more striking is the strong language used to describe the Reformed tradition as the “church of the heretics.” Also notable is the specificity of the document’s language.  Cyril Lucaris is mentioned by name three times: in Decree 10 (Leith p. 492), Question 4 (Leith p. 515), and the Epilogue (Leith p. 516). Calvin is mentioned by name once in Decree 2 (Leith p. 487), and the Calvinists twice: in Decree 10 (Leith p. 492) and in Question 4 (Leith p. 513).

 

Sola Scriptura

Conservative Protestants and Evangelicals will be happy to find that in Decree 2, the Orthodox Church affirms the divine inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. However, they will find that the Synod repudiated the Protestant tenet of sola scriptura (the Bible alone), insisting that the Bible must be understood in light of how the Church interpreted the Bible.

We believe the Divine and Sacred Scriptures to be God-taught; and, therefore, we ought to believe the same without doubting; yet not otherwise than as the Catholic Church has interpreted and delivered the same. (Leith p. 486)

The Synod warned that without the Church’s teaching authority, the consequences will be men interpreting the Bible from their own standpoint, thereby opening the way for heresy, theological fragmentation, and denominationalism.

For if [we were to accept Scriptures] otherwise, each man holding every day a different sense concerning them, the Catholic Church [i.e., the Orthodox Church] would not by the grace of Christ continue to be the Church until this day, holding the same doctrine of faith, and always identically and steadfastly believing. But rather she would be torn into innumerable parties, and subject to heresies. (Leith p. 486)

As mentioned earlier, conservative Protestants and Evangelicals will be happy to learn that Orthodoxy affirms the infallibility of Scripture. However, they will need to wrestle with the claim that just as the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible, so likewise He inspired the Church. The concluding sentence of Decree 2 affirms that both the Bible and the Orthodox Church are infallible.

. . . it is impossible for her [the Church] to in any wise err, or to at all deceive, or be deceived; but like the Divine Scriptures, is infallible, and has perpetual authority.

Unlike Roman Catholicism which situates infallibility within the papacy, Orthodoxy understands infallibility to be the result of the Holy Spirit guiding the entire Orthodox Church into truth (see John 16:13). The magisterium (teaching authority) of the Orthodox Church is framed by Holy Tradition, e.g., the Nicene Creed, the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Divine Liturgy, the Church Fathers, etc. Decree 12 explains in greater detail how the Holy Spirit through the Church Fathers keeps the Orthodox Church free from error. (Leith p. 496)

The Synod encouraged all Orthodox Christians to hear the Bible, a reference to the Scripture reading during the Liturgy. However in Question 1, it discouraged private reading of Scripture unless one had been properly trained in the interpretation and meaning of Scripture. (Leith pp. 506-507) Question 2 refutes the Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture asserting that certain parts of Scripture are difficult to understand. (Leith p. 507) In Question 3, the canonicity of the Deuterocanonical books (aka Apocrypha)—which many Protestants do not recognize–is upheld. All these point to how Orthodoxy understands and approaches Scripture differently from Protestantism. (Leith pp. 507-508)

 

Double Predestination

Reformed theology is well known for its doctrine of double predestination. We find that the Orthodox Church holds a different understanding of predestination. The opening sentence of Decree 3 affirmed that God predestines people, but explicitly rejects the doctrine of double predestination.

We believe the most good God to have from eternity predestinated unto glory those whom He has chosen, and to have consigned unto condemnation those whom He has rejected; but not so that He would justify the one, and consign and condemn the other without cause. (Decree 3)

One might wonder how Orthodoxy can affirm God’s eternal decrees while rejecting double predestination. The answer is that unlike Calvinism which teaches unconditional election, Orthodoxy believes that humanity retained the capacity for free will after the Fall and that God in his omniscience foreknew how each person would exercise their free will.

But since He foreknew the one would make a right use of their free-will, and the other a wrong, He predestinated the one, or condemned the other. (Decree 3)

So [he still has] the same nature in which he was created, and the same power of his nature, that is free-will, living and operating, so that he is by nature able to choose and do what is good, and to avoid and hate what is evil. (Decree 14)

Decree 3’s statement that God would not justify or condemn “without cause”—a reference to the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election—can be understood to teach conditional election, that is, dependent on the moral choices one makes.

It is highly instructive to note how the Jerusalem Synod understood human free will to be the basis for the doctrine of synergy (human cooperation with divine grace). Furthermore, synergy is at work in all people with two different outcomes: salvation or condemnation.

And we understand the use of free-will thus, that the Divine and illuminating grace, and which we call preventing [or, prevenient] grace, being, as a light to those in darkness, by the Divine goodness imparted to all, to those that are willing to obey this — for it is of use only to the willing, not to the unwilling — and co-operate with it, in what it requires as necessary to salvation, there is consequently granted particular grace. This grace co-operates with us, and enables us, and makes us to persevere in the love of God, that is to say, in performing those good things that God would have us to do, and which His preventing grace admonishes us that we should do, justifies us, and makes us predestinated. But those who will not obey, and co-operate with grace; and, therefore, will not observe those things that God would have us perform, and that abuse in the service of Satan the free-will, which they have received of God to perform voluntarily what is good, are consigned to eternal condemnation. (Decree 3)

The Orthodox understanding is that even after the Fall man retains free will and that God bestows prevenient grace on all peoples: “by the Divine goodness imparted to all.”  Furthermore, it understands that prevenient grace “co-operates with us” pointing to the synergistic understanding of salvation in Christ. The application of the doctrine of synergy to the saved and the unsaved can be seen in the two parallel phrases “those that are willing to obey” and “those who will not obey, and co-operate with grace.” Thus, all humanity have received in some measure God’s grace, and have chosen either to respond positively to God’s grace or refuse it.

Decree 3’s affirmation of free will challenges one of the foundational premises of Reformed soteriology: monergism, the teaching that God is the sole source and determiner of our salvation. That is, if we are saved, it is because God so chose to save us, and if we are damned, it is because God in his inscrutable wisdom has chosen this fate for us. There is no room for free will or synergism in the monergistic paradigm of salvation found in Reformed theology.

Reading further into Decree 3, we find the tone of outrage and dismay by the fathers of the Jerusalem Synod at the heartless cruelty implicit in the Reformed doctrine of double predestination. In no uncertain terms, they condemned this teaching as impious and blasphemous.

But then to affirm that the Divine Will is thus solely and without cause the author of their condemnation, what greater defamation can be fixed upon God? and what greater injury and blasphemy can be offered to the Most High?

But of eternal punishment, of cruelty, of pitilessness, and of inhumanity, we never, never say God is the author, who tells us that there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents.

 

Sola Fide

In Decree 13, the Confession of Dositheus rejects the core Protestant doctrine sola fide (justification by faith alone):

We believe a man to be not simply justified through faith alone, but through faith which works through love, that is to say, through faith and works. (Leith p. 496)

They explained that good works is a manifestation or fruit of faith, something quite different from the medieval Roman Catholic understanding of good works as meritorious.

But we regard works not as witnesses certifying our calling, but as being fruits in themselves, through which faith becomes efficacious, and as in themselves meriting, through the Divine promises {cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10} that each of the Faithful may receive what is done through his own body, whether it be good or bad.

The Jerusalem Synod’s brief response to sola fide here most likely reflects the Lutherans giving greater emphasis on sola fide than the Calvinists.

 

Icons and the Veneration of the Saints

In Question 4, the Jerusalem Synod made a lengthy rebuttal to Reformed iconoclasm. (Leith pp. 508-516). In response to the Calvinists citing the Second Commandment as grounds for the rejection of images, the Jerusalem Synod noted that the Second Commandment was later followed by God instructing Moses to make representations of the cherubim, oxen, and lions that were to be placed in the Temple. By placing the Second Commandment in the broader context, the Jerusalem synod did something Calvinists then and even today fail to do.

Therefore, when we contemplate God Himself saying at one time, “You shall not make for yourself any idol, or likeness; neither shall you adore them, nor serve them;” {Exodus 20:4,5; Deuteronomy 5:8,9} and at another, commanding that Cherubim should be made; {Exodus 25:18} and further, that oxen and lions {1 Kings 7:29} were placed in the Temple, we do not rashly consider the seriousness of these things. For faith is not in assurance; but, as has been said, considering the occasion and other circumstances we arrive at the right interpretation of the same; and we conclude that, “You shall not make for yourself any idol, or likeness,” is the same as saying, “You shall not adore strange Gods,” {Exodus 20:4} or rather, “You shall not commit idolatry.” (Leith p. 510)

The Synod concluded that the Second Commandment is best understood, not as condemning visual representations in places of worship, but rather the worship of false gods.

The Jerusalem Synod defended the veneration of icons by noting that it was an ancient practice going back to the time of the Apostles and that it has been affirmed by the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea 787).

And as to the Saints whom they [the Calvinists] bring forward as saying that it is not lawful to adore Icons, we conclude that they [icons] rather help us since they in their sharp disputations inveighed both against those that adore the holy Icons with latria [Gk: adoration], as well as against those that bring the icons of their deceased relatives into the Church. They [the Calvinists] subjected to anathema those that so that, but not against the right adoration, either of the Saints, or of the holy Icons, or of the precious Cross, or of the other things that have been mentioned, especially since the holy Icons have been in the Church, and have been adored by the Faithful even from the times of the Apostles. This is recorded and proclaimed by very many with whom and after whom the Seventh Holy Ecumenical Synod puts to shame all heretical impudence. (Leith p. 510)

Related to the veneration of icons is the veneration of saints.

Since the Saints are and are acknowledged to be intercessors by the Catholic Church, as has been said in the Eighth Decree, it is time to say that we honor them as friends of God, and as praying for us to the God of all.

The Orthodox understanding of Christ’s resurrection strongly influenced its understanding that some kind of fellowship exists between the Church Militant on earth and the Church Triumphant in heaven, and that the saints are present before the throne of God. This contrasts sharply with the general practice of Calvinists and other Protestants of barely giving attention to the dead after their burial.

 

Other Differences

The Reformed tradition favored the presbyterian polity, a form of church government typified by the rule of assemblies of presbyters (elders). This is contrary to historic episcopacy in which the bishop’s authority rested in his being part of the chain of apostolic succession. For this reason the Jerusalem Synod felt obliged to defend the historic episcopacy (Decree 10).

Decrees 15 to 17 cover the sacraments in general, and baptism and the Eucharist in particular. The Jerusalem synod affirmed the necessity of infant baptism and rejected the notion of rebaptism. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is affirmed. What is interesting to note is that Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation is rejected and the real presence defined in terms very much like the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantation. This resemblance can be seen in the use of Aristotelian categories of substance and accidents. (Decree 17, Leith p. 503; see also Ware p. 97) The Confession stressed that the real presence is not something that can be explained. (Leith p. 504) It goes on to insist that the only valid Eucharist are those celebrated by an Orthodox priest authorized by a canonical Orthodox bishop. (Leith p. 505)

With respect to the afterlife, the Jerusalem Synod taught that upon death the soul departs either to joy or sorrow and that this is a temporary state until the resurrection, when the soul shall be reunited with the body (Decree 18; Leith p. 505). It also affirmed the efficacy of praying for the dead – a practice most Protestants avoid.

 

Summary and Conclusion

Whether or not Cyril Lucaris was in fact a Calvinist, the Confession of Dositheus makes it clear in no uncertain terms that it rejected Reformed theology. It repudiated the heart of Reformed soteriology through its rejection of double predestination, unconditional election, and by its affirmation of human free will after the Fall along with the synergistic understanding of salvation (Decree 3). Furthermore, it rejected other core Protestant doctrines: sola fide (Decree 13), sola scriptura (Decree 2). With respect to worship practices, Reformed iconoclasm is rejected (Question 4).

In light of its universal reception by Orthodoxy, the Confession of Dositheus can be considered the definitive dogmatic response by the Orthodox Church to Reformed theology. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Church noted:

While the doctrinal decisions of general councils are infallible, those of a local council or an individual bishop are always liable to error; but if such decisions are accepted by the rest of the Church, then they come to acquire Ecumenical authority (i.e. a universal authority similar to that possessed by the doctrinal statements of an Ecumenical Council). (pp. 202-203)

Thus, the Confession of Dositheus represents Orthodoxy’s official and definitive response to Calvinism. The Jerusalem Council’s rejection of so many of Protestantism’s core doctrines (sola fide and sola scriptura), as well as the Reformed tradition’s distinctive soteriology and ecclesiology, means that irreconcilable differences exist between the two traditions. So while the two traditions may share common ground with respect to the Trinity and Christology, they are far apart on so many other doctrines.

Cyril Lucaris’ pro-Reformed sympathies in the 1629 Confession had a positive influence on Orthodoxy. It forced the Orthodox Church to grapple with many of its implicitly held beliefs leading it to restate them with greater clarity and precision. Jaroslav Pelikan notes:

When Cyril Lucaris composed his Eastern Confession of the Christian Faith, he strove to adhere to official orthodoxy on the two basic dogmas and to use the official silence of the church on other questions as a warrant to graft Protestantism onto his Eastern Orthodoxy. The outcome of the controversy over his confession showed that the East in fact believed and taught much more than it confessed, but it was forced to make its teachings confessionally explicit in response to the challenge. (p. 283)

Thus, the Confession of Dositheus is immensely helpful for people who wish to compare and contrast Orthodoxy against Calvinism (the Reformed tradition). It is also very useful for Orthodox Christians who wish to defend their religion against their Reformed critics.

Robert Arakaki

 

Primary Sources

Confession of Cyril Lucaris” (1629) at The Voice by Christian Research Institute. David Brachter, ed.
The Confession of Dositheus (Eastern Orthodox, 1672)” at The Voice by Christian Research Institute. David Brachter, ed.
Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue in the Sixteenth Century

Secondary Sources

Anthony J. Khokhar. “The ‘Calvinist Patriarch’ Cyril Lucaris and his Bible translations.”
John H. Leith, ed. Creeds of the Churches. “The Confession of Dositheus (1673),” pp. 485-517.
Jaroslav Pelikan. The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700). The Christian Tradition Volume 2.
Josiah Trenham.  Rock and Sand.
Timothy (Kallistos) Ware. The Orthodox Church.

 

 

Vampires and Iconoclasm

The Gospel for Vampires

Protestants often have a hard time understanding why Orthodoxy objects so vigorously to iconoclasm. How does having or not having pictures inside churches relate to theology?  The answer is that iconoclasm undermines belief in the Incarnation.  Iconoclasm also undermines respect for God’s physical creation.  Church history teaches us about the early heresy of Gnosticism which denied the goodness of creation and for that reason rejected Christ’s humanity.  The doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the invisible Son of God took on flesh and became man (John 1:14). In his struggle against the early heretics, the Apostle John stressed the tangible nature of Christ’s body. Christ physically entered God’s material creation so that He could be seen, heard, and touched (1 John 1:1).

If Jesus appeared in visible form, then he could be depicted in images.  However if he could not be depicted, then we have here a phenomenon much like vampires who while visible to humans, their reflection does not show in mirrors and who cannot be photographed.  They are real and at the same also unreal.  Vampire illogic is implicit in Reformed iconoclasm.  Jesus’ incarnation was real while he was here on earth, but for them the incarnation in a certain sense ceased because Christ is now in heaven and out of sight.  This gives us the sense that the Incarnation was more like a camera flash going off leaving an afterglow rather than a searchlight that continues to shine for all to see.   Thus, Reformed iconoclasm undermines the doctrine of the Incarnation even if that is not their intent.

Vampire illogic can also be found in the Reformed understanding of the real presence in the Eucharist.  Unlike their Evangelical counterparts who straightforwardly assert that the bread and wine are just symbols, the Reformed understanding is quite convoluted. They assert that there is no transformation of the bread and the wine on the communion table but that the Christians truly feed on Christ’s body and blood in heaven in the Lord’s Supper.  They deny the reality of the real presence, even as they profess to hold to this ancient Christian belief.  Logically speaking, they are neither here nor there.  [See my article “Platonic Dualism in the Reformed Understanding of the Real Presence?”]

Prior to the Protestant Reformation, Christians saw earth and its materiality embedded in the spiritual realm.  This classic worldview lays the foundation for a sacramental understanding of the cosmos.  It also reflects the biblical worldview which saw the whole earth as filled with God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3).  After the Reformation, a positivistic understanding of the cosmos emerged, which saw planet earth as inert matter subject to immutable scientific laws and separate from the spiritual realm.  Heavenly grace while real was to be accessed through an interiorized faith, usually understood as proper understanding of doctrine combined with an emotional reaction to God’s grace, not through participation in the sacraments.  Thus, implicit in Reformed iconoclasm is a secular understanding of reality.

John of Damascus (c. 675 – c. 749) grounds his defense of icons in the sacramental understanding of the cosmos.

We do not adore as gods the figures and images of the saints. For if it was the mere wood of the image that we adored as God, we should likewise adore all wood, and not, as often happens, when the form grows faint, throw the image into the fire. And again, as long as the wood remains in the form of a cross, I adore it on account of Christ who was crucified upon it. When it falls to pieces, I throw them into the fire, just as the man who receives the sealed orders of the king and embraces the seal, looks upon the dust and paper and wax as honourable in their reference to the king’s service, so we Christians, in worshipping the Cross, do not worship the wood for itself, but seeing in it the impress and seal and figure of Christ Himself, crucified through it and on it, we fall down and adore.

Behold, then, matter is honoured, and you dishonour it. What is more insignificant than goat’s hair, or colours, and are not violet and purple and scarlet colours? And the likeness of the cherubim are the work of man’s hand, and the tabernacle itself from first to last was an image. “Look,” said God to Moses, “and make it according to the pattern that was shown thee in the Mount,” (Exodus 25:40) and it was adored by the people of Israel in a circle. And, as to the cherubim, were they not in sight of the people? And did not the people look at the ark, and the lamps, and the table, the golden urn and the staff, and adore? It is not matter which I adore; it is the Lord of matter, becoming matter for my sake, taking up His abode in matter and working out my salvation through matter. For “the Word was made Flesh, and dwelt amongst us.” (John 1:14) It is evident to all that flesh is matter, and that it is created. I reverence and honour matter, and worship Him who has brought about my salvation.  [Emphasis added.]  Source

Here John of Damascus argues that as a result of the Incarnation, God now imparts grace to us through matter, that is, physical stuff like water, oil, wine, bread, wood and colors.  For him there is no separation between spirit and matter; the two while quite different can work together.

Iconoclasm or the denial of the propriety of having images in church is no light matter.  Iconoclasm is heretical because it implicitly denies the tangibility and visibility of Christ’s Incarnation.  Iconoclasm is schismatic and sectarian because it entails the rejection of the Church Catholic represented by the Ecumenical Councils.  Iconoclasm is not the Protestant position given the fact that Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists are accepting of images in churches.  Iconoclasm represents only a particular sector of Protestantism, which makes it sectarian.  It is schismatic because it entails a rejection of the historic Christian practice of having images in places of worship.  To be an iconoclast is to divorce one’s self from the historic Church.

Beware the Iconoclast!

In keeping with the sentiment of the popular, American-cultural holiday known as Halloween we say: Beware the iconoclast!

 

Icon – St. Sisoes at the Tomb of Alexander the Great

The Gospel for Vampires

The vampire myth fascinates and draws many people to it with good reason – it speaks powerful truths about the human condition.  In our fallen nature, we have become like vampires.  We shun the light, preferring the darkness instead.  We have become unreal, lacking substance.  Lacking vitality in ourselves, we latch on to others drawing vital energies out of them in order to sustain ourselves.

The blood of Christ – our true drink.

The vampire myth should be viewed as a pre-Christian myth that finds fulfillment in the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Missiologist Don Richardson wrote about redemptive analogies.  He explained that within a culture there is usually some practice or concept that can be used to communicate the Gospel.  In the vampire myth, it is the wooden stake driven into the heart of the vampire while he is sleeping in the coffin that destroys the evil vampire.  The vampire’s lust for blood is a type of our hunger for the Eucharist in which we partake of Christ’s body and blood, the true food and drink (John 6:55).  The destruction of the vampire is completed by leaving the corpse exposed to the sunlight (cf. Ephesians 5:8-14).  The wooden stake is a type of the Cross of Christ.  The vampire lying in the coffin is a type of the human soul dead in its sins and awaiting the coming of the light of the everlasting Day (Ephesians 2:1-5). However unlike the myth, in the Christian Gospel the dead soul is born anew and emerges from the coffin a resurrected human being capable of experiencing the joy of eternal life.

Sin makes us unreal.  Athanasius the Great in On the Incarnation wrote about our slide into unreality due to sin:

Man who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone.  . . . .  It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil . . . . (§6)  [Emphasis added.]  Source

C.S. Lewis depicted this spiritual insight in The Great Divorce in which disembodied ghosts also end up in heaven.  It is a beautiful place that is so real that the ghosts find it immensely painful to walk on the grass and each leaf is far too heavy for any of the ghosts to lift up.  The way out of this dilemma is for the ghosts to repent, turn to the light, and then to proceed onward and upwards to where they will become more solid and feel less discomfort.

Christ is risen from the dead! Trampling down death by death! And upon those in the tomb bestowing life!

Conversion to Christ involves our dying to sin, our renouncing the dark and entering into the Light of Christ, and our renouncing Evil and turning to God who alone is Good (Mark 10:18).  To become a Christian is to embrace the true myth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who came down from heaven, who took on flesh and became man, who suffered a horrific death on the Cross, who was laid in the tomb, and who destroyed Death through his third day Resurrection.  Unlike the popular Platonic myth that after death our spirits go to a happy place  up there called heaven, the Christian myth anticipates the return of Christ, the resurrection of our bodies, a new heaven and a new earth, and the redeemed of the Lord worshiping the Trinity in New Jerusalem.  The River of Life flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb in Revelation 22:1 is a symbolic reference to the Trinity.  The City of God mentioned in verse 2 is a symbol of the Church.  Verse 4 says: “They will see his face” – meaning that the icons of Christ are a promise that we will one day see Christ Himself face to face.

 

Venerating The Icon of Christ

In order to accept icons one cannot just reject iconoclasm. One could mentally disagree with the Reformed position and view icons appreciatively like one would in a museum setting.  I remember talking with an Episcopalian deaconess who enjoyed painting icons in the traditional Byzantine fashion but balked at the kissing of icons.  According to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, to accept icons means that we venerate icons.  Usually, this takes the form of kissing the icon as a sign of love and respect for the person depicted in the icon.  To kiss an icon is a very tangible, even carnal, act that in a very profound way manifests the reality of the Incarnation.  It is also a very concrete way of showing one’s solidarity with the early Church.  In Orthodoxy we do not just believe in the Incarnation as a theological concept; rather we participate in the reality of the Incarnation through physical actions like getting wet in baptism, being present at the Divine Liturgy, feeding on the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, being anointed with holy oil, kissing the Gospel book, and kissing the icons of Christ and the saints.  Being Orthodox is not just about being theologically correct as it is about becoming real, integrated beings through union with Christ.

Robert Arakaki

 

References

St. Athanasius.  On the Incarnation.  St. Vladimir Seminary Press.  Originally published 1944.

St. John of Damascus.  Apologia of St. John Damascene Against Those Who Decry Holy Images. Part II.  Balamand.edu.

Don Richardson.  Eternity in Their Hearts.

CS Lewis.  The Great Divorce.

Robert Arakaki.  2012.  “Platonic Dualism in the Reformed Understanding of the Real Presence?OrthodoxBridge.

Robert Arakaki.  2013.  “Christian Images Before Constantine.” OrthodoxBridge.

Robert Arakaki.  2016.  “Do We Need a Photo ID of Christ?”  OrthodoxBridge.

 

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