Icons and the Name of God

Icons and the Name of God


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Icons and the Name of God by Sergius Bulgakov

In Orthodox theology both the icon and the name of God transmit divine energies, theophanies, or revelations that imprint God's image within us. In Icons and the Name of God renowned Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov explains the theology behind the Orthodox veneration of icons and the glorification of the name of God. In the process Bulgakov covers two major controversies — the iconoclastic controversy (sixth to eighth centuries) and the "Name of God" controversy (early twentieth century) — and explains his belief that an icon stops being merely a religious painting and becomes sacred when it is named. This translation of two essays "The Icon and Its Veneration" and "The Name of God" — available in English for the first time — makes Bulgakov's rich thinking on these key theological concepts available to a wider audience than ever before.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802866646
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 02/27/2012
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) is widely regarded as the twentieth century's leading Orthodox theologian.

Boris Jakim is the foremost translator of Russian religiousthought into English. His published translations includeworks by S.L. Frank, Pavel Florensky, Vladimir Solovyov,and Sergius Bulgakov.

Read an Excerpt

Icons and the Name of God

By Sergius Bulgakov

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6664-6

Chapter One

The Icon and Its Veneration (A Dogmatic Essay)

1. The History of the Dogma of Icon Veneration

The veneration of icons was legitimized in the Church by the decree accepted in the seventh act of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. In this decree, having confirmed the doctrine of the six earlier ecumenical Councils, the fathers proclaim: "We preserve as unalterable all the traditions of the Church, whether written or unwritten. One of these traditions prescribes the making of painted icon images, since this is in conformity with the history of Gospel preaching and serves to confirm that Christ was made man truly, not illusorily, as well as serving for our benefit. On this basis ... we decree that holy and precious icons be offered (for veneration) in precisely the same manner as the image of the Holy Life-giving Cross, whether they be made of paints, of mosaics, or of some other material, as long as they are made appropriately, whether they be found in the holy churches of God, on sacred vessels, on walls and on boards, or in homes and on roads, and also whether these be the icons of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, of our immaculate Mistress the Holy Mother of God, or of the holy angels and all the saints and righteous men. The more frequently with the aid of icons they are the objects of our contemplation, the more those who gaze upon these icons will be motivated to remember the prototypes themselves, the more love they will acquire for them and the more they will be motivated to kiss them, to offer them reverence and veneration, but not at all to offer them that true service, latreia, which, according to our faith, can appropriately be offered only to the Divine nature.... The honor bestowed upon the icon refers to its proto-image, and he who venerates the icon venerates the hypostasis portrayed on it."

As we see from the text of this decree, it does not contain any dogmatic definition of icons or any dogmatic justification for their veneration; it only legitimizes the use of holy icons and establishes the form of their veneration (reverence and veneration — timetike proskunesis, but not service, latreia). In conformity with this, there is no dogmatic definition in the oros of the Seventh Ecumenical Council: it is enforced not by anathematisms but only by ecclesiastical disciplinary punishments (removal of bishops and clergy, and excommunication of laity and monks). It is true that, later, at this same Council, along with other general and personal anathematisms, an anathema is pronounced against those who do not accept holy icons. However, this only belongs to the ritual of the Council; it was not introduced, and even could not be introduced, into the decree itself because it lacked dogmatic content. Thus, it is necessary to establish first of all that the Seventh Ecumenical Council gave us only the canon of icon veneration, not the dogma of what the icon represents as a fact of dogmatic significance. This absence of dogma was also connected with the general character of the Council, which tended to be "economic" rather than dogmatic. Moreover, the Council was extremely short-lasting and hurried (which is explained by the historical circumstances surrounding it). It lasted only about a month and consisted only of eight sessions (of which only two, sessions 6 and 7, were devoted specifically to the essence of the matter, and even here it was a question not of discussion but of the presentation of a single report, probably given by Patriarch Tarasios himself, in the form of a critique of the theses of iconoclasm). Thus, it can be said that, although the Church legitimized icon veneration, it did not present a dogma of it; and the question of the dogmatic meaning of icon veneration still remains an object of theological discussion. Of course, in this connection we have the whole history, extending over many centuries, of the dogmatic struggle for and against icon veneration, even if this struggle has not yielded indisputable dogmatic results. There exists a whole series of patristic writings devoted to this question and demanding respectful and serious discussion. These writings must of course be taken into account in any dogmatic investigation of the question.

We must first examine the history of icon veneration (of course, within the limits set by our task of dogmatic investigation). In this history we first of all encounter the fundamental fact that the icon first appears in paganism. The entire paganworld is full of icons and icon veneration. This is sufficiently attested by the monumental temple-building and sculpture of the East and of Egypt, by the irresistibly beautiful art of ancient Greece, and by the prosaically imitative art of ancient Rome. Paganism was full of representational art, and Israel, during all the epochs of its existence, was surrounded by its own religious art. However, Israel's art was essentially pagan, for it originated in the worship of false gods. Therefore, Israel's icons were idols; that is, they were the icons of false gods and in this sense they were false icons; or they were simply fetishes in which was obliterated the very distinction between the image and that which was imaged, between image and proto-image, between icon and deity; and for this reason latreia, worship appropriate to deities, was proffered to them. Both forms of the pagan veneration of icons equally made men stray from the service of the true God and therefore constituted a religious temptation, which was the more dangerous, the more enchanting were its artistic images. Israel was besieged by this temptation, and continually gave in to it, according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, historical and prophetic. In this sense, according to its religious coefficient pagan idolatry was an abomination before the Lord, a spiritual debauchery that was often combined with a bodily debauchery. Judaism's attitude toward idolatry, which initially was communicated to early Christianity as well, could only be expressed in intense and unending struggle.

However, this does not change the fact that it was paganism that first posed and solved the problem of the icon as a sacred image, insofar as it was possible to solve this problem given the religious limitations of paganism. Paganism took as its starting point the conviction, which it seemed to consider self-evident, that the Deity is portrayable in images that, if not adequate, are at least rich with symbolic significance. At the same time, paganism tacitly rejected the apophatic idea that it is impossible to portray the Deity because He is imageless and invisible, an idea that became one of the chief foundations of iconoclasm. This led to a further conviction, which constituted the second foundation of pagan iconography: it was considered that the image proper to the Deity could be known to and portrayed by man, that is, that in a certain sense this image was human in character. This does not necessarily mean that these pagan icons always presented the images precisely of human beings; on the contrary, we know that pagan temples were full of nonhuman images: nightmarish figures of the animal world and of the natural world in general oppressed the human consciousness. However, these were images that were made by man, that passed through the prism of human consciousness and in the end were humanized.

Therefore, what is of chief significance for pagan iconography is not these monstrous idols in which the essence of the image is obscured, but human, or humanlike, icons, which attained their peak in Greek art. The Greek gods in their likeness to men represented the peak of the artistic theology and anthropology of paganism and were also the true revelation of this theology and anthropology. Just as in its highest achievements Greek philosophy manifested itself as a Christianity before Christ, and on this basis also became the natural language of Christian revelation and theology, so the revelation of the art of antiquity in the form of iconography was, in a certain though limited sense, a Christianity before Christ and indisputably served as the prototype of the Christian icon. The pagan, and especially the Greek, world manifested man's likeness to God, representing this likeness in ideal images of natural man as the perfect form of corporeality. And these manifestations of beauty were so convincing and irresistible that, after them, there was no need to find or prove anew the possibility of the icon. On the contrary, the icon was taken from paganism as something familiar and self-evident by the Christian Church, which of course changed the content of icon images while assimilating the principle of the icon. Art was the bridge connecting pagan iconography with Christian iconography. Through the icon, art was raised to religious heights, comparable to those to which ancient philosophy was raised through Christian theology. Pagan iconography bore witness that art has its visions and seeings which contain religious revelation. Religious art complemented theology for the pagan world, and therefore iconographic theology was something that originated in paganism. Moreover, the ideal images of pure humanity that were required also by the Christian icon were already present in pagan art. To be sure, this does not mean that these images were merely repeated by Christian iconography; on the contrary, the latter put its own stamp on them. Nevertheless, this does not diminish the fact that pagan iconography represents, so to speak, the natural old testament for Christian iconography, just as pagan philosophy is the natural old testament for Christian theology. To be sure, these genuine revelations of pagan religious art were made complex and obscured to an extreme degree by the religious ambiguity, if not by the outright demonism, that characterized paganism. Pagan art needed to be exorcised, and this exorcism was performed by Christianity. As a direct result of this exorcism, art as such suffered a loss, but in return it stopped being possessed. For Christian theology pagan iconography already posed the general question concerning the nature of icons of the Deity and whether they are possible, as well as concerning the pathways of art as a special form of the knowledge of God.

Nevertheless, precisely because of the religious temptation it represented, paganism posed such a danger for the chosen nation that the Old Testament's entire attitude toward pagan art was determined by motives of religious pedagogy. Pagan art remained under a religious prohibition for Israel, and all idolatrous tendencies — such as those manifested by kings who began to serve pagan gods — were regarded as a religious fall. The psychological type of the pious Jewin this respect can be clearly seen in the Apostle Paul, who, while in Athens, face to face with the highest achievements of Greek art, became perturbed in spirit "when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry" (Acts 17:16). Besides idols he did not see anything there. The making of idols, or of "any likeness," was prohibited by the second commandment, in connection with the first, in the general law of the true worship of God; and at the same time a prohibition was placed on all representational art except, perhaps, architecture and the adornment of temples (the express gift of the Holy Spirit given to Bezaleel and his helpers: Exod. 31:1-10). The denunciations found in the prophetic books, as well as a kind of satire in the description of idol-making in the noncanonical Wisdom of Solomon (ch. 13), only serve to confirm this general observation. The prudence of such an attitude was confirmed by what we know of the life of the Jews then: at every convenient opportunity they tended to succumb to the crudest religious fetishism, to outright idolatry, whose objects did not rise above the level of emblematic images: for example, the bronze snake permitted by Moses as a remembrance of a miracle but which turned into a fetish and for that reason was destroyed by the pious King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4); the golden calf; the Teraphim. To the general prohibition that stifled religious art, there was only one exception: God Himself commanded that two cherubim with extended wings be made of gold and placed above the ark of the covenant (Exod. 25:18-22); and this was done by Solomon in the temple together with carved images on the doors and walls (1 Kings 6:23-32). This of course was an exception that was incomprehensible from the point of view of the Old Testament, an exception which, in the eyes of iconoclasts, old and new, did not disprove the general rule. But in essence it did abolish the general rule, thereby leaving it with nothing more than a conventionally pedagogic significance. This image of the two cherubim, which is usually adduced by apologists of icon veneration against Judaizing iconoclasts who insist on the letter of the second commandment, already represents a fundamental recognition of both the rights and the possibilities of religious art, as well as the possibility of portraying the spiritual world with the resources and images of this art, although pedagogically it is limited in quantity. In addition, it is necessary to recognize that to admit the icons of angels did not yet signify icon veneration. Why and in what sense does the Old Testament admit the portrayal of angels? To this question we usually find no answer in the theological doctrine of icons, either from icon venerators or from iconoclasts.

From Judaism the Christian Church inherited the prohibition against religious images as something self-evident and having the force of law, and in this sense the Church's initial tendency was somewhat iconoclastic. There were more than sufficient religious-moral and pedagogic reasons for this: the Christian communities were little islands in a sea of paganism, and they could not help being besieged both outwardly and inwardly by the influence of paganism. For Christianity it was clear that paganism with its worship of idols was fatally possessed by demons. And it is on these religious positions that Christianity first encountered paganism as its fundamental enemy, with which it could have nothing in common. This also determined the character of the early Christian apologetics, with its irreconcilable hostility toward paganism, particularly toward the worship of idols. It is interesting to note that this attitude was wholly reproduced among the apologists for icon veneration in the epoch of the iconoclastic disputes (Patriarch Nicephoros, St. Theodore the Studite). For us at the present time, when the battle against idolatry has only a historical significance, the difference between idols and icons is much less clear than what is common between them: the recognition that the Divine world can be represented in images of the human world (and even in images of the animal world and of the whole created world in general) with the resources of art, as well as the recognition that these images are worthy of veneration. Paganism bequeathed to Christianity an already developed idea of the icon as well as the fundamental principles of iconography (planar images with reverse perspective, methods of representation, ornamentation, etc.). In this light it is easy to understand how the icon appeared in the Christian Church and occupied its place in spite of the second commandment's prohibition and as if contrary to this prohibition, which Christianity too accepted implicitly. One can of course see in this the direct influence of paganism, or an "acute Hellenization" of Christianity, similar to that observed in the development of Christian dogma (Harnack). In fact, from Greco-Roman culture Christianity chose and took that which was its own, that is, that which belonged to it as a "Christianity before Christ" in the pagan world, in the same way that a magnet attracts iron filings. Here it is necessary to speak not of the influence upon Christianity but of the influence in Christianity of that which was naturally drawn into it by the force of internal affinity.


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Table of Contents

Translator's Introduction Vll

The Icon and Its Veneration (A Dogmatic Essay) 1

1 The History of the Dogma of Icon Veneration 1

2 Antinomy of the Icon 25

3 Art and Icon 40

4 The Divine Proto-Image 50

5 The Content and Limits of the Icon 65

6 The Sanctification of Icons and the Significance of Such Sanctification 77

7 The Veneration of Icons 83

8 Different Types of Icons 93

The Name of God 115

Post Scriptum to "The Name of God": A Sophiological Interpretation of the Dogma of the Name Jesus 167

Index 178

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