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Iconoclasm and the Threefold Body of Christ

Peter Leithart has a good post on the Christological issues that attend the problem of venerating ikons. Definitely worth a read. Here’s a quote:

The eternal Son is still incarnate as the specific man, Jesus the Christ.  That’s true.  And it’s true also that this Jesus has specific features that we don’t know.

But Jesus has a triple, not a single, body.  His natural body is in heaven, but He has given us a Eucharistic body and a corporate body on earth.  He’s left behind His body as food, and His body as the church.

The second of these is particularly important.  When Jesus separates sheep and goats, the standard of judgment will be what each one did to the least of Jesus’ brothers, which is something done to Jesus.  We feed Jesus, clothe Jesus, visit Jesus, minister to Jesus, by serving the least of these.

Because Christ is the totus Christus, His face is not unknown to us.  We see His face in the face of His brothers, our brothers.  And that means that we can depict Jesus with any of the faces that are in fact His face to us.  And this justifies, too, the practice of depicting Jesus in culturally specific ways.  Jesus can be depicted as a black man (or an Asian, or a South Sea Islander), because  some of His brothers are black.

None of this, however, justifies veneration of icons.  We are to serve and bow before images of Jesus, but the images of Jesus we are to serve are the living, breathing, stinking, often troubled and often troubling images that sit down the row from us at church.


  1. Hill wrote:

    This still seems rather logically confused, possibly because I have not read Van Drunen’s original article, but it seems to be trading on a pretty dumb version of iconoclasm and hence Leithart’s response really has no relevance whatsoever to the question of icons.

    If we were somehow forced to make a choice between corporate works of mercy and the veneration of icons, this might make some sense, but that is obviously not an either/or situation.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    Also wanted to point out two other things: it is not in principle true that the face of Jesus of Nazareth is unknown to us. That’s like saying the face of Napoleon Bonaparte is unknown to us. It’s an empirical question as to whether or not information about Christ’s face has been transmitted faithfully. Given that his words have been, or at least we believe them to have been by the power of the Holy Spirit, who’s to say something similar is not at work in icons?

    Also, Leithart seems to collapse the distinction of the three-fold body immediately upon making it. The veneration of icons is clearly a communion with the natural body of Christ (in some sense) while corporate works of mercy are a communion with his corporate body. I just don’t see the rationale behind privileging one mode at the expense of the other.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  3. kim fabricius wrote:

    Evidently Leithart is among those exegetes who would restrict the touton ton adelphon mou ton elachiston of Matthew 25:40 to believers, as if the anonymous Christ were to be found only in the church, in poor Christians but not in poor people. His body of Christ needs another fold.

    As for Napolean’s face, we have portraits and death masks. By all mean appeal to the Holy Spirit working through the iconic traditions, but “empirical”? The Turin shroud, anyone?

    As to the general thrust of Leithart’s argument, it is rather reductionist, isn’t it?

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    Tradition holds that St. Luke himself wrote certain icons. I’m not comfortable disputing that. That’s all I’m saying. It’s empirical in that sense.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    As distinct from the “a priori” claim that “we can’t know what Jesus looked like” presumably because he lived “a long time ago.” I’m just saying that that is by no means obviously true and our knowledge of what Jesus looked like and our knowledge of what Napoleon looked like differs in degree and not in kind, at least in principle.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  6. Ilyas wrote:

    To echo Hill’s remark, why should the veneration of the image of God in human beings necessarily preclude the veneration of this same image symbolically depicted in icons? In the Orthodox liturgy (and the Catholic one as well), the deacon or priest venerates both types of images by incensing the “man-made” icons as well as the “the living, breathing, stinking, often troubled and often troubling” congregation–which I think says a lot.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Which ikons is he supposed to have written?

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    I know that the Black Madonna of Czestochowa is attributed to Luke:ęstochowa

    I think there may be others of supposed apostolic origin, but I don’t have any information on them.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  9. errol wrote:

    Every time I hear Peter Leithart’s name, I can’t help but think of the subterranean neo-confederate ideologies alleged to be associated with him, Doug Wilson, the CREC, and New Saint Andrews. I’ve read a few articles on the web, including this one by the SPLC:

    Do you know what the deal is? Can’t tell what’s reliable.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 2:42 pm | Permalink
  10. Jason wrote:

    I don’t particularly like the phrase, ‘he’s left behind his body as…’ as though Christ was somehow absent from his own body in the Eucharist or in the Church. In this thought there is a hierarchy in the threefold body of Christ, and the real body seems to be in heaven while the Eucharist and the Church are of a lesser order. The result of this view is that Christ is not as present in the sacraments or in the Church as he is in heaven (which is understood to be somewhere out there). It seems that this entails what I would consider a deficient sacramental theology, and typically low sacramentalists shy away from icons. Even Calvin’s sacramental theology did not abstract the presence of Christ from the Eucharist in this way. Christ was simply present spiritually. But if one struggles to imagine how Christ is really present in the loaf and the cup or in the ecclesial body, how can we expect them to see icons as windows into heaven.

    Side note: Leithart does not seem to be dealing with icons so much as icons of Christ. Why is this the case?

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  11. Nice to see this. I’m writing a paper right now on Augustine’s totus christus christology and Sobrino’s christology of the “crucified people.”

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    I saw that Michael, and I’m very interested to see the rest of it. I think what you’re doing re: the totus Christus and the church of the poor is very important. It prods my own thoughts about an apocalyptic construal of the totus Christus that is missional in nature.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  13. Nate Kerr wrote:


    Would you mind sharing a copy of that paper with me when it is complete? I know that you are posting it online, but I would like to be able to read the document as a whole, if you would be so kind. You can email me at if that works. Thanks.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 6:33 pm | Permalink
  14. Hi Nate,

    Sure, I can do that. I probably won’t be posting the entire thing online; just wanted to give a taste.

    Looking forward to checking out your book, Nate.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  15. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Thanks, Michael. I look forward very much to your thoughts on the book as well. I think we have some intersecting interests, and I am sure I will learn much from your engagement.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 7:28 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Michael, could you send that to me as well, perhaps?

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 8:18 pm | Permalink
  17. sure. hoping to have a draft by tomorrow…

    Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 6:56 am | Permalink

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