Could the Veneration of Icons Be a Legitimate Change?

This article is the final post in a series about the veneration of images. If the arguments in my previous articles are correct, then Scripture, archaeology, and the early church all coincide to demonstrate that before Constantine, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice. However, might it be possible that we could still venerate images? What if this practice was one that could change?

See below for the rest of the articles in this series:

  1. My first post introduces and summarizes the issues around the veneration of icons. It deals with some high-level objections and brings all the different evidence together.
  2. My second post deals with the archaeological evidence for early Christian art. Because the evidence from art is more ambiguous, I demonstrate only the more modest claim that evidence from archaeology does not suggest that before 313, the veneration of images was a common Christian practice.
  3. My third post discusses Scripture and theology and whether they can be used in support of the veneration of images (as opposed to the worship of idols). I conclude that Scripture seems to be against the practice, though it doesn’t explicitly mention it.
  4. My fourth post digs deeply into the pre-Constantinian evidence—the church fathers before 313. It shows very clearly that the consensus of the pre-Constantinian church is against the veneration of images.
  5. My fifth post discusses some strategies that the Eastern Orthodox and others use in order to maintain their beliefs, and shows why they don’t work.
  6. My sixth post discusses evidence starting from 313 to see how the veneration of images could have arisen. I look into the writings of John Chrysostom and other favorite saints of the Eastern Orthodox, and show that these church fathers did not practice iconodulia. I also sketch out how the veneration of images could have slowly crept into the church, without drawing much comment.
  7. My seventh and final post discusses the possibility that iconodulia could be a legitimate change. I show that iconodulia couldn’t meet the criteria proposed by Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox for doctrines and practices that can change.

Doctrinal Development—does it work for Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox?

Though Eastern Orthodox Christians typically argue that their church has never changed since the apostles, some have recognized that this position is impossible to maintain in light of the evidence. Instead, they recognize that changes occurred, but they argue that these changes are legitimate ones.

For example, Stephen Bigham and the author of this article take an approach that’s basically an Eastern Orthodox version of the famed Roman Catholic position of doctrinal development. Bigham says,

“What originally began as a pious custom among the faithful became a point of substantial controversy, thanks in no small part to those who would use it for strategic, political purposes in the 8th and 9th centuries. Therefore, it was incumbent upon the bishops of the Church to assemble and attempt to settle the issue (and thus the Second Council of Nicaea of 787 and the Synod of Constantinople of 843).” (Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images)

“Probably, I mean I’m saying this as a probable thing; I can’t affirm it. Probably, what we call, today, ‘veneration,’ that probably did not exist . . . in the first three centuries” (This video)

Of course, this is a startling admission for Eastern Orthodox. Is Bigham able to preserve the doctrine anyway, even with these admissions?

No, for two reasons. First, because Christian doctrine cannot change or develop. The apostles and the early Christians were very clear on this point. No one but Jesus or the apostles ever had the authority to define the faith.

Furthermore, my research shows that the consensus of the fathers, all the way up to the first church council, is that iconodulia is foreign to Christianity. However, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches now teach something to be essential that was once taught to be foreign to Christianity. This is not a mere development—this is an actual alteration of the apostolic faith.

Calling a new doctrine a “development” only works if you manage to entirely take away the negative case against it, and to show that those who taught against it were only a few isolated dissidents. Yet, given the extensiveness of the negative case, that is hardly possible. The veneration of images was actively argued against by many Christian leaders and was accepted by no Christian leaders.

Finally, the very decrees of the Second Council of Nicaea completely repudiate the idea that the veneration of images could have been a change or development. The bishops at that council claimed that the practice of iconodulia went back to the apostles. This undercuts the well-intentioned arguments of today’s Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

Below you can see what Nicaea II declared. Do they leave any room for development of doctrine?

To make our confession short, we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, . . .

We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence (ἀσπασμὸν καὶ τιμητικὴν προσκύνησιν), not indeed that true worship of faith (λατρείαν) which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented. For thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which from one end of the earth to the other hath received the Gospel, is strengthened. Thus we follow Paul, who spake in Christ, and the whole divine Apostolic company and the holy Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received. . . . Those, therefore who dare to think or teach otherwise, or as wicked heretics to spurn the traditions of the Church and to invent some novelty, or else to reject some of those things which the Church hath received . . .

The holy Synod cried out: So we all believe, we all are so minded, we all give our consent and have signed. This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the orthodox, this is the faith which hath made firm the whole world. Believing in one God, to be celebrated in Trinity, we salute the honourable images! Those who do not so hold, let them be anathema. Those who do not thus think, let them be driven far away from the Church. For we follow the most ancient legislation of the Catholic Church. We keep the laws of the Fathers. We anathematize those who add anything to or take anything away from the Catholic Church.1Extracts from the Acts, Session I, NPNF vol. 2.14

Further Objections

This section deals with general objections to this argument.

What If Iconodulia Isn’t a Doctrine?

Two Roman Catholics whom I appreciate suggest that none of this is a problem at all. They argue that iconodulia is not really a doctrine but a “cultic” issue, so that it is a practice that can change even without being a doctrinal development. Presumably they mean that this practice falls into the category of a “discipline,” as the Roman Catholic Church calls commands that have to do more with worship practices than with beliefs. According to them, their church can command or forbid practices at will as “disciplines,” while “doctrines” can only change through development.

I see this as a very convenient distinction for the Roman Catholic Church to have made. As far as I can tell, there is no early support for such a distinction between teachings that the church handed down. None of the apostles’ teachings could be changed, whether they appeared more like doctrines or disciplines.

Introducing distinctions

If one wants to make two things logically compatible, one has only to introduce a distinction of some kind. For example, if you wanted to permit homosexual actions when the New Testament forbids them, you could simply say that it forbids such actions when performed by heterosexual-identifying people, not when performed by people who identify as being homosexually oriented.

Distinctions are an important thing. If one text says two things that contradict each other at face value, then it is actually good practice to look for distinctions that can harmonize the seeming contradiction. However, when someone later would prefer that a text wouldn’t say something that contradicts their own beliefs, that is not an appropriate time to introduce such a distinction. Instead, we need good textual reasons from the early church to suggest that there is such a distinction between changeless infallible doctrines and change-at-will infallible disciplines, practices, or the like.

Anathematizing people based on changing disciplines

But there’s actually another issue with this. The Second Council of Nicaea actually anathematized those who do not venerate icons, and the bishops who declared this said that “anathema is nothing less than complete separation from God.”2“The Letter of the Synod to the Emperor and Empress,” NPNF vol. 2.14 Do we have any reason to suppose that Christian leaders can anathematize someone for disobeying a ruling that is entirely subject to change?

Everybody in the early church would have disagreed with this change, not only because iconodulia was not a legitimate Christian practice, but because their beliefs and the beliefs they found in Scripture were consistently opposed to the practice.

The church has no right to order all Christians, on pain of anathema or excommunication, to do something that no Christian leader at all would have done or permitted for the first 250 years of the church. There is no precedent for that in the early church.

Solum Magisterium and discontinuity with the early church

Finally, holding this position undercuts the Roman Catholic claim to continuity with the early church. When Scripture, Tradition, and the church fathers are all against something that is later changed, the church can no longer claim continuity with them. The only remaining source of doctrine for Roman Catholics is their innovative claim to an ongoing infallible magisterium, which literally trumps everything else that any Christian believed before them. If Roman Catholicism is willing to bite this bullet, they will be no better off than the Mormons, who came up with a New New Testament (the book of Mormon), or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who continually change, believing that God gives them more and more light. Even their prophecies can fail at any point and they are still supposed to be God’s One True Organization. If all the Roman Catholics have is an ongoing magisterium, how are they any better off than these non-Trinitarian Christians?

Finally, this view is foreign to what the Second Council of Nicaea declared. It is obvious from their decree that they were teaching that the veneration of images was a practice preserved unchanged from the apostles, and that nobody could do anything other than what the early church practiced on this issue, as I showed in the previous section.

What if the doctrinal principles underlying iconodulia pre-exist Constantine?

It has been pointed out that, if the doctrinal principles underlying the veneration of images was present in the apostolic church, then we would assume that practice to be legitimate. That’s true; iconodulia could be legitimate if it is consistent with Christian principles. However, it should not be mandated unless it was actually commanded by the apostles.

But this is a moot point. As my articles on Scripture and the early church show, the early consensus was that images could not play such a mediatorial role. Thus, the principles underlying iconodulia are directly contradicted. Iconodulia is not based on Christian commands and principles at all.

Is the principle of iconodulia self-evident?

One argument posed by an Eastern Orthodox apologist whose scholarship I respect is this: Since you wouldn’t spit on an image of Christ, you are admitting that the (dis)honor given to an image passes to its prototype.

Note that such an argument can only go so far. Even if it established this principle, it wouldn’t be able to overcome the preponderance of the evidence showing that before Constantine, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice. But it doesn’t establish this principle, since Scripture and the early church do not agree that an image can play such a mediatorial role.

So is there another interpretation of our preference not to spit on images of Christ? Yes. Everyone should recognize that the actions we take and the words we say affect our dispositions. There are words in the English language that I refuse to say out loud or even to vocalize in my head, because I know that they will degrade my view of sacred things. I try to refrain from dirty jokes, so that I can continue to think of God’s created order as beautiful. I try to stay away from those who take the Lord’s name in vain, because it harms my view of God.

Just as I would not aim a gun at a person; just as I would not spit on a dead body; just as I believe one should not wantonly kill animals, I also would not spit on an image of Christ—or even of the devil.

The reason an image can be said to be “of” someone is that it resembles the way we think of them in our heads. Thus, if we mistreat an image of them, we are mistreating something that resembles the way we think of them in our heads. Such an action must affect how we continue to think of that person. Thus, we have good reason not to spit on an image of Christ without believing that prayers to that image are addressed to its prototype.

Roman Catholicism & Eastern Orthodoxy Are in a Quandary

I believe that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are sincere in their efforts to follow the faith. They aren’t trying to worship images; they only intend to give honor to the people represented. But just because they’re sincere doesn’t mean that they are following the historic faith.

So this means that Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are in a quandary. They live with a contradiction inside them. On the one hand, we have to bow to icons, because the infallible decision of the seventh council is that it’s an essential part of the faith. However, we may not bow to icons, because the apostolic traditions teach that icons are entirely foreign to the faith.

We need to choose one or the other—either the apostles or the council. The choice may be hard, but at least it is simple.

  • 1
    Extracts from the Acts, Session I, NPNF vol. 2.14
  • 2
    “The Letter of the Synod to the Emperor and Empress,” NPNF vol. 2.14

17 thoughts on “Could the Veneration of Icons Be a Legitimate Change?”

  1. Doc, as a Catholic the contradiction is just so hard to live with! Whatever shall I do with this quandary that keeps me awake at night?

    (I’m joking of course…)

    The problem is that your analysis begs the question by approaching tradition (and Scripture) in a way that presupposes that Catholicism is false. You don’t start from a theologically neutral position (not that such a thing exists). If you start from a Protestant paradigm with respect to theological loci, of course you are going to come to the conclusion that Catholics are “in a quandary” here. But the actual view from inside the Catholic faith has no such quandary.

    1. Hi Landon,

      It sounds like you’re saying that I’m misunderstanding the Roman Catholic position here. Feel free to let me know what parts of your church’s position that I’ve misunderstood.

      You said I’ve presupposed that Roman Catholicism is false. That’s not my intent. Feel free to point out any question-begging premises that you can find in my argument.

      1. Sure, as one example you assume that Christ did not found a visible and hierarchical Church through which we receive both Scripture and tradition, and which has been given divine authority to definitively decide on questions regarding the faith such as the veneration of icons. Your entire approach is predicated on the falsehood of such a statement.

        1. My intent is to ask the question of whether there is such an infallible institutional church. So of course I don’t assume either way. But I may not have communicated that well enough. Where would you say that I assume that there is definitely no such infallible institutional church?

          1. I thought your intent was to come to a conclusion regarding the veneration of icons. In that analysis, your methodology is itself assuming that such a Church does not exist. You are treating tradition and Scripture as if such a Church did not exist – hence why I say that you are presupposing that Catholicism is false.

          2. You’re right, it’s both. The veneration of icons is a test case for the authority claims of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Hence I look at the historical sources, and ask the question of whether the history supports the claims of those churches.

            Could you elaborate on what you mean by, “You are treating tradition and Scripture as if such a Church did not exist”? We have to leave the question open, if that’s the question we have.

          3. You didn’t look at the historical sources from a Catholic point of view. You only looked at them from a viewpoint assuming that Catholicism is false – that there isn’t a divinely instituted Church that has spoken authoritatively on the issue. “Leaving the question open” doesn’t make sense in this case. Looking at the historical sources surrounding the veneration of icons from a non-Catholic viewpoint isn’t going to prove that Catholicism is true (and we don’t make any sort of claim like that).

          4. Maybe this will make it more clear. You said that Catholics “live with a contradiction inside them.” If you want to actually show that is the case, you need to show that the theological methodology internal to the Catholic faith (the way in which the Catholic tradition approaches theological loci such as Scripture, tradition, history, etc) leads to a contradiction. Instead what you have done is to show that if you start with a Protestant approach to Scripture, tradition, and history you generate a contradiction with the Catholic faith. But that is just begging the question by presupposing the Protestant theological paradigm (which assumes the falsity of Catholicism).

          5. Landon, my understanding is that, according to Roman Catholicism, if the apostolic church taught something in a consensus, that must be true. What I’ve done is show that the iconodulia was not a legitimate Christian practice in the apostolic church. That seemed close enough to a contradiction to me to call it one. If I could have characterized the Roman Catholic view more accurately, I’d be glad to hear it.

            There’s always a way to reconcile two contradictory statements by simply amending one of the statements to leave a logical loophole. If I were a Roman Catholic apologist, I’m sure I could think of such a loophole. Perhaps I should have forestalled that objection by speaking of it as special pleading rather than a contradiction.

          6. Ok, so if Catholics believe that “if the apostolic church taught something in a consensus, that must be true,” can you give an example of where the Church teaches this, and illustrate how we flesh out terms like “the apostolic church” or “taught in a consensus” in theological argumentation? (I’m asking for you to accurately state the internal Catholic view on this methodological point – then we can work through the historical data points comparing our respective viewpoints.)

          7. Hi Landon,

            My understanding is that if there is a church-wide consensus on a particular point, it is binding to future generations. But of course, I’m not an expert on the Roman Catholic view of Tradition. If my understanding is incorrect, I would be glad to hear what Roman Catholicism teaches with regard to the consensus of the fathers. Is there room within your tradition for a view to be the unanimous one, and then to be infallibly decreed against?

          8. If you don’t understand the Catholic view of Tradition, then it might be best from a ecumenically charitable point of view (or at least for the sake of intellectual rigor) to refrain from making grandiose claims such as stating that Catholics “live with a contradiction inside them” or are “in a quandary.” (This also goes back to my earlier contention that you haven’t actually considered the historical sources from the Catholic point of view, which is necessary if you want to conclude that Catholics live with an internal contradiction.)

            In answer to your question, no. One of the secondary criteria of Tradition is the consensus of the Fathers, so it would not be possible for there to be such a consensus on a matter pertaining to the deposit of revelation that the Fathers taught to be believed by the Church as part of the faith, and for the Magisterium to later rule against that proposition. But there is no such consensus against the practice of the veneration of icons, or indeed anything close to one. Depending on the issue, establishing such a consensus can be difficult (which is one reason why this is a secondary criterion). To see why this is the case, it is important to dig into and understand (1) what is required for a “consensus” and (2) who “the Fathers” are. I’m not going to type out a lengthy essay on these concepts, but if you want to learn more, here are a few places to start. There is a good detailed discussion by Joachim Salaverri and Michaele Nicolau in the manual Sacrae Theologiae Summa, Volume IB, Chapter V, Article I, Thesis 20. An older but still useful discussion is given by Cardinal Franzelin in his De Divina Traditione (see especially Thesis XV). See also Emmanuel Doronzo in his Science of Sacred Theology on Tradition (Book 3, Part I, Chapter 2), especially Note 2 (“On the Fathers of the Church as a Theological Place”). Finally, see Yves Congar in his book The Meaning of Tradition, Chapter 4, the section on “The Fathers of the Church.”

            (If you have any specific questions on this, I’m happy to try to answer them as best I can.)

          9. You may be right that it would be better not to argue for a contradiction. Not that that is a “grandiose” claim, but that, in order to defend that claim, I’d need to dig deeper into the Roman Catholic mindset—and, as I pointed out, there’s always a way to reconcile two statements so that they don’t contradict, if one of them is qualified enough. When I revise this, I’ll make sure I make this an external rather than an internal critique. And thanks for the recommended reading on this subject.

          10. Real contradictions do exist – there isn’t always a way to reconcile two statements so that they don’t contradict. Reasoning would be pretty difficult otherwise! There just isn’t a contradiction for Catholics here.

          11. To explain, as far as I can tell, one can always qualify any proposition to reconcile it with its contradiction. For example, I can reconcile “God exists” and “God does not exist” by qualifying the second statement to say “God does not exist corporeally.”

            I’m not interested in getting into an argument on this point, but here’s a video that expresses the frustration that non–Roman Catholics can have on encountering the Roman Catholic system and finding that there is always a loophole that appears suspiciously technical. I’m sure you’ll disagree with it; I share it to help you understand how this may appear to a non–Roman Catholic.

          12. Sure, but as long as you define the terms you are using in the propositions you can avoid this sort of issue.

          13. As a side note, I find video (especially youtube ‘apologetics’ videos) an incredibly difficult medium from which to parse out logical structure. I’m happy to consider any argument from such sources if the logical structure can be briefly summarized in text form. (Of course I’m also happy to consider longer, more complex written arguments if they seem important.)

            If the objection is that Catholics make distinctions that “appear suspiciously technical” to some people, then I don’t really mind. I care about what is true (and the fact that words are not univocal is certainly part of the truth). Also, I was once myself non-Catholic, and thus have some insight into how things appear to non-Catholics. I didn’t find anything that seemed “suspiciously technical” while I was investigating the faith for myself.

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