Is There Really a Patristic Critique of Icons? (Part 3 of 5)

Editor’s Note: Following is the third 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.

The Synod of Elvira

The next example of an alleged Patristic critique of icons comes from the 36th canon of the local synod in Elvira (Spain/Granada), somewhere around the beginning of the 4th century. Pr Wedgeworth lists this synod as having occurred in 305, which would put it squarely in the middle of the Diocletian persecution — a fact that is most helpful in attempting to understand the context of this obscure assembly. Hefele lists the synod as having occurred in either 305 or 306 (A History of the Councils of the Church, Vol. 1, Sec. 13). Pr Wedgeworth quotes the canon in translation (from Wikipedia) as follows:

Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration.

The Latin original of the canon is:

Placuit picturas in ecclesia esse non debere, ne quod colitur et adoratur in parietibus depingatur.

Bigham, among many others, has suggested the following, more  accurate, translation (p. 161):

It has seemed good that images should not be in churches so that what is venerated and worshiped not be painted on the walls.

Thanks to my affiliation with Logos, I have direct access to some of the foremost Latin scholars and translators in the world. I asked one of them (who translated Aquinas in its entirety) to give me his translation, without any foreknowledge of how others have done it. He sent me this:

It seems to me that we ought to not have pictures in the church, lest what is honored and adored be painted on the walls.

When I sent him the translation that Pr Wedgeworth used, he responded: “Yeah, that’s wrong.” Notably, in the eminent Ford Lewis Battles edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1.11.6), canon 36 is translated:

It is decreed that there shall be no pictures in churches, that what is reverenced or adored be not depicted on the walls.

As with the Scriptures themselves (ala Hilary of Poitiers), the importance of this canon is not in the reading, but in the understanding. If this assembly of bishops did, in fact, occur during the Diocletian persecution, what are the implications? For example, Anton Joseph Binterim, Giovanni Battista de Rossi, and Karl Josef von Hefele all read this canon as prohibiting the use of sacred images in above-ground church buildings, in order to avoid their caricature or vandalism by pagans. More specifically, Hefele records:

Binterim believes that this Synod forbade only one thing — namely, that any one might hang images in the Church according to his fancy, and often therefore inadmissible ones. Aubespine thinks that our canon forbids only images representing God (because it says adoratur), and not other pictures, especially those of saints.

A History of the Councils of the Church, Vol. 1, p. 151

Bigham proposes several helpful thoughts (pp. 161-166):

  • Both iconoclasts and iconodules have cited this canon in favor of their own positions in the history of the Church. As such, it is not a stretch to say that no one knows the exact context or meaning of this canon, rendering it moot as a piece of “evidence” for any one position. At best, it is interesting fodder for the discussion.
  • The canon shows that Christians of the pre-Nicene period were distinguishing between images and idols, by its usage of the word picturas.
  • The painting of Christian images was not something new at the beginning of the 4th century, but was an established custom of the church in Spain, and presumably elsewhere (archaeological evidence confirms this, of course). Even Tertullian mentions the image of Christ “The Good Shepherd” on Eucharistic chalices as early as AD 200 (On Modesty, 10). Generally speaking, disciplinary canons (like these) are proposed in response to long-standing practices of the Church.
  • We have no idea what kind of images are being spoken about — images which are colitur et adoratur (“venerated and worshiped”). The Holy Trinity? Christ alone? Saints? Pagan deities? Palm trees?
  • We don’t know what motivated the bishops in this region of Spain to issue this particular canon. Was it to prevent the defacing of icons during the Diocletian persecution? Was it to prevent icons in temporary church buildings (such as a house) from being desecrated at a later point in time? Was it in response to abuse or superstition?
  • The interdiction only applies to paintings or images in parietibus (“on walls”). Does this apply to images elsewhere (such as portable icons on wood)? The canon does not specify anything beyond picturas in parietibus. Bigham notes that this implies a specific restriction of this canon’s interdiction; it is not a “blanket statement” of disapproval.
  • This canon is one of 81 disciplinary (not theological) canons. The canon itself is limited in scope, and carries with it no anathemas or condemnations of idolatry. There is no indication that the bishops intended to ban all kinds of images (for either personal or religious use), nor do they cite theological reasons for the aforementioned canon.
  • No church in Spain, either before or after this synod, obeyed the canon — if indeed it was a wholesale condemnation or ban on religious and liturgical images of any kind. There was never any iconoclastic controversy in the Church of Spain, and the implications of this highly-localized, disciplinary canon to the icon debate were completely ignored for centuries.
  • Other canons from this synod can be found reproduced in other local assemblies and their canons, but not canon 36. Most of these occasional rules were eventually lost to history, as many other canons that have lost their importance due to a change in the historical circumstances that led to their proposal. This canon (among the rest at Elvira) were neither ecumenical in scope, nor eternal in application. Like many other encyclicals, epistles, and synods in the history of the Church, the scope was both locally and historically specific.
  • The mildly-iconophobic Frankish churches did not cite this canon in their debates with both the iconoclasts and the iconodules. In fact, they both encouraged and utilized “paintings on walls” in their churches.

Bigham concludes: “That it is an expression of a generalized iconophobia in Spain, and in the whole ancient Church, a repudiation of all figurative art, and a blueprint for an imageless Christianity seems to be a very heavy load, indeed, to put on the back of such a frail, little donkey” (Ibid., p.166).

Ouspensky also follows a more accurate translation: “It seemed good to us that paintings should not be found in churches and that that which is venerated and adored not be painted on the walls.” He notes that “other types of images” besides “monumental decoration” are not mentioned at all, and that we know — at this exact time in early-4th century Spain — there existed numerous images on “sacred vessels,” sarcophagi, etc. Since these are not mentioned by the canon, it is reasonable to conclude that the canon is not a denial of sacred images in general, but is more likely motivated by practical concerns. He concludes: “Should one not see in canon 36 … an attempt to preserve ‘what is venerated and adored’ from profanation?” He further speculates “Could there not have been any [abuses] in the veneration of images also?” (Theology of the Icon, Vol. 1, p. 40).

Ouspensky’s general approach to canon 36 of Elvira aligns with Bigham, in that we don’t know nearly enough about this synod to make any radical changes to the theology or worship of the Church as a result of it. Any attempt to do so, based upon such flimsy and inadmissible evidence, would be both reckless and intellectually dishonest. Other Protestant scholars have admitted as much: “No great weight can be attached to this, the exact bearing of the canon being unknown” (Edward James Martin, A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy, p. 19). Pomazansky seems to follow both of Ouspensky’s proposals, stating:

The discoveries of ecclesiastical archaeology show that in the ancient Christian Church there existed sacred images in the catacombs and in other places of assembly for prayer, and subsequently in Christian churches. If in certain cases Christian writers have expressed themselves against the existence of statues and similar images, they have in mind the pagan worship (the Council of Elvira in Spain, 305). Sometimes, however, such expressions and prohibitions were evoked by the special conditions of the time — for example, the necessity to hide one’s holy things from the pagan persecutors and from the non-Christian masses who had a hostile attitude toward Christianity.

Orthodox Dogmatic Theology
, Ch. 9

I personally believe that the fear of sacred images being desecrated during the Diocletian persecution is the most plausible explanation, and is possibly connected with canon 52 of this same synod: “Anyone who writes scandalous graffiti in a church is to be condemned.” During periods of persecution, sacred items pertinent to the liturgical assembly were kept in the homes of the faithful, only to be brought to the church building for the time of worship. This included everything from the bread, water, wine, and oil of the Mysteries, to the Gospel book itself. The “Little Entrance” of the Gospel in the present Liturgy is a reminder that the bishop, presbyter, or deacon would walk from the altar into the nave and retrieve the Gospels or other sacred writings from whoever was “hiding” them at home that week. These early practices remind us of the persecution that occurred with varying frequency in the early Church, and the necessity of protecting what is venerated. Perhaps this is all that canon 36 is doing?

Regardless, it must be reiterated one last time that this canon was always local, and was never received nor intended to be seen as ecumenical. As my friend Robert Arakaki has pointed out, looking to canons such as this one as being ecumenical, “Patristic,” or even theological in scope, is like a layperson looking at legal rulings with no regard for the distinctions between a district court, an appellate court, and the supreme court. If we did not have this judicial hierarchy we would end up with juridical anarchy or a mishmash of conflicting legal opinions. Where an ignorant layperson sees a jumble, a trained lawyer sees an unfolding progression of legal reasoning.

While one might ignore all of the above, and still lay hold to Elvira as a code of theological law that is ever-binding on the consciences of Christians, one cannot help but point out the inconsistency of claiming to do so. Why? Because no one actually follows the rest of these canons.

For example, do Protestants/iconoclasts obey canon 26?: “The rigorous form of fasting is to be followed every Saturday.”

How about canon 33?: “Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from the procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office.”

What about canon 60, which (interestingly enough) forbids the smashing of idols?: “If someone smashes an idol and is then punished by death, he or she may not be placed in the list of martyrs, since such action is not sanctioned by the Scriptures or by the apostles.”

Do Protestant/iconoclastic husbands forbid their wives from writing letters to other people without their consent (canon 81)? Do Protestant/iconoclastic husbands submit their wives for excommunication when they get their hair done at a hairdresser (canon 67)?

It makes very little sense to obey canon 36, or to strongly imply that it bears “Patristic” weight, without giving all 81 canons their due obedience. This glaring inconsistency completely undermines even the audacity of citing this canon as Patristic evidence.

In the fourth post, I will discuss the quotes from St Gregory the Great and St Epiphanius of Salamis.

Also AvailablePart 1 & Part 2


  1. That is just awesome! I was formulating my question and you stated my question in the closing of this article.

    I don’t understand why someone outside of Orthodoxy is trying to use our documents to show we are wrong. And, since they are outside of Orthodoxy they are using our documents inappropriately. And, if they are using this document to support why they don’t use icons, then just like you asked, why are they not obeying the other canons? This just makes absolutely no sense, to me, what-so-ever.

    I think I would almost have more respect for this guy if he just said we (Orthodox) are worshiping our icons. Then, we could just dismiss him as not understanding. But, since he is researching and turning documents around and using them inappropriately he is making himself look worse.

    But alas, the Protestants claim they follow no man made rules, but they will take this mans wrong words and follow it without ever researching it for themselves. Sounds kinda like what they accuse us of.

    1. I think that the whole point of Mr. Wedgeworth’s article is not to put together some kind of Patristic case against icons for Prots to follow but merely attempt to show that there was Patristic evidence against icon veneration. I doubt he would claim to reject icon veneration based on Patristic reasoning but cuz it’s absent from the Bible. So to respond that he ought to follow the other canons misses the point….he doesn’t follow any of the canons nor draw from them either in whole or part to form what he believes.

  2. It would not do much good to ask someone who puts forth this canon, “Why do you not concern yourself with the other canons of this Council?” The response would likely be, “I only respect Councils to the extent that they reflect [how I interpret] the Scriptures.” This reveals that they are not interested in learning from, and conforming to statements of the Church. They are primarily interested in quote-mining and proof-texting.

  3. I am afraid that this dreadfully off-topic, but could soeon please tell me which church is pictured at the top of the site? Is it Iona? I am sorry to be so boring but I feel that I recognise the place and it is irritating me!

  4. Very nice!
    As for Latin translation, i teach Ancient Greek and Latin, so I appreciate your correction of the poor translations. There could be a whole host of reasons for not wanting images painted on the walls.
    Great lawyer illustration. It helped me to really see what is going on better.

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