Editor’s Note: Following is the second part in a 5-part series addressing the claim by Presbyterian pastor Steven Wedgeworth that there is significant patristic testimony against iconography. Keep watching this space for all five parts. 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.
Patristic Evidence and Burden of Proof
Any evidence that is set forth as proof of either an iconoclastic or iconodulic mindset in the first three centuries of the Church, therefore, is of significant importance if one is going to understand the icon debate, along with the actual, historic beliefs of the Church (the “Patristic consensus,” if you will).
Again, the witness of the Orthodox-Catholic tradition manifests that iconodulism is the norm, and has been the accepted practice since the earliest centuries. This is what the 7th Ecumenical Council claims, as well. The Fathers stated that they were only following the “royal pathway” of tradition that leads all the way back to the apostles. Arguments set forth in opposition to the usage of icons must be supported by such an overwhelming amount of evidence, that no one can possibly conclude otherwise. Since the Church has ruled that the veneration of icons is no longer merely a pious custom, but is now an integral part of the Gospel itself, it is no small matter to deny their validity. From the Orthodox perspective, such a denial is an attack upon the essentials of the Gospel, and so an isolated selection of quotations from a few early sources is less than compelling. To speak of “the Fathers” or a “Patristic” viewpoint is to point to the Church of the Fathers, and Her common practice down to this day. As I have already mentioned, following Bigham’s arguments, if the introduction of icons into the Church was seen by anyone as a denial of the Gospel (idolatry), there would have been a noticeably violent outcry in response; and yet, we have no such response. The burden of proof for the iconoclast is weighty.
The Church Fathers (and other early Christian writers) are sometimes treated by those who do not believe in the unbroken continuity of Orthodox tradition as a compendium of proof-texts for whatever viewpoint they wish to defend, with no regard for the actual, historic beliefs or practices of the Church — and many often ignore the fact that there are “Fathers” among us today (the Church is alive, and our Tradition is of the Spirit, not a “dead” letter). This also occurs regularly when it comes to the exegesis of the Holy Scriptures. Rather than being seen as a living, breathing part of the life of the Church, they are abstracted from that context and subjected to the scrutiny of those outside of Her community.
With all of the aforementioned points being given due consideration, Pr Wedgeworth has provided a few citations from early Christian sources to which I will briefly respond. One of the difficulties with his post, however, is that he mentions the proper veneration (Gk: δουλεία and προσκύνησις) of icons in his introductory paragraph (related to the 7th Ecumenical Council), but then proceeds to cite writings that appear to oppose their worship or “adoration” (Gk: λατρεία). It is unclear to me whether he is attempting to argue against the very existence of icons, their veneration, their worship (which is due to God alone), or perhaps all three? I believe that he is arguing in favor of the existence of icons, but against their placement in churches, their veneration, and obviously their worship. Whatever the case, I will interact with the selections he has provided, as well as his comments.
It should be noted that the distinction between δουλεία/προσκύνησις and λατρεία was not novel to the 7th Ecumenical Council, but is rather a distinction made in the Scriptures themselves (both Old and New Testaments; cf. חוה, the hitpa’lel of שׁחה, although the Masoretic Hebrew is less precise than the older Septuagint Greek). It is quite possible for a person to pay honor to another person or object, and not commit idolatry. If every act of “bowing down” or “prostration” before another person or object was idolatry, no one would be able to tie his shoes without being guilty of denying the Gospel. The attitude of one’s heart is equally important as one’s physical actions. The Scriptures provide numerous examples where a person or object is being prostrated before (for the sake of paying honor or veneration), and without it being mistaken as idolatry: Leah and her children, along with Rachael and Joseph (Gen. 33:7); Absalom before the king (2 Sam/2 Kings 25:23); a woman before a man (1 Sam/1 Kings 25:23); a woman before a prophet (2/4 Kings 4:37); and even before the ark of the covenant, which was adorned with statues of the cherubim (Psalm 98:5 LXX).
The ancient Jews understood this distinction (between veneration and worship/adoration), as did the Christians who came forth from Judaism as its true fulfillment in Christ. Everything from the mezuzah to the Torah was venerated (kissed) by pious Jews, and Christ would have done the same; this is an ancient custom. The Roman catacombs are filled with predominantly Old Testament imagery, demonstrating that the early iconographers came from the Jewish Christians and not only the Greeks. The tabernacle/temple itself was replete with images, practically everywhere that one would look (and while prostrating before them): on the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:18), on the curtains (Ex. 26:1), on the veil of the Most Holy place (Ex. 26:31), the statues of cherubim (1/3 Kings 6:23), on the walls (1/3 Kings 6:29), on the doors (1/3 Kings 6:32), and on the furnishings (1/3 Kings 7:29,36). Since the temple was an image (or “icon”) of heaven, it was made to represent heaven itself (Heb. 8:5; cf. Ex. 25:40). One can even read examples of favorable attitudes towards images in the Palestinian Talmud: “In the days of Rabbi Jochanan, men began to paint pictures on the walls, and he did not hinder them … In the days of Rabbi Abbun, men began to make designs on mosaics, and he did not hinder them” (Abodah Zarah, 48d). As already mentioned, the synagogue (and house church) of Dura Europos (Syria, ca. early-3rd century AD) is filled, wall-to-ceiling, with images of Old Testament stories and saints — and all in places where the Jews would’ve been prostrating before the Torah scrolls. The assertion that either ancient or Second Temple Judaism was inherently iconoclastic is truly a modern, polemical myth.
We can now turn our attention to the selection of quotes set forth by Pr Wedgeworth, interacting with them one-by-one.
Pr Wedgeworth quotes Tertullian in one of his responses to a Marcionite apologist (Against Marcion, 2:22), where he argues that the liturgical artwork of the tabernacle, along with the brazen serpent, are not a violation of the 2nd commandment. Pr Wedgeworth’s commentary suggests that this citation of Tertullian shows a balanced rejection of idolatry when it comes to icons, while also leaving room for the icons that the Lord himself commanded (the serpent and the items of the tabernacle). However, Tertullian is here actually disagreeing with himself. He does not have a consistent viewpoint on this subject, and is actually far more rigorous (and inconsistent) than I think Pr Wedgeworth would appreciate. Known for his extremism, Tertullian’s rigorist interpretations in such matters eventually led him out of the Catholic Church and into heresy (Montanism). His perspective on this issue should be seen as a cautionary tale, rather than as Patristic evidence against the Catholic Church and Her proper usage of images.
There is no question that Tertullian rejected “idolatrous images.” What’s interesting is that he rejected all images as idolatrous. The passage from Against Marcion would suggest that Tertullian only rejected idolatrous images, making an exception for the brazen serpent and the images of the tabernacle. However, the rest of Tertullian’s writings contradicts this idea, demonstrating that he is either inconsistent on this issue, or rather simply uses whatever argument suits him at the time. Bigham suggests that Tertullian would often change his viewpoints to fit the circumstances of debate, and a thorough examination of his writings confirms this hypothesis (Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images, pp. 123-131).
For example, in On Idolatry, 3-4, Tertullian says that “every form or form-ling” is “an idol.” Under this name “idol,” he includes (quoting the OT) “things which are in the heavens, and which are in the earth, and which are in the sea.” In this, he does not make a distinction between images that are used as idols, and idols themselves. In other words, he is arguing that every image is an idol. This same rigorist interpretation is espoused in The Shows, 23, where he writes: “And in regard to the wearing of masks, I ask: Is that according to the mind of God, who forbids the making of every likeness, and especially then the likeness of man who is His own image?” As Bigham notes, it is not a stretch to conclude that — at least in these two debates — Tertullian plainly equates “image” with “idol.” Here, Tertullian is so extreme as to deny the creation of any image, even outside of a religious context!
It seems to be the case that Tertullian only allows for the approval of the brazen serpent and the images of the tabernacle as extreme exceptions to the rule; and he only does this in order to refute the Marcionite’s argument that God contradicts himself in the Old Testament. The Marcionite was familiar enough with Tertullian’s viewpoints on this issue to use his rigorist interpretation of the 2nd commandment as a way to “corner him,” forcing him to change his views in the midst of their debate. Incredibly, Tertullian even refused to admit as catechumens any painters or sculptors into his church (Bigham, p. 126), showing that his views in On Idolatry and The Shows are not exceptions, but are rather representative of his actual belief. His response to the Marcionite seems to be an exception, and he even continues to explain that the brazen serpent shows “the power of our Lord’s cross” for those who “turned with an eye of faith to it” (3:18). This was an image not for the purpose of “reading” or decoration, but a true symbol of the Lord’s presence and healing — and even Tertullian was reluctantly forced to admit it. If the Orthodox Christian belief that symbols (such as icons and the brazen serpent) can make the Lord mystically present is a “Greek” idea, we must count Moses among the Greeks.
As a Montanist, Tertullian continued in his extremist arguments; for example, rejecting the idea that a person could repent of adultery and be re-admitted to the Church, and of course writing at length on the folly of idolatry (e.g. On Modesty, an attack on the Church). An Orthodox Christian would join anyone in their rejection of idolatry, but when every image is equated with idolatry — even in a non-religious context — we cannot possibly join in his beliefs. And neither would Pr Wedgeworth.
What Tertullian represents, really, is a trend of conflict within the Christian world that goes all the way back to its very beginnings. As Ouspensky notes, following Florovsky:
In the eighth-ninth century conflict, the iconoclasts represented an unreformed and uncompromising position, of an Origenistic and Platonic trend … the symbolic-allegorical method of its reasoning could not have been more favorable to the argumentation of iconoclastic theology … it marked a return to the ancient dichotomy between matter and spirit. In such a system, an image can only be an obstacle to spirituality: not only is it made of matter, but it also represents the body, which is matter.
Theology of the Icon, Vol. 1, pp. 148-149
The Christian worldview, where both matter and spirit are united in the risen Christ, is a worldview that the Montanists, and especially Tertullian, rejected.
This rejection of matter (and even of the glorified body of the Lord) is exemplified in letters such as Eusebius of Caesarea’s to Constantia (Eusebius being a devoted Origenist and semi-Arian), where he condemns their desire to obtain an icon of Christ, “since the body of the Lord was transformed, at present, into an unutterable glory … only in spirit could one contemplate the glory in which Christ finds Himself after his Ascension” (ibid., p. 149). Ouspensky remarks that this sort of reaction underlines the struggle the early Christians had “in accepting and assimilating the Christian revelation in its fullness.” A revelation that rejected both Arius and Origen — embracing the orthodox Christology of the ecumenical Church — a rejection of the older, pagan viewpoints.
On this same point, Von Schönborn notes, “wherever a polemic against the Christian image starts, it is all too often based on a questionable theological vision (Eusebius, Epiphanius, Asterius of Amasea, the Montanist Tertullian of De Pudicitia [On Modesty])” (L’icone du Christ, p. 84). Ouspensky reminds the reader that the ecumenical Quinisext Council (which rejected mere symbolism in favor of icons of the divine-human Christ) cast this rejection of iconography as “pagan immaturity” set forth by “Origen, Didymus and Evagrius, who restored Greek fables” (Canon 1; Ouspensky, p. 149). The Catholic Church did not see icons as an adoption of pagan, Greek idolatry, but as a conscious rejection of it.
In conclusion, Tertullian is not exactly the best example to follow on this matter, as his own views are far too extreme and inconsistent; not to mention the fact that his rejection of icons stems from a rejection of basic, orthodox, Christological foundations, and especially as related to symbolism and the redemption of matter. His rejection of the Church altogether should serve as a reminder that such iconoclastic or interpretive rigorism — well-intentioned as it may be — does not necessarily aid in preserving one’s faith. In rejecting the good and holy results of the Incarnation of our Lord, Tertullian ended up rejecting the Lord’s Body altogether.
In the next post, I will discuss canon 36 of the Council of Elvira.
Also Available: Part 1
Seems to be a trend in the Protestant world to avoid distinguishing between actual fathers of the church and heretics. This practice does not increase the credibility of those writing against us much, does it? I wonder if Protestant pluralism makes it hard for them to see the distinction? Or what?
1. The worship/veneration distinction also appears in an odd place in early Christian history. One of the arguments against the Arians was that Christ had to be God because they worshiped him. The Arian bishop Theognius of Bithynia responds to this charge by saying: “Therefore we say the Son is begotten, and the Son was never able to have been unbegotten. Since we know from the Holy Scriptures that the Father alone is unbegotten, ; but we venerate the Son, because among us it is certain that this glory of his ascends to the Father.”
2. I think it worthy of note that even Tertullian must admit that some images do not violate the 2nd commandment. This is precisely the balance we see at 2nd Nicea. This council makes two important criteria. First, an icon may be an idol by what it depicts. Second, an icon may be an idol by one’s posture towards it. An example of the first case may be found in the three holy youths. An example of the second may be found in the bronze serpent.
The quote above is supposed to read: “Therefore we say the Son is begotten, and the Son was never able to have been unbegotten. Since we know from the Holy Scriptures that the Father alone is unbegotten, we worship him alone; but we venerate the Son, because among us it is certain that this glory of his ascends to the Father.”
The point of this Arian argument is that they:
1. Worship God who is uncreated
2. Venerate Christ who is created
well said …and i suspect Pastor Wedgeworth would agree, and find precious little to quarrel with in this post.
Since you are quoting Fr. Bigham (which I am currently rereading), I wonder do you agree with his view that the letter to Constantina from Eusebius is probably spurious? Fr. Bigham, from what I recall (I have not arrived to that point in the book where he discusses Eusibuis yet), seems to argue that by accepting such a letter as authentic, one would have to assume that Eusebius paints such images as acceptable, then unacceptable, then acceptable again. While this movement back and forth is possible, it seems that regarding the letter as a fake, according to Fr. Bigham, would put Eusebius squarely in line with the iconodules rather than one camp, then the other, and back again. Any thoughts? I’m curious what your take on that might be.
I believe there is a patristic critique of icons. It is impossible to deny. Most of the Church Fathers approve honoring relics, but do not make the same reasoning with images. It is a later development:
“It was only by slow degrees that the use of icons became established in the Church. Reacting against their pagan environment, the first Christians were anxious to stress above all the exclusively spiritual character of their worship, and they sought to avoid anything that might savour of idolatry: “God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Early Christian art – as found, for example, in the Roman catacombs – showed a certain reluctance to portray Christ directly, and He was most often represented in symbolical form, as the Good Shepherd, as Orpheus with his lyre, or the like. With the conversion of Constantine and the progressive disappearance of paganism, the Church grew less hesitant in its employment of art, and by A.D. 400 it had become an accepted practice to represent our Lord not just through symbols but directly. At this date, however, there is as yet no evidence to suggest that the pictures in church were venerated or honoured with any outward expressions of devotion. They were not at this period objects of cult, but their purpose was decorative and instructional. Even in this restricted form, however, the use of icons aroused protests on the part of certain fourth-century writers, in particular Eusebius of Caesarea (†339), whose objections are to be found in his letter to Constantia Augusta, the sister of Emperor Constantine. (…) Objections to the use of icons seem also to have been made by that fierce anti-Origenist, St. Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 315-403): but there is some doubt whether the works on this subject attributed to him are in fact authentic. (…) The veneration of icons was not accepted everywhere without opposition. In the late sixth century protests were made at distant geographical extremes, in both instances outside the bounds of the Byzantine Empire – to the west in Marseilles, and to the east in Armenia”. (From “Christian Theology in the East,” in A History of Christian Doctrine, edited by Hubert Cunliffe-Jones [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980], pp. 191-92)
The quote is from Kallistos Ware.
Clement of Alexandria says that “Moses ages before enacted expressly, that neither a graven, nor molten, nor moulded, nor painted likeness should be made; so that we may not cleave to things of sense, but pass to intellectual objects: for familiarity with the sight disparages the reverence of what is divine; and to worship that which is immaterial by matter, is to dishonour it by sense.”
“To worship that which is immaterial by matter, is to dishonour it by sense”. That is a strong theology against images.
Lactantius says that “in the case of God, whose spirit and influence are diffused everywhere, and can never be absent, it is plain that an image is always superfluous”. He criticize pagans because “they worship the images of the gods, they supplicate them with bended knee, they adore them, they sit or stand beside them through the whole day, they offer to them contributions”.
In all these discourses of Lactantius, he never mentions any use of images by Christians. His conclusion: “Wherefore it is undoubted that there is no religion wherever there is an image. For if religion consists of divine things, and there is nothing divine except in heavenly things; it follows that images are without religion, because there can be nothing heavenly in that which is made from the earth. And this, indeed, may be plain to a wise man from the very name. For whatever is an imitation, that must of necessity be false.”
Also Irenaeus says about Gnostics that they “possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honoring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles”. You can see that Irenaeus speaks of this practice of “honoring” and “crowning” images as something very strange, “after the same manner of the gentiles”.
Kallistos Ware says that at the 5th century “there is as yet no evidence to suggest that the pictures in church were venerated or honoured with any outward expressions of devotion”. The famous letter of Pope Gregorius teaches that images are useful “for instruction” (a position that Martin Luther would agree with).
Ricardo, your quotes are apt, but ultimately hit below the point. Clement’s theology of the image arises from his own clear apprehensions of middle Platonist thought, and especially his apprehension of allegory. For the ancient pagans, the mythic world identified image and archetype, but the commentators on Aristotle and Plato took to allegorizing Homer and the other poets, all in line with Plato’s vision of reality. Clement took this up as well. For after all, it is quite clear that the Mosaic prohibitions were strictly limited to images of the ineffable nature of God (for what do we do then of the Cherubim, etc.). Thus to accept Clement is to reject the OT. As for Lactantius, he is clearly writing against images of divinity, and does not touch our matter here (for then why need we bread and wine?). Hold Lactantius’ view of images up against St. Basil or St. Athanasius, and to accept him as saying what you say he is, is to reject Sts. Basil and Athanasius. As to St. Irenaeus, he is speaking only about the odd practices of particular Gnostics. Again, this doesn’t address the question. Lastly, ++Kallistos is not questioning whether they were there, or even if they were venerated, but is simply asserting we have no evidence of pre-400 actions to this end. I would say that we cannot, however, have images and remain neutral to them, and find our dear ++Kallistos’s point an irrelevancy. Lastly, on Pope St. Gregory Dialogus, the real import of the quote, as the Fathers at Nicaea II saw, was what came after the “Bible of the illiterate” part. Namely that we contemplate the heavenly through the material.
Cyril Jenkins, if you read the discourses of Clement of Alexandria and Lactantius, you will see how they reject any use of images in religion. Lactantius is not only objecting against representations of God (as those we can see in the Sistine Chapel), but against any use of images as part of the worship of God. He never mentions a different use of images made by Christians.
Now, I don’t agree with their theology. I´m just showing that there is, in fact, a patristic theology against images. And Kallistos Ware testifies that “the first Christians were anxious to stress above all the exclusively spiritual character of their worship, and they sought to avoid anything that might savour of idolatry”. The “reluctance to portray Christ directly” is another interesting point, that shows that there is a patristic critique of icons. Also, there is a letter of Augustine, where he condemns “those who seek Christ and his apostles in pictures, instead of the holy books” (though I can’t find the letter now to quote directly).
But, most important, the fact that at the 5th century “there is as yet no evidence to suggest that the pictures in church were venerated or honoured with any outward expressions of devotion” raises the question: how can we adopt (and made it an article of faith) a practice (venerating images) that has no foundation in “what has been believed always, everywhere and by all”? The famous letter of Pope Gregorius teaches that images are useful “for instruction” (a position that Martin Luther would agree with), and this shows how the position of the Nicea II went much further than the preceding tradition.
What position is more catholic (truly catholic)? That of Martin Luther or that of Nicea II? I think it is the first.
Catholic is not a synonym for “mere Christianity.” Indeed, it means nearly the opposite.
You quoted Lactantius as saying:
“Wherefore it is undoubted that there is no religion wherever there is an image. For if religion consists of divine things, and there is nothing divine except in heavenly things; it follows that images are without religion, because there can be nothing heavenly in that which is made from the earth. And this, indeed, may be plain to a wise man from the very name. For whatever is an imitation, that must of necessity be false.”
His issue w/ images and the goodness of non-heavenly things reveals the same thing it did w/ the Iconoclasts….they have some kind of misunderstanding of the incarnation. For while God did forbid the making of images using any earthly things to represent Him and then to worship them there came a time in which He “imaged” Himself using that which is natural and earthly. Jesus Christ is the icon of God. The fulness of deity dwells in Him “bodily”. While fully God, Christ is also fully, in every way there is, human-natural-matter etc. If He cannot be imaged in some way then His incarnation was lacking. He wasn’t real then. Christ will always be fully human as well as divine. So those who have such problems w/ icons of Christ are in some way baulking at the fullness of His incarnation. Your buddy Lactantius seems to have this problem and this problem is manifested in his rejection of anything earthly being useful for worship. Was Christ not worshiped while being a human being? Was He not made of matter just like you and I? Did He not use earthly things to heal people? Are we not told to glorify God in our “bodies”? What we do w/ our physical bodies does have an effect on the spiritual. Paul was fairly clear on this. I find Lactantius’ comment here to be very much NOT in line w/ the Church.
Theodore the Studite wrote along these line if you want a much better write up concerning this.
Regarding Irenaeus, I find hard to believe he was just talking about odd practices of gnostics. You can see that Irenaeus speaks of this practice of “honoring” and “crowning” images as something very strange to him, “after the same manner of the gentiles”. Now, for a Nicea II theologian, there is nothing strange or “gentile” in honoring and crowning images.
I said that Lactantius criticize pagans because “they worship the images of the gods, they supplicate them with bended knee, they adore them, they sit or stand beside them through the whole day, they offer to them contributions”.
Your response is that “we don’t worship images of other gods” and so it is “a straw-man and irrelevant to the icon discussion”. Don’t you think Lactantius would MENTION something like: “oh, yeah, we also, honor, crown, kiss and bow down to images of saints and Christ, but this is different”?. But he never mentions something like that, nor Irenaeus, or Augustine, etc. It is a later development. The church fathers even accuse pagans of “worshipping images”, and not only of “worshipping false gods”. They never made such distinctions.
Fr. Andrew Stephen,
According to St. Vincent of Lerins, catholicity is found in “what has been believed always, everywhere and by all”. Now, look to this quote of George Florosvsky on the subject of icons:
“The Christian West, even before the Schism, had little understanding for this dogmatic and devotional substance of Ikon-painting. In the West it meant just decoration.”
It is common to EO theologians to happily admit that their theology is more “eastern” than “universal”. Is this the catholicity of Vincent of Lerins?
I also recommend the book “Byzantium: the Bridge from Antiquity to the Middle Ages”, by the historian Michael Angold, where he shows how the Frankish Church in the time of the Nicea II absolutely did not share the byzantine position on images (it was not simply a problem of translation).
That’s hardly a recommendation for iconoclasm. The Frankish church was long under Arian influence (having been missionized by Arians initially), and the Frankish conquest of the papacy also gave us papism as we now have it, not to mention the Filioque.
I’m not sure which “EO theologians” you mean (certainly not me, though I am not a theologian), but that the West didn’t have the richness of theological understanding regarding iconography (as per Florovsky) doesn’t mean that they didn’t make icons and venerate them. “Little understanding” for the dogmatic and devotional substance behind icon-painting does not equal to “does not hold the same faith regarding icons prior to the Schism.” If it did, Rome would have rejected Nicea II out of hand. Images also would have been absent from and unvenerated in the West. But they had them, and they venerated them. It is also hardly characteristic of Florovsky that he would characterize this as a question of dogma and (by assuming your reading) thereby condemn the West as having never been Orthodox.
As for catholicity, your comment simply assumes the question at debate, i.e., because we all supposedly agree that the Orthodox theology of icons was absent from either the pre-Schism West or the early Church, it must not truly be catholic. But we do not agree on that.
In any event, though, catholic also doesn’t mean “universal,” at least not in a geographic sense. The catholic faith is the whole Christian faith, and that is what St. Vincent is referencing. If it is supposed to mean “universal,” then I suppose we must also include Arians, Nestorians, etc., and only believe the things they also can stomach. So, as I said, catholic doesn’t mean “mere Christianity.”
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