The Icon Debate
In the eighth century the Isaurian rulers Leo III (717-741) and Constantine V (741-775) in the East attempted to subject the Church to their rule. The latter even dared to call himself “emperor and priest.” In order to gain control of the Church these two emperors viciously attacked the zealous Christians, especially the monks, who defended the integrity of the Church. The attack took the form of a fierce persecution against those who venerated the icons. The subject of the attack was well placed because there really existed an exaggerated veneration of icons among the pious people which truly bordered on idolatry and paganism.
A council held in 753 formally condemned the veneration of icons by Christians. It called for the removal of all images from the churches, public buildings’ and homes of the people. This council was not only a political move by the rulers to gain authority over the Church, but it showed a reasoned and well skilled argumentation against icon veneration. The basis of the position of the council was taken primarily from the biblical teaching that God is invisible, therefore visible, graven images are not to be made and adored by true believers. It is probable that this argumentation was inspired by close contact with the Moslems who were fanatically strict on these very points.
The bishops of the Church were under strong imperial pressure to condemn officially the veneration of icons. When they did, a vicious persecution of those who continued to keep and to venerate the holy images immediately followed. The time between 762 and 775 is known as the “decade of blood” since hundreds of Christians, mostly monks, were imprisoned, tortured, and even killed for harboring and honoring icons.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council
In 787, during the reign of the Empress Irene (780-802), who favored icon veneration, a council was held in Nicea which defined the legitimate and proper use of icons in the Church. This council, now known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council, followed the theology of Saint John of Damascus (d.749). The decision of the council affirmed that icons may be made and honored but not worshipped.
The bishops of the council reasoned that the very essence of the Christian faith is the incarnation of the Son and Word of God in human flesh. God indeed is invisible. But in Jesus Christ the invisible God has become visible. The one who sees Jesus sees the invisible Father. (John 14:8) When icon painting and icon-veneration in the Church are denied, the true humanity of Jesus is denied. As well, it is denied that in and through Christ, the Holy Spirit has been given to men so that they may become holy, truly fulfilling themselves as created “in the image and likeness of God.” (Genesis 1:26)
Thus, it was the council’s decision that the rejection of the holy images is the rejection of the fact of salvation by God in Christ and the Holy Spirit.
God the Father and the Holy Spirit cannot and must not be depicted. Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints can be depicted in iconographic form because they show the reality of man’s salvation by God. They show the true transfiguration and sanctification of man - and the whole of creation - by Christ and the Holy Spirit. The images may be venerated in the Church since “honor rendered to the image ascends to its prototype, and he who venerates an icon adores the person (hypostasis) of the one portrayed.” (Seventh Ecumenical Council)
After the council of 787 the attack against the icons continued. It finally ended in 843 when the icons were returned to the Churches where they remain today.
Saint John of Damascus was also responsible for liturgical development in the eighth century. He was a highranking minister of the Moslem Caliph who became a monk in the St. Sabbas monastery in Jerusalem. He wrote many liturgical hymns still sung in the Church such as the Canon of Easter Matins, and certain hymns sung at the Orthodox funeral service. He is considered to be the original composer of the Octoechos which is the collection of hymns sung in the Church using eight different melodies, one each week on a rotating basis throughout the year. (See Book 2 on Worship) Saint John is the author of the first systematic treatise of Orthodox Christian doctrine called the Complete Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. This treatise can be found in part three of the work, The Fount of Knowledge.
The feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos to the Temple was introduced in Constantinople. According to St. Andrew of Crete, the feast was already being celebrated in Jerusalem as early as the sixth century. Thus, by the eighth century, it had found its place in the universal calendar of the Orthodox Church.
In the West, in the eighth century, the barbarian tribes continued to be converted to Christianity. The greatest missionary at this time was St. Boniface (d.754). Also in this century the bishops of Rome became for the first time secular rulers who governed properties in Italy, and entered into close relation with the newly-emerging Carolingian rulers. It was these barbarian rulers of the Carolingian House, particularly Charlemagne, who were to restore the empire in the West with the cooperation of the bishops of Rome. In order to do so, however, they had to attack the legitimacy of the empire in the East. They made their attack by accusing the East of idolatry because of icon veneration, and by accusing the East of dropping the words “and the Son” (filioque) from the Nicene Creed. These accusations were contained in the Caroline Books given by Charlemagne to the pope of Rome in 792