Ouspensky notes that the use of iconography within the Church is not for the sake of self-expression or the enumeration of opinions, but for the preservation of the essential truths of the faith itself. This is no different, really, than the role of the various writings of Church fathers, the ecumenical councils, or the holy scriptures as gathered and used by the Church in her divine services. In fact, both the doctrinal writings and the doctrinal “artwork” of the Church underwent a period of transition following the legalization of Christianity in the Roman empire.
Icons were no more “invented” in the fourth century than either the canonized scriptures or doctrines such as the incarnation or Trinity were “invented” in this same era. Similarly, the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity (among many others) was expressed through the language of popular, Platonist philosophy at this time no more makes the Trinity a “perversion” of the Church influenced by “paganism” than does the expression of iconography being patterned after popular Greco-Roman funerary portraiture.
The art of the first Christians was a doctrinal and a liturgical art. It embodied a true spiritual direction, and the claim of certain scholars who maintain that sacred art was born outside the Church, or that it had no importance until the third or fourth centuries, cannot be taken seriously. Quite the opposite is true. This art reflects a general ecclesiastical guidance and a tight control over the artists’ work. Nothing was left to chance or to the whim of the artist. Everything is concentrated on the expression of the Church’s teaching. From its first steps, the Church begins to develop an artistic language which expresses the same truth as the sacred word. We shall see later that this language, just like the theological expression of the Christian teaching, will become more and more specific throughout the Church’s history, and will become a most perfect and exact instrument of teaching.
Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, Volume 1, pp. 79-80
The importance of icons (along with the liturgies, the ecumenical councils, the lives of the Saints, etc.) in a doctrinal and liturgical context within the Church is inestimable. In fact, it was in the context of defending iconography that the holy synod of bishops at the Second Council of Nicæa declared resolutely: “This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the orthodox, this is the faith which has made firm the whole world.” One can truly perceive the difference between doctrinal stability in an iconoclastic church vs. that of the Orthodox-Catholic tradition, where the former seemingly changes with every new wind, while the latter is anchored to the unchanging Truth himself (albeit with varying expression or “adaptation” over the centuries and across various cultural contexts, but this “translation” is a significant part of an iconodulistic “world-view”).
While many might blame “liberalism” or a lack of scriptural fidelity in churches where the truth is fading over time, I can’t help but wonder if iconoclasm is the true culprit. When one’s entire religion is based upon a book alone, there is always a wide berth for “interpretation” and various, often dissenting viewpoints. While the majority of traditional Islam is iconoclastic, making the claim that the unadulterated Quran is the “alpha and omega” of their religion, the Christian religion has never held the same belief (at least, not in its traditional manifestations). The Church produced the scriptures, and not the other way around. The true word (logos) of God is the Person of Jesus Christ. The scriptures are an iconographic “window” to Christ, but they are not the word of God in isolation from the body of Christ. It is in the life of the Church that they live, breathe, and become a part of that living tradition of both Christ and the Spirit.
Without iconography, the Church could hypothetically be held hostage by the individual interpretations of the popular; the latest scholar, the most “relevant” author or preacher, or the most powerful committee. However, in the Orthodox Church, there is no real danger of an interpretation of scripture or “revision” to the faith that denies something such as the resurrection. In such a case, all the faithful must do is point to the icons. “See? Right there, Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. And in fact, that’s what we sing during the Paschal season. Not only that, but the scriptures teach this, the fathers teach this, and the witness of the martyrs confirms it in their blood.”
A three-fold cord is not easily broken, and the multitude of “witnesses” in the Orthodox-Catholic tradition prevents any one individual (or group of individuals) from making a shipwreck of the faith through their misguided interpretations of a book; a book of books that even the apostle Peter admitted contains many things which are “difficult to understand,” and which the “unlearned and unstable” twist “to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16).
Tradition is a living, breathing, Spirit-filled conversation in the universal experience of the Church; and in this context, an icon truly speaks a thousand words.