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Robert Letham (reformed) on icons

July 13, 2011

Robert Letham ,not to far back, wrote a book on Eastern Orthodoxy in an attempt to educate the Western reformed world of what Orthodoxy was all about, and some of the major issues that divide Orthodoxy and reformed theology. While I have not read the book completely, I have read parts, since certain chapters are scattered throughout reformed websites in promotion of his insights on Orthodoxy. If anything, I know the background of how this book was written, and people who influenced him to try to answer the claims against reformed theology, in which he in many places shows his ignorance because of his interest in a fast answer. I hope that some will go into more detail about the history of how this book was written in the comments

I recently came across Letham’s thoughts on the Iconoclast controversy on Sproul’s website, and read through Letham’s thoughts on the subject. If anything, Letham pulls some bad manipulation in certain areas,  where he is not making something up out of thin air, but is not presenting the full truth in regards to history, and what we now know what is historically true or not.  Read carefully

Letham writes:

“In the previous century, images were increasingly seen as windows to the spiritual world”   Letham is speaking of the century before the 7th ecumenical council.

Letham quickly implies that in the years before the 7th ecumenical council, images were becoming increasingly popular, alluding to the idea that he has a grasp on some historical evidence of such a fact, but never cites it.

He also notes:

” From 726–730, John of Damascus emerged as the chief iconodule theologian. He carefully distinguishes between adoration (latreia) — due to God alone — and veneration (proskunesis) in its various degrees, a sign of the subordination and lowliness of the venerator. John insists that we worship only God.”

Notice what Letham is doing here. He is setting up an argument without clearly stating it. What Letham is working off of here is Calvin’s view of the Iconoclast controversy, in which Calvin writes:

“If the authority of the ancient church moves us in any way, we will recall that for about five hundred years, during which religion was still flourishing, and a pure doctrine thriving, Christian Churches were commonly empty of images. Thus, it was when the purity of the ministry had somewhat degenerated that they were first introduced for the adornment of churches” (Institutes 1.11.13).

Calvin states that not until the 6th century did images “degenerated” the church, which is false, seeing that in the 3rd century we can see in Eusebius’s Church History that images were not just around in the church, but were passed down from the time of the apostles. This is something historians have taken note of for a long time now, and have stated that Calvin missed because he was relying on the Latin works, or he just decided to not mention the fact that the early church talks about images way earlier than the 6th century.

Whatever the case, Letham is clearly arguing from his understanding of Calvin, even though it has been proven false by historians, yet he does not mention that his framework is from such a false idea.Letham implies that after the 5th century images increased, which is false, and then quotes St. John of Demascus in the 8th century in part, to imply that the theology of icons was a doctrinal error that developled.This can be also proven in his argument against images with St. Gregory of Nyssa’s comments on God, where Letham writes:

“Before this, Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, had argued that the visible revelation of God in creation is superior to verbal revelation, since he thought language inherently ambiguous and so inappropriate to describe God.”

So there we have it. Letham makes the classic mistake Calvin did in his assertion of icons in Christian tradition. He implies that images are a heretical development starting after the 6th century, identifies a 8th century person (John of Demascus) as proof of its development after the 6th century, and then argues from a 4th century person (St Gregory of Nyssa) in defense of his iconoclast position. Letham is just using Calvin’s bad historical standpoint, and nothing else

So from this point, we can see where Letham is getting his insights from, and see that he is going to just let his tradition interpret things for him rather than the facts. Yet, we are the ones who are false for doing that, right?

Also, Letham’s decision to exclude any of the important historical facts that might help the reader make a conscience decision one way or the other is telling. He leaves out the fact that the ones who held to icons were being killed by the people he agrees with, and he leaves out that the Muslims were of heavy influence on Leo IV, in that they denied the Incarnation, and images of God. He also fails to mention, as does Calvin (ironic) that the first “council” that said icons were heretical, was not in fact a council. The bishops that did attend did not constitute a council, and the bishops that did attend, did so at the threat of death. Also, he leaves out that the person who was able to destroy the false council was Leo IV’s wife (Irene of Athens) who even during the time of the false council, hid icons from Leo IV, in fear of her life.

These issues are very important, in that they give us a clear understanding of force being used where there was no argument, much like the Muslims historically. Also, it gives us insight into the influence of Muslim thought on Leo IV, in that images were horrible heresy to those who denied the Incarnation.

What Letham then goes on to state, which is my favorite part, that Eastern Orthodox Christians are Nestorian for our icon veneration, and he states the same argument the Muslim influenced iconoclasts did against icons.  He writes:

” However, to make an icon of Christ is to abstract His humanity from His person (the eternal Son), and so to fall into Nestorianism. Here the Eastern Orthodox, who vehemently deny Nestorianism, argue that the person of God the Word in the flesh appears on the image and that this is not a depiction of God, since the Word is visible as man. “

This is all Letham gives us to entertain. Earlier in Letham’s article, he notes that the only icon that is for us to worship is the Eucharist, and notes it said by the Leo IV. However, it seems as though Letham has no clue why Leo IV believes such a thing, and in some ways leaves that idea on the table, as if it supports reformed worship, however, the reason the Eucharist is defended by the Iconoclasts as a true image, was because St. Cryil famously argues against Nestorius with the reality of Christs real presence in the bread and wine. So, an image destroys the idea of two subjects in Christ, yet, icons can only be Nestorian, outside of the Eucharist?  Also, Cyril’s argument does not entail the idea that the Eucharist is an image, but that it is really Christ’s flesh. When I look at the Eucharist, am I a Nestorian?

Finally, the problem with the accusation Letham makes about Orthodoxy and Nestorianism is nothing but classic, well, Nestorianism. The main issue in Nestorianism is the idea that there were two personal subjects in Christ incarnate, and interestingly enough, this same argument was made by Nestorius himself against Cyril’s Christology. Funny, Nestorius denies Nestorianism, and a Nestorian argues against Nestorianism by presupposing a Nestorian Christology. This is always the way it works. When St Cyril argued against Nestorius, Nestorius argued that Cyril divided Christ’s humanity, because for Nestorius, it was the two nature that came together to make up one Christ, just as it is for Letham in his argument against Icons.  Ultimately, the problem with Nestorianism results in denying that God could assume an image, just like the Jews who deny that God can be a man (Cyril points this out in his 12 anethemas 2 paragraph) and the Muslims, who interestingly enough, gave weight to the ideas in Leo IV’s head, and the argument Letham is working with.

I can’t wait to get my hands on this book this week. One of my friends who has read the book (when he was still reformed) commented on other interesting issues that pop up in Letham’s book. He writes:

“In the final chapter where he is demarcating the differences between the Reformed and the Orthodox, Letham makes several revealing statements. He acknowledges that Calvinism’s commitment to monergism seems to entail mono-energism, which is a form of the monothelite heresy. Letham shows himself very aware of the deep Christological issues. However, he says that it doesn’t entail mono-energism/monotheletism because Calvinism believes man does have a will and that God simply woos it (or overrides it). Unfortunately, though, this is not different from what the monothelites actually believed. As the leading scholar on monotheletism makes clear (Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ), monotheletism acknowledges a human will, but qualifies it by saying it is overridden by the divine will.”

If Letham does say that, he needs to read St. Maximos the Confessor. St. Maximos the Confessor’s arguments against the Monothelites is clearly proving that The divine will and the human will in Christ work freely from each other, and are made to will by the person  (The Son). Clearly if Letham does argue for the Divine will overriding the human will in Christ, he is confusing nature and person, in that the natures are the movers of the will (two subjects) or he is a Monothelite, which is just another branch of Nestorianism, and a confusion nature and person.

I will end this post with that.


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  1. Good stuff. Another reason why the “eucharist = icon” argument is false: The eucharist is not an “image” of Christ. It *is* Christ.

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