Previous article in this series: August 2023, p. 445.

The broad issue faced by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, we saw in our last article, was whether God could be worshiped through artistic representations of Jesus, such as paintings, mosaics, and statues. Some, including the emperors, said that such worship violated the second commandment. Others, including the pope and the patriarch, said that the second commandment did not apply here. It forbids worshiping God by means of creatures, but does not forbid using images that represent Jesus in worship, because Jesus Himself was the image of God.

Political leaders on one side, and church leaders on the other! As people took sides, the peace of the empire was jeopardized.

The council’s decision about icons

The Seventh Ecumenical Council (also known as the Second Council of Nicea) met in eight sessions from late September to late October, 787. The council reaffirmed that “the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation— namely the Incarnation of Christ.”1 Such artwork was not to be worshiped, and was to be removed from the churches.

However, the council said “that just as the figures of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God…to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honorable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people.”2 The council explained further that in this way the church would remember the saints and strive more to be like them, and it emphasized that this reverence shown to these pictures was not the worship due to God alone.

In several ways, this council paved the way for the worship and theology of both the western churches (Rome) and the Eastern Orthodox churches. First, it established the distinction that these churches make between reverence and worship. Rome speaks of three degrees of honor shown to others: an honor shown to all saints, a higher honor shown to Mary, and then a divine worship given to God alone. Reformed believers do not object to remembering the martyrs, but we do evaluate Rome’s practice of honoring the saints as being idolatrous.

Second, these decisions reflect the idea that in that image Jesus Christ Himself was really, spiritually present with His church; the images helped the church understand His spiritual presence. This became a justification still used today to worship God through images of Jesus.

The Reformer John Calvin recognized that councils have authority, for which reason the matter was settled in the minds of some. Yet he endeavored to show that the council misused many Scripture passages, and that the conclusions of the council are not the teachings of Scripture.3

Other Decisions

The council also dealt with church political matters, though nothing really new. Among other things, it asserted that those who did not know Scripture well should not be made bishops; bishops were to be elevated to office by the church, not by secular means; simony was wrong; and those who were not ordained should not do official work in the church. These decisions suggest that many were abusing sound and biblical principles regarding officebearers. The council also required relics to be housed in churches, and that those who had books opposing the use of icons should hand in those books.4 We conclude our examination of the first seven ecumenical councils. Some of them were more noteworthy than others, but in general they established the foundational dogmas of the Trinity and the person and natures of Christ. They also addressed church political matters of the day. But by the seventh council, the churches were degenerating in doctrine, worship, church polity, and other moral issues; the councils that followed in the Middle Ages underscore that point, and need not take up our time.

1 Philip Schaff, ed, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, second series, vol. 14, The Seven Ecumenical Councils, 543.
2 Schaff, 14:550.
3 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559 edition, 1.11.14-15.
4 See Schaff, 14:555-570 for a list of the canons and additional commentary on them.