Patristics scholar, Fr. Richard Price, Professor of the History of Christianity at Heythrop College (University of London) had his translation and commentary on the 2nd Council of Nicaea (787) published through Liverpool University Press in 2020. A fascinating read. In his notes on the theological history of icon veneration, he summarizes the strength and weaknesses that exist in the debate between the iconoclasts versus the iconophiles (defenders of icon veneration). He writes:
“The real problem for the iconophile case lay elsewhere – in the poverty of support for their cause even in the golden age of the fathers. The iconoclasts were in a somewhat stronger position… The iconoclast cause has few adherents nowadays, outside the heirs of John Calvin. But the iconoclast claim that reverence towards images did not go back to the golden age of the fathers, still less to the apostles, would be judged by impartial historians today to be simply correct. The iconophile view of the history of Christian thought and devotion was virtually a denial of history, in favour of a myth of a religion that had been perfect from the first and needed no addition or subtraction.” – The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), 40 & 43.
I have to say, such commentary is discordant with how the Fathers at the Council themselves thought. Fr. Price completely understands this. He accurately describes them as thinking, as if it were axiomatic, that icon writing and their veneration goes all the way back to the practice of the 12 Apostles. For Fr. Price, this is historically untenable, and plainly so. He rests upon historical scholarship for this conclusion, particularly that of Heinz Ohme, a prominent German (Lutheran) historian who specialized in Byzantine history. Ohme himself claims icon veneration was a massive development of doctrine that took centuries, a development that he thinks the Bishops of the Church in the 8th century would not have been able to dream of (ibid., fn. 155 which cites Ohme, Heinz (1999) ‘Ikonen, historische Kritik und Tradition. Das VII. ökumenische Konzil (787) une die kirchliche Überlieferung’, ZKG 110:3-4, for you German readers).
The historical scholarship surrounding this subject has great pertinence to the contemporary dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox. If I had to share my prediction, I would say that most traditional Orthodox would simply say that Fr. Price and the majority of contempoary historical scholarship on this question are blinded by their skepticism and the large chasm that exists between them and the Church Fathers. In other words, I anticipate the Orthodox saying that they will trust the Council Fathers of Nicaea (787) over and against modern scholarship. And this is not at all to be ashamed of, since there might be some good reasons to do so. But I’m not here speaking to the righteness of wrongness of that particular point.
However, in light of the above, I would suggest that, as this relates to Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, we would see some more understanding from the Orthodox when modern scholarship equally denies the apostolicity of doctrines upheld dogmatically today by Catholics. Often times we see appeals to what this or that historian says about the late developments of Papal power which proceeded from little to no foundation in early Christianity, without a recognition that this feature can be said of beliefs on both sides. Now, we might appeal to valid versus invalid development, but how often is development of doctrine even conceded as a valid category by the East? It seems that if one is going to play along with the highest of historical scholarship on the subject of icon veneration, there is either the option of saying it was a complete novelty only traceable to the 7th century, or that there was a process of theological development from a time period where there was probably little to absolutely no practice of venerating icons to later stages where such practices were augmented and given fresh theological justifications.
Finally, if the option of doctrinal development were to be taken by the Orthodox to defend the apostolicity of icon veneration (which, admittedly goes contrary to the instincts and assumptions of the Bishops at Nicaea 2), then perhaps there should be less repulsion when Catholics, or even Protestants (arguing similarly to Newman, just in reverse), appeal to doctrinal development in order to show forth the historicity of their respective beliefs.