Lets begin with one of the world’s greatest understatements: the incarnation has profound implications for the Christian faith. We could, of course, say this more forcefully. Without the incarnation, would there even be a Christian faith? The Christian faith centers on the incredible claim that that the Word became flesh.
This much should be obvious. What is not obvious (has never been obvious) is how one can make sense of a human person who is also God. Some of the earliest, and most heated, theological debates revolved around the question, “Who is Jesus?” Many of our readers with know the gist of these theological debates, so I won’t rehearse them here. But did you know that these debates crystallized in an 8th century controversy over aesthetics and worship? The 8th century iconoclastic controversy is remarkable because theoretical debates come to bear upon a practical issue like making paintings of Jesus. More important than this, however, is the theological rationale that wins the day, and what it says about a God who is visible.
The early church wrestled with a dual inheritance. On the one hand, they inherited the view that God is unrepresentable. Although not completely aniconic, the Old Testament surely emphasizes that God cannot be completely circumscribed by reason or the senses. Also, the best of Greek philosophy (such as Plato and his followers) emphasized that God is beyond and very different from the material world. On the other hand, they had to reckon with a God who becomes visible in the person of Jesus. How can these two claims — that God is unrepresentable and visible — be compatible?
The iconoclasts believed that they were not. In 754, the iconoclasts met in a council at Constantinople to condemn the making of icons. It may seem counter-intuitive, but their primary argument centered around the incarnation. Borrowing the language of the ecumenical council of Chalcedon (451), the iconoclasts argued that Jesus must be thought of as having two separate natures (human and divine) that are unified in one person. Icons, they said, inevitably err in one of two ways. First, they separate the two natures too much if they only image the humanity of Jesus. Second, they unify the two natures too much if they represent Jesus, who is both God and human. God, who is unrepresentable, cannot be “mingled” with a representation.
In 787, the iconodules had their say. A council met in Nicea that condemned iconoclasm and opened the way to the proper veneration of icons. The primary theological arguments in favor of the veneration of icons, however, come down to us in the writings of theologians of St John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite. It is important to note that, like the iconoclasts, their primary arguments centered around the incarnation. According to these thinkers, the incarnation is like divine permission to represent God. If God reveals Himself as a person, then we are free to represent God as that person. If God shows Himself to our senses, then it cannot be wrong to “see” God.
The arguments of the icondules won the day, and regardless of what one may think about the veneration of icons, they make an important point that we should not miss. The iconodules insist that our theology cannot be done “before” the incarnation. We cannot bring our metaphysical speculations about God to bear upon the incarnation if we do not first bring the incarnation to bear upon those metaphysical speculations. The reality that God makes Himself visible in the incarnation is prior to whatever we may think about God. This is the mystery and the challenge of the God who is visible.
Jim Watkins is a regular contributor to Transpositions. In 2012, he completed PhD in theology through the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, and he currently teaches humanities and bible at Veritas School in Richmond, VA. His forthcoming book Creativity as Sacrifice: Toward a Theological Model for Human Creativity in the Arts will be published with Fortress Press.
Image Credit: Wikipedia. Fair Use Justification: Public Domain.