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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Here is the argument that I’m making in this article series:
The practice of addressing communications (such as bowing, kissing, and prayer) to images with the intent that whatever is addressed to the image passes to the prototype (the subject of the image, such as Christ, saints, or angels) was not considered a legitimate Christian practice by Christian leaders until sometime after Constantine’s influence on the church.
Note that it doesn’t matter what heretics did or even what individual lay Christians did. What matters is what Christian leaders taught. Apostolic Christianity is not a free-for-all religion. What is Christian doctrine depends not on what people practice, but on what Jesus and the apostles taught.
But how does looking at history help us know what the apostles taught? When the early church unanimously agreed on something, it’s very good evidence that the apostles taught that as part of the Christian faith. That’s why, in this article, I’ll be looking at whether there is a consensus of Christian leaders for or against iconodulia, but it won’t matter whether or not lay Christians or Gnostics practiced iconodulia—after all, they might have been disobeying their leaders.
(However, to be fair to the pre-Constantinian lay Christians, very few of them seem to have practiced iconodulia, as we’ll see.)
Here’s the argument I’m making in this article, laid out in syllogistic form:
- If for the first few hundred years of the Church, many Christian leaders wrote that something is wrong for Christians to do, and if it was hundreds of years before any Christian leader wrote that it was ever appropriate for Christians to do that thing, we should consider it to be wrong for Christians to do that thing.
- For the first few hundred years of the Church, many Christian leaders wrote indicating that the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice, and it was hundreds of years before any wrote that it was ever appropriate for a Christian to venerate images.
- Therefore, we should consider it wrong for Christians to venerate images.
Here’s how each point is demonstrated:
- This is the principle Vincent of Lerins laid out and which the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, so far as I can tell, hold to. I also hold to it, since I seek to practice the historic faith.
- This will be demonstrated by the historical evidence cited in this article.
- This conclusion follows logically from the premises.
The method of inference
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, can we infer what they would have said about Christian veneration of images, had they been asked about it? 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 have questions as to whether this type of inference is legitimate, in a later section, I’ll show why it works.
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 is one key similarity between the way both pagans and Eastern Orthodox venerate images: There is veneration addressed to a sacred image that stands in for a deity, another spiritual being, or a dead person who is not physically present.
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.
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?”
A summary of the evidence
Here are the six points that I will demonstrate from the historical evidence:
- 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 criticized Christians for not worshiping with sacred images, and Christians defended themselves by arguing against the veneration of images.
- Several early fathers and apologists made statements that directly contradict the use of sacred images.
- No pre-Constantinian Christian leaders ever condemn Christian veneration of images, only the similar practices of pagans and heretics.
- No pre-Constantinian Christians described Christian veneration of images at all.
Images cannot stand in for anything sacred
Iconodulia (the veneration of icons) entails the belief that an image of a person can pass communications to 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
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)
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)
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)
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)
“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)
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.
[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)
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.
But might they only be sidelining syncretistic “counterfeit” image veneration alongside philosophers and leaving room for Christian veneration?2Note: I’m not able to access the text that the translators used for Hippolytus, but this original Greek text doesn’t even seem to have the word “counterfeit” in it, so it seems questionable to use it for such speculations. 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 Christians had ancient images of Jesus 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 Christians didn’t crown images, since Justin Martyr, speaking for all Christians in his Apology, says that they did not do so.
Furthermore, note that crowning is listed along with setting them up beside philosophers. If we are to take this quotation to mean that Irenaeus is contrasting one of these explicitly mentioned practices against Gentile practices, then he must also be contrasting the other one against Gentile practices. However, it is obviously not the case that Irenaeus approved of venerating Christ alongside philosophers.
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.
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)
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)
[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)
[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)
Wherefore it is undoubted that there is no religion wherever there is an image. (The Divine Institutes 2.18-2.19 ANF)
[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
I’ve moved the bulk of the pro-iconodulia arguments to another article that is specifically for objections. They are organized by category.
I wanted to move them there because the quality of many of them was low enough that it distracted from the main points I make and made these articles very tedious reading. This way, if you are looking for responses to specific objections, you know where to get them; if not, you won’t be burdened by lengthy rebuttals to mainly insignificant points. The objections that are more viable or are objections to specific evidences that I use remain inline in these articles.
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 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.
- 2Note: I’m not able to access the text that the translators used for Hippolytus, but this original Greek text doesn’t even seem to have the word “counterfeit” in it, so it seems questionable to use it for such speculations.
7 thoughts on “Early Church Fathers on Icons”
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.
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.
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
That’s a really good question, M. I fear I wrote that section too hastily. I went back now and rewrote it. I hope it’s clearer now; do let me know if it isn’t.
Thanks Lynn that’s a lot better now
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
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.