The Icon of the Holy Trinity
and the Heresy of the Neo-Iconoclasts
“But scripture also has forms and images of God Himself.”
St. John of Damascus
In recent years, a new heresy has arisen in the Church. Inspired by the devil, and motivated by the pride and ambition of selfish men, it now threatens the faith of Orthodox Christians, in Greece, and throughout the world. This pernicious doctrine has been given the name of Neo-Iconoclasm and it combines the ancient errors of the iconoclasts with so-called “modern scholarship”, in an effort to undermine and destroy faith in the Most Holy Trinity.
These blasphemous teachings have been spreading throughout the seminaries and theological schools of the New Calendarists for many years. In fact, one could see this loss of faith in the Holy Trinity as the fruit of their apostasy and unbelief. However, during the past twenty years, these false doctrines have been gradually introduced into Orthodox circles in America and Greece, and have recently caused a major schism in the Genuine Orthodox Church of Greece, which is the legitimate Orthodox Church in that country. This tragic event, which has saddened the hearts of the true Orthodox Christians everywhere, is the direct result of the efforts of the Neo- Iconoclasts to impose their ideas in the clergy and laity of the GOC and to seize control of the Holy Synod. Thanks be to God, that the Hierarchs of the Holy Synod took the appropriate and God-pleasing action of deposing from office and excommunicating these heretics and anathematizing their teachings.
However, it should be stated that this action was taken with the greatest pastoral concern and forbearance on the part of the Holy Synod toward the Neo-Iconoclasts. Time and time again, they were asked to repent, with many heartfelt exhortations and tears of compassion, by the holy Hierarchs. In the end, this was to no avail, and with much sadness the misbelievers were sent away to join the ranks of Arios, Nestorios, Evtychios, and Leo the Isaurian, of unhappy memory.
However, so that the many sincere and pious Orthodox Christians who may have been troubled and confused by these events, may understand the seriousness of these matters, and in particular the danger posed by the Neo-Iconoclast heresy, this writer will attempt to set down, as clearly as possible, the teachings of the Neo-Iconoclasts and to refute them, on the basis of Holy Scripture, sacred Tradition, the teachings of the Holy Fathers and historical fact.
The origin of the present Neo-Iconoclasm is to be found in the statements and writings of a certain Alexandre Kalomiros in Greece, and the Monk Panteleimon in America. Kalomiros, it is sad to relate, went from one heresy to another until he abandoned Orthodoxy altogether, and finally lost his reason, and died miserably, without the Sacraments of the Church, alone and forsaken by most of his followers, still blaspheming the Holy Icons.
The Monk Panteleimon (Mitropoulos) has had a very checquered career, which it is not necessary to go into at this time. Suffice to say that he is a former New Calendarist, who was for a time with the Russian Church Abroad, until he was defrocked by them on charges of immorality. He then applied to several uncanonical Old Calendar bishops and was finally accepted by the Monk Auxentios (Pastras), who had himself, been defrocked by our Holy Father Matthaios for misconduct.
Kalomiros and Panteleimon presumed to pass judgment on a number of Holy Icons, stating that they were “Antichrist”, of “western” origin and “cacodox”. There were a number of icons, which were so characterized, but the most significant among them were two Holy Icons, which have been venerated for countless centuries by devout orthodox Christians. These are the icon of the Resurrection of our Lord and God Jesus Christ, and the icon of the Most Holy Trinity.
Since it is the Icon of the Holy Trinity, which has caused the most controversy, I will limit my observations, in this article, to this icon. However, I hope to have the opportunity, at a future time, also to consider the theological issues concerning the Icon of the Resurrection.
The arguments against these Holy icons were, as we have said, first advanced by Kalomiros and the Monk Panteleimon. However, they were taken up and further developed by others in Greece, North America and elsewhere. Perhaps the most extreme statements are to be found in the writings of one George S. Gabriel of New Jersey (USA). Gabriel has not only continued to disseminate the blasphemous teachings of Kalomiros, of whom he was the principle disciple, but indeed had surpassed him in his attacks on the Orthodox Faith.
Since the writings of Gabriel have been widely circulated among the Neo-Iconoclasts in Greece, and have, in fact, been adopted by them, it might be useful to consider these as representative of their point of view. In doing so, I shall make use of his criticisms of the Pastoral Encyclical Letter of the Holy Synod of the Hierarchy of the Genuine Orthodox Church of Greece, and his article entitled Apagoreumenos Apeikoniseis, which was published in Thessaloniki in 1990.
It might be helpful, at the outset to describe the icon in question. The Icon of the Most Holy Trinity portrays God the Father as “the Ancient of Days” a venerable elder with white hair. God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is portrayed in traditional iconographic form. And God the Holy Spirit is shown in the form of a dove. As we shall see, this is a very ancient depiction of the Holy Trinity, dating to the earliest Christian times.
In his criticism of this Holy Icon, Gabriel advances three main arguments:
1) He maintains that it is impossible to see, or to portray, the Divine Nature. Only God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, can be portrayed in icons, because He “is the One Person of the Holy Trinity, the One operating agent of the Holy Trinity in the World”. God the Father (according to Gabriel) represents only the “uncreated energies of the Godhead”. Therefore, it is forbidden to portray the Father, because it leads to the heresy of the circumscription of God.
2) He further maintains that the portrayal of God the Father in the Icon of the Holy Trinity, as “the Ancient of Days”, which was described by the prophet Daniel, is “Antichrist”. The reason, according to Gabriel, is that in some of the hymns of the Church, it is Christ Who is called the Ancient of Days and not God the Father. Therefore, this Icon is based on a false interpretation of the prophetic text.
3) Finally, Gabriel states that the Icon of the Holy Trinity is a “western invention” and was forbidden by the Council of Moscow in 1666. Since this Council was a witness of Sacred Tradition, its decision should be respected and the icon condemned.
I intend to show that all of these arguments of Gabriel and the Neo-Iconoclasts are false and should be rejected by Orthodox Christians. Further, I propose to show that in their attempts to support these arguments, they have created a new heresy, that of Neo-Iconoclasm, and that these false teachings have been justly condemned and anathematized by the Holy Synod of the Genuine Orthodox Church of Greece.
And so, let us now take each of Gabriel’s arguments in turn.
1) All the Fathers of the Orthodox Church agree that the Divine Nature cannot be portrayed in icons. This has never been questioned by Orthodox Christians. However, Gabriel then presumes to say that he portrayal of the Ancient of Days in the Icon of the Holy Trinity is an attempt to portray the Divine Nature. This is absolutely false!
The Icon of the Holy Trinity is a portrayal, not of the Divine Nature of God the Father, but of his Divine Person. Moreover, it depicts Him, not realistically, but symbolically. In other words, not as He truly is, in His Divine Nature, but only as He chose to appear to the Prophet, in a visual image, or theophany, for the sake of our understanding. This is underscored in the same vision by a second theophany of God the Son. These are the words of the Prophet:
I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of Days did sit. Whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head like the pure wool: His throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire. A fiery stream issued and came forth from before Him: thousand thousands ministered unto Him and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him (Daniel 7:9-10).
And behold, One like a Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. And there was given Him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages would serve Him: His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His Kingdom, which shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14).
It should be evident to anyone that in the vision of the Prophet Daniel, the Ancient of Days is God the Father and the Son of Man is God the Son. Even George Gabriel would not be so foolish as to suggest that we have two theophanies of Christ present at the same time! This would not only be an absurdity, but more seriously, a confusion of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Furthermore, the description of the Son of Man is one of the clearest prophetic visions of our Saviour that we have in the Old Testament. Indeed the Fathers of the Church are unanimous in seeing this as a prophetic vision of the Ascension of Christ, the Son of Man, to God the Father.
Certainly no one would suggest that the depiction of God the Father is a realistic representation in the same sense as the depiction of God the Son. But it is the manner in which the Father chose to manifest Himself to the Prophet. In exactly the same way, God the Holy Spirit did not become a dove, but chose to manifest Himself in this manner to St. John the Forefunner at the Baptism of Christ in Jordan. In fact, on this occasion we have The Theophany of all three Persons of the Holy Trinity present at the same time. St. Luke describes in this way:
It came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven, Which said, Thou art my beloved Son, in Thee I am well pleased (St. Luke 3:21-22).
The only problem here is confusion by Gabriel and the Neo-Iconoclasts between nature and persons and the Divine Nature and Energies.
St. Theodore the Studite teaches that icons are representations, not of natures, but of persons existing in natures. Act VI of the Seventh Ecumenical Council states that “An icon is not like the original with respect to essence but with respect to hypostasis.’ Thus, an Icon of Christ is the image of a Divine Person in His human nature, which is visible to the fleshly eye.
The distinction between the Divine Nature and Energies was clearly set forth by our Holy Father, St. Gregory Palamas, who taught that both the Nature and Energies of the Godhead are present in all three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
The visions of God in the Old Testament are visions of the Divine Energies of God, not of His Divine Nature (or essence). Therefore, St. Gregory Palamas in commenting on the words of the Patriarch Jacob: “I have seen God face to face (or person to person) and my soul has been saved,” writes ” Let the Cacodox hear that Jacob saw the face of God, and not only was his life not taken away, but as he himself says, it was saved, in spite of the fact that God says: No one shall see my face (person), and live. Are there then two Gods, one having His face accessible to the vision of Saints, and the other having his face beyond all vision? May such impiety perish! The Face of God Which is seen is the Energy and Grace of God condescending to appear to those who are worthy; while the face of God That is never seen, Which is beyond all appearance and vision, let us call the Nature of God.” (Homilies XI)
The Patriarch Abraham’s vision at the Oak of Mambre was likewise a vision of the Godhead, not in His Essence, but in His Energies. It is true that one or two Western Fathers (for example St. Justin the Philosopher), say that Abraham saw only Christ and two angels. But the Greek Fathers and St. Augustine teach that he saw the Holy Trinity in the form of three men, or angels. They all agree, however, that Abraham did see god. Thus, St Gregory the Theologian says that “the great Patriarch saw God, not as God, but as a man” (Second Theological Oration). St. John Chrysostom also writes that God appeared to Abraham, “not with the nature of a man, or an angel”, but “in the form of a man”. And St. John of Damascus, the great defender of the Holy Icons writes: “Abraham did not see the Nature of God, but no one has seen God at any time, but an Icon of God, and falling down he venerated it.” as the Holy Fathers of Nativity Skete at Katounakia have testified in our time: “There is no icon representing the Nature or Essence of God, but there is an icon of the icon of God.”
2) The term “Ancient of Days”, like the term “God”, can be applied to all three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Therefore, if Christ is referred to as “the Ancient of Days” in the hymns for the feast of the Meeting of the Lord, there is no inconsistency, or no contradiction. St. Hippolytos of Rome, St. Athanasios the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Gregory Palamas and other Fathers of the Church, all agree that “the Ancient of Days”, in the vision of the Prophet Daniel, is indeed God the Father. Moreover, they are unanimous in interpreting this vision as portraying the Ascension of Christ, “the Son of Man’ to God the Father, “the Ancient of Days”, from Whom He receives the Kingdom and the glory, together with the power to judge the living and the dead.
The attempt by Gabriel and the Neo-Iconoclasts to interpret this vision as “Christ, in the image and figure of what was yet to come”, has no foundation either in Holy Scripture, or the writings of the Fathers. It should be obvious that the two Divine Figures in the vision represent Persons, not Natures. The attempt to represent the two Natures of Christ, present at the same time, but in separation, is not only an absurdity, as previously observed, but is a concept formerly found only among the Nestorian heretics.
The charge by Gabriel and the Neo-Iconoclasts that the Icon of the Holy Trinity is “new” is an absolute falsehood. In fact, representations of the Holy Trinity are found among the earliest examples of Christian art. For example, there is a representation of the appearance of the Holy Trinity to the Patriarch Abraham in the catacombs of the Via Latina in Rome, dating from the early Fourth century, and of God the Father as the Ancient of Days in S. Maria Maggiore in Rome (c. 432).
Furthermore, an ancient manuscript of the Desert Fathers dating from the Fourth or Fifth Century, entitled Questions and Answers on the Ascetic Rule records this exchange between an Elder (old man) and a brother:
Brother. How ought a man to see the order of the divine vision?
Old Man. The scriptures have shown him how.
Old Man. Daniel saw Him as the Ancient of Days. And Ezekiel saw Him
on the Chariot of the Cherubim. And Isaiah saw Him upon a lofty and
glorious throne. And Moses persisted in being with Him Who cannot be
seen, as if he saw Him.
Brother. And how can the mind see that which cannot be seen?
Old Man. A king cannot be seen, as far as his exact image is concerned, when he is sitting on the throne.
Brother. And is it right for a man to depict God in his mind in this manner?
Old Man. And what is better for a man to depict God in his mind in this manner, or to bow himself down to many abominable thoughts.
(The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, Vol. II, p.273.)
This venerable tradition of the Orthodox Church was upheld by the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the Synodikion of Orthodoxy. Thus the Fathers of the Holy Seventh Ecumenical Council declared. “Eternal be the memory of those who know and accept and believe the visions of the prophets and the Divinity Himself, shaped and impressed them, whatever the chorus of the prophets saw and narrated, and who hold to the written and unwritten tradition of the Holy Apostles which was passed on to the Fathers, and on account of this make icons of the Holy Things and honour them” And again they declare: “Anathema to those who do not accept the visions of the prophets and who reject the iconographies which have been seen by them (O Wonder!) even before the Incarnation of the Word, but either speak empty words about having seen the unattainable and unseen Essence, or on the one hand pay heed to those who have seen these appearances of the icons, types and forms of the truth, while on the other hand they cannot bear to have icons of the World become man and His sufferings on their behalf.” (Acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council)
St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, in his Prolegomena to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, sums up the Council’s decrees on this subject, as follows: “The present Council, in the letter which it sent to the Church of Alexandria, on the one hand blesses those who know and accept, and therefore make icons of, and honour, the visions and theophanies of the Prophets, as God Himself shaped and impressed them on their minds. And on the other, it anathematizes those who do not accept the iconographies of such visions before the incarnation of God the Word. It follows that the beginningless Father must be represented in icons as He appeared to the Prophet Daniel, as the Ancient of Days”. (The Rudder, Zakynthos, 1864, p. 320; Chicago, 1957, p. 420)
As far as the often quoted Council of Moscow, which condemned the Icon of the Holy Trinity, even if it had been a proper Council of the Church and without reproach in every other respect, it could not be accepted as expressing the authentic Tradition of the Church, if its decrees contradict those of an Ecumenical Council, as well as the consistent practice of the Church from earliest times.
However, there are other important reasons for not accepting this Council. In the first place, its decrees were in direct contradiction of the Council of Moscow of 1553. This council which carried equal weight in the Russian Church, with that of 1666, approved icons portraying God the Father, on the basis of the visions of God in the Old Testament.
A certain layman named Viskovaty had protested to Metropolitan Makarios against such depictions of God the Father. In refuting these objections, Metropolitan Makarios stated that Icons representing the Holy Trinity were not innovations, but “were painted according to accepted consecrated models.”
Secondly, the Council of 1666 was a “robber council”, which had been convoked by Tsar Alexis in order to defrock the righteous Patriarch Nikon. In addition, only sixteen years later, in 1682, the decrees of the Moscow Council of 1666 were nullified by the Eastern Patriarchs, proving that it was in no way a “Pan-Orthodox” Council.
It would appear, on the bases of the information submitted above, that the objections of George Gabriel and the Neo-Iconoclasts have no base either in Holy Scripture, Sacred Tradition, or even historical fact. It is a case both of bad theology and poor scholarship. What can we say then of these individuals, whose writing has wrought such havoc in the Church and have actually caused a schism in the Body of Christ?
The truth is that they represent, on the one hand, sincere individuals who have been deluded by the devil and confused by the writings of liberal Western “scholars”, and on the other, ambitious persons who had hoped to impose their will on the Church and thereby to gain power for themselves. In charity, we will not mention names, for they are already well known, in Greece and elsewhere.
The tragedy is, that regardless of the motivation of these persons, they had created a new heresy that has caused a schism in the Church and put in jeopardy the souls of many they repent, they must surely answer for this on the Day of Judgment.
The real problem for the Church is the harm done for those false teachings. In attempting to discredit the icon of the Holy Trinity, the Neo-Iconoclasts have not only resurrected the ancient errors of the Nestorians and the Old Iconoclasts, but even more seriously, they have questioned the reality of God the Father and have even committed the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, for example, by referring to Him as “the bird.”
These are matters of the gravest importance. In these difficult times, the Church of Greece did not need the additional burden of an iconoclastic controversy. But the Church has met the challenge and has dealt with it in the only possible way. First, with great patience and long suffering towards the Neo-Iconoclastics, over a period of many years, and finally when they still remained unrepentant, and in fact tried to usurp the authority of the Holy Synod itself, to depose from office and excommunicate their leaders, and to anathematize their blasphemous and soul-destroying doctrines.
One would wish that matter could end here, with our prayers that the misbelievers would repent and return to the Ark of the Church. This unfortunately is not the case. The Neo-Iconoclasts and their followers are, as yet, unrepentant, and continue to spread their false doctrines, in Greece, and in North America.
It is with this in mind, that the writer presents this humble offering to the Hierarchs of the Genuine Orthodox Church of Greece, and to pious Orthodox Christians everywhere, with the prayer that it may be of some small assistance in combating these errors and defending our Holy Faith.
Father Seraphim J. Chewning
Koimisis of the Theotokos
August 15, 1995
1. I Agia Trias eistin Orthodoxon Eikonographian, Nativity Skete, Katounakia, Agion Oros, 1991.
2. Moss, Vladimir, The Icon of the Holy Trinity. Mayford, Working, England, 1993.
3. Mouravieff, A.N. A History of the Church of Russia, Oxford, 1841.
4. The Rudder, Zakynthos, 1864, 1957.