Iconoclastic Controversy. Icons, Images, and Idolatry.
(What is an idol? What is idolatry?)

A mosaic on display at Madaba, from nearby Ma'in (likely Moabite Ba'al Ma'on).
Circa 719/720 A.D., this shows the damage done by the Iconoclasts, who believed all images of people
and animals to be idolatrous, so they often disfigured them with patterns or plants.

History of the Controversy

The word "Iconoclast" literally means "image breaker" from the Greek words for "breaking of images". Beginning a few centuries after the time of Christ, the use of icons or images had become a widespread practice within the church of the east and west. These icons (Greek "eikones") are so-called sacred images representing or portraying saints, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary. Some of them were narrative in professing to portray or illustrate scenes in the life of Christ, especially the crucifixion. The objects themselves were crafted from diverse materials including ivory, gemstones, precious metals, enamel, marble, mosaic, and wood (including wooden panels). In size, they ranged from monumental to miniature, some worn as pendants, others mounted on poles to be carried into battle. Many permanent images decorated church interiors. Common usage and understanding of the icons held that they were aids in communication with the sacred figure(s) represented. Somehow the icon channeled petitions and prayers directly to the saint, from whom the devout sought help, good fortune, and miraculous healings. Ultimately, many of the icons where treated as good luck charms.

"The honor paid to an icon is transferred to its prototype." or "The honor shown the image passes over to the archetype." (Basil of Caesarea, alt. Basil the Great, circa 330-379 A.D.)

While there is dispute how the controversy started in the Eastern Church, over what had become a widespread almost universal practice, it centered on some who came to believe that their usage had become tantamount to idolatry. Possible political motivations aside1, icons were seen as a violation of the second commandment of the Decalogue.

Exodus 20:4-5a "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God..." (NIV)

The Byzantine Emperor, Leo III the Isaurian (683-741 A.D., emperor from 717-741 A.D.), banned the veneration of all icons including religious painting, mosaics, and statutes. This ban was enacted in 726 A.D.. The initial ban did not appear to seek the destruction of such images; rather it tried to restrict their popular use and veneration. For example, images in the churches were to be moved higher, out of reach of the people, so that it would be impossible for the people to kiss or touch them.

Orthodox sources acknowledge that the Emperor was defended in this ban on icons not only by political and aristocratic supporters but also by some of the clergy - whom they now refer to as heretics. Much opposition to the Emperor came from the primary source of support and propagation of icons, namely the monasteries. Public opposition appears to have led to a second decree in A.D. 730, which now ordered the removal of all images from churches, something that was often accomplished by military force8. The effects of this decree spread throughout not only the Eastern Church but into parts of the west. The Roman Catholic Church, which held unwavering support for icons, seems to have only kept Rome and part of Italy from the influence of the Byzantine Emperor in this regards2.

In spite of popular opposition, the ban on icons continued and was confirmed by Leo's son, emperor Constantine V (718-775, emperor 741-775 A.D), in 753 A.D.. This was followed by a synod he convened in early 754 A.D. which offered church approval of his continued policies. It was reaffirmed that icons of the Virgin Mary and the Saints were idols. This recommitment appears to have been prodded by a failed rebellion against the emperor in the decade prior. During this period relics and prayers to saints were deemed as heretical.

In 787 A.D., Empress Irene (wife of the late Leo IV and regent for her young son) overturned all these iconoclastic decrees, a decision reflected by the Seventh Ecumenical Council (also called the Second Council of Nicea). This gathering and its reversal of earlier decisions was eagerly embraced by the Roman Pope, Hadrian I, who sent representation, which is why the council could be called an "ecumenical" one.

"We decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honored and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, and of Our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels, and of any of the saintly holy men." - Second Council of Nicaea, also called the Seventh Ecumenical Council

The return of the Iconodules ("venerators of icons") in the east was only temporary, as renewed iconoclastic decrees were issued in 815 A.D. by Emperor Leo V (Alt. Leo the Armenian, 775-820 A.D., reigned 813-820 A.D.). His policies were slightly more moderate than those of Constantine V, yet still allowed for and implemented seizure of inconodule properties and monasteries. Following the rule and death of two subsequent iconoclastic Emperors, the next, Michael III (836-867, reigned 842-867 A.D.), who was only a child when he assumed the throne, quickly abandoned all iconoclastic policies in 843 A.D. Obviously it wasn't the child emperor that actually implemented this; it was his mother Theodora who governed the empire as empress and regent on his behalf. Through her efforts, the iconoclastic Orthodox Patriarch John VII of Constantinople was deposed and replaced with an inconodule supporter.

The Eastern Orthodox Church practices the veneration of icons and images to the present, considering these iconoclastic periods of their history as a time of heresy. This back and forth of church teaching, and even the subsequent Protestant condemnation of icons and images, still leaves a primary issue, one that the next section of this article addresses...

The Real Issue - What is an idol and idolatry?

A quick overview of passages through the Old and New Testaments describe a biblical view of an idol and the usage of such, which is idolatry.

Exodus 20:4-5a "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God..." (NIV)

Deuteronomy 4:15-19 You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17 or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18 or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. 19 And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars - all the heavenly array - do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. (NIV)

Psalms 115:4-8 But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. 5 They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; 6 they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; 7 they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats. 8 Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them. (NIV, also Psalms 135:15-18)

Isaiah 40:18-20 To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to? 19 As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it. 20 A man too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not topple. (NIV)

Isaiah 42:8 "I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols. (NIV)

Acts 17:29 "Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone - an image made by man's design and skill. (NIV)

Romans 1:21-23 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (NIV)

Revelation 9:20 The rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood - idols that cannot see or hear or walk. (NIV)

An Idol is...

An idol is an image, figurine, or object - manmade or natural - that is used as a sacred representation of a god, or God. This sacred object professedly portrays the deity or illustrates some attribute of that deity, when in fact the object or image is incapable of truly displaying them, subsequently distorting or misrepresenting the true being or nature of that deity.3 Idolatry is the act of worshipping or venerating an idol.

What an idol is not...

  1. A ban on all representation of objects in art

  2. A ban on the usage of objects in worship

  3. A ban on all representation of created beings in association with worship


Bread and wine are prescribed, by God, to be used as part of worship in the Lord's Supper. If people start to worship or venerate the bread or the wine, this is idolatry. Not unsurprisingly today's veneration of the Eucharist arose parallel to the usage of icons within the ancient Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Crafted images of angels, the Cherubim, were ordered by God to appear over the Ark of the Covenant5. Again, if anyone started to worship or venerate these angelic statutes, they too would have been idols.

A perfect example of this was the bronze serpent that Moses was told to erect in the wilderness (Numbers 21:8-9). It was never to be an object of worship, yet over the following years it became such. Hezekiah ultimately had to have it destroyed to stop the idolatry associated with it (2 Kings 18:4).

Illustrations of created objects were a segment of the splendorous decorations within God's temple and a part of temple ritual4, but none of these illustrative decorations were ever to be worshipped. Whether a crafted item required by God, a handcrafted idol, or even the sun, moon, or stars, nothing of creation was ever to be worshipped. Simply put, only God alone is to receive any acts or intimations of worship.6

John the icon man...

John of Damascus (675/676 - 749/753 A.D.) was a vigorous supporter of the use of icons and images within the Byzantine Empire during the iconoclastic controversy (he was the son of a Muslim and he followed his father as an advisor to the Umayyad ruler in Damascus). To this day, John's writings (Discourses on Sacred Images, circa 730 A.D.9) are often cited in support of the resumed, and continuing, practice of icon and image usage in both churches. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches honor him as a saint and the last of the Greek Fathers.

John's arguments in support of icons and images, while seemingly appealing to Scriptures, are based mostly in tradition. He draws in professed Scriptural examples to try and justify existing practice rather than trying to understand what is explicitly taught in Scriptures. Nowhere does he try and reconcile the contradiction between expressly prohibited acts in Scriptures and his justification of the exact same acts in a different setting. Ultimately John's appeal rests solely on the developed concept that there are various types or levels of worship. With this logic, all the same external acts could be applied to an object or individual, but they were not really idolatry because they were not really worship of the type given to God. It is on this basis that "veneration" can be seen to have all the same appearance and actions as "worship" but be considered something altogether different.

A summary of John's arguments are as follows:

  1. Images bring remembrance of the actual events and persons to mind.
    (He used the cross and the gospels as examples, claiming that reverence to the physical is treating them with honor but not really worship).

  2. Honor paid to any image or icon is transferred to whom it represents.
    (The object, he said, was only a departing point that focused the actions to the unseen world. He cites Basil the Great in support of this, cited earlier in this article)

  3. Since Jesus was the invisible God taking on a human form or image, visible representations were now permissible and demonstrated faith in the incarnation. (He held that making an icon was a profession of faith and anyone who would deny it was a heretic).

  4. Since some hand-crafted items were permissible and ordered in temple worship (i.e. cherubim), indeed even the building of the temple itself, the church can have acceptable hand-crafted images as well.

  5. Since physical places have images as to where Biblical events took place (i.e. Calvary) and how they took place (i.e. the cross), that the bread and wine of the Lord's supper are material items, that the Bible itself is a material item, that the altar-plates, chalices, and crosses in churches are all material items, that you would have to do away with all of these if you didn't accept the totality of church tradition regarding the worship of images.

    Either do away with the veneration and worship due to all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the worship of images, honoring God and His friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. (John of Damascus, On Holy Images)

Again, it must be emphasized that the totality of John's appeal - while selectively using Scriptures - is based on the authority of the church, as he understood it, and its ability to appeal to church traditions and make them co-equal to Scriptures. The Roman Church, especially, claims this right to not only order belief and practice upon traditions but to establish new traditions on nothing other than its own authority. Even worship given to Mary and the saints is justified on this basis. John of Damascus makes clear that his defense of this practice was based solely in "unwritten tradition".

It is just the same also in the case of the Mother of the Lord. For the honor which we give to her is referred to Him who was made of her incarnate. And similarly also the brave acts of holy men (i.e. saints) stir us up to be brave and to emulate and imitate their valor and to glorify God. For as we said, the honor that is given to the best of fellow-servants (i.e. saints) is a proof of good-will towards our common Lady, and the honor rendered to the image passes over to the prototype. But this is an unwritten tradition, just as is also the worshipping towards the East and the worship of the Cross, and very many other similar things. (John of Damascus, The Fount of Wisdom, parenthesis ours)

Lest any be persuaded by John of Damascus' argument that worship of Christ, who is the image of God, justifies worship of other images, there is a great difference. Christ can be worshipped because...

  1. He is not merely a being created in the image of God (i.e. Adam and Eve, Genesis 1:27)...

  2. He is the fullness of the image of God. (Colossians 1:15, 19, John 14:9, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Hebrews 1:3)

  3. He was not created7 (Colossians 1:16, Philippians 2:6-8)

  4. He is fully God, who took on flesh. (Colossians 2:9, Matthew 1:23, Matthew 10:30, Titus 2:13, 1 John 5:20, Romans 9:5)

Even if someone made a painting, statute, or photo, of Jesus while on earth, as a secondary manmade creation it could not fully encompass His image, for He alone is uniquely the fullness of the image of God. Therefore, even a first hand manmade image would be an idol (for it would certainly be venerated or worshipped, if it existed); how much more those images and icons created solely from the imaginative minds of man?! There is no indication that those closest to Christ, including the Apostles, even attempted or advocated making an image - they appeared to understand the uniqueness of the person of Christ and God's ban on idolatry.

Can the cross be an idol?

During the Iconoclastic period, simultaneous to the ban on creaturely images, there was an increasing promotion of the cross as a primary decoration in churches. With this, and the modern penchant of cross wearing, comes the question, "can the cross be an idol?" The answer is unequivocally "yes", if it fits the criteria established earlier defining an idol. Wherein an individual utilizes it as more than a reminder of the event it symbolizes, certainly a cross can be the focal point of idolatry. Those wearing it, venerating it, or performing acts of worship towards it, meet the definition of making the cross an idol. This doesn't even take into consideration using it as a "good luck" charm, believing that the possession of such an item grants health, blessing or favor to the wearer or owner.

We are never called in Scriptures to carry around a physical representation of the cross. Jesus' call to take up your cross was representative of our need to lose our life to follow Him...

Matthew 16:24-26 Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (NIV)

Believers are likewise never instructed to bring people a physical depiction of the cross, it's the message of the cross that we speak and live out before all - this alone we carry to the ends of the earth.

1 Corinthians 1:18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (NIV)

A related article is Idols Versus God

Part of the famous Madaba Map. Notice the two fishermen that have been destroyed by the iconoclasts.
This map was the floor of a Byzantine church built during the reign of emperor Justinian circa 527-565 A.D.

Another mosaic floor at Madaba. The bird was destroyed by the iconoclasts. Patterns and texts were okay.


End Notes

1. Many who support the continued usage of icons in the church have speculated that Emperor Leo was acting out of ulterior motives, rejecting that he could simply believe that the practice was wrong Biblically. Some claim that he was influenced by Islam (which has an aversion to images); others take the opposite position claiming that he adopted it because he wanted to convert Jews and Muslims and saw icons as a chief obstacle to this. Many hold his motivation to be primarily political, hoping that a reorganization of the church would give greater influence to the state. Those making this latter claim fail to establish how rejecting images and icons would have effected such a reorganization of the church.

2. Roman Popes, Gregory II (pope from 715-731 A.D.) and Gregory III (Pope from 731-741 A.D.), fiercely opposed the emperor in regards to image veneration. These popes had councils in Rome to anathematize and excommunicate all iconoclasts in 730 and 732 A.D. [TIMELINE DATE]. Leo III, in retaliation, transferred southern Italy and Illyricum from the papal diocese to that of the Patriarch of Constantinople. This latter action did not hold up on the long term and was part of the popular defiance which subsequently ended Byzantine sovereignty over Rome, plus later emboldened the Roman pope to make an alliance with Carolingian Franks. Pope Leo III (pope from 795-816 A.D., not to be confused with Emperor Leo III) presided over the coronation of Charlemagne (king of the Franks from 768 A.D. onward) as emperor in 800 A.D..

3. Two common definitions of the word idol, "an image or other material representing a diety to which religious worship is addressed" and "Bible. a. an image of a deity other than God. b. the deity itself" are weak without clarifications (both definitions from dictionary.com). Biblically it is not necessary to be worshipping the article itself; performing acts of worship towards such an object, even if used as a representation of God, professing that this worship is going to God, still makes the object an idol. In the definitions of the second set, a clarification is necessary: God himself is not to be represented, even if someone is not professing the object itself to be God.

4. The robe of the high priest was decorated with pomegranates and gold bells, one a natural item, the second a crafted item. Neither was to be venerated or worshipped as doing so would make them an idol. The mere fact of their existence did not make them an idol; there was neither intent in their creation nor subsequent misuse in their application.

Exodus 28:33 Make pomegranates of blue, purple and scarlet yarn around the hem of the robe, with gold bells between them. (NIV)

5. The Cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant were crafted as golden statues...

Exodus 25:17-21 "Make an atonement cover of pure gold - two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. 18 And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. 19 Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. 20 The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. 21 Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you. (NIV)

Cherubim were not only found over the Ark of the Covenant, they were part of additional decorations within the temple as well - also not idolatry.

Exodus 26:1 "Make the tabernacle with ten curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, with cherubim worked into them by a skilled craftsman. (NIV)

6. An Ephod, a piece of clothing, was created at the behest of God for usage by the high priest as part of temple worship (Exodus 28:6-8). Again, this created article was not an idol or to be venerated or worshipped in any way. Yet when an Ephod had elements of worship applied to it, this Ephod became an idol:

Judges 8:27 Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family. (NIV)

7. Jesus, unique to any other person on earth, could say that He was born AND that He came into this world. The eternal pre-existence of the son, as part of the triune God, is confirmed throughout Scriptures, indeed placing Jesus as the one doing creation on behalf of the Father in the beginning.

John 18:37 "You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (NIV, emphasis ours)

Colossians 1:15-16 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. (NIV, emphasis ours)

8. Very few icons and images survived these periods of iconoclastic destruction. Saint Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai is one of the notable exceptions, as that isolated and relatively autonomous institution appears to have resisted all iconoclastic decrees and preserved its early icons.

9. John of Damascus' work is sometimes referred to as "In Defense of Icons". It was a three part work...

A number of defenses of Icons were made: based on the existence of Divinely approved images in nature and Scripture; based on the reality of the incarnation; and based on a Platonic metaphysics of ascending images which participated in the prototype. The first two defenses are here presented in the first reading; the Platonic defense in second. (Preamble to excerpts from the works in "Medieval Sourcebook: John of Damascus: In Defense of Icons" as published on http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/johndam-icons.html)

The titles of the first two sections are: On Holy Images and The Fount of Wisdom.

(c) 2009 Brent MacDonald/LTM
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