Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on August 16, 2018.
Catholics around the world [and throughout time] celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary on August 15th. Along with the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the Motherhood of Mary this feast day is a holy day of obligation for Mass attendance. The reason for this is due to the veneration—NOT WORSHIP—Catholics hold for the Mother of God.
Marian doctrines closely relate and point us to the even greater truth of the Incarnation—God becoming Man. The feasts of Mary, Mother of God and Immaculate Conception relate to the Incarnation. And the feast of the Assumption points toward the Resurrection of Jesus.
Assumption—Logically Flows from the Immaculate Conception
When I taught high school theology one of my favorite lessons involved the subject of the teachings on Mary. I enjoyed showing the interconnectedness between the various Marian dogmas. God preserved Mary from the stain of original sin. Due to this reality, Mary would not suffer the same type of bodily decay and separation of body and soul like the rest of humanity.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 966,
Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.
Divine Providence inspired the office of the papacy to proclaim the infallible teaching Marian dogmas to be viewed in unity with one another. Pope Pius IX in 1854 infallibly defined Mary as being immaculately conceived. Nearly a century later, his successor Pius XII formally declared the infallible dogma of the Assumption.
Assumption Hinting at the Resurrection and Destination of Heaven
Again, I will defer to the Catechism for the best explanation of the Assumption of Mary pointing to the Resurrection,
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians (CCC966).
Saint Pope Pius XII, in Munificentissimus Deus, articulated the fact Mary orients us to Heaven. He wrote, “It is our hope that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective.”
Mary’s Complete Love for God is a Model for Us
Mary’s whole earthly life centered on obedience and love of God. Because of this, she is the perfect guide to her Son. Marian titles such as Stella Maris [Latin for Star of the Sea] and Morning Star point to this reality as well.
Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, body and soul, gives Christians hope. Hope in the resurrection of the body at the end of time. I am grateful for the gift of the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Advocate in times of darkness. Please pray for us in our time of need!
“Mary shines on earth “until the day of the Lord shall come, a sign of certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim People of God” (Lumen gentium, n. 68).
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 26, 2017.
G.K. Chesterton stated in Christmas and Salesmanship, “Gratitude, being nearly the greatest of human duties, is also nearly the most difficult.” As a father I know all too well how difficult it is sometimes for my children to express gratitude to me. On the other hand, as a husband I struggle to tell my wife how thankful for all that she does. Not only do I need to improve on my attitude of gratitude within my marriage, I need to focus on having a thankful mindset in my spiritual life and relationship with God. In celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday, I came on my top ten reasons for why I am thankful for Catholicism!
The Bread of Life Discourse in John 6 has Jesus preaching the most profound truth in the history of the universe. Jesus said, I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51). The Catechism of the Catechism Church calls the Eucharist the “source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). Every Sunday I experience the miracle of being able to receive the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ!
God is love. Love entails relationship. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the Mystery that God is a Communion of Three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I am grateful for the revelation of this truth. I am able to ponder the depth of its truth without it growing stale, it always remains fresh and profound!
The most solemn moment of the Nicene Creed occurs when we profess: “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” At this point, we bow to recognize the amazing fact that God became a mere human. St. Athanasius had this to say about the Incarnation, “God became man that man might become God” (On the Incarnation). I am thankful that God sent his only Son-Jesus Christ—to become a bridge for humanity to access God.
I have experienced real, tangible, and concrete healing when I receive God’s healing grace’s in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Through frequent reception of Penance, I have been able to overcome sins that dominated me in my youth. I have also been able to recognize sins that hid in the background previously. As a result, Confession provides me with graces to root out sinful tendencies and to grow in holiness.
While I experience Divine Mercy in the Sacrament of Confession, I want to treat this topic as a separate point. I used to view God as a wrathful Judge. My scrupulosity leads to a judgmental mentality—that I struggle with still today. However, through the intercession of the Divine Mercy saints of the 20th century such as St. Maria Faustina, John Paul II, Maximilian Koble, and Mother Teresa my awareness that God is a Merciful and Just Judge has increased!
My relationship with our Blessed Mother has improved over this past year. In celebration of the centenary anniversary of the Apparitions at Fatima, my wife and I consecrated ourselves to Jesus through St. Louis de Montfort stated, “[Mary] is the safest, easiest, shortest and most perfect way of approaching Jesus and will surrender themselves to her, body and soul, without reserve in order to belong entirely to Jesus” (True Devotion to Mary). I learned that Mary is the greatest witness and advocate for God. Her desire is to lead ll her children to Jesus Christ.
Along with Mary, the saints in Heaven provide a model for me to follow to help me grow in holiness. Reading about the lives of my favorite saints [St. Athanasius, John Paul II, St. Amelia, St. Bernadette, St. Pius IX, St. Maria Faustina, and St. Maximilian Koble—to name a few] helps provide concrete examples of what holiness looks like and how I am able to emulate their trust in God in my own life.
I am thankful for the hope that the Catholic Church teaches and provides me daily. Attending Sunday Mass, going to Eucharistic Adoration, meeting with my monthly Catholic men’s group, and teaching Religious Education at my parish are ways that I receive [and pass on] hope. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1843, “By hope we desire, and with steadfast trust await from God, eternal life and the graces to merit it.”
I am a history buff. In fact, I earned my undergraduate degree in history. The Catholic Church is a storehouse and guardian of 2,000+ years of history and tradition. While lesser important traditions pass away and give way to more appropriate devotional practices that fits the needs of the faithful, Jesus Christ knew that stability and consistency of truth is essential in mankind’s relationship with God.
The Catechism tells us in paragraph number 96-97,
What Christ entrusted to the apostles, they in turn handed on by their preaching and writing, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to all generations, until Christ returns in glory. ‘Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God’ (DV 10) in which, as in a mirror, the pilgrim Church contemplates God, the source of all her riches.
I am thankful that Jesus instituted the priesthood and office of the papacy to have truth passed on through the ages.
The final fact about Catholicism in my top ten list that I am grateful for is the beauty I experience. Catholic cathedrals and basilicas are places where I have experienced beauty in an ineffable way. During the celebration of the Liturgy, I experience the beauty of God in both song and sight. The icons in my local church allow my prayers to be better united to God. I am pointed toward higher realities when I meditate with the aid of sacred song and holy images.
Lord, we thank you
for the goodness of our people
and for the spirit of justice
that fills this nation.
We thank you for the beauty and fullness of the
land and the challenge of the cities.
We thank you for our work and our rest,
for one another, and for our homes.
We thank you, Lord:
accept our thanksgiving on this day.
We pray and give thanks through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the second century Gnosticism threatened to tear the young Christian Church apart. It was a heresy that taught that all matter was evil, Jesus was spirit, and that true salvific doctrine was passed down through a secret oral tradition. To combat this growing problem the early Church father St. Irenaeus wrote a lengthy treatise titled Against Heresies.
Foundations Of The Creed
One of the methods used by the great Church Father was the rule of faith. In describing the rule of faith Irenaeus writes, “The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation.”
This rule of faith would lay the groundwork for what would become the Apostles’ Creed. St. Irenaeus argues that the faith was given by Christ to the Apostles, and then to the bishops to whom the disciples appointed. Which is exactly what the Catholic church teaches today.
The Historic Faith
The rule of faith also shows that Christ was truly incarnate, and that matter was created by an eternal God and not evil. The rule of faith was a vital part in combating Gnostic teaching because it showed that they had no historical, scriptural, or apostolic support for the claims that they were making.
It helped expose their schismatic and anti-scriptural view of Christianity. Irenaeus also appealed to Ephesians 1:9-10 in his refutation of Gnosticism. That passage of scripture states, “he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (NRSV).” The great saint used this to show that, contrary to the Gnostic view, not all matter is bad.
One Faith Given By Christ
The Church was to be a unified body of believers with Jesus Christ as its head. However the Gnostic heresy was causing division. It is linked with the rule of faith in that there was only one faith handed down from Christ. There was not one faith for one group, and a special secret faith for a select few. The faith in Christ is available to all people and in that we should be unified.
The rule of faith previously cited is a great tool in confronting false doctrines in our own times There is no shortage of false doctrine and some of these groups out there are great at evangelization. This is impressive given how low their numbers are compared to Catholics. The rule of faith is a great tool because it shows that the catholic faith is not a new invention, but was passed down by Christ himself.
It shows that Christ is God incarnate, and firmly teaching that the Trinity is one being with three distinct persons. Many of these groups deny the Trinity and claim scriptural support. Many of these passages were used in the days of Irenaeus and he corrected false usage.
Whether it be in person, phone, or email, a dialogue about the truth can mean a lot to someone caught in false doctrine. It gives them someone to ask questions to and the Holy Spirit can plant a seed. Many great saints came to faith in just that way.
About our guest blogger:
William is a convert to the Catholic faith. Before entering the church he was ordained as a Baptist and Lutheran and earned a Master of Divinity from Liberty Theological Seminary. William lives with his wife and four children in Tucson, AZ and teaches religious education for children and adults. Check out his website/blog atwilliamhemsworth.com for more great and informative Catholic content!
During the recessional hymn for the Mass for the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, I had a profound insight. “This song is teaching us much more than about Mary!” I thought. I could not believe I missed the theology in the song. Here are the lyrics to the hymn Sing of Mary, Pure and Lowly:
Sing of Mary, pure and lowly,
Virgin mother undefiled,
Sing of God’s own Son most holy,
Who became her little child.
Fairest child of fairest mother,
God the Lord who came to earth,
Word made flesh, our very brother,
Takes our nature by his birth.
Sing of Jesus, son of Mary,
In the home at Nazareth.
Toil and labor cannot weary
Love enduring unto death.
Constant was the love he gave her,
Though he went forth from her side,
Forth to preach, and heal, and suffer,
Till on Calvary he died.
Glory be to God the Father;
Glory be to God the Son;
Glory be to God the Spirit;
Glory to the Three in One.
From the heart of blessed Mary,
From all saints the song ascends,
And the Church the strain reechoes
Unto earth’s remotest ends.
Mary as Theotokos
In the fourth century, there arose a heresy, or false teaching, that denied that Mary was the mother of Jesus. Named after the bishop Nestorius who promoted this belief, the heresy formally became known as Nestorianism.
The Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 declared that Mary is theotokos (the God-bearer). Led by Saint Cyril of Alexandria, the council fathers spoke of Mary as:
“Mother of God, not that the nature of the Word or his divinity received the beginning of its existence from the holy Virgin, but that, since the holy body, animated by a rational soul, which the Word of God united to himself according to the hypostasis, was born from her, the Word is said to be born according to the flesh.” (DS 251).
Catholics honor Mary as mother, and celebrate her motherhood on January 1st because:
Jesus entrusted us into the care of Mary as our spiritual mother (see John 19:26-27).
Honoring the motherhood of Mary reminds us of the humanity of Jesus
“And by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man”
Catholics are to make a profound bow at this line of the Nicene Creed. Why? Does not this give credence to the Protestant claim we worship Mary?
According to St. Louis de Montfort, “We never give more honor to Jesus than when we honor his Mother, and we honor her simply and solely to honor him even more perfectly. We go to heronly to lead to the goal we seek—Jesus, her Son.” Mary is not the end. God is the ultimate aim of our focus. We honor Mary because of her closeness to Jesus and her model of holiness.
The last line of the first stanza in Sing of Mary is “Word made flesh, our very brother,
Takes our nature by his birth.” This is referring to the teaching of the Incarnation. Start with Mary. End with Christ.
Incarnation— Jesus is fully human and fully divine
Mary is discussed in the first stanza of the song. The second stanza centers around Jesus. On his life, death, and resurrection. True honor and devotion to Mary will always lead to the belief in the Incarnation.
Jesus had to be fully human and fully God in order to be the perfect bridge between God and humanity. A mere human Jesus cannot save. But a solely divine Jesus would prevent us from understanding the fullness of Truth. God stooped to our level to teach us about the truth that God is love.
God is Love—a community of Persons
Mary leads to Jesus (God made incarnate). Jesus teaches us about the Holy Trinity. Recall Sing of Mary’s lyrics. The first stanza talks of Mary. Secondly, we sing about the Incarnation. Lastly, we sing about the teaching of the Holy Trinity:
Glory be to God the Father;
Glory be to God the Son;
Glory be to God the Spirit;
Glory to the Three in One.
From the heart of blessed Mary,
From all saints the song ascends,
And the Church the strain reechoes
Unto earth’s remotest ends.
Mary received into her heart the love of the Holy Spirit. She followed the will of the Father and gave birth to the Second Person of the Trinity. Jesus passed on authority to his Apostles to administer the sacraments to all and to preach the Good News worldwide!
God works in mysterious ways, the Virgin giving birth is the greatest of mysteries, but be on the lookout for other important insights. The processional song at Mass served that purpose for me today. I pray you are open to the working of the Holy Spirit to enlighten you during your next Sunday Mass!
In sacred scripture, we read that man was created he had a perfect relationship with God. Man is the pinnacle of creation. God gave man everything.
In return the Lord asked man not to each of one tree in the garden. Man did not listen, rebelled, and had to face the consequences of sin for the first time.
The sin of our first parents also applies to us. We all have sinned, and the penalty for that sin is death. Saint Paul had the same opinion in Romans 6:23 which states, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”. However, the second person of the blessed Trinity, Jesus himself became incarnate to atone and redeem us from our sin.
Incarnation—Bridge from us to God
The Incarnation was needed because we could not atone for our sin on our own. Only someone who was perfect, and without sin could do that. As I write this it is the final days of Advent.
The time of preparation for the birth of Christ is soon coming to an end. Soon we will be celebrating his glorious birth. The second person of the Trinity loving us so much that He became man. He lived as we did with hunger, fear, betrayal, and even death.
Hebrews 4:15 sums this idea up perfectly when the inspired author writes, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”
This far we have seen that Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses, but this doesn’t completely answer who he is. Who He is the ultimate gift that we experience this time of year.
Identity of Jesus
So who is Jesus? This question goes back to some of the greatest controversies in the early church.
There were some, such as the Arians, who tried to explain Jesus as being the first thing created. The problem here is that Jesus, as the second person of the Blessed Trinity, has always existed. There are many verses that show this and John 1:1 is one example. That passage of scripture states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
He always was, yet he took the form of a man, and was born in the humblest of conditions. In our society we have been conditioned to view the manger scene in a very sanitized way. That manger that the divine Son of God was laid in after his birth was a food trough used for livestock!
The creator of the universe became a man because he wants us to live. His love for us is that immense. In the letter to the Philippians St. Paul writes, “Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness and found human in appearance he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).
Fully Man and Fully God
While on Earth he did not appear as a man, nor was He a spirit that possessed man until the point of the crucifixion as the Docetists and Gnostics would say. From the time of His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary he was both fully God and fully man. This was stated by many church fathers, declared at the Council of Nicea, and at the Council of Chalcedon this became known as the Hypostatic Union. Jesus was not either or, but He has BOTH a human nature AND a divine nature.
That is why the Incarnation is so amazing, and to be perfectly honest this barely scratches the surface. As you gather with your families over the next few weeks and exchange gifts and hugs may we remember the ultimate gift. That ultimate gift is our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. The second person of the Blessed Trinity, who became man, and experienced everything that we did but was without sin. He died as the perfect offering for our sin because He loves us that much and he thinks that we are worth being with for eternity!
About our guest blogger:
William is aconvert to the Catholic faith. Before entering the churchhewas ordained as a Baptist and Lutheran and earned a Master of Divinity from Liberty Theological Seminary. William liveswith his wife and four children in Tucson, AZ and teaches religious education for children and adults. Check out hiswebsite/blog atwilliamhemsworth.comfor more great and informativeCatholic content!
According to 20th century Scottish author William Barclay, “There are two great days in a person’s life—the day we are born and the day we discover why.” Everyone had a birthday. Birthdays are universal. Celebrations of life. Reminders of impending death. Or a view somewhere in between. Why do you celebrate your birthday?
Each new year of our life allows us to learn from our past shortcomings and hope future successes. Celebrating our birthday helps us to live in the present moment. On September 8th, the Catholic Church observes the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The topic of the Mother of God is a point of contention for Protestants. There are a lot of misconceptions that Catholics worship Mary. I even had a conversation with a co-worker last week who asked me, “Why is it that some Catholics worship Mary?” My reply was concise and the same as the official stance of the Catholic Church, “Catholics don’t worship Mary. She is not God. We never, ever worship her. Instead, we honor her.”
Some of you might still be skeptical. You might be thinking, “Well, if you don’t worship Mary why does the Church has a specific feast to celebrate her birthday [along with the countless other feasts!] It all seems too much.” That certainly is a valid concern. I can understand how non-Catholics perceive Catholics’ devotion to Mary as being excessive or over the top. This article will discuss three reasons why Catholic do celebrate the birthday of Mary— and how authentic honor should always end in the worship of Jesus Christ!
An Anchor to the Incarnation
Birthdays celebrate a real and historical event. Your parents received a birth certificate a few weeks after you were born. In the modern era, people use their date of birth on loan applications, online activity, account openings, as passwords, and other situations where you have to prove your identity.
When the Catholic Church celebrates the birthday of Mary, her existence as a real figure, in history, is recognized. Why it is important that Mary was actually born, a real person like you or I? Her existence is absolutely necessary for the doctrine of the Incarnation—the teachings that Jesus is fully God AND fully human. During the Nicene Creed, the priest and the laity bow at the following line: “He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.”
Before I studied theology it always seemed peculiar that we would bow during those words. For my master’s course on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I had to write a paper discussing the internal consistency and unity of the doctrines. The doctrine I choose to study was the Incarnation. I discovered that Mariology [the theological study of Mary] was closely related to the Incarnation.
The Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. formally rejected the heresy of Nestorianism— a belief that rejected Mary was the Mother of God and thus also rejecting the humanity of Jesus. Mary as the Mother of God secures the reality that Jesus was fully human along with being fully God.
Obeying the 4th Commandment
Another reason Catholics celebrate the birthday of Mary is out of honor. According to the Second Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, ” [Mary] she is our mother in the order of grace” (no. 61). This truth is in keeping with Scripture when Jesus gives her mother to the Apostle John (see John 19:26-27) and Sacred Tradition.
The vast number of Marian feast days throughout the year point to her holiness and complete obedience to God. Just like our earthly mother, we should honor our spiritual mother as well!
True Devotion of the Mother Ends with Worship of the Son
Each year it seems like retail stores put out Christmas displays and products earlier and earlier. Already I have heard people at work lament that the radio is not yet playing Christmas music. The birth of Christ is definitely something to get excited about. Catholics celebrate the birthday of Mary as a type of early preparation for Christmas!
The Catholic Church is quite clear that Jesus is the sole Mediator. According to St. Paul in 1 Timothy 2:5-6, “For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human,d who gave himself as ransom for all.” We only honor Mary as a means to get closer to Her Son. St. Louis de Montfort said it best, “We never give more honour to Jesus than when we honour his Mother, and we honour her simply and solely to honour him all the more perfectly. We go to her only as a way leading to the goal we seek – Jesus, her Son” (True Devotion to Mary ).
While we are members of the Body of Christ, Mary is the “neck of the Body of Christ” connecting us to the Head—Jesus. Celebrate the birth of Mary because it was through her decision to fully obey God that the Savior of the World was born. Happy Birthday Mary and happy early birthday Jesus!
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).
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).
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
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!