December 4th, The Feast of St. John of Damascus
St. John Damascene is hailed as the Church’s great defender of icons and iconography. He is often considered the last of the Eastern doctors and is renowned for his Summa Theologiae, which is titled, De Fide Orthodoxa.
The influence of this holy doctor, which was great in his own time, is yet a light to the Church in the modern world – we require icons, sculptures, and sacred music in our Liturgical prayer as well as our personal devotion.
The Second Council of Nicaea stated the faith of the Church – “We define that […] the representations of the precious and life-giving cross, and the venerable and holy images as well […], must be kept in the holy Church of God […], in houses and on the roads, whether they be images of God our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ or of the immaculate Lady the Mother of God, or of the holy angels and of all the saints and just.”
And why do we reverence icons? Because, as St. Basil the Great teaches, “the honor given to an image goes to the original model.” (De Spiritu Sancto, 18,45)
Do we worship icons?
Nicaea II states that we give to icons a “respectful veneration (proskunesis, adoratio), which, however, is not the true adoration (latria, latreia) which, according to our faith, is due to God alone.” The Council draws a distinction between the reverence which is given to icons (calling it veneration) and that given to the Divine Essence (calling it adoration).
We notice, however, that St. Thomas Aquinas does not make this distinction between icon and archetype. The Common Doctor tells us that we worship with latria not only the Divine Essence, but also the humanity of Christ, the true Cross, and images of Christ and the Cross (cf. ST III, q.25). Is the Angelic Doctor at odds with an Ecumenical Council? Can the doctrine of St. Thomas be reconciled with the infallible teaching of Nicaea II?
Let us be clear: St. Thomas is not saying that we worship icons of Christ for their own sake, as though the icon itself had some power; Thomas is not an idolater. On the other hand, neither is St. Thomas saying that we look at an icon of Christ and then, passing around or over the icon, we worship God. Rather, we worship Christ through worshiping the icon of Christ. Thus, we worship through the icon, and we worship the icon itself (insofar as it is considered in relation to Christ and our worship of Christ).
St. Thomas draws a distinction: When considering whether the humanity and divinity of Christ are adored with the same act of latria, he states that two things may be considered, the person adored in himself and the cause of his being adored. Thus, “if at any time it happen that we speak of honoring a man’s hand or foot, it is not by reason of these members being honored of themselves, but by reason of the whole man being honored in them. In this way a man may be honored even in something external; for instance in his vesture, his image, or his messenger.” (ST III, q.25, a.1)
Now, in the case of Christ, he is worshiped with latria on account of his divinity alone – but, since Christ is one person in two natures, there is only one adoration which is given Christ, when considered in relation to the person adored. Hence, when the flesh of Christ is considered as the Incarnate Word of God, his humanity is properly worshiped with the adoration of latria.
Similarly with icons of Christ: Since “Damascene quotes Basil as saying, ‘The honor given to an image reaches to the prototype,’ i.e. the exemplar” and, since the exemplar is Christ, who is adored with latria; it is clear that the icon of Christ must be worshiped with the adoration of latria. The latria given to an icon of Christ is given not on account of the icon in itself, but considered in relation to Christ whose image it is. “Since, therefore, Christ is adored with the adoration of latria, it follows that his image should be adored with the adoration of latria.” (ST III, q.25, a.3)
A Reconciliation between St. Thomas and Nicaea II, The Council of Trent
“Further, the images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God and of the other saints are to be kept and preserved, in places of worship especially; and to them due honor and veneration is to be given, not because it is believed that there is in them anything divine or any power for which they are revered, nor in the sense that something is sought from them or that a blind trust is put in images as once was done by the gentiles who placed their hope in idols; but because the honor which is shown to them is referred to the original subjects which they represent. Thus, through these images which we kiss and before which we kneel and uncover our heads, we are adoring Christ and venerating the saints whose likeness these images bear. This is what was defined by the decrees of the Councils, especially the Second Council of Nicaea, against the opponents of images.” (25th Session of Trent, Decree on the Invocation, the Veneration and the Relics of Saints and on Sacred Images)
Trent makes the same distinction which St. Thomas had made, emphasizing the difference between the thing adored and the cause for which it is adored. Thus, icons are reverenced on account of another thing, the archetype! The Council then insists that in giving the proper reverence to icons of Christ, we are adoring Christ. Hence, there is a sort of union between explanations of St. Thomas and of Nicaea II: Latria is certainly involved in our veneration of icons of Christ, but the latria is surely going to Christ and not remaining with the icon. St. Thomas is in agreement with this point.
It seems that Nicaea II, in a time of great turmoil and struggle, sought to emphasize that the cause of the veneration of icons of Christ lay not in the icon itself, but in Christ. Hence, the Council emphasizes that the icons are not adored with latria – meaning that they are not worshiped entirely in themselves and for their own sake, as is the Divine Essence.
St. Thomas, in a calmer time more suited to careful theological discourse, tries to follow the reasoning of Nicaea II to its logical conclusion: Though an icon of Christ is not worshiped for its own sake, it is properly adored with latria on account of Christ whose image it is.
St. Thomas emphasizes the quality of the worship, whereas Nicaea II emphasis the cause of the worship. While the quality of the worship due an icon of Christ is equal to that given to Christ’s humanity which is equal to that given the Divine Essence; the cause of the worship is different, since we worship the icon as an image of Christ, but we worship the Divine Essence on account of itself.
St. John Damascene, pray for us!