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Iconodulia in Ratzinger & Aquinas

In his letter to the Colossians, Saint Paul tells us that “[Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15, NRSV).[1] What stands at the center of the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament is the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Now, further in his letter, Saint Paul writes the following concerning the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law: “These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:17). From both of these passages emerges the logic of Christian iconodulia: namely, the structure of (1) shadow, (2) image, and (3) substance. This tripartite structure presupposes the Catholic synthesis of the Hebrew tradition and the Greek tradition within the Roman context of the time, a tradition which has as its hermeneutical key the notion of participation. In this paper, I will present the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, alongside insights from Joseph Ratzinger, in order to show the richness of the Catholic Church’s teaching on iconodulia.

The thesis can be summarized in the following three points: (1) The Old Testament prohibition of images established in the mind and culture of the Hebrews the priority and uniqueness of God, which secured his universal status as creator and savior; (2) this universality is the basis of God’s interaction with humanity in a non-competitive manner, which makes possible mankind’s right worship of God in spirit and in truth; and (3) this universality structures the world in terms of mankind’s ascent—through sensible signs—to the God who descends in the flesh.

Commenting on pagan idolatry in his Summa Theologiae, Saint Thomas explains that “adoration [of an image] is forbidden in the same way as adoration of the thing whose image it is [is forbidden].”[2] The reason he gives for this is that “the movement towards the image is the same as the movement towards the thing.”[3] In other words, Saint Thomas is giving the reason for the prohibition of images that we find in the Old Testament: namely, that we are not to “adore those images which the Gentiles made for the purpose of venerating their own gods, i.e. the demons.”[4] Discernable within this criticism is also—as we will see later—the beginnings of the positive reason for why iconodulia is a Christian practice.

An analogue to the question surrounding icons is the question surrounding death and resurrection. In his work Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, Joseph Ratzinger gives an explanation of how the Hebrew eschewing of pagan ancestor worship ties both to the understanding of Sheol and to the uniqueness of Yahweh: “The ancestor cult presented an attraction which Israel was obliged to resist if her concept of God was not to be destroyed,”[5] and “the refusal to admit the legitimacy of a cult of the ancestors […] was the real reason for the naturalizing of death.”[6] In other words, just like the prohibition of images, the naturalizing of death serves as an establishment of the priority and uniqueness of God. Ratzinger puts it best: “A certain demythologizing of death was needful before Israel could bring out the special way in which Yahweh was himself Life for the dead.”[7] Ratzinger summarizes the thrust behind the development: “These claims required the elimination of the cult of the dead and the ideas of immortality which that cult enshrined. Yet at the same time, and inevitably so, the same concept of God made it impossible for such ‘this-worldliness’ to have the last word.”[8] These observations show how Sheol is not the last word, and that “the acceptance of faith in a resurrection was no mere alien intrusion in Israel.”[9]

Following the unfolding logic of this analogy, but this time beginning at the other end of the spectrum, Ratzinger observes in The Spirit of the Liturgy that,

In the Judaism at the time of Jesus and well into the third century, a much more generous interpretation of the image-question developed. […] As a result of archaeological discoveries, we now know that the ancient synagogues were richly decorated with representations of scenes from the Bible. They were by no means regarded as mere images of past events, as a kind of pictorial history lesson, but as a narrative (haggadah), which, while calling something to mind, makes it present. The feasts are a participation in God's action in time, and the images themselves, as remembrance in visible form, are involved in the liturgical re-presentation. The Christian images, as we find them in the catacombs, simply take up and develop the canon of images already established by the synagogue, while giving it a new modality of presence.[10]

Just as we see a move from Sheol to Life to resurrection, just so we begin to see a move from shadow to image to substance. But this needs further unfolding.

In Colossians 2:17 Paul differentiates between shadow and substance, attributing the former to the Old Law and the latter to Christ. Yet in 1 Corinthians Paul says that “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor. 15:20), and in Romans he writes “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22-23). In other words, the resurrection of the dead and the fulfillment of redemption has been inaugurated in Jesus Christ, even though we still await its fulfillment after the unfolding of history. Thus, we participate in Christ’s Resurrection sacramentally, awaiting the full flowering of its effect at the eschaton. Sacramental logic is the logic of participating in the substance of the eschaton here and now. Ratzinger summarizes this point as follows: “All sacred images are, without exception, in a certain sense images of the Resurrection, history read in the light of the Resurrection, and for that very reason they are images of hope, giving us the assurance of the world to come, of the final coming of Christ.”[11]

Before turning to Saint Thomas’s explanation, it ought to be noted that the contemporary Protestant-Catholic disputes over the question of iconodulia takes place within a philosophical and cultural context which is radically different from the context of Saint Thomas. The question naturally arises, then, as to what this context was? The answer is: a Neoplatonic framework of participation. Saint Thomas’s theology can be characterizes as an exitus-reditus schema structured with the Aristotelian categories of act and potency. As Norris Clarke puts it: “[Thomas] took over the general structure of Neoplatonic participation as a technical conceptual tool and poured into it his own original metaphysical vision of existence itself as the ultimate core of all perfection, shared with all creatures by multiple modes of participation through diverse limiting essences.”[12] In other words, “this synthesis of all the metaphysical compositions into the one overarching relationship structure of act-potency […] is one of the characteristic distinguishing notes of the Thomistic metaphysical system.”[13]

The contemporary context, on the other hand, is one characterized by competition and not participation. Ratzinger attributes this shift to a non-Thomistic appropriation of Aristotle:

The turn from Platonism to Aristotelianism during the thirteenth century played a part. Platonism sees sensible things as shadows of the eternal archetypes. In the sensible we can and should know the archetypes and rise up through the former to the latter. Aristotelianism rejects the doctrine of Ideas. The thing, composed of matter and form, exists in its own right. Through abstraction I discern the species to which it belongs. In place of seeing, by which the super-sensible becomes visible in the sensible, comes abstraction. The relationship of the spiritual and the material has changed and with it man’s attitude to reality as it appears to him. For Plato, the category of the beautiful had been definitive. The beautiful and the good, ultimately the beautiful and God, coincide. Through the appearance of the beautiful we are wounded in our innermost being, and that wound grips us and takes us beyond ourselves; it stirs longing into flight and moves us toward the truly Beautiful, to the Good in itself.[14]

In light of this background, one is better placed to understand Thomas’s teaching on iconodulia. He begins with a Christological principle which he takes from the Second Council of Constantinople: “If anyone say that Christ is adored in two natures, so as to introduce two distinct adorations, and does not adore God the Word made flesh with the one and the same adoration as His flesh, as the Church has handed down from the beginning; let such a one be anathema.”[15] In this declaration of Constantinople II we discern how the hypostatic union (of the two nature in one person) secures a participation framework where Christ’s humanity and divinity are not in competition but rather, in a union which makes possible humanity’s ascent to God through communion with Christ. This is possible precisely because of God’s descent to man in his incarnation. In turn this implies the priority and uniqueness of a God that is truly the one universal God unlike a pagan god who vies for our worship on the same plane as other deities.

Thomas goes on to list various principles which undergird the Catholic practice of iconodulia. Firstly, “we may consider two things in a person to whom honor is given: the person himself, and the cause of his being honored.”[16] Secondly, “adoration is due to the subsisting hypostasis: yet the reason for honoring may be something non-subsistent, on account of which the person, in whom it is, is honored.”[17] Thirdly, “the adoration of ‘latria’ is not given to Christ's humanity in respect of itself; but in respect of the Godhead to which it is united, by reason of which Christ is not less than the Father.”[18] Finally, we must distinguish between two movements of the mind: “one indeed towards the image itself as a certain thing; another, towards the image in so far as it is the image of something else.”[19] In summary, (1) adoration is due to the person, (2) it can be prompted by causes other than the person, (3) it ought not be given to things for their own sake, and (4) the lower mediates the higher by participating in it.

In his respondeo in article 3, Thomas summarizes his explication of the Catholic teaching in a Syllogism:

No reverence is shown to Christ's image, as a thing—for instance, carved or painted wood: because reverence is not due save to a rational creature. It follows therefore that reverence should be shown to it, in so far only as it is an image. Consequently the same reverence should be shown to Christ’s image as to Christ Himself. Since, therefore, Christ is adored with the adoration of ‘latria,’ it follows that His image should be adored with the adoration of ‘latria.’”[20]

Thomas’s words here illustrate how he holds two things together—veneration of images and of Christ—as if they were not two things (competition) but one (participation)—veneration of Christ through images.

In fact, in the prima secundae pars of the Summa, Saint Thomas gives a broader context to this framework—one which brings us back to the above observations on (1) shadow, (2) image, and (3) substance. He writes that “under the Old Law, […] the Divine Truth [was not] manifest in Itself […]. Hence the external worship of the Old Law needed to be figurative […] of Christ.”[21] This corresponds to the shadow. He then adds that “under the New Law this […] is already revealed: and therefore it need no longer to be foreshadowed as something future, but to be brought to our minds as something past or present: and the truth of the glory to come, which is not yet revealed, alone needs to be foreshadowed.”[22] This corresponds to the image, which is why he adds that “a shadow is less than an image; so that the image belongs to the New Law, but the shadow to the Old.”[23] Ratzinger echoes this: “The Church Fathers described the various stages of fulfillment, not just as a contrast between Old and New Testaments, but as the three steps of shadow, image, and reality. […] Thus the time of the New Testament is a particular kind of ‘in-between,’ a mixture of ‘already and not yet.’”[24]

It is precisely on the basis of this inaugurated eschatology that we are able to ascend to God through images after he has descended to us through the incarnation, which in turn is possible precisely on the basis of God’s non-competitive universality, which, finally, stems from the priority and uniqueness of God that the prohibitions against images and the naturalization of death made evident.

In conclusion, the eschewing of images in the Old Testament established in the mind and culture of the Hebrews the priority and uniqueness of God, revealing him as the God of the universe and not just another pagan god competing for worship. This universality is the basis for the possibility of the hypostatic union, which, finally, structures Christian worship in terms of sacramental participation: i.e., sensible images mediate the image of God itself, which is the consubstantial Son, to man, and man’s worship to God. Thus, man ascends through sensible signs to the God who descends in the flesh.


[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (San Francisco: American Bible Society, 1865).

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 25, a. 3, in Summa Theologiae, Tertia Pars, 1-59, Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, Volume 19 (Green Bay WI: The Aquinas Institute, Inc., 2012), 271.

[3] ST, III, q. 25, a. 3.

[4] ST, III, q. 25, a. 3.

[5] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 84.

[6] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, 84.

[7] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, 84.

[8] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, 84-85.

[9] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, 82.

[10] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 116-117.

[11] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 118.

[12] Norris Clarke, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 156-157.

[13] Norris Clarke, The One and the Many, 155.

[14] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 126.

[15] ST, III, q. 25, a. 1, respondeo.

[16] ST, III, q. 25, a. 1, respondeo.

[17] ST, III, q. 25, a. 2, respondeo.

[18] ST, III, q. 25, a. 2, reply to objection 1.

[19] ST, III, q. 25, a. 3, respondeo.

[20] ST, III, q. 25, a. 3, respondeo.

[21] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-IIae, q. 101, a. 2, in Summa Theologiae, Prima Secundae Pars, 71-114, Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, Volume 16 (Green Bay WI: The Aquinas Institute, Inc., 2012), 312.

[22] ST, I-IIae, q. 101, a. 2, respondeo.

[23] ST, I-IIae, q. 101, a. 2, respondeo.

[24] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 126.

Dom Dalmasso is a 2023 graduate from Holy Apostles College and Seminary with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and philosophy. He was a Benedictine monk from early 2011 to late 2012 at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and was an active-duty United States Marine from August 2014 to August 2018. He runs the YouTube Show / Podcast The Logos Project, and is the editor-in-chief of The Ecclesia Blog. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Dogmatic Theology at Holy Apostles.

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