The meaning of Orthodoxy’s victory against the Iconomachy

The meaning of Orthodoxy’s victory against the Iconomachy
By Heracles Rerakis, Professor of the  Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki
President of the Pan-Hellenic Union of Theologians

Against the cacodoxy of the vehement Iconomachy issue, the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787 AD) were not simply facing one heresy, but the entirety of heresies.
The iconoclasts (“image-breakers”) were of the clergy and the laity who had been influenced - chiefly in the eastern regions of the Roman Empire - by Judaism and Islam which as we know do not permit images in their worship, as well as by the heresies of Monophysitism and Manichaeism.
The Monophysites overemphasized Christ’s divine nature and rejected His human one, because they considered it impossible and impermissible to describe or depict the divine nature of Christ – in essence denying that divine nature was joined with the human nature, unchangingly, unconfused, inseparably and indivisibly .

Furthermore, by regarding everything material as evil, the Manicheans taught that Christ was not a true human and  a historical existence, but rather the phantom of a man, arguing (according to the Docetist dogma they believed in), that whoever claims that they have actually seen Christ had merely imagined that they had seen Him.

The “Iconomachy” (the battle over Icons) continued for around 100 years, between the 8th and 9th centuries, from 726 until 843 when holy Icons were reinstated, during the reign of Empress Theodora, together with the prominent theological figure of Saint Theodore the Studite.

But what were the consequences of the Iconomachy heresy? The iconoclasts (“icon breakers”), essentially doubted and denied the salvation of man by the God-Man Jesus. By refusing the depiction of Christ, they were essentially denying the Faith of the Church regarding the Mystery of the divine Incarnation.

In other words, if their heresy had prevailed and the faithful had followed their tenet that Christ was not a true God-man, then mankind could not have been saved, since the prerequisite for mankind’s salvation is considered to be precisely its faith that the Divine nature had taken on human nature in order to save it.

The denial of the divine-human nature of Christ signified denial of sanctification, of theosis (deification), and of man’s perfection through Jesus Christ.

This was the danger to salvation that the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council had foreseen – that is, the compounding of all the previous heretical perceptions whose aim was to completely overthrow and reject Christ’s salvific opus.

On the other hand, the iconoclasts with all those cacodoxies not only conflicted with the truths of Orthodoxy, but also underestimated or disrespectfully mocked the holy Fathers who supported those truths, regarding them as naive and deluded.

The Iconomachy was confronted by the 7th Ecumenical Council, where the Holy Fathers pointed out that respect for the Holy-spiritual Tradition of the Orthodox Church was very important..

In its decisions, the Council states that: “We keep, follow and uphold the traditions of the Orthodox Church, without removing or adding anything, exactly as we had received them and were taught them by the Apostles, both orally and in writing”.

One of the major doctrinal theologians who participated in the Council - Saint John of Damascus - in fact underlined that it is indeed possible to depict the God-man, the Holy Virgin Mother, the Saints and the various earthly events and happenings pertaining to the history of in-Christ salvation.

From the very beginning, Orthodox worship has been using material elements to perform its Sacraments or to symbolize spiritual goods pertinent to Christ’s salvific and revelatory opus.

For example, Christ Himself, shortly before his Passion and Crucifixion and during the Last Supper, offered bread and wine to His disciples and telling them that they were “His Body and His Blood, for the forgiveness of sins and for eternal life”, thus establishing the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist.

The use of material elements in worship and in art is logical and justified, given that through them is achieved a deeper delving into the Mystery of the Divine Incarnation, thus rendering spiritual messages more powerful and convincing – as opposed to comparisons with oral descriptions

As such, the material element plays a beneficial role, inasmuch as it contributes to the inner spiritual life being more fully and perfectly expressed.

Matter has reductive power and significance when joined to the Spirit, which is consistent with the dual nature of the God-man.

According to Saint John of Damascus it is because man has a body that he desires with his body to converse and to observe holy things.  In fact, because the mind cannot be separate from the body and on its own approach the realm of pure theory, it is natural to utilize tactile things, as symbols with reductive power.

Orthodox Christians used icons for their spiritual and worshipping needs, without any delusions and endangerment, by following the teaching of Jesus, Who taught the veneration and worship of the true God.

The veneration of images has nothing to do with idolatry, given that the faithful indeed honor, respect and venerate holy icons, but not the material that the icons are made of; they honour, respect and venerate the person portrayed on an icon, who can bestow God’s blessing, power and Grace upon the venerators, but also to the image itself. Besides, as Saint Theodore the Studite teaches, the orthodox icon is a “likeness” of an existing person, while an idol is the “likeness” of a nonexistent and imaginary person.

The restoration and reinstatement of holy icons which is celebrated on the Sunday of Orthodoxy is a determinant victory of the upright faith against the heresies and distortions that targeted or are targeting the truths of Christian living and have endangered or are endangering the faithful peoples’ course towards salvation according to the infallible way and experience of the Orthodox Church.

The reinstatement of holy Icons constitutes a triumph of Orthodoxy, as it simultaneously marks the reinstatement of the human person - which constitutes an ontological need for people throughout the ages.

Orthodoxy’s victory over the Iconoclasts’ (icon-breakers’) delusion certifies that God's plan for the psychosomatic liberation of man from the evil in the world as actualized by the God-man Redeemer, cannot be hindered by any worldly power or authority.

The difficulties that the homicidal and lying devil imposes on people through his ideological or heretical “ankyloses” are merely seen as trials by the orthodox.

However, from within the experience of the Iconomachy, we can see that it is a historical fact, which, eventually, with the divine gifts received by the struggling Orthodox, its obstacles were overcome, as Christ Himself caters to the steadfastness of the Church - having reassured us that 'The gates of Hades cannot prevail against Her' (Matthew 16:18).

Despite the demoniacal persecutions, slanders and heretical calumnies that the Church and Her Theology have suffered and continue to suffer - and are aimed at invalidating the redemptive work of Christ, the Church struggles and bears witness, through Her Saints and Martyrs, in every age, that “this is the victory that has overcome the world: our faith” (I John 5:4)..

It is for this reason that the Orthodox on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, with their icons in hand for the established ecclesiastic Litanies, rightly celebrate and confess - steadfastly, triumphantly and unwaveringly, together with the Holy Fathers: “This is faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the Fathers, this is the faith of the Orthodox, this is the faith that supported the world”.

Translation: A.N.


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