St. Theodore the Studite's Defense of the Icons

Theology and Philosophy in Ninth-Century Byzantium

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Torstein Theodor Tollefsen
Oxford Early Christian Studies
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With St Theodore the Studite’s Defence of the Icons: Theology and Philosophy in Ninth-Century Byzantium, Torstein Tollefsen has provided his third contribution to the Oxford Early Christian Studies series (prior volumes include The Christocentric Cosmology of St Maximus the Confessor, 2008, his reworked 2000 doctoral dissertation; and, Activity and Participation in Late Antique and Early Christian Thought, 2012). With this new volume, Tollefsen makes another valuable contribution to both the history of doctrine and that of philosophy, regarding the late antique appropriation of Aristotelian logic in theological argument in 10th century Byzantium. I wholeheartedly recommend this volume with but a few minor reservations. 

His interdisciplinary method fills a needed gap. Some theologians are chary of the influence of Aristotelian logic on theological discourse, but Tollefsen’s measured analysis of Theodore’s theology of icons suggests without forcing the issue. Just as historians once eschewed the reading of hagiographical texts yet now mine them for the historical context of their authors if not their subjects, they also eschewed theological texts, but some now read them for other than their theological content. Theologians continue to benefit from the work of historians, since historians, or in this context Byzantinists, provide additional contextuality that deeply informs the theological discourse of late antiquity. In the same way, theologians will benefit from the philosophical analysis of theological texts, as Tollefsen has done here. 

Tollefsen’s stated aim is to contribute something to the field of Byzantine philosophy by investigating Theodore’s theological method. He is also aware that he is contributing to the history of the iconoclast controversy, but that remains a secondary consideration throughout as philosophical analysis, while bringing out new connections to an Aristotelian background, tends to isolate his analysis from connecting more directly to the wider theological context which consumes the iconoclast controversy. This results from his limiting himself to Theodore’s three treatises Antirrhetici tres adversus iconomachos (Three Refutations against the Iconoclasts), ignoring Theodore’s other related works. 

Chapter 1 provides an overview of Theodore’s education, methodological approach, and use of logic, while Chapters 2 through 4 cover key concepts in the development of his position: circumscription (iconophile Christology focused on the incarnation as in previous pro-iconophile arguments), relation (the Aristotelian category of “the relative” connecting image and prototype), and “true image” (the ability of an icon to truly represent Christ), respectively. Tollefsen claims this last as Theodore’s primary motivation against the denial of a “true image” of Christ by the Iconoclast Council of 754, although the Iconoclast Council of 815 remains in view. Thus, the three treatises are not covered systematically but thematically, which may be disorienting for some expecting a theological examination of Theodore’s text and argument. Chapters 2 and 3 are the groundwork for Tollefsen’s analysis of Theodore’s notion of “true image” in chapter 4. Bookending this, his twenty-two-page introduction is thorough, while his one-page conclusion is sadly superficial. Nevertheless, he finishes with a sixteen-page appendix appropriating Theodore’s notion of “true image” for his own apology for icons in the wider context of Christian art, while here finally recapitulating Theodore’s theological, philosophical, and doctrinal achievement as a contribution to Byzantine philosophy. Thus, although I remain disappointed with his summation, he has achieved his modest aim.

Regarding my reservations, his use of lexical resources is not inspiring. Tollefsen seems to rely on outdated editions of both the LSJ [i.e., H.G. Liddell, R. Scott, and H.S. Jones, Greek-English Lexicon, Supplemented ed. (Oxford University Press, 1996)], and Bauer, [i.e., Walter Bauer, F.W. Danker et. al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2000)].  Tollefson rather relied on the LSJ, ninth ed. (Oxford University Press, 1940) and for Baur, the first English ed., (University of Chicago Press, 1957). Further, he seems unaware of pertinent medieval Greek resources such as Lampe (A Patristic Greek Lexicon, Oxford University Press, 1969) or Sophocles (Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods from B.C. 146 to A.D. 1100, Kessinger, 2004), which should have been consulted since ecclesiastical authors Atticize by exploiting earlier ecclesiastical authors thought to be exemplars, not to mention the tendency to deploy the theological language of predecessors. Additionally, Tollefsen makes repeated reference to Maximus the Confessor (on whom Tollefsen has published) as a potential source of the Studite’s ideas, while largely passing over John of Damascus, who is better known for his theology of images. Further, Tollefsen is aware that John of Damascus is considered a source of such for the Studite by both Catharine P. Roth (St. Theodore the Studite: On the Holy Icons, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981) and Thomas Cattoi (Theodore the Studite: Writings on Iconoclasm, Newman, 2015), but fails to act on this information. Curiously, Tollefsen concludes that he finds Theodore “trained” in logic, not just a reader of logic handbooks, yet refrains from commenting on whether his use of logic comports with or suggests awareness of the Dialectica of John of Damascus. Perhaps these caveats are no more than the vagaries of interdisciplinary study or deadlines, perhaps they are more than that. In any case, forewarned is forearmed, and reservations aside, I am pleased to add this volume to my library in the certain knowledge that I will refer to it in future, because its thoughtful analysis and restrained conclusions challenge without offense even when his method raises questions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott Ables is Adjunct Instructor in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Oregon State University.

Date of Review: 
June 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Torstein Theodor Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oslo. His research focuses on ancient philosophy and the philosophy of Late Antiquity, with particular interest in the philosophy of the Greek church fathers within the period of 300-900. He is the author of Activity and Participation in Late Antique and Early Christian Thought (2012) and The Christocentric Cosmology of St Maximus the Confessor (2008).


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