Icons and the Fullness of the Faith – A Story

john-of-damascus-01.jpg

In 1988 I began studies at Duke University in the Graduate School of Religion. My intention at the time was to complete a doctorate and look for a teaching position. I had served for eight years in the ordained ministry of the Episcopal Church and was headed for what I hoped would be a deepening of my understanding of the faith and of my ministry. I had an interest in Orthodox theology at the time, and applied to Duke particularly to study with Geoffrey Wainwright who is a noted systematic theologian and very sympathetic and understanding of Orthodox theology (he was the commencement speaker year before last at St. Vladimir’s Seminary).

I also found a growing interest in the work of Stanley Hauerwas who was and is on the faculty there as well. Generally, I was never disappointed in my studies. In most if not all of my seminars I was able to concentrate my own studies on Orthodox writings and found support and encouragement. It is too long a story to explain how my doctoral program became a Master’s program (it was my choice). But my studies, even as they concluded, probably sealed a certain portion of my conversion to the Orthodox faith.

I wrote my thesis on the “Icon as Theology,” after Dr. Wainwright sent me down that path. I discovered as I studied not the art, but the theology of the icon, that everything I had learned previously about the Orthodox faith was summarized in these colorful representations – and perhaps more.

A very significant moment occurred during my thesis defense. The committee examining me consisted of Geoffrey Wainwright, Stanley Hauerwas and Susan Keefe, Associate Professor of Church History at the Divinity School. You never know quite what to expect when you are defending a thesis or a dissertation – anything can happen. Generally our conversations were friendly and simply pressed various issues within the thesis. But true to his form, Hauerwas turned the tables in a suddenly personal fashion:

“Stephen, do you believe that the veneration of icons is necessary for salvation?”

It was more than a personal question (indeed it felt we had suddenly left all academics aside). What Dr. Hauerwas was well aware of was that my ordination oath as an Episcopal priest contained the statement: “I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to contain all things necessary to salvation.”

I balked at his question. The fact that I balked and did not immediately repeat the oath I had taken some 10-and-a-half years before (it was now 1990), was itself a crystalizing moment for me. There are such moments when time seems to stop or at least to have no relevance. I have no idea I long I hesitated, but the answer seemed clear to me:

“Though I took an oath that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to salvation, I believe the veneration of icons is necessary to its fullness.”

It was a statement I had never made before, but was clearly a statement I believed to be true. Had I denied it I would have been lying.

What was clear to me was that something had changed. What had been an intellectual interest in Orthodox theology and something of a touchstone for Christian believing (it was simply impossible to find reliable doctrinal teaching elsewhere, in my experience), had now become an article of faith.

For one, the notion of the “fullness of the faith,” was a concept I had not always considered but had become increasingly familiar with as I read Orthodox writings. The “fullness” of the truth is something larger than a mere syllogism. It implies not only correctness of doctrine, but doctrine that is itself set in its proper context and relationship. The word “Orthodox” can be translated to simply mean “correct,” but its larger meaning is “right glory.” The Orthodox understanding is that right believing is only fully known in right worship. We were created to give God glory and thanksgiving (Fr. Alexander Schmemann very famously draws this from Romans 1:21). It is only in that state of giving glory and thanksgiving that we rightly know and perceive the truth. Doctrine cannot be divorced from worship (this was a point for which Wainwright was well known and which drew me to work with him).

But my studies had led me to see that the “fullness” of the faith was summarized in the veneration of icons in a way that was matched by nothing else. It is a mark of Orthodox worship that the great struggles for the true faith in the early centuries had profound effects on certain aspects of worship. When the heresy of Arianism was answered with the Nicene Creed – the Creed became an indispensable part of the Liturgy. Indeed, every affirmation of the faith over and against the various heresies found some voice within the prayers and hymns of the Church. To worship God is also to affirm the truth as it has been made known.

The last of the great Ecumenical Councils, by Orthodox reckoning, was the Seventh, in which the making and veneration of icons was solemnly defined by the Church in answer to the heresy of iconoclasm. The theological underpinnings of that council required the whole of the previous six – it served as a summarization. Thus the presence of icons in an Orthodox Church is not optional – they are as necessary as the Nicene Creed.

The Church worshipped without all of the stated words of the Nicene Creed prior to the 4th century, though its faith did not differ from that of Nicaea. There is evidence of images within Christian Churches going back to the Second Century (most famously in the Catacombs of Rome). I do not presume that images played the same role in the first few centuries that they came to play in later centuries – but that is the nature of Christian doctrine and worship. I do not see this as a development of doctrine, but simply an outward statement of what the Church has always known. Regarding icons St. John of Damascus stated in the 8th century:

Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. [On Icons, 1,16].

St. John’s statement, perhaps one of the most familiar and oft-quoted of the Fathers on icons, demonstrates how the holy icons served to summarize the faith. We make them because in doing so we defend the fact of Christ’s incarnation. In the canonical style that came to be the standard within Orthodoxy, the icons did more than reaffirm the incarnation – they came to say, as the Father’s of the Seventh Council affirmed, “with color, what the Scriptures say with words.” I had not denied an oath I took at one point in my life – I had simply discovered that there is a fullness of the same gospel that is also stated in color. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. There is, in fact, only one Word, and though He could not be contained by the universe, He was nonetheless contained within matter. Words alone might give rise to a dematerialization of that truth – reducing the incarnate God to an idea – a statement – words alone. That we eat His Body and drink His Blood serve as sacramental anchors for His continuing use of matter.

His image states in another manner the same fullness. I will not cease from honoring the matter which works my salvation. If there is a fullness – why would we want less?

25 Responses to “Icons and the Fullness of the Faith – A Story”

  1. Andrew Says:

    So how did Dr. Hauerwas respond to your statement?

  2. jacob Says:

    Bishop Christoph Schönborn, the principal editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, wrote a book entitled GOD’S HUMAN FACE: The Christ Icon, published by Ignatius Press. Apparently it’s back in print, too. In it he traces the history of the theology behind iconography and the church’s use of icons. I read somewhere (which prompted me to buy it) that it’s one of the best books on the subject.

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    Andrew,

    As I recall there was no argument – though we pushed on my statement a bit. The thesis was approved. Actually Hauerwas suggested publishing, but no publisher suggested the same thing. 🙂

  4. Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Morning Highlights Says:

    […] Icon and personal faith journey by Fr Stephen at Glory to God for All Things. […]

  5. Mark Says:

    I recall Prof. Hauerwas having a very startling – yet endearing – cackle that would erupt when a student said something especially pleasing or profound.

    Your response was worthy!

    I, of course, never said anything to elicit it.

  6. jeuby Says:

    i’m a college student who’s been reading your site for a several weeks now. a friend of mine who converted to orthodoxy recently passed your site along to me. i personally grew up southern baptist and have recently started going to a presbyterian church while here at college.

    one question that i had is that do you have a blog post telling a little bit more of your spiritual journey from your days as a child til the present time (or if you don’t could you write one). i have no desires to convert to orthodoxy (too much protestant in me) but i’ve become a lot more interested in the whole history of the church and the great traditions the faith has had. reciting the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s and Nicene Creed, taking monthly communion, Scripture readings, using the Book of Common Prayer and having an actual blessing said at the end of the service have been big steps for me after many years in the SBC. while the PCA church is no where near as liturgical as the orthodox church, i’ve enjoyed the liturgy-lite services there.

    the biggest thing that stuck out to me in your about page is the fact that you’re in east tennessee. i would have assumed the baptists and pentecostals would have run “heretics” like you out by now. (i grew up and live in Georgia, so i’m well-aware of how life in “Bible belt” goes.)

    thanks!

  7. Chris Jones Says:

    Fr Stephen,

    The veneration of icons must be “necessary to salvation,” because it is through Him Who is “the icon of the invisible God” that we are saved — that is one “icon” which we surely must venerate in order to be saved. And even our loyalty to the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures is a form of veneration, for the Scriptures are themselves the verbal icon of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    It seems to me that seeing a conflict between the sufficiency of Scripture and the veneration of icons is based on a misunderstanding of how the Scriptures actually function in the life of the Church.

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Chris,

    I think you are indeed right. I was only beginning to see that at the time of my thesis. It’s been 17 years now – which staggers me.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    Jeuby,

    My story is scattered throughout articles in the blog. One substantial portion is at https://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2007/05/07/do-you-know-jesus/ You might find that interesting from a perspective of the South and the like.

  10. Sean Says:

    Father, did you read books on icons written by non-Orthodox at that time? ++Rowan wrote one and Henry Nouwen — although those examples may not be theological writings.

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    I read everything that was in print in English, literally. It’s part of the process. I thought Nouwen was a nice meditation but didn’t have a clue about icons.

    Have heard positive things about ++Rowan, but have not read it myself – it’s very recent.

    The two volumens by Leonid Ouspensky are good. And there is a work on A History of Icon Painting by Evseyeva, Lilia, et al, that is highly recommended though it has more art information than you might want.

    The best read, frankly, is St. John of Damascus on the Divine Images, and possibly St. Theodore the Studite On the Holy Icons, I think St. Vlad’s may publish both, but at least the latter of the two.

    There is a small volumen in Russian, that Ksenia Pokrovsky is going to send me that I’m going to look into having translated (family help). If it’s as good as she says, we’ll try to make it maximally available through something.

  12. jeuby Says:

    father stephen,

    thanks for the link. i’ll dig thru some of your archives as well.

    i identified all too well with some of your references to christian fundamentalism. i as actually up in greenville, sc just a few weeks ago visiting a friend who goes to school there at north greenville university. we drove by bob jones and had a good laugh.

    at the end our your story, you mentioned a book you read exposing you to orthodoxy but wouldn’t recommend to others as a first book. what would you recommend to someone? i’m an avid reader and always in search of a good book. i’m not anxious to drop my protestant beliefs, but i am willing to hear other perspectives out and consider them. there’s much about evangelicalism of which i’m not terribly fond.

    i’ve enjoyed your posts pertaining to a one-story universe. thanks for writing.

  13. Rob Grano Says:

    Re: icons, the new book by Gabriel Bunge on Rublev’s Trinity is excellent (published by St. Vlad’s). Bunge is an Eastern Catholic Benedictine monk, but his thoughts are fully in tune with Orthodoxy on these things.

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Jeuby,

    There are a number of good books to read. Clendenin (an evangelical) has several good books on Orthodoxy. Also, Timothy Ware’s book The Orthodox Church is good and quite standard. I would recommend highly to read the Fr. Arseny books published by St. Vlad’s. They are not so much information is a living example of what Orthodoxy is. For that there can be no substitute.

    I would perhaps say, that when you are looking at Orthodoxy for whatever reason, it is good to understand that you are not looking at something you can compare with evangelicalism, etc. It is Christianity, indeed, but there is nothing else like it, no real way to compare it. It can only be known and seen in a life that is lived and in the mystical life of the Body of Christ. Good reading!

  15. jacob Says:

    jeuby Says:

    at the end our your story, you mentioned a book you read exposing you to orthodoxy but wouldn’t recommend to others as a first book. what would you recommend to someone? i’m an avid reader and always in search of a good book. i’m not anxious to drop my protestant beliefs, but i am willing to hear other perspectives out and consider them. there’s much about evangelicalism of which i’m not terribly fond.

    I just bought the following book, and it looks like a good one to give a Protestant as a basic understanding of Orthodox views, esp. on things that Protestants think can only or should only be taken in the Protestant way. The author is very knowledgeable about Orthodoxy, though he remains a Protestant, and Frederica Mathewes-Green highly praises the book in her review comments at Amazon.com (she read the manuscript and encouraged the author to get it published):

    Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition
    James R. Payton, Jr.
    InterVarsity Press 2007

    ISBN-13: 978-0-8308-2594-3

    Underlying the book is the author’s oft-mentioned point that the East and the West approach Christianity from some very different assumptions and bases, and he explains these differences and the reasons for them in ways that will hopefully make Protestants realize that Orthodoxy does not basically equal Roman Catholicism – Pope + icons + ossified tradition, but is in fact something that they may never have met or considered before, but should have – because it’s the ancient Church.

    Excerpt: “A distinctive element in the Orthodox understanding of how the Holy Spirit works deification within us is the doctrine of ‘synergy’ – ‘working together.’ This working together is the collaboration of God’s grace and a person’s will. While Western Christianity has argued about the alternatives of ‘monergism’ and ‘synergism’ – that is, the question of whether salvation is accomplished only by God or by God and human beings cooperating – this issue did not become a tension within Orthodoxy. Eastern Christendom has not focused on the issues of guilt, debt, questions of merit and so on, that flowed from the juridical approach of the Christian West and made the monergism/synergism issue a matter of concern. Orthodoxy insists on synergy, but Orthodox teaching approaches the question of divine grace and human will working together from quite a different perspective.” (p. 151)

  16. Sean Says:

    I hope your are able to publish, in some form, the translation of Ms Pokrovsky’s writings. I am acquainted with her work from online sources.

    RE your recommendations to jeuby may I add that as someone who isn’t Orthodox I found both Father Men (The Prophetic Writings of Alexander Men) and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (God and Man) to be readable and intelligible to my RC sensibilities. Remembering my Baptist days (SBC), which were few, I think these would be welcome reads from that point of view also.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    There are lots of things out there to read – thus sometimes hard to recommend. I tend to suggest some narrative stuff (like the Fr. Arseny books) because the role narrative plays in our understanding. I think we get much more out of it than purely doctrinal or historical material.

    It is interesting that although Dostoevsky proposed a very serious challenge to theodicy in the Brothers Karamazov in the conversations of the brother Ivan, the only answer given to those disturbing questions, was the life and person of the Elder Zossima. I think he was right, though.

  18. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    St. John of Damascus on the Divine Images, and St. Theodore the Studite On the Holy Icons are oth published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

    The One who is immaterial became material in the Incarnation. The veneration of icons is participation in the Incarnate One’s transfiguration of matter.

  19. Mary Lowell Says:

    Sean,

    Curious, who are you referring to in your statement above, “I hope your are able to publish, in some form, the translation of Ms Pokrovsky’s writings. I am acquainted with her work from online sources,”? Are talking about Ksenia (Xenia) Pokrovsky, the iconographer? What sources are you talking about?

  20. fatherstephen Says:

    Mary, I’m not sure what online sources there are for any of Kxenia’s work. She mentioned a small book in Russian (whether hers I’m not sure) that I’ve offered to have translated. Of course, what is done with that will be up to Ksena – though I’ll be glad to help in any way. But I’d like to know of online resources if there are any. He may have confused something.

  21. Greg Hunt Says:

    I study the writting of Orthodox Icons because in doing so, I gain a much deeper understanding of my church. I do not pretend to be an iconographer, nor am I blessed to do so. Even so I do study it’s forms and meaning. In my past I have written two or three icons, faithful to Orthodoxy, and did have them blessed by an orthodox priest for use in my home. I live far from other Orthodox.
    I would like to hear a more open discourse on the meanings of the various elements in Orthodox Icons. These are there to convey meaning and for many of us this information is unreadable even after a life time in the Church.. Icons are also window for heaven to us.. If we do not understand the language. How are we to be taught..
    I hope I am corect in this..
    Respectfuly, Gregory Hunt

  22. Seraphim Says:

    Fr. Stephen.

    You know the heterodox don’t use or even like Icons. Above you agree with Chris who comments: “The veneration of icons must be “necessary to salvation,” because it is through Him Who is “the icon of the invisible God” that we are saved — that is one “icon” which we surely must venerate in order to be saved. And even our loyalty to the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures is a form of veneration, for the Scriptures are themselves the verbal icon of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    um, really?

    I know that as Orthodox we can say where the Church is. I thought though we were not supposed to say where she is not

    I’shalom

    Seraphim

  23. fatherstephen Says:

    You are correct. I would only say “necesary to salvation” in some sense of its fullness. Mostly, it is to say that the veneration of icons is not an “option” for Orthodox, but a requirement. You are, however, quite correct – God will save whom He will. Forgive me.

  24. Seraphim Says:

    Fr., forgive me a sinner as well. God forgives, so do I…

    Question for you sir. I would you say that Christ is an Icon? the image of the invisible God, yes. But an Icon represents or points toward the prototype.. would that be the case for Christ who is Very God?

    Fr. Bless!

    Seraphim

  25. fatherstephen Says:

    Yes, because of His humility.

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