Early Church Fathers on Icons

This post addresses the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic practice of venerating icons. It examines the textual evidence from the first centuries of Christianity to see whether or not the veneration of images was considered a legitimate practice.

The purpose of this post is not polemics but to do apologetics and honest historical inquiry. So my strategy is to bring out all the relevant evidence I’m aware of, leaving no significant piece of evidence missing. When nothing is being swept under the rug, then we can come to legitimate conclusions.

Icons in the Early Church

In this set of posts, I show that, before 313, and probably for some time following, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice.

As I stated in my overview of this subject, I am not arguing that pre-Constantinian Christians didn’t have any kind of image, or that they were iconoclasts. All that I’m arguing is that, before 313, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice.

Here are the posts that I’ve written on the subject. For the full treatment of this issue, I suggest starting with the first post and continuing to the rest of them to provide evidence for my contentions.

  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 evidence after 313 to see how the veneration of images could have arisen. I look into the writings of John Chrysostom and others of Orthodoxy’s favorite saints, and show that they did not practice iconodulia. I also sketch out how the veneration of images could have slowly crept into the church, without drawing much comment.

In this article, I’ll be supporting this argument by defending the following two contentions:

  • We have good evidence that many pre-Constantinian Christian leaders and writers did not believe that the veneration of images was a legitimate Christian practice.
  • We have no good evidence that any pre-Constantinian Christian leader or writer believed that the veneration of images was a legitimate Christian practice

Method

In the nearly three hundred years before the councils, a lot of church fathers and other writers wrote about religious images. However, they do not mention it as a Christian practice, but as a pagan or heretical practice.

How, then, do we know for sure that the veneration of images was not considered a legitimate Christian practice? Simple—the way they argued against pagan veneration of images shows that they did not themselves venerate images. Furthermore, the way they argued shows that they almost certainly would have argued against the Christian veneration of images, had they known of such a practice.

If you believe the veneration of images to be a legitimate practice, just ask yourself the following question when you read each quotation that I’ve provided: “How could this writer have made such direct statements against images, if he was practicing iconodulia himself?”

How to ensure that the evidence is relevant?

There are several key differences between Eastern Orthodox veneration of images and pagan veneration of images. For example, the Eastern Orthodox don’t worship polytheistic gods by venerating images, while the pagans did. Thus, just any early Christian quotation against pagan iconodulia wouldn’t be evidence against Christian iconodulia. However, note that there are several key similarities between the way both pagans and Eastern Orthodox venerate images:

  • There is veneration addressed to something.
  • There are images considered sacred.
  • These images are of a deity, lesser spiritual beings, or people who have died.

I have excluded any pieces of evidence where early Christians argue against things that are solely done by pagans. What I have included are pieces of evidence where they argue against things that are done by both Orthodox and pagans, since in those cases their arguments are valid against Christian iconodulia.

Images cannot stand in for anything sacred

Iconodulia (the veneration of icons) entails the belief that an image of a person can stand in for the person himself, and that prayers and adoration to such an image will pass on to the person depicted in the image. If you don’t believe that, you don’t believe in the veneration of icons. After all, there would be no point in praying to an icon if it weren’t a means of praying to a real person.

Multiple early Christian writers wrote that images cannot stand in for anything sacred. Art may be valuable, but these writers believed that it cannot play a semiotic role for a sacred being. This belief, of course, would undercut a theology of iconodulia. Thus, anyone who believed this could not have consistently venerated icons. If they had used sacred icons to represent Christ (the God of the universe) or the holy saints, they couldn’t have used that argument.

Were they right or wrong? It doesn’t matter. The point is that you can’t use that argument against venerating pagan images, if you yourself are venerating Christian images. Such a statement would have undercut one of their practices, and the pagans could have used it to justify their own practices. The Christians would therefore have needed to explain the difference between pagan veneration and Christian veneration, yet they never do. So if someone argues that matter cannot represent anything sacred, that person could not be practicing iconodulia.

Did pagans worship material items?

Sometimes I hear the objection that, while pagans were actually venerating the idol itself, Christians were venerating the person through the image. However, the early Christians were well aware that pagans believed they were worshiping the gods themselves, not idols, as Melito, Arnobius, and Lactantius show. They knew that worship or veneration of an object was intended for the invisible referent, not for the object. However, as the quotes below demonstrate, they considered that entire concept to be ridiculous. They believed that the pagan adoration went only to the images themselves. Were they right or wrong? It doesn’t matter. The point is that they wouldn’t have considered it ridiculous if they were doing it as well.

Melito of Sardis (Saint)

There are, however, persons who say: It is for the honour of God that we make the image: in order, that is, that we may worship the God who is concealed from our view. But they are unaware that God is in every country, and in every place . . . Because the wood has been sculptured, hast thou not the insight to perceive that it is still wood, or that the stone is still stone?1Fragment 1 http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/melito.html

Athenagorus (Saint)

Because the multitude, who cannot distinguish between matter and God, or see how great is the interval which lies between them, pray to idols made of matter, are we therefore, who do distinguish and separate the uncreated and the created, that which is and that which is not, that which is apprehended by the understanding and that which is perceived by the senses, and who give the fitting name to each of them,—are we to come and worship images? (Plea for the Christians 15 ANF)

Methodius (Saint)

And those artificers who, to the destruction of men, make images in human form, not perceiving and knowing their own Maker, are blamed by the Word, which says, in the Book of Wisdom, a book full of all virtue, “his heart is ashes, his hope is more vile than earth, and his life of less value than clay; forasmuch as he knew not his Maker, and Him that inspired into him an active soul, and breathed in a living spirit;” (Banquet of the Ten Virgins 2.7 ANF)

Clement of Alexandria (Considered a saint by some)

But images, being motionless, inert, and senseless, are bound, nailed, glued,—are melted, filed, sawed, polished, carved. The senseless earth is dishonoured by the makers of images, who change it by their art from its proper nature, and induce men to worship it; and the makers of gods worship not gods and demons, but in my view earth and art, which go to make up images. For, in sooth, the image is only dead matter shaped by the craftsman’s hand. But we have no sensible image of sensible matter, but an image that is perceived by the mind alone,—God, who alone is truly God. (Exhortation to the Heathen 4 ANF)

[W]hat is made is similar and the same to that of which it is made, as that which is made of ivory is ivory, and that which is made of gold golden. Now the images and temples constructed by mechanics are made of inert matter; so that they too are inert, and material, and profane . . . Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine. (Stromata 7.5 ANF)

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. (Stromata 5.5 ANF)

Arnobius

Was it for this He sent souls, that, being made unmindful of the truth, and forgetful of what God was, they should make supplication to images which cannot move . . . ? (Against the Heathen 2.39 ANF)

But do not seek to point out to us pictures instead of gods in your temples, and the images which you set up, for you too know, but are unwilling and refuse to admit, that these are formed of most worthless clay, and are childish figures made by mechanics. (Against the Heathen 3.3 ANF)

For if you are assured that the gods exist whom you suppose, and that they live in the highest regions of heaven, what cause, what reason, is there that those images should be fashioned by you, when you have true beings to whom you may pour forth prayers, and from whom you may ask help in trying circumstances? . . . We worship the gods, you say, by means of images. What then? Without these, do the gods not know that they are worshipped, and will they not think that any honour is shown to them by you? . . . And what greater wrong, disgrace, hardship, can be inflicted than to acknowledge one god, and yet make supplication to something else—to hope for help from a deity, and pray to an image without feeling? (Against the Heathen 6.8-6.9 ANF)

Do you not see, finally, that swallows full of filth, flying within the very domes of the temples, toss themselves about, and bedaub now the very faces, now the mouths of the deities, the beard, eyes, noses, and all the other parts on which their excrements fall? Blush, then, even though it is late, and accept true methods and views from dumb creatures, and let these teach you that there is nothing divine in images, into which they do not fear or scruple to cast unclean things in obedience to the laws of their being, and led by their unerring instincts. (Against the Heathen 6.16)

Aristides

But it is a marvel, O King, with regard to the Greeks, who surpass all other peoples in their manner of life and reasoning, how they have gone astray after dead idols and lifeless images. And yet they see their gods in the hands of their artificers being sawn out, and planed and docked, and hacked short, and charred, and ornamented, and being altered by them in every kind of way.  And when they grow old, and are worn away through lapse of time, and when they are molten and crushed to powder, how, I wonder, did they not perceive concerning them, that they are not gods?  And as for those who did not find deliverance for themselves, how can they serve the distress of men? (Apology 13)

Origen

“Insane” would be the more appropriate word for those who hasten to temples and worship images or animals as divinities.  And they too are not less insane who think that images, fashioned by men of worthless and sometimes most wicked character, confer any honour upon genuine divinities. (Against Celsus 3.76)

Lactantius

What madness is it, then, either to form those objects which they themselves may afterwards fear, or to fear the things which they have formed? . . . You fear them doubtless on this account, because you think that they are in heaven; for if they are gods, the case cannot be otherwise. Why, then, do you not raise your eyes to heaven, and, invoking their names, offer sacrifices in the open air? Why do you look to walls, and wood, and stone, rather than to the place where you believe them to be? (The Divine Institutes 2.2 ANF)

[I]t is an inexpiable crime to desert the living in order that you may serve memorials of the dead, who can neither give life nor light to any one, for they are themselves without it: and that there is no other God but one, to whose judgment and power every soul is subject. [T]he sacred images themselves, to which most senseless men do service, are destitute of all perception, since they are earth. But who cannot understand that it is unlawful for an upright animal to bend itself that it may adore the earth? which is placed beneath our feet for this purpose, that it may be trodden upon, and not adored by us, who have been raised from it, and have received an elevated position beyond the other living creatures, that we may not turn ourselves again downward, nor cast this heavenly countenance to the earth, but may direct our eyes [upward] to that quarter to which the condition of their nature has directed, and that we may adore and worship nothing except the single deity of our only Creator and Father, who made man of an erect figure, that we may know that we are called forth to high and heavenly things. . . . But if it appears that these religious rites are vain in so many ways as I have shown, it is manifest that those who either make prayers to the dead, or venerate the earth, or make over their souls to unclean spirits, do not act as becomes men, and that they will suffer punishment for their impiety and guilt, who, rebelling against God, the Father of the human race, have undertaken inexpiable rites, and violated every sacred law. . . . 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. (The Divine Institutes 2.18-2.19 ANF)

Veneration of images was seen as a difference between Christians and pagans/heretics

Multiple early Christian writers saw the veneration of images as a difference between Christians and rival groups like pagans or heretics. In their minds, veneration of images was something that pagans did, but Christians didn’t have such a practice.

Since many of these men were well-connected and well-aware of what Christians throughout the world were practicing, if they didn’t know that there were Christians who considered the veneration of icons to be a legitimate practice, it’s highly probable that there weren’t any such Christians.

Note that it doesn’t actually matter what beliefs these men themselves held or whether the people I quote are considered to be bastions of orthodoxy or not. That’s because these writers are writing under the assumption that no Christians venerated images. Read these quotes carefully, and note that the way they are written demonstrates that the writers didn’t think that the veneration of icons was something Christians were practicing. So even if we don’t agree with their own opinion on images, their writings demonstrate that, so far as they knew, veneration of images was not a Christian practice.

Irenaeus (Saint)

[The Carpocratian heretics] also 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 honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.

(Against Heresies 1.25.6 ANF)

Hippolytus (Saint)

And [the Carpocratian heretics] make counterfeit images of Christ, alleging that these were in existence at the time (during which our Lord was on earth, and that they were fashioned) by Pilate. (The Refutation of All Heresies 7.20 ANF)

Irenaeus and Hippolytus mention images belonging to a heretical group. Truglia suggests that these quotes could be read of as consistent with Christian iconodulia. After all, they didn’t specifically say that these images are wrong. Does that constitute a problem for this argument?

No, because these quotes are not being used to argue that the early Christians believed images to be wrong, but to show that they saw the existence of sacred images as being a difference between Christians and pagans and heretics. For example, Irenaeus is describing the definitive beliefs of non-Christian groups so that Christians understand them well enough to refute them. If this were something Christians did as well, he wouldn’t have seen much need to include it. Furthermore, Irenaeus associates the images with philosopher cults and Gentile practice. Hippolytus sees them as “counterfeit.”

But might they only be sidelining syncretistic “counterfeit” image veneration alongside philosophers and leaving room for Christian veneration? This interpretation fails to notice that both writers call into question the alleged earliness of these images. Irenaeus says that “they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate” feeling it worthwhile to stress that the images were supposedly “at that time when Jesus lived among them,” suggesting that he didn’t think that images from Jesus’ lifetime existed. Hippolytus also exudes skepticism at that idea. If they had such images as well, why were they skeptical of this?

Truglia argues that Irenaeus doesn’t specifically list crowning of images with the “Gentile” practices. Does this suggest that he was okay with crowning images, in contrast to pagan practices? If so, this undercuts the claims of iconodulia, because the forms of veneration I’m arguing weren’t considered legitimate are bowing to, kissing, and praying to images. Such practices were certainly commonly used by pagans, so they must be ones that Irenaeus means, though perhaps he also means to include burning incense (with the Eastern Orthodox also do). However, there’s good reason to think that during this time period images weren’t crowned, since Justin Martyr, speaking for all Christians in his Apology, says that they did not do so.

If a man is a sculptor or painter, he must be charged not to make idols; if he does not desist he must be rejected. (Apostolic Tradition 16)

Note that Hippolytus’s Apostolic Tradition could have told sculptors and painters to switch to making Christian images for proper veneration, if such had been practiced.

Justin Martyr (Saint)

And this is the sole accusation you bring against us, that we do not reverence the same gods as you do, nor offer to the dead libations and the savour of fat, and crowns for their statues, and sacrifices. (First Apology 24)

Clement of Alexandria

But it is clear to every one that piety, which teaches to worship and honour, is the highest and oldest cause; and the law itself exhibits justice, and teaches wisdom, by abstinence from sensible images (Stromata 2.18 ANF)

Aristides of Athens

But the Christians, O King, while they went about and made search, have found the truth; and as we learned from their writings, they have come nearer to truth and genuine knowledge than the rest of the nations. . . . They do not worship idols (made) in the image of man (Apology 15)

Christians defended themselves against the charge of not having sacred images

To pagans, venerating their gods and the dead through means of images was a way of showing their piety. Pagans criticized Christians for not worshiping with sacred images, because they thought this meant that the Christians weren’t serious about worshipping God.

If Christians had actually used sacred images to venerate the Son of God and the saints, they could simply have replied, “No, don’t falsely accuse us; we (or at least some of us) actually venerate images, too. Just not pagan images.” Instead, Christians responded by arguing against the veneration of images.

Furthermore, this shows that pagans were aware that a lack of sacred images was a hallmark of Christianity. If Christians were venerating images, this difference between pagans and Christians wouldn’t have arisen.

Minucius Felix

But do you think that we conceal what we worship, if we have not temples and altars? And yet what image of God shall I make, since . . . man himself is the image of God? (The Octavius 32 ANF)

Arnobius

For you are here in the habit of fastening upon us a very serious charge of impiety because we do not rear temples for the ceremonies of worship, do not set up statues and images of any god, do not build altars, do not offer the blood of creatures slain in sacrifices, incense, nor sacrificial meal, and finally, do not bring wine flowing in libations from sacred bowls; which, indeed, we neglect to build and do, not as though we cherish impious and wicked dispositions, or have conceived any madly desperate feeling of contempt for the gods, but because we think and believe that they—if only they are true gods, and are called by this exalted name—either scorn such honours, if they give way to scorn, or endure them with anger, if they are roused by feelings of rage. (Against the Heathen 6.1 ANF)

Origen

[W]e, on the other hand, deem those to be “uninstructed” who are not ashamed to address (supplications) to inanimate objects, and to call upon those for health that have no strength, and to ask the dead for life, and to entreat the helpless for assistance. And although some may say that these objects are not gods, but only imitations and symbols of real divinities, nevertheless these very individuals, in imagining that the hands of low mechanics can frame imitations of divinity, are “uninstructed, and servile, and ignorant;” for we assert that the lowest among us have been set free from this ignorance and want of knowledge, while the most intelligent can understand and grasp the divine hope. (Against Celsus 6.14 ANF)

“[Celsus says that Christians] cannot tolerate temples, altars, or images. In this they are like the Scythians, the nomadic tribes of Libya, the Seres who worship no god, and some other of the most barbarous and impious nations in the world. . . .” To this our answer is, that if [these groups] cannot bear the sight of temples, altars, and images, it does not follow because we cannot suffer them any more than they, that the grounds on which we object to them are the same as theirs. . . . [These groups] agree in this with the Christians and Jews, but they are actuated by very different principles. For none of these former abhor altars and images on the ground that they are afraid of degrading the worship of God, and reducing it to the worship of material things wrought by the hands of men. . . . [Christians] not only avoid temples, altars, and images, but are ready to suffer death when it is necessary, rather than debase by any such impiety the conception which they have of the Most High God. . . . [I]t is not possible at the same time to know God and to address prayers to images. (Against Celsus 7.62-7.65 ANF)

It is not therefore true that we object to building altars, statues, and temples, because we have agreed to make this the badge of a secret and forbidden society; but we do so, because we have learnt from Jesus Christ the true way of serving God, and we shrink from whatever, under a pretence of piety, leads to utter impiety those who abandon the way marked out for us by Jesus Christ. (Against Celsus 8.20 ANF)

I am aware that some of Origen’s ideas were condemned after his death. However, he was not considered heretical in his day, and there is no reason to assume that what he said was unrepresentative of the early church. Besides, objecting to Origen’s doctrinal credibility would miss the point of these quotations. The point is that the pagans knew that Christians didn’t have icons, and that Origen felt the need to defend this Christian practice, rather than silencing pagans by pointing to Christians who venerated images.

Several pre-Constantinian Christians directly contradicted veneration of images

However, several early fathers and apologists did, in context of pagan or heretical practices, make statements that directly contradict the use of sacred images.

Clement of Alexandria (Considered a saint by some)

Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine. (Stromata 7.5 ANF)

Arnobius

[A]ccept true methods and views from dumb creatures, and let these teach you that there is nothing divine in images (Against the Heathen 6.16)

Since it has been sufficiently shown, as far as there has been opportunity, how vain it is to form images, . . . (Against the Heathen 7.1)

Lactantius

Wherefore it is undoubted that there is no religion wherever there is an image. (The Divine Institutes 2.18-2.19 ANF)

Origen

[I]t is not possible at the same time to know God and to address prayers to images. (Against Celsus 7.62-7.65 ANF)

For these different tribes erected temples and statues to those individuals above enumerated, whereas we have refrained from offering to the Divinity honour by any such means (seeing they are adapted rather to demons, . . . (Against Celsus 3.34)

No pre-Constantinian Christian leaders wrote in favor of veneration of images

The Eastern Orthodox try to base their beliefs on what church fathers wrote. However, I am not aware of any pre-Constantinian Christian leader who wrote in favor of venerating icons.

No pre-Constantinian Christian leaders ever condemn Christian veneration of images, only practices of pagans and heretics

Note that I haven’t listed any evidence that pre-Constantinian Christians condemned Christian veneration of images. This might seem an objection to my view, but, in fact, it’s not! Of course, if my argument is correct, pre-Constantinian Christians wouldn’t condemn Christian iconodulia, because it didn’t yet exist.

Furthermore, the way they wrote about pagan veneration of images makes it very clear that at least some of them would have condemned the Christian veneration of images, had it existed. Instead, everybody knew (pagans and Christians alike) that Christians didn’t venerate images, until the time of Constantine.

Note that my argument is not that we should condemn what the early Christians condemned. My argument is that the pre-313 church differed from the post-787 church. Clearly, it was not a Christian practice in those days.

No pre-Constantinian Christians described Christian veneration of images at all

Given the amount that pre-Constantinian Christians talked about pagan veneration of images, and given the importance the practice has for Eastern Orthodox Christians today, if many Christians venerated images, you would expect a fair number of people to mention that.

On the other hand, if pre-Constantinian Christians didn’t have a practice of iconodulia, as I’ve been arguing, we of course wouldn’t expect them describe it. We would also expect that very few of the people who believed all veneration of images to be wrong would argue specifically against Christian veneration of images. We would expect that any direct statements they made would be in context of pagan or heretical practices rather than in the context of Christian practices—because such Christian practices didn’t exist.

This is in fact the case. No pre-Constantinian Christians can be demonstrated to have mentioned the Christian veneration of images.

Objections to the Case Against Icons

In this section, I’ll respond to some reasons offered for not using these quotes as evidence against iconodulia. Then I’ll respond to some positive arguments for iconodulia.

But these passages are talking about worship, not veneration.

This objection fails to address the argument in any way. If the argument were that, because worshiping images is wrong, venerating them is also wrong, this would be a fair point. Of course, though, that’s not the argument.

The argument is that the facts surrounding the Christian rejection of idols, including their reasoning processes, are incompatible with the theory that Christians accepted the veneration of images. The Christians said things about pagan veneration of images that would have been silly to say if they were also venerating images. If the church fathers were so naive, then why would the be valued so highly by all of us?

A final note. I have chosen to talk about the pagan practice as “veneration of images” rather than as “worshiping idols.” Is that an inaccurate designation? No, because the pagans honored a range of personalities through images, including living and dead humans, so it’s not likely that they paid worship to every image that they honored. Furthermore, if one worships images, then one certainly also venerates them. I use that term as an umbrella that covers all practices. And finally, I’ve ensured that the passages I cite are not only about the worship of images, but also include elements that speak to the mere veneration of images.

What do we do when they said they didn’t have images but did?

In most of the quotations above, the writers explicitly said that images couldn’t be sacred, that they shouldn’t be venerated, or that there should be no images made of God. In a few cases, writers just said that Christians didn’t have images. Since we know that Christians did have images, should this bother us? No, because the context clearly shows that they were talking about sacred images or images that were venerated.

Christians obviously had images, but not images functioning in sacred or liturgical capacities. It would be very odd to say that, since Christians had images in other contexts than the ones in which they said they didn’t have images, they also had images in those contexts as well.

Can we ignore the apologists because they said Christians also didn’t have altars?

In one of the quotes above, Origen says that Christians don’t have “temples, altars, or images.” This statement may seem problematic for two reasons:

  1. Another statement by Origen makes it sound like Origen thought Christians actually did have temples, statues, and altars.
  2. We know that Christians had communion tables, which have frequently been called altars.

Because of these two reasons, could it be that Origen is simply saying that Christians don’t have pagan temples, altars, or images, but that they may have Christian temples, altars, or images? This would be a very odd interpretation of Origen—why would he need to specify to Celsus that they didn’t have pagan temples, altars, or images, when they actually had Christian temples, altars, and images? Celsus would naturally have assumed that they would have Christian appurtenances rather than pagan ones. Instead, Celsus and Origen must be saying that if Christians have such things, they are radically different in kind so as to be unrecognizable from pagan practice.

This is further supported by Origen’s stated reasons for not having these appurtenances. He says that, unlike other groups that don’t have images, Christians “abhor altars and images on the ground that they are afraid of degrading the worship of God, and reducing it to the worship of material things wrought by the hands of men.” See Against Celsus book 7, chapters 62–65 for more context (they can be easily read here). Thus, he at least means that Christian appurtenances are not seen as sacred or as playing a role in helping them experience God.

But might the quote mentioned in (1) throw some further light on what Origen is saying? Here it is:

there is no comparison between our statues and the statues of the heathen, nor between our altars, with what we may call the incense ascending from them, and the heathen altars, with the fat and blood of the victims; nor, finally, between the temples of senseless gods, admired by senseless men, who have no divine faculty for perceiving God, and the temples, statues, and altars which are worthy of God. (Against Celsus 8.20)

This may sound like it contradicts Origen, but if we read the context, we find that Origen is in fact contradicting iconodulia. He says that, unlike the material temples, statues, and altars of the pagans, each Christians as being “a precious stone in the one great temple of God” (8.19). He says that Christians “regard the spirit of every good man as an altar from which arises an incense which is truly and spiritually sweet-smelling, namely, the prayers ascending from a pure conscience” (8.17). And as for the statues that Origen is discussing:

the statues and gifts which are fit offerings to God are the work of no common mechanics, but are wrought and fashioned in us by the Word of God, to wit, the virtues in which we imitate “the First-born of all creation,” who has set us an example of justice, of temperance, of courage, of wisdom, of piety, and of the other virtues. In all those, then, who plant and cultivate within their souls, according to the divine word, temperance, justice, wisdom, piety, and other virtues, these excellences are their statues they raise, in which we are persuaded that it is becoming for us to honour the model and prototype of all statues: “the image of the invisible God,” God the Only-begotten. And again, they who “put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that hath created him,” in taking upon them the image of Him who hath created them, do raise within themselves a statue like to what the Most High God Himself desires. (8.17)

The author of this post, which raises the objection in this section, recognizes that Origen wasn’t defending literal images, but argues that such passages suggest that we shouldn’t read apologists too literally when they condemn pagan images. I simply suggest that we should read every writer in context, allowing that context to inform how we understand each quotation. In this case, the context of each quotation shows that Origen didn’t believe that the veneration of images was a legitimate Christian practice. Thus, these passages pose no problem at all for the argument I’m making.

But might (2) be a good point anyway? Might it suggest that Christians had sacred images, just as they had communion tables? No, because, as pointed out before, Origen doesn’t see Christian appurtenances as sacred or as playing a role in helping them experience God.

For another angle, even if Origen thought of communion tables as altars, the difference between Christian and non-Christian altars is such as to suggest that he is denying that Christians have sacred or venerated images. Altars are an integral part of sacrifice and , being a locus where a god can properly receive a sacrifice, while for Christians, “altar” is a way of speaking about a communion table, which we all know doesn’t have any power to it. Communion can be practiced without a consecrated table, while an altar must be consecrated to that god. So pagan altars are sacred, while Christian “altars” are everyday objects.

Furthermore, Origen doesn’t ever seem to call communion tables “altars,” so this objection has no weight. I’ve searched through many of Origen’s works, and was unable to find any place where he referred to the communion table as an altar (if you’ve found something I missed, let me know).2Truglia suggests that Origen speaks of Christian communion tables as altars in his Homilies on Joshua when Origen says,

When, indeed, you see nations enter into the faith, churches raised up, altars sprinkled not with the flowing blood of beasts but consecrated with the “precious blood of Christ”; when you see priests and Levites ministering not “the blood of bulls and goats” but the Word of God through the grace of the Holy Spirit, then say that Jesus received and retained the leadership after Moses—not Jesus the son of Nun, but Jesus the Son of God. When you see that “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed” and that we are eating the unleavened bread of “integrity and truth” . . . (Homily on Joshua 2. Tr. Barbara J. Bruce, ed. Cynthia White, Origen: Homilies on Joshua, The Catholic University of America Press, 2002, pp. 37-38)

But all the indications are against Origen intending this to be communion tables. First, 1 Peter 1:19, which Origen quoted as saying “precious blood of Christ,” isn’t talking about communion, but the ransom of individuals from the Old Testament to Christ. Might Origen mean communion tables? More likely he means people, just as Peter does. Notice in Against Celsus 8.17 where he says that “the spirit of every good man [is] an altar.” Origen also says that the blood of bulls and goats is fulfilled in the preaching of the word, so that doesn’t suggest communion either. When he says that Christ has been sacrificed like the paschal lamb, he says that what we eat is “the unleavened bread of ‘integrity and truth.’” So he’s not talking about communion there either.

But since Christian “altars” would have appeared in the front and center of Christian worship, might that also allow room for Christian images to have appeared in the front and center of Christian worship? One could speculate in that direction. In fact, as my archaeology post relates, we do know of one Christian baptistery from this time period that had images (ones that did not suggest veneration). So there could quite possibly have been images in many churches. However, there is no suggestion that either communion tables or images were bowed to, kissed, or prayed to as a legitimate Christian practice.

Clearly, Celsus and Origen both saw Christian images as being in a radically-enough different category from pagan ones that one could simply ignore their existence when discussing sacred images. This fact alone is strong evidence that practices like bowing to, kissing, and praying to images, practices which would have been easily recognized by pagans, were not considered a legitimate part of Christianity.

These Christians were merely doing apologetics

One commenter on this post said that, according to the standards of argumentation of the day, apologists would have been just fine with using arguments against pagans that could have been turned around to be used against Christians.

However, no matter what historical context you’re in, it’s hard to see why you would actually contradict and undercut your own beliefs to this extent while arguing against your opponent. If anyone knows of a source that suggests that the ancients didn’t care about undercutting their own position while doing invective, feel free to share it with me.

Furthermore, this doesn’t address all of the argumentation I gave above. For example, when pagans criticized Christians for not having sacred images, why didn’t Christians just say, “You’re wrong; we do have sacred images”?

These writers are actually coming up with positive arguments against sacred images, arguments that they wouldn’t need to use—they had a lot of arguments in their arsenal against worshiping pagan gods or the dead. They could use just the other arguments that wouldn’t apply to all sacred images instead of creating arguments that also undercut their own position.

Everybody who was against veneration of images was against all art

Some say that those who disagreed with iconodulia were radicals who didn’t accept any kind of images or artwork. If it were true that the only case against icons is a case against all images, then Orthodox apologists have an easy job ahead of them. They can demonstrate iconodulia by simply pointing to the existence early Christian artworks, thus proving that the fathers I’ve cited were simply mistaken.

However, it is just not true that the only case against icons is a case against all images. In my overview, I cited Clement of Alexandria, who believed art to be a good thing, but condemned iconodulia. Irenaeus, also quoted in this article, used the analogy of “a beautiful image of a king . . . constructed by some skilful artist” and uses it in his analogy as a good thing.

Furthermore, if Eastern Orthodox apologists want to argue that the only case against icons is a case against all images, they will need to show that a significant number of the writers that I’ve quoted were against all images, and not just against venerating images. That hasn’t been done. Typically, they point to Tertullian as an example of such extreme beliefs, but I haven’t cited Tertullian in support of my position.

So it’s just not true that everyone who was against icons was also against art. But even if that were true, that fact wouldn’t help the Eastern Orthodox case. Whether or not the pre-Constantinian church was against all art, that still doesn’t change the fact that they certainly were unilaterally against iconodulia! Thus, the Eastern Orthodox Church is no longer practicing what was taught in the first few centuries of the church.

But some of these writers can’t be trusted

Some Orthodox might point out that Origen and Tertullian, two writers who wrote directly against the veneration of images, aren’t fully accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Furthermore, not all the writers I quoted are considered to be saints by the Orthodox. But this objection misses the point. I cite such writers, not for their theological opinions, but because their writings show what practices were occurring in the church in their day.

My argument is that before 313, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice. If that is true, then it doesn’t matter which writers have the most theological authority—any iconodulia is an alteration to the faith and demonstrates that the Eastern Orthodox Church has changed.

Besides a number of the people I’ve quoted are considered to be saints by the Eastern Orthodox. Furthermore, some of the most revered Orthodox saints, such as John Chrysostom, Athanasius, and Basil the Great, also did not venerate icons.

A Few More Objections

The following are miscellaneous objections that deserve a quick reply.

  • Some Orthodox say that the reason iconodulia isn’t found in the early centuries is that Christians needed to hide their worship practices due to being persecuted. When persecution ended, they could start venerating icons in public as they had in private. Besides having no evidence to back it up, this objection has two problems. First, the early Christians often tried to justify themselves for not having images, since the pagans thought they were foolish for that. Being up front about their images would actually have earned them pagan respect, so, since they didn’t mention their images as a response to pagan attacks, it’s clear they didn’t have icons. Second, for half a century or so after persecution ended, several of Orthodoxy’s best-loved saints show that iconodulia wasn’t a part of their Christianity.
  • Some Orthodox may say that only some early fathers were against iconodulia. However, I’ve given good evidence that before 313, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice. If you know of any early fathers who wrote in favor of iconodulia, please let me know in the comments! I’d be glad to interact with them. But until then, we really can’t say that only some early fathers were against iconodulia.
  • But there aren’t many pre-Constantinian fathers. We just don’t have enough evidence to know what pre-Constantinian Christians believed. First, note that to say this is to admit that the evidence points in my direction. Furthermore, many of the writers quoted here were bishops, so they would have been familiar with the practices of many Christians. Some of these men were bishops in very influential centers of Christianity. Some of them were very well-connected throughout the Christian world. And the ones who weren’t bishops were apologists, who claim to be representing Christianity. If so, they would have done their research on what Christians believe! If anyone would know what the early Christian position is, these men would know. Yet they provide quite consistent evidence against the practice of iconodulia.
  • Some argue that iconoclasm arose from Islam, not Christianity. This claim doesn’t address my argument, since the pre-Constantinian church predates Islam by centuries.
  • When we say that icons came into the faith after the Roman government’s friendliness with Christianity, one person argues that we must demonstrate that the Roman government had a role in bringing about iconodulia. But surely we can see that iconodulia began at a certain time without needing to prove what influenced it to begin. Furthermore, there’s good reason to think that the Roman Empire’s friendliness to Christianity would have some effects.
  • An article asserts that “In the first four hundred years of church history, there is not a single mention that art is merely decorative.” My argument is not that the early Christians used art in a specific way; only that they didn’t use art in veneration. Veneration is only one of many possible purposes of art. We need positive evidence if we are to assume art was being venerated. In any case, the sources I’ve given show that veneration of art was not an orthodox Christian practice.

An Evidence-Based Argument for Iconodulia

As I said earlier, I’m not doing this as a polemical exercise, but because I honestly want to know whose position is correct. So in this section, I’ll evaluate what I see as the best evidence and arguments for the other side.

In this section, I’ll discuss an evidence-based argument for iconodulia. I think that’s the strongest approach, since the argument against iconodulia is also an evidence-based one. In the next section, I’ll discuss multiple arguments for iconodulia that are mainly based on a priori arguments and assumptions.

This case is best expressed, so far as I can find, by Craig Truglia of Orthodox Christian Theology. Though there’s significantly (vastly!) more evidence against iconodulia than for it, I appreciate his argumentation, because it takes the call to provide evidence seriously. Sadly, it seems that few Eastern Orthodox have taken the time to evaluate the relevant evidence; most of the arguments I have to deal with in this series of articles are rather misinformed.

To be clear—An evidence-based case for iconodulia only works if you can deconstruct enough of the evidence against iconodulia that the evidence for outweighs the evidence against. Since there is so much evidence that before 313, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice, this has never been done, that I know of. Typically, those who present evidence-based cases for iconodulia only deal with a few pieces of evidence or one argument from the other side. To my knowledge, no one has responded in full to the argumentation presented here. I welcome any Eastern Orthodox to take up that challenge and provide a comprehensive response that takes into account all the relevant evidence.

Graffiti of Iconodulia

One piece of evidence is some graffiti that may come from before Constantine:

At Nazareth, the traditional site of the Annunciation, under the Byzantine chapel, archeologists have found another, more ancient site: the grotto of the Annunciation which Jewish Christians of the region venerated for centuries. An incomplete Greek inscription on a column in the grotto can be interpreted, according to Bagatti, as an indication of the presence of an image of Mary:

H (prostrated) ?
YPO AGIO TOPO M. . . under the holy place of M (ary?)
H EGRAPSA EK I wrote there the (the names)
EIKOS EYKOSM. . . the image I adorned
YTH(S) of her. . .
. . .The M can be completed in many ways; but the word “Marias” would be very appropriate at that place. . . In the fourth line, “eikos eukosm (esa) (a) ute(s)” suggest a) two possible translations, according to the value given to “eikos “: “I arranged well that which suits her”; b) “I adorned well her image.” As is clearly seen the graffito testifies to the existence of the veneration of Mary or of her image.3From Christians and Images: Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images by Steven Bigham. In Bigham’s book, this piece of evidence is footnoted as follows: “Testa, E. Nazaret Giudeo-Cristiana, Jerusalem, Fransiscan Printing Press, 1969; B. Bagatti, Excavations in Nazareth, I: From the Beginning till the XII Century, Jerusalem, Franciscan Printing Press, 1969. Pp. 151-152” I was unable to access the original source; it would be good to check up on it to see if any more relevant information can be found.

Though the evidence is incomplete, it does seem reasonable that Bagatti’s interpretation of it is correct, and that at one time there was an image of Mary present, one which was “adorned.” However, other interpretations are also reasonable, given the incomplete nature of the graffiti.4Truglia seems to suggest that the image still exists, but his source says otherwise, so I may be misunderstanding him. Bigham lists this inscription with other evidence of the existence of images (which I don’t dispute, of course). Of all of them, Bigham says,

“it is possible that some of these images and inscriptions go back to, or very close to, the apostolic age. It is quite possible that others belong to the second or third centuries. It is, of course, difficult to date all these monuments, but it is not out of the question that some of them, expecially those of Nazareth and Dominus Flevit in Jerusalem, do go back to the Apostles.”

Thus, this source shows only that it is possible that this graffiti predates 313. Presumably, it is also possible that it postdates 313. In that case, it could easily fit into an argument for or against pre-313 iconodulia. Thus, it carries virtually no weight. One example of graffiti of uncertain age is evidence, but not very significant evidence compared to the much clearer evidence I’ve offered.

This graffiti is anonymous, so there is no way of knowing who wrote it. Note that it is written in the first person singular, so it indicates that only one individual was doing whatever practice is indicated. It was not, therefore, likely to be a practice of a church, and we have no reason to think that it was considered legitimate. It’s quite possible that an over-zealous Constantinian-era convert wrote this inscription. Given the multiple possibilities that are compatible with different views, this cannot be used as evidence for either view.

To put this piece of evidence into context, see the very modest conclusion that Bigham draws from his extensive argument:

our study has hopefully shown that nothing stands in the way of supposing that the artistic development that took place in the post-Constantinian centuries has roots that go far back into the preConstantinian [sic] period. We say “supposing” because the literature and works of art themselves are so fragmentary on the subject of ancient Christian art that we must limit ourselves to suppositions.

Clearly, he sees the case for images before Constantine as supposition, even with this piece of evidence.

Painting of the Good Shepherd on Communion Cup

In “On Modesty,” Tertullian describes paintings of the Good Shepherd and his sheep on Eucharistic cups. Since that image is present in a liturgical context, does it provide evidence that images were venerated?

Obviously, such an image would appear in a liturgical context, but there seems to be no mention of its being venerated or having a liturgical purpose. One would think that Tertullian, who often shows a very inflexible stance, would have been pounced on such veneration as something to mention and criticize, if it had been occurring.

Spurious Acts of John

The book “Acts of John,” which is spurious and a Gnostic-leaning work from the second century, describes a man performing iconodulia.

I don’t see why we need to give a Gnostic source any weight one way or another. In some areas the Gnostics agreed with the Christians, and in some areas they didn’t. So whether or not they held a belief is not evidence for what Christians believed. Additionally, it seems to take a position against iconodulia, since it represents the apostle John criticizing the man who did it, so it’s hard to see how it helps the position of iconodulia in any other way, either.

Spurious Council of Antioch

According to legend, the apostles held a council at Antioch as well as at Jerusalem. The spurious canons of this council state

That those who are being saved should no more go astray to idols but are to fashion for themselves the theandric [divine and human], undefiled, not made with hands, the pillar of the true God and our Saviour Jesus Christ and of his servants, as opposed to idols and to Jews, and are no more to go astray to idols, nor to imitate the Jews. (Canon 4)

This document could be read as a command to create images of Jesus, however “not made with hands” suggests that this “pillar” is to be different from idols, which are made with hands. Alistair Steward, from whose article this translation comes, agrees with Adolf Harnack that “the canon is far from an appeal to carve statues of Christ in opposition to idols, as it had been interpreted [in the Second Council of Nicaea], but rather a spiritual exhortation to the hearers to form themselves after Christ and his saints.”5Stewart, “The apostolic canons of Antioch. An Origenistic exercise”, Revue d’histoire Ecclésiastique, 448-449

But . . . there’s a much bigger problem with this quotation. It’s not even from before 313. Instead, Stewart dates these canons to the 4th century and suggests that these canons are “a product of the latter 3rd of the 4th century” which would be after 366.6Truglia notes that Stewart’s article “convincingly dates these canons to the third or fourth centuries.” Here he misreads Stewart’s “of” as “or,” a very understandable mistake that I almost did myself when reading through the article. But even if this text were from before 313, why would we give a spurious document credibility over mainstream Christian writers?

Christian Idol Makers

This following quote by Tertullian has been raised as evidence that Christians had images that Tertullian considered idols:

If no law of God had prohibited idols to be made by us; if no voice of the Holy Spirit uttered general menace no less against the makers than the worshippers of idols; from our sacrament itself we would draw our interpretation that arts of that kind are opposed to the faith. For how have we renounced the devil and his angels, if we make them? . . . Can you have denied with the tongue what with the hand you confess? unmake by word what by deed you make? preach one God, you who make so many? preach the true God, you who make false ones? “I make,” says one, “but I worship not;” as if there were some cause for which he dare not worship, besides that for which he ought not also to make,—the offence done to God, namely, in either case.  Nay, you who make, that they may be able to be worshipped, do worship; and you worship, not with the spirit of some worthless perfume, but with your own; nor at the expense of a beast’s soul, but of your own. To them you immolate your ingenuity; to them you make your sweat a libation; to them you kindle the torch of your forethought. More are you to them than a priest, since it is by your means they have a priest; your diligence is their divinity. Do you affirm that you worship not what you make? Ah! but they affirm not so, to whom you slay this fatter, more precious and greater victim, your salvation. (On Idolatry 7)

A closer look at this text shows that Christians were making, not Christian art that Tertullian was calling idols, but actual idols of false gods, whom Christians often referred to as demons. Note that Tertullian calls them idols of “the devil and his angels” rather than of Christian subjects. He also notes that Christian idolmakers were making things that were explicitly to be worshiped, just not by themselves. These Christian idolmakers were being like pagan priests and the idolmaker’s work was “their [pagans’] divinity.” Note that Hippolytus also said that Christian artists were to desist from making idols, so this was clearly an issue in that day (Apostolic Tradition 16). Thus, this quotation does not show evidence that Christians venerated images.

Methodius

John of Damascus wrote three treatises on icons, which influenced the Second Council of Nicaea’s decision to command iconodulia. However, though he quoted copiously from early Christian writers, he quoted only one person from before 313 to support his case:

For instance, then, the images of our kings here, even though they be not formed of the more precious materials—gold or silver—are honoured by all. For men do not, while they treat with respect those of the far more precious material, slight those of a less valuable, but honour every image in the world, even though it be of chalk or bronze. And one who speaks against either of them, is not acquitted as if he had only spoken against clay, nor condemned for having despised gold, but for having been disrespectful towards the King and Lord Himself. The images of God’s angels, which are fashioned of gold, the principalities and powers, we make [ποιοῦμεν, poioúmen] to His honour and glory. (Methodius, Discourse on the Resurrection 2 ANF)

This is hardly a pro-iconodulia quote, for the following reasons:

  • There is no claim that people are venerating images. It does speak of honoring a royal image, but it is unclear what it means by that, or what sort of honor is being given.
  • The images of angels are made to God’s honor and glory. Iconodulistic images are made first and foremost to the honor and glory of their subject (in this case, the angels).

But there are a number of other serious issues with the use of this quotation as support for iconodulia:

  • Most importantly, John seems to have misunderstood the intent, as I’ll show.
  • In another quote (quoted above), Methodius made a clearer statement against icons.
  • I’m no Greek scholar, but I note that all hangs on the word translated “make,” poioúmen. The word’s main meaning is indeed “make,” but it’s a word that can mean quite a few other things depending on the context. See the uses of this word group in the New Testament, for example. The trouble is that we don’t have much context.
  • In view of these issues, it’s also interesting that John uses this as his final quote, as though it’s either the strongest or weakest quote he could find. Since it clearly isn’t the strongest one that he quotes, this placement suggests that John himself might not have been fully confident about it.

John of Damascus’s quotation from Methodius is the only witness to that particular statement, since that writing either was lost or was not genuine. However, another fragment which preserves significantly more of Methodius’s lost work has been found, and the larger context renders John’s interpretation dubious.

As, then, Jonah spent three days and as many nights in the whale’s belly, and was delivered up sound again, so shall we all, who have passed through the three stages of our present life on earth—I mean the beginning, the middle, and the end, of which all this present time consists—rise again. For there are altogether three intervals of time, the past, the future, and the present. And for this reason the Lord spent so many days in the earth symbolically, thereby teaching clearly that when the forementioned intervals of time have been fulfilled, then shall come our resurrection, which is the beginning of the future age, and the end of this. For in that age there is neither past nor future, but only the present. Moreover, Jonah having spent three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, was not destroyed by his flesh being dissolved, as is the case with that natural decomposition which takes place in the belly, in the case of those meats which enter into it, on account of the greater heat in the liquids, that it might be shown that these bodies of ours may remain undestroyed. For consider that God had images of Himself made as of gold, that is of a purer spiritual substance, as the angels; and others of clay or brass, as ourselves. He united the soul which was made in the image of God to that which was earthy. As, then, we must here honour all the images of a king, on account of the form which is in them, so also it is incredible that we who are the images of God should be altogether destroyed as being without honour. Whence also the Word descended into our world, and was incarnate of our body, in order that, having fashioned it to a more divine image, He might raise it incorrupt, although it had been dissolved by time. And, indeed, when we trace out the dispensation which was figuratively set forth by the prophet, we shall find the whole discourse visibly extending to this. (On the History of Jonah. From the Book on the Resurrection. 2 ANF)

It’s not clear whether the text from John is from this quoted area and one or the other of the texts is corrupted, or whether it comes from a different place in this discourse. What is clear is that the two quotes use very similar language, yet the second one has significantly more context, which gives it clarity.

In the second quotation, Methodius says the following:

  1. Angels are images of God made by him as though they were of gold.
  2. Humans are images of God made by him as though they were of clay or brass.
  3. Just like people honor a king’s image, God’s image deserves honor—but it’s because they are images of God, regardless of the material they’re made out of.
  4. It’s unbelievable that even “clay” images of God would die entirely—that would be dishonoring to God, because even though they are made of a less pure substance, they’re still images of God.
  5. Therefore, the Word (Jesus) became a “clay” image, so that he could resurrect it as imperishable.

So this quotation makes clear that the golden images being discussed are an analogy for angels themselves who are pure spirit, rather than speaking about images of angels.

In the former quotation, all but the final sentence are saying essentially the same as (3) and (4) are saying above. Compare the final sentence with the first bold sentence in the second quotation:

The images of God’s angels, which are fashioned of gold, the principalities and powers, we make [ποιοῦμεν, poioúmen] to His honour and glory.

For consider that God had images of Himself made as of gold, that is of a purer spiritual substance, as the angels; and others of clay or brass, as ourselves.

The two quotes are obviously incompatible, but they obviously use essentially the same concepts and share the most significant words. The resemblance is similar enough that we are justified in presuming that one of them is incorrect.

It’s possible that two different people noted down Methodius’s discourse and the two textual traditions grew apart from each other. It’s also possible that one or the other was an intentional corruption of the text.

What do we conclude? Which one should we follow? Clearly, we should follow whichever has more context and fits better into the overall meaning of the work they came from. It should be easy to tell that the second one has more context and fits better into the context given than the first one does. Of course, we need to rely on the second one itself to know which fits better into the overall meaning of the work, but this need not be circular since it’s far less likely that the entire context would have been fabricated (how, and for what reason?) than that a short quote, like John’s, would have become corrupted or misunderstood without any surrounding context, given the incentives to corrupt or misunderstand it.

Of course, even without the analysis of the two quotations, John’s quote is by no means a demonstration of iconodulia, but the analysis shows that whatever support it does give is undercut by the likelihood of it being a corruption or misunderstanding.

Images of Paul, Peter, and Christ

Eusebius wrote,

Since I have mentioned this city I do not think it proper to omit an account which is worthy of record for posterity. For they say that the woman with an issue of blood, who, as we learn from the sacred Gospel, received from our Saviour deliverance from her affliction, came from this place, and that her house is shown in the city, and that remarkable memorials of the kindness of the Saviour to her remain there. For there stands upon an elevated stone, by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if she were praying. Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward the woman. At his feet, beside the statue itself, is a certain strange plant, which climbs up to the hem of the brazen cloak, and is a remedy for all kinds of diseases. They say that this statue is an image of Jesus. It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city. Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Saviour, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers. (Church History 7.18)

Note that veneration of images is not mentioned. Truglia makes much of the climbing herb that grows on the Christ-statue’s hem, comparing it to Eastern Orthodox who kiss a priest’s hem during liturgy. He sees it as obvious that

people are bending down and venerating the location in which the hemorrhaging woman was healed by Christ–the fringes of His cloak. This is how they know the plant supposedly heals them–they would have to bend down to touch it at exactly that location. Pilgrims and locals mimicked the woman’s action, seeking healing from a type of the Christological prototype. The is the most likely explanation of what Eusebius is describing as one would struggle to devise any other rational inference to explain the significance of the location of the healing plant.7From this site.

It may or may not be true, as Truglia speculates, that people touched the plant to be healed. But there are a number of issues with taking this as veneration.

  • Eusebius sees the creation of images as a means of honoring saints as definitive of paganism, not Christianity, so this would actually better fit an argument against iconodulia. But at the very least, it is silent on definitive Christian practice. From archaeology, we know that the pagans created and even venerated images of dead philosophers, whom they saw as deliverers. This is probably the pagan habit that Eusebius is referencing. So even if the images were venerated (which we don’t know), Eusebius is saying that this practice is of pagan origin.
  • This is at most evidence for lay practice, not of the opinions of Christian leaders.
  • We don’t have an eyewitness account of the statue, and the healing herb seems like the sort of pious invention that one could expect on the third or fourth telling of a story like this. Its positioning at the hem of Jesus’ garment sounds too good to be true. If that herb did not exist, then the statue says absolutely nothing about Christian veneration.
  • There is a difference between bowing to, kissing, and praying to an image on the one hand (the veneration to which I refer), and touching the hem of a statue’s garment in memory of the faithful woman. There is no evidence for the first; there is reasonable speculation to support the second.
  • If the woman’s statue was elevated, it seems reasonable that Christ’s was, too, so one might not actually have bowed toward the statue in order to touch the plant.
  • We are not told that touching the plant was what brought about healing; typically herbs are ingested in some way, not merely touched. So it doesn’t seem especially likely that the plant, if it existed, was kissed.
  • Eusebius sees the creation of the images as what gives honor to Paul, Peter, and Christ. He does not speak of honor shown to those images.

Importantly, Eusebius sees this account as a surprising one that’s worth recording, not as normative of Christian practice. He considers these statues “remarkable memorials,” but if iconodulia had existed before his day, there would have been any number of statues and images of Jesus. The only remarkable thing would have been the “strange” herb, which certainly Eusebius sees as remarkable, but Eusebius is speaking of the statues. Furthermore, the strange herb is the very thing Truglia uses to argue that this is an example of iconodulia, so its strangeness undercuts his thesis that iconodulia was common.

In a discussion with Truglia on this, Stephen Bigham points out that the idea Eusebius has encountered is that these images come from likenesses of the people themselves, indicating that somebody within living memory of Jesus had painted him. Since Eusebius doesn’t react against this idea, Bigham suggests, this means that Eusebius didn’t think it crazy for such likenesses to exist. The implication is that portrayals of Jesus would have been common. But this is just not the case, since Eusebius believes the paintings to have been created from a pagan habit, not a Christian one, so this doesn’t reflect on Christian practice. Furthermore, Eusebius says that he “learned” this, as though it was not well-known. Therefore, this is not good evidence that lots of images of Christ existed among Christians, even though even that wouldn’t speak directly to their veneration.

Did Luke paint the first icons?

I leave this until last, because no apologists with a good knowledge of history uses this argument. So this isn’t employed by Craig Truglia. However, a surprising number of people think it’s true. One widely-circulated claim is that Luke the Evangelist painted the first icons. This claim is taken as proof that icon veneration existed among Christian leaders in the first century. But there’s no legitimate historical or archeological evidence for this. In fact, the first known mention of the story is from around 530 by Theodore the Studite. This is more than two hundred years after 313, and more than four hundred years after Luke’s death.

The Strategy

As you can see, these examples are rather impoverished in comparison to the examples provided against iconodulia. They’re based on misunderstandings, spurious documents, and mentions of the practices of pagans, heretics, or at best individual lay people, while the examples provided against iconodulia are based on the beliefs and teachings of prominent Christian leaders and apologists whose writings are highly valued in understanding Christian doctrine in other areas. This is not lost on Truglia, so he employs a unique strategy to try to strengthen the weight we place on this evidence.

The way Truglia frames the issue is very important for his case. He argues that, since we know that art did exist in this time period (as my article on archaeology also shows), what we need is compelling evidence for how this art was employed. He offers two alternatives for how it could have been used: for veneration or for decoration. Then he points to these pieces of evidence to show that there is “explicit” evidence that images were venerated, and no explicit evidence that images were used as decoration.8This page. By claiming that those who don’t believe in iconodulia must demonstrate that early art was specifically decorative, and by framing his sources as better because they are “explicit,” he attempts to give his side the edge in the discussion.

Unfortunately, the problems with this approach are manifold.

First, do we need a source that specifies explicitly how images were to be used? No. As I pointed out in my overview post, there are many, many reasons for images to exist besides for veneration. All we are claiming is that the earliest Christian images weren’t intended for veneration, at least not as a legitimate practice. Images can play all sorts of roles for religious people. The early Christians’ images could easily have ranged from artistic, symbolic, evocative, decorative, instructive, or pious (without veneration).

Furthermore, the type of art we find in archaeology itself suggests how it was used. We don’t need explicit statements to know that fish, doves, the subjects of Jesus’ healings, etc. weren’t venerated. The way that pictorial subjects, like Christ, who are now venerated through images, are represented, suggests that their images were intended for purposes other than veneration. So, since it’s ridiculous to assume that all Christian art was venerated, we can know that at least some Christian art was present for another reason. And if some was, this shows Truglia’s framing of the question to be inadequate. Furthermore, if some art wasn’t venerated, why wouldn’t most or all be for non-venerable purposes?

Second, is it appropriate to characterize Truglia’s examples as being better because they are “explicit”? No. Explicitness is not always the best criterion of truth. Relevance is a more important one. When children refuse to obey any implicit commands, their parents may well consider them to be in the wrong.

We don’t need explicit statements against Christian iconodulia if we have relevant statements that contradict the methodology or mindset of Christian icondulia, which we do. These statements have been hand-waved away by saying that they are about pagan practices, though that fails to recognize the argument (nobody disagrees they are about pagans). The negative case needs to be dismantled, because it is relevant.

Truglia’s examples aren’t explicit either; he, like the rest of us, is making inferences, and none of us are sticking exactly to the explicit statements in the texts. The difference is that he is inferring from explicit pagan practices to Christian ones, and we are inferring from explicit Christian beliefs to Christian practices. When trying to understand what was considered legitimate by Christians, is it better to start from what we know that Christians believed, or is it better to start from what we know that pagans practiced? That’s not a hard question to answer.

Third, to follow this point, if we want to find out what was considered legitimate, the question is what the leaders taught, not what lay people or heretics practiced. Lay people and heretics disobey Christian leaders all the time.

Interestingly, Truglia admits that his strategy isn’t able to demonstrate a consensus of the fathers, which would be necessary to demonstrate iconodulia as an Eastern Orthodox practice. He says this isn’t necessary, since those who are against iconodulia don’t accept that framework, so they can’t require him to hold to it. Unfortunately, the historic faith method does accept that framework, so that means that to refute us, he must show that consensus. Also, it is not inconsistent at all for someone who doesn’t accept that framework to point out that his position is inconsistent if he isn’t able to show that this view was the consensus. If his position is inconsistent, then the Eastern Orthodox shouldn’t hold it.

Fourthly, this strategy is incapable of explaining the highly evidenced points I gave above. Thus, it isn’t a good theory when compared to the one I’ve offered. Here are some of the points that cannot be explained by this strategy:

  • Multiple early Christian writers wrote that images cannot stand in for anything sacred.
  • Multiple early Christian writers saw the veneration of images as a difference between Christians and rival groups like pagans or heretics.
  • Pagans were aware that a lack of sacred images was a hallmark of Christianity.
  • Christians replied by agreeing that they didn’t have sacred images.
  • No pre-Constantinian Christian leaders wrote in favor of veneration of images.

Fifthly, this strategy, when it employs images mentioned by Irenaeus and Eusebius,9

[The Carpocratian heretics] also 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 honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.

(Against Heresies 1.25.6 ANF)

Eusebius to Constantia: “Once— I do not know how—a woman brought me in her hands a picture of two men in the guise of philosophers and let fall the statement that they were Paul and the Saviour—I have no means of saying where she had had this from or learned such a thing. With the view that neither she nor others might be given offence, I took it away from her and kept it in my house, as I thought it improper that such things ever be exhibited to others, lest we appear, like idol worshippers, to carry our God around in an image. [. . .] It is said that Simon the sorcerer is worshipped by godless heretics painted in lifeless material.” From this site
fails to recognize that scholars (and views like mine that draw from the scholarship) already have a category for these images; thus, a new theory that offers to explain them isn’t needed. These images aren’t holes in the narrative; they are a consistent and non–ad hoc part of our view that makes as much or more sense in our view than in theirs. To explain—they are examples of pagan and Gnostic philosopher veneration, which we know existed from other sources.10See Katherine Marsengill, “Panel Paintings and Early Christian Icons,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2018. Cited in my archaeology post.

One could object that it would be simpler to consider these images to be examples of a Christian practice rather than a pagan one. But it wouldn’t, because these are not the only sources for that pagan practice, so historians need an explanation of the data about pagan practices anyway. And after all, the early Christians actually associate these images with philosopher veneration, thus placing these images into this category themselves.

Finally, I conclude that this strategy is a non-starter. It doesn’t avail to save the Eastern Orthodox position.

The Argument from Relics to Icons

In a recent discussion of iconodulia sparked by Gavin Ortlund (Protestant), a new set of apologetics for iconodulia has emerged. Probably the most effective one is the claim that the veneration of images existed in the early church in seed form—as the veneration of relics of saints. One proponent of this view is Erick Ybarra, a Roman Catholic apologist whom I respect for his honesty and carefulness to reflect the nuances that actually exist. Here’s what he says:

[I]nsofar as one is discerning a historical retrieval of pure Christianity from the 4th century, the cult of the Saints and the cultus of relics might as well be the cultus of the images in the 6th to 9th centuries. That is because the cultus of relics caused the overwhelming consensus of early Christianity to venerate persons through divinized material and to seek their post-mortem intercessory powers. (From this site)

In other words, since the veneration of relics and the veneration of images both involve addressing prayers to material objects, with the expectation that they pass on to the person represented by those objects, the two practices are basically the same. That’s not far from the truth, but there are a few issues that need to be addressed.

One reason people like this argument is that, though there is overwhelming evidence that the veneration of images is a late innovation, there are examples of veneration of relics that began earlier than iconodulia did. However, note how carefully Ybarra has worded his statement. Though his ideal is “a historical retrieval of pure Christianity,” and “the overwhelming consensus of early Christianity,” he qualifies his statement as applying to a retrieval/consensus “from the 4th century,” basically admitting that he can’t support his position from the first 250 or so years of the church. He is wise to do so.

As I have pointed out, we have excellent reason to believe that the faith of the fourth century is not “pure Christianity.” Furthermore, I actually agree that, historically, a progression occurred from a cult of relics to a cult of images, as my next article discusses. Thus, this argument really doesn’t apply to the argument I give here. However, since there are those who argue that the veneration of relics existed very early in Christianity, I will point out some flaws in this argument here.

  • During the first few hundred years of Christianity, we have no examples of “veneration,” as defined in this argument, applied to relics. There are no examples of bowing to, kissing, or praying to relics, only examples of commemorating the martyrdom of martyrs and placing their bodies in special places. See, for example, the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp. Developed at least 200 years after apostles (early example not really an early example).
  • This argument doesn’t address the arguments given above against the early veneration of images. As I’ve shown, venerating images was diametrically opposed to their beliefs and was completely undercut by their argumentation.
  • Showing honor to an object that was already associated with the saint by their own existence or lifestyle is different from creating a new artwork intended to represent them in a sacred way.

Finally, a 180-degree turn is still exactly that, even if it has been achieved by two 90-degree turns.

Other Arguments for Icons in the Early Church

“You have to understand the Eastern mindset”

“But you have to understand the Eastern mindset. Veneration is just what they do with images. We should just assume that images were venerated.”

Polytheism was also part of the Eastern mindset. And killing our enemies is part of the human mindset. Lust is part of the male mindset. Yet Jesus came to transform us, not to let society operate it as it always has.

This convenient “Eastern mindset” doesn’t seem to have stopped many Eastern church fathers from writing such powerful disconfirmations of iconodulia as are found in the sections above. And if there’s evidence for or against a proposition, it no longer matters what our default position should be on that proposition.

Furthermore, culture has changed in the last two millennia. Just because people hold a particular mindset today doesn’t mean that they always have held it. How can we be sure that this mindset hasn’t changed, especially in light of the historical circumstances that drove such change?

Just the existence of religious art suggests veneration of icons.

A similar argument is that the existence of religious art strongly suggests veneration of that art. Christian art existed during the pre-conciliar era, so isn’t it likely that such art was being used in liturgical settings? Not really. There have been vast amounts of Christian art throughout the centuries that were never used as iconography. A person can have an image of someone whom they admire, without actually bowing to or kissing that image.

To those who are already convinced of iconodulia, the existence of images may well lead them inescapably to the conclusion of venerating them. However, to expect those who aren’t convinced of it to accept that as evidence is begging the question. Protestants often have all sorts of images all throughout their sanctuaries, but no one seems to feel that they should be bowed to or kissed.

The existence of images is at best an argument for the possibility of iconodulia. However, the direct evidence in quotes I’ve cited are enough to outweigh what little evidence the images might give.

How could a practice be widespread by the eighth century if it wasn’t apostolic? 

See this article that shows why we can expect changes to have occurred within that timeframe. Furthermore, in my next article I outline a clear pathway for how veneration of images could easily have arisen without a visible disruption of society.

Assessing the Early Christian Evidence

So far, I’ve shown that many prominent Christians before 313 did not consider the veneration of images to be a legitimate Christian practice. This includes those considered to be saints by the Eastern Orthodox: Melito, Athenagorus, Methodius, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Justin Martyr. It also includes other Christian leaders or apologists: Clement of Alexandria, Arnobius, Aristides of Athens, Origen, Lactantius, and Minucius Felix.

The evidence-based argument for iconodulia, on the other hand, cannot name a single Christian leader before 313 who considered the veneration of images to be a legitimate Christian practice. The evidence that is offered is very tenuous, and mostly spurious or anonymous.

I may be missing something, but I have yet to find a single pre-Constantinian church leader who believed iconodulia to be a legitimate Christian practice. However, there is quite good evidence to the contrary—that before 313, Christian leaders did not consider the veneration of images to be a legitimate Christian practice.

The data is all on one side. So the only reasonable conclusion is that, by making iconodulia an essential aspect of the faith, Eastern Orthodoxy has departed from the apostolic faith.

Icons Are Not “everywhere, always, and by all”

There may be just the slightest room for doubt that, before 313, the veneration of all images was condemned everywhere, always, and by all. However, no impartial student of history, after studying this, can conclude that it was believed everywhere, always, and by all. Thus, the Second Council of Nicaea was wrong in declaring iconodulia to be the ancient Christian practice.

Thus, any Eastern Orthodox person who wants to be consistent must give up the claim that the Orthodox believe what was taught everywhere, always, and by all, or they must give up iconodulia.

The Eastern Orthodox Church must either cease to recognize that council as ecumenical and therefore binding, or it must recognize that councils, even after over a millennium-long consensus of acceptance, can be wrong. Alternatively, they could embrace a theology of development of doctrine like the Roman Catholic Church does (even though development of doctrine is itself counter to the apostolic faith).

Early Church Fathers did Not Venerate Icons

I conclude that the consensus of the fathers is that iconodulia is not a Christian practice. The Eastern Orthodox Church has changed one of the apostolic traditions.

  • 1
  • 2
    Truglia suggests that Origen speaks of Christian communion tables as altars in his Homilies on Joshua when Origen says,

    When, indeed, you see nations enter into the faith, churches raised up, altars sprinkled not with the flowing blood of beasts but consecrated with the “precious blood of Christ”; when you see priests and Levites ministering not “the blood of bulls and goats” but the Word of God through the grace of the Holy Spirit, then say that Jesus received and retained the leadership after Moses—not Jesus the son of Nun, but Jesus the Son of God. When you see that “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed” and that we are eating the unleavened bread of “integrity and truth” . . . (Homily on Joshua 2. Tr. Barbara J. Bruce, ed. Cynthia White, Origen: Homilies on Joshua, The Catholic University of America Press, 2002, pp. 37-38)

    But all the indications are against Origen intending this to be communion tables. First, 1 Peter 1:19, which Origen quoted as saying “precious blood of Christ,” isn’t talking about communion, but the ransom of individuals from the Old Testament to Christ. Might Origen mean communion tables? More likely he means people, just as Peter does. Notice in Against Celsus 8.17 where he says that “the spirit of every good man [is] an altar.” Origen also says that the blood of bulls and goats is fulfilled in the preaching of the word, so that doesn’t suggest communion either. When he says that Christ has been sacrificed like the paschal lamb, he says that what we eat is “the unleavened bread of ‘integrity and truth.’” So he’s not talking about communion there either.
  • 3
    From Christians and Images: Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images by Steven Bigham. In Bigham’s book, this piece of evidence is footnoted as follows: “Testa, E. Nazaret Giudeo-Cristiana, Jerusalem, Fransiscan Printing Press, 1969; B. Bagatti, Excavations in Nazareth, I: From the Beginning till the XII Century, Jerusalem, Franciscan Printing Press, 1969. Pp. 151-152” I was unable to access the original source; it would be good to check up on it to see if any more relevant information can be found.
  • 4
    Truglia seems to suggest that the image still exists, but his source says otherwise, so I may be misunderstanding him.
  • 5
    Stewart, “The apostolic canons of Antioch. An Origenistic exercise”, Revue d’histoire Ecclésiastique, 448-449
  • 6
    Truglia notes that Stewart’s article “convincingly dates these canons to the third or fourth centuries.” Here he misreads Stewart’s “of” as “or,” a very understandable mistake that I almost did myself when reading through the article.
  • 7
    From this site.
  • 8
  • 9


    [The Carpocratian heretics] also 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 honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.

    (Against Heresies 1.25.6 ANF)

    Eusebius to Constantia: “Once— I do not know how—a woman brought me in her hands a picture of two men in the guise of philosophers and let fall the statement that they were Paul and the Saviour—I have no means of saying where she had had this from or learned such a thing. With the view that neither she nor others might be given offence, I took it away from her and kept it in my house, as I thought it improper that such things ever be exhibited to others, lest we appear, like idol worshippers, to carry our God around in an image. [. . .] It is said that Simon the sorcerer is worshipped by godless heretics painted in lifeless material.” From this site
  • 10
    See Katherine Marsengill, “Panel Paintings and Early Christian Icons,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2018. Cited in my archaeology post.

7 thoughts on “Early Church Fathers on Icons”

  1. Christopher Good

    I don’t think iconodulia is an apostolic tradition, and thus I don’t support it for the present. But it’s difficult to nail down an obviously wrong aspect of it. Many of the quotations here refer to the _worship_ of images, which is something pagans do but not something the Orthodox churches do. I’m also curious about what seems to be a Platonic or proto-Gnostic attitude of disregard for materiality in many of these quotes.

    1. Great to see your pushback. In this case, I’m not arguing that iconodulia is wrong; merely that it is foreign to the apostolic faith. If I am correct in that argument, then it would seem that the EOC has changed the faith, if not by allowing iconodulia, at least by requiring iconodulia! If I were to argue that it’s wrong (which I may do someday), I would probably start from the Old Testament theology of images, especially where writers deride idolaters for thinking their idolatry accomplishes anything. The question is whether moving from worship to veneration makes it possible for images to stand in for persons, and I see no reason why that would be the case. Note that the OT theology of images contrasts with the OT theology of instruments, where Temple furniture such as the ark are actually holy to the Lord. Similar is the early Christian theology of communion and baptism, in which the physical does indeed partake in the spiritual. When the correct distinctions are made, I think we’ll find that concerns of possible Gnosticism will be addressed.

  2. Hi, can you please elaborate on what you mean by created beings of gold vs artificial images in regards to methodius? as I’m not quite sure what you mean and what the distinction is

  3. I appreciate your thoughtful comments here, especially on Methodius as I think the comments there are substantial and respectable. Bravo!

    I think some of the other polemics here don’t quite hit the mark as that section of this article, however. For one, to claim I must prove universal consensus to meet the standard of historicity is simply incorrect. With history, we make interpretations based upon the proof we actually have irrespective of the theological or doctrinal epistemological demands that the Church requires. The only case I have to make, I repeat, is one of “the preponderance of evidence,” not “probable cause” if you pardon me the legal terminology.

    Your dismissal of acts of john is arbitrary. It’s a Gnostic source against the Christian veneration of art. One cannot dismiss that this historically demonstrates two things 1. art was venerated (my point) and 2. Some gnostics opposed this (inconvenient for Protestant polemics on other sources, particularly Eusebius, a source being negative does not prove a negative, it can prove a positive–which acts of john most defintely does). Additionally, the fact we have so few sources that specifically tell us what the art was used for means we have to pay attention to acts of john. It more directly addresses the question than reading Origen’s oblique rejection of all “altars and images,” altars most definitely existing in his day and before then (Ignatius, Cyprian, Origen’s own comments on the Eucharistic sacrifice).

    In fact, your whole case from “historical context” follows the same erring inference as your treatment of Origen. It is with irony that we ignore explicit sources on the veneration of art in favor of oblique, non-literal categorical condemnations which are in fact critiques of pagan practices.

    Eusebius, whether you like it or not, is obviously describing art that is venerated and reputed to heal. Likewise the Grotto, whose treatment requires you to make a very out of context reading of Bigham. Bigham clearly supposes the third century as the most likely ceiling date wise, especially considering Constantine’s building of a new church being obviously newer than the Grotto, so this puts a date ceiling in the 320s. Bigham expresses no skepticism that Constantine’s building of the church there is apocryphal.

    Lastly, your argument from silence that Rome must have been the cause of iconodulic practices simply is not convincing. Before Roman toleration, Eusebius clearly surmised the practice being from gentile practice in the first century–actually from the times of Christ, precisely.

    I think people overcomplicate this issue and radically contort and decontextualize history in defense of aniconism. It is with irony they accuse me of doing precisely what they are doing with the sources.

    Again, let me express my admiration for your work, despite our disagreement.

    All the best
    Craig

    1. Hi Craig,
      As I’ve said before, I am studying history for apologetic reasons, not engaging in polemics. I’m interested in knowing whether my views are historical, and if not, to change them, and then to defend whatever appears to be the historical consensus of Christianity. If I’ve written anything that is unfair, please let me know, and I will remove or rewrite it.

      I think the points you make here are good ones, but that they don’t quite meet the mark. Let me explain.
      1. I don’t say that you must prove universal consensus to meet the standard of historicity. Instead, I believe that you must show a consensus of Christian leaders to meet the standard of faith. As an Anabaptist of the historic faith strain, I accept the consensus of the fathers before any changes were introduced, as do (I’ve understood) the Eastern Orthodox. Even if it were historically accurate to say that Christians venerated images before Constantine, that would still not demonstrate that the veneration of images was a legitimate Christian practice. It would be valid for Protestants who don’t hold to the consensus patri to point out that you need a consensus to show legitimacy under your own view. It is even more valid for me, who hold to such a consensus, to ask you to meet that standard, which (I thought) the Eastern Orthodox share with me.
      2. My dismissal of the Acts of John is not arbitrary. AJ certainly demonstrates that art was being venerated—by pagans and heretics. And AJ proves that there were Gnostics who opposed the practice. But we also know that there were Gnostics who supported the practice. Why should we care what the Gnostics thought, when they held many different beliefs? I’m interested in the consensus of Christian leaders, not the fickle ideas of Gnostic individuals.
      3. I think your comments on Origen make a lot of sense. However, I did a study of whether Origen used the word “altar” to refer to a literal Christian piece of furniture, and I was not able to find a single reference. So we have no good reason to throw out Origen. I’m still thinking through this one and will address it more fully in my next revision, but it seems rather odd that you would reject everything that all apologists said even if Origen could be rejected on this point.
      4. As I pointed out in the article, I don’t think “explicitness” helps. We are all making inferences from explicit statements. You’re making inferences from explicit pagan/heretical practices to Christian practices. I’m making inferences from explicit Christian beliefs to Christian practices.
      5. I’ll dig more deeply into Eusebius in my next revision.
      6. Fair point that the art would need to pre-date the new church. I wasn’t aware of its dating. My argument is now updated. That’s a good point, but it doesn’t change the other issues surrounding the inscription, probably the biggest one of which that we don’t know who wrote it. Again, I’m looking for the consensus of Christian leaders. And I think the evidence that is actually from the beliefs of Christian leaders is quite clear and has not been adequately responded to.
      7. I didn’t say that Rome was the cause of iconodulic practices. If you want to understand how the relationship with the Roman Empire and Christianity fits into my argument, feel free to check out this article and this one. There were probably multiple factors involved.
      8. And the second article linked above shows that I do indeed recognize that there was a first-century pagan practice of iconodulia in the philosopher cults.
      Thanks for the appreciation. I very much appreciate that you are interested in an evidence-based argument as opposed to a lot of the responses I’ve received—even though I don’t think it succeeds. God bless.

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