Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Flesh Became the Word

I cannot think of a better summary of the theological foundation of the veneration of the icon than this paragraph from St John Damascene's first treatise on the holy images:
I know what the One who cannot lie said: "the Lord your God is one Lord" [Deut 6:4], and "you shall venerate the Lord your God and Him alone shall you worship" [Deut 6:13], and "there shall be for you no other gods" [Deut 5:7], and "you shall not make any carved likeness, of anything in heaven above or on the earth below" [Deut 5:8], and "all who venerated carved [images] shall be put to shame" [Ps 96:7] and "gods, who did not make heaven and earth, shall be destroyed" [Jer 10:11], and these words in a similar manner: "God, who of old spoke to the fathers through the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us in His Only-begotten Son, through whom He made the ages" [Heb 1:1-2]. I know the One Who said: "This is eternal life, that they might know You, the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom You sent" [Jn 17:3]. I believe in one God, the one beginning of all things, Himself without beginning, uncreated, imperishable and immortal, eternal and everlasting, incomprehensible, bodiless, invisible, uncircumscribed, without form, one being beyond divinity, in three persons, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and I worship this one alone, and this one alone I offer the veneration of my worship. I venerate one God, one divinity, but also I worship a trinity of persons, God the Father and God the Son incarnate and God the Holy Spirit, one God. I do not venerate the creation instead of the creator, but I venerate the Creator, created for my sake, Who came down to His creation without being lowered or weakened, that He might glorify my nature and bring about communion with the divine nature. I venerate together with the King and God the purple robe of His body, not as a garment, nor as a fourth person (God forbid!), but as called to be and to have become unchangeably equal to God, and the source of anointing. For the nature of the flesh did not become divinity, but as the Word became flesh immutably, remaining what it was, so also the flesh became the Word without losing what it was, being rather made equal to the Word hypostatically. Therefore I am emboldened to depict the invisible God, not as invisible, but as He became visible for our sake, by participation in flesh and blood. I do not depict the invisible divinity, but I depict God made visible in the flesh. For if it is impossible to depict the soul, how much more God, who gives the soul its immateriality? (I, 4)
St John begins by establishing Scripturally that there is one God, Who cannot be depicted in His divinity, as the Damacene makes clear by describing Him in apophatic (negative) language. But we worship "a trinity of persons, God the Father and God the the Son incarnate and God the Holy Spirit, one God." The Son of God entered creation, taking on flesh, and therefore we can depict and venerate the Son of God as He became visible in the flesh. Just as the Word became flesh, so too did the flesh become the Word. The Word was "en-fleshed," rendering the flesh hypostatically equal to the Word. Man, too, through participation in Christ's Body, the Church, is deified by grace not only in soul, but in body as well. The body itself becomes a true image of God, making it a word in the Word.

A few additional points of interest:

1. Notice how St John speaks of the divinity: "a trinity of persons, God the Father and God the Son incarnate and God the Holy Spirit, one God." With very rare exceptions, the Fathers do not speak of the "Triune God," language not found in Scripture or the Creeds. Recall the language of the Nicene Creed:
  • "I believe in one God, the Father almighty"
  • "And in one Lord, Jesus Christ... true God of [or, from] true God"
  • "And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life; Who proceeds from the Father; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified."
If one were to premise one's theology on the "Triune God," how would one then be able to speak of the God Who is both invisible and visible? Unfortunately much fashionable contemporary Orthodox theology, with its emphasis on "being and communion" and the Trinity as social and ecclesiastical model does in fact premise itself on the idea of the "Triune God," thereby often projection a human-societal model of community onto the Godhead. (None of this, needless to say, is to deny the dogma of the Trinity; see my fuller explanation here. My point is simply that we should take care to follow the language of the Scriptures and Fathers in speaking of the Holy Trinity.)

2. Although it's not quite evident in this passage, a reading of the complete treatise will show that St John's usage of the word eikon (icon/image) is both deeper and broader than our usual conception of icons, as images painted on wood.

3. St John's defense of the veneration of icons rests on purely theological ("incarnational") grounds. Unlike many apologists for the veneration of icons, he says nothing at all about the aesthetics of the icon. The icon is not first and foremost a work of art.

How radically foreign all this is to the insistence of the new old atheists that the human person is a "mere mammal"!

For others posts on the theology of the icon see here and here. The best translation of St John's treatises on the icons is that of Fr Andrew Louth, Three Treatises on the Divine Images.


Maximus Daniel said...

Your little discussion on the Triune God wasn't brought to my attention until the Augustine Conference this past summer @ Fordham. Fr. Behr was leary of Augustine because he this tendency beginning to show up here, as opposed to how the earlier Fathers and the Creeds enunciated trinitarian theology.
I was reading Ephesians last week and was amazed at how closely St. Paul follows this same format. Well duh me, of course the Fathers would follow that!
But then, David Bentley Hart made the point that later Byzantine theology starts using Triune God, and don't we say that even in the liturgy? "Glory to the holy life giving and con-substantial trinity"? Am I missing the point of the critique?
Thanks again!

Felix Culpa said...

Fr John Behr was my adviser at St Vladimir's Seminary, so much of my theological approach derives from him.

There is no doubt that there are prayers addressed directly to the Trinity (such as that opening doxology you cite), but that's not the same as speaking of the "Triune God." The language of our liturgical books stays very true to that of the Scriptures and Fathers (although this is often lost in translation).

Moreover, the expression "Triune God" simply doesn't exist in Greek and Slavonic. The liturgical texts and Fathers speak of the "Tri-hypostatic Godhead," and very rarely as the "Tri-hypostatic God" (a search through the PG came up with not more than about a dozen such instances).

When the later Byzantine Fathers do use this language, it's always premised on the unity of the Godhead being based on the One God, known in the Son through the Holy Spirit. They also don't use the Trinity as a social model in the way many contemporary theologians do.

But, on the whole, these exceptions prove the rule.

Maximus Daniel said...

Gotta love Fr. Behr. I am definitely looking into heading to St. Vladimir's in a short time.

Thanks for the clarification. I definitely agree having just witnessed the revelation while reading Paul.


and if i might be nosy, did you write a thesis? and when did you graduate?

Felix Culpa said...
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