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TEXT: I John 5:21

SUBJECT: Heresies #5: Iconoclast Controversy

Today, with God's blessing, we'll move on in our monthly study of Heresy. On each third Sunday afternoon of the month, we look into the history of the Church and examine a major threat to its doctrinal purity.

A heresy is a serious doctrinal error that occurs in the Church. The worship of Baal is a serious doctrinal error, but it's not heresy because it is not taught in the Church. Sprinkling as the mode of baptism is a doctrinal error taught in the Church, but it's not heresy because it is not a major issue. One can believe in it without affecting his fellowship with God or putting his soul in danger. Heresy, then, is not every mistake in doctrine, but things like denying the Divinity of Jesus Christ or teaching Salvation by Works.

Thus far, we've looked at four heresies: Judaism, Arianism, Gnosticism, and Pelagianism. These are-I think-the biggest heresies in the history of the Church and also the ones that are most likely to stay with us and threaten the Lord's people in every generation.

If today's topic is not as important as the others, it's still plenty important. For two hundred years, it tore up the Church, and much later became a key issue in the Reformation. For four hundred years Evangelical Christians have been on one side of the issue-the right side, I think. But in the last few decades, there has been a lot of slipping. Two families in our own church fell into the heresy and other names you'd recognize have too. A man I once asked to preach for me is now writing books in favor of this doctrinal error.


The first people to believe the heresy wore the weird and almost unpronounceable name, Iconodules. Does anyone care to guess what that means? Maybe you can guess if I name their opponents: the Iconoclasts.

The issue they debated-and went to war over-was the use of images in the Church. Images of God the Father, at times, but more often, Images of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the East, the Images were mostly two-dimensional (paintings, mosaics, and so on). In the West, they were more often 3-D (statues of the Baby Jesus in the arms of His mother or of our Lord hanging on the cross).

If you've ever been inside a Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox Church, you've seen the images. You can also see them in museums and art books. They're still very much with us. Many are beautifully done, but that's not the point.


The Iconoclast Controversy took place from about 600 to 800 A.D., mostly in the Eastern Empire, in and around the city of Constantinople (which is now part of Turkey and re-named Istanbul).

The parties in the dispute were: on the one side, hundreds of monks and theologians (led by the great John of Damascus) along with the Bishop of Constantinople, a man called Nicepheras. These men, who spent their lives in study and prayer, oddly enough, favored the use of images in the Church.

The other side was led by the Emperor himself-Leo III along with his son, Leo IV. They were not trained in theology, of course, and spent most of their time on practical matters (like crime, the economy, war, diplomacy, and taxes). Yet they opposed the use of images in the Church.

The Leos were right on the issue, but wrong on what to do about it. Instead of arguing from the Word of God, spending long hours in prayer, and proving that one could live a holy life without images, they chose the quick and easy way of persecution.

For a time, it was wonderfully successful-images were smashed and outward conformity was gained. But carnal weapons can never achieve spiritual ends. Imperial persecution didn't break the opposition, but stiffened it. And not only that, but the courage of the monks and theologians greatly impressed the people.

When Leo IV died, he left the Empire to his son, Constantine V. The son, however, was only ten years old and had the misfortune of a mother who was cunning, strong-willed, and favored the use of images. Her name was Irene. For several years, she ruled the Empire in her son's name.

During that time-again in the Emperor's name-she convened the Seventh Ecumenical Council to rule on the use of images in the Church. Under Imperial pressure, it came down on her side. A theologian summarized it,

"The veneration of images was declared orthodox; iconoclasts who recanted were forgiven and continued in fellowship. The Council explained that the veneration accorded the images was not to be confused with worship which was reserved to God alone".

When Constantine V. grew up, he tried to reverse the decision the Council had made under his mother's influence, but he couldn't do it because he was such a bad man. Those who knew him personally thought him cruel and cowardly. And then he got caught in a sex scandal, divorcing his wife to marry his mistress. This turned everyone's stomach, and no one would back the Emperor.

When he was thirty years old, someone sneaked into his bedroom and blinded the Emperor, thereby ending any hope of getting rid of the images in the Church.

About fifty years later, the use of Images was made permanent in the Eastern Church. In time, it took over the Western Church, and it wasn't until the Reformation 700 years later, that Christians rallied once again to the pure worship of God under His Word-and not pictures and statues!


Most believers today would wonder what the fuss was all about. As long as you don't worship the crucifix, what's wrong with having one? As long as you don't think the Lord is contained in the painting, why not hang one up in the church?

They don't believe in mandating them, but if people want them in the church or if they help us to concentrate on Christ, why not use them? My hero, Dr. Martin Luther felt this way. He despised idolatry and knew a lot of it had grown up around images in the church. But, he said, as an aid to devotion, they can help us to know the Lord better and to serve Him more fervently. That's what Luther believed-and I love that man more than anyone in the history of the Church.

But I cannot support him on this one.


Images in the Church do not glorify God or help people. What they do, in fact, is to dishonor the Lord and hurt His people. This is true-not only of the cheap and ugly ones, but even more, of the masterpieces that adorn churches all over the world, especially in Europe.

What's so wrong about Images in the Church? Let me count the ways!

    1. God is to be worshiped His way.
    2. This is called the regulative principle and I know it has been badly abused by men. But, abused or not, it's still true. We are to worship God in Spirit and in truth. When it comes to worship, the truth is what His Word says-not what we feel or what others do or what the latest marketing strategies say will work.

      Nowhere in the Word of God is there any command to use Divine images. Nor is there any example of it that is put in a good light. There were images in the Tabernacle and in the Temple, but they were not images of God! He was represented on the Mercy Seat by a pure light-a light, I might add, of His own making! It was the Shekinah Glory, which God first put-it seems-in the fiery pillar and in the cloud over Israel in the Wilderness.

    3. Images of God are forbidden in the Bible.
    4. The Second Commandment Moses carried down from Mount Sinai says, "You shall make no graven image.you shall not bow down to them or serve them."

      A quick reading of the Ten Commandments would make you think this one forbids the worship of other gods. In fact, it does not. The First Commandment does that:

      "You shall have no other gods before Me".

      What the Second Commandment does is forbid the use of Images in the worship of God-the one and only God, the Lord Jehovah!

      Just a few chapters later, we see the need for this commandment. When the people became restless with Moses' long absence, the told Aaron to make gods to lead them. Aaron would have no part of that-he wouldn't dare set up an image for the gods of Egypt, for example, or the gods of Canaan. No, what he did was make a Golden Calf and told the people,

      "Behold your gods, O Israel, that

      brought you up out of the land of

      Egypt. Tomorrow is a feast unto


      The Lord did not accept the subtlety of Aaron's argument and thousands died for their sin of trying to worship God through the man-made Image.

    5. Images misrepresent God.
    6. A fine artist can reveal many things with his chisel or paint brush. If you look at the paintings of Rembrandt, you see compassion or pride or dignity or sorrow in his characters. But what artist is able enough to depict an infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God? How do you sculpt invisibility? How do you paint a Face that makes heaven and earth flee?

      Going back to what I said a few minutes ago: This is what makes the lousy drawings of our Lord less hurtful than the great ones. Less hurtful, I said. Why? Because no one could confuse some trinket you get at the Christian Book Store with the glory of the Lord. But, let a genius like Michaelangelo paint the Lord and.many will be persuaded that's what He really is.

      But He isn't that way. No artist can possibly do justice to the glory of God or of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

    7. God has an Image.

Colossians 1:15 says Jesus Christ is

"The image of the invisible God".

The Greek word for "image" is the ikona or "icon". The main reason man-made icons are no good is because God has an Icon, the Lord Jesus Christ, and every image that replaces Him dishonors God and leads us astray.


The people who favored the use of images in the Church were not stupid. They had their reasons and some of them are still with us. Let me touch on a few objections to abolishing images in the Church.

I'm sure this is true. When I was in Russia, I saw many old ladies bowing, crossing themselves, lighting candles, and crying their eyes out before the holy icons. As far as I could tell, they were begging the Lord for some favor, and seemed to be humble and whole-hearted in their prayers.

But that has no bearing on the subject. Sincerity is good and necessary in worship, but it is not enough! The Bible nowhere says it is and, in fact, condemns men who seem totally devoted to their false piety. The worshipers of Molech, for example, so loved or feared their god that they would offer a child to him in human sacrifice. These parents loved their kids as much as we do-yet their devotion to the idol was so strong that they would give up a son to have his favor. They were as sincere as a man can be-and committed an abomination before the Lord!

I don't dispute it. The Bible says, "God is good to all and His tender mercies are over all His works". People who pray to Allah often get what they ask for. An Atheist crying out to mercy in a foxhole may well be spared.

But again, it proves nothing about the goodness of invoking God's name while bowing before an image of Christ.

This is the main argument of the Greek Orthodox Church. If the Church Fathers approved of it, it must be right. If the Church has always done it, it must be of the Holy Spirit.

Unlike some Christians, I think tradition is important. But tradition-like everything else-is open to correction. The old ways may well be good, but they are not infallible, for they too, stand under the Word of God.

"To the Law and to the Testimony!

If they do not speak according to

This Word, it is because there is

No light in them".

This is the main argument today against the Iconoclasts. Dr. Kenneth Clark was a British historian who became famous for his mostly excellent TV series called Civilization. Again, most of it is worth seeing, but when he comes to the Reformation-and especially Zwingli and Calvin, he has a caniption! These men took magnificent works of art out of the church, broke stained-glass windows, painted over frescoes, and so on. To Clark's way of thinking, they were Philistines, vulgar, stupid men!

In fact, these men were far better educated and civilized that the man who judged them. Calvin admired art very much and Zwingli was a fine artist himself.

They were not against art. What they were against was worshiping God through art! Why not? Because God said to worship Him through His Son and that Son was revealed to us-not in paintings, stained-glass windows, and the like, but in His Word!

The last two objections are also the most subtle. I'll do my best to explain them, but you need to listen carefully.

The Council I mentioned near the beginning of my lecture made this distinction. Only God is worshiped, but images of God may be venerated or shown a high level or respect. Today, Roman Catholics make the same argument for their bowing to Mary, praying to the saints, and so on.

We ought to respect our Lord's mother and other godly people who've gone before us. We can also show respect to things that God uses to glorify Himself-a church building, for example, a hymnal, or an old Bible.

But, two things come to mind here: First, how many people who bow before the images know the difference? And if they don't, why haven't the priests taught it to them? They have had hundreds of years to do it, why haven't the rank-and-file people gotten it? I suspect it's because the Catholic and Orthodox teachers don't want them to know the difference. Or don't know it themselves.

More importantly, the Second Commandment sees no distinction between worshiping an Image and bowing down to it. The two look pretty much the same because-frankly-they are pretty much the same.

This is the best argument they have-and also the most wicked. It's true that our Lord is a Man. Had He been born in the 20th Century, I'm sure someone would have taken a picture of Him.

But, the problem is: all an image, a painting, or a photograph can do is represent His humanity. But the Lord-though a Man-is not just a Man, He is also God. To picture Him without His Divinity is to get Him wrong!

And getting Him wrong dishonors God, hurts His people, and misleads the people who don't know Him.


That's the heresy of Images in the Church. It was fought over 1,000 years ago, but it wasn't until the Reformation that the Truth won out. But now, many Christians are turning away from that truth. Pray for these dear brothers and sisters and, if you can, help them in other ways. Talk to them, give them good literature, but most of all, show them by your life that holiness does not depend on staring at crosses and praying to babies in the manger.

God wants us to see His face. For now, in faith. But one day, we'll see Him with our eyes. When we have the glorified eyes to see Him. But for now, we can wait in hope.

God bless you, everyone. For Christ's sake. Amen.

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