THE SECOND COUNCIL OF NICEAEA – the seventh ecumenical council – which we remember every October is chiefly known for formally recognizing the use of icons as a consequence of the Incarnation. If the Word of God could take on human nature He could be depicted in images. In effect, the Council taught, the Incarnation restricted the Old Testament ban on “graven images” (see Exodus 20:4).
The council, held in ad 787, decreed that, “As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not, however, the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone — for the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever venerate the image venerate in it the reality of what is there represented.”
While the veneration of icons was officially accepted by the Greek and Latin Churches at this council, it did not mark the end of iconoclasm. Beginning in 811 the Byzantine army had suffered a series of military defeats at the hands of the Bulgars. One emperor had been killed in battle and his two successors forced to abdicate because of military losses. In 814 the new emperor, Leo the Armenian reasoned that “all the emperors, who took up images and venerated them, met their death either in revolt or in war; but those who did not venerate images all died a natural death, remained in power until they died, and were then laid to rest with all honors.” As a result, he decreed a revival of iconoclasm, which continued until the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” in 843, which we celebrate on the First Sunday of the Great Fast.
Consequences of the Council’s Teaching
In addition to its dogmatic decree, Nicaea II issued a number of canons, some connected to its doctrine on icons; others dealing with various questions of Church discipline. The issues relating to the matter of icons include:
The use of relics (Canon 7) – Since the Roman persecutions of the first centuries It was customary to erect altars over the tombs of – or at least the relics of – the martyrs and other saints. During the era of iconoclasm altars had been consecrated without the usual relics which the iconoclasts saw as idolatrous. Nicaea II mandated that the practice be revived and that relics be inserted in any altars consecrated without them, “For as they took out of the churches
the presence of the venerable images, so likewise they cast aside other customs, which we must now revive and maintain in accordance with the written and unwritten
law. We decree therefore that relics shall be placed with the accustomed service in as many of the sacred temples as have been consecrated without the relics of the Martyrs.”
Iconoclastic books (Canon 9) – Copies of iconoclastic writings were to be withdrawn from circulation, “And if anyone is found hiding such books, if he be a bishop or
presbyter or deacon, let him be deposed; but if he be a monk or layman, let him be anathema.”
Matters of Church Order
During the conflict over images, matters of Church order in place for centuries fell into disuse. The Council restored the earlier practice on:
The selection of bishops (canons 2, 3) – The chief qualification for office in the Church had often become the candidate’s stance on the question of icons. The council mandated the metropolitan of each province to conduct a “diligent examination” to see whether candidates for the office of bishop “be zealously inclined to read diligently, and not merely now and then, the sacred canons, the holy Gospel, and the book of the divine
Apostle, and all other divine Scripture; and whether he lives according to God’s
commandments, and also teaches the same to his people” (Canon 2).
The Council affirmed that “he who is raised to the episcopate must be chosen by bishops, as was decreed by the holy fathers of Nicaea” (Canon 3). The iconoclastic era had seen regular interference in the choice of bishops by the emperors and their representatives. The council sought to return the choice of bishops to the bishops of the local provinces.
Local synods were to resume meeting twice each year as previously. “And if any prince be found hindering this being carried out, let him be excommunicated. But if any of the metropolitans shall take no care that this be done, he being free from constraint or fear or other reasonable excuse, let him be subjected to the canonical penalties” (Canon 6).
Reform of Morals
Since the passions (pride, greed, lust and the rest) have been a part of our makeup since the Fall, the Church must continually be on the alert to combat abuses. The following areas were addressed by II Nicaea:
Greed – Bishops were forbidden to demand payment in any kind from their clergy or people for ordination or preferment, with the strongest penalties imposed on those who did so. “Let him be dealt with according to the Apostolic Canon which says: If a
bishop has obtained possession of his dignity by means of money (the same rule applies also to a presbyter or deacon) let him be deposed and also the one who ordained
him, and let him also be altogether cut off from communion, even as Simon the Magician was” (Canon 5). The same rule was applied to monastics in Canon 19.
As a help in controlling these and other financial abuses, the Council mandated the appointment of an economos in each eparchy. If the local bishop did not do so, the metropolitan or patriarch was to make the appointment himself (Canon 11).
Bishops and the heads of monasteries were forbidden to sell Church properties, or give them over to their relatives or to local rulers. “The bishop or hegumen doing this shall be turned out, the bishop from his eparchy and the hegumen from his monastery” (Canon 12). Properties thus alienated by the iconoclasts were to be restored (Canon 13)
Vanity – During the struggle over icons simplicity in dress and lifestyle became a sign of those who supported icons. Their opponents mocked clergy who lived simple. The Council warned all clergy to avoid expensive or showy dress “For from early times every man in holy orders wore modest and somber clothing; truly whatever is worn, not so much because of necessity, as for the sake of outward show, savors of dandyism, as says Basil the Great’ (Canon 16).
Lust – Outright sexual impropriety was not addressed by the council. The appearance of impropriety was the subject of several canons. Women were not to live or work in bishop’s houses or men’s monasteries (Canon 18). Monks or priests were not to eat privately with women (Canon 22).
“Double monasteries,” where monks and nuns shared common public areas but had separate living quarters, were no longer permitted “for in thus living together
adultery finds its occasion” (Canon 20).