In God’s Human Face, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn uses the sacred-art of iconography as a metaphor for Christology in the early Christian Church. The icon of Christ is an utterly legitimate Christian devotion, just as the Catholic Theology of Christ is most complete. A clear historical parallel can be drawn between the debates of iconoclasm and the debates over Christ’s true nature (3). If Christ “is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), and can say “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9), then God has already made Himself accessible to the human senses, or more accurately, has made the senses capable of encountering Him sacramentally. The icon of Christ extends God’s sensuality and self-gift, channeling the power of His everlasting Incarnation.
For the heretic Arius, an eternal generation of the Son was impossible, for it would make Christ the Son an equal to His Father. The Fatherhood of God is seen as limitation, accepted for the sake of creation, but ultimately unnecessary and mediatory. Schonborn rebuts this error beautifully. The real magnificence of God is his freedom for love, not his singularity or his ego. The equality of the Father and Son is not a division of God’s power; it is an ultimate expression of Divinity. Saint Athanasius, in response to Arius, clarified for the Church that the word ‘image’, for Christ of God, meant a consubstantial essence with Him. Athanasius’s paradoxical understanding of the Father and Son in a homoousious relationship, a unified essence, led to a newer and deeper understanding of divine personhood, the Greek words hypostasis and prosopon.
How is it that the distinction of persons, God the Father and Jesus the Son, did not destroy their oneness, or that their oneness did not destroy their distinction? To bridge the chasm between Revelation and the available language, Gregory of Nyssa defined the terms hypostasis and ousia to translate roughly to our ‘individual’ and ‘general essence’, respectively. Gregory shifted the Greek paradigm, which saw essences as more valuable than particulars, in favor of a higher respect for the individual. The different properties of the Divine Persons are the specific ways in which they relate to each other. This important Christian Trinitarian teaching of being “unified in hierarchy” developed into the Western foundation for all societal structures, as well as the beginnings of an understanding of the selfhood of the human person. Every human institution and every human soul, after the pattern of the Trinity, contain an invisible essence or image, an ‘imprint’ or sense of that image (Heb 1:3), and ‘the printing block’ or the organ that sees the image (43). The unity of these properties differs in God verses man’s corporation, but both contain the three indispensably.
After, Athanasius and Gregory defended and defined fundamental Trinitarian Theology for the Church, Cyril of Alexander and Maximus Confessor built a Christology of the image. “We have to thank Maximus for the most wonderful Christological synthesis of the ancient Church” (102). Maximus formalizes the Church’s language in confessing ‘compound’ natures in the single person and hypostasis of Jesus Christ, while still maintaining that in His Divine nature he is one and ‘uncompounded’ (107). The ultimate fecundity of Maximus’ Christology rests on his utterly identification between the Person of God the Son with the body and soul of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, the Incarnation is upheld as the one and only true and complete theophany in history, and the Eternal God is recognized as truly and totally present in the historical Person of Jesus. Christ’s ‘way and manner’ of acting reveal the Triune God without ever violating or diminishing His humanness. The goal of his definition was to preserve the paradox from being either over simplified or robbed of its majesty. Logic could not be used to subordinate the mystery, but only to protect it (118). In defending the teaching of God’s Incarnation, Maximus Confessor showed that difference does not normally imply opposition. Only it is a result of Original Sin, of man freely putting himself in opposition to God, that human nature became inclined toward division. The Christological controversy and its many heresies or misunderstandings illustrate clearly the proclivity of man to exclude God Himself from the Church’s doctrinal discussions. The solution of Maximus was precisely the solution of God Himself, that is, to unite two essentially different things in a single hypostasis. Perhaps more accurately, the solution was to accept that Love’s freedom experiences difference as testament to unity. Unification implies ‘parts’ brought together; it is a truer expression of freedom than the deterministic opposition of parts. While rebellion is a choice to become more rigid and limited, Love has the freedom to invite difference, as new children, into a single Spirit and Home.
Schonborn says, “the Eastern Church sees the icon as a condensed version of the Creed.” In it the reality of the Incarnation and the expectance of Christ’s return is acknowledged and expressed by gazing at the face of Jesus. The motivations for the iconoclasm movement were many and hard to isolate, but a definite influence was felt from the Muslim Empire, the Monophysite (single-natured Christ) Christians, and the Jews. Moreover, a puritanical political movement arose within the Byzantine Empire, sparking an overzealous crusade against forms of idolatry, especially, “abuses in the cult of images” within the Christian Kingdom. The veneration of images, even as distinct from their worship, was seen by many as a temptation too great and a return to Old Testament crimes. A subtle resurgence of platonic ideals and heretical subordinationism made it fashionable during this period to reject the body and matter as dignified images of the soul.
Defenders of the images included, Germanus of Constantinople who called the Christian icon a “representation of Christ’s flesh,” an honor to the reality of the Word made flesh. George Cyprius, a bold monk, who refused to surrender the tradition of holy images on the mere temporally bound authority of the Emperor. John Damascene also venerated the image of Christ, considering it a secondary, but real, participation in the Spirit of Christ through the preservation of His memory. Eventually, the 787 Council of Nicaea restored the right of the faithful to venerate icons along with the cross, calling them, “harmonious decorations of God’s house,” but it failed to give a thorough answer to the well-developed Christological arguments of the iconoclasts (205). St. Nicephorus and Theodore the Studite rose to this occasion. Nicephorus found an important distinction that had been missed: the essence of the image is different from what it depicts. The identity between icon and model lies in the likeness, appearance, and form. The consequence of Nicephorus’ theology of images was ultimately a revitalized understanding of flesh and matter as true goods and not, though often flawed, to be defined as elements of the punishment for sin. After all, Christ had come to destroy corruption and death, but not material existence or human nature alongside. Theodore went as far as describing the icon as an image opening to presence of the invisible soul depicted. One can see in this understanding a new appreciation for the beauty of the human body, as a sacramental sign of the human soul who is it, prefiguring the Theology of the Body thirteen hundred years later.
In God’s Human Face, Cardinal Schonborn shows the far-reaching significance of Catholic Christology. “Those who in principle reject the icon, ultimately also reject the mystery of the Incarnation” (237). Those who reject the Incarnation, ultimately also reject the holiness of the human body and even the revelation of God as Love. The temptation to demonize material bodies continues to affect Western culture more than a thousand years after Nicaea II. Lutheranism, the Puritanical movement, and modern sexual ethics each fall victim to the scapegoating of corporeality. In such heresies, the body is a devil, binding the soul in sin, or else a mere machine of pleasure. What began as the defense of the total humanity of the Second Person of the Triune God in the early Byzantine Empire, has matured into a continually deepening Theology of the Body today. Just as the Catholic saints and faithful were the stronghold of proper Christology in the 9th century, so they are now the last citadel protecting sacramental sexuality, human dignity, and the soul-flesh union of the person.