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  • Iconoclasm and Iconoclash: Struggle for Religious Identity
  • Daniel J. Sahas
Iconoclasm and Iconoclash: Struggle for Religious Identity. Edited by Willem van Asselt, Paul van Geest, Daniela Müller, and Theo Salemink. [Jewish and Christian Perspectives, 14.] (Boston: Brill. 2007. Pp. viii, 506. $239.00. ISBN 978-9-004-16195-5.)

This is a collection of thought-provoking contributions—the result of a 2005 conference at the University of Utrecht on iconoclasm (the breaking of physical images as an opposition to representing the divine) and iconoclash (the collision between visual or mental presuppositions and attitudes toward images that evolves into a strategy of suppressing such mental or conceptual images and their agents, and a device for identifying the construction of religious identity). Mercifully the introduction (pp. 1–14) and the “Overview of the Contributions” (pp. 15–29) offer guidance over the intricate problematics of the conference with a précis of each article. The stated conclusions in most articles also offer a bird’s-eye view of each entry and additional literature for further reading.

The joint consideration of iconoclasm and iconoclash is an imaginative one, however, and in spite of their coincidence in historical and ideological context, they are not inherently and automatically consequential. They do, however, pertain to essential identity, especially identity of faith. With regard to the Christian tradition, the possibility and even the necessity of image, and [End Page 578] in difference to the Exodus 20:4–6 prohibition against pèsèl (“graven” images), flows from and witnesses to the fundamental premise of the incarnation of God-the-Word—a sine qua non antidocetic theology that simultaneously leads to a fresh, Christian anthropology that reaffirms and explains the “icon of God” in humanity, renders holiness demonstrable in humans, and allows a foretaste of an eschatological “communion of saints” from here and now. These two inherent and contextual derivatives of the image (or, better, icon) are not sufficiently presented in the volume. One should also take exception to “[t]he fact that Christianity is about the Word, or Logos, makes it . . . a religion of words, or books, or better still: a religion featuring a whole library” (p. 33). The Logos embraces and supersedes words; otherwise an icon would render the Logos redundant. Strictly speaking, the word or book notion is an inherent essential characteristic of Islam rather than of Christianity where the divine word is revealed in recital (qu’rān) rather than in flesh (sarx). Not that the Christian community has historically presented any unified position toward this fundamental premise, as the diverse positions regarding images show (a real iconoclash and an identity crisis) and as the volume has abundantly made evident.

The Christian East preferred the notion icon (from speaking of fashioning and portraying in the perfect tense as a completed fact; cf. here the intense analysis of the complex notion in John of Damascus, imag. 3.16–23 and passim) to image precisely to point to the significance of the relationship between God and human, rather than to any mental or external depiction. The notions icon/image and iconoclasm/iconoclash carry a host of doctrinal, social, ethical, liturgical, and artistic consequences and speak more to and about anthropology than to and about theology, which is made clear by the twenty-four papers in the volume; they are organized under the sections “Word and Image: Fundamental Questions,” “Jewish and Christian Debates on Images until the Reformation,” “Protestant Reformation and Catholic Reformation,” and “Modern Times.”

There seems to be a prevailing appreciation of the image, in and beyond the Christian tradition: its manifold manifestations (pictorial, three-dimensional, architectural, and even written), its significance in religious life and thought, and its inherent relationship to the word. Of special interest in this discussion is the timeless thought on seeing the divine of Abraham J. Heschel brought to the forefront by Even-Chen. Jan Hallebeek’s paper, “Papal Prohibitions Midway Between Rigor and Laxity. On the Issue of Depicting the Holy Trinity,” taking the clue from official papal positions on the case of depicting nonincarnate persons in the Trinity and not only Christ, is a good case of a simultaneous iconoclasm and iconoclash. Given its undeniable power...


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