Glory to God for All Things

Saving the World Through Beauty

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This essay of mine was originally posted on Pontifications. It is reprinted here with some slight changes.  

 Thus the most persuasive philosophic proof of God’s existence is the one the textbooks never mention, conclusion to which can perhaps best express the whole meaning: There exists the icon of the Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev; therefore, God exists.
- from Pavel Florensky’s
Iconostasis

This short quote from St. Pavel Florensky’s Iconostasis is among the most startling in his extant works. It is not unlike the oft-attributed Dostoevsky quote, “God will save the world through beauty.” Both thoughts bear witness to a beauty that both transcends our world and at the same time establishes and saves our world. Rightly understood, they are also related to Holy Scripture.

Some years ago, within my thesis at Duke University, I wrote about the iconicity of language, meaning that language, especially Holy Scripture, functions in a manner similar to the Holy Icons. The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council stated that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” I turned that succinct statement around to ask if Scripture does with words what icons do with color. It became the starting point for my thoughts on the iconicity of language.

We know, dogmatically, much about how an icon “works,” how it makes present what it represents. I sought to apply that understanding to the reading of Holy Scripture. As time has gone by (better than 15 years now) I have come to see that Scripture may indeed best be understood in an iconic fashion. An icon of Christ is not Christ Himself, but a representation of which He is the prototype. But, St. Theodore the Studite noted, it is a representation of the hypostasis, the person of Christ, rather than a representation of His nature. This is a significant dogmatic statement, because it provides a way for speaking of Christ’s presence in a manner that is not a sacrament, in the sense of the Eucharist. The Holy Fathers taught that the Eucharist is not an icon, but the very Body and Blood of Christ. Thus there is not a normal analogy between an icon and the Eucharist.

Neither is Holy Scripture to be likened to the Eucharist, for it is like the icons. An icon is holy because of the presence of the “person,” not because the wood and paint have undergone any change. Christ is “hypostatically present,” but not “naturally present.” He does not become incarnate as wood and paint.

This notion of “hypostatic representation” opened for me a whole new way of understanding the Scriptures and of speaking of their role in revelation. Icons have many strange features (at least those painted in accordance with the canons). The characters are drawn in a manner that differs from photographic reality. Time is somewhat relative – several events separated by time may be pictured together in the same icon if there is a connection between them and they enlighten one another. Other examples could be given. So, too, the Gospels have a way of presenting the saving actions and teachings of Christ in a manner that is iconic. The Gospels frequently ignore time sequence placing events in differing relationships to the whole, in order to reveal yet more of the Truth of Christ.

St. John’s gospel is perhaps the most striking in this respect. Following the Prologue there is a sequence of water stories, followed by a sequence of bread stories. Little wonder that the Church traditionally used St. John for its post-baptismal catechesis. His pericopes are far more like pictures than narratives. And so it is in John’s gospel that we read the finest commentary and teaching on the Eucharist not around the event of the Last Supper (which John does not actually mention) but around the event of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Read in a purely historic manner, Christ’s teaching on the loaves and fishes, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood…”, would not only be scandalous to some, but would literally make no sense. Equally senseless (in the light of the sixth chapter) would be the claim of some historical critical scholars that John knows nothing of the Tradition of the Last Supper. How utterly silly!

Having said all this (and there is so much more that can be said) it is possible to see how the Scriptures resist rational forces that seek to wrest them into one thing or another. One rationalist seeks to harmonize all the Scriptures in a mechanical manner that yields a narrow conception of inerrancy. Another seizes on the iconic character of Scripture and assumes that these oddities represent historical flaws. Like an icon, the Scriptures present the Truth of God to us – and do so in a way that we can indeed begin to see the truth.

There is a propositional character to be found in Scripture – after all, an icon of a human being still looks like a human being, even if it is painted in a style that is other than photographic. But the propositions of Scripture function in a manner similar to the Holy Icons. We are not led to reason God, but to know God. The propositions of Scripture, particularly the most confusing ones, lead the reader to see what cannot be seen in this world until we have the eyes to see.

St. John’s gospel is easily my favorite, if only because I know it better and have spent more time in its pages. There is a transcendent beauty in its words – a beauty never lost regardless of the language into which it is translated. The beauty is more than the sum total of the words or even the beauty of lofty concepts. It is a beauty that is nothing other than the personal (hypostatic) representation of Christ. “These things are written so that in reading them you might believe.”

There exists the Gospel of St. John; therefore, God exists. God is indeed saving the world through beauty.

7 Responses to “Saving the World Through Beauty”

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  1. Benjamin says:

    Amen, Father – I think this is a wonderful teaching on Scripture. The Scriptures are a very wry thing. If one tries to squeeze them into two tight a context they slip right out and then we find ourselves having to start again. I’d be interested in your writing more about the images and themes and whatever else you find in John – that book is alive.

  2. Benjamin says:

    two=too, but I’m sure you figured it out!

  3. Jack says:

    Ben,

    Two=too? Is that the “fuzzy math” we’ve been hearing about? Sorry I haven’t contacted you, I’ve been a bit busy.

  4. Visibilium says:

    Nice post. Thanks.

  5. Benjamin says:

    Well, be busy, Jack – it’s okay. Idle hands do the devil’s work, you know.

  6. Dean Arnold says:

    Father Stephen, not only is this concept intriguing and fascinating, it also, it seems to me, a very important insight to spread. It would make a tremendous book. We should talk about it.

    I remember reading an essay by C.S. Lewis where he tackled the question “what genre are the Scriptures?” He concluded that they are their own very separate and unique genre–a written form with the sole purpose of presenting Christ to us. It made a great impact on me. He should have written a book to flesh out this insight.

  7. Dean,

    Now that’s an intriguing idea!

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