The Theology of the Icon as a Hermeneutic Tool in the Dialog between Science and Religion: Part Two

By Fr. Steven Bigham on October 25, 2013
  1. The Theology of the Icon as a Hermeneutic Tool in the Dialog between Science and Religion: Part One
  2. The Theology of the Icon as a Hermeneutic Tool in the Dialog between Science and Religion: Part Two


The creation of the world as depicted in iconographic tradition

The creation of the world as depicted in iconographic tradition

This is the second and final part of this essay. Part One

III.    Applying the notion of an icon to Biblical texts

There was in Antiquity a community, the sons of Israel, Israel for short, which produced a group of writings called the Bible. This community not only produced the texts on the basis of oral traditions—even though the individual authors and editors actually penned the documents—but also defined the collection by selecting the texts from among a wider corpus of writings. To this collection, Israel gave the name Bible. The community thus not only created the collection but also invented the idea of the Bible, and through this book, it expressed its understanding of its own history and identity: who it was, where it came from, why it existed, where it was going. The life of this community existed before the texts came into existence and before these texts were organized into the Bible. Thus, the life of the community takes precedence over the collection, the Bible; the living community is the source of the writings which nonetheless express the vision that this community had of itself. Up to this point, we are in the area which science can treat as a subject of study. In fact, the community and the book it produced could be any historical group, and the same research methods could be applied. Ancient Israel and its sacred book is not different.

But what is the theological content of this collection? What are the ideas that it expresses? In other words, what did Israel understand and believe about itself, as these are expressed in the Bible? This is not the place for a comprehensive study of the Old Testament vision of faith, but one element of that vision requires our attention: the God of Israel who is one of the major actors, if not the only initiator. This God shows himself in the real history of human beings in a very different way from the many kinds of mythologies where gods and heroes play on an atemporal stage, outside of and beyond history. The community of Israel and its sacred texts clearly state that the Eternal—one of his designations—intervenes in the history of real men and women and acts in and through real historical events to accomplish his will. So by proclaiming the existence of certain historical events in which such and such a person did this or that, being guided, inspired, pushed by the Lord, the Bible and the faith of Israel open themselves to the investigation of the critical sciences. These can of course say nothing on the subject of God himself or his way of acting in history; such questions are outside of the realm of scientific investigation, but the persons and events, which are claimed to be historical, can be investigated.

There are then three realms of research which bring science and religion together:

1. The one where there is little or no relation and therefore little or no potential for conflict: for example, archeological excavations at Massada, studies of the pottery of a particular ancient Palestinian town, or the comparative study of Semitic poetry from the 13th B.C.

2. The one where, again, there is little or no potential for conflict because the affirmation of certain truths contained in the Bible cannot be investigated by the empirical sciences: for example, “God spoke to Moses,” “God recalled the sons of Israel back to Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon,” and “Hear, O Israel, your God is one.”

3. The one in which the Bible claims that God acted in such and such historical circumstances to bring about certain results in line with his will: for example, “Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire and brimstone raining down on them” (Gn 19: 24), “…and a great flood covered the earth and all the mountains…and the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat” (Gn 6: 17), and “the walls of Jericho came tumbling down” (Jos 10: 13). In this third category, science and archeology can investigate, and already have investigated, the places of these events, in some cases “to prove that the Bible is true.” As we know, especially with the walls of Jericho and Noah’s ark coming to rest on Mount Ararat, the research has not always confirmed the Biblical story.

We therefore have in this third category the problem of the relation between the Biblical texts which describe an assumed historical event and the history such as the sciences can establish it. The potential conflicts between the text and “scientific history” can make some doubt the “truth” of the Scriptures. And it is here that we would like to apply the notion of the icon. If we consider the Biblical narrations to be icons—either as a static image of an event or an animated movie of a series of events—we have not only the narration of what happened one day in a particular place but also a theological interpretation of that event. Let us not forget that this is in fact the definition of one aspect of an icon: an artistic representation of a person or event interpreted visually in the light of a vision of faith. Why can we not say the same thing for Biblical narrations? In this case, people and events interpreted in the light of Israel’s faith: God chose the sons of Israel for a special vocation among all the nations of the earth, that of being a vehicle for a revelation about the origin, the ‘why’, and the ultimate destiny of the world and humanity. As we have already seen, one aspect of that vision of faith is found in the affirmation that God gave this revelation to his people in and through the real history of certain events and people. And this people, Israel, first told and passed on the message orally, then wrote it down, edited it, canonized it in the Bible, and finally interpreted within its own continuous life. But for decades now, if not centuries, the empirical sciences have been showing us that our conceptions of the world and history, as they are found in the Bible, do not exactly correspond to reality: for example, the earth is not the center of the cosmos. It was a shock for Christians and Jews to realize not only their own cosmological misunderstanding, but also that the same erroneous cosmological vision is the Bible’s vision. The Bible contains an error, or at least does not conform to reality. With time, however, we have learned that the truth contained in the Bible, the one God wants us to learn, is not strictly of the cosmological order, but is found rather in the vision of faith about the “historical event,” let us say, of the creation. We even have such representations of the creation in ancient Biblical illuminations, very old painted Bibles. We have seen that through the centuries the distance between the creation story and illustrations, and the ‘actual event’ of the creation, has grown, but we have also learned that we can live with that distance. The truth God wants to reveal to us is not in the details of the ‘how’ of creation, but rather in the vision of faith in light of which the story was composed. We say, “In the beginning…”; science says “the Big Bang.” The story of Adam and Eve is of the same order. As we—that is, the peoples of the Book: Jews and Christians, maybe Muslims too—at least a good many of us, have adjusted to the distance between the Biblical story of the creation and what the sciences can teach us about the “event,” so we, a good number anyway, have accommodated ourselves to the distance between the Biblical story of the creation of the first people, as well as the ancient Biblical illuminations, and what science can teach us about the history of humanity, usually told in terms of evolution. Everyone agrees that somewhere, sometime, there appeared for the first time creatures that we can say are like us, one or several men, as well as women. There was, therefore, a ‘historical event’ behind the Biblical narrative, but again the truth God wants us to learn is not in the details of the ‘how’ of the appearance of mankind, but rather in the vision of faith in the light of which the Biblical author composed the story. As for all the chapters from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden until Abraham, including Noah and the Flood, we have a series of stories, let us say even legends, the historical underpinnings of which we know very little about. But these stories are part of the animated icon of the protohistory or the prehistory, and their importance is found almost exclusively in the point of view, in light of the vision of faith, from which they are told. The distance between the narrations and the historical substrata (if there is any at all) is very great.

When we get to the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we have the distinct impression of entering into another category: that of the real and historical. The framework of the story—the stage on which the actors play—seems to reflect the historical period in which the play actually took place. It cannot be proved—by which methods, anyway?—that Abraham and the other patriarchs and fathers as well as the details of the stories, are real and historical, or the opposite either, and it is quite possible that there is some distance between the historical underpinnings and the Biblical text, whatever that distance may be, but nothing prevents us from accepting the stories as icons—historical underpinnings plus interpretation—that God has given us as elements of his revelation. After all, the hypotheses scholars have offered about the historicity of Biblical stories are legion and have changed with the times and schools. Let us not forget that until the 19th century, “the scholarly consensus” said that the Iliad and the Odyssey were nothing but fables, legends, beautiful fictional stories, myths with no historical foundations. Then along came a man named Heinrich Schliemann, and everything changed. Since we are people of our times, we want to be open to everything that science proposes as discoveries, including in the area of Biblical studies, but we are also Christians, and in my case an Orthodox Christian, who, while having one ear open to science, want to have the other ear open to the Word of God which all Christians confess is contained in the Bible. So in the Bible we have real history and the theological interpretation of that history according to the vision of faith of a community of believers, Israel. Both are contained in the Bible, and to better understand this book in its totality, we propose the notion of the icon, that gleaming gem in the treasury of Orthodox Christianity, as an instrument of interpretation. With this notion, the choice between “the Bible as absolutely historical and free from all error” and “the Bible as myth having little or no historical underpinnings” is seen to be a false opposition. There exists a third position: the Bible is neither literally historical, nor myth, but icon.

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  1. Emi Parker on November 8, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Fr. Bigham — what’s the source/history of the icon of creation you included at the beginning of this post? It’s beautiful.

    • Steven Bigham on November 21, 2013 at 9:56 am

      Hello Mi Parker,
      Finally, I can answer somewhat your question about the image at the beginning of my article. Andrew Gould found this information and passed it on to me. I pass it on to you.
      Have a nice day.

      • Andrew Gould on November 25, 2013 at 12:08 pm

        “Christ creating the sun, moon and stars on the fourth day. Fresco detail, Suchevitsa Monastery, Romania.”

  2. Christian Luca (chrisnamastephys11) on November 11, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    A beautiful post and series on the role of the icon in the ongoing dialogue between religion and science! Thank you Fr. Bigham! Truly enjoyed it, indeed!

  3. Millard J Melnyk on November 11, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    Interesting article, and I like much about the notion of icon as interpretation. Nietzsche said there are no facts, only interpretations. If so, then, all we have are icons and myths.

    The article also underscores an imbalance, as evidenced by its length and denseness (aka, much info, not dumb info, lol!) I think all too much is made of the Book in a misguided way.

    The Bible and most sacred writings are seen authoritative by those who believe them, but they aren’t demonstrably more than a records/interpretations. Their authority, if any, derives from the authority we attribute to them. But we attribute authority to them because we believe they in some sense command authority.

    Therein lies the circularity of thought that is the kernel of the insanities thought, spoken, and committed in the name of religious organizations as agents of divine authority on earth, from Crusades to Inquisitions to caste systems to thousands of years of infanticide, as well as the essence of the irrationality most seem to think is called “faith.”

    • Jonathan Pageau on November 13, 2013 at 9:59 am

      It is too bad your comment had to go from an interesting notion of how humans interact with their stories by being both the origin and the recipient of their narratives, to the usual invective towards religion as the cause of “irrationality”. In order to have more than the usual bland one sided attack, one needs to see how the authority of a “tradition” can at once cause the Crusades while simultaneously giving a Francis of Assisi, just as one must see that the narratives of “rationality” have caused both modern technology and Social Darwinism. Remember, “there are no facts, only interpretations”… all we have are myths.

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