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Are Icons Idols? Responding to J.I. Packer’s Iconoclasm

The entire history of Christian thought proclaims that the Second Commandment categorically forbids any pictorial representation of God – at least, that is what J.I. Packer claims in his popular 1973 book Knowing God. But are icons idols? Or is there something Packer is missing?

This article was originally written as a seminary paper in 2017. It was adapted by its author, Benjamin Cabe, to be used as a Theoria video in 2021. Click here to watch the video. Click here to download the article with additional notes. Or just read below.

The entire history of Christian thought proclaims that the Second Commandment categorically forbids any pictorial representation of God – at least, that is what J.I. Packer claims in his popular 1973 book Knowing God. Considering the enthusiasm with which it was received and its momentum in the market, this book might be considered one of the foundational pieces for Protestant iconoclasm today. Though Packer’s book contains neither citations nor bibliography, his approach to the subject can be considered a condensation and popularization of John Calvin’s arguments. 

The bulk of Packer’s iconoclastic arguments are expounded in his fourth chapter entitled, The Only True God, and can be reduced to two major objections: 1. Images compromise God’s glory, and 2. Images give birth to false conceptions of God. These conclusions are based in Packer’s reading of the Second Commandment which, he claims, must be referring to something other than obvious forms of idolatry, such as Totem Poles and Hindu statuary (see Packer 1993, p. 25), as these are “obviously” condemned by the First Commandment. Otherwise, according to Packer, “it [the Second Commandment] would simply be repeating the thought of the first commandment without adding anything to it” (Ibid). 

Packer triumphantly proclaims that he “take[s] the second commandment—as in fact it has always been taken—as pointing us to the principle that (to quote Charles Hodge) ‘idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but also in the worship of the true God by images’” (Packer 1993, p. 25). Thus, Packer categorically forbids the use of any and all images in worship,“for they obscure [God’s] glory” (Ibid), and in Christian pedagogy, because “they convey false ideas about God” (Ibid. pp. 25, 26). 

The Eastern Orthodox Church, on the other hand, sees both the First and the Second Commandment as prohibitions against pagan polytheism (e.g., against false gods). The Second Commandment, in particular, was given as a guard against syncretism (Israel’s perennial problem) not as a decree against post-incarnational iconography, as the iconoclasts claim.  Consider an analogous example: the creed of Israel,“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4), was given by the Lord as a protection against the predominant pagan polytheism, not as a prescription against Trinitarian Theology, as non-Trinitarians such as Oneness Pentecostals claim.

Further, the Second Commandment was necessary in that, prior to the Incarnation, God, Who is “incorporeal and formless,” could “never [be] depicted” (Damascus 2003, p. 29). However, according to John of Damascus, “now that God has been seen in the flesh and has associated with humankind” (Ibid), He Who has been seen (e.g., Jesus Christ) can be depicted. 

The vision that creation participates and facilitates man’s Salvation through Jesus Christ, is tied to the inherent “goodness” of creation, its fall through man, and its restoration in Christ; this is the basis of all Sacramental-Liturgical life. According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “in the Christian worldview, matter is never neutral. If it is not ‘referred to God,’ i.e. viewed and used as a means of communion with Him, of life in Him, it becomes the very bearer and locus of the demonic” (Schmemann 1974, p. 48). However, even after the fall, when “matter . . . [became] the vehicle for man’s fall and enslavement to death and sin,” it is possible, because of the Incarnation of Christ, for “matter . . . [to] become again the symbol of God’s glory and presence, the sacrament of His action and communion with man” (Ibid, pp. 48, 49). As one modern iconographer put it: “the message [of the icon] is ultimately the incarnate Logos, Christ, the Archetype of deification, in whom all beings find their ground and derive meaning, the Beauty from which all beauty shines forth” (Pino 2013, p. 19). Put another way, this means that, within the place of art, generally, the Icon of Christ is the Archetype of Beauty, in Whom all beauty exists and for Whom all things long. Thus, the Orthodox Christian understands iconography to be a necessary outworking of the Incarnation, one that displays the glory and truth of God as revealed in the mysterious dispensation of the Incarnate Logos. 

Both Packer and the Orthodox Church offer two antipodal interpretations of the Second Commandment and Incarnation’s demand on Christian life. But which view adheres most faithfully to the Traditional Christian interpretation of Scripture and the Incarnation? To answer this question one is confronted with the following questions: has the Second Commandment always been understood to unconditionally ban the use of all images in Christian worship? Do images necessarily “hide” the glory of God and “convey false ideas” about Him? Are Orthodox Christians idolaters, or is there something that Packer is missing? In order to answer these questions within the context of Church history, a brief survey of iconoclasm is necessary. 

Within the first millennia of Christian History, two periods of overt iconoclasm can be discerned (the first from 726-787 A.D; the second from 815-843 A.D). While it seems that, “there had always existed a ‘puritan’ outlook, which condemned icons because it saw in all images a latent idolatry involved with images” (Bp. Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, revised ed., p. 31), this kind of “puritan outlook” was a sentiment of individuals rapt in fringe Christian heresies of Gnostic or Docetic influence. These heresies adhered to a dualistic worldview, much like Packer’s implied dualism, which downplayed, if not vilified, the material creation and its role in Salvation (thus denying the reality of the Incarnation). But this view was not mainstream. In fact, the most widely accepted valid Historical witnesses to Christianity wrote favorably about Icons. The first outbreak arose from contention between Bishops (in Eastern Asia Minor) over misuses of iconography, such as were condemned in the canons 82 (using a lamb to represent Christ) and 100 (against sensual imagery) of the Quinesext Council. While these abuses were condemned, it’s important to note that iconography, as a whole, was not. In addition, the first major arguments against iconography were likely influenced by the prevalence of Paulicianist dualism and anti-imagery mentality of the Muslims in the 7th and 8th centuries. 

In 754 A.D, however, the first attempt to ecclesially codify this “puritan outlook” was made by the Iconoclastic Council. This council, which was called by Constantine V, vehemently condemned icons, seeing their use as idol-worship. Quoting Romans 1:23-25, the council accused the iconoclasts of “chang[ing] the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man” and thus “exchanging the truth of God for a lie.” In 787 A.D., however, the Iconoclastic Council was overturned, its “calumnies” (see NPNF vol. 14,  p. 549) addressed, by what is now recognized as the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Using St. John of Damascus’ distinction between latrea and proskynesis, this Council delineated between the Worship given to God and veneration paid to the Icons, proclaiming, along with St. Basil the Great, that the “honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents” (Ibid, p. 550); they also warned against the dangers incumbent on those who “dare spurn the traditions of the Church” (Ibid). But even with this warning, not everyone was convinced. 

Only seven years later, in 794 A.D., Charlemagne, who had received a faulty translation of the Seventh Council which failed to make the distinction between worship and veneration, commissioned a treatise to be written against its proceedings. This document, which rejected the “worship” of icons and emphasized their instructional use only, is known as the “Libri Carolini . . . [and] in practice . . .  [it] remains the official position to this day” (Ouspensky 1992, p. 488). Following Charlemagne’s lead, Emperor Leo V insisted, in 815 A.D., that icons could be used didactically but not venerated; the gravity of Leo V’s insistence provided enough pull to kickstart a second wave of iconoclasm. The notion that icons should be used as instructional aids only was later addressed at a Synod in Constantinople in 843 A.D., which reaffirmed the proceedings of the Second Council of Nicea. This restoration of the icons by Empress Theodora is known today as the Triumph of Orthodoxy because the icons, and their use in the Church and personal life, demonstrate an outworking of the Church’s core teachings on Christology and Incarnational Theology. The conclusions of Nicea II and the Synod of Constantinople stood firm in the Liturgical-Sacramental life of the Church – the Church in which both the iconoclasts and the iconodules found themselves – which necessitated, by its very structure, their affirmation of the Sacramental Vision of the cosmos and the impetus of the Icon.

When the history of iconoclasm is taken into account, it becomes clear that Packer, who claimed a number of pseudo-theological arguments from the Iconoclastic Council, demonstrates little originality. However, his articulation is distinct in a few ways. In order to get a better idea of Packer’s argument, one must look to the influence of Late Medieval Nominalism on Western Christian thought. The Nominalists “[made] God’s omnipotence His fundamental characteristic, instead of His goodness, or love . . . [which led] to a very dark view of God” (Ford 2015, p. 133). For the Calvinist, this omnipotence is expressed in God’s “freedom” to arbitrarily damn men to hell in order that His justice might be satisfied and His Glory revealed in His saving an elect few. Thus, for both Packer and the Nominalist, “limiting God is the key thing they will not accept, because they believe the most important thing is His omnipotence as they have defined it” (Ibid). For Packer, God’s glory is at stake when he is represented pictorially because “his glory is precisely what images can never show us” (Packer 1993, p. 26). That is, the image “limits” God and thereby obscures His glory. Iconodules are guilty of idolatry not because they are confusing the wood and paint for God in Essence, but because they are falsely representing God (because they are limiting God) by their use of images, thus offending His majesty and obscuring His glory. Thus, images must be condemned both in worship and in teaching because they can never raise man to worship in spirit and in truth (see John 4:24).

Here, Packer unwittingly postulates that all Christian images are necessarily false images and necessarily produce false theology. The Orthodox Church, however, in recognition of the fact that “images and pictures of God affect our thoughts of God” (Packer 1993, p. 26), makes a distinction between true and false images – between canonical iconography and non-canonical iconography. False images can lead to false theology. This is exactly why iconography is tied tandem with ascetical labor and the Sacramental Life of the Church, because “iconography must be authentic  . . . [and the iconographer must work] without the desire to impose [himself] egotistically” (Hart, p. 5). Unlike the “study of religious art” which “is often disassociated from an understanding of nature as theophany and symbol, permeated with the glory of God” (Pino 2013, p.17), the Icon’s natural context is within the walls of the Liturgical-Sacramental life of the Church. It’s only natural, then, that Packer, who is bereft of this Sacramental vision of the Cosmos, would reject iconography. 

Assuming that all Christian imagery is false, Packer continues his critique in a manner that seems to confuse what is depicted in the icon. This method seems to mimic Constantine V who proclaimed that,

either icons of Christ are Monophysitic (mixing the Divine and human natures, if their defenders say that Christ Himself is depicted in the icons), or Nestorian (separating Christ’s divine nature from His humanity, if it is stated that only His human nature and not His divine nature is being depicted). (BOH II, p. 34)

The thrust of this argument, however, fails to recognize that nature (whether Divine or human) must be concretized in an hypostasis; that is to say, it is only through the person that it is possible to know, 1. The attributes of the nature (e.g., whether Divine or human), and 2. The personal characteristics of this specific person who is in that nature (e.g., coming to know a specific person). Glory or majesty can never be understood, considered, or even contemplated outside of the persons of the Holy Trinity, Who actualize and reveal it. The the icon is understood to display the likenessof the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Who took on human nature alongside His Divine Nature, without any confusion, change, separation, or division between the two. While Packer might complain, for instance, that, “the crucifix obscures the glory of Christ, [because] it hides the fact of his deity . . . [and only] displays his human weakness” (Op. Cit., p. 26), Ouspenksy writes that, “the Orthodox did not even think of representing either the divine nature  or the human nature of Christ. They represented His person, the person of the God-Man who unites in Himself the two natures without confusion or division” (Ouspensky, p. 153).

But in Packer’s view, it is precisely this that leads to another critical point: iconography is not painted after the likeness of the Historical Christ. He writes that, “at best, they can only think of God in the image of man-as an ideal man, perhaps, or a superman. But God is not any sort of man” (Packer 1993, p. 26). This shocking statement, which betrays a complete disregard for Incarnation, is indicative of Packer’s entire argument, in which he never once deigns to mention the Incarnation. Instead of recognizing meaning of the Incarnation for Christian life, Packer, along with Calvin, blasphemes it, calling the wood and paint used in such images “dead and corruptible matter” and their use “brute stupidity,” proclaiming that those who see this “foolish scruple of the Greek Christians” should “cling to this principle: God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him.” (Calvin 1960, pp. 100, 104; Institutes, 1.11.1, 4). Considering the audacity of this claim, one is forced to ask if the “limiting” nature of the Incarnation – in that the Second Person of the Trinity took on the form of a servant (see Philippians 2:1-9), thereby allowing Himself to be circumscribed in the flesh – is a detriment to God’s glory?  Were those who saw Christ (Who is the Image of the Invisible God [Colossians 1:15]) in the Flesh “miserably deluded”? According to this logic, it seems that God’s glory and majesty would only be rightfully recognized (and not shrouded in the delusion of the “dead matter” which Christ put on at the Incarnation) in events like the Transfiguration. For Packer, the Incarnation is doubtlessly an “extrinsic” reality only  that serves no greater purpose than to allow Christ’s Flesh to be ripped apart on the Cross in order to satisfy “God’s justice” (see Ford 2015, pp. 130-132). 

Such radical disinterest in the Incarnation leaves one to wonder what kind of God it is that Packer purports to know – and how one is supposed to know this amorphous God who seems to exist only in mental contortions. According to Packer, the only viable mode of Divine Revelation (e.g., knowledge of God) is the “Spoken Word” which he sees as the Bible, only. Relating this lesson to Deuteronomy 4, he writes that, 

Moses himself expounds the prohibition of images . . . he reminds the people that at Sinai, though they saw tokens of God’s presence, they saw no visible representation of God himself, but only heard his word, and he exhorts them to continue to live, as it were, at the foot of the mount, with God’s own word ringing in their ears to direct them and no supposed image of God before their eyes to distract them (Packer 1993, p. 27). 

He insists even further, saying that, “the point is clear. God did not show them a visible symbol of himself, but spoke to them; therefore they are not now to seek visible symbols of God, but simply to obey his Word” (Ibid). For Packer, it is this exact point that leads to his stance on Sola Scriptura:  

[God] has spoken. He has spoken to and through his prophets and apostles, and he has spoken in the words and deeds of his own Son. Through this revelation, which is made available to us in holy Scripture, we may form a true notion of God; without it we never can. Thus it appears that the positive force of the second commandment is that it compels us to take our thoughts of God from his own holy Word, and from no other source whatsoever. (Ibid)

This argument, however, was addressed 1200 years before Packer by St. John of Damascus. St. John quipped that, “If, because of the law, you prohibit images, watch that you keep the sabbath and are circumcised; for these the law unyieldingly commands (Op. Cit., 1.16, p. 31). Packer’s stalwart insistence on the Second Commandment as an imposition against Christian imagery shows an implicit denial of the Old and New Testament’s roles as symbol and fulfillment, respectively. On this theme, Leonid Ouspensky writes that, “the prohibition of all direct and concrete images was accompanied by the divine commandment to establish certains symbolic images, those prefigurations which were the tabernacle and everything which it contained” (Op. Cit., p. 42). He comments further that,

[the icon] is not a break with nor even a contradiction of the Old Testament, as the Protestants understand it; but, on the contrary, it clearly fulfills it, for the existence of the image in the New Testament is implied by its prohibition in the Old. Even though this may appear to be strange, the sacred image for the Church proceeds precisely from the absence of the image in the Old Testament. (Ouspensky 1992, p. 41) 

That is, prior to the Incarnation, imagery of God was strictly forbidden (whether they be in creaturely or human form); after the Incarnation, however, when the Second Person of the Trinity became man, Christ can be depicted in the icon.

As if all that was not enough, Packer begins wrapping up his exasperating treatise against icons with the following paragraph:

all manmade images of God, whether molten or mental, are really borrowings from the stock-in-trade of a sinful and ungodly world, and are bound therefore to be out of accord with God’s own holy Word. To make an image of God is to take one’s thoughts of him from a human source, rather than from God himself; and this is precisely what is wrong with image-making. (Ibid)

Here Packer unpacks his anti-Sacramentality, not only in his failure to recognize the Incarnation but also in his failure to recognize the “redeemability” of creation. As Schmemann said above, creation can be the locus of the demonic if it is not referred to God. But in Christ (and now, through the man who is in Christ) creation is restored to its original state and function – as a means of communion with God. But Packer does not refer creation to God. Instead, he, as if summoning demons, demonizes it by failing to see that “[Christian imagery] has a biblical and Christological basis . . . [which] overcomes the Platonic dualism of the intelligible and sensory world” (The Encyclopedia of Christianity, p. 642).

There is yet another issue with Packer’s understanding of the “Word” over and against image that has not hitherto been explained. As one writer put it, “Packer’s argument hinges entirely on a strict word/image binary . . . But [his] argument falls apart when you consider a language like Japanese . . . [because] in logographic writing systems, such as Japanese and Chinese, Packer’s opposition between images and God’s Word is untenable.” (Quick 2017, Web). Further, “If, as Packer insists, the use of images in worship is idolatrous, then a written Japanese Bible is inherently idolatrous whereas a written English Bible is not” (Ibid). For his part, Saint John of Damascus demonstrated this word-image relationship by commenting that, “the function of image and word are one” (Op. Cit., 1.45, p. 45). Addressing Packer’s claims indirectly, Ouspensky relates that, “If, in the Old Testament, the direct revelation of God was made manifest only by word, in the New Testament it is made manifest both by word and by image” (Ouspensky 1992, p. 46). 

Packer’s insistence on the “revealed, spoken word” without any grounding in the Incarnation leads directly to a question asked by St. Theodore: “If merely mental contemplation were sufficient, it would have been sufficient for Him to come to us in a merely mental way” (Op. Cit., 1.7, p. 27)? That is, if the spoken word of the Old Testament were sufficient, why did Christ become Incarnate? By denying the Icon of Christ, Packer necessarily denies the power of the Incarnation.

It is remarkable about Calvin and Packer is how clearly their thought resembles Nietzsche’s mentality. Where Nietzsche laments, in the person of Zarathustra, the petulance of the multitude, which gives way for the rise of the ubermensch, Calvin speaks of the “crass errors of the multitude . . . which occupy the hearts of almost all men” (Op. Cit., 1.11.10, p. 110) and Packer the “clear-sighted person” who sees through the “modern spirit” which has infiltrated the Church and to which many “Christian minds have been conformed” (Op. Cit., p. 11). It’s all too ironic! By making these claims Packer is placing himself in a unique position to refute these “errors” of the “modern spirit” – but he propounds them in his denial of iconography.

That is, he rejects Truth, he rejects Christ, by rejecting the Archetype of Beauty – no wonder his God, who creates people to damn them to hell, seems to be bereft of Goodness. This emphasis on the person who stands apart from the world as a man above men is rooted in hubris and leads to, as Dostoevsky foresaw, the breakdown of the human person; this subversion of the person, which is latent in Packer’s critique of the Christian image, is the bulwark of Nietzsche’s nihilistic project, the result of which is spiritual suicide, madness, and, eventually, physical suicide. Societies relativism and modern art today is clearly a result of this philosophy, which purposely breaks down Beauty, followed by Truth and Goodness.

So, what is one to do with Packer’s eisegetical and erroneous treatment of Scripture when juxtaposed with the the Incarnational theology of the Orthodox Church? Aside from applying Incarnational theology to one’s own life by the hanging up, and veneration, of the Holy Icons, alongside a profound adherences to the Liturgical-Sacramental life of the Church, one is simply left with the pleading words of Saint Theodore:

Would you please stop ignorantly dragging out scriptural verses to use against us, taking the words spoken against the pagans in regard to the forms of the idols, and misapplying them to the icon of Christ? For what person with any sense does not understand the difference between an idol and an icon? That the one is darkness, and the other light. That the one is polytheism, but the other is the clearest evidence of the divine economy?” (St. Theodore 1984, 1.7, p. 27)

The fact is that the foundation of all iconography and all Liturgical and Sacramental practice is the Incarnation. The Incarnation is the event around which all of Christianity, all of History, revolves. It is the Person of Jesus Christ that bridges the gap between the uncreated God and His creation. But when Packer insist that images “corrupt” the glory of God because “[they] inevitably conceal most, if not all, of the truth about the personal nature and character of the divine Being whom they represent” (Packer 1993, p. 26), he is simply rehashing the confused arguments of the Iconoclastic Council (which were refuted). Like Constantine V, Packer fails to recognize the bridging of the unbridgeable chasm between God and man in the Person of Jesus Christ, which makes possible the restoration of creation. Instead, he superimposes a kind of Gnostic or Platonic dualism on top of the created world, in spite of the Incarnation, by focusing on the corruptibility of matter and its inability to contain the Archetype. This leads to his neglect of the pattern of symbol-fulfillment in the Old and New Testament, effectively contenting himself the symbol as opposed to the fulfillment. In this manner, Packer rejects the fulfillment toward which the entire Old Testament points: the Incarnation. 

Just as man is able to approach God because Christ became man, so too, he is able to approach the icon, which is after the likeness of the Son of God made man, as a way to approach God. It is this reality (that of the Incarnation) that makes the pictorial representation of God and the restoration of creation possible. Consider the logical chain of these final thoughts on Packer’s iconoclasm: if Packer is content with symbols he may as well rip all the pages of the New Testament out of his Bible. While he would never such a thing, since such an act would be physically destroying the Word of God, he effectively does it in this short treatise against imagery, whereby he denies the reality the New Testament proclaims. If he would not physically tear a page out of his Bible or spit on an image of Christ, why does he do so with his words? Take a look, dear reader, at Packer’s understanding of Christian imagery and in Knowing God, and see if you are not left with this ringing question in your ears: what about the Incarnation?

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