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Presented at Breached Horizons: The Work of Jean-Luc Marion

Conference at the Center for Advanced Research in European Philosophy


and the Centre for Advanced Catholic Thought
Kings University College
London, Canada
March 27-29, 2015
Carole L. Baker
Duke University

Lovers and Fiends:


John Damascene and Jean-Luc Marion on Icons and the Hermeneutics of Love
We love because he first loved us. 1 John 4:19
____
Obviously, love is made more than it is analyzed.1

The aim of this paper is modest: it is to test whether or not Jean-Luc Marion
might rightly be called an iconodule within the tradition of those orthodox theologians,
represented here by John of Damascus, who have defended the holy images as being not
only permissible but integral to orthodox Christianity. While much scholarship concerned
with retracing orthodox iconodulia focuses on the different understandings, between the
iconoclasts and iconodules, of how images work, this paper will instead focus on the
issues of hermeneutics and circumscription as conceptual poles for characterizing the
orthodox distinction of the idol from the icon.
Preliminary Remarks
This may seem superfluous in light of Marions essay The Prototype and the
Image where he clearly defends the logic of Nicea IIs pronouncements concerning the
holy images. Allow me then to briefly explain what I hope to gain from framing this as a
test of Marions iconodulia. This paper stems from a larger project wherein I attempt to
develop a more extensive account of iconodulia in order to show how it is essential to

Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being, 2nd Ed., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), p. 3.

orthodox Christianity as witnessed to in both the Catholic West and Orthodox East.
Whereas icon theology is most often associated with the East as it is there that
historically we find a more fully developed theology of the icon along with an
iconographic canon, it is my hope to display how iconodulia is equally operative within
the Catholic West although there it is manifested in the cult of relics and practices such as
Eucharistic adoration. The main thrust of this larger study, as well as this brief paper, is
to show in what ways iconodulia expresses a grammar that encompasses mediations that
are not limited to the icon itself.
This paper proceeds in two movements. The first offers a reading of John
Damascenes third treatise in defense of the holy images, focusing on the role of
hermeneutics and circumscription for characterizing orthodox iconodulia. The second
briefly describes Marions use of two terms, the idol and the icon, that are central to his
phenomenology of givenness and show how his development of those terms are
consistent with orthodox iconodulia.
First Movement
What is iconodulia? And how does it contrast with the logic of the iconoclast?
The two questions necessarily go together and the difficulty in answering them has
largely to do with the comparative lack of material from which to construct a robust
historical account of the several iconoclast positions in Byzantium, leading up to and
becoming dominant in the eighth century. The Orthodox historian and theologian,
Georges Florovsky, explains:
Iconoclasm was, no doubt, a complex phenomenon. Various groups were
associated with the movement, and their purposes and concerns, their motives and
aims, were by no means identical. Probably, there was no real agreement inside
the Iconoclastic party itself, if there was a party at all or, at least, one particular
2

party.2

That there were several rather than one singular iconoclast position suggests
positing a general notion of iconoclasm may be dubious if it does not entail specific
descriptions: By whom? Of what? For what reason(s)? For this reason it is important that
I state clearly the context for my first move which is to try and delineate characteristics of
and criteria for orthodox Christian iconodulia as articulated by John of Damascus who
was writing in response to the waves of iconoclasm disrupting the Church at that time (8th
c.).
A question may be raised: if it is dubious to portray a general notion of
iconoclasm, isnt it equally dubious to present a singular notion of iconodulia if the
iconodules were also writing in different times and no doubt responding to different
particulars? My answer would be a firm no. For to generalize a notion of iconoclasm,
even while focusing on this specific historical moment, is to lend it conceptual credence.
But it is not a concept; it is a phenomenon. Moreover, it is a phenomenon generated by
mis-conceptions. In other words, the proper comparison is not between iconodulia and
iconoclasm, nor even the iconodule and iconoclast. Rather the comparison is between
iconodulia and idolatry, the latter being the necessary condition for the phenomenon of
iconoclasm. Although John Damascenes defense is premised on this point, Marion will
be helpful for clarifying why this ismust bethe case.
Historian Peter Brown has already suggested that the early ecclesial debates were

See George Florovsky, Origen, Eusebius, and the Iconoclastic Controversy, Church History, Vol. 19,
No. 2 (June, 1950) pp. 77-96. Although Florovsky readily concedes important work has been done to trace
some aspects of Iconoclast motives he contends, The theological position of the Iconoclasts, on the
contrary, is still rather obscure[W]e do not know, exactly, what was the starting point of the Iconoclast
argument nor the real perspective of that argument. p. 80.

never solely about images per se. Rather it was the domain of the holy over which
these parties were fighting. Therefore, Brown offers a definition of the controversy:
...the Iconoclast controversy was a debate on the position of the holy in Byzantine
society.3 This struggle over the holy, and, therefore, the struggle over the holy images, is
further evidenced in the writings of the eighth centurys leading iconodule, John of
Damascus. For John it was clear that these debates were about the preservation of the
holy communion, that is, the unity of the mystical Body of Christ, manifest in the people
of God and the tradition of the Church that has held sway from the beginning4

Because Johns three treatises have a cumulative effect, that is, much of
the same content runs from the first to the third, I will treat primarily the third as it
is here we find a culmination of Johns thought expressed through a more
systematic rebuttal and refined articulation of the issues at hand.5 Attending to the
rhetoric of Johns third treatise we can better assess subtle yet crucial distinctions

Peter Brown, A Dark-Age Crisis: Aspects of the Iconoclastic Controversy, The English Historical
Review, Vol. 88, No. 346 (Jan., 1973), pp. 1-34. Quote found on page 5. Indeed, Brown argues, the
iconoclasts claimed that there could be three -- but only three -- objects worthy of the designation holy
and, consequently, worthy of the veneration permitted by that attribution: 1) the Eucharist; 2) the church
building; 3) the sign of the Cross.3
4
John of Damascus, Treatise I: Defense against those who attack the holy images, p. 19.
5
John of Damascus wrote his three treatises in defense of the holy images likely within the timespan from
726-740. The extent to which he knew of the specific iconoclast policies and actions is difficult to
determine with confidence as he wrote from a distance, in the monastery of Mar Saba just outside of
Jerusalem. And yet he clearly knew enough to be able to address the primary theological arguments of the
iconoclasts, such that his views were not overlooked as irrelevant or inadequate but rather substantive and
useful enough to be taken up both by his adversaries and by subsequent iconodule theologians. Indeed the
estimated date of his death (d.750) comes partly from the iconoclast synod of Chalcedon in 754 where we
can find him listed among the anathematized, but as someone who is already dead. See Andrew Louth, St.
John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology (Oxford Early Christian Studies), Each
version went into circulation in the Palestinian monasteries as soon as it was written, with the result that we
now have the treatise in its original form, with the two subsequent revisions. Most of the manuscripts, in
fact, contain Against the Iconoclasts i. 127 and iii. 1642that is, the whole of the first treatise and the
systematic section of the third treatise, omitting in both cases the florilegia (which are preserved in only
three manuscripts).

John maintains in order to make the strongest case possible for upholding the
sacred tradition of the holy images. Those distinctions have both political and
theological implications as they force his readers to identify with one of three
addressees: 1) the devil; 2) the iconoclast; or 3) the beloved.
In the third treatise the principal enemy to be renounced is not the Jews, nor the
Emperor, but the one who is behind the actions of all of those who would threaten the
peace of the Church, that is, the devil. The opening paragraph is a lengthy description of
the devils envy of humanity and the means by which he has continually led humanity
astray so as to deprive the gifted of the gift of salvation by introducing pride and,
consequently, death. The devil, John points out, has a history of leading Gods people
into polytheism and idolatry. That history now continues in the devils instigating
confusion and deceit among the faithful. The tone here is cautionary and continues into
the second paragraph where John states the obvious reason the enemy does not want the
holy images to flourish:
For certain have risen up, saying that it is not necessary to make images
of saving miracles and sufferings of Christ and the brave deeds of the
saints against the devil, and set them up to be gazed at, so that we might
glorify God and be filled with wonder and zeal. Does anyone who has
divine knowledge and spiritual understanding not recognize that this is a
ruse of the devil? For he does not wish his defeat and shame to be spread
abroad, nor the glory of the saints to be recorded.6
He goes on in the following paragraph to address the devil directly, We are not
persuaded by you, envious demon, hater of human kind.7 With the enemy put into clear
view, John moves on to address specific arguments made by the ones who have been led
astray, that is, the iconoclasts.

6
7

p. 82. Emphasis mine.


p. 82.

Now directing his comments to the faithful/beloved, the first issue


addressed is the matter of scriptural interpretation. John admonishes the faithful to
[s]earch the scriptures8 but to do so remembering, It is impossible, beloved
ones, for God to lie.9 Here John is taking up the claim that those venerating icons
do so in contradiction to the Old Testament prohibition found in Deuteronomy 5,
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make thee any graven
image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth
beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth.10 Johns reminder that God
does not lie is an attempt to undermine the hermeneutic of the opponent. For it is
an alien hermeneutic that has led the iconoclasts to introduce a contradiction into
Scripture which is notcannotbe there for it is fundamental to the doctrine of
God that He is above any corruption. As we shall see, the nature of that
contradiction is expounded more fully in Johns treatment of circumscription. But
here John forcefully shows how the iconoclasts impoverished reading of
Scripture has introduced a contradiction that logically implicates claims to Gods
changelessness, thereby clearly indicating theirs is a hermeneutic that operates
according to a false/heretical doctrine of God. John bolsters his case by reminding
his readers that it was the Apostle Paul who declared, the Lord speaks in many
and various ways but, importantly, it is the same changeless One who speaks.
John goes on to re-interpret the prohibition in order to show that it is the already
present practice of idolatry that precipitates the Good Physicians
prohibition/remedy, So the best physician of souls prohibits from making images

John 5:39
John Damascene, Treatise III.4, p. 83.
10
Deuteronomy 5:7-8

those who are still infants and ill with a diseased inclination to idolatry11
Sustaining a pastoral tone John states what he takes to be the heart of the
interpretive matter, For it is necessary to know, beloved, that in every action truth and
falsehood are to be sought out and the purpose of the one who acts, whether it is good or
evil. This imperative to seek the purpose of actions, by God and by otherseven
demonsis crucial not only for interpreting texts but also images: So also in the matter
of images, it is necessary to search out the truth and the purpose of those who make
them12 The upshot here is twofold. First, John points out that the kind of discernment
required for reading the scriptures is also required for discerning images precisely
because heresy parasitically utilizes the same names and subjects to which the faithful
appeal.13 The faithful cannot be too careful and must at all times apply a discerning
reason to any practice or claim that purports to be true to the Lords self-revelation
through holy Scripture and his Church, i.e., Tradition. If one fails to interpret Scripture
faithfully, that is, carefully and in concert with the Churchs teachings, she is just as
likely to fail in other instances that require similar discernment. Second, it follows from
this first observation that both the (1) content and (2) use of texts and images determines
how the faithful should engage them. In other words, the iconoclasts insistence on a
general prohibition against the making and venerating of images preemptively precludes
the most essential questions: What/who is it an image of? and In what way is it being
used? Refusing such questions is determinative for which of the three addressees they
will be identified. The devil has introduced a confusion that obscures the relevance of the

11

Treatise III.4, p. 84.


p.91.
13
...the shameful and filthy and unclean writing of the accursed Manichees we spit out and reject as
containing the same names, but devised for the glory of the devil and his demons and their delight. p. 90.
12

questions and in their place asserts a suspicion of any image that purports to function
within the holy economy. Consequently, the iconoclast, having been misled, dismisses
the questions as irrelevant while the iconodule insists on their primacy. Thus John
develops an argument that leaves no one untouched.
There is a subjective and objective modality that together must be
employed by the faithful who are tasked with an ongoing discernment. Moreover,
as John makes clear, the subjective is not abolished but rather is freed for proper
discernment only when it attends first to the objective, that is, the objective reality
of the Church and sacred Tradition. Both the iconoclast and iconodule appeal to
this objective reality. And so rather than basing his entire argument on
hermeneutical differences, John must show how the iconoclasts logic undermines
and eventually contradicts their appeal to this objective reality. This marks the
beginning of Johns doctrinal defense, based on Trinitarian logic; he now moves
away from the issue of hermeneutics and toward that of circumscription, which
means shifting to the Christological claims central to the controversy.
For the nature of the flesh did not become divinity, but as the Word
became flesh immutably, remaining what it was, so also the flesh became the
Word without losing what it was, being rather made equal to the Word
hypostatically. Therefore I am emboldened to depict the invisible God, not as
invisible, but as he became visible for our sake, by participating in flesh and
blood. I do not depict the invisible divinity, but I depict God made visible in the
flesh.14

This passage posits a stark contrast with what has already been shown to be the
scriptural criterion for idols, that is, the idol is the image of the false god, i.e., a
god who is not YHWH. Johns appeal to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ thus

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p. 86.

juxtaposes the image of Christ with those images of false gods: Christ is the
divine Image and therefore Christ is the criterion and measure of truth for any
other image that would claim to be holy. From the excerpt above we can see how
the issue of divine circumscription necessarily entails issues of worship and
veneration. Both are determined by a grammar fundamentally changed by the
singular event of the Incarnation.
Iconoclasts have been backed into a logical corner. Either they must say
Christ is not God because he was visible in the flesh, or they must admit that God
circumscribed Godself in the Incarnation, thereby ordaining further
circumscription of the Son. If the former, they condemn themselves as heretics. If
the latter, once again, they concede their insistence that the Old Testament
prohibition as a general prohibition against (all) images is inconsistent with the
One who made the prohibition. Herein lies the irony of the iconoclast position:
their failure to allow for the multivalence of Scripture appears, on the surface, to
be a safeguarding of Scripture against those who would accuse it of logical
inconsistencies while in fact their flat reading introduces a worse contradiction
into the very life of God.15 The same travesty occurs in their attempt to police the
visual domain of faith: in attempting to spare God of idolatrous circumscription
they deny God the possibility of Incarnation.16

15

Brothers, those who do not know the Scriptures truly err, for as they do not know that the letter kills,
but the Spirit gives life, they do not interpret the spirit hidden beneath the letter. John Damascene
referencing 2 Corinthians 3:6; p. 87.
16
But to depict the Son is not to depict the divine essence which, John maintains in agreement
with the iconoclast, is uncircumscribable; to depict the Son is merely to view the One who has
accepted to be seen. What therefore is this that is revealed and yet remains hidden? For it is now
clear that you cannot depict the invisible God. When you see the bodiless become human for your
sake, then you may accomplish the figure of a human form; when the invisible becomes visible in
the flesh, then you may depict the likeness of something seen; when the one who, by transcending

The flaw of the iconoclasts logic is that rather than recognizing the
Incarnation as the sole organizing principle for the visual grammar of faith, they
subject the Incarnation to a visual grammar predetermined by idols. For the
identifying mark of the idol is that it (falsely) purports to make the divine visible;
whereas the mark of the true God, according to the iconoclast, is that he cannot be
seen. The iconoclast has inverted the visual economy in refusing to permit
circumscription of the holy. Indeed, the iconoclast has denied the entire
economy.17 At this point the treatise has come full circle. John began by showing
clearly who the enemy is to be defeated. The devil, and not the iconoclast, is the
primary target of Johns argument. And yet he must show not only who is
misleading the faithful but how and, finally, to where they are being led. The
answer: the devil has misled the iconoclast through illogical reasoning produced
by a hermeneutic of fear, and he has led the iconoclast away from the holy
communion and into communion with demons.18
Second Movement
We are now ready to briefly consider whether Jean-Luc Marions

his own nature is incommensurable, without magnitude or size, that is, one who is in the form of
God, taking the form of a slave, by this reduction to quantity and magnitude puts on the
characteristics of a body, then depict him on a board and set up to view the One who has accepted
to be seen, p. 89.
17
Let everyone know, therefore, that anyone who attempts to destroy an image brought into being out of
divine longing and zeal for the glory and memorial of Christ, or of his Mother the holy Theotokos, or of
one of his saints, or yet for the disgrace of the devil and the defeat of him and his demons, and will not, out
of longing for the one depicted, venerate and honor or greet it as a precious image and not as a god, is an
enemy of Christ and the holy Mother of God and the saints and a vindicator of the devil and his demons,
and show by his deed his sorrow that God and his saints are honored and glorified, and the devil put to
shame. For the image is a triumph and manifestation and inscribed tablet in memory of the victory of the
bravest and most eminent and of the shame of the worsted and overthrown, p. 92.
18
Just a few paragraphs later John will share a story taken from the Spiritual Meadow of St. Sophronius
wherein a demon of fornication tempts a monk, ensuring him that he will be left alone if he would only
cease honoring the icon of the Theotokos carrying the Lord. John concludes, Behold, those who prevent
the veneration of icons imitate this [demon] and are his tools p. 94.

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phenomenology of givenness represents a continuation of the iconodules logic,


or whether his use of idol and icon is little more than a heuristic employed for
other ends, that is, ends irrelevant to the theological claims indicated by the terms
historical use. Is not something fundamental lost in the particularity of the charge
of religious idolatry when it is extended to conceptual idolatry? I contend
Marions insistence on the pervasiveness of the idol is consistent with his
distinction between Revelation and revelation and that both of these aspects of his
phenomenology of givenness are consistent with orthodox iconodulia insofar they
presume an epistemology already inherent to sacred Tradition. Marions account
of the icon and idol is a natural extension, and therefore exemplification, of the
theological grammar pronounced as the triumph of orthodoxy in 843.
In his book God Without Being, Marion begins his advance to Being by treating
the common antagonism between the idol and the icon. From the start Marion states
that the difference between the two is not ontological, the icon and the idol are not at all
determined as beings against other beings, since the same beings (statues, names, etc.)
can pass from one rank to the other.19 Instead the difference lies in their
phenomenology, their modes of appearance.
[O]ne must at least note that the divine comes into play here only with the
support of visibility. But in having to do with the divine, visibility is expressed in several
manners. Or rather, variations in the mode of visibility indicate variations in the mode of
apprehension of the divine self. The same mode of visibility would not suit just any
figure of the divine, but maintains with the divine a rigorous and undoubtedly constitutive
relation: the manner of seeing decides what can be seenIn outlining the comparative
phenomenology of the idol and the icon, it is therefore a question of specifying not any
particular matter of aesthetics or art history, but two modes of apprehension of the divine
in visibility. Of apprehension, or also, no doubt, of reception.20

19
20

Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being, 2nd Ed., (The University of Chicago Press, 2012) p. 8.
God Without Being, p. 9.

11

But what does love have to do with imagesor images with love? Love is not a
term John of Damascus relies on to make his argument. And yet, I would argue, Johns
entire defense is written as with a jealous love of the icon.21 Marion introduces
Love/love in order to contrast the idol, or the God of metaphysics, to the icon, the tupos
of the Archetype, Jesus Christ. The idolatry that produces the idol, for Marion, does so by
imposing what he calls a conceptual idol upon the God of Revelation. This practice,
sometimes referred to as double idolatry, occurs when the human reduces/domesticates
God by submitting God/Revelation/Love to preconceptions, thus circumscribing God
according to pre-conceptions rather than allowing God to circumscribe Godself. This
idolatry may be well-intentioned, but it will never lead one to recognize the God who will
always exceed human concepts. The God of Revelation can only be encountered when
received, not constructed or predicted.22 His appearance will always be an event
experienced as Revelation because in order to be experienced by humans the Holy One
must transgress the invisible/visible boundary, i.e., the distance. Indeed, the holy is
precisely that encounter whereby the invisible Divinity becomes visible on its own terms.
Thus the holy is always experienced as paradox. For Marion that paradox is the paradox
par excellence which necessarily remains paradigmatic for all other phenomena. The
grammar of givenness is the necessary extension of thought. If Revelation is to remain a
possibility it must happen within a horizon that allows all phenomena to appear from/of
themselves.

21

I am borrowing the phrase jealous love of the icon which was used by his English translators to
describe Fr. Pavel Florenskys Iconostasis. It is an apt description that fittingly applies to John Damascene,
and perhaps Marion as well.
22
This is what Marion means when describing the necessary unpredictable landing of phenomena. the
ultimate instance of individuation for this phenomenonresides in the singular, irreplaceable, and
unrepeatable moment that temporalizes its arising. Fixing this moment falls to the unpredictable landing.
Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness (Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 139.

12

Moreover, this is why Marion contends the idol and the icon are both saturated
phenomena and that their distinction lies not in their ontology but in their
phenomenologytheir givenness. But what is given, i.e., the gift, is not always received.
It is fundamental to the economy of the gift that the gifted is always preceded by the gift.
And yet the gift awaits a gifted/a recipient in order to be fully manifest. For Marion,
therefore, hermeneutics is circumscription; it describes a way of being in the world
how one receives the world and ones self. Now quoting from his lecture Givenness and
Hermeneutics:
The meaning given by hermeneutics does not come so much from the decision of
the hermeneutic actor, as from that which the phenomenon itself is (so to speak) waiting
for and of which the hermeneutic actor remains a mere discoverer and therefore the
servantHermeneutics interprets not only the given in a phenomenon, but, to do so, it
must leave the hermeneutic actor [to] be interpreted by the given which has to be
phenomenalized.23

The idol circumscribes the idolator by fulfilling the aim of her idolatrous gaze; the
icon circumscribes the gifted/beloved by never fulfilling it because the one gazing has
given herself over to the infinite. That is, the icon solicits an endless hermeneutic
precisely because it facilitates the beloveds encounter of the Other/Lover/other.24
Therefore, iconodulia is by definition opposed to idolatry. Love is that possibility
produced by the encounter of an Other/other which is precisely what is ruled out by the
idol. For just as in human relations, to look lovingly upon an other one must submit to the
endless hermeneutic; to never know them fully. In fact, if we refuse this, or suppose we
have done this (i.e., known them fully), we can be sure that we have not loved themthat
they have become the object/victim of my idolatrous gaze.

23

Givenness and Hermeneutics, The Pere Marquette Lecture in Theology by Jean-Luc Marion translated by
Jean-Pierre Lafouge, (Marquette University Press, 2013), p.41.
24
Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13:8. Love never fails to give, hence the endless hermeneutic.

13

Just as love becomes the crux of Marions account of givenness, so love is at the
heart of John Damascenes defense of the holy images in the eighth century. His entire
argument is bent on showing the iconoclasts and the faithful that the unity of the holy
communion is at stake in defending the veneration of holy images. For what is proper
veneration other than properly ordered love? Only the devil could lead one to construe a
loving act (perhaps the loving act), that is, the worship of God and veneration of his
saints, as an abomination.
Both John Damascene and Marion advocate a discernment directed by a
hermeneutic of lovea love that is first received and hence opens the eyes of the faithful
so that they may see themselves and the other as beloved. And both see the holy image as
crucial for the training necessary to avoiding idolatry. For it is the holy image that
occasions an encounter with the divine and trains us to love and be loved by the One
whom we behold but have yet to see fully. The icon will determine whether we approach
that One as lover or fiend.

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