God’s Human Face: The Christ Icon

By Christoph Cardinal Schönborn

(Ignatius Press, 1994, translated by Lothar Krauth)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr


Too many works on Christology stop at the Council of Chalcedon (451). The latter centuries become but footnotes of lesser moment in epilogues. That Schönborn concentrates on the final two of the first ‘Seven Great Ecumenical Councils’ is welcome. That he focuses on a subject that is of great interest in the West today – icons – makes this a work many will want to consult.

While the man who oversaw the preparation of the Catechism for Pope John Paul II is certainly an accomplished theologian, he is one especially gifted at explaining complicated issues. Most of the figures and events associated with the history of icons will be unfamiliar to many of us Western Christians. Certainly someone with a slight smattering of Aquinas will recognize John Damascene, whom his Summa quotes liberally. On the other hand, people like Germanus and Nicephorus, the Emperor Constantine V will be unfamiliar. In the West we tend to treat the five hundred years from the 6th to the 11th Centuries as if they never happened. Not so in the East: the persistence of a language enabled the persistence of a great theological tradition, one running all the way from the first great Greek theologian Schönborn considers, that is to say, Origen, who lived in the 3rd Century, up to and beyond the last theologian he considers, Theodore the Studite, who lived in the 9th century. The icon controversy hardly touched the West at all – that is to say, not until Luther came along in the 16th Century. It is no wonder that all the sources Schönborn references are Greek.

Christology is an impossibly broad field: everyone who has ever believed in Christ has had, so to speak, their own Christology. Yet out of this broad field Schönborn constructs an intelligible and interesting history. To concentrate on the history of even just one issue – the Christ icon in this case, as he refers to it – finds the scholar confronted by a mountain of material. Schönborn’s genius is evident in the selections he has made. The controversy about icons did not come out of nowhere. Like many of the issues that proved so controversial in the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, both sides in the fight over icons could point to a tradition that supported their side. Some, like the church historian, Eusebius, were clear and definite: the Mosaic Commandment forbid ‘graven images,’ period. Others, like Origen, were not so definite.

What Schönborn labours to show is how the controversy over icons was at its heart a controversy over Christology: one’s understanding of what it means to say that Christ became man will influence how one thinks about the interaction of the material and the divine realms. Can you paint God? Schönborn simplifies unfamiliar terrain. This book is a very handy entryway into the ancient debate about Christ. The figures he examines most thoroughly – Cyril of Alexandria, Eusebius, Origen, and Maximus Confessor – are all important figures in this great controversy of the Ancient Church.

I wish we wouldn’t treat the subject of icons as closed. Are there rules for religious art? Read this book and enter into the conversation.

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