Monday, May 13, 2002

Icons, Nicea II (787) and Anglican Theological Method

For the purpose of theological reflection and discussion, I affirm the following:

By the classic Anglican theological method one could never arrive at the doctrine (including theory and use) of icons set forth by the Council of Nicea II (787). Yet by the same theological method one could arrive at and approve the dogma of the Holy Trinity and the Person of Christ of the previous (six) Councils (Nicea I, Constantinople I, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople II & III). Further, only by the theological method of the later Greek Fathers can one arrive at the precise dogma of icons as set forth at Nicea II. [The dogma of the Council of Trent of the 16th century on images is similar to but not identical with that of Nicea II.]

By the classic Anglican method I mean that used by John Jewel and Richard Hooker (Scripture, reason and tradition -the Bible interpreted by sanctified reason with the help of tradition) or that used by the later Caroline divines of the 17th century and their successors (Scripture, tradition and reason - the Bible interpreted with the help of and in the context of Church tradition and by reason).

In the creation of the dogma of the Holy Trinity, the Fathers wanted only to use the language of Scripture but had in the end, in order to banish error, to use certain Greek terms in a precise way (e.g., homoousios) in order to provide an accurate summary of the testimony of the whole Bible to the identify of GOD. Likewise in the creation of the dogma of the Person of Christ. Their primary material was always Scripture and to it they returned all the time as they added sophistication to the developing doctrines. Certainly they appealed also to the practice of the church in worship and to the testimony of prominent Fathers; but, the final court of appeal was the testimony and witness of the Scriptures. And this is what after all we would expect for the Bible is all about the identity & work of God and the identify & ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

If one uses the Anglican theological method one finds oneself led to follow the Fathers and the Councils and to accept the doctrine/dogma they set forth concerning God and Christ. It is wholly in harmony with the reasonable use of Holy Scripture as received and used in the Early Church.

When one comes to the use of icons, one notices the late date of the dogma - 787 - many years after the setting forth of the dogma on the Trinity & Person of Christ. This gives occasion for pause. Further, in using the Anglican theological method one begins with Scripture and one finds - at least on a common sense reading of the New Testament - absolutely no evidence for the use of icons/images as a Christian activity. Certainly in the Old Testament one can find some kind of evidence in the nature of the Ark of the Covenant and the Cherubim over it, but one is more conscious in the OT and NT of the commandments against any kind of idolatry - no graven images of any kind - than of approval of a very limited form of symbols/images.

Therefore, reason tells one that a very major case from tradition has to be made in order to surmount this lack of Biblical evidence. And, turning to the tradition of the Church, one cannot find evidence of the use of icons in any general way in the first four or so centuries of the Church. The testimonies of the Fathers to the value of icons belong to the later rather than to the earlier Patristic period. Certainly one can accept their theological reasoning, given their premises, but this does not make the results necessary scriptural in the same sense as is the doctrine of the Trinity.

Reason then turns to look at the experience of the use of icons and images in the worship of the Church. Here the answer is mixed, for there is some evidence of usage which leads to deep devotion to the Lord Jesus and other evidence which shows clearly the peril of idolatry. And medieval Europe provided many examples of the latter.

So, on balance, the Anglican method concludes that the doctrine of icons and their use can only be a theological opinion, not a binding dogma and practice for Anglicans. It is neither forbidden nor required. But it must not be compulsory.

For the Orthodox it is possible for the doctrine of icons to be dogma because of their theological method set out in the fourth century in its beginnings by St Basil in these words from his treatise "On the Holy Spirit":

"Let us here consider what are common expressions for the Holy Spirit, both those we have gathered from Sacred Scripture and those we have received from the unwritten tradition of the Fathers."

Scripture and the testimony of the Fathers belong to one Content. It was the same Basil who composed the first patristic florilegium [collection of passages from previous authors] and began the appeal to florilegia which was important for the 3rd, 4th, 5th, & 6th Councils but which was dominant for the 7th. Councils 3,4,5 & 6 could probably have managed without the florilegia but no so the 7th! The dogma of the 7th flowed from the content of the florilegia.

So to conclude. An Anglican cannot accept the 7th Council's dogma as binding if he is true to his Anglican method and mindset. To accept the dogma of the 7th Council is to reject the Anglican mindset and method and to adopt some other mindset and method which could be Orthodox or Roman Catholic or another.

In this reflection I have not been discussing whether the Anglican mindset is right or wrong merely whether it can accept the 7th Council's teaching as binding.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon May 13th 2002

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