The following is an “abridged” version (est. 4,800 words) of the seventh ecumenical council from an open-source translation. I believe it is necessary reading for all Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians. The reason this is “must see” reading is that the council clearly teaches on so many modern “controversies” which many “scholars” assert there is no “settled teaching on.” To put it frankly, this is not true.
The council teaches on Orthodox ecclesiastical doctrines vis a vis Roman Catholic ones (such as the “doctrine of reception” for ecumenical councils), is a good resource for pro-icon writings from the fathers, contains proof that it was a common practice to use “diplomatic” language which often completely changed the meaning of letters (particularly Rome’s letters and any references to the Papacy), and we even get an interesting “proof” for the tacit acceptance of the Young Earth theory.
It is my hope that by making a post with highlights from the council of sections which are particularly informative and give insight into relevant issues, that the reader may have a better knowledge of the council’s teachings beyond the “latria-dulia distinction.”
Council opens with a prayer the God may enlighten the council
On this account we have by the good will and permission of God you His most holy Priests to meet together you who are to dispense His Testament in the unbloody sacrifice that your decision may be in accordance with the definitions of former Councils…[The] splendour of the Holy Spirit may enlighten you all for our Lord teaches, “No man lighteth a candle and putteth it under a bushel”…even so should ye make such use of the various regulations which have been piously handed down to us order (Session I, p. 5-6).
The preceding prayer is not unique to Nicea II, as other councils invoke the Spirit’s presence in the council. It is important for our purposes, because it shows that councils viewed their authority as bordering on prophetic and that the work of the Spirit was specifically at work when the Church took conciliar action (as we can see in the fifth council’s writings on the subject).
Interesting fictitious source cited
In passing one of the Bishops cites an apocryphal “council of Antioch” which alleged in its 8th canon that images of God and the saints be painted. Scholars find the canons (listed here) in the Apostolic Constitutions, a late fourth century source. It should be noted that all of these “constitutions” are earlier source material from earlier in the 4th all the way to the 1st century (in the case of the Didache.) For what it is worth, it shows that the teaching on icons already was canonical in some parts of the Church during the fourth century.
Pope Adrian’s letters differ significantly between their Greek and Latin versions
The following during Session 2 (p. 49 of the source) shows how Pope Adrian I’s letter was crafted to exaggerate Papal pretensions in Latin and downplay the same in Greek.
[Pope Adrian said in his Greek letter:] …orthodox faith of those chief Apostles saints Peter and Paul…
[Latin letter:]…orthodox faith of saint Peter…
[Greek letter:]And let your divinely received power give all honour to the most holy Roman Church of these chief Apostles [Peter and Paul] to whom power has been granted by God the Word Himself to loose and to bind sins in heaven and on earth for they will become the guardians of your kingdom and will subdue all the barbarian nations under your feet and wherever ye go they will make you victorious. Now these same holy and chief Apostles who laid the foundation of the Catholic and Orthodox faith have left a written law that all who ever should succeed to their thrones should maintain the same faith and should continue in it even unto the end and thus it is that our Church maintains and honours holy images.
[Latin letter:]For the proofs of his dignity are found in the sacred authors and in that unbounded veneration paid to him by all the faithful everywhere throughout the world for the Lord hath made him [Peter] who is keeper of the keys of heaven Prince over all and this privilege was conferred upon him by the same Divine Person by whom the keys of the kingdom of heaven were granted for He that was endued with such singular honour had before been honoured to make that confession of faith on which the Church of Christ is founded. A blessedness of reward followed this blessed confession by preaching of which the holy Catholic Church has been enlightened and from which other Churches have taken the documents of their faith, for the blessed Peter Prince of the Apostles who first presided in the Apostolic See bequeathed the Principality of the Apostleship and the pastoral care to his successors who throughout all ages should sit in his most holy chair to whom he left the power of authority for just as it was bestowed on him by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ so in the same way did he hand it down by divine command to the Pontiffs his successors by whose tradition it is that we venerate the holy images of Christ.
Why the huge differences? It shows that the council fathers would have not accepted Papal claims and that the Papal Legates knew that while the Pope asserted these things in Rome, the world did not accept them. The same can be seen in earlier episodes in Church history, such as when the world rejected Pope Victor I’s excommunication of the Ephesian church and Pope Stephen I’s excommunication of Cyprian over rebaptism.
Interesting interpretive gloss found in a citation of Heb 11:21
One of the most important Scriptures during the controversy during icons is Heb 11:21–
By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, on the top of his staff (Heb 11:21).
It appears that some early renderings of the passage lacked the word “on” (which does appear in the Bibhub Greek as well as whatever Greek Saint John Chrysostom had and Gen 47:31 of the Septuagint). For example, the Vulgate renders the passage as, “By faith Jacob, dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph and adored the top of his rod.” This concurred with the Old Latin (see p. 99 of this source).
Being that Greek fathers took pains to differentiate how Jacob was venerating either Joseph or God, it appears that even with the word “on” it seemed to them the staff, itself, was being venerated. As the iconoclasm controversy waged on, this verse was seized upon by Saint John of Damascus and the fathers of Nicea II (Ibid, p. 101).
All of this offers us the context behind a corruption of Heb 11:21 that was introduced in some manuscript quoted by Pope Adrian I. On page 57 of our source Heb 11:21 is quoted with an interesting gloss treated as if it were part of the verse:
Again the same “Jacob worshipped the top of his staff” which he did by the faith of love concerning which St Paul speaks in his [Epistle] to the Hebrews, “Now it was not the staff, but its possessor which he worshipped thereby giving proof of his affection” (Heb 11:21).
Now, it is possible that the gloss is Pope Agatho’s own. It is ironic, in the mind of even the hostile Anglican translator quoted here, the gloss as belonged to some manuscript of Hebrews. This shows that some earlier interpreter, concerned by the literal meaning of the Latin translation, offered a gloss which unintentionally elaborated upon the dulia-latria distinction. How old this gloss is, we do not know, for I have not been able to locate it in an earlier manuscript. It is either “recent” or found in an Old Latin variant, as it is not in the Vulgate.
Pope Adrian cites early fathers’ awareness of how “icons are a window into heaven”
Moreover Gregory Bishop of Nyssa thus speaks in his discourse concerning Abraham: “I have often seen the representation of trial but never could pass by the work of art which brought this history before my eyes without tears.” And again in his commentary on the Song of Songs he speaks quite in accordance with the doctrine: “The material which forms the likeness of the living is various colours and yet he who looks on the image which by painter’s art fill the canvass does not regard the variety of the colours but rather by them is led to the contemplation of the Prototype” (p. 61).
The blessed Ambrose to the Emperor Gratian: “When we worship His Deity and His flesh do we divide Christ, or when we adore in Him both the image of God and His cross do we divide Him? God forbid” (p. 63-64).
[Saint Basil the Great’s Letter to Julian, identified as “letter 205:”] I acknowledge moreover the holy Apostles Prophets and Martyrs who make intercession with God and these I invoke that by their mediation God the Lover of mankind may be gracious to me and may grant to me remission of my sins. Wherefore, I honour and openly worship [i.e. venerate] their figures as presented by their images for these have been handed down to us by the Apostles and must not be forbidden. Moreover we set up their pictures in all our churches (p. 62)
The translator of the council minutes alleged that Saint Basil would have never written such a thing, asserting that Basil would have not written to a Roman Emperor. This is doubtful, as he had several letters between himself and Julian. Further, in one of his undoubted treatises, he invokes similar theology to that found in “letter 205:”
For the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son; since such as is the latter, such is the former, and such as is the former, such is the latter; and herein is the Unity. So that according to the distinction of Persons, both are one and one, and according to the community of Nature, one. How, then, if one and one, are there not two Gods? Because we speak of a king, and of the king’s image, and not of two kings. The majesty is not cloven in two, nor the glory divided. The sovereignty and authority over us is one, and so the doxology ascribed by us is not plural but one; because the honour paid to the image passes on to the prototype. Now what in the one case the image is by reason of imitation, that in the other case the Son is by nature; and as in works of art the likeness is dependent on the form, so in the case of the divine and uncompounded nature the union consists in the communion of the Godhead (Basil, On the Holy Spirit, Par 45).
Granted, Saint Basil’s point was not specifically that honor given to an image of Christ passes on to the prototype, but that honor given to the Word of God passes onto the Father. Nonetheless, being that he is aware that honor given to literal images works in the exact same way and that in his letter with Julian we see the exact same idea invoked, it appears to me a genuine part of Saint Basil’s thought.
Later in the council, a letter of Saint John Chrysostom on an image of Saint Meletius (a recent saint) defended its veneration:
…for being constantly forced to have his name in memory and the Saint himself ever before your mind that name was found as a refuge from every unlawful passion and evil thought and to such a degree did this feeling prevail that everywhere in high roads in the market in the fields in by paths his name might be heard to resound for was it only for his name that ye had this regard but also to the form of his person and that which ye had before done in respect of his name ye afterwards did in respect of his image. For very many had that sacred image depicted on rings on cups on bowls on the walls of their chambers and everywhere else so that not only might ye hear everywhere his holy name, but also see everywhere the image of his body and thus ye had a two fold source of consolation for his departure (p. 130).
Later in the council we see another “pro-icon” passage from John Chrysostom. The significance of the following passage is that it states that the image was “delighted in” for piety’s sake. While this may be for of an aesthetic nature, it lends credibility that pious meditation (which is not quite veneration) was considered by the council on the “veneration spectrum” per se:
John Chrysostom also in his discourse entitled, ‘That there is one Lawgiver of the Old and the New Testaments and On the Garment of the Priest,’ which begins ‘The Prophets also proclaim the Gospel of the kingdom of Christ after other things continues I have delighted in the picture drawn in wax for the sake of its piety, for I saw in a picture an Angel dispersing the troops of the Barbarians. I saw also the tribes of the Barbarians trodden under foot and the words of David verified, ‘Lord in thy city thou shalt bring their images to nought’ (p. 387).
Also, later in the council, we have other passages that reveal in the fourth century icons were common place. First, let’s cite an anti-icon passage quoted by the council:
[The council of Hiera was quoted as saying:] To the same purpose speaks Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium, ‘We need not to be anxious about portraying the carnal images of the Saints by colours on tablets, for we need not such things as these, but rather to imitate their good deeds by our virtues (p. 388).
The interesting thing about the preceding passage is that it does not consider icons idolatry, but wasteful. This is akin to Saint Ambrose opposing Saint Monica’s excesses in her veneration of the saints.
A pro-icon passage follows:
Gregory the Divine, in his sermon ‘On the Birth of Christ’ speaks thus: ‘Honour Bethlehem, worship [i.e. “venerate,” this is a 1850s translation into English] the manger, for the things which offered to God are holy by the presence and participation of us all, divine Scripture declares, and the honour of holiness cannot preserved to that which is sacred otherwise than by our relative worship [i.e. veneration]’ (p. 393).
It appears irrefutable that the veneration of icons was a developed and widely acknowledged practice throughout Christendom by the fourth century. Being that we have pre-Nicene images, on what consistent basis would we have to say that Christian practices regarding these images would be any different? If icon veneration is a fourth century innovation, then how about the Bibilical Canon or Trinitarian doctrine, which were likewise first clearly elucidated in modern terms during the same century?
Council was asked if they gave consent to Adrian’s letter
Peter and the aforesaid Legates said: “Let this holy Council declare to us if they consent to the letters the most holy Pope of Old Rome or not.” The Holy Council replied, “We follow, we receive, we hail them with joy” (p. 78).
Patriarchates other than Rome identified as “Apostolic Sees”
“…concordant orthodoxy of the three Apostolic Sees…” (p. 101)
“…ye be minded to assemble and hold a Council that no umbrage should be taken from the absence of the Patriarchs of the three Apostolic Sees of the East and the most holy Bishops subject to them… (p. 102)
It should also be noted that p. 300 the whole Church is called “our Mother.”
The criteria of what makes a council “ecumenical.” In the sentence of the council, we get a canonical definition of what makes a council ecumenical. It is given in a section which denounces the former iconoclast council for the following reasons: the Pope never accepted it, the Patriarchates of the east never accepted it (other than Constantinople), and the “ends of the world” did not accept it (i.e. general reception). We can see that a council is not make “ecumenical” simply by the magic of Bishops, but the “consent thereto of…doctors or high priests” and evidenced by its dissemination “into all lands” (presumably to all the laity there, like the Apostles’ preaching):
Again how could that be Great or Ecumenic which the Presidents of other Churches have never received or assented to but which on contrary they have anathematized it, had not as its fellow the then Pope of Rome or his conclave [i.e. was not “ratified by the Pope” as we coin it now], neither was it authorized by his Legate, nor by Encyclic Epistle from him as the custom is for Councils. Neither do we find that the Patriarchs of the East, Antioch, Alexandria, and the holy City [Jerusalem] did at all consent thereto any of their great doctors or high priests…neither did their voice go forth into all lands as did that of the Apostles, nor their words unto the ends of the world as did those of those six holy Ecumcnic Councils (p. 306-307).
Elsewhere in the sentence, reception is mentioned in passing:
These two holy Ecumenic Councils the impious Nestorius and his heretical partizans received, and like him their own tumultuary conventicle has while admitting former Councils introduced a new heresy from which its partizans have received the name of ‘Christianity detractors’ from the holy Catholic Church of God (p. 330).
As we can see, “reception” was not a technical term, as it is used both for the rightful reception of ecumenical councils and also the general acceptance of a council even by Nestorian heretics. We see reception cited again concerning a council a little later:
Eutyches, Dioscorus and the other…[heretics]…received this Council but still they have been accounted [as heretics], because they introduced another heresy and therefore these also shall be numbered together with them because of the newfangled innovations which they have brought into the Catholic Church (p. 331).
Lastly, the council speaks of itself during the Seventh Session (Sentence of Council) in such a fashion, asserting that “common vote” determines “the divine tradition:”
Constantine and Irene our most faithful Sovereigns summoned us together from every quarter the chiefs of the Christian priesthood in order that the divine tradition of the Catholic Church might be established by our common vote, we therefore having with all exactness made the most careful and diligent inquiry and having followed truth as our great aim neither taking away anything nor adding anything, have endeavoured in all things to preserve all that belongs to the Church complete and entire (p. 437).
What is interesting about this passage is that it asserts that both inquiry and consensus establish ecumencity (which is consistent with reception.) There is nary a mention in the sentence of the council, or anywhere for that matter, of Papal Ratification in isolation–which shows that the Pope’s participation was viewed as that of a “first among equals,” not a special party with prerogatives over and above the council.
Also worth mentioning is that the council did not believe that reception, popular vote, or anything else worked some sort of “magic.” Rather, they viewed them as validation that the Holy Spirit inspired their discernment into the matter and that this work of the Spirit is what qualified the council as ecumenical. We see this asserted in two very important letters coming from the council:
1. Letter from the Council to the Empress Irene and Her Son:
Wherefore, having followed the traditions of the Apostles and Fathers or as I may venture to say being by similar inspiration of the Spirit made of the same mind with them and being quite in agreement with each other having with us the concordant tradition of the holy Church, we have declared our consent to the recorded decisions of the six General Councils and we anathematize the madness of Arius, the frenzy of Macedonius, the absurd of Apollinarius, the man worship of Nestorius, the confusing insanity of Eutyches and Dioscorus, and the many headed hydra which followed them the trifling confabulations of Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius and with these the one will or rather the bad will of Sergius, Honorius, Cyrus, Pyrrhus, and their partisans and the innovation quite on a par with the rest which after these have been vainly absurdly set forth against holy and venerable images this since day we with one voice and soul taking our words from the and from that source having drawn pure water (p. 445).
2. Letter to Pope Hadrian I from the Council:
[W]herefore with former heresies the error of this new pravity of the Christianity slanderers raged against holy images, He has subverted with the word of grace and slain with the sword of the Spirit…All this has been brought about even as it pleased Christ our God who is over all by means of our orthodox and most courageous Sovereigns (p. 468).
As we can see, the council ascribes infallibility to themselves and does not seek the Pope’s seal of approval to make this any more or less true. They essentially present the council to the Pope as a fait accompli.
Condemnations of Pope Honorius. One is mentioned in passing within the context of him receiving councils:
These holy Ecumenic Councils and those which preceded Sergius of Constantinople, Cyrus of Alexandria, Honorius of Rome, and their Monothelite party received, but nevertheless they have been anathematised as heretics by the Catholic Church as having brawled out vain things in the Church by their heresy so these men though they receive these same holy Synods yet on account of their peculiar heresy have they been cast out of the Church (p. 332).
Another condemnation of Pope Honorius is mentioned later on:
In like manner also in the times of the pious Emperor Constantine, a Council of one hundred and seventy holy fathers was assembled in this royal city which anathematised and denounced…Honorius of Rome…for having taught there was but one will and operation in the two natures of our Jesus Christ (p. 332-333).
“Young Earth Theory” implicit in the council. A council father, Epiphanius, states the following durin the sixth session, which serves as the introduction to the council’s sentence as it is an official response to the iconoclast Council of Hiera:
In the year of the world five thousand five hundred and one, Christ our God having come amongst men and having dwelt amongst them for thirty three years and five months and having accomplished the great and saving mystery our redemption went back again to heaven ascending thither whence He had descended, having given charge to His Apostles to teach all things which were appointed them to teach (p. 315-316).
An extra bonus in the preceding is that an exact age for Jesus Christ before his death is given. Ironically, unless Pascha was in late May, the age of 33 years and five months would push Jesus’ birth before Christmas. As a side note, in the preconciliar documents we see the following which states the year of the council in relation to the creation of the world:
The Explanatory Statement made by Tarasius the Secretary to the People on the Day in which the Sovereigns SIGNIFIED TO THE PEOPLE THAT HE SHOULD BE Patriarch who was exalted to that dignity in…the year of the world 6293 (p. xxv).
Infallibility of whole Church is asserted. Roman Catholic apologists like to seize upon any pre-schism mention of the Roman See being infallible. Ironically, they do not seize upon the following passage, which ascribes the same to the Church at large. This shows what the fathers meant by “infallible” was more broad, and less precise, than the modern Roman application of the term. This claim is made within the context of asserting the whole Church could not be using icons if it were heresy:
Let them listen to the Canticles singing plainly of the Church as the person of Christ: ‘Thou art all fair my beloved and there is fault with thee’ Sol Song iv 7. Behold how they hear that she all fair and that she is beloved of Christ and that there is no fault in her and besides it is said by Isaiah, ‘I have engraven thy walls in my hand and thou art continually in my sight Isaiah’ xlix 7. How can she who hath received such promises become a prey from the hostile power of devils? And as according to the Apostle is the Head who can make a spoil of her hath ‘He presented unto Himself not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing?’ Ephes v 23 and can she again be defiled? What a supposition? It is evident that the denial of His dispensation is involved in such an assertion. Their aim has been to bring to nought the Church Christ wherefore the Lord shall bring them to nought and shall be set at nought and anathematised by all who are born in her but she hath ever remained undespoiled, unshaken, and immoveable (p. 327).
Sixth Session ascribes Matt 16:18 to the whole Church:
I would they have had taken into consideration the word which the Lord said to Peter, the chief of the Apostles, ‘Thou art Peter and on this rock will I build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ But having no part with the erection of this building, they bubble out things worthy of derision defining thus…[quotes Hiera’s depositions of clergy]…Having slandered the whole Church of God and not satisfied with this or as yet satiated with impiety, contrary to all law and justice, they go on to determine that no one after this shall dare to make any image whatever” (p. 406)
Defenses against assertions that iconoclasts are Christological heretics:
How does he who paints an image of Christ establish Nestorius? Nestorius brings in two sons, one the Word of the Father the other the Son of the Virgin–but true Christians confess one and the same Son to be both Christ and Lord and when they point His image in the fashion in which the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us that is as perfect man they do very right (p. 337).
It is evident therefore that in vain and to no purpose do they calumniate the Church of God at one time affirming that, because she has images of the humanity of the Lord she is like to the impious Nestorius who divided the persons, at another to Eutyches and Dioscorus the accursed Confusionists heresies, which it is manifest have been proved to be opposed to each other and both in opposition to the Church (p. 339).
A passage accusing the iconoclasts of Christological heresy (namely Theopaschism) follows a bit later:
Moreover, in addition to this apostatical heresy, the inventors of the Arian insanity taught also the one nature in the hypostatical union and set it forth that our Lord in His salvation bringing dispensation assumed risen without a soul, affirming that the Deity did supply both the volitions and movements of the soul in order that as Gregory the Divine observes they might ascribe suffering to the Godhead. Epist 1 ad Cledonium But it is evident that they who ascribe suffering to the Godhead are Theoposchites and they who had any connection with heresy could never bring themselves to admit the use of images as we see in the case of the impious Severus Peter the Fuller, Philoxenus Bishop of Hierapolis and the rest of their many headed and no headed hydra (p. 399)
The Council rejects that the Eucharist is an icon:
[N]either our Lord, nor His Apostles, nor our Fathers have ever styled the unbloody sacrifice, offered up by the priests, an image, but very body and very blood (p. 356).
We may surmise from the preceding that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a doctrine of ecumenical authority.
A passage against monarchianism:
Gregory surnamed the Theologian when setting both the one and the other aside speaks thus: ‘When I say of God, I mean the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the Godhead not being extended beyond these that we may not bring in a crowd of deities nor being defined within this number lest we should determine a poverty of deity avoiding alike the monarchy of the Jews and the polytheism of the Heathen for the evil in both is equal though found in opposing extremes’ (p. 365).
Christ’s flesh is corruptible:
In respect Christ to be after the flesh is to be exposed to the sufferings of nature such as thirst, hunger, weariness, and sleep for He did no sin neither was guile found in His mouth 1 Pet ii 22 (p. 376).
[St Cyril of Alexandria wrote:] how could He have died for this is a weakness belonging to the flesh. What he intends therefore is this the Word became flesh and died for all and in this manner we have known Him according to the flesh, but henceforth know we Him no more for though even now He be in the flesh for He rose again the third day and ascended into heaven, yet is He now to be considered as superior to the flesh for He died no more, nor does He endure any infirmity of the flesh but is above all things as being God (p. 377).
Sentence of the Council (session VII) anathematizes Origen’s “fables:”
With whom we also anathematise the fables of Origen, Evagrius, and Didymus in accordance with the fifth General Council assembled at Constantinople (p. 438).