On October 23, 787, the last session took place of the last church council that brought together church leaders from both the eastern and western halves of what had once been the Roman Empire. Centuries later, one of the key Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century would reject what these church leaders decided. What brought church leaders from the east and the west together in the late eight century was a disagreement over the issue of icons.
No, no, I’m not talking about the tiny tiles on your computer screen that you click to activate programs!
Nobody in the eighth century A.D. was wondering about whether you could still be a faithful Christian if you clicked that picture of a compass to browse the web using Safari or that lower-case e to use Explorer.
The icons that concerned these early medieval Christians were paintings of Jesus and saints and angels that church members venerated and even kissed as part of their worship. The Second Council of Nicaea was convened to deal with the question of whether the creation and veneration of icons violated the second of the Ten Commandments—the one that forbids the maging of any graven image. The two competing sides in the controversy were the icon-kissers (iconodules) and the icon-smashers (iconoclasts).
One year before the council convened in Nicaea, the council had attempted to meet in the city of Constantinople, but the iconoclastic party sent soldiers to break up the proceedings. Empress Irene of the Eastern Empire dispatched the iconoclastic troops to Asia on a military campaign—the targets of which may have been fabricated!—to remove them from the picture. The next year, more than three hundred church leaders from churches in the west and in the east traveled to Nicaea, the same village where the first church-wide council had gathered in the year 325.
Icons According to the Council: “It Is Proper to Accord to Them a Fervent and Reverent Adoration”
The Second Council of Nicaea concluded that it was appropriate for Christians to revere, but not to worship, two-dimensional images. According to one of the council’s canons,
As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be … exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not, however, the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone.
The Second Council of Nicaea According to Calvin: “It Is Painful Even to Quote Them”
In fact, issues related to this council’s decisions emerged again in the sixteenth-century Reformation. That’s when a pastor and theologian named John Calvin repudiated the conclusions of the Second Council of Nicea. Under the heading “The Absurd Defense of the Worship of Images by the Second So-Called Council of Nicea,” Calvin declared in his Institutio Christianae Religionis,
Everything I have said [about images], is in danger of suffering great prejudice due to the authority of this council. Truthfully, however, I am not so much moved by this consideration [of defending what I have said] as by a wish to make my readers aware of the lengths to which the infatuation [with images] has been sustained by those who had a greater fondness for images than for being Christians. … Their absurdities are so extreme that it is painful even to quote them.
If you’re interested in learning more about the church councils, take a look at the book and video series Christian History Made Easy.
Watch the video, then read the section on the Second Council of Nicaea in John Calvin’s Institutio. Who was correct, in your estimation? The icon-kissers or the icon-smashers? Do Calvin’s arguments from Scripture affect your perspective? If so, how?