Nicaea II, Protestants, and Icons

Icons, or sacred images, and their veneration–and indeed what exactly “veneration” is–have been an ongoing topic of Christian discussion since the eighth century. The debate has reared its head again in this new year of 2023, due in part to a video by Gavin Ortlund on his YouTube channel, Truth Unites, to which I shall occasionally refer in this article. To come to an understanding of the topic and what it means for Protestants who seek to be small-c catholic and in-step with the broad traditions of the Church in this area, an understanding of the eighth century is vital. Allow me to discuss this controversy first by considering 1) images and veneration before 726 when Emperor Leo III began issuing iconoclast decrees; 2) the decree of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787; and 3), the Western response. My unpopular thesis will be that a fully catholic embrace of the tradition leading up to the year 800 makes room for icon veneration among Protestants but does not make it a central aspect of devotion, and makes equal room for those who choose not to kiss the images.

Images Before 726

What no one can dispute is that Christians had images in their places of worship not only before the 700s but before Constantine, even, with survivals such as the baptistery of Dura Europos dating back to the 250s. The quantity of images increases after Constantine, partly because of an increase in material evidence. Rome is a good place to consider these: the tomb of Constantine’s daughter at Santa Costanza; the fourth-century apsidal mosaic in the basilica of Santa Pudenziana; the fifth-century biblical images along the nave and triumphal arch of Santa Maria Maggiore; the eighth-century frescoes of Santa Maria Antiqua, which some call the “Sistine Chapel of the 700s.” For some, the term “icon” is technical and refers to a painted wooden panel—the earliest such icon of Christ is a sixth-century Christ Pantocrator from St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, where you can also see a beautiful apsidal mosaic of the Transfiguration from the same period. More homely is the sixth-century Coptic icon of Christ and Apa Mena, now in the Louvre. Images of one sort or another grew in quantity throughout the Mediterranean world before 726, and go right up into England in the North and down into Ethiopia in the South, although they are less plentiful and prominent north of the Alps.

At the same time, veneration of icons developed and eventually became widespread, at least in the East and in Rome. Veneration, usually used to translate the Greek word proskynesis, is at one level a physical act of bowing or, at times, kissing someone or something out of a sense of worthy honour. It is not the same thing as worship or adoration, latreia, which is the particular honour given to God. In veneration, goes the eastern argument, you give honour to the symbol of the cross or the icon outwardly, but it transfers from the symbol to the reality. John of Damascus and some of his predecessors argue that they do not truly venerate wood but the maker of the wood, and that if the paint wears away or the physical cross is broken, you can burn it because it was never the real thing anyway. Although from a completely different context, I find Augustine’s semiotic distinction between signum and res useful. An icon of Christ Pantocrator is a signum of the res of Christ himself. You honour it only because you worship Him.

Icons are not all that the eastern Christians in Late Antiquity and the early Byzantine Middle Ages venerated. All citizens of the Later Roman Empire from at least the fourth century venerated the Emperor himself, the hem of his robe, and his image. In a religious context, they venerated the Gospel book, the Bible in general, the vessels and elements of holy communion, and the relics of saints. The veneration of these objects is very old and likely pre-dates the veneration of icons. The veneration of saints also grew in prominence throughout Late Antiquity. The scholarly consensus, as represented by Ortlund’s video, is that the veneration of religious icons in a ritual setting became a widespread norm at some point in the seventh century. I see no reason to dispute these conclusions which come from an array of scholars of different religious backgrounds. I have noted, however, that some iconodules (i.e. those who venerate icons) have objected to evidence of aniconism (i.e. the absence of icons and images) because certain sources quoted are doctrinally suspect on other grounds or had motives for aniconism none of us would agree with. But what the evidence of, say, the Eusebius quotation used by Ortlund, provides is not that Eusebius had his theology right but that icon veneration was practically unheard of in the early to mid-fourth century, and, what is more, was a debatable practice as late at St Gregory, who died in 604. I do, however, agree with today’s iconodules that none of the pre-726 aniconic quotations is a “slam dunk” for aniconism as a theological position. All they prove, to my mind, is that, in neutral terms, the veneration of images was a later patristic development in the devotional and liturgical life of the people of God. Whether it was good or bad is, in fact, a different question. Let’s now consider what the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 actually says about icons.

The Council of 787

While the history of the Iconoclastic Controversy from 726, when Emperor Leo III banned religious images, to its final conclusion in 843 is worth learning regardless of one’s position on images, the doctrinal decree of Second Council of Nicaea in 787 is what concerns me today. At this council, called by the Empress Irene and her son, Emperor Constantine VI, the assembled bishops overturned a previous iconoclast council held at Hiereia in 754 and produced a definition of faith.[1] This definition of faith, like those of previous councils, begins with a preamble about the faith, followed by introducing a problem facing the Church. Then, like all other such decrees, it affirms the previous ecumenical councils and quotes the Nicene/Constantinopolitan Creed, followed by anathematizing the heretics anathematized by previous councils. Having thus placed itself in the preceding tradition and proven itself orthodox by prior standards, the definition of Second Nicaea gets to the nub of the issue. First, images are allowed to be produced;[2] second, they “are to be dedicated in the holy churches of God”.[3] Third:

They are to be accorded greeting and the veneration of honour, not indeed the true worship corresponding to our faith, which pertains to the divine nature alone, but in the same way as this is accorded to the figure of the honourable and life-giving cross, to the holy gospels, and to other sacred offerings. In their honour an offering of incensation and lights is to be made, in accordance with the pious custom of the men of old. For the honour paid to the image passes over to the prototype, and whoever venerates the image venerates in it the hypostasis of the one who is represented.[4]

The definition then affirms that this teaching is in line with tradition, orders that those who oppose it are to be deposed if clerics and excommunicated if monks or laymen. The acts then include the subscriptions of 302 bishops.

Whether or not one accepts the decree as outlined above, the acclamations that follow the subscriptions created something of a problem for both contemporary Carolingians and later Protestants, for the assembled bishops next cry aloud various anathemas. If a person says, “I accept the teaching of Second Nicaea,” does that mean he accepts the decree as well as the anathemas? An anathema is not just a disagreement with someone but a declaration of that person as a heretic bound for perdition unless he repents. Not only do they anathematize “those who apply to the sacred images the sayings in divine scripture against idols”, they also anathematize, “those who do not kiss the holy and venerable images”. These anathemas, if we accept them as part of the teaching of the council, include a vast swathe of the Reformed tradition. However much an Anglican like me may disagree with my Reformed Presbyterian friends who remove baby Jesus from nativity sets, dare I really declare them anathema? Can anyone aligned with the teaching of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation embrace the anathemas?

I earnestly think the answer is no. Fear not: You are in good company, for Theodulf of Orléans, the theologian, bishop, and hymnographer who wrote “All Glory, Laud, and Honour,” agrees.

Frankfurt 794 and the Libri Carolini

In the debates about whether Western Christians who embrace the catholic tradition ought to accept the Seventh Council, the Council of Frankfurt of 794 looms large. This Carolingian council, held under the kingship of Charlemagne, dealt with a variety of matters both spiritual and civil, but especially with the doctrine coming out of Spain called adoptionism. This was the first major council after 787; accordingly, the first of the council’s fifty-six chapters deals with Second Nicaea before moving on to adoptionism:

There was brought forward the question relating to the recent council of the Greeks that they held at Constantinople of the subject of the adoration of images, in which it was written that they condemned to anathema those who do not offer worship or adoration [servitio aut adorationem – sic.] to the images of the saints in the same way as to the divine Trinity. Our holy fathers listed above totally rejected adoration and worship and condemned those who assented to it.[5]

There’s a reason why this is all we get from Frankfurt: Charlemagne and Pope Hadrian had been over the question of Second Nicaea more than once since 787. There was no more to be said. And what was said at Frankfurt is not, despite how some modern critics of Second Nicaea frame it, a full-throated Carolingian denunciation of icon veneration as the Eastern church actually understood the practice, because Frankfurt’s statements are based on a mistranslation from the Greek of Nicaea II into Latin. Frankfurt is a textbook illustration of how the breakdown of relations between East and West–which would eventually result in the schisms between what we now call the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches–came about through Greek and Latin speakers misunderstanding one another. By saying that Second Nicaea approved worshipping icons in the same way as the Trinity, Frankfurt condemned a statement the Greeks simply would not have recognised.

This condemnation arises from a mistranslation. At one point in the Greek acts, Constantine of Konstanteia said, “I accept and embrace with honour the holy and venerable images, and I venerate with worship only the supersubstantial and life-originating Trinity.”[6] The initial translation into Latin was, apparently, something incomprehensible, so Theodulf, working only with the bad Latin, corrected it to, “I accept and venerate with honour the holy and venerable images according to the worship that I pay to the consubstantial and life-giving Trinity.”[7] Such a statement implies that the images receive the same worship as God himself, and would have been as unacceptable to Pope Hadrian and the Greeks as it was to the Carolingians. It has also been argued that the Carolingians did not grasp the distinction between the Greek proskynesis (veneration) and latreia (worship due only to God), rendering them both into Latin as adoratio, which, in later usage, denotes that worship due only to God and thus latreia not proskynesis. However, in eighth-century Latin as well as the Latin Bible, adoratio is the normal word that translates proskynesis. Furthermore, as Price shows, the Greeks were not yet making the distinction between proskynesis and latreia but rather between two degrees or types of proskynesis, one towards God alone and one fitting for creatures such as emperors, sacramental elements, relics, and images of Christ and the saints.[8]

Now, most commentators leave the Carolingian question simply with the concerns of mistranslation and attempted correction. Thankfully, Thomas F. X. Noble and Richard Price have gone through the main Carolingian source on icon veneration, Theodulf of Orleans’ Opus Caroli Regis, or the Libri Carolini.[9] These were put together by Theodulf on behalf of Charlemagne after Pope Hadrian sent the Latin translation of Second Nicaea’s acts north in the late 780s. The popes of the eighth century were all iconophiles, and the position of Hadrian regarding Second Nicaea was that it was a perfectly valid local council of the Eastern church; he agreed with its theology; but he had no intention of formally validating it as ecumenical, however. Besides a long standing quarrel of the papacy with the crown in a major property dispute, Hadrian did not think it required an ecumenical council.

The Franks, who had far fewer images in their churches and far fewer Eastern influences on their rituals, steered a middle course. They were not iconodules, nor were they iconoclasts. Theodulf himself commissioned a mosaic of the Ark of the Covenant flanked by angels for his personal oratory. They were, however, resistant to icon veneration. Two grounds exist for this resistance. First, it was an innovation as far as Western practice was concerned. St. Gregory the Great resisted it, for example. Second, it too easily strayed from veneration into adoration. As it turns out, despite the muddled translation that gave rise to the famous chapter at Frankfurt, Theodulf knew the distinction between proskynesis (veneration) and latreia (worship) —he simply felt that it was too easily and too often crossed in the practice of the Eastern church.

The West in 794, then, was at an impasse. The Frankish church did not accept the doctrinal decree of the council. The pope accepted it but rejected the ecumenicity of the council. But in 870 (to cut a long story short), the papacy retconned its rejection of on Nicaea II and embraced it as ecumenical in order to gain acceptance from the anti-Photians (a group who opposed the election of Photius as Patriarch of Constantinople in 857, since he displaced Rome’s preferred choice, Ignatius). By 1000, veneration of images was increasing north of the Alps, and by Gratian’s Decretum of 1140, canons from Nicaea II had entered the main body of Latin canon law. Formally, it took a century, and in popular practice much longer, but Second Nicaea became an ecumenical council embraced by both East and West.


The position of many Protestants today who consider ourselves catholic and in line with the ancient church and the wider tradition is essentially the Carolingian position. Images are allowed—the stained glass windows of Canterbury Cathedral or of my own parish of St. Thomas here in Thunder Bay need not be smashed. Images are even beneficial at times—I recall a preacher noting that if his sermon was bad, you could learn something from the stained glass image of the crucifixion in the apse. But the Frankish resistance to veneration is one many share and even represents the practice of Gregory the Great, the man who sent missionaries to the pagan English. Nevertheless, the definition of the faith of the council itself was not the target of the Council of Frankfurt in 794. If one accepts the Greek distinction between worship and veneration, then that definition is within the bounds of the formularies of some Protestant churches (although even that depends on Anglicans carefully sorting out the semantics “worship” in Article 22 of the 39 Articles, with its prohibition of “worshipping and adoration of images”). I, myself, accept that distinction and overall am convinced by the arguments of St. John of Damascus about the allowability of icons and their proper veneration; thus I guardedly embrace the council’s decree but do not make a habit of kissing icons. That said, I believe that the catholic tradition of the eighth century, represented by popes, Carolingians, and eastern iconodules, is broad enough to embrace both the Carolingian guardedness towards images and the Byzantine veneration of them. Perhaps we can be, too.

Matthew Hoskin (PhD, University of Edinburgh) teaches ancient and medieval Christian history for Davenant Hall. His research focuses on manuscripts, monks, popes, canon law, and councils, which all feature in his book The Manuscripts of Leo the Great’s Letters (2022), and he blogs about the historic faith at CLASSICALLY CHRISTIAN. He lives on Superior’s northern shore in Thunder Bay, Ontario, with his wife and sons.

  1. Trans. Richard Price, The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787) (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020), 561-566.

  2. Price, Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, 564.

  3. Price, Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, 565.

  4. Price, Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, 565.

  5. Price, Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, 68-69.

  6. Price, Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, 229.

  7. Price, Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, 69.

  8. Price, Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, 70.

  9. See Price, The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, 64-76; Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and Carolingians (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 180-206.

*Image Credit: Unsplash


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