Anyone who has had anything to do with the Eastern Orthodox Churches has probably encountered the use of icons – images of events and people from the Gospels and other Biblical books and of the saints. It is one of the aspects of Orthodox worship that has also been embraced by Christians from other traditions. Icons are not only seen as decorations of a church or a house, but rather as vessels through which the light of God is seen. The purpose of icons is to surround believers with the heavenly, reminding them that God has come among humans and that God’s kingdom is at hand. They also give a glimpse into eternity. They are seen to proclaim the faith of the Church by depicting the faithful people who have passed on to be with the Lord.
The icons of the Eastern Orthodox Churches by now are seen as an integral expression of the faith. But that has not always been so. For centuries arguments surrounded the use of icons.
After all, they appear to contradict the Commandment against putting up graven images, as well as the frequent warnings of the Prophets against their use or worship. Several emperors of Constantinople tried to get rid of icons, inspired by theologians who saw in icons a corruption of the Christian faith. This was especially as Muslim territory expanded and the Byzantine Empire was losing control of lands. The Emperors wondered what they did wrong, how they might have angered God. The common use of icons in Churches seemed to go directly against God’s law. Responding to Jewish and Muslim prohibitions of certain images, the iconoclasts sought to be more faithful to God by removing icons. At times the battle between the factions became quite heated. In the end, due to political events, those defending icons won the upper hand. Because it had been such a heated argument within the Church, they doubled down on the use of icons, receiving support from the wider population, which largely could not read or write and so got their ideas from images.
Nevertheless, there clearly is still some underlying doubt even in Orthodox theology and practice. After all, icons are normally painted on flat panels. That is because the Greek text of the Old Testament clearly denotes that carved images or statues should not be used. In this case the Orthodox take the Bible quite literally and do not use statues or carvings, but paintings are not specifically prohibited, so must be alright.
Rather than concluding that the argument was not important, I would probably say that despite any errors or extremes, the faithfulness and goodness present in the Orthodox Church redeems to a certain extent even human confusion. The light of God shines even among all too human shadows. There’s hope that God can use the human confusion of our own Churches to bring salvation to the people, despite all error and arguments.