I have read the minutes to the Council of Nicea II and the argument in favor for icons really “clicked.” I think it is helpful to view the issue through the lens of the fifth session, which condemns Docetism (among other heresies.)
In short, Docetism taught that Christ only came in appearance and not in the flesh. This means, Jesus Christ did not really die in the flesh and therefore our sins are not paid for on the cross. This heresy was condemned from the earliest times of Christian history. It was denounced by 1 John 4:2 and Ignatius’ Letter to the Smyrnaeans Chapter 7. Condemnations have persisted ever since.
Now, of course, most Protestants who are iconoclasts are not Docetists. However, their theology is inconsistent, because it it were, I assert, they would be Docetists. Pardon me for generalizing their position, as it would be impossible to frame how each sect views their own peculiar iconoclastic doctrine. So, let’s define their view of icons as one of the following:
- We cannot make any representations of divine beings.
- We cannot make any representations of God.
- We cannot make any representations of God, divine beings, and saints for reason of veneration.
The first one is the easiest to dispense with as in Exodus 25, God ordered the creation of Cherubim statues. Being that angels have actually appeared to man, forging a likeness of them is legitimate.
The second one is more difficult. Forging a likeness of the invisible God, who had never appeared, would have not been legitimate on the basis that something that never appeared cannot be depicted. I think a good objection can be made that the Angel of the Lord did appear before the incarnation, which most agree is a Christophony. Christ’s appearances were angelic (not that He is an angel but that He appeared as such, in Gen 18 where He looked no different than the other two angels). So, angels sufficed as a depiction of Him until the incarnation. With the incarnation, God must be depicted as much as any other human because to not do so denotes that, somehow, Christ’s humanity is somehow deficient. It’s arbitrary not to depict the incarnate God and it implies Docetism not to, as men can be depicted without scruple (even when such depictions are stylized).
The third position’s refutation logically follows from the second. Because we agree that not depicting Christ as a man betrays a deficient view of His humanity, we must also agree to not venerate an image of God likewise betrays a deficient view of His humanity. Why? We regularly venerate images of people all the time. People regularly kiss pictures of their loved ones, for example. So, if we cannot venerate a depiction of Christ, this begs the question, why? Was He not really man? If He was indeed man, then why cannot depictions of His humanity be treated as all other men’s? It would seem the only objections we may bring to bear are Christological heresies: His humanity is different because He is divine (monophystism), He only appeared human (Docetism), His humanity was not really divine (Nestorianism), etcetera. We can only object by invoking a Christological heresy as the basis of our reasoning.
From the preceding, the veneration of saints likewise logically follows. Are the saints not men? Did Christ not conquer death and destroy it by the resurrection? Are the saints not in heaven being divinized by God as a consequence of this? So, why cannot they be depicted as angels are?
And so, we can dispense with iconoclasm as heresy. We happily agree there are depictions we should not be making, such as those of the Father (who no man as seen but Christ has made known to us). We also agree that depictions and objects can be misused, like the bronze serpent which once healed the Israelites but then had to be destroyed when it became a snare to the people. There are also examples of images whose propriety is questionable. For example, as follows is the reliquary of Saint Foy (a local 11th century French saint):
We must also be honest with the fact that the Synod of Elvira in the fourth century banned the use of religious images, as well as Origen and Saint Clement of Alexandria writing against their use. Though the existence of these sources likewise proves what we know from archaeology, that the usage of Christian art (including its veneration) existed at the same time, it likewise shows that the rationale for their usage was not well understood. We may concede all of these things, but what we cannot concede is the Christological principle that Christ was truly incarnate as man in the flesh and therefore any practice or doctrine that detracts from this is heretical and must be identified as such.