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.