Andrew Messmer’s “Nicea II: Some Criticisms” is an synopsis of the nuanced presentation of Nicea II provided by Father Richard Price’s published work on the subject. Due to it’s accurate summarization of the council’s contents and Price’s interpretation of the history surrounding it, I am going to use it as a means of responding to historical issues more generally. In Italics and Bold, as well as in quotations, will be Messmer’s comments and as follows will be my own.
1. Seven methodological and factual errors at Nicaea II regarding the use and interpretation of historical sources.
In this section, Messmer emphasizes that Nicea II’s legitimacy depends upon its rightful claim of upholding historically delineated church tradition. He argues, the council failed in doing this because it quoted works of nebulous authenticity, did not demonstrate the existence of iconodulia before the fourth century, the authentic writings of the fathers were quoted out of context, and it ignored the historical legitimacy of iconoclasm/aniconism. Additionally, in this section he criticizes the council for “conflating the issues of the presence of images with the practice of icon veneration” and “assuming that the lack of” condemnation for iconodulia in the previous councils as a poor argument from silence.
From the very onset, I want to make clear I am making historical observations—I am not speaking strictly as an apologist where I have to with absolute certainty defend the Orthodox case dogmatically. Indeed, this lowers my “burden of proof” to what is referred to legally as “a preponderance of evidence.” In other words, I need to demonstrate my case is more historically probable—this is a lower burden than the near-consensus demanded for Orthodox dogmas according the Vincentian canon of antiquity, universality, and consent. (Commonitorium, Par 6) Nevertheless, due to my opposition not accepting the Vincentian canon, it makes no sense that I would be demanded to bear a burden of proof which is irrelevant to them. Rather, I will respond to their arguments with what I feel are better historical arguments and evidences which demand their concession.
Now, let’s deal with the varying degrees of truth in Messmer’s critiques, which I am going to deliberately address from the last to the first:
Indeed, the council marveled at the “lack” of resistance to iconodulia, both in conciliar documents and in the “legitimate” tradition of the Church. Generally speaking (as Nicea 2’s chief fault is that it was not apologetically the most precise council ever held, more on this in a bit), the council dismissed there being that much real iconoclasm. I submit to Messmer, the council is fundamentally accurate in this portrayal. Nicea 2 rightly observed that:
For it is not in some few places and those of no note that this custom hath prevailed but as we might almost say in every place and certainly in all the most flourishing and renowned. (Session 4, Mendham, p. 239)
The fathers of Nicea 2 similarly cited a canon from “the sixth council” containing reference to the right use of images (Trullo, Canon 82) and noted that the actual churches where previous councils were held contained icons. How on earth did a minority aberrant practice become dominant by the 8th century? This is similar to appeals that are made to the veneration of the saints or the Biblical canon—both of which likewise stretched geographically the entirety of early-Christendom, from the British Isles to Kerala, India. It is not the most definitive argument one can contrive, but it is a powerful one that there is no great response to. In short, how is this possible if they do not share a common origin that is Apostolic?
One may summon a conspiracy theory of “pagans in the Roman Empire converted en masse and imported with them images, saint cults, and biblical canons [sic],” but where is the historical demonstration of this? Silence. So, while Nicea 2 has more “silence” than Messmer would like, Messmer’s whole historical position is literally predicated upon silence because it cannot account for the ubiquity of religious art (and as I will posit, iconodulia) apart from undocumented speculation.
In response to this, Messmer is forced to concede that art was ubiquitous, but double down on his point that the mere “presence of images” does not demonstrate they were used for “veneration.” This is an ironic argument he employs, as it proves to be a worse argument from silence than that he accuses the council of. Indeed, he cites Saint Gregory the Great who spoke of images as mere “books of the unlearned” (and as Price points out, warned against their “adoration” which in the Latin tradition means “worship”). Saint Gregory’s observation is from around the 7th century. Surely, it would be anachronistic to impute the rationale behind how religious art was used in the 1-5th centuries based upon a witness so late, speaking to a situation far removed from the earliest art.
If we literally lacked any valid description of the purposes behind religious art, perhaps we would be forced to conclude that the little evidence that exists demands an “art for art’s sake” view of icons and not iconodulia (something I will subsequently refer to as the eighth-century “Frankish position”). This is the nature of archaeology after all. Anyone can unearth whatever artifacts from a certain era, but their significance must be spelled out to know with any certainty how or why they were used.
The truth of the matter is that we have many convincing, far earlier proofs that demonstrate the “Frankish position” was either localized in the western frontiers of Christendom and/or a later development. This is because we do have earlier archaeological and historical evidence which delineates precisely how Christian art was used.
As recorded by Bigham, at “the traditional site of the Annunciation, under the Byzantine chapel” (i.e. the location of the original church) a second or third century image of “M” (likely Mary) has an inscription which states that the image was “eukosmesa” or “adorned.” (Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images, 100-102) The adorning of images, such as their crowning, is a type of veneration that Nicea 2 approves of when it criticized the Apocryphal Acts of John’s objection to the practice. (Session 5, Mendham, Nicea 2, 269) Interestingly, while this is something the council acknowledges the “heathens” likewise do, Basil of Ancyra and then the council reject both the sentiment of John in rejecting the veneration of his own image in the story and the gnostic elements that followed that section. (Ibid., 272) The Acts of John, in criticizing iconodulia, ironically indicates both its existence in the second century and how precisely how it was used—for veneration.
Other early sources weigh in on the issue. The fourth/eighth canon of the pseudonymous “Canons of Antioch” admonishes Christians to “fashion for themselves the theandric undefiled, not made with hands, the pillar of the true God and our Saviour Jesus Christ and of his servants, as opposed to idolaters and to Jews, and are no more to go astray to idols, nor imitate the Jews.” (Stewart, “The apostolic canons of Antioch. An Origenistic exercise”, Revue d’histoire Ecclésiastique, 448-449) The previously cited article convincingly dates these canons to the third or fourth centuries. Severin Binius identified their content in the Apostolic Constitutions, which corroborates the dating of modern scholarship. Hence, Christian imagery was deliberately different than pagan idolatry. Additionally, it was to be conspicuous. Both of these are in contrast with the pagan and Jewish practice respectively. What else can this mean than the makers of the canon understood that art was not worshipped and that its absence would be an equivalent, though contrary evil? This source justifies the making of art in that it is necessary to portray the incarnate God. This significantly predates the Damascene’s later apologetics on the same topic.
Tertullian, also in the third century, criticizes the depiction of Jesus on a eucharistic chalice. (On Modesty, Chap 10) Just as Father Price recognizes that an image placed front and center in front of a worshiper demands veneration, such a conspicuous location on a chalice would be no different. Aniconists do not fail to point out the absence of images in sanctuaries as alleged proof they had no function during a liturgical service, thereby making their veneration less likely. Surely an image right on the Eucharistic chalice clearly contradicts the preceding.
By all extant accounts, iconodulia was a second to third century practice popular enough to be a subject of both criticism and canonical decrees demanding their existence. This evidence exists from western North Africa to the Near East. The Acts of John and the Grotto of Jerusalem explicitly invoke precisely how icons were treated. Tertullian’s mention of the chalice, and his cryptic discussion of how Christian “idolmakers” treated their work (“‘I make,’ says one, but I worship not,’” On Idolatry, Chap 6) are highly suggestive that the chalice itself was venerated and not explicitly worshiped, something in his rigorism he considered idolatry.
Not surprisingly, the preceding is only verified by even more explicit evidence in the fourth century. Saint Epiphanius (of iconoclasm fame) in his Letter to Theodosius notes that wherever he went he found icons. When he criticized them “only a few” would listen. In the aptly named Against Those Who, Following an Idolatrous Practice, Make Images with the Intention of Reproducing the Likeness of Christ, the Mother of God, the Angels and the Prophets, Epiphanius literally describes the rationale that those who dispute him invoke:
But you will say to me, “The fathers detested the idols of the nations, but we make images of the saints in their memory, and we prostrate ourselves in front of them in their honor.” (Par 3)
The first document from Epiphanius is of no small importance, as it is written to the emperor of the Roman Empire. It takes for granted that icons are ubiquitous. The other document by the same author lays out the their exact use. Both of these letters can be found in Bigham’s Epiphanius of Salamis, Doctor of Iconoclasm? Deconstruction of a Myth. The author begrudgingly concedes, contrary to his own Orthodox convictions that they are forgeries, that the mainstream scholarly position is in favor of their authenticity.
The preceding is cemented when combined with unambiguous discussions of religious art from other mainstream fourth century sources. Eusebius of Caesarea criticizes art which he identifies from the first century depicting the Lord as well as “likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter.” (Ecclesiastical History, Book VII, Chap 18, Par 3-4) Elsewhere he writes back to the Empress Constantia criticizing her for requesting an icon of Christ, making reference to his own confiscation images of “Paul and the Saviour.” (Letter to Constantia) The fact that a Christian empress requested an icon is additional evidence that icons were not some fringe, lower-class thing, but something that was mainstream enough to be part of high society.
Saint Methodius of Olympus, also writing in the early fourth century in his authentically ascribed Discourse on the Resurrection, refers to the existence of images and their use (“the images of our kings…are honoured by all…The images of God’s angels…we make to His honor and glory,” Part 2).
Later in the fourth century others concur and spell out an elaborate iconodule theology. Saint Basil the Great told his audience that “the painting” of the Forty Martyrs which brought the “deeds” of onlookers:
to their gaze…For not even sermons about the saints permit accommodation to the rules of economia. This is why those who applaud them take the starting-point of their applause from worldly materials. How could anything worldly provide material to make conspicuous those for whom the world is crucified? (Allen, Dehandschutter, Mayer, “Let Us Die that We May Live,” 68-69; cf Theodoret, Life of St. Symeon the Stylite, Par 11/p. 165 where images of Symeon are said to “provide thereby some protection and safety.”)
As one can see, art conveyed the literal presence of whom it depicted in some way. The honoring of a martyr’s painting was hardly original to Basil. Asterius of Amaseia, in his Ekphrasis on the Holy Martyr Euphemia, spends most of its time describing a painting. (Ibid., p. 173) Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s authentically ascribed In Praise of Blessed Theodore the Great Martyr records what one would expect walking into church, speaking of art’s veneration:
God’s temple is brightly adorned with magnificence and is embellished with decorations, pictures of animals which masons have fashioned with delicate silver figures. It exhibits images of flowers made in the likeness of the martyr’s virtues, his struggles, sufferings, the various savage actions of tyrants, assaults, that fiery furnace, the athlete’s blessed consummation and the human form of Christ presiding over all these events. They are like a book skillfully interpreting by means of colors which express the martyr’s struggles and glorify the temple with resplendent beauty… These spectacles strike the senses and delight the eye by drawing us near to [the martyr’s] tomb which we believe to be both a sanctification and blessing. If anyone takes dust from the martyr’s resting place, it is a gift and a deserving treasure. Should a person have both the good fortune and permission to touch the relics, this experience is a highly valued prize and seems like a dream both to those who were cured and whose wish was fulfilled. The body appears as if it were alive and healthy: the eyes, mouth, ears as well as the other senses are a cause for pouring out tears of reverence and emotion. In this way one implores the martyr who intercedes on our behalf and is an attendant of God for imparting those favors and blessings which people seek. (12)
Here, Saint Gregory is referring to both an icon of the Lord and that of the saint kept in front of his relics. One venerates the image and the relic according to his homily. Perhaps also not coincidentally, this homily was delivered in Amaseia. Saint John Chrysostom, preaching in another locale (Antioch), in his Homily in Praise of Saint Meletios, wrote:
that man’s image…[was] carved that holy image on finger rings and on seals and on cups and on bedroom walls and all over the place so that one didn’t just hear that holy name, but also saw the depiction of his body all over the place and had a double consolation for his loss. (43)
While the preceding does not spell out the art was venerated or contained any mystical power, the fact that Meletius’ representation was reproduced so obsessively seems to lend itself to no other explanation—especially given the view of art contemporaries have.
From the preceding, one cannot help but notice that the Frankish position is mostly absent in the earliest sources that actually describe arts’ usage and ubiquity. (Clement of Alexandria positively commands that images be added to apparel such as finger rings in place of other images, likely because the connoted spiritual power–this passage can be taken in both an iconist and aniconist sense, though Clement did want the images to be more cryptic so they would not be like idols.) Overall, it is the iconodule view which is represented from the second century onwards. It is without dispute that iconodulia was the consensus teaching of the eastern Roman Empire, where most of these sources originate from a passage from Tertullian suggests that Western Christendom was no different.
In response to the preceding, Messmer may double-down upon his preceding argument that the iconodule side underplays “the [alleged] iconoclastic tradition.” He cites both Eusebius and Epiphanius, but as shown above both of which rather demonstrate that aniconism/iconoclasm was the fringe position of the time. Messmer then continues to cite fringe figures and schismatics (“[some] monophysites,” Serenus of Marseilles [i.e. a bishop censured for destroying icons], “some Armenian priests” [i.e. a minority of miaphysite schismatics], “priests in Albania”) with perhaps the only respectable example of iconoclasm being the Council of Elvira. While Spain in the modern day has a far higher population than several Orthodox countries put together, in the fourth century this would have hardly representative of the main body of Christian believers, which not coincidentally lived in the same lands evangelized by the Apostles in the eastern Mediterranean. In other words, Elvira represents a notable exception to the rule, not a large undercurrent bucking the explicit historical evidence all pointing to ubiquitous iconodulia.
The rest of Messmer’s objections in this section are true, but minor. Nicea 2 was indeed dismissive of iconoclastic texts and did not give the most muscular repudiation possible. According to Thorne, even ardent iconodules were reticent to accept Nicea 2 on these grounds:
[L]ack of clarity in the overall proceedings of the 787 Council very likely contributed to Theodore’s long hesitation in acknowledging 787 as the legitimate Seventh Oecumenical Council. Perhaps Theodore felt that a more substantial and clear thinking Council would be convened? In any case, such a Council was not convened before the situation turned desperate by the sitting of the 815 Council and Leo’s determination to enforce yet another period of persecution. Only then did Theodore feel forced to give his full attention to the image debate, almost forty years after 787. This task required that Theodore accept the 787 Council as authoritative and I have characterized Antirr I as his affirmation of the 787 Council. (The ascending prayer to Christ: theodore Stoudite’s defence of the Christ-єikwv against ninth century iconoclasm, 129)
Nevertheless, the preceding is neither historical nor theological evidence against Nicea 2’s overall position. Rather, it only demonstrates Nicea 2 did not always articulate itself well. The preceding quibbles such as “quoting church fathers out of context,” Nicea 2’s assumption that 4th century icon veneration entailed pre-Nicene veneration, and the council’s quoting of works of dubious authenticity are all likewise true along the same lines. Nevertheless, as I have previously demonstrated, these arguments do not disprove Nicea 2.
2. Four ecumenical shortcomings of Nicaea II
Messmer then argues that Nicea 2 was not really ecumenical by four different standards which he derives from Price. The first standard is “fidelity to tradition.” Messmer then says Nicea 2 “given the errors mentioned above” fails to meet this standard. However, due to what has been shown above here, that is actually incorrect.
Messmer then appeals to the “absence of the Pentarchy” which is what Session 6 of the council demands as indicative of an actual ecumenical council. Rather uncritically, Messmer concurs with Price. However, this is likewise incorrect. The “Oriental” legates for Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch (if one cares to read Session 3, something those invoking this criticism appear not to have considered carefully) detail that their churches are being persecuted by the Caliphate and they express political loyalty to the Byzantine Empire. In other words, these legates were knowingly committing an act of treason against the Caliphate by even taking part in the council. The same document required that these legates not return after the council, likely to wait out a period of time where communication would be safe. The same document then appends a Council of Jerusalem (767) which was signed by the Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria as well—demonstrating the documented views of these synods.*
*More specifically, attached to the same synod’s encyclical sent to Rome in the same year contains these signatures. Additionally, for those curious, the reason why these sees were able to communicate in 767 easier than in 787 was specifically because the Caliphate would have encouraged a dispute between their captive patriarchates and official Constantinopolitan policy when it was iconoclast. When Constantinople recanted their iconoclasm, this opened the door for reproachment which for geopolitical reasons the Caliphate wanted to avoid. As a result, communication from these sees was deliberately stifled.
Let’s put the preceding in real simple words. Christians in the Caliphate were exposed to conditions similar as to what can be found in Saudi Arabia today. Understandably no one living was named in the document and in lieu of this, a previous conciliar statement showing the published convictions of the synods in question was attached as this demonstrated the sincerity of their meager cooperation with the council.
In any event, Theophanes writing a few decades after the council relates that a year before Nicea 2, contact was successfully made with at least the Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria and they approved the legates. (Mendham, Nicea 2, p. 100) Saint Theodore the Studite relates that while the Patriarchs allegedly did not approve, some sort of faction within their synods did. The latter recollection makes more sense given the purposeful absence of names in the letter; but Theophanes’ reporting makes sense if one infers that the legates were chosen in an underground, obscured matter to give all parties involved, especially the Patriarchs, plausible deniability. The latter makes the most sense with the letter in the third session and should be the interpretation of events, given the palpable persecution in that day.
Accusing the legates of being shysters, those espousing that Nicea 2 lacked “horizontal ecumenicity” seem to ignore that without question, the council was officially received anyway. The authentic legate of Alexandria in Constantinople 869-870 and the authentic legates of all the Oriental sees in Constantinople 879-880 had accepted Nicea 2 explicitly. Despite some irregularities in Melkite canons in Jerusalem (which have more than a few issues that complicate more than Nicea 2, as they seem to include canons from the Assyrian church while lacking Nicea 2’s), the synods of all of these jurisdictions accepted Nicea 2 within 100 years. Additionally, by all appearances, an honest attempt was made to actually take part in the council inasmuch as it was possible.
Messmer lastly appeals to the lack of Frankish reception, which is legitimate at least on the official level (as Nicea 2 requires ecumenical councils to have churchwide reception beyond the Pentarchy). Nevertheless, by the 860s the Franks have entirely dropped this opposition and signed onto the council as well. This is not surprising given that 18 years before Nicea 2, the Franks had no issue with iconodulia given the acceptance of 12 of their bishops to the Lateran Council of 769. After all, the hypocritical rejection of both Hiera and Nicea 2 were good opportunities for the Franks to oppose their geopolitical enemies in Constantinople. The “Frankish opposition” to icons appears in retrospect more political than serious.
Any arguments that decades long reception invalidates a council, yet centuries long reception for 2 Peter in the Biblical canon does not, appears to be a self-eviscerating position. Additionally, Messmer’s citing of Gratian’s canon law as the alleged origin for Nicea 2’s canons hitting the mainstream is naïve, considering that this document merely collected canons that have already been accepted for some time, including the collection of Ivo of Chartes.
Conclusion. While Messmer (and by extension, Price) say some provocative things that help one look at Nicea 2 with a more curious eye, when one applies the same level of skepticism to the critiques offered one sees the aniconist/iconoclastic position evaporate. What can be demonstrated with a positive, historical certainty is that iconodulia was the oldest, most widespread doctrine of the Church. Its authority hinges upon mainstream writers that attest to precisely how veneration was practiced and their authority is buttressed by the fact that even criticisms provide independent corroboration of this fact. Additionally, the ecumenical acceptance of Nicea 2 is beyond question.
However, I will offer one last thought of a critical nature which hopefully demonstrates my integrity on this issue. To this very day, veneration practices in western Christendom are considerably more subdued than what one would experience in an eastern or oriental church. This, to me, demonstrates some of the mixed reception in the West and perhaps Saint Gregory’s minimalistic, perhaps allegedly “Frankish,” approach to icons. The West, never experiencing a systematic persecution of iconodules until the Protestant Reformation, did not have to solidify its own thinking and practices. They had icons and art which invoked venerable thoughts, but their expression of veneration had not become a litmus test for orthodoxy. In the east, this litmus test was the enforcement of the Jewish custom of kissing what is revered. Not coincidentally, Jewish proselytism before the ascendance if Christianity was more successful in the eastern Roman Empire than the west and so it makes sense that Jewish veneration practices had infiltrated eastern orthopraxy more thoroughly.
And so, historically this may speak of some loss of the original custom in the West for a time, or more likely a potential lack of its inculcation when the West was evangelized. If so, this poses tensions in the Orthodox tradition as we do not demand a “preponderance of evidence” (i.e. higher historical probability) for our practices to be dogmatic; but rather “probable cause” or evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt—near consensus. In some respects, such as the fact that all of Apostolic Christendom today venerates icons, this exists. In other respects, such as the Council of Elvira, this consensus appears to be lacking. But this demands a question as to what is consensus. If one is simply going by the populations of the Christian West versus the East, then near consensus still exists. However, geographic representation has to mean something. And so, I will not take it upon myself to solve the tension, rather I will acknowledge its reality and take comfort in the fact that the dogma of my church still has, by far, the best historical pedigree.