Icons and the Theology of Light – Part 2
ICONS AND THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE MATERIAL TO THE SPIRITUAL
“And beholding his human form, we contemplate, as much as we can, the glory of his deity. Because we can only arrive at the spiritual through the material, for we are created twofold, possessing both soul and body; and because our soul is not naked but covered with a veil; thus we hear comprehensible words as with our corporeal ears and consequently contemplate the spiritual; and thus through bodily vision we come to the spiritual.”
To properly understand the Church’s embracing of the icon as a correct and profitable practice in the Christian life, we must understand the theological “culture” that the icon existed within. The early heresies threatened to define either Christ, God, the incarnation, or man in a way that would ultimately deny our salvation in Christ. The icon ultimately is a theological statement that summarized the Church’s definition of what it means for the human being to be saved in Christ.
Theology of Light Recap
2 Corinthians 3:6-18 says “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (NRSV).
2 Cor. 4:6 For God who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness” is the one who shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
Exodus 33:20-23 You cannot see my face for no man can see me and live.
Cf. Judges 6:22, 13:22 The Pillar of cloud and fire both manifests God and conceals Him.
John 1:18, 6:46, I John 4:12: No man has seen God except Christ.
I Tim. 6:16 …who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light; whom no man has seen or can see.
Gen. 32:24ff Jacob wrestles with God, “I have seen God face to face and lived.”
Matt. 5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
I John 3:2 …it has not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that if he should appear we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is.
These passages, if we read them carefully result in a doctrinal tension: How can God be “God”: unapproachable, wholly transcendent, inaccessible, cannot be seen and yet be seen and we be partakers of the divine nature (II Pet. 1:4) This is the issue that the early Church dealt with as it tried to define the nature of Christ and His relationship to the human being and what it means to be saved.
Heretics of the Early Church: What are these heresies really saying? First, that the human person, as a created being cannot know God, have communion with God AS HUMAN BEINGS. Only PART of us is saved or participates in salvation. Second, that God’s essence is either totally inaccessible to the human being or totally accessible, but only to a part of the human person. All end up denying either the transcendence of God, the Incarnation, the Trinity or the salvation of the entire human being.
Clement of Alexandria (3rd century): Knowledge is perfection. Knowledge is superior to faith, the goal of man is to know the essence of God. Only a few attain such knowledge, most live on milk, imperfect knowledge, and faith of the simple minded and carnal. God has given man the faculties to behold His essence and that faculty is the intellect, the “ability to know”. The “ones who know” are like “super men” who live holy lives and surpass all others intellectually and spiritually.
b.) Origen (3rd century): salvation, “seeing God” is an intellectual event. The “vision of God” is attained through contemplation of intelligible reality. This has its roots in the Platonic doctrines of God as a “simple essence” which can be ultimately understood and participated in through the human intellect. God is not the “God of all flesh” but the God of the mind and intelligent, intellectual beings. Salvation is ultimately a salvation FROM the world, an escape of the spirit/intellect of the human being from the realities and limitations of the created order.
Eunomius (4th century): Picked up on Origen’s “God as simple essence” or “one” that is intelligible to the human intellect, and taught that if the Son was generated by the Father, then the Son was inferior to the Father since any generation means a corruption of the simple essence and oneness of God. Thus God can only be known by that which is created by Himself, God manifests Himself to man by means of created things or events, so Jesus becomes one of the manifestations of the “one” God. Ultimately God is known in His essence, and we can know everything about God that God knows of Himself.
Theodoret and Theodore of Mopsuestia (4th century): The divinity of God is hidden in the humanity of Christ. We only see a “likeness” of God’s glory, not His true glory. Christ’s flesh is a disguise or a mask, and we can only see and comprehend the human nature of Christ, the divinity ultimately remains hidden behind the humanity. There can be no direct knowledge or communion between the created and divine, unlike Origen, Clement and Eunomius in which we comprehend the essence of God by the intellect alone.
Messalians: The essence of God can be apprehended by our human senses and seen with our fleshly eyes, and our fleshly “sentiments” (feelings) about God ultimately guide us.
The Orthodox View of Salvation: God is not a “simple essence” or “one” but “one in three”. Salvation is participation of the whole human being in the life of the Trinity through love. It is a “personal relationship” in which ALL of the human being participates in Christ’s life, not merely an intellectual knowledge of God.
St. Athanasius: Christ is the principle of new life. In the Incarnation there is a new creation, the resurrected body of Christ becomes the origin of incorruptibility and life for all creation. “The Word was made a bearer of flesh, that men might become bearers of the Spirit.”
St. Gregory: “What is not assumed is not healed.”
St. Basil the Great: “God may be known by His energies, but His essence remains inaccessible to human beings.” There is a distinction between God’s essence and His “uncreated energies”.
St. Epaphanius: Did Christ manifest ALL of God? God who is unknowable makes Himself known according to the capacity of our ability to apprehend Him. We see Him in the flesh according to our fleshly capacity, but as God He surpasses our capacity to fully comprehend Him. To see the sky through a crack in the roof is to see the sky but also not to see it. What can be said about the sky through the crack in the roof is true but not all about the sky can be said by it.
St. Gregory Palamas: The divine nature must be called at the same time both incommunicable to creation and in a sense communicable; we attain to participation in the divine nature of God and yet He remains totally inaccessible. We must affirm both things at once. …
LIGHT AND THE ESSENCE AND ENERGIES OF GOD
The Uncreated Energies of God: to be a partaker of the divine nature is to participate in the life of the Trinity, to be interpenetrated by the divine light of God. The Fathers use the illustration of the sword in the flame. If you put a sword in fire it partakes of the nature of the fire, but does not lose its own nature. If you touch the red hot sword to a piece of paper you could properly say that the fire burned the paper, but you could also properly say the sword burned the paper because it glowed with the fire whose nature it has taken on. The “energies” of God are uncreated, that is, flow from the very essence of God and are able to be apprehended and participated in by His creation. They are not “created”, but neither can we say that the energies are the very essence of God Himself since it is His essence that is manifested in His energies. We can also look at it like we “know” a person by his actions and conduct, by also by interacting with them at various levels. We would say we “know” the person and have a relationship with him, but the “essence” of the person still remains a mystery to us. Thus in the same way a person’s essence is “who he is” in a knowable way, God does not “cause” Light, Christ does not “create” light, He IS light.
THE TRANSFIGURATION Christ did not become what He was not before, but appeared to His disciples AS HE IS, by opening their eyes. (St. Paul saw the same thing but because he was an unbeliever, the event blinded him.)
St. John of Damascus: The fleshly body of Christ was glorified at the same time that it was brought out of non-being into existence, that the glory of the divinity should be spoken of also as the glory of the body, never was this holy body alien to the divine glory.” Jesus Christ as the God-Man, one person in two natures, the human being who manifested the Father, whose flesh was deified by the Holy Spirit, is the firstborn of those who participate in the divine life through Him, by the same Spirit that shone forth through His human flesh on Mt. Tabor.
WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ICONS?
An icon represents the PERSON of Jesus Christ. The icon is a representation of the person who had two natures, uncreated and created. It does not depict merely His human nature or His divine nature, because to do so would be to fall into one of the heresies of the early Church that denied one or the other, and thus ultimately denied the possibility of the salvation of the human being as a whole person in body, soul and spirit.
ICONS of the SAINTS: Paul Evdokimov notes about the gold halos that “the saints become luminous in their bodies, and this is a normative sign of their holiness. ‘You are the light of the world.’ The halos which are painted on the saints in their icons are an expression of this normative sign” (Art of the Icon, 56). Ouspensky points out that just as Moses glowed when he descended from Sinai, so there is a light on the faces of the saints who have come close to God, and “the icon conveys this phenomenon of light by a halo, which is a precise sign, in an image, of a well-defined event in the spiritual world” (Theology of the Icon, I, 174).
The icon of the saint depicts the human being whose human nature has become a partaker of the divine nature (dwells in Light). The light in an icon comes from within the saint who participates in the divine life FULLY as a human being, not merely intellectually. The WHOLE person participates in the divinity of Christ, not just the mind. The manifestation of God is always in a “Mandela” or “almond shaped light” to show that it is by the Holy Spirit that our eyes are opened, but not merely our physical eyes but our entire being. The Divine Light is revealed to, participated in and apprehended by the entire person, not just one or two of our faculties. Thus the Fathers say that the Light of God transcends the intellect and senses because the human being is body, soul and spirit and the entire person participates in the Light of God. The “Light” of Christ is not perceptible to mere human faculties, otherwise we would all be constantly blinded. We “see” the divine light as our humanity is purified of sin, the passions, the ego and all that is contrary to Light. This partaking of the divine nature is the transfiguration of our whole person, but not a loss of our human nature, either our bodies, minds, or spirits. Just as Christ shone with the uncreated light of God because He was God in flesh, we are like the sword in the flame and will shine with the uncreated light of God in our flesh.
This is the most daring affirmation of Christianity: The total human being can commune fully with God who manifests Himself totally to His creation. We affirm both the fullness of our salvation by full participation in the Divine nature and the utter transcendence and “otherness” of God as our Creator. We are not “lost” in some divine essence or cosmic energy, but we are personally loved and known by God, whom we love.