The Second Council of Nicaea (787 A.D.), which is often referred to as the ‘Seventh Ecumenical Council’ of the Church, approved of and even anathematised those who did not approve the adoration of relics and religious images. However, the Anglican Formularies contradict Nicaea II’s rulings, and call the adoration of images “a fond thing, vainly invented and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God” (Article XXII). It was not through mere words that the Reformed Church of England rejected images either, but under Edward VI and Thomas Cranmer, they were ordered to be removed from all English parishes and destroyed.
However, the Formularies seem to uphold the first four Ecumenical Councils, while the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches claim Nicaea II and its decrees are authoritative for the same reason those councils are. It can therefore be wondered why, and by what authority, the Anglican Formularies and the English Reformers who wrote them, so brazenly rejected it. This investigation will naturally lead us to discuss what the Anglican Formularies teach generally about authority and sources of truth. What follows is thus an attempted reconstruction, and defence, of the English Reformers’ reasons for not only rejecting Nicaea II’s authority, but also the adoration of images in general, based on the principals of Sola Scriptura and Royal Supremacy, the method of interpreting Church Tradition, and the Biblical and Patristic data on the adoration of images.
2. Sola Scriptura
England’s 1559 Act of Supremacy declared that the High-Commission “should judge nothing to be heresy but what had been already so judged by the authority of the canonical scriptures, or by the first four general [Ecumenical] councils, or by any other general council in which such doctrines were declared to be heresies by the express and plain words of scripture.” At that time, it was common for Reformed thinkers to only cite the first four Ecumenical Councils as authoritative or reliable. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin said only the first four councils were to be trusted, for they “contain nothing but the pure and genuine interpretation of Scripture” whereas by the time of the other councils “the Church gradually degenerated from the purity of that golden age.” So why did the Act of Supremacy, and Reformers like Calvin, only recognise the first four Councils? Because of their principal of Sola Scriptura, whereby they viewed Scripture to be the only real authority in establishing dogma and saw the first four Ecumenical Councils as authoritative solely because they fully agreed with Scripture, unlike the subsequent Councils. Scripture was therefore held over the Councils, and if the evangelicals interpreted certain conciliar decrees to be plainly at odds with what Scripture said, then those decrees had no authority whatsoever.
This principal is expressed in some of the Articles of Religion. Article VI asserts that everything we believe as “an article of faith” must be read or proved from Holy Scripture, which is therefore the sole basis for doctrine. And while Article VIII says that the three historic creeds, including the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, “ought thoroughly to be received and believed” it is only because they can be proved by the “most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.” As for the Church, Article XX says it is beholden to Scripture, for it cannot “ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written” or “enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation” that is not taken from Scripture. Finally, Article XXI says that not all gathered in Ecumenical Councils are “governed with the Spirit and Word of God” due to the sinful nature of man, and therefore “they may err and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining unto God” and moreover, their decrees “have neither strength nor authority, unless it be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.” The Articles of Faith are thus crystal clear in their position that Scripture is the sole authority for the establishment of truth and doctrine and therefore the Ecumenical Councils do not have intrinsic authority.
This is made clearer in the Books of Homilies. The first Homily boldly claims that Scripture is the sole source of truth, and that we should not turn to the “stinking puddles of men’s traditions, devised by men’s imaginations.” Then, challenging the very basis for viewing Ecumenical Councils as inherently authoritative, the Homily Concerning the coming down of the Holy Ghost rejects the idea that ecclesiastical authorities, such as Bishops and Popes “are the chief heads and principal part of the Church” so that “whatsoever things [they] decree are undoubted verities.” Instead, the Homily, following Article XIX, affirms the standard evangelical view of the visible Church, espoused by Luther and Calvin, that the true visible Church is simply a congregation of faithful Christians wherein the word is proclaimed purely, and the sacraments are administered properly. Subsequently, when a group of Bishops meet together and mutually affirm certain beliefs as dogma, their pronouncements do not necessarily require assent, because they themselves may not even be part of the Church, let alone the essence of it. However, as we shall see later, the conciliar pronouncements of Bishops do have authority if they can be trusted to have preserved the apostolic interpretation of Scripture. Nevertheless, their pronouncements can never be equal to Scripture or said to have been written by the Holy Spirit. The English Reformers believed that only God’s revelation through the Spirit can be the foundation for dogmatic truth, and no council can ever be said to be a Divine revelation.
What we see in these Homilies, and the aforementioned Articles, is thus an evangelical rejection of the conservative position of the time that ‘the Catholic Church’ itself was the source of all truth, and therefore her councils had intrinsic authority. This conservative view was itself dependent on an ecclesiology that was rejected by the evangelicals, Anglicans included, wherein ‘the Church’ was seen to essentially be the college of Bishops and/or the Pope, who could not err. As part of this view, it was generally believed that the Prelates of the Church were guided by a spiritual charism that enabled them to continually teach the truth. However, the Homily Concerning the coming down of the Holy Ghost refutes the notion that there are “points not expressed in holy Scripture, which [are] left to the revelation of the holy Ghost.” Therefore, in contrast to the conservative view that Ecumenical Councils were inerrant sources of inspired truth, the evangelical view was that Councils were only authoritative insofar as they preserved the correct apostolic interpretation of Scripture. If Nicaea II was therefore seen to have departed from the correct view of Scripture, which the Homily Against the Peril of Idolatry accuses it of doing, then we need not to assent to its decrees because they were made by an Ecumenical Council.
It is important to note that the Ecumenical Councils themselves understood the central role of Scripture, as they are replete with statements affirming their adherence to them, but also because their declarations were made in light of extensive Scriptural reflection, debate, and study. For instance, the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) was essentially the ratification of the theology of Cyril of Alexandria, which he promulgated and defended through extensive Biblical discussion (as you can see in On the Unity of Christ). The gathered prelates at the Ephesian Council, in their wisdom, decided that Cyril’s arguments from Scripture were more convincing than those of his opponent Nestorius, and therefore the Council’s authority partially rests upon Scripture and the correct interpretation of it.
However, the Homily Against the Peril of Idolatry asserts that the rulings of Nicaea II were “contrary to the most manifest doctrine of the Scriptures, and contrary to the usage of the Primitive Church, which was most pure and incorrupt.” The Homily spends considerable time arguing against the adoration of images from Scripture, and then suggests that Nicaea II’s approval of the practice was not inspired by Scripture, unlike the first four Councils. Instead, the Homily claims that Nicaea II’s decrees were based upon nuanced philosophical points, which had no Scriptural basis, such as the invented and “lewd distinction of latria and dulia.” If the Homily is correct that Nicaea II did not base itself securely upon Scripture, then those, like the English Reformers, who adhere to the principal of Sola Scriptura would not have to abide its decrees at all.
3. Scripture and Nicaea II
Let us then turn to Scripture itself. We will first look at the Biblical injunctions against the adoration of images that in the eyes of the English Reformers Nicaea II needed to provide answers to, and then look at the passages Nicaea II used to support its position. Starting with the obvious, the second of the Ten Commandments forbids constructing or bowing before images that resemble anything in creation (Ex 20:4). In Deuteronomy we are told that he shall be ‘cursed… who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the Lord… and sets it up in secret’ (Deut 27:15). Isaiah tells us that God’s likeness cannot be represented by an image and that he who sets an image up is ‘impoverished’ (Isa 40:18-20), that God does not give his glory to ‘carved idols (Isa 42:8), and that ‘all who fashion idols are nothing’ (Isa 44:9). As for the New Testament, nowhere are we told that the Church venerated images, or that the Apostles approved of such a thing, and nowhere are the Biblical injunctions against images lifted (unlike those concerning circumcision, sacrifice, or the eating of certain meats). Instead, Paul repudiates those who ‘exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images’ (Rom 1:23), encourages his listeners to ‘turn from these worthless things to the living God’ (Acts 14:15), and commands the Corinthians to ‘flee from the worship of idols’ (1 Cor 10:14; cf. 1 Thess 1:9). Moreover, John tells his churches to ‘keep yourselves from idols’ (1 John 5:21). Nicaea II responded to these texts by asserting that they only forbade the adoration of idols, which were understood to be images of false gods, rather than adoring images in general, and pronounced “anathema to those who apply the words of Holy Scripture which were spoken against idols, to the venerable images.” However, Exodus 20:4 does not specifically forbid idols, but any image in the likeness of anything in creation.
We look now to the three arguments that Nicaea II put forward in support of the adoration of images. The first is that by images the “incarnation may be set forth to all men” and the “struggles and agonies [of the Saints] may be set forth in brief, for the stirring up and teaching of the people.” This argument, however logical it may be, finds no basis in Scripture, which at no point suggests that images should be used for this purpose – or any purpose! – and so, since the English Reformers looked to Scripture as their only authority, this argument could not be authoritative.
The second argument made at Nicaea II was that within the Temple there were images of Cherubim (Ex 25:18-20 ; 1 Kgs 6:27), however, these were never adored or venerated. The complaint the English Reformers had with Nicaea II was not images themselves (which even the Homily Against the Peril of Idolatry admits are not inherently bad), but the adoration of them, which is indeed never permitted and always forbidden by Scripture.
Nicaea II’s only other argument for the adoration of icons concerns the meaning of two Greek verbs: ‘προσκυνέω,’ which they believed meant ‘to venerate/revere/adore’; and ‘λατρεύω,’ which they thought meant ‘to worship.’ The Council’s central argument was that while only God can be worshipped, we can nevertheless venerate or adore other things, such as images. To reiterate, this was by far the most important argument that was made at Nicaea II and the only Scriptural references made in the entire Council related to this point. The texts brought forth were David’s reverence towards Jonathan (1 Kings 20:41), Paul’s salutation of the Jerusalem presbyters (Acts 21:17-19), Jacob bowing before Esau (Gen 33:3) and Abraham bowing before the Hittites (Gen 23:3). Moreover, Jacob’s veneration of Pharaoh (Gen 47:7) and reverence of the top of his staff (Heb 11:21) were referenced, but these last two examples were based on mistranslations.
In all of these examples from the Greek Old Testament, the verb ‘προσκυνέω’ is used to show veneration towards someone other than God, and so, Nicaea II argued that veneration can also be shown to images without it being idolatrous. The biggest problem with these examples however is that they have nothing to do with images. In fact, in Exodus 20:4-5, God uses this very verb ‘προσκυνέω’ when he explicitly forbids bowing down (προσκυνήσεις) before the visual representation of anything in creation. Nicaea II’s failure to respond to this crucial commandment in Exodus is very telling of its weak Scriptural basis. The only other Scriptural reference Nicaea II made was to Luke 4:8, which reads:
“You shall worship (προσκυνέω) the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve (λατρεύω).”
In interpreting this verse, the Council said: “veneration (προσκυνέω) is to be given to God, but [the verse] does not add the word ‘only,’ for veneration being a word of wide meaning is an ambiguous term; but it goes on to say ‘you shall serve him only,’ for to God alone do we render latria (λατρεύω).” It may quite simply be interjected that at best the Council was basing far too much on this one verse and at worst had misunderstood it completely, since in context our Lord’s point is rather obviously that only God should be worshipped or served.
Finally, the Scriptural evidence is actually stacked against Nicaea II’s subtle claim that veneration (προσκυνέω) can be shown to what is not God. For starters, throughout Scripture it is the standard verb used for the worship of God (e.g. John 4:23-24). More importantly, however, we have two examples that seem to completely refute Nicaea II’s case. The first is from Acts 10:25-26, which reads:
“When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and venerated (προσεκύνησεν) him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, ‘Stand up; I too am a man.’”
The second is from Revelation 19:10:
“Then I fell down at his feet to venerate (προσκυνῆσαι) him but he said to me, ‘you must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Venerate (προσκύνησον) God.’”
In both these examples, veneration (προσκυνέω) is explicitly forbidden to be shown to what is not God, whereas Nicaea II’s primary argument is that this very meaning of veneration can be shown to creation. Now, while there are indeed good arguments for why we can venerate things without idolatry, which are made for instance in the writings of John of Damascus, the fact remains that the pretended Scriptural distinction between veneration and worship is demonstrably false. At best, Scripture has no consistent position on the matter. Consequently, because the only Scriptural support Nicaea II provides forq2 its position is false, the English Reformers saw its position as simply having no authority because of their belief in Sola Scriptura.
4. The Value of Tradition
While the English Reformers believed Scripture was the only source of authority and truth, they nevertheless saw the value Church traditions had for correctly interpreting Scripture, if those traditions came from the Apostles. Since they believed that the first four Ecumenical Councils accurately preserved these apostolic traditions, they then believed they had value in establishing doctrine. In the Homily Of Good Works and First of Fasting, the Council of Chalcedon, which was one of “the four first general councils,” is held in honour because its decrees were grounded “upon the sacred Scriptures, and long continued usage or practice… of the apostles.” Therefore, the Chalcedonian Council had authority insofar as it agreed with Scripture, and crucially, the traditions which originated with the Apostles. Therefore, apostolic traditions were still believed to be valuable because through them we know how to correctly interpret the Scriptures they wrote.
We see this very principal in Irenaeus, who taught that true doctrine came only to the Apostles, who then recorded them in the Scriptures, and that there is no truth known by the Apostles that they did not pass down. As for how are we to know what the correct interpretation of Scripture is, Irenaeus said that the “tradition which originates from the Apostles… is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters.” Irenaeus did not think Church leaders were authoritative because of a spiritual charism that enabled them to be truthful, but rather, believed their authority stemmed from their theological education. He saw the education of the clergy as valuable because the Apostles were careful to disciple those who would be their successors in ministry, and this care in education and discipleship continued on to the next generation of successors. Crucially, then, Irenaeus’ argument only makes sense within his context, because he was only one lifetime removed from the Apostles themselves. Note therefore that the reason why Irenaeus infamously says the Church of Rome has “preeminent authority” comes from this idea, not from some odd notion that the Roman Bishops have a unique spiritual gifting. Irenaeus bases his deferral to Rome solely on the fact that the Roman Church was founded by “the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul” whose teaching then “comes down to our time by means of the successions of bishops.” Therefore, for Irenaeus, “there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth”, and that which was “learned from the Apostles, and which the Church has handed down… alone are true.” Therefore, it is in accordance with Irenaeus’ teaching to assert that if, and only if, the Bishops leading a Council can be relied on to have preserved teachings that originated from the Apostles, then their doctrinal pronouncements have real value.
This principal is also what we find in Athanasius in his comments on the first Council of Nicaea, where he says that in their decrees regarding “the faith” the Bishops’ “sentiments were not novel but Apostolical; and what they wrote down was no discovery of theirs, but is the same as was taught by the Apostles”. The Council was thus intended to “maintain to the end, that faith which, enduring from antiquity, we have received as preached by the prophets, the Gospels, and the Apostles.” Finally, Athanasius quotes the Council’s decrees as having said “all that has been delivered in the divine Scriptures, whether by Prophets or Apostles, do we truly and reverentially both believe and follow.” Crucially, Athanasius points out that when the Council decided on issues that they knew were not part of the apostolic deposit (or the “the faith”), rather than declaring “thus believes the Catholic Church” they simply said their decisions were what “seemed good” and should be obeyed out of “general compliance” to the authority of the Bishops. This astute point shows clearly that any notion of a Council intrinsically possessing the ability to formulate dogmatic truth was not believed at the time. Councils thus stand under the truth themselves, which is decided by Scripture as interpreted by apostolic tradition, rather than standing over truth. Therefore, if the Bishops across the known world, who were rigorously discerned and educated by their mentors for their roles, collectively agreed that they had received the same teachings, then their mutual agreement that those teachings are apostolic does indeed carry weight.
What then of Nicaea II? Importantly, its own decrees were also asserted to be in accordance with what the “Church has received from the holy Apostles and Fathers even down to us today.” Indeed, the Council declares of itself that “this is the faith of the Apostles” and that it has “carefully traced the traditions of the Apostles and Fathers” to arrive at its conclusions. So even Nicaea II agreed with the Reformational principal that its authority could only come from its preservation of apostolic truth. But Nicaea II was very different to Nicaea I. With the latter’s claim of Jesus’ divinity, it is a pretty open and shut case that such an idea was apostolic since all the Fathers from as early as Ignatius taught it, as did all the liturgies that are known to us. The teaching was widespread, and thus, reliably apostolic. However, when it comes to the question of adoring images, no one can claim that there was any consistent teaching about it among the Fathers. We shall now turn to some examples of the early Fathers opposing the adoration of images.
5. The Fathers and the Adoration of Images
The very first mention of religious images of Christ in history comes from Irenaeus, who ascribed that practice to the heretical Gnostics, as part of his repudiation of them, and said the custom was “after the same manner of the Gentiles.” Irenaeus, who was mentored by a disciple of the Apostle John, did not therefore think that religious images in church was an apostolic tradition, and his proximity to the Apostles gives real weight to that opinion. Moving on, Lactantius, in the late 3rd Century, said “it is undoubted that there is no religion wherever there is an image. For if religion consists of divine things… it follows that images are without religion, because there can be nothing heavenly in that which is made from the earth… For whatever is an imitation, that must of necessity be false.” The 3rd Century Pseudo-Clement of Alexandria said “that serpent is wont to speak in this wise: ‘we adore visible images in honour of the invisible God.’ Now this is most certainly false. For if you really wished to worship the image of God, you would do good to man, and so worship the true image of God in him.” Athanasius condemned as false the “mythology” of the heathen which said that images “teach men concerning the knowledge of God and that they serve as letters for men.” Augustine said that “those who have appointed images for the people have both taken away fear and added error” and that “to fall most completely into error was the due desert of men who sought for Christ and His apostles not in the holy writings, but on painted walls.” Jerome favourably recorded Epiphanius’ 4th Century letter telling of his tearing apart a linen cloth depicting Jesus that he found in a church “contrary to the authority of the scriptures” and his order that “from henceforth no such painted cloths, contrary to our religion, [shall] be hanged in the church of Christ.” And lastly, the 4th Century Synod of Elvira ordered that “there shall be no pictures in church, lest what is reverenced and adored be depicted on the walls.” Thus, when Eusebius said in his Church History that the use of images originally came from the previous practices of the pagan Gentiles, we can easily believe it. Not only is it hard to believe that the Jewish Apostles could have approved of adoring images (or at least done so without telling us in Scripture about their radical change of mind), but also, since many of the esteemed Fathers opposed the practice, it suggests that it was not something the Apostles passed down.
Therefore, not only do the Apostles’ writings neither affirm nor encourage the adoration of images, but many esteemed Fathers also opposed the practice, and so how can a Council reliably claim that such a thing is apostolic? If it is the case, then, that Nicaea II was wrong to ascribe the adoration of images to the Apostles, and was therefore wrong to approve of it, what are the implications? The Homily Concerning the coming down of the Holy Ghost says that “for the space of nine hundred years and odd” the Church has been “so far wide from the nature of the true Church, that nothing can be more” saying it was no longer “built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, retaining the sound and pure doctrine of Christ Jesu.” Since this Homily was written in the late 16th Century, that would mean it sees the Church as having been corrupted since the 7th Century, and thus Nicaea II would be outside of the era where we can assume the Bishops of the Church were schooled in true apostolic teaching. How did this happen? It is worth remembering that Councils like Nicaea I came only a generation after three centuries of the Church being underground, so to speak, with strict initiation procedures and discernment processes. In such a private community, we can more readily assume that if the Bishops from across the world held to the same ideas, that those ideas were not innovations but were indeed kept intact from the Apostles, preserved through oral teachings and liturgy. However, as the Church became mainstream in the 4th Century, and countless pagans flooded into it, over time it no longer becomes prudent to trust the apostolic origin of its teachings and practices. Remember that Irenaeus trusts the teaching of the leaders of his age only because they were in touching distance of the Apostles, and that the Church of his day was small, secretive and strict. Can we then apply Irenaeus’ humble submission to ecclesiastical leadership to the normalised Church of the 8th Century? The Homilies would say ‘no.’
6. Royal Supremacy
Something that many North American Christians today might not understand or be comfortable with, but which was absolutely central in the eyes of the earliest Anglican Divines, is the idea of Royal Supremacy. It is crucial to note that it was not until a Christian Emperor appeared that any Ecumenical Councils were held, despite three centuries of controversies in the Church, and that all seven subsequent Councils, including Nicaea II, were appointed and presided over by such Emperors. It was only with the Emperor’s approval that Nicaea II or any other Ecumenical Council was able to be held or to make decrees. This fact even led Thomas Cranmer to believe that the Christian Church had no contemporary authority whatsoever apart from Christian Kings, in whom all authority was thus vested. Royal Supremacy also finds its home in the Articles, where Article XXI says that “General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes” and Article XXXVII says “the Queen’s Majesty hath the chief Power in this… unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all Causes doth appertain.”
Therefore, the authority of Nicaea II was based upon the Byzantine Emperor who convened it and agreed to its decrees, but how then could the English Reformers, especially Thomas Cranmer, whose strict obedience to Royal Supremacy was clearly seen during the reign of Henry VIII, reject Nicaea II’s authority? Would that not require the rejection of Royal power itself? This question is why the Homily Against the Peril of Idolatry, after affirming that “Christian Emperors… [are] the chief Magistrates by God’s law to be obeyed,” spills much ink trying to prove that the Byzantine Empress Irene, who stood over Nicaea II as Regent for her teenaged son, was in fact an imposter and traitor who was in no way owed allegiance. The Homily delves into an admittedly complex historical situation and interprets events in a very unbalanced manner with emotive rhetoric. However, what we can say about Irene is that her father-in-law, Emperor Constantine V, did indeed renounce the adoration of images at the Council of Hieria (754 A.D.), which was seen as the seventh Ecumenical Council. Moreover, previous Emperors, such as Valentinian III and Theodosius II, had also forbidden images. After the death of Constantine V’s son, Irene’s husband Leo IV, she became regent for her son, the Emperor Constantine VI, and would later blind and kill him, allowing her to become “the first sole-ruling empress in Byzantine history.” When Irene then endeavoured to convene a new council to supersede Constantine V’s one, historian Diarmaid MacCulloch details that she chose the “easily controlled venue of Nicaea” and that the Patriarch at the council was “a hastily consecrated layman chosen for his hostility to iconoclasm… [whose] proceedings were scrutinized closely by the Empress.”
Furthermore, the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (whose outrage at Irene’s wicked antics further separated the East and West and thus contributed to the Great Schism) himself condemned Nicaea II and commanded the writing of the Libri Carolini, which refuted Nicaea II’s arguments and decisions. The Holy Roman Emperor and the Western Church even suggested that the whole affair meant “the Byzantines had forfeited their claim to imperial honour.” After Nicaea II, Irene was finally deposed and exiled, and a few decades later the Byzantine Emperor Leo V again condemned and forbade images.
However we interpret the legitimacy of Irene’s reign today, the Homily Against the Peril of Idolatry mercilessly strips her of all Royal power and prestige, painting her as a murderous usurper, and in so doing, leaves Nicaea II utterly worthless and unauthoritative in the eyes of the English Royal Supremacists. It is therefore because of the principal of Royal Supremacy that the Homily is able to reject the decrees of Nicaea II altogether, and assert instead, with the Council of Hieria, that venerating images is to be forbidden.
After delegitimising Nicaea II, Royal Supremacy then provided the legitimacy for the English Reformation’s condemnation of images, which had started with the 1549 order for the removal of church images under Edward VI. In his Apology of the Church of England John Jewel points out that it was generally understood for centuries that only Emperors had the power to call for Councils and that all their authority came from them. However, Jewel then says “what was the Emperor’s right, when the church was well ordered… is now a common right to all princes, forsomuch as kings are now possessed in several parts of the whole empire.” Therefore, after the collapse and dissolution of the Roman Empire, the authority once vested in the Emperor has now been inherited by the Kings of all the nations. Moreover, Andre A. Gazal, our leading expert on John Jewel, explains that “Jewel regarded the Christian emperors and subsequent Christian rulers as heirs to the same ecclesiastical authority held and exercised by the kings of Israel and Judah” which entitled them to make pronouncements over doctrinal controversies. According to Gazal, “what makes Jewel’s historical interpretation so astounding is that it enables him to transfer the power of general councils to regional and national ones thus effectively equating them with one another. This empowerment of national and regional councils enables them to amend or reject pronouncements by general councils.”
Since these beliefs were espoused in Jewel’s Apology, which was ordered by Queen Elizabeth I to be assigned to every parish in England, they serve as an almost official defence of the problem this essay seeks to resolve. In Jewel’s mind, the reason why the Formularies are able to reject things approved by Nicaea II is that they are based on the same authority of that council itself: Royal power. What matters is obedience to one’s Christian Prince. Since the latest Council in the Realm of England, presided over by the Queen, can supersede the rulings of a Council from centuries before – especially if that Council was illegitimate – the people of England’s first duty is to therefore to obey those new rulings, not the ones of old.
In an age where the past is often looked at with nostalgia and longing, especially amongst Anglicans who put tradition and the early Church on a pedestal, it can be shocking to find the earliest Anglican writings be so pessimistic about the first millennium of Christianity. The Homilies and Divines like Thomas Cranmer and John Jewel believed that, by the time of Nicaea II in 787 A.D., the Church hierarchy could no longer be trusted to have properly based their teachings on Scripture, preserved apostolic tradition, or placed a legitimate Emperor over themselves. This pessimism is the simplest reason why the Formularies can reject what Nicaea II affirms.
We must remember that the logical conclusion, espoused by our Homilies, to the evangelical theology of the English Reformers was that the churches of Rome and the East were in grievous error (Article XIX) and had been so for centuries, and thus pessimism about ecclesiastical history and authority was practically an essential component of early Anglicanism. Therefore, the same grounds for an evangelical rejection of Rome were what then supported the rejection of Nicaea II: studying Scripture and the Fathers revealed the Council to not be based on those authorities, and the new position taken by the Formularies was given authority by the English Monarchy.
So where does this leave us today? Some would argue that as our society has changed, simply having religious images in our homes and churches no longer poses a risk for idolatry, since we know well enough that God, or the Saints, are not housed within images made by our hands. This may well be true, and indeed countless Anglican churches and cathedrals across the world are replete with religious images, and for a long time now Anglicans have perfected the art of stained glass. However, following Article XXII, and the Homily Against the Peril of Idolatry, we certainly cannot say that to venerate or adore such images is permitted by the Anglican Formularies, which in fact forbid such a thing. Why then might an Anglican still do this? Perhaps because they believe there are higher authorities than the Formularies which permit and even encourage it, but is that really the case? We have seen that Scripture certainly does not permit, but rather forbids, the veneration of images, and that at least some of the greatest Church Fathers forbade it as well. So what other authorities are there? Nicaea II, perhaps. However, it is precisely because of the lack of Scriptural and Patristic support that we, as followers of the English Reformation, cannot see Nicaea II as being authoritative, for we do not find any Council authoritative if it has no basis in Scripture (Article XXI). If one is made uncomfortable by this more cautious view towards ecclesiastical power, let it be remembered that this very attitude is foundational for the existence of Anglicanism itself, coming as it did out of the Protestant Reformation.
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- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge and Robert Pitcaim (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 2407. ↑
- “A Frutiful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture,” The Books of Homilies: A Critical Edition, ed. Gerald Bray (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2015), 7. ↑
- “An Homily Concerning the coming down of the Holy Ghost and the Manifold Gifts of the Same for Whitsunday,” The Books of Homilies: A Critical Edition, ed. Gerald Bray (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2015), 442. ↑
- “An Homily Concerning the coming down of the Holy Ghost,” 444. ↑
- “An Homily Against Peril of Idolatry and Superfluous Decking of Churches,” The Books of Homilies: A Critical Edition, ed. Gerald Bray (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2015), 217. ↑
- “An Homily Against Peril of Idolatry,” 261. ↑
- “Session 1,” The Second Council of Nice (NPNF2 14:534). ↑
- “Session 1,” The Second Council of Nice (NPNF2 14:535). ↑
- “The Letter of the Synod to the Emperor and Empress,” The Second Council of Nice (NPNF2 14:573). ↑
- “An Homily of Good Works and First of Fasting,” The Books of Homilies: A Critical Edition, ed. Gerald Bray (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2015), 300. ↑
- “An Homily of Good Works and First of Fasting,” 301. ↑
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1 (ANF 1:414). ↑
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.2.2 (ANF 1:415). ↑
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.2 (ANF 1:415). ↑
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.2 (ANF 1:415). ↑
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.3 (ANF 1:416). ↑
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.4 (ANF 1:416). ↑
- Athanasius, De Synodis 5 (NPNF2 4:453). ↑
- Athanasius, De Synodis 10 (NPNF2 4:454). ↑
- Athanasius, De Synodis 23 (NPNF2 4:561). ↑
- Athanasius, De Synodis 5 (NPNF2 4:453). ↑
- “Session 1,” The Second Council of Nice (NPNF2 14:534). ↑
- “The Decree,” The Second Council of Nice (NPNF2 14:535). ↑
- “The Letter of the Synod to the Emperor and Empress,” The Second Council of Nice (NPNF2 14:572). ↑
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.25.6 (ANF 1:351). ↑
- Lactantius, Divine Institutes 2.19 (ANF 7:53). ↑
- Pseudo-Clement, Recognitions, 5.23 (ANF 8:148). ↑
- Athanasius, Against the Heathen 19 (NPNF2 4:14). ↑
- Augustine, City of God 4.9 (NPNF1 2:69). ↑
- Augustine, Harmony of the Gospels 1.10.16 (NPNF1 6:83). ↑
- Jerome, Letter 51 (NPNF2 2:89) ↑
- “Canons of Elvira,” A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337, ed. J. Stevenson (London: SPCK, 1977), 308. ↑
- Eusebius, Church History 7.18.4 (NPNF2 1:304). ↑
- “An Homily Concerning the coming down of the Holy Ghost,” 443. ↑
- Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (London: Yale University, 2016), 278-280. ↑
- “An Homily Against Peril of Idolatry,” 243. ↑
- Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York, NY: Penguin, 2011), 448. ↑
- MacCulloch, Christianity, 449. ↑
- MacCulloch, Christianity, 449. ↑
- MacCulloch, Christianity, 449. ↑
- John Jewel, An Apology of the Church of England, ed. Robin Harris and Andre Gazal (Landrum, SC: Davenant Institute, 2020), 116 ↑
- Jewel, Apology, 116. ↑
- Andre A. Gazal, “’That Ancient and Christian Liberty’: Early Church Councils in Reformation Anglican Thought,” Perichoresis 17.3 (2019): 79. ↑
- Gazal, “’That Ancient and Christian Liberty,’” 81. ↑