Nicaea II: Some criticisms
Some of the criticisms that can be made against the Acts of Nicaea II, specifically its use and interpretation of historical sources and its claim to be an ecumenical council.
06 FEBRUARY 2022 · 13:00 CET
In 2020, Richard Price published the first English translation of the Acts (“minutes”) of the Second Council of Nicaea of 787 in over 150 years. 1
This Council famously decreed that the veneration of icons was part of the Apostolic faith and therefore a necessary component of Christian doctrine and practice. 2
Since the Reformation, Protestants generally have rejected Nicaea II, and it has often been at the center of Protestant–Orthodox ecumenical dialogue.
The Acts provide crucial contextual information regarding the Council’s decision-making process, use of sources, and other important matters.
In this brief article, I would like to summarize some of the criticisms that can be made against the Acts of Nicaea II, specifically its use and interpretation of historical sources and its claim to be an ecumenical council.
Many of the council’s shortcomings are pointed out by Price himself, and the fact that he is a Roman Catholic priest who subscribes to this council means that the following criticisms do not come from a Protestant bias, but rather enjoy some degree of objectivity.
For those interested, I have included references to Price’s work throughout the article. 3
1. Seven methodological and factual errors at Nicaea II regarding the use and interpretation of historical sources
In what follows, I would like to summarize seven important methodological and factual errors in the Acts of Nicaea II.
The reason why this is important is that a crucial component of Nicaea II’s argument in favor of the veneration of icons was its claim to be simply expressing what the Church had always taught and believed since the time of Christ and the Apostles (Price, 480).
In other words, Nicaea II was so adamant about the rightness of its claims because they thought that they were upholding the historic doctrine and practice of the Church.
Therefore, to the extent that the validity of Nicaea II’s argument depends on the correct use and interpretation of historical sources, any legitimate criticism of its historical methodology ought to be taken seriously.
Quoting “pseudo-” works as if they were genuine. This is arguably the most important criticism to be discussed, and thus it comes first. Pseudepigraphy was a real problem in antiquity: lesser-known authors would publish their works under the name of well-known authors, and readers would not know that the work was a forgery. This happened with Dionysius, Augustine, and other Church Fathers. Thus, it is not uniquely the Council’s fault that they were citing “pseudo-” works as if they were genuine (although they were not shy of attributing iconoclast testimony to interpolations; see below), but now that we know that these works are not genuine, the record must be corrected. Several of their citations from John Chrysostom, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, and other Church Fathers have been shown to be forgeries. When all of the “pseudo-” works are filtered out, the earliest genuine testimony presented at Nicaea II of the veneration of icons only goes back to the 6th or 7th century (Price, 2–4, 42–44). Richard Price writes, “[T]he iconoclast claim that reverence towards images did not go back to the golden age of the fathers [i.e., 325–451], still less to the apostles, would be judged by impartial historians today to be simply correct” (Price, 43; cf. 37, 40–41). Now, this does not necessarily settle the debate, since authors such as Ernst Kitzinger have demonstrated that religious items such as crosses and relics were venerated at a previous time, 4 but regarding the specific issue of the veneration of icons, it is clear that this was not the early practice of the Church. Again, as Price writes, “The real problem for the iconophile cause lay elsewhere – in the poverty of support for their cause even in the golden age of the fathers […] it was a serious weakness in the iconophile cause that no single passage from any of these fathers gave an explicit stamp of approval to such veneration” (40–41).
Assuming that icon veneration (more accurately, the presence of images) in the 4th and 5th centuries meant that it was present in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries. Richard Price writes, “Despite the claim that images had had a venerable place in the church from the beginning, no attempt was made at Nicaea to prove by direct citation that the painting and veneration of images went back before the fourth century. The Acts include no iconophile text earlier than St Athanasius” (39). Price is quick to add that the common assumption of the time was that the “golden age of the fathers” accurately reflected previous practice, but we now know that the pre-Constantinian Church was different than the post-Constantinian church in at least some ways, and as Price’s comments illustrate, at least one of those ways was the issue of icon veneration. When this is combined with the previous point, the problem is compounded: not only were they unable to show that icon veneration went back to the pre-Constantine Church, they were also unable to show that it went back to the “golden age” of the 4th and 5th centuries. Again, based on the sources that we have, icon veneration cannot be documented before the 6th or 7th century.
Quoting Church Fathers out of context. Nicaea II did quote some genuine texts from the 4th century that they used to bolster their claim that icon veneration went back to the 4th and 5th centuries, but upon closer examination, neither do these texts support their claim. A key text at Nicaea II was Basil of Caesarea’s comment made in his work On the Holy Spirit, where he said that “the honor paid to the image passes over to the archetype” (18.45.19–20). The Council used this text to bolster their claim regarding the veneration of images, but the context of Basil’s comments was something else. As Richard Price writes, “The context was the totality of worship to be paid to Christ as the natural image of the Father, but taken out of its immediate context this statement could be applied to the role of artistic or mimetic images, with its message that an image should receive exactly the same degree of honour as its archtype” (45). 5 Other examples could be given (such as their usage of Athanasius’ Fourth Discourse against the Arians [Price, 312]), but the Basil reference illustrates the point: they were not doing careful, nuanced exegesis of patristic sources, but rather something closer to ransacking the sources in an attempt to bolster their claims.
Discounting counter-testimony (i.e., iconoclastic texts). When presented with iconoclast testimony, Nicaea II deemed the texts to be either forgeries or written by heretics. Thus, Epiphanius’ statement, “I have often said to my fellow celebrants that the images ought to be removed, but I have not been accepted by them, nor were they ready to listen to me even briefly”, is treated as a forgery (Price, 496–497). However, as Richard Price says, this is “a sentence that is manifestly not an iconoclast forgery!” and again, “This sentence cannot be an iconoclast forgery and supports the authenticity of the rest of the letter” (Price, 432, 498). Similarly, regarding Eusebius of Caesarea’s Letter to Constantia in which he implies that it is impossible to depict God in artistic form, Nicaea II simply calls him an Arian heretic, and thus dismisses his testimony out of hand (Price, 403–406, 470; cf. 510–511, 663–668).
Ignoring (or being ignorant of) the iconoclastic tradition. This is similar to the previous point, but slightly different. According to Ernst Kitzinger, “There is, then, no century between the fourth and the eighth in which there is not some evidence of opposition to images even within the Church” (“Cult of Images,” 133). Specifically, he mentions the Council of Elvira, Eusebius’ Letter to Constantia, and Epiphanius of Salamis during the 4th cent. (86, 92), the monophysites during the 5th cent. (131), Serenus of Marseilles and some Armenian priests during the 6th cent. (132), priests in Albania and Armenia during the 7th cent. (133), and the iconoclast movement in Byzantium during the 8th cent. The iconoclast (or anti- or non-iconodule) opposition may stretch back as far as the 2nd or 3rd century with testimony from figures such as Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian (86 n. 5) and is certainly attested in the ninth century with the reaction to Nicaea II in both the East and West. This implies that Kitzinger’s timeframe could be expanded to between the second and ninth centuries. However, this iconoclast (or anti- or non-veneration) tradition was not seriously considered at Nicaea II; instead, the Council gave the idea that iconodulism was the majority —or even exclusive— practice of the whole Church at all times and in all places, and all counter-examples are explained away as either forgeries, written by heretics, or beside the point. 6 They did not even consider that iconoclasm (or anti- or non-veneration) could have existed within orthodox Christianity during the first centuries of the Church. Thus Nicaea II claimed such things as, “All our holy fathers accepted the making of images. They are speaking falsely who deny that this is a tradition of the fathers” (Price, 481) and “Accordingly we followed the tradition of the catholic church. We made no deletions nor additions, but (in the words of the apostles) ‘we were taught, and hold onto, the traditions that we received’, accepting and embracing everything that the holy catholic church has handed from the beginning both by word of mouth and in writing. This includes representations in painted images. Whatever on the contrary was rejected by our inspired fathers, we too have rejected and deem inimical to the church” (Price, 588). This, however, simply was not true.
Conflating the issues of the presence of images with the practice of icon veneration. This is an important distinction which is lost in many modern debates on the issue. The mere presence of images in catacombs, houses, churches, etc., during the pre-Nicaea II era does not necessarily mean that they were venerating these images or using them as “portals” through which they addressed the saints or prayed to God. Thus, for example, Gregory the Great could speak of images as “books for the unlearned” (Ep. 13; 105) without implying that these images were to be venerated. This distinction was not made in Nicaea II’s handling of the historical sources, and thus testimony about the presence of images in previous centuries was erroneously assumed to count as evidence for the practice of icon veneration. To cite but one example, Nicaea II claims “From the time when the doors of peace and tranquility were opened for the church of Christ our God [i.e., from Constantine] till today, the churches have been painted and decorated with images, as the blessed and most holy pope Silvester bears witness” (Price, 158). Of course they had been painted with images, but there is no mention of icon veneration in this text.
Assuming that the lack of evidence of the condemnation of icon veneration in the first six ecumenical councils is the same thing as the endorsement of icon veneration. During the Sixth Session of Nicaea II, deacon Epiphanios, who was the spokesperson for the Council at this session, said the following: “Let them [i.e., the iconoclasts] either show us a council opposed to a council, unless it is one of those rejected and anathematized by the catholic church, like their own, or follow the holy and approved councils and accept what they permitted in the church. If they will accept the sacred images, they will be following the catholic church, since these were accepted by the holy six ecumenical councils” (Price, 460). Price points out the methodological fallacy in a footnote to this passage: “The fact that the earlier councils had not condemned images is taken as evidence that they approved of them”. Were this logic to be applied consistently, how many things could be said to have been “approved” at the early ecumenical councils simply because they were not condemned?
2. Four ecumenical shortcomings of Nicaea II
Since the Middle Ages, Nicaea II has been referred to as the seventh ecumenical council. 7
However, Nicaea II’s claim to be an ecumenical council is weak when compared with other ecumenical councils. In what follows, I briefly discuss four of its shortcomings.
Lack of support from Church tradition. Nicaea II’s historical shortcomings were pointed out above, but their implications for the Council’s standing as an ecumenical council are pointed out here. Richard Price writes, “[T]he prime criterion of ecumenical authority remained fidelity to the tradition, as expressed in the fathers and the councils” (50). Thus, given the errors mentioned above, what claim can Nicaea II make to have ecumenical authority? The Council of Frankfurt of 794 put its finger on this problem when it wrote, “If [Nicaea II] had lacked novelties and remained content with the teachings of the ancient fathers, it could be called ecumenical” (quoted in Price, 72).
Absence of the Pentarchy. Despite the Council’s claim to have all five Patriarchs present— Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem—, Richard Price argues that the bishops of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem were neither informed of the convocation of the Council, nor represented at it by official legates (Price, 198–205). 8 He argues that Nicaea II revived the idea of the Pentarchy as a way of bolstering its own authority and nullifying the iconoclast Council of Hiereia of 754, but that this was a mirage. In the end, only Rome and Constantinople were present.
Absence of the West. Aside from the two papal legates sent from Rome, there were no Western bishops present at Nicaea II. This was not because they could not attend, but rather because they were not invited, and this at a time when they could have: Charlemagne was carving out what shortly would become the Holy Roman Empire, and had the resources and desire to participate in Church affairs. At the Council of Frankfurt, Charlemagne’s theologians objected that Nicaea II did not have the right to define doctrine for the whole church without “investigating the opinion on this matter of the church in each of its parts” (quoted in Price, 72). Thus, with basically the Western half of Christendom not invited to Nicaea II, how “ecumenical” was it?
Nicaea II’s slow reception and rejection. Of all the seven ecumenical councils, Nicaea II’s reception was the slowest, even being rejected by some. In the East, before Nicaea II was held, the Council of Hiereia of 754 —which had an attendance of 338 bishops, more than any of the sessions at Nicaea II (Price, 457, 685, 687)— backed the iconoclast position. After Nicaea II, the East overturned it again, and it was not until 843 that the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” could be declared, and iconodulism was firmly established. 9 In the West, Nicaea II was rejected by Charlemagne and his theologians, who held their own council, the Council of Frankfurt of 794, in which they took a mediating position, understanding images to function as the “books of the illiterate”. 10 Even Rome did not accept Nicaea II as the seventh ecumenical council until 880, and part of their decision seems to have been an attempt to win Byzantine aid in their military struggles against the Saracens (Price, 75). 11 In both East and West, Nicaea II seems to have remained unknown (or ignored) outside of Rome and Constantinople. Price notes that “for centuries afterwards Nicaea II was not added to the list of ecumenical councils in Syria–Palestine” (204) and in the West it was not until portions of Nicaea II were included in Gratian’s Decretum of c. 1140 that it entered “mainstream” canon law (76). Finally, no Protestant tradition accepted Nicaea II in their official documents, and most were hostile to part of all of its theology regarding the veneration of icons.
The purpose of this article has been to criticize Nicaea II on two basic fronts: its handling of historical sources and its claim to be an ecumenical council.
To the extent that the validity of Nicaea II’s fundamental affirmation depends on historical continuity with the pre-Nicaea II Church, at best only a weak argument can be made.
Similarly, to the extent that Nicaea II’s claim to be an ecumenical council depends on its subsequent reception, again only a weak argument can be made.
However, this does not necessarily settle the issue, since Nicaea II also presented biblical arguments in favor of its position, and if these arguments are correct, then regardless of its historical continuity and subsequent reception, it is correct and ought to be followed.
Additionally, Nicaea II also maintained an important distinction between “veneration” and “worship”, something which is lost on many critics of the council. 12
These two issues, the Scriptural data and the correct meaning and practice of icon veneration (including what is essential to veneration and what is secondary and culturally derived), could be a way to overcome all of Nicaea II’s historical deficiencies.
Scripture and tradition must continue to guide Christ’s Church, and I think that there is much conversation to be had on both sides of the debate. May God grant us all a deeper understanding of his Truth.
1. Richard Price, The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787) (Liverpool University Press, 2020). The previous translation was John Mendham, The Seventh General Council, the Second of Nicaea … with copious notes from the “Caroline Books” (London, 1849).
2. “By decreeing at an ecumenical council that images must be set up in churches and venerated, Nicaea II had implied that image veneration is an essential part of the Christian faith” (Price, 73).
3. Richard Price briefly corresponded with me over email, and was very helpful and friendly. My overall pessimistic assessment of Nicaea II does not necessarily reflect his own.
4. Ernst Kitzinger, “The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 8 (1954): 83–150.
5. An example of it being taken out of context can be found in the Fourth Session of the Council (Price, 313–314).
6. During its Sixth Session, Nicaea II responded to the Council of Hiereia’s patristic quotations, which were important iconoclast passages of the time (Price, 496–521).
7. Although it should be remembered that the Council of Hiereia was called the seventh ecumenical council in the 8th and 9th centuries in the East.
8. This may have been due to the difficulty of communicating with these bishops due to their Arab rulers.
9. Price notes that the Synod of Constantinople of 815, which reinstated the iconoclast Council of Hiereia, enjoyed “immediate acceptance […] by the overwhelming majority of bishops, clergy and monks”, and thus “We may presume that […] the claim of Nicaea II that a failure to venerate images was an actual heresy had failed to stick” (62). Germanos would be an example of a “moderate iconophile” who didn’t think that iconodulism was idolatrous, but neither would argue that it was required (Price, 250–251).
10. This was, essentially, Gregory the Great’s position as well. Interestingly, this is not too far from Hiereia’s position; Prices writes, “But the prime concern of the Byzantine iconoclasts was not to destroy images – and we have seen that the extent of actual destruction is unknown – but to stop their veneration” (18).
11. However, cf. Hadrian’s comments in his 792/3 letter to Charlemagne: “we have accepted this council” (Price, 66). But this seems to be a reference to accepting it as a local synod (Price, 67, 75).
12. Apparently, the distinction between “worship” (latreia) and “veneration” (proskunesis) went back to the late sixth century with Patriarch Anastasios of Antioch, or early to mid-seventh century with Leontios of Neapolis (Price, 301, 553).