Saturday, August 13, 2005

Dix Dixit

Thanks to the great generosity of Prof. William Tighe, I am now working through a copy of Dom Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy. He was an Anglican monk and a master of the history of Christian liturgy, famed for his path-breaking work on the liturgy of the early third century Roman elder (and contender for thebishopric of Rome) Hippolytus, the oldest known Christian liturgy. In The Shape of the Liturgy, he traces the origin of the Eucharistic liturgy from the Jewish thanksgiving meal or chaburoth in which he contends it originated, to the present. His authority in the Anglican church was such that Dix dixit (“Dix has spoken”) was often facetiously said to be the solution of any particularly involved question of the history of Anglican worship.

Since I received a copy of this freely, I will also, when I have finished freely select and digest interesting portions for our readers ("freely have you received, freely shall you blog"). Since however, today I was reading his summary on the issue of the cult of the saints and icons, I have to keep up with the Joneses and give you his take on the matter. Like most of Dix's writings (and perhaps like all good history) it doesn't so much "solve" the issue as give both sides much more to think about.

The cult of relics of the saints concerned the honoring of the actual bodies of the martyrs or portions of them, something which has been and will be again at the last day an integral element in their personalities. A further step was taken when the same honors were paid to statutes and pictures of the saints and of our Lord Himself. The fourth century church accepted the cultus of relics without much question, but it was much more reluctant to allow this second stepto be taken, being still very sensitive on that question of ‘idolatry’ upon which the conflict of the martyrs had turned. Pictures of our Lord and of the saints had been known as decorations (in the catacombs and elsewhere) and meansof instruction (e.g. the baptistery at Dura [a town in Syria]) since the late second or early third century at the latest. As such, pictures and statues continued in use during the fourth century, though there were protests about this, and the Spanish Council at Elvira had forbidden such decorations in churches. But there is no single case, I think, of that ecclesiastical tolerance and even encouragement then given to the popular cultus of relics being extendedto the cultus of pictures or statues of Christ or the saints during the fourth or the first half of the fifth century. There is, too, a noticeably academic tone about christian homilies on ‘the peril of idolatry’ in this period, which contrasts with the urgency of clerical denunciations of abuses in connection with the relic cult, and suggests that any tendency towards an undue veneration of pictures and images was not a very widespread problem in the church, before the fifth century at all events. The distinction of christian ideas and practice from those of a still living and observable paganism was as yet too obvious to need much emphasis. It was only after the disappearance of paganism that disputes began about the christian use of images - - a point which needs more consideration that it has received in most histories of the controversy.

There remained, however, in the new christian world on particular survival from the past which was outside the control of the church, and which was bound sooner or later to raise in some form the whole question of the cultus of images. The emperor-cult had always been the center of the practical problem of ‘idolatry’ for christians. The usual test for martyrs had been whether they would or would not ‘adore’ the emperor’s image with the customary offering of incense. But the Notitia Dignitatum (c. A.D. 405-425 [a handbook of government written a full century after Constantine’s conversion]), reveals that this particular method of demonstrating loyalty had survived in full working right through the period of the conversion of the empire. In the fifth century, the portrait of the reigning emperor was still set up in the courts of justice and in the municipal buildings of the cities surrounded by lighted candles, and incense was still burned before it. The Arian historian Philostergius brings a charge of idolatry against the orthodox of Constantinople in his day (c. A.D. 425) in that they burn incense and candles before the statue of Constantine, the founder ofthe city. (It is worth remarking that this seems to be more than a century before we have any definite evidence of a similar cultus paid to specifically religious pictures and images.) One can see how this had come about. When Constantine and his successors had become personally christians, they still as emperors remained ‘divine’ (or at all events the working center of the old state religion) for that large majority of their subjects who still remained pagan. For these the old forms of reverence simply remained in use. To change them might have been politically dangerous; it would certainly have been unsettling to pagan public opinion. And now that the emperor publicly disbelieved in his own divinity, many christians found it more possible to pay the conventional ‘adoration’ to the imperial portrait as a matter of etiquette. Yet this cultus of the emperor’s ikon was by tradition a religious veneration and was well understood to be so. It was bound to suggest the lawfulness of a similar cultus to the ikons of the King of heaven and the saints, and we do in fact found it brought forward as an argument in favor of the cultus of christian images, once that began to be debated. This is not the place to consider the immense disturbance which the facing of that question occasioned all over christendom in the eight and ninth centuries [i.e. the iconoclast controversy], or the rather different lines on which it was settled in the East and Westrespectively. All that concerns us now is the extent of the connection of such cultus of images with the official liturgy of the church and the date when it began.

In the West there is virtually never any connection at all. The Western church has officially practiced and encouraged the cultus of images by the clergy and laity in various ways; but it has always kept it dissociated from the eucharist and the office. At the most all that could be cited is the setting of a crucifix upon the altar during the celebration of the eucharist, and its incidental censing during the censing of the altar. But even this slight connection does not begin until the thirteenth century. In the East the connection is strong. Not only does the veneration of ikons playa much greater and more intimate part in the personal devotion of the Orthodox East among clergy and laity alike than is common in the West, but their censing and veneration in a carefully prescribed order is laid down as an official part of the orthodox liturgy, both at the eucharist and at the office, as well as at other services. They are regarded not as mere reminders of what they portray,but as actually mediating the participation of their originals in the earthly worship of the church. Accordingly their veneration is an integral part of divine worship, just as rejoicing in the fellowship of our Lady and all saints and angels will be a real part of the joy and worship of the redeemed in heaven which the earthly worship of the church ‘manifests’ in time. But here again it is doubtful if this conjoining of the veneration of images with the official [eucharistic] liturgy is really ancient in the Byzantine church. It probably began in the ninth century, as part of the great renewal of emphasis on the cultus of images which accompanied the final overthrow of the iconoclast emperors. In any case it can hardly be older than the introduction of the custom of a preliminary censing of the altar and sanctuary, which is first mentioned in Syria only in the late fifth century, but probably was not adopted at Constantinople till the sixth-seventh century (pp. 422-425).

Originally posted at Here We Stand

More posts commenting on The Shape of the Liturgy:

A Grocer's Sunday Morning
Cyril of Jerusalem's Purpose-Driven Eucharist
The Shape of the Liturgy
The Sacrifice of the Mass
Sacrifice? Could You Unpack That Please?
Dix on the Ante-Nicene Theology of the Eucharistic Sacrifice
Just the Facts, Ma'am

See also the biographical essay linked to here: A Different Perspective on Dix