Those of you who have studied church history will remember that one of the most sustained conflicts in the church was over the use of icons or images in Christian worship. The debate raged for centuries between the seventh and the end of the ninth century. An icon refers to a two dimensional image of a Christian theme, usually of Christ, one of the Apostles or early church fathers. In an age when the vast majority of Christians were illiterate, the icons were living “windows” into the mysteries of the faith, rich with symbolism, role models for faith and devotion, and historical records of the saints and martyrs of the church.
Those who favored the use of the icons were known as iconofiles, meaning “lover of icons.” Those who rejected the use of icons were known as iconoclasts, meaning “destroyer of icons.” The iconoclasts argued that the use of images was idolatry and a clear violation of the Ten Commandments, especially the second command: “You shall make no graven image.” The iconofiles reminded the church that there is no more powerful ‘image’ of Christ than the holy sacraments themselves which Christ himself instituted. Likewise, the widespread use of crosses, images of Christ “at the door knocking” or Duhrer’s praying hands demonstrates that even “low church” Protestants find Christian images comforting and compelling.
My own view is that the church actually dug a theological hole (without realizing it) before the first icon was ever made. When the church was fighting emperor worship in the first century they insisted that to worship an image of the emperor was the same as worshipping the emperor. A Christian could not show honor to an image because “there is one emperor, not two.” To put it another way, the honor that is given to the image “passes over to the prototype.” Once this argument was accepted it became difficult to dismiss the iconofile notion that honoring an image of Christ brought glory and honor to Christ himself. The orthodox view is that the “image” is merely a window to the true reality and is not a form of idolatry. It is actually the opposite of idolatry because, in the case of icons, the true reality is pointed to, whereas in idolatry, a false reality is being pointed to. The dissenting view is that the “image” distracts from the true and sole worship of God and that to honor an image brings no honor to the Risen Christ.
What is interesting for us today is that this whole issue is descending in fresh form on the church once again. What is the role of art in the church? What is the role of visual imagery in worship? Is the “image” of the preacher extended from one “live” service to a second streamed service in a remote location the same as the presence of the preacher? What are your thoughts on this?