In 1988 I began studies at Duke University in the Graduate School of Religion. My intention at the time was to complete a doctorate and look for a teaching position. I had served for eight years in the ordained ministry of the Episcopal Church and was headed for what I hoped would be a deepening of my understanding of the faith and of my ministry. I had an interest in Orthodox theology at the time, and applied to Duke particularly to study with Geoffrey Wainwright who is a noted systematic theologian and very sympathetic and understanding of Orthodox theology (he was the commencement speaker year before last at St. Vladimir’s Seminary).
I also found a growing interest in the work of Stanley Hauerwas who was and is on the faculty there as well. Generally, I was never disappointed in my studies. In most if not all of my seminars I was able to concentrate my own studies on Orthodox writings and found support and encouragement. It is too long a story to explain how my doctoral program became a Master’s program (it was my choice). But my studies, even as they concluded, probably sealed a certain portion of my conversion to the Orthodox faith.
I wrote my thesis on the “Icon as Theology,” after Dr. Wainwright sent me down that path. I discovered as I studied not the art, but the theology of the icon, that everything I had learned previously about the Orthodox faith was summarized in these colorful representations – and perhaps more.
A very significant moment occurred during my thesis defense. The committee examining me consisted of Geoffrey Wainwright, Stanley Hauerwas and Susan Keefe, Associate Professor of Church History at the Divinity School. You never know quite what to expect when you are defending a thesis or a dissertation – anything can happen. Generally our conversations were friendly and simply pressed various issues within the thesis. But true to his form, Hauerwas turned the tables in a suddenly personal fashion:
“Stephen, do you believe that the veneration of icons is necessary for salvation?”
It was more than a personal question (indeed it felt we had suddenly left all academics aside). What Dr. Hauerwas was well aware of was that my ordination oath as an Episcopal priest contained the statement: “I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to contain all things necessary to salvation.”
I balked at his question. The fact that I balked and did not immediately repeat the oath I had taken some 10-and-a-half years before (it was now 1990), was itself a crystalizing moment for me. There are such moments when time seems to stop or at least to have no relevance. I have no idea I long I hesitated, but the answer seemed clear to me:
“Though I took an oath that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to salvation, I believe the veneration of icons is necessary to its fullness.”
It was a statement I had never made before, but was clearly a statement I believed to be true. Had I denied it I would have been lying.
What was clear to me was that something had changed. What had been an intellectual interest in Orthodox theology and something of a touchstone for Christian believing (it was simply impossible to find reliable doctrinal teaching elsewhere, in my experience), had now become an article of faith.
For one, the notion of the “fullness of the faith,” was a concept I had not always considered but had become increasingly familiar with as I read Orthodox writings. The “fullness” of the truth is something larger than a mere syllogism. It implies not only correctness of doctrine, but doctrine that is itself set in its proper context and relationship. The word “Orthodox” can be translated to simply mean “correct,” but its larger meaning is “right glory.” The Orthodox understanding is that right believing is only fully known in right worship. We were created to give God glory and thanksgiving (Fr. Alexander Schmemann very famously draws this from Romans 1:21). It is only in that state of giving glory and thanksgiving that we rightly know and perceive the truth. Doctrine cannot be divorced from worship (this was a point for which Wainwright was well known and which drew me to work with him).
But my studies had led me to see that the “fullness” of the faith was summarized in the veneration of icons in a way that was matched by nothing else. It is a mark of Orthodox worship that the great struggles for the true faith in the early centuries had profound effects on certain aspects of worship. When the heresy of Arianism was answered with the Nicene Creed – the Creed became an indispensable part of the Liturgy. Indeed, every affirmation of the faith over and against the various heresies found some voice within the prayers and hymns of the Church. To worship God is also to affirm the truth as it has been made known.
The last of the great Ecumenical Councils, by Orthodox reckoning, was the Seventh, in which the making and veneration of icons was solemnly defined by the Church in answer to the heresy of iconoclasm. The theological underpinnings of that council required the whole of the previous six – it served as a summarization. Thus the presence of icons in an Orthodox Church is not optional – they are as necessary as the Nicene Creed.
The Church worshipped without all of the stated words of the Nicene Creed prior to the 4th century, though its faith did not differ from that of Nicaea. There is evidence of images within Christian Churches going back to the Second Century (most famously in the Catacombs of Rome). I do not presume that images played the same role in the first few centuries that they came to play in later centuries – but that is the nature of Christian doctrine and worship. I do not see this as a development of doctrine, but simply an outward statement of what the Church has always known. Regarding icons St. John of Damascus stated in the 8th century:
Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. [On Icons, 1,16].
St. John’s statement, perhaps one of the most familiar and oft-quoted of the Fathers on icons, demonstrates how the holy icons served to summarize the faith. We make them because in doing so we defend the fact of Christ’s incarnation. In the canonical style that came to be the standard within Orthodoxy, the icons did more than reaffirm the incarnation – they came to say, as the Father’s of the Seventh Council affirmed, “with color, what the Scriptures say with words.” I had not denied an oath I took at one point in my life – I had simply discovered that there is a fullness of the same gospel that is also stated in color. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. There is, in fact, only one Word, and though He could not be contained by the universe, He was nonetheless contained within matter. Words alone might give rise to a dematerialization of that truth – reducing the incarnate God to an idea – a statement – words alone. That we eat His Body and drink His Blood serve as sacramental anchors for His continuing use of matter.
His image states in another manner the same fullness. I will not cease from honoring the matter which works my salvation. If there is a fullness – why would we want less?