St. Theodore the Studite against the Iconoclasts

St. Theodore the Studite against the Iconoclasts

During the iconoclastic disputes of the ninth century, a priest-monk named Theodore was instrumental in the orthodox defense of icons. Like St. John of Damascus a century earlier, Theodore was a ‘voice in the wilderness,’ fighting against the unorthodox views of the corrupt, Imperial leadership.

A leading monk at the Studious monastery in Constantinople, Theodore wrote three different Refutations of iconoclasm (PG 99.328–436). His work was instrumental in the victory of the orthodox decades later. Unfortunately, Theodore was both persecuted and exiled—along with his monastic brethren—on three separate occasions. He died in semi-exile on November 11, 826, not seeing the fruit of his labors.

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At the end of his First Refutation of Iconoclasts, Theodore appends a series of anathemas against iconoclasts and their beliefs. These anathemas provide a concise, orthodox explanation of the iconodule position, along with a glimpse into the best of early Byzantine theology:

Therefore, if anyone denies that our incarnate Lord Jesus Christ is circumscribed by the flesh, while remaining indescribable according to His divine nature, he is a heretic.

On this point, Theodore is laying out the importance of Jesus Christ as the God-Man. The iconoclasts objected to icons of Christ because they did not believe he could be depicted without either depicting his human nature alone (Nestorianism) or by blasphemously depicting the divine (which is why actual icons of the Father and Spirit are both impossible and unthinkable). Theodore corrects this approach by the simple fact of Christ’s Incarnation: We see him as he truly is, and this required neither that the divine nature be circumscribed, nor that his human and divine natures be separate. It is a mystery of the Incarnation. He addresses this in more detail in the next anathema:

If anyone should argue that, because the flesh of the Logos is circumscribed, His divinity is circumscribed together with the flesh; and if in this argument he fails to distinguish the two natures in the single hypostasis according to their nature properties (because neither one excludes the other in the inseparable union), he is a heretic.


If anyone calls the circumscription of the Logos’ bodily form neither the icon of Christ, nor Christ by identity of name, but miscalls it an idol of deception, he is a heretic.

Theodore makes it plain that if we declare an icon of Christ to be as such, this is no fantasy. He also objects to iconoclasts who associated Christian icons with pagan idols—a point also strongly emphasized in the decretal statements of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (A.D. 787). He expands on the ‘idol theme’ further in his next anathema:

If anyone should rashly confuse the relative veneration of Christ in the icon with the veneration of idols, and should deny that it is a veneration of Christ Himself (although the great Basil says that the glory of the prototype is not divided by the glory which is given to the copy1), he is a heretic.

Theodore refuses to concede that the proper veneration of icons is analogous to the worship of idols. Christians pay homage to the person signified in the icon, not wood, gold, or paint, whereas idols and their worship is a worship of both matter and demons (false gods). Here, as with St. John of Damascus, Theodore cites St. Basil in his arguments regarding the divinity of the Holy Spirit against the Arians (the genesis of the third article of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, ca. A.D. 381).

If anyone should say that, when the image of Christ is displayed, it is sufficient neither to honor nor to dishonor it, thus refusing it the honor of relative veneration, he is a heretic.

This is directed against the Frankish, Carolingian theologians (e.g. the Libri Carolini), as well as the Imperial iconoclasts of the East. Traditionally (and unlike the more radical Reformers), iconoclasts permitted images of Christ, the Saints, the Theotokos, and the great feasts or events of scripture in their churches; however, they refused to venerate them, making them out of reach for the faithful. For Theodore and the iconodules, this would be like seeing Christ face-to-face, but then turning away with disrespect. Because of their symbolic nature, icons make present the people (or events) they depict—which is why we treat them with respect and honor, just as we should with each other.

If anyone should transfer the Scriptural prohibition of idols and misapply them to the holy icon of Christ, so as to miscall the Church of Christ a temple of idols, he is a heretic.

Again, associating icons with pagan idols not only disrespects our fathers in the faith, but also the Church—the very Body of Christ and pillar and foundation of the truth. This is unacceptable for both Theodore and the orthodox party.

If anyone should say that, when he venerates the icon of Christ, he is venerating Christ’s divinity present naturally in the icon, rather than only insofar as the icon is the shadow of the flesh which is united to the divinity (since the Godhead is everywhere), he is a heretic.

This is an important distinction, often absent from our present discussions. Icons are holy because of the holy persons or events depicted, but the wood, gold, and paint are not imbued with a special sort of divinity greater than the rest of creation—for God is everywhere present, filling all things. As St. Athanasius reminds us, when the image of an icon is marred, we destroy it in fire. If the image is no longer in tact, it is no longer a holy icon.

If anyone should judge the raising of the mind to the prototypes by means of the holy icons to be base and unspiritual (because he thinks that without them he is raised by hearing to the vision of the archetype), and should not give equal respect to the memorial depicted in silence as to the narration of speech (as the Great Basil says2), he is a heretic.

Here Theodore rejects the idea that merely hearing about Christ and the apostles is sufficient; our eyes—our whole bodies—are involved in spiritual contemplation and worship of the divine. Through icons, our sense of sight is involved in both our understanding and reverence for Christ and his Saints. He notes elsewhere that, without icons, people would devise their own ‘pictures’ in their minds, and often with error. As a result, icons preserve orthodox tradition, apart from any individual imagination.

If anyone should forbid the icon of Christ equally with the symbol of the cross to be both drawn in every place and displayed for the salvation of God’s people, he is a heretic.

Unlike most of the Reformers (Luther excepted), the iconoclasts of the eighth and ninth centuries venerated the symbol of the cross as well as relics and the Eucharist. Theodore elsewhere explains (at length) the inconsistency of this in his First Refutation, but here makes it plain that both icons and the cross are necessarily displayed—and venerated—for our salvation.

If anyone should not offer to the icon of the Theotokos and to the icons of all the other saints the veneration due to the Theotokos as Theotokos and to the other saints as saints (according to the differing veneration of the Mother of God and of her fellow servants), but should claim that the salvific ornament of the Church is an idolatrous invention, he is a heretic.

Theodore again denies that icons are idols, while also asserting the ‘greater’ veneration of the Theotokos as compared to the rest of the Saints. He again connects the veneration of icons with ‘salvation.’

If anyone should not number with the other heresies the heresy which attacks the holy icons (since it alienates its followers from God as much as the others do), but should say that fellowship with these people is a matter of indifference, he is a heretic.

Clearly, Theodore was not a pluralist or double-talking ‘academic.’ That being said, his passion here lies in the connection between icons and the Incarnation. Since the spirit of Antichrist (in the apostle John’s letters) denies Christ ‘came in the flesh,’ Theodore connects iconoclasm with this spirit, writing: “Obviously your opposition is from Antichrist.”3

If anyone should overextend the honor of Christ’s icon and say that he will not approach it, for it will not benefit him unless he is first purified from all sin, he is a fool.

Not one to mince words, Theodore makes a point that also applies, I think, to the Eucharist. We should not reject the salvation offered to us by God in his holy Church—whether in icons, the Eucharist, or other mysteries—but should approach ‘with the fear of God, faith, and love.’ The Church is a hospital for sinners, and icons are given to us precisely because we are sinners. Everyone should approach and venerate, just as we should all approach and receive his Body and Blood, following a calling to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’

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Theodore’s anathemas and greater arguments were received as dogma by the Synod of Constantinople (A.D. 842–3) and the Empress Theodora, ending State-sanctioned iconoclasm once and for all.

This triumph of orthodox belief is celebrated to this day on the first Sunday of Great Lent by Orthodox Christians around the world.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. On the Holy Spirit 18.45 (PG 32.149)
  2. Hom. 19 (PG 31.509)
  3. First Refutation of the Iconoclasts 19