Icons and Words

Mikhail_Nesterov-Holy_RusWith this post I want to make a link between my last article, on how we “see” icons, and an earlier article, “Doctrine and Opinion,” in which I quoted the late Fr. Georges Florovsky who said, “Doctrine is a verbal icon of Christ.” I noted then that this presented a very different approach to doctrine and the usual reasoned treatments that accompany it. Human reason has a very vital role to play in our lives – but not as an independent agent. Reason must live as the “mind in the heart,” if it is to rightly apprehend and speak of the things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

The very fact that Scripture can be translated says something about the iconicity of language. It is interesting that the Christian faith (particularly as witnessed in the Tradition of the East) has always translated Scripture. Christianity has a history, in the East, of worshipping in the indigenous languages of people. When St. John Chrysostom (that great master of the Greek language) was Archbishop of Constantinople, he ordered that a Church be set aside for the use of Goths who served in the imperial army (and whose families comprised a decent minority of the population of the city) and that the liturgy there be served in their language. He was simply ordering something that was already the common practice of Eastern Christianity. Thus an alphabet for the Slavic peoples was born when Sts. Cyril and Methodius began their evangelization of the Slavs. St. Innocent of Alaska and others contemporary to him, created alphabets and written languages for the native peoples of Alaska nearly a millennium later, continuing what had always been Orthodox practice.

This principle of translation differs strongly from the attitude that was historically manifest in Islam. To this day, though the Koran is translated, it is usually seen as only properly read in the language in which it was originally written. Language is not iconic for Islam.

Thus when Christians take an attitude to Scripture as “infallible in its original languages and manuscripts,” they take a position that is somewhat removed from the Tradition of the faith. I sometimes suspect that the medieval encounter and debate with Islamic scholars brought some of this thought into Christianity.

I offer a short aside about my use of the word “iconic.” I mean by this (in applying it to language) that language “represents” what it says in the manner that an icon “represents” what it pictures. There is a reality, a hypostatic reality, presented in the icon or spoken in the language. It is this “represented” that is the meaning of the word or the content of the icon. Thus a thing is not just a thing (or a painting just a painting) and a word or a sentence is not just a word or a sentence. In each case there is something more, something greater that is made present. Things, pictures, words are windows (to use the language of icons). They are means by which we encounter the Represented. In contrast, our modern world (and its precursors) see things as things, paintings as paintings, words as words. For some, words may be given special reverence, but only on a literal level. The words are “God-breathed” but opaque. In Orthodox Christianity, the words are God-breathed but translucent.

In whatever way it is that language and translation work – it is a way such that the Scriptures in Greek and the Scriptures in Slavonic (and in English and in Yupik, etc.) – manifest the same Truth. That they do so is a witness to their iconic character rather than to a mechanical, literalistic character.

A translation must be faithful – and some translations are more faithful than others – and yet translations are not a diminishing of the Truth in Scripture. Icons have this same character. They are not painted (or “written” as some iconographers say) on the whim of the iconographer. There is a pattern (traditionally another icon) of which each newly painted icon is a copy. There are numerous icons of the Mother of God – but each is still an icon of the Mother of God and not an icon of someone else. The same, of course, is true of icons of Christ.

By the same token, the opening verse of the gospel of John is still the opening verse of the gospel of John, whether it says, “In principio erat verbum,” or “Im Anfang war das Wort.” It is sometimes the case, I believe, that a translation will reveal some things that are true that could not have been seen in the original language. There are relations between words and ideas within a language that will exist only in that language. I personally believe that such relations and meanings created by them should not be ignored simply because the same relations and meanings do not exist in the original languages. Such meanings are not sufficient ground for the formal dogma of the Church, but they cannot be utterly excluded from the revelation made known to us in the Scriptures.

None of this is possible, of course, in a worldview in which things are merely things and words have a single and strict meaning, etc. Those who suggest that reason is a sufficient hermeneutic of Scripture simply ignore the traditional Christian witness to the character of language. Fr. Georges Florovsky made much of the Church’s condemnation of the Apollinarian heresy. That heresy had taught that the Divine Logos served as the soul of the God-Man, Christ Jesus (or in some accounts, the Logos served as the “mind” of the soul). This the Church condemned proclaiming that Christ would not have been truly and fully human if he had not had a fully human soul. “That which is not assumed is not saved,” are the famous words of St. Gregory Nazianzus in response to this heresy.

The subtle problem with Apollinarianism is its distrust of the human capacity to bear the divine (capax divinitatis). The same mistrust runs as a common tendency throughout iconoclasm. The material world, the created order, is simply judged incapable of bearing the Divine. The Tradition of the Church with regard to the Eucharist was too strong in early years to allow for historic Iconoclasm (7-8th century) to question the Eucharist as God’s body and blood. It was the “only” icon they would recognize (the Orthodox countered that the Eucharist was no icon at all, but Christ’s true Body and Blood). However, by the time of the Reformation, iconoclastic tendencies would begin to reject any Divine reality to even the Eucharist itself.

The general thrust of this iconoclastic Apollinarianism, is the gradual creation of our modern two-storey Christian world-view. The Divine is exiled from the created world and relegated to a theoretical existence. Sacraments are reduced to “mere symbols.” In such a thrust, it is little wonder that the Scriptures themselves have undergone repeated attacks. Reduced to a rationalized literalism, they eventually can carry no more weight than is granted to any other element of our de-sacralized creation. Modernism is the final triumph of iconoclasm. God cannot enter the world for the world has been rendered God-proof.

The choice between a “literal” world and an “iconic” world is a choice between worlds in which God either cannot be encountered or a world in which God is constantly encountered. The rationalization or emotionalization of Divine encounter are both elements of a world in which no encounter is possible. Both are encounters with God that exist strictly “within the mind of the beholder.” It is very, very thin ice upon which to skate the Christian faith.

The iconic character of creation is an inherent part of the fullness of Christian witness. The Word became flesh, and in so doing bore witness to the capacity of the flesh to bear the Divine. Language is capable of speaking God. According to Fr. Georges Florovsky, “The word of God does not grow dim in the tongue of man.” Translation is of the very character of language. In whatever way language carries meaning – that same meaning can be carried by yet another language. Translation certainly has an effect on the meaning it carries – but that effect does not render translation useless. Every icon of Christ remains an icon of Christ.

God has made Himself known to us and has done so in a way that is truly born by creation. The world in which we live bears the Divine – He is everywhere present and filling all things. Iconoclasm, including in its many modern forms, should be rejected as simply one of many attempts to remove God from the world. God is with us. His windows are everywhere.