From Charlemagne to the Homilies: An Addendum to Mr. Devereux
I was delighted to see Mr. Devereux’s recent article on Anglican rejection of Nicea II as enshrined in our 16th century formularies. I take his article to be the knock-out punch of an intellectual opponent I myself have buffeted for some time. To extend the boxing metaphor: There seems to be one final point of clarification necessary in order for the victory to be reckoned as a fair and clean hit, and this has to do with the role of the so-called Libri Carolini, and the teaching they represent. This I shall now attempt to clarify.
There is an old chestnut among iconodules that the Church of the West simply did not understand the careful and thoughtful distinction between proskynesis and latreia that Nicea II attempted to establish. That the records of Nicea II — written in Greek — got bungled when they were translated into latin Acta — probably condensing both words to adoratio. (I say “probably”, because there are no surviving copies of the latin Acta). This bungle got further bungled in the hands of the less educated Frankish theologians of Charlemagne’s court, and thus Nicea II was “rejected” for a time in the West, until the Pope, after amassing a degree of imperial authority to himself through the 10th century, overruled it, at which point this blip in the Western Church’s orthodoxy was rectified. The temporary rejection of enjoined image-adoration by the Franks was then re-framed as simply a misunderstanding. This is essentially the story told by all those who embrace Nicea II today.
The inconvenient problem with this tale is that it doesn’t correlate to the facts. The rejection of Nicea II was not a mere misapprehension of Greek semantics, nor a failure of acumen or sophistication. On the contrary, scholarly consensus credits the mastermind behind the Opus Caroli Regus Contra Synodum (sometimes referred to as the ‘Libri Carolini’) as the scholarly Theodulf of Orléans (750-821), the great Bishop and poet, most frequently remembered for authoring the Palm Sunday hymn, ‘All Glory, Laud, and Honor.’
Here is the definitive summary of the case by the Roman Catholic historian Thomas F. X. Noble, whose 2009 treatment of the question, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians has become the benchmark in the field. Prefixing a 25 page chapter-by-chapter summary of the Opus Caroli, Noble states:
Regardless of what stood on the pages of the translation [of the Acts of Nicea II] that Theodulf was reading, several passages in the Opus show that Theodulf did understand the distinction [between proskynesis and latreia]. He simply felt that the Byzantines failed to observe it. Theodulf also saw that many biblical passages adduced at Nicaea were irrelevant to the matter at hand. We will discuss his exegetical interests and strategies just below, but for now we must insist that he knew exactly what was going on in the citation of Scripture… The Franks understood the difference between honoring a person and honoring an image, they had well established views on the limited circumstances under which matter could be said to be holy, and they felt that the Greeks had too often crossed the line. Finally, because of the relatively intense diplomacy of the 750s and 760s [the era in which Iconoclasm was enforced], and because of the discussions at Gentilly in 767 and in Rome in 769, the Franks understood Isaurian theology [of Leo III] very well and, apart from rejecting its iconoclasm, actually embraced a good deal of it. In both East and West, it was II Nicaea that was a “veritable revolution.” Again and again the Opus objected to the introduction of “novelties.” The adoration of images was certainly such a novelty and Theodulf understood this perfectly well. There is only a problem [as we view it today, in Theodulf’s thinking] if one succumbs to the argumentation of II Nicaea to the effect that the adoration, or the veneration, of images was an ancient and well-nigh universal tradition in the church. As we have seen, such practices were actually quite recent in the East and West [in the 8th century] and, perhaps with the exception of Rome, were completely unknown in the West. Theodulf knew all of this.
Then, Noble gathers up the field-changing conclusions of the work of G. Thümmel, M. Auzépy, and K. Mitalaité, as he continues,
Auzépy concludes that “[o]n the whole, the author of the Libri Carolini understood perfectly the sense of the argumentation of II Nicaea and even its contorted subtleties.” Thümmel agrees and adds that the eighth century had been a bad time for intellectual life in the East, that Nicaea itself was not a model of intellectual rigor or profundity, and that theologians like Theodulf may well have been superior to their contemporaries at the other end of the Mediterranean. We may therefore proceed to a summation of Theodulf’s work on the confident assumption that he knew what he was talking about.
Theodulf’s theology in his Opus Caroli is the teaching that held the day in the Synod of Frankfurt in 794, underwriting the definitive rejection of Nicea II. The teaching of Nicea II was deemed to be false, and therefore the Western bishops asserted that it could not claim to be an ecumenical council, however it styled itself.
Because the Pope in Rome, Adrian I, was courting political favor with Byzantium, he was of no help on the real theological substance, leaving the Frankish bishops to assert the Truth against the pseudo-council (as they styled it) of Nicea II. In this, they carved out a veritable via media, as Noble again summarizes:
“No reader of the Opus can possibly miss two fundamental points that recur constantly. First, the Byzantines were wrong to destroy images and wrong again to command their worship. Second, images are permitted only for decoration and commemoration.”
This theology of images is striking in the degree it harmonizes with the Anglican formularies, as Devereux has ably explicated them.
Here is Theodulf in his own words, from the Opus Caroli:
If he who scandalized one of the least shall fall under the most dreaded sentence, how much more terrible will be the judgment against the one who either drives almost the whole church of Christ to adore images or binds with anathema those who spurn the adoration of images. Both should be avoided with great caution so, whether adhering to one party or the other, one does not do more than good order demands.
The Spiritual wisdom and biblical grounding of these words I trust communicate themselves.
It is therefore sound to trace a through-line from the Bible, through the Fathers of the early centuries, to a corruption in 7th century Byzantium, that was corrected by faithful Frankish Bishops, overruled in the Medieval period by a corrupt Papacy, and then once again permanently corrected in the British Isles by the Bishops of the Anglican Reformation.
With this better narrative in view, it is much easier to see the excellence of the doctrine pertaining to images contained in our Anglican formularies, and hopefully the would-be catholic-minded will stop seeking to validate the untrue declarations of Nicea II.
As a concluding pastoral word; an application of the Anglican doctrine might go something like this: Images of Christ, of Biblical scenes, and of the Saints, are fine. They are not to be dishonored, by being destroyed, marred, or ignored. They serve their purpose when they lift the mind to Christ in heaven, at the right hand of God, surrounded by his Saints. They are beneficial when they prompt prayer. They are not to be venerated with gestures of reverence, such as bowing. They may perhaps be permissibly treated with affection, such as a kiss, but even this is not entirely safe. The theology of icons presented by John of Damascus, and by the later Orthodox church is speculative. As to how we are to regard the practices of others in the Body of Christ — especially our Orthodox brothers and sisters — It may or may not be true in any particular case whether Christ is truly honored by the honoring of his image. It is even more doubtful how much Christ is honored by the images of his Saints. It also may or may not be an act of idolatry in any particular case. The decisive factor is the Faith in the soul of the Christian offering the honor, the very object the Reformation rightly re-oriented us towards. One thing we can be certain of: It is certainly wrong to command Christians to make acts of reverence to any image, as Theodulf of Orléans rightly teaches.
- Noble, Thomas F. X., Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (The Middle Ages Series) University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia: 2009), 184-206. ↑
- Note, the similar judgment in Devereux’s article ↑
- Noble, Thomas F. X. Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians, 182-183. ↑
- Ibid., 183. ↑
- Ibid., 207. ↑
- One further and final point also opens up. It has been argued by Fr. Mark Perkins (who wrote a multi-part reply to my essay in the Spring of 2021, on the ‘Earth & Altar’ blog) citing as his authority none other than the heretic Bulgakov[!] that the anathemas of Nicea II are somehow not of grave concern for Christians, nor an essential part of the declarations of an ecumenical council. Clearly, Theodulf does not agree with this assesment. ↑
- The one exception to this rule may be the image of the bare cross, in the sanctuary of a Church, or processing thereto. This seems to be amenable even to 8th century iconoclasts. ↑