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The Seventh General Council and the Doctrine of Icons

Conference in the Jerusalem Chamber,
Westminster, December 2, 1918.

London: SPCK, 1919.


The Metropolitan of Athens, Meletios, and his theologians expressly desired to discuss the Seventh Synod (Nic├Ža II.) at the Conference which was held in the Jerusalem Chamber under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Winchester. [These were the Reverend Dr. Chrysostom Papadopoulos, Professor of Divinity in the University of Athens; the Reverend Dr. Alexander Papadopoulos, Secretary of the Holy Synod of Greece; and Monsieur Hamilcar Alivisatos, Professor of Canon Law in the University of Athens and Head of the Ecclesiastical Department in the Ministry of Education.] Since then they have repeatedly referred to the synthesis there obtained between Orthodox and Anglican thought. It may be convenient, therefore, for all the members of that Conference, as well as the members of the Conference in the United States, where the same subject was touched upon, to have the text of that statement.

Putting aside the struggle for the true faith in the Incarnation, to which the opponents of the Orthodox in the great iconoclastic controversy seem to have held loosely, the reason for the great importance attached to the doctrine of icons in the East, contrasted with the comparative indifference of the West, lies, probably, in the different mentalities. The Eastern mind, being deeply mystical, feels instinctively the [3/4] need of the material in thought and worship (which the Incarnation brought to us) to preserve the balance. This is a suggestion for theologians to consider.


I need add no remark to what is here set forth, unless it be this: that having had the honour of presiding over the Conference at Westminster, I can testify that the accord which marked the proceedings appeared to me to be on both sides simple, unforced, and real.



(After the recapitulation of the teaching of the First Six Oecumenical Councils.)

"WE affirm that we preserve all the traditions of the Church which have been decreed to us in her, whether written or unwritten, without innovation, of which one is the formation of representative images, which is perfectly concordant with the history of the Evangelical preaching unto the assurance of the true and not the imaginary Incarnation of God the Word, and which is of service to us unto a like edification. For those things which are naturally illustrative of each other most indubitably possess the outward appearance of each other.

"These things, therefore, being thus, as proceeding in the royal road and following the sacred doctrines of our holy fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church, for this we acknowledge to be from the Divine Spirit that dwelleth in her, we with all exactness and care do define that, in the same manner as the Holy and Life-giving Cross, so shall holy images, whether formed of colours or of stones, or any other convenient material, be set forth in all the holy churches of God, and also on sacred [5/6] vessels and garments, on walls and doors, in houses and by the highways, whether images of Christ Jesus our Lord, our God and Saviour, or of our spotless Lady, the Holy Mother of God, or of the Holy Angels or of all the Saints and other holy men. For in proportion as these are continually seen by representation in images, so are they who behold them moved to the remembrance of, and affection for, their prototypes.

"And, further, we define that there be paid to them the worship of salutation and honour [timhtikh proskunhsiV], and not that true worship [latreia] which is according to faith, and which is due to the Divine Nature alone, but such worship as is properly paid to the image of the Holy and Life-giving Cross and to the Holy Gospels, and to the other sacred monuments, and that the offering of incense and lights should be made to the honour of such things as was the pious custom of the ancients. [It is worth remembering that these formed part of the ceremonial of the Eastern Imperial Court. The English custom of bowing to the Throne of the Sovereign and to the Altar in Church seems an exact parallel.] For the honour of the image passes on to the prototype, and those who venerate an image venerate in it the person [upostasiV] of him who is represented thereby. Thus is confirmed the doctrine of the holy fathers, thus the tradition of the Church which from end to end of the earth hath received the Gospel. Thus we follow Paul, speaking in Christ, and the whole company of Apostles and Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received."


Three main issues as follows:--

I. There are two kinds of Worship or Veneration.

(a) The Reverence due to holy persons and things because they stand in some relation to God.

E.g. the Holy Scriptures, the Church, the Holy Table, the Cross, the Saints.

We call this "Reverence"; the Greeks, timhtikh proskunhsiV.

(b) The Worship due to God alone.

We call this, colloquially, "Adoration"; the Greeks, latreia.

It is of the highest importance to emphasize the difference as strongly as possible, because there is always a danger of slipping from one kind of veneration into the other, and "the Lord our God is a jealous God." The definition is primarily a bulwark against idolatry, which it condemns in set terms.

2. All Veneration of Material Things is Relative.

The reverence for a picture passes to the person it represents. E.g. we place the photograph of [7/8] our departed mother in a place of honour. But our honour or respect does not rest in the paper and the pigment, it passes through the portrait to the original. We reverence the Bible, but our worship is really addressed to the Holy Spirit Who inspired its pages; the Cross, but our worship is referred to Him Who died thereon. So with all material things. We are required by a canon of the Church of England to bow at the Holy Name of Jesus. But in so doing our worship passes through the icon of purely material sounds to the Saviour of mankind.

3. The Sanctification of Matter through the Incarnation.

Of old God the uncircumscribed could not be portrayed.

The Incarnation was a condescension to our nature.

We are as God made us, with bodies and senses.

Christ came that we might apprehend God through the material Image of His human nature: He Whom, as St. John says, we have seen and heard and handled.

Thus it has come to pass that we can approach Him through the noblest of our senses; we can portray the God Whom we have seen.

The Greek theologians present at the Conference were understood to accept this as covering the ground; there was nothing left to be said.

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