Book Review: God’s Human Face: The Christ Icon

Originally published in 1976, Christoph Schönborn makes some qualifying remarks in his book God’s Human Face: The Christ Icon. Firstly, this monograph was not an exclusively treatment on icons. The cardinal theologian explicitly states in his preface to the 1984 edition, “Yet the basic idea on which iconographic art primarily is built has seldom been studied: the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation of God” (p. xiii). From this vantage point Schönborn launches his academic outline of key patristic sources in the theological formulation of iconography. He also provides twelve illustrations in hopes to add further lucidity to the text.  Schönborn’s aim was to produce both a “book as academic as necessary, and as readable as possible” (p. xiv).

Christ the Pantocrator

Theology of Icons

The first section of the book provides the theological foundations for which a theology of icons can be built. With reference to the Trinitarian foundations, Schönborn’s prime goal is to show the “divine image as the archetype of all representation in image” (p. 4). After a deft delineation of Arius’ soteriology, the Austrian archbishop follows this with discussion on Athanasius’ solution to this diabolical theology. The great “Father of Orthodoxy” clarified the heretic’s misconception by saying that the Word was a consubstantial image of the Father (pp. 8-9). Safeguarded in this orthodox Trinitarian theology, the concept of images is not subordinated.

The second half of this chapter focused on the development in understanding of personhood as given by Gregory of Nyssa. An urgent task after Nicaea was a need for clarification of terminology. Vagueness in ousia and hypostasis led to more debates in the 4th century (p. 18). The Cappodociean father helped shift the understanding toward the individual being a higher reality than the essence of humanity (p. 21-22). After mapping out the various patristic definitions and a treatment of the theological approach to personhood (pp. 22-33), Schönborn gives a brief soteriology. Rejecting any notion of Christ as a passive instrument, he states, “To reduce the Son to a mere instrumental power would amount to denying him the freedom that distinguishes even man. It is not possible to speak of obedience without including freedom” (p. 42).

Early Schools of Christological Thought

Chapter two landscapes the Christological foundations for an authentic iconography. Spanning over ninety pages, the cardinal theologian limits himself to a detailed survey of four prominent patristic Christologies: Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Cyril of Alexandria, and Maximus Confessor. With the former two there is an iconoclastic tendency, while the latter were championed by the iconophiles. According to Schönborn, Origen denigrates the flesh to the realm of shadows (p. 48). He laconically sums up Origen’s position as heavy-laden by a spiritualism that tends to stress the “imageless” (p. 53). Eusebius’ Christology is even more explicitly anti-icon for he takes the term “image” as a subordination of the Logos to the Father (p. 60). Schönborn shows that the bishop of Caesarea went as far as jettisoning the body out of the definition of man, whereby true creation consisted of only formation of the soul (p.76).

Following in the footsteps of Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria held fast to the notion of the eternal Logos being the perfect and consubstantial image of the Father. The Austrian theologian writes that Cyril opposed Eusebius’ belief that the body was a mere fleshly façade. For Cyril the flesh is intrinsic to the Word (p. 82). Though he presented an orthodox view of the Incarnation, Schönborn critiques the Alexandrian bishop’s theology as not being refined and containing Monoenergist jargon (p. 92-94). With Maximus the Confessor in the 7th century, this represented, says Schönborn, “the most wonderful christological synthesis of the ancient Church” (p. 102).

Socks Religious

Both Maximus’ theology and argot presented a balanced approach to the Incarnation. He maintained the hypostatic union and asserted two wills and two actions in the One Person of Christ (p. 116). According to Schönborn, the novelty of his thought was purporting the Incarnation as entirely flowing from the Trinitarian will (p. 121).

History of Iconoclasm and Christology

The second half of the book shows how the iconoclastic controversies were inextricably tied to the early stages of Christological developments. In seeing the icon as a condensed creed, the red-capped theologian demonstrates the significance for studying iconography (p. 138). Chapter one outlines the Byzantine iconoclastic controversy. Here Schönborn delineates the main arguments and figures opposed to icons. Centering on Exodus 20:4, the iconoclasts took the prohibition on fashioning idols literally to mean a wholesale rejection of images (pp. 148-149). A leader in the charge against icons was Emperor Constantine V. His propaganda led to falsely calling the icon cult a Christological heresy (p. 168). While the emperor and iconoclast bishops differed on definition of personal countenance, their sinister ardor crystallized in the Council of 754 A.D. which tried to force iconophiles into a false dichotomy between Monophysitism and Nestorianism (p. 174).

Regarding the defenders of images, Schönborn breaks this section into three eras. He focuses on three important figures for the initial period: Germanus I, George of Cyprus, and John Damascene. Among the salient points include John’s detailed categories of images (pp.192-199). Schönborn then goes on to outline the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 A.D. Here the orthodox bishops maintain an argument of tradition to support icons (p. 202). Finally, he writes about the Golden Age of icons with examples of Nicephorus and Theodore the Studite as among the most lucid and erudite authors on this topic during the ancient Church.

From the outset of his book, Christoph Schönborn stated that though the topic of icons is pervasive throughout his prose, relatively little specific attention is given to that subject. Indeed, recognizing the various historical treatments dealing with the aesthetic aspect of icons, the red-hatted theologian wanted to provide the theological cement upon which the edifice of icons could be built. It is in the author’s opinion that Schönborn in both a wonderful scholarly and readable way accomplished his task.

All Doctrine Originates from the Trinity

Doctrine of the Trinity

            Doctrinally speaking the cardinal theologian rightly began his theological foundations with the Trinity− the premise of all doctrines. In charting out the Nicene problem and ensuing Trinitarian developments, Schönborn does a masterful job of delineating the main characters (Arius, Athanasius, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, etc) without succumbing to a lofty prose or bogging the reader down with a ton of periphery names. Another insightful item about this book was the topical headings and subdivisions within each chapter as well. For instance, regarding the Trinitarian Foundations, Schönborn divided the section into three parts: foundations on the eternal image, novelty of the Christian notion of personhood, and various patristic soteriologies. Glancing at the table of contents allowed me to better understand Schönborn’s definitions and logic.

In chapter two, the Archbishop presents both Christologies of the iconophiles and iconoclasts. He details Origen’s spiritual readings of biblical texts, viewing Jesus’ body as an instrument for his divinity. Some scholars purport his tendency to highlight the image-less places him in the iconoclast camp. However, Schönborn acknowledges that Origen’s teachings were preserved in mere fragments (p. 47). The cardinal speaks objectively when he warns of a false reductionism of Origen. He is also wary of viewing Origen as a spiritual Father for iconoclasm. Schönborn declares, “Origen is much too universal too biblical, too ecclesiastical, too “Catholic”, to allow the reduction of his work to only one of its dimensions” (p. 53-54).

Moreover, the Archbishop provides an in-depth sketch of the champion of the iconoclast Christology− Eusebius of Caesarea. Schönborn asserts that the crux of the anti-icon position pivoted around the “image of God” being a subordination of the Logos. Utilizing samples of Eusebius’ writings, Schönborn demonstrated the logic to such a view. From the pro-icon side, he did an adroit job showing the development of orthodox thought. He showed the gradual clarification in the term “hypostatic union” from the “unrefined” Cyril to the “more-polished” Maximus.

In the second half of the book, Schönborn clearly asks: May and should Christ be represented in an image? Yet, he makes sure to qualify the chronology of the icon controversy as not being exhaustive due to space restraints.


The treatment of the theological outline of the Byzantine iconoclastic controversy illuminated  the reader because it showed the milieu by which this position germinated. In keeping with his contemporaries that the emperor (Leo III and later his son Constantine V) was the main impetus for the iconoclasts, Schönborn admits that what motivated the “purple” pronouncement remains unknown. What he does purport is that outside forces such as Monophysitism, Islam, and even Judaism may have contributed to iconoclasm. Lastly, Schönborn successfully simplified the pro-icon position by only focusing on the novelty and specific influence in advancing iconophile theology of the main players. Thus, he eliminated any unnecessary verbiage.

Broadly sketching out the theological scaffolding and also delineating individual patristic thoughts is important for an adequate understanding of a theology of the icon. Schönborn presented his prose in a lucid fashion while still writing with skilled acumen. His contribution to Christology was a return to seeing the icon as “a creed in miniature”. The twelve illustrations also allowed for a profound mediation on his prose. In sum, the author of this review suggests this book to any fan of Catholic Christology!

Learn Something New


Thank you for sharing!
Sacred Icons -
Catholic Balm Co