To See or Not to See:
God's Body in the Byzantine Picture Controversy

By Charles C. Twombly
This paper was first delivered at a convocation at the Medieval Symposium
at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, on March 25, 2008.
Does God have a body? It sounds like a child’s question, doesn’t it: sort of on the order of asking who
God’s parents were. The answer for all three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is
clearly, “No, God does not have a body. God is a spirit and is therefore invisible.”  This being the
case, Christians, Jews, and Muslims also agree that God cannot be pictured; any attempt to do so is
idolatrous. All three faiths affirm the prohibition in the Ten Commandments against making graven
images. In Exodus 20, God commands Moses: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the
form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth, or that is in the water under the earth.”  
This imageless monotheism is the bedrock of each of these ancient faiths. One and only one god who is
beyond all efforts to portray him—this is where all three religions stand shoulder to shoulder.  

I need to add a teacherly footnote at this point. In the present race to the White House, we’ve been
reminded recently that at least one religious group does believe God has a body, a very real human
body. I’m referring of course to the Mormons. But, at least for now, they are very much out of the
mainstream and not at all representative of the central tradition, least when viewed worldwide.

But another tradition within the mainstream does exist. Roman Catholic art, at least in the Renaissance,
sanctioned picturing God the Father, most spectacularly in Michelangelo’s ceiling painting in the
Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, where an unclad, grey-haired God imparts life to an unclad Adam by
touching the latter’s finger. But really what we have here is an imaginative use of the anthropomorphic
language of the second and third chapters of Genesis where God is portrayed as molding dust like
clay, breathing into a body, shaping a rib, and walking in the cool of the day—all very human-like
activities performed by a seemingly physical God. But only the simple-minded would take these
matters quite literally. All three faiths would see here a picturing of the unpicturable. All would affirm
that “no one can see God and live.”  Each could embrace St. Paul’s claim that God “lives in
unapproachable light.”  

Ah, but there’s a fly in the ointment. Christianity, unlike either Judaism or Islam, complicates things by
claiming that the one God is also at the same time (and mysteriously) three “persons.” It goes even
further by asserting that one of these “persons” united with a full human nature and became one of us—
the divine Son became a human being. These two dogmas—the Trinity and the Incarnation—remain
the most distinctive characteristics of Christianity, at least as embraced by most Christians.  This is
classical Christianity; it’s what CS Lewis famously identified as “Mere Christianity.” It’s also a huge
stumbling block in conversations between Christians on the one hand and Jews or Muslims on the
other.  When seen through Jewish or Muslim eyes, the Trinity sounds like polytheism: not one God but
three. The Incarnation goes even further: it makes the Creator one of his own creatures. If we worship
Jesus, we are worshipping a fellow human, no matter how divine his origin. In short, Christians seem to
be violating both the first and second commandments. They seem to have “another god” next to the
true God, and they give bodily form to what is supposedly beyond our capacity to envision.  

If this all sounds like the hairsplitting that theologians love so much; if it all sounds utterly remote from
“real life,” where most of us are just trying to “get on with it,” let me tell you that I heard these very
issues discussed and debated and even ridiculed by Muslim clerics and others in London’s Hyde Park
just four months before 9/11. At least one of the speakers, a fiery and very eloquent Jamaican, was
openly urging suicide bombing. His reasons weren’t primarily theological; nevertheless, theological
subtleties can be “hot” issues, with possible political implications.  

But now I want to take us back to another era in which these very issues were center stage and all
three Abrahamic faiths were in varying degrees players. Early in the eighth century, the Byzantine
emperor, Leo III, banned all icons, all images of Christ and the saints, declaring that they were really
idols. His son and successor, Constantine V, did the same.  He claimed that icon-worshippers, along
with being idolaters, were heretical in other ways: they were guilty of Nestorianism if they split Jesus’
divinity from his humanity; they were monophysites if they took the opposite tack and confused the two
natures of Christ, thereby making him into a “third thing,” a hybrid neither really human nor really divine.

The emperors weren’t merely concerned about theological niceties. Political issues were also involved.
The Byzantine Empire was shrinking.  First Persians and then Muslims invaded and took over huge
chunks of the empire. Borders were constantly threatened. And political conquest had ideological
implications. But it wasn’t all black and white: it wasn’t merely a case of Christians lining up on one
side and Muslims lining up on the other, at least not in the early days. Some Christian groups out of the
mainstream—I’m talking mainly about the monophysites and Nestorians – actually seemed to welcome
the Muslim invaders of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, whom they preferred (at least at first) to the Greek-
speaking Byzantines. To this day, there’s a huge population of Coptic Christians in Egypt—to give one
example.  

In any event, the Byzantine emperors had to deal with groups both in and out of the empire that were
opposed to the veneration of icons or even to their existence. For military reasons, the emperors
needed soldiers and wanted to recruit Jews and Muslims as well as Christians. A state religion that
encouraged (alleged) idol-worshippers and polytheists would be a huge mountain to climb over for the
other two religions.  

But back to the original question: Does God have a body? And, if so, can it be portrayed? Because
Christians affirmed that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” the quick and obvious answer
wasn’t so obvious after all. According to orthodox Christians, the preexistent divine Son assumed a
real human body, one that could be heard and seen and touched, as the First Epistle of John puts it. If
CNN had been there with its recording devices two millennia ago, Jesus could have been captured (as
we say) on film. But when we film anyone, let alone the divine Christ, what have we really captured?
Does the picture portray a person’s soul or merely the outer garment? Aye, there’s the rub!  

If one can assert with orthodox Christian belief that Christ is both fully human and fully divine, what can
a picture really show? How could it ever show more than the human side? Well, here we get into the
nature of icons. They’re not just ordinary pictures. They are not intended to be photographic. In fact,
they’re highly stylized. Jesus and others often have elongated noses and other features which have an
almost eerie feeling attached to them. We see faces seemingly looking at us, but they appear to have
their minds on other things. They’re focused on realities not readily apparent. They seem to stand at the
intersection of time and eternity. They apparently know things we don’t. What’s going on? Well, it is
obvious that simple representation isn’t the big deal.  

The representational side did have its value, of course. The earliest icons, which seem crude by later
standards, could be used as picture books for the large number of illiterate Christians. Many couldn’t
read the Bible, but they could come to the church and look at the walls and ceiling. Like children sitting
through a boring sermon, they could stand in the church and let their eyes dart back and forth among
the scenes of redemptive history and gaze on the heroes of faith.  

But the intent and impact of icons went beyond all that. The icons were actually worshipped (or should
we say venerated). They were kissed and treated with the greatest possible reverence, the way a
person of special eminence might be honored. In seemingly direct violation of the prohibition of treating
wood and paint and glass as objects of worship, they were esteemed as if the persons they
represented were actually there—in the church, now. But that was precisely the point. Since God had
entered his own creation in the person of Christ and had taken on physicality, the whole created world,
including wood and paint and glass, had been affirmed as fit vessels capable of holding God. God’s
affirmation of his creation as ‘very good” took on new meaning. Christ’s body could be worshipped
because it actually was HIS body and not something borrowed for a time and laid aside when Christ
returned to his original home.  

To say otherwise, to say Christ’s body wasn’t really his, would possibly be to slide into Nestorianism,
the heresy which claimed that a divine person and a human person were merely connected in Jesus as
if they were Siamese twins. If, on the other hand, Christ’s body belonged to him, then it was deified (or
made divine) by being conjoined to his divine nature but not in a way that annihilated its humanity. This
was important, really important. In order to do his work of salvation, Christ (according to orthodox
Christians) had to be really God; otherwise, he couldn’t offer the things of God to us. At the same
time, he really had to be human because he needed to sanctify humanity in all its fullness and do so
from the inside, so to speak; otherwise, what he offered his father on our behalf wouldn’t really be ours
after all. On the cross, he offered his own humanity, now sanctified, and (through the resurrection and
ascension) made it savingly available to the world. Anything less would have been a charade:
Superman dressing up and pretending to be Clark Kent.  

Well, the picture (or iconoclastic) controversy in the Byzantine Church was a very complicated affair
and caused a big stir for decades in both the eighth and ninth centuries. I’ve only offered a very brief
glimpse of it.  But you may be happy to know, as I am, that the matter was resolved in favor of the
icons. The seventh ecumenical council, that is the Council of Nicea in 787, and the eventual closure to
the matter in 843 brought what Orthodox Christians refer to and celebrate as the Triumph of
Orthodoxy. (All will be interested to know that the Triumph of Orthodoxy has just been celebrated
two Sundays ago in Orthodox churches—it marks the first Sunday in Lent for Eastern Christians. And
Wesleyan students especially will be pleased to know that the triumph came about through the agency
of  two exceedingly powerful women: the Empress Irene and later the Empress Theodora.  Women
were saving and restoring pictures, even back in the eighth and ninth centuries!)

So what’s the upshot of the matter? What’s the story about our original question, Does God have a
body? The answer of orthodox Christians is, “Yes, God does have a body, and the body God has is
Christ’s own body.”  Since Christ’s body includes the church (if we follow St Paul’s teachings),
Christians can now say that they too are (collectively) God’s body, but the primary reference is Christ’
s own flesh and blood, his own full human nature. When Philip (in John’s gospel) asks Jesus, “Show us
the Father,” the reply is, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” But Jesus presumably wasn’t
saying that the Father looked just like Jesus. His aim surely was to say that what he said and did and
what his father was doing were a perfect match. In the same gospel, he can say, “I and the Father are
one” and “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”  But the body, which is God’s body because it
was and permanently is Christ’s body, came from the Virgin Mary. “The Word became flesh and
dwelt among us.” Or, to borrow from the words of Psalm 40 (the Greek version), quoted in the Letter
to the Hebrews:  

Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
      But a
body you have prepared for me….

Then I said, “See, God, I have come to do your will, O God.”

The iconodules, the lovers of icons, dared to believe that this body prepared could be portrayed and
could reveal both the divinity and the humanity of the incarnate Word. Our title asks, “To See or Not
to See?”  The same Philip who was told by Jesus, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” had
said earlier to his own brother Nathaniel, “Come and see.”  He perhaps had something else in mind
when he said that, but I’ll take it nonetheless as my closing word. To see Christ in his body, especially
through the medium of an icon, is to see the invisible God. For orthodox Christian faith, there is no
idolatry here. God has put himself within our reach. The Word, the Logos, has indeed become flesh—
such is the audacious claim of one of the three Abrahamic faiths.  
Read Charles C. Twombly's "Humility and
Desire for the Other in a Russian Icon."
Read Charles C. Twombly's "Humility and
Desire for the Other in a Russian Icon."


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