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