minima maxima sunt

The Small things are the Great things; as in a grain of mustard seed.

Here come the Iconoclasts

Iconoclasm seems to have always been a part of human history. The word is Greek for “image breaker” and refers to the destroying of icons, images, statues etc, often for religious purposes but also for political, such as the burning of a flag. The issue of Iconoclasm concerning actual Icons of the church has an interesting history.

Now right off the bat, I’m going to say something that may be unpopular with some; and that is that I am not always opposed to Iconoclasm. I think there are images and idols which certainly needed to be destroyed or put down. For instance the destruction of Nazi symbology, like the swastika, is not only justifiable but was simply the right thing to do. In respect to religion it gets a bit more touchy. There are clearly acts of iconoclasm in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as found in the conquest of Canaan and the purging of paganism from Israel. We also see Israel the victim as the Temple was Jerusalem destroyed by the Persians and later by Rome. In church history we see such acts from both the church and those opposed to the church. It can sometimes be difficult to always agree with such destruction in a fair and just way, other than to accept it based on the times and customs of the day.

What I would like to focus on rather than the right and wrong of iconoclasm, is how iconoclasm was found within the church. In other words the controversy, not found between opposing belief systems, but rather within.

I have often heard the criticism concerning Icons, which are found in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. They are sometimes compared to the worship of false Idols, which is not only prohibited in the Sacred Scripture but also from within Catholic and Orthodox teaching. Much of the criticism came from Anti-Catholic sources especially after the reformation, where many churches and monasteries were raided for their riches, under the claim of iconoclasm. Treasures that belonged to the church (i.e., the catholic people), were now in the hands of a local ruler, or landowner, as a private possession. This, of course is the reality of the situation, but the engine that drove it was the idea that such art, riches and etc in the church was somehow wrong or false and indicative of worshipping a false God, an accusation that was not accurate.

One has to be sympathetic with the concern, even if it was a false concern. It is after all easy to allow many things to push God out of the way. Work, peer pressure, political views, pessimism and even religious viewpoints have proven to be more damaging to ones faith than a statue or image. G.K. Chesterton once said:

Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting
up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when
they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.

I have seen this very thing in the anti-catholic world, from many discussions and arguments. The anti-catholic agenda becomes so big and in a way too sensational that it drives the persons faith. It becomes more important to discuss cults than the gospel, more interesting to speak ill of the Mother of God than to speak of her Son. I have even seen communion serviced interrupted to point out that the grape juice and crackers are just grape juice and crackers and not the true Body and Blood of Christ as “those Catholics” believe. The difference in belief is understandable given the separation between post-reformation sects and the ancient church, but the timing of bringing up anti-catholicism during a ritual that is supposed to be something more on the profound and contemplative side of even non catholic services, really demonstrates a type of idolatry to me, and I felt this way even when I considered my self against the ancient church.

What I find interesting in all of this is that the iconoclasm was not just a post-reformation problem in the church. The issue of icons was also challenged in the early middle ages, Byzantine, 8th century,  where instead of the concerns over the use of images of any kind the controversy was that there was only one image which was acceptable. The Eucharist. The issue may have been driven by Mohommedan influence in the middle east.

In the later iconoclasticism the challenge focused on the belief that no image was to be made, that the church was full of idolatry, and the Eucharist especially, was the worse king of abuse. The iconoclasm of the early church held just the opposite, that the most perfect image was that found in the Eucharist, being of the same substance,  and therefore all else should be dispensed with. Balanced in the center of all this is the church which from the earliest times used symbols, art, and sacrament. It understood that even in the prohibitions from the Hebrew Scriptures, there were exceptions like the Seraphs on the Ark and on the curtain which hid the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle; it believed that with the incarnation, where God became part of the physical world that such prohibitions were dispensed with. Christ being the proof of an invisible God made visible; it also saw art as a means of communication, which helped to teach the gospel and other stories from the scriptures to a world that was mostly illiterate.

To those who maybe have looked forward to the art in my posts, I must ask your pardon. It’s hard to find pictures of an iconoclast.

Oooops! Here is one.

The Iconoclast theologian John the Grammarian and an Iconoclast bishop whitewash an image of Christ, from a 9th century Psalter


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