Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
January 6th, 2014 by Joel Watts

St. John Damascene on The Image we Draw

English: Bogorodica Trojeručica, famous icon f...

English: Bogorodica Trojeručica, famous icon from Hilandar monastery Српски / Srpski: Богородица Тројеручица, чувена икона из манастира Хиландар (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have made it a goal, not a high one, but a goal nevertheless, to read through On Holy Images the first part of this year. Whilst I have read but passages, pericopes here or there and seeing from a submerged view the greatness of St. John, I will endeavor to read all of this tract and extract from it a better understanding of the theology of praise.

In my fundamentalist days, I had heard of this reasoning, on why images were allowed by the Catholics even though the Old Testament strictly forbade idols. Knowing more now than I did then, I do not really need such a lengthy tract to determine my course on this subject; nevertheless, like a ship without a rudder, or a sail, we must investigate and invest ourselves with the Church Fathers and Doctors.

Here, I come upon St. John’s use of the creeds and councils available to him and see in here Chalcedon among others. These creeds neatly frams why we may create images of the visible-ness of God, the flesh of Jesus. We are commanded against trying to capture the invisible God (I call to mind Plato here and the difference between visible and invisible, as well as a good portion of The Epistle to the Hebrews). Yet, St. John does not seek to capture the invisible, only that point of invasion into our reality, the visible, or rather, the Incarnation.

Together with my Lord and King I worship Him clothed in the flesh, not as if it were a garment or He constituted a fourth person of the Trinity—God forbid. That flesh is divine, and endures after its assumption. Human nature was not lost in the Godhead, but just as the Word made flesh remained the Word, so flesh became the Word remaining flesh, becoming, rather, one with the Word through union (καθʼ ὑποστασιν). Therefore I venture to draw an image of the invisible God, not as invisible, but as having become visible for our sakes through flesh and blood. I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead. I paint the visible flesh of God, for it is impossible to represent a spirit (ψυχὴ), how much more God who gives breath to the spirit.1

The forbidden image was of the immeasurable, but here, St. John and other iconists, make an image of the measured. Further, St. John answers the Deuteronomic warning with the difference between latreia and other forms of praise.

You see the one thing to be aimed at is not to adore a created thing more than the Creator, nor to give the worship of latreia except to Him alone. By worship, consequently, He always understands the worship of latreia. For, again, He says: ‘Thou shalt not have strange gods other than Me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor any similitude. Thou shalt not adore them, and thou shalt not serve them, for I am the Lord thy God.’ And again, ‘Overthrow their altars, and break down their statues; burn their groves with fire, and break their idols in pieces. For thou shalt not adore a strange god.’ And a little further on: ‘Thou shalt not make to thyself gods of metal.’

You see that He forbids image-making on account of idolatry, and that it is impossible to make an image of the immeasurable, un-circumscribed, invisible God.2

The next section I want to tackle is too large to post. St. John simply notes we have the authority to draw an image of the visible because there are different forms of worship, with the highest form reserved only for God. Further, from the examples he gives, one can see from this juncture St. John’s highest worship, the adoration, must include sacrifice. This is why Abraham could worship men and angels, but could only have an altar to God.

The allowance to draw an image of Jesus, or to draw an image altogether, is due to the Incarnation. Because God has finally been made known to use, we may use aesthetics to remind ourselves of him and his grand narrative.

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  1. John Damascene, On Holy Images (trans. Mary H. Allies; London: Thomas Baker, 1898), 5–6.
  2. John Damascene, On Holy Images (trans. Mary H. Allies; London: Thomas Baker, 1898), 7.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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