Is There Really a Patristic Critique of Icons? (Part 5 of 5)

Editor’s Note: Following is the final entry in a 5-part series by Gabe Martini addressing the claim by Presbyterian pastor Steven Wedgeworth that there is significant patristic testimony against iconography. The response is necessarily more in-depth than the original post it responds to, because numerous quick claims are made there without much in the way of examination of their context or historic character.

A Summary of the Critiques

Part of what often makes the icon debate frustrating is that iconoclasts are almost never consistent in their critiques. Pr Wedgeworth begins by saying that “The liturgical use of icons is one of the disputed points which has a mixed foundation in the early church,” and further “Not as many people, however, know the opposing patristic voices. To help counter-balance this, I will give just a few.” Not only were we not given any exacting Patristic evidence to the contrary (that is, being opposed to the 7th Ecumenical Council and the practice of the Orthodox-Catholic Church), but this post is also not clear in what “critique” it’s attempting to substantiate.

It was claimed that the liturgical use of icons is both disputed and indebted to a mixed foundation. This would imply an argument against the liturgical use of icons. By this, I can only assume it means their veneration (honor): carrying them about, kissing them, censing them, and so forth.

His first quote from Tertullian (not an orthodox Church Father, and so not exactly a “Patristic” critique) shows that there are some images allowed for liturgical use; namely, the brazen serpent and the images of the tabernacle/temple. However, Tertullian also equated all images with idols, refusing artists to the catechumenate as a result. He was a fanatic — an extremist — and, as a result, an eventual Montanist, attacking the Church on a number of issues. This is not an insult, but rather an historical assessment of the facts. He laments (as a Montanist, not as a Christian) that the Church accepts painters and sculptors into clerical office: “Idol-artifacers are chosen even into the ecclesiastical order. Oh wickedness!” (On Idolatry, 7). This demonstrates that such artisans were officially sanctioned among the orders of clergy. There is no Patristic evidence against their liturgical use here, as Tertullian was on the outside looking in.

With regards to the 36th canon of the local synod of Elvira, the finer points of canonical law were disregarded, and we were presented with a poor translation of this obscure, disciplinary canon. Given the fact that this canon was ignored (if indeed it means that images should not be in churches), it can reasonably be concluded that this canon bears no Patristic weight, and that it does not mean what iconoclasts imply it means. We know for sure that it is not a theological canon, that it says nothing related to the kind of images on church walls, and that it was never obeyed or repeated in future canons in the way that iconoclasts assert. This is another “miss” when it comes to demonstrating a cohesive, tangible, Patristic critique of the liturgical use of icons, as sacred images were on both the walls of Spanish churches and the sarcophagi of the Spaniard Christians at this very point in history. The tangible evidence outweighs the speculative or inadmissible.

In the quote from St Gregory the Great, it is concluded that since St Gregory condemns the abusive worship of images, he was also against their veneration. It is claimed that St Gregory only approves of them for “reading,” as an aid to the ignorant or unlearned. However, it has been demonstrated that St Gregory was also an advocate of their veneration, himself carrying an icon of the Mother of God (painted by the apostle Luke) through the streets of Rome in solemn procession. Additionally, his testimony related to sacred images was relied upon during the deliberations of the 7th Ecumenical Council. He was neither a Muslim nor an iconoclast, but was fully orthodox with regards to icons. There is no Patristic critique of icons here — only a prudent and orthodox condemnation of their abuse.

By way of taking inventory up to this point, we have been presented with quotes that both deny the placement of images in churches (Elvira and Tertullian), while also affirming their usage in churches (St Gregory, although the conclusions about Gregory’s beliefs are inaccurate). Again, I would truly appreciate it if critiques of iconodulism by iconoclasts would be consistent: either consistently argue against their existence altogether, or consistently allow for their existence, while arguing against their veneration. Mixing and matching quotes that are all across the spectrum only muddies the waters. And asserting that the Orthodox worship icons as idols or false gods is both absurd and irrelevant.

We were finally presented with a quote attributed to St Epiphanius. In this example, a perspective more akin to Tertullian’s is alleged; that is, all images should be destroyed. This disagrees with the idea that images are acceptable, so long as they are used for “reading”; that is, for the illiterate/unlearned to receive the Gospel message without words. Regardless, I think there is an abundance of evidence — both ancient and modern — for rejecting this postscript as a forgery. It does not make its first appearance until the debates of the 8th and 9th centuries, and the Fathers of that day condemned it as a scandalous invention. Those who actually knew Epiphanius all point to his orthodoxy with regards to icons. He was even buried in a church (the Cathedral of Agios Epifanios in Cyprus) that was filled with sacred images, where his wonder-working relics were venerated. According to his disciples, that is what he would’ve wanted. Is this a solid Patristic critique of icons? It makes for an interesting debate, but the “real world” evidence and the testimony of those who knew him calls into question the legitimacy of the postscript.

In summary, then, we have been given two pieces of evidence against the very existence of icons (one from a Montanist and one from a forgery), one mistranslated piece of evidence that does not ban icons altogether, but — for reasons we can’t possibly know — has suggested that the churches of Spain in the fourth century not paint images (of which type we can’t be certain) upon their walls, and one piece of evidence from a Saint who venerated icons that says icons should not be worshipped (with which the Orthodox fully agree).

Pr Wedgeworth’s conclusion is that “these quotes show … the controversy around icons was an intra-Christian one,” and:

The Reformers were not, by their rejection of the veneration of icons, necessarily anti-patristic. Indeed, it was because they knew the complexity of the antique record that they could confidently interact with it, claim parts of it, and ultimately move beyond it to the earlier Biblical testimony (Exodus 20:4–6, Acts 17:29).

There are many things that can be said in response to this conclusion.

As pointed out above, the preceding quotes do not show much in the way of a substantial “controversy” around icons, but they are — for the most part — intra-Christian discussions. However, the only incontrovertible piece of Patristic evidence related to images that has been presented (that of St Gregory) is from a Saint who venerated icons. The fact that he does not mention it in this particular writing does not betray the reality of his own personal practice, not to mention the practice of the Church. If there was a substantial Patristic critique of icons, where was the mob of iconoclasts as he paraded a first century icon of the Mother of God through the streets of Rome? There was no mob, because there was no substantial subset of iconoclasts within the Church at that time.

The Reformation Witness

It has been implied that the Reformers were against the veneration of icons, and that this position can be deemed “Patristic.” But which Reformers? As with many others, the Reformers (both Magisterial and Radical) employed a wide array of beliefs on the present subject.

There were many who were in agreement with men such as Tertullian, in that no images of any kind (not just religious) are permissible — e.g. John Calvin (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:11:1-16). However, Calvin seems completely unaware of the writings of the Fathers on this matter, such as St John of Damascus or St Theodore the Studite. Not once does he interact with their writings. Calvin also utilizes several mis-translations of both the Vulgate and the 7th Ecumenical Council (apparently the same mis-translation that the Franks relied upon) in order to further his assertions. Perhaps if Calvin had access to more of the Greek Fathers, to a better manuscript of the Scriptures, and to a proper translation of the 7th Ecumenical Council, he would’ve had a different opinion? As it is, his entire argument is a straw-man against the worship of idols as false gods. Nevertheless, this is certainly one evident perspective among the Reformation churches.

There were also men such as Martin Chemnitz who allowed for images (even in churches), but rejected their explicit veneration:

Thus we are only arguing about the use of historical images which are used either for a memento of things which have been done or for the sake of decoration. These uses are in no way prohibited in Scripture, and it can be a perfectly legitimate use for them.

Loci Theologici, p. 376

And thirdly, there were men such as Martin Luther, who allowed not only for the presence of images in their churches, but also considered them praiseworthy and honorable. He believed that the 2nd commandment clearly forbade the worship of images (especially of non-religious images), but he did not forbid the use of either crucifixes or holy icons in a liturgical setting:

According to the law of Moses no other images are forbidden than an image of God which one worships. A crucifix, on the other hand, or any other holy image is not forbidden. Heigh now! you breakers of images, I defy you to prove the opposite!

Complete Works, Vol. 40, p. 86

As is evident from this quote (and the context of his letters on this issue), Luther was opposed to iconoclasm and the breaking of images. While a number of the images being destroyed were not religious, many of them were. Luther is ambivalent about the first category, saying that they are now (in the new covenant) “nothing,” as with circumcision, but that breaking them is clearly wrong. He argues that not only is it (iconoclasm) unloving, but that it implies one’s zeal for destroying images can somehow justify them, being contrary to his novel doctrine of justification by faith alone (ibid., p. 85):

Their idea that they can please God with works becomes a real idol and a false assurance in the heart. Such legalism results in putting away outward images while filling the heart with idols.

Further, Luther’s exegesis of the 2nd commandment argues that sacred images are not idols, because they are not being treated as such. They are not meant to replace God, as with pagan idols, but are rather meant to point our hearts and our minds to Christ (ibid., p. 87):

No conclusion can be drawn from the words, “You shall have no other gods,” other than that which refers to idolatry. Where however images or statues are made without idolatry, then such making of them is not forbidden, for the central saying, “You shall have no other gods,” remains intact.

Beyond this, Luther claims that sacred images and the Cross are both praiseworthy and honorable (ibid., p. 92):

But images for memorial and witness, such as crucifixes and images of saints, are to be tolerated. This is shown above to be the case even in the Mosaic law. And they are not only to be tolerated, but for the sake of the memorial and the witness they are praiseworthy and honorable, as the witness stones of Joshua [Josh. 24:26] and of Samuel [I Sam. 7:12].

For Luther, sacred images are not only a “witness,” but also a “memorial” (ἀνάμνησις); a symbol that re-presents the prototype being signified. They lift up our hearts to Christ and to the imitation of those being presented, who in turn had devoted their lives to his imitation. This is why some people have deemed icons “windows to heaven.” This does not mean that one can literally see into heaven with an icon, but that they serve as a true memorial of the Lord’s presence, by virtue of the people (or events) that they signify. There is nothing sacred about the wood, gold, or paint; it is the people, who are created in the image of God and show us true and venerable images of Christ, which makes icons to be what they are. This is why we cense individual people and greet them with a holy kiss in the Orthodox churches to this day. This is not idolatry; it is a personal love and affection for one another in the Body of Christ.

This theology of icon/symbol/representation, and of the honor passing to the prototype, was not only extensively argued among the Fathers (such as St Basil the Great, St John of Damascus, and the Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council), but was also taught by Christ:

He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. (Matt. 10:40)

Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. (Matt. 25:40)

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me. (John 13:20)

There are a number of implications with this theology, many of which reach far beyond the confines of the icon debate. For example, the Orthodox care for the sick and the suffering, along with our concern for all of creation, is rooted in a theology that believes all of creation serves as an image and reflection of God, and that the mouths of the homeless are the mouths of Christ himself.

I am already being long-winded, but Luther’s conclusion on this topic is worth reading:

I have myself seen and heard the iconoclasts read out of my German Bible. I know that they have it and read out of it, as one can easily determine from the words they use. Now there are a great many pictures in those books, both of God, the angels, men and animals, especially in the Revelation of John and in Moses and Joshua. So now we would kindly beg them to permit us to do what they themselves do. Pictures contained in these books we would paint on walls for the sake of remembrance and better understanding, since they do no more harm on walls than in books. It is to be sure better to paint pictures on walls of how God created the world, how Noah built the ark, and whatever other good stories there may be, than to paint shameless worldly things. Yes, would to God that I could persuade the rich and the mighty that they would permit the whole Bible to be painted on houses, on the inside and outside, so that all can see it. That would be a Christian work. …

Of this I am certain, that God desires to have his works heard and read, especially the passion of our Lord. But it is impossible for me to hear and bear it in mind without forming mental images of it in my heart. For whether I will or not, when I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it. If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes? …

However, I must cease lest I hereby give occasion to the image-breakers never to read the Bible, or to burn it, and after that to tear the heart out of the body, because they are so opposed to images.

Complete Works, Vol. 40, p. 100

Luther sees the decoration of churches with sacred images to be “a Christian work” — something that should even be done in households. Were it up to him, sacred images would be everywhere one looks. And, according to Luther, these images are both praiseworthy and honorable. This is a far cry from Calvin, and even closer to the Orthodox position than those like Chemnitz. While I respect Pr Wedgeworth’s position on this issue as being a part of various Reformation views on icons, it is not the only one.

The practice of prostrating before the Cross on Holy Thursday in many Lutheran traditions today is an example of a position more aligned with Luther than other more radical Reformers, such as Chemnitz, Melanchthon, Zwingli, and Calvin. The Anglo-Catholic or “Oxford” movement of the 19th century also served as a helpful corrective to some of the more extreme developments in the Reformation churches. Rather than reverting back to an alleged “Biblical witness,” many Protestants and Anglicans have attempted to revert back to the Patristic, orthodox practices of the Church.

A Biblical Witness

With regards to the Biblical witness, the concluding remarks highlight again the frustrating incongruity when it comes to icon debates of the post-Reformation era. I must also remind the reader that a number of Scriptural references were given in my earlier posts, supporting not only the existence of sacred images (and relics; e.g. 2 Kings 13:20-21; Acts 5:15-16, 19:11-12), but also their proper veneration.

While it seems that many iconoclasts would affirm the existence of icons as a Gospel message for the young or unlearned, Pr Wedgeworth equates holy images with pagan idols by citing Exodus 20:4-6 and Acts 17:29. If one believes that the 2nd commandment speaks to the Christian use of icons, one is either asserting that all images are idols (which denies the Incarnation, and implies that God contradicts himself in the Old Testament), or that holy icons are worshiped as idols (which is not true). Either way, this neither agrees with other statements regarding “reading” icons, nor does it contribute coherency to the debate. All images are not idols, and they are not — and should not be — worshiped, making the 2nd commandment as well as Acts 17:29 irrelevant to the topic at hand. The Second Council of Nicaea ruled decisively against the idolatrous worship of any image, arguing in favor of their proper veneration or honor alone. Showing the most balance of all the Reformers, Martin Luther apparently argues the same.

Every Scriptural reference that is presented as a condemnation of icons and their proper veneration is a reference that condemns idolatry and the worship of false gods. In other words, there aren’t any Scriptural references that condemn icons and their proper veneration. The images of the tabernacle/temple were highly symbolic or of angelic beings alone, and the images of the New Covenant (in light of Christ’s Incarnation; cf. 1 John 1:1-3) are of people — of images of the incarnate and resurrected God-Man, and of those created (and redeemed) after his likeness. Since there is no Scriptural condemnation of sacred images, what we are really arguing about is tradition. And as mentioned in an earlier post, what was once a pious custom has now become an essential witness of the Gospel. In response to those who would do away with images for the wrong reasons — undercutting the very essence of who Jesus Christ is and was for our redemption — sacred images are now an indispensable part of Christian tradition.


What we have seen is that iconoclasts are incoherent when it comes to responding to the Orthodox-Catholic use of sacred images (along with relics, the Cross, and the Eucharist). The assertions come from a number of contradictory starting points, and rarely make sense in the end. I believe that I have demonstrated that we have not been presented with a Patristic critique of icons — supposedly undermining both their placement in the life of the Church and their veneration — but rather a series of quotes that are either irrelevant, out of context, or part of a larger, heterodox perspective that goes far beyond either the validity or invalidity of images.

Certainly, no one denies that there was great controversy around images among the elites of the Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries (the popular opinion never changed), but such a late date for controversy hardly calls into question either the origin or use of icons as both the Patristic consensus and the ordinary practice of the Church for centuries.

What the post shows is that the Church Fathers, the Scriptures, and other early Christian writings are being used as little more than a compendium of historical and scholarly data from which one can assemble a variety of doctrinal perspectives. Pr Wedgeworth himself has stated that the Church Fathers are “academic and historical tools rather than a strict interpretative grid or paradigm.” And they are certainly being treated as such. However, when an Orthodox Christian makes an appeal to apostolic tradition, they are not making an entirely epistemological claim as much as they are making an ontological one. It’s not that this is what some people long ago believed, and Orthodox Christians are retroactively citing them as proofs — like a person could also proof-text the Scriptures to “prove” a number of imaginative things. Rather, we are saying “We are a part of the Church — a living community of faithful Christians that have preserved the apostolic faith. The same faith of the apostles and the Fathers before us. The same faith that we live, breathe, eat, and drink today.” The appeal is to the ontology of the Church as the Body of Christ — “without spot or blemish” (Eph. 5:27) — and not to a set of arguments or abstract ideas, removed from their h