Posted by: mattcolvin | January 4, 2010

Pelikan on Icons

I just finished reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s treatment of the iconoclasm controversy. (For those who don’t know, Pelikan is the preeminent scholar of the history of Christian theology; he was the son and grandson of Lutheran pastors, and became one himself before converting to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1998.) The book in question is The Christian Tradition” volume 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom.

It is remarkable reading. He agrees with Kitzinger that “no literary statement from the period prior to the year 300 would make one suspect the existence of any Christian images other than the most laconic and hieroglyphic of symbols” and adds that “the orthodox were obliged to admit that, for a practice that was supposed to be based on the tradition of the apostles and of the church fathers, this one had very little written testimony, either in Scripture or in ancient Christian writers, to support it.” (99)

It was the icon controversy that drew forth from the iconophile party the doctrine of authoritative unwritten tradition, and thus shaped the East’s doctrine of Scripture. Pelikan admits that the iconophiles twisted Scripture: “Basil had said: ‘The honor that is paid to the image passes over to the prototype.’ Precisely this, it was argued, took place when Christians paid honor to an image. In reply the iconoclasts argued that this was spoken ‘in relation to theology,’ to the inner life of the Godhead, and did not apply to the images now being used in churches. Tehnically they were right, for ‘image here’ (“eikwn” in Heb. 1:3, Col. 1:15, etc.) meant Christ himself, not a man-made portrait; but taken as a proof text out of context — which is how passages were often taken by both sides — it seemed a strong support for the orthodox.” (103)

Finally, Pelikan states that “it must be admitted that the case for images or against them was not based initially on considerations of doctrine. In the usage of a church opposed to idolatry, images arose on the basis of other factors, which lay more in what was believed implicitly than in what was explicitly taught and confessed.” (103) In other words, the church started out opposed to images in worship, and lost its way. It received an orientation against images from its mother, Judaism, and then as it became largely Gentile, it forgot the reasons and the theology that had lay behind that anti-image praxis.

Pelikan wrote this stuff in 1974. I don’t know if he retracted or repented it later. Nor do I know anything more about his conversion. But it seems clear to me that only by abandoning the Hebraic foundations of our faith, and elevating human traditions to a level where they compete with Scripture in authority could one begin to bow oneself before man-made images.


  1. For developments in Pelikan’s take on icons, you may want to check out his volume “Imago Dei: The Byzantine Apologia for Icons” (Princeton, 1990). In it, among other things, Pelikan looks to John of Damascus’ apologetic for icons based on the incarnation. Here’s an excerpt from pp. 81-82 that might be of interest:

    “The difference between the true God of Israel and the false gods of the heathen peoples lay precisely in this absence of any ‘similtude,’ which had been forbidden by the law given on Sinai. But that law, like every law of Moses, was, according to the Pauline formula, intended to serve as a ‘tutor to lead us to Christ.’ Its prohibition of false images, consequently, was at the same time a ‘foreshadowing of the real image’ that was to come. Before the Incarnation an icon of the Logos would have been outlandish and wicked. But Christ, as the eternal Logos, had in these latter days become incarnate in human flesh, and he had thereby presented humanity, for the first and only time in its entire history, with a genuine and accurate ‘similtude’ of God, one that could be seen and hence one that could be iconized…On the basis of the patristic tradition, John of Damascus maintained that while it would of course be a sin, as it always had been, to presume to make an image of the the invisibile and ‘uncircumscribable’ divine nature of the Holy Trinity (and hence of the divine nature of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God), or to make images of human beings and to call them gods, a ‘new order’ had been established also here: now that the invisible God had become human through the Incarnation of the Logos, he had in Christ also become ‘circumscribable’ in an icon. In that sense God himself had suspended his own commandment by ‘violating’ it – or, to put it not only more reverently but also more precisely, by fufilling it – when he provided a genuine icon of himself in the history of Christ, an icon of which it was not legitimate to make an icon in turn.”

  2. I’m not sure how to edit an original post, but I need to make two slight corrections to the above quotation from Pelikan:

    1. The third line from bottom should read: “by fulfilling it”

    2. The bottom line should read: “was now legitimate”

    Sorry for any confusion there.

  3. Thanks for that. Oddly, it’s all theological justification for icons. Nothing to change the admission that they were not of early institution, or that the Fathers lend them no support.

    My own reservations don’t have to do with any impropriety of portraying Christ, but with the superiority of the image of Christ in us ourselves to anything we might make with our hands, both pedagogically and liturgically.

  4. I do not know whether the Fathers lend support to icons or not and/or whether, if any, archeological discoveries have surfaced over the years that might substantiate the presence of icons in the early church.

    Regardless, it seems to me that the absence of something in the Fathers and/or early Church doesn’t necessarily preclude its later and rightful inclusion (e.g. Bibles) in the life of the Church. I’d be curious to know how, or if, the use of icons developed in conjunction with Christological controversies in the 3/4/5th centuries and beyond in response, directly or indirectly, to liturgical or doctrinal efforts that downplayed the materiality of Christ. (This would be like, conversely, the early Church’s calling Mary “theotokos” – mother of God – in an effort to safeguard the true divinity – in utero – of Jesus).

    In terms fo the image of Christ in us vs. icons of Christ “prayerfully written” – could it be both/and?

    • Read Pelikan on the conjunction with Christological controversies. In his view — and his evidence is substantial — the images came first, and Christology was only hauled in when the two sides, iconoclast and iconophile, needed convenient labels to beat each other with.

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