Icons | The Orthodox Church Has Changed the Apostolic Faith

In this post, I will contend with one of the main claims of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the claim that they have remained unchanged since the days of the apostles.

In these posts, I’ll show that the Eastern Orthodox Church has not remained entirely faithful to the apostolic deposit of faith. Specifically, I’ll demonstrate that the Christian church before the ecumenical councils and the Christian church after the ecumenical councils differed in significant ways. This post will be about the veneration of icons, a practice that is also called iconodulia.

For basically all the relevant quotes from the pre-Nicene Christians, as well as some analysis of them, see this article.

The Eastern Orthodox View of Icons

Today, the EOC uses religious images called icons in their worship. Icons are intended to represent Jesus Christ or the saints. Worshippers bow to these icons and kiss them as a means of showing reverence for our divine Savior or for dead Christians. They also pray before these icons as a way to bring their prayers before Christ and his saints.

As I’ll show in this post, the veneration of icons was not considered a legitimate Christian practice for the approximately three hundred years before the seven ecumenical councils took place. However, after the seventh council, the veneration of icons was considered mandatory for all Christians. That council, the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787), decided that all who do not venerate icons are to be anathematized, or excommunicated. To easily read the most relevant parts of their decision, click on this footnote.1Therefore all those who dare to think or teach anything different [about icons], or who follow the accursed heretics in rejecting ecclesiastical traditions . . . or who spurn anything entrusted to the church (whether it be the gospel of the figure of the cross or any example of representational art or any martyr’s holy relic), or who fabricate perverted and evil prejudices against cherishing any of the lawful traditions of the catholic church [which at that time included Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox], or who secularize the sacred objects and saintly monasteries, we order that they be suspended if they are bishops or clerics, and excommunicated if they are monks or lay people. . . . If anyone does not accept representation in art of evangelical scenes, let him be anathema. If anyone does not salute such representations as standing for the Lord and his saints, let him be anathema. . . . [T]he false writings composed against the venerable icons, should be given in at the episcopal building in Constantinople, so that they can be put away along with other heretical books. If someone is discovered to be hiding such books, if he is a bishop, priest or deacon, let him be suspended, and if he is a lay person or a monk, let him be excommunicated. (Norman P. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1, Nicaea I to Lateran V, 137-146)

In substance, the council concludes that icons are so important that if a Christian doesn’t salute them (e.g., by kissing them or praying to them as to Christ and the saints) they are to be excommunicated. In fact, the council even orders Christians not to own any books that argue against iconodulia.

Note that the council calls iconodulia a tradition of the church. By that, the council means that the practice of venerating icons had originated with the apostles, and that it had always been an accepted practice in the church.

But they were just wrong. Before the seven church councils, the veneration of icons was not considered a legitimate Christian practice.

The Orthodox consider these councils to make infallible pronouncements on the faith. The conciliar decisions are what defines Eastern Orthodoxy. So if I can show that a council’s decision did not align with the practice of the first several hundred years of the church, that means that Eastern Orthodoxy can no longer claim to be the unchanging, original faith.

The Pre-Conciliar View of Images

No early Christian leaders, even those considered by the Orthodox to be saints, wrote in favor of venerating icons. Many early Christian leaders, including Orthodox saints, wrote that images should not be venerated. In the next section, I will quote from some of them.

They Did Have Art, Just Not Icons

There may have been a few Christians who thought no religious images should be allowed. However, we have plenty of examples of religious art, such as in excavated churches. Clement of Alexandria, one of the bishops who wrote most clearly against the veneration of images, spoke in favor of art.2But it is with a different kind of spell that art deludes you, . . . it leads you to pay religious honour and worship to images and pictures. The picture is like. Well and good! Let art receive its meed of praise, but let it not deceive man by passing itself off for truth. (Exhortation to the Heathen 4 ANF)

And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them (The Instructor 3.11)
Eusebius cited people who honored Christ and his apostles by painting pictures of them.3Since I have mentioned this city I do not think it proper to omit an account which is worthy of record for posterity. . . . 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. (Ecclesiastical History 7.18) Irenaeus used the image of a king in an example that suggests that he doesn’t regard it to be wrong.4He criticizes the Valentinians: “Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.” (Against Heresies 1.8)

So Christian religious art was in existence in the pre-conciliar era. However, as I’ll show, the church did not consider veneration of art to be appropriate.

Main Contention: Icons Were Not a Pre-Conciliar Christian Practice

I also want to make another point clear, because there’s a lot of confusion about it online. I will not be arguing that the early Christians believed the veneration of Christian icons to be idolatry. That would be a mistake—the early Christians didn’t write about the veneration of Christian icons at all!

Furthermore, I will not be arguing that the veneration of icons is wrong. That would miss the point. The question is not whether it’s wrong, but whether the Eastern Orthodox Church is correct that veneration of icons is an original Christian practice.

Instead, a careful analysis of the early Christian writers shows that veneration of icons was not a Christian practice. Before the councils, church leaders knew of no such Christian practice, as their writings show. We can also tell from their argumentation they would have argued against such a practice, if they had known about it. Since no church leaders before the councils spoke of the iconodulia in a favorable light, it is clear that the veneration of icons was not a legitimate Christian practice until the era of the councils.

Reviewing the Evidence

In the nearly three hundred years before the councils, a lot of church fathers wrote about religious images. However, they all attribute this practice to the pagans, and they write that Christians don’t have such practices. The following is what they believed.

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.

However, as you can see in the quotes below, multiple early Christians argued against pagan idols by saying that matter cannot represent anything sacred. Were they right or wrong? It doesn’t matter.

The point is that you can’t use that argument against idols, if you yourself are venerating icons. If the early Christians had used sacred icons to represent Christ or the saints, they couldn’t have said that matter can’t represent the sacred. 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 icons and idols, yet they never do. So if someone argues that matter cannot represent anything sacred, that person could not be practicing iconodulia.

Athenagorus (Saint)

Because the multitude, who cannot distinguish between matter and God, . . . pray to idols made of matter, are we therefore, who do distinguish and separate the uncreated and the created, . . . are we to come and worship images? (Plea for the Christians 15 ANF)

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? (Fragment 1 http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/melito.html)

Clement of Alexandria (Considered a saint by some)

[T]he 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)

Arnobius (An early apologist)

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)

Lactantius (An early apologist)

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)

The early Christians were well aware that the pagans believed they were worshiping the gods themselves, not idols, as the quote from Melito shows. They knew that worship or veneration of an object was intended for the invisible referent, not for the object. However, as the quotes above demonstrate, they considered that concept to be ridiculous, believing 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.

Veneration of Images Was Seen as a Difference Between Christians vs. Pagans or Heretics

The early church fathers attribute the veneration of images of Christ or of humans to the heretics and pagans, never to true Christians. Furthermore, they were constantly defending themselves against pagans who thought they were a cult or even atheistic because they didn’t have sacred images. This, of course, shows that Christians didn’t venerate images. If Christians were venerating images, this difference between pagans and Christians wouldn’t have arisen. And even if it had arisen, Christians could simply have said, “No, don’t falsely accuse us; we actually venerate images, too. Just not pagan images.”

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, . . . They have also other modes of honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles. (Against Heresies 1.25.6 ANF)

Hippolytus (Saint)

[The Carpocratian heretics] have themselves been sent forth by Satan, for the purpose of slandering before the Gentiles the divine name of the Church. (And the devil’s object is,) that men hearing, now after one fashion and now after another, the doctrines of those (heretics), and thinking that all of us are people of the same stamp, may turn away their ears from the preaching of the truth, or that they also, looking, (without abjuring,) upon all the tenets of those (heretics), may speak hurtfully of us. . . . And they 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)

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 (Banquet of the Ten Virgins 2.7 ANF)

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)

Origen

[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. . . . [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)

I am aware that some of Origen’s ideas were condemned after his death, but, as I said before, that objection would miss the point of this quotation. The point is that pagans knew that Christians didn’t have icons, and Origen felt the need to defend this Christian tradition.

Another objection to this last quote by Origen is dealt with in this article on quotes from Origen.

No Such Christian Practice Is Condemned

If the pre-conciliar Christians didn’t have a practice of iconodulia, as I’ve been arguing, we of course wouldn’t expect them to make very many direct statements against the veneration of images. We would also 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. Few fathers argue against iconodulia, and (to my knowledge) no iconoclastic movement arose during the Ante-Nicene period. And when they do argue against the practice, they are condemning non-Christian practices, as the quotes in this article show.

Veneration of Images Is Directly Contradicted

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 (An early apologist)

[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)

Lactantius (An early apologist)

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)

These statements were made against pagan images, you might point out. That’s true. But how can you make such direct statements against images, if you’re practicing iconodulia yourself? So it’s pretty clear that these men believed iconodulia to be wrong.

But remember the last point I made—if that practice had existed among Christians during their time, why don’t we hear any writers specifically arguing against Christian iconodulia?

Note: For the sake of space, I have quoted only a representative sample of the relevant quotes from this era. If you want to see the full quotations and more of them, go to this post.

No One Described Christian Iconodulia

The final piece of evidence is this: After searching through the pre-Nicene writings and searching extensively for quotations used by the Orthodox to support the practice, I have still found no early Christian writer who described iconodulia as a Christian practice. A few quotes are used to argue that they did, but I will address those quotes in this section.

The following is from Methodius. As far as I can tell, this is the only pre-Nicene quote from John of Damascus’s three treatises on icons (which are documents that the Orthodox have used for centuries to defend iconodulia).

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 to His honour and glory. (Methodius, Discourse on the Resurrection 2 ANF)

At first, this sounds like a pro-icon quote. However, there are a number of serious issues with the use of this quotation as support for iconodulia. Most importantly, John of Damascus seems to have misunderstood the intent, as I’ll show. However, even if he understood it correctly, the quote isn’t clearly about icons specifically, just royal and angelic images. Veneration is not mentioned.5There is also question as to whether this quote comes from a genuine work by Methodius; after all, in another quote (quoted above), Methodius seems to write against icons. In view of these issues, it’s also interesting that John uses this as his final quote in his final treatise, 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 has been lost to us. However, a similar fragment from Methodius has been found which sheds light on what the former quote actually means. See below.

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. (On the History of Jonah 2 ANF)

In this quote, Methodius uses very similar language. In fact, the third sentence could easily be the same sentence as the first sentence quoted by John. Yet this quotation is clearly about the created beings, not about artificial images. The resemblance is sufficient to conclude that the first quotation was also about created beings, and that Methodius therefore did not believe in the veneration of icons.

Another quote used in support of iconodulia comes from Eusebius:

Since I have mentioned this city I do not think it proper to omit an account which is worthy of record for posterity. . . . 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. (Ecclesiastical History 7.18)

Note that these images are not said to be venerated. What is more to the point is that Eusebius takes special notice of these images, as though they were curiosities, not typical Christian practice. He speculates that they were created due to a pre-Christian habit, not that they were created due to beliefs inherent to Christianity. Thus, this quote actually is evidence against the early veneration of images.

Assessing the Evidence

So we have seen that multiple early Christian writers, including Orthodox saints, believed that images cannot stand in for anything sacred. Furthermore, multiple writers, including saints, speak of the veneration of images as a pagan practice, rather than a Christian practice. A few writers even make sweeping statements that are directly against veneration of images.

I think it’s clear that these writers knew nothing of Christian icons, and that their statements show that they would have been opposed to icons, had they known about them.

I may be missing something, but I have yet to find a single pre-Nicene church leader who believed iconodulia to be a legitimate Christian practice. However, there is quite good evidence to the contrary—that, before the councils, iconodulia was not 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.

Objections

Even though Christian veneration of icons did not arise for the first three hundred years of Christianity, it is still a very old practice, and it is deeply tied to the faith of the Eastern Orthodox. It’s not surprising, then, that they put forward a lot of responses to arguments like mine. In this section, I’ll address some common objections that I’ve heard from the Eastern Orthodox, and I’ll show why this argument still stands.

We have evidence of iconodulia during this time period.

Lately, there has been an attempt to show that iconodulia existed during the pre-Nicene era. It seems that the method of demonstrating this is to find references to images or iconodulia in texts which may come from this time, but are far from the mainstream of orthodox Christianity. I’ll include the evidences I’m aware of here.

In short, one second century source (the Acts of John) describes Christian art being venerated using a crowing ceremony. (Session 5, Mendham, Nicea 2, 269-272)

From this page.

The Acts of John is a Gnostic source. Should we let such sources have precedence over orthodox Christian sources? 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.

Apparently, there was also a legend about an apostolic council at Antioch, which stated that Christians should make images of Christ and his servants, but not be idolaters. Some have dated the canons of this supposed council to the third or fourth centuries.6See this article. I don’t see why a text with such dubious origin should be used as evidence, but also note that the text may not have even originated until after Nicaea. If anyone has good sources to recommend for researching this further, please let me know.

As recorded by Bigham, at “the traditional site of the Annunciation, under the Byzantine chapel” (i.e. the location of the original church) a second or third century image of “M” (likely Mary) has an inscription which states that the image was “eukosmesa” or “adorned.” (Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images, 100-102)

From this page.

One image with graffiti of uncertain age is evidence, but not very significant evidence compared to the much clearer evidence I’ve offered. Note that the image, according to Bigham, is dated to the second or third century, but no mention is made of when the graffiti is dated. To be good evidence, it would need to date from the early 300s or before. I would be interested in knowing more about the archaeological evidence behind the dating of this image and graffiti. My research hasn’t turned up anything yet; if anyone has further information, please let me know.

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 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.

In this section, I’ll also include a text that post-dates the Council of Nicaea, because it deserves a deeper look. Eusebius, the famous historian, is writing to Constantia, who I believe was the daughter of Constantine. She had requested an icon of Christ, and he was saying that this was not a Christian practice. This is used as evidence that Christians were venerating images. Craig Truglia writes, “The fact that a Christian empress requested an icon is additional evidence that icons were not some fringe, lower-class thing, but something that was mainstream enough to be part of high society.”7From this article.

To dispel this interpretation of the text, just read it below:

You also wrote me concerning some supposed image of Christ, which image you wished me to send you. Now what kind of thing is this that you call the image of Christ? I do not know what impelled you to request that an image of Our Saviour should be delineated. [. . .] How can one paint an image of so wondrous and unattainable a form—if the term ‘form’ is at all applicable to the divine and spiritual essence—unless, like the unbelieving pagans, one is to represent things that bear no possible resemblance to anything. . . ? For they, too, make such idols when they wish to mould the likeness of what they consider to be a god or, as they might say, one of the heroes or anything else of the kind, yet are unable even to approach a resemblance, and so delineate and represent some strange human shapes. Surely, even you will agree that such practices are not lawful for us.

But if you mean to ask of me the image, not of His form transformed into that of God, but that of the mortal flesh before its transformation, can it be that you have forgotten that passage in which God lays down the law that no likeness should be made either of what is in heaven or what is in the earth beneath? Have you ever heard anything of the kind either yourself in church or from another person? Are not such things banished and excluded from churches all over the world, and is it not common knowledge that such practices are not permitted to us alone?

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. I have also seen myself the man who bears the name of madness57 [painted] on an image and escorted by Manichees. To us, however, such things are forbidden. [. . .]

(From this site. Ellipses marked [. . .] are my own, as is bold.)

When we look at the actual text, we can see that it is not evidence that icons were commonly used. To the contrary, Eusebius states plainly that iconodulia is universally rejected by Christian churches. The text is so clear that it’s hard for me to see how anyone would use it in an argument that iconodulia was common.

A lot of weight is put on two aspects of the text:

  • Eusebius confiscated images from someone. This suggests that there was actually iconodulia happening. However, notice that the text doesn’t mention that anyone was venerating these images. Furthermore, Eusebius says that this was “once,” suggesting that it was an isolated incident. Compare that with how explicit Eusebius is that iconodulia is not an approved practice by the church: “Have you ever heard anything of the kind either yourself in church or from another person?”
  • Constantia was a prominent person, and therefore this practice must have been common, not just by lower classes, but by prominent Christians. But note that there’s no evidence that she was practicing iconodulia already; only that she wants to begin. Furthermore, consider whether it’s likely that an empress would be the model of Christianity—rich, used to pomp and power, used to pagan customs? In fact, contemporary history suggests that she was violent and cruel. So how is a letter written to a woman who was no kind of model Christian, telling her she is mistaken that Christians use icons, an evidence that Christians used icons? This just shows the extremity to which the Orthodox position is forced to go.

But those who argued against iconodulia also argued against all images.

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. Earlier in the article, 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.8Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. (Against Heresies 1.8.1)

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 quoted from Tertullian in this post.

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-Nicene 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.

Just the existence of religious art suggests iconodulia.

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 venerate, 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.

Furthermore, the early images seem to be instructive and decorative, not liturgical. In the Dura-Europos church, for example, there are paintings that seem to be of Adam and Eve, Christ’s miracles, the ten virgins, Christ as the Good Shepherd, and David and Goliath. They are exactly the subjects that we would expect if their purpose was to decorate the church and serve as teaching tools for Bible stories and concepts, but not exactly what we would expect if they were to be venerated.

In “On Modesty,” Tertullian describes paintings of the Good Shepherd and his sheep on Eucharistic cups. 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 shows a very inflexible stance in that text, would have been pounced on such veneration as something to mention and criticize, if it had been occurring.

Why does this handful of quotes matter against the weight of the seventh council and the Fathers?

It’s true that in the era during the seven church councils, some Christian writers started to argue for iconodulia. Why are the pre-conciliar Christians important? The pre-Nicene writers are the people who directly inherited the apostles’ faith. These are the people who received the apostolic tradition and who transmitted the tradition to later church fathers.

So if there were any apostolic traditions that still hadn’t been written down, the bishops in the era of the councils could only have heard it from the pre-Nicene Christians, who lived between them and the apostles. Yet the pre-Nicene Christians unilaterally refused to allow images in worship. They, being closer to the apostles and being the source of later Christians’ knowledge of tradition, are much more likely to be correct in their understanding of tradition than later Christians were.

Furthermore, we have good reason to believe that changes happened to the faith following the First Council of Nicaea, which predated the Second Council of Nicaea by more than four and a half centuries.

But some of these writers can’t be trusted

Some Orthodox might point out that Origen and Tertullian, two writers who wrote directly against icons, 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 iconodulia was not a legitimate Christian practice before the councils. 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.

The early Christians never condemn Christian iconodulia, only pagan idolatry.

Note that I haven’t listed any evidence that pre-Nicene Christians condemned Christian veneration of images. Of course, if my argument is correct, they wouldn’t condemn iconodulia, because it didn’t exist. However, the way they wrote about pagan veneration of images makes it very clear that everybody knew (pagans and Christians alike) that Christians didn’t venerate images.

My argument is not that we should condemn what the early Christians condemned. My argument is that the pre-conciliar church differed in significant ways from the post-conciliar church. As I showed in this article, the reason the early Christians never condemn Christian iconodulia is that they never even mention Christian iconodulia at all. Clearly, it was not a Christian practice in those days.

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 iconodulia was not considered a legitimate Christian practice at all before the councils. 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.
  • Another argument that the Orthodox often put forward is that there were images in the Old Testament temple or in first-century synagogues. They use the cherubim on the mercy seat as an example. But if these images were not venerated (bowed to or kissed), they provide no support for iconodulia. Besides, we are under the New Testament, not the Old. It’s pointless to maintain Old Testament practices (even if iconodulia were such a practice), if we aren’t first maintaining the New Testament practices that were lived and taught for the first three centuries of the church, as I have demonstrated.
  • But there aren’t many pre-Nicene fathers. We just don’t have enough evidence to know what pre-Nicene 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.
  • But Luke painted the first icon. He wouldn’t have, if it was wrong. There’s a very late tradition saying that Luke, the companion of Paul, created several icons. However, this is a legend that arose hundreds of years after Luke’s death, so I don’t see any reason to believe it.
  • Some argue that iconoclasm arose from Islam, not Christianity. This claim doesn’t address my argument, since the pre-Nicene church predates Islam by centuries.
  • How could a practice be widespread by the 8th century if it wasn’t apostolic? See this article that shows why we can expect changes to have occurred within that timeframe.
  • Epiphanius wrote to Emperor Theodosius in the late 300s saying that the use of icons was widespread. I haven’t yet acquired an English translation of this text, so I can’t look into it deeply now, but I am willing to accept this statement as true until I do. However, note that Theodosius was the emperor who made Christianity mandatory in the Roman Empire. As my previously linked article shows, we would expect the huge amounts of those who were made Christians of necessity rather than from conscience to gravitate toward pagan practices.
  • 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. See the article linked in a previous point.
  • The same article asserts that “In the first four hundred years of church history, there is not a single mention that art is merely decorative.” Art is typically merely decorative. 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.
  • The reason why we’re not supposed to have icons of God is because he’s a Spirit. But because Christ and the saints have bodies, we can make and venerate icons of them. This reasoning seems to carry weight for Eastern Orthodox. I have yet to understand it. As far as I can see, images aren’t criticized in Scripture or in the early church solely on that basis.

Where Does This Leave Us?

As you can see, none of these objections addresses the argument: that before the seven church councils, the veneration of icons was not considered a legitimate Christian practice.

Now, which interpretation is more likely? That there was always veneration of images, but for hundreds of years it wasn’t mentioned and was unilaterally criticized, or that there wasn’t veneration of images, then an era of change happened, and then Christians began to venerate images? Since there are other good reasons for thinking that changes occurred in the 300s, I think the second is more likely.

So I conclude that the consensus of the fathers, all the way up to the first church council, is that iconodulia is foreign to Christianity. However, the Eastern Orthodox Church now considers iconodulia to be a necessary practice. Therefore, the Eastern Orthodox Church has changed. It now teaches something to be essential that was once taught to be foreign to Christianity.

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

So these objections don’t support the use of icons. As I concluded earlier, iconodulia was not part of the original faith. The consensus of the early fathers is clear, consistent, and against the veneration of images.

Eastern Orthodoxy Is in a Quandary

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

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

The good news is that there are churches who live the faith of the apostles. And there are many faithful Christians all over the world—and in every denomination—who hold to that faith wherever they are. I pray that you are one of them.

My next article offers some bonus evidence for my argument. I’ll show that John Chrysostom and others of Orthodoxy’s favorite saints also did not know about or practice iconodulia.


Note: “ANF” in the footnotes indicates the Ante-Nicene Fathers set, by Schaff, Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe. From a digital copy scanned from a printing in 2001 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Numbers in references are chapter numbers as found in the ANF set.

  • 1
    Therefore all those who dare to think or teach anything different [about icons], or who follow the accursed heretics in rejecting ecclesiastical traditions . . . or who spurn anything entrusted to the church (whether it be the gospel of the figure of the cross or any example of representational art or any martyr’s holy relic), or who fabricate perverted and evil prejudices against cherishing any of the lawful traditions of the catholic church [which at that time included Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox], or who secularize the sacred objects and saintly monasteries, we order that they be suspended if they are bishops or clerics, and excommunicated if they are monks or lay people. . . . If anyone does not accept representation in art of evangelical scenes, let him be anathema. If anyone does not salute such representations as standing for the Lord and his saints, let him be anathema. . . . [T]he false writings composed against the venerable icons, should be given in at the episcopal building in Constantinople, so that they can be put away along with other heretical books. If someone is discovered to be hiding such books, if he is a bishop, priest or deacon, let him be suspended, and if he is a lay person or a monk, let him be excommunicated. (Norman P. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1, Nicaea I to Lateran V, 137-146)
  • 2
    But it is with a different kind of spell that art deludes you, . . . it leads you to pay religious honour and worship to images and pictures. The picture is like. Well and good! Let art receive its meed of praise, but let it not deceive man by passing itself off for truth. (Exhortation to the Heathen 4 ANF)

    And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them (The Instructor 3.11)
  • 3
    Since I have mentioned this city I do not think it proper to omit an account which is worthy of record for posterity. . . . 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. (Ecclesiastical History 7.18)
  • 4
    He criticizes the Valentinians: “Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.” (Against Heresies 1.8)
  • 5
    There is also question as to whether this quote comes from a genuine work by Methodius; after all, in another quote (quoted above), Methodius seems to write against icons. In view of these issues, it’s also interesting that John uses this as his final quote in his final treatise, 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.
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
    Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. (Against Heresies 1.8.1)

19 thoughts on “Icons | The Orthodox Church Has Changed the Apostolic Faith”

  1. I think there are major problems with what is presented here. In short, passages against pagan idols are equated with icons which, if they did not really exist (not simply art itself, but art made for veneration’s sake) then one could not read those passages with that anachronistic lens. More crucially, the explicit statements where iconodulia is described is dismissed out of hand because as the author states, he has not read this or that english translation himself. Well, how is one assessing the evidence if he/she is not following up one these things? And if one is not following up, shouldn’t the statement then be taken at face value unless proven otherwise. Lastly, there are some crucial errors of analysis, such as the treatment of the Acts of John. Yes, this is a gnostic source…it’s a gnostic source that *rejects* iconodulia explicitly. So, if your logic is consistent, if you were to reject iconodulia because it IS found in a gnostic source, do you now accept iconodulia because it were the gnostics who were actually rejecting it? And, as a matter of historical nuance, where did the gnostic author get the idea of what iconodulia was that he felt it was so important to reject it if it *did not exist*? And who likely practiced it? His own gnostic compatriots which he hoped would receive his book or those they were not in communion with, the Orthodox/Catholic Christians?

    The quandary is ultimately among the iconoclasts and aniconists. They find themselves using anachronisms and inconsistent logic, at odds with the actual extant evidence of iconodulia. Via occams razor, iconodulia seems to me the historically most likely practice of the Apostolic Church.

    1. Thanks for the reply, Craig. When you say that the argument depends on an anachronism, I’m not sure which point you’re calling into question. That pre-Nicene Christians thought images couldn’t stand in for anything sacred, or that they saw veneration of images as a difference between them and pagans, or that they don’t mention it as a Christian practice (either positively or negatively)?

      Thanks for pointing out that it could sound to readers like I’m dismissing evidence because I don’t yet have access to it. I’ll edit the article to make my position clearer. Until I have done further research, I’m of course willing to accept that evidence as you represented it. Note that I did give reasons for my assessment of that evidence, even given that the evidence is as you say.

      Good point the my analysis of the Acts of John could be clearer. To clarify, I don’t see why we need to give it 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. I’ll edit the article to make that more clear, and I definitely welcome your feedback on that point.

      And of course, feel free to mention any anachronisms or inconsistent logic you see in this post or any other on this site. I’ll be glad to correct or clarify my position.

  2. Thank you for the kind reply. I was writing my previous one in haste, I appreciate your understanding. Hopefully one day we can speak this issue out.

    As for anachronism, if iconodulia is an innovation, then one should not expect that it was explicitly condemned in the early Church or in the Scriptures, as it (allegedly) did not exist. Hence, to read Origen, Hippolytus, or whomever as condemning icons, if they did not really exist, would be anachronistic. By default they’d be condemning something else, idols, if one holds to the idea that iconodulia did not exist yet.

    May God save you!
    Craig

    1. Thanks! It’s tough to have respectful back and forth on issues like this which are (very understandably) close to our hearts, so I really appreciate it when it happens. I’ll give some thought to that objection and see if I can clarify the argument to address it more specifically. Definitely would be glad to dialogue further. God bless.

  3. Hi Lynn,
    The last two centuries of Christian archeological has uncovered Christian art that the Reformers never dreamed existed. I’ve seen the frescoes in the catacombs and I’ve seen mosaics in churches in Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Egypt that date from the 5th and 6th centuries. Who would have dreamed that the house church in Dura-Europos with its frescoes would have existed until it was found. Keep in mind that Dura was a small and obscure place.
    Clearly the Church Fathers aren’t the complete story. They aren’t trying to be balanced when they rage against (quite successfully) against pagan art. The first rule of polemics is not be fair.
    PS: scholars used to think that Judaism/ the Rabbis were totally against art. Then 15 synagogues with extensive art were found in the last 100 years!

    1. Thanks for the reply, Stephano. You’re right that we do know of plenty of art from the pre-Nicene era. But do you know of any evidence that art was venerated before 325? I’d be glad to research it further if you could point me to primary sources or to scholarly archeological sources.
      That’s an interesting argument you make, that the writers I cited weren’t trying to state their actual position. I don’t see indications that they were raging or engaging in overstatement, do you? But we need such indications before we assume hyperbole, or we could just assume that what anyone says in support of their position is hyperbole and that they don’t really believe what they’re saying.

  4. Hi Lynn,
    what do you think that Christians were doing with all this art? To create art is an act of veneration. Please tell me what you think ‘veneration’ means.
    It clearly took money, time and effort to create the art in the Dura-Europos House Church. Was it like ‘We made this art but it means nothing to us.’ Is there evidence that Christians lit candles in pre-Nicene time in front of icons? Not really. Candles and lamps were lit in the catacombs but that could just be lighting. The evidence from Pre-Nicene Christianity is not a ‘how to’ of Christianity. The writings are occasional and specific. They simply had no need to deal with the issue of veneration. However, if memory serves Irenaeus has a passage where he condemns the Carpocratians for venerating an image of Christ along with Plato and Pythagoras. Interestingly, Irenaeus doesn’t condemn the icon of Christ but the syncretic way the Carpocratians used it.
    I should also point out that technically the Carpocratians were a type of (heretical) Christian and you have evidence there of veneration.
    As my comment about polemics, I’m simply saying the writers aren’t trying to be balanced, not that they aren’t stating their position. They aren’t talking about art but art used in pagan worship. It’s like a preacher saying some group (let’s say American White Supremacist) are hypocrites without going into detail about how many Christians are hypocrites as well.
    My evidence is based on the rhetorical progymnasmata that was part of Greco-Roman education like Theon, Hermogenes and Aphthonius. The rule of invective (or polemic) is to be one sided. There are English translations of these handbooks so take a look.

    1. Hi Stephano, I actually already have a response to that claim about the Dura-Europos church, as well as that quotation from Irenaeus, in the article above. Feel free to comment on what I wrote.
      Thanks for the recommendation of the progymnasmata. I’ll do some research into them.

  5. You say “Furthermore, the early images seem to be instructive and decorative, not liturgical. In the Dura-Europos church, for example, there are paintings that seem to be of Adam and Eve, Christ’s miracles, the ten virgins, Christ as the Good Shepherd, and David and Goliath. They are exactly the subjects that we would expect if their purpose was to decorate the church and serve as teaching tools for Bible stories and concepts, but not exactly what we would expect if they were to be venerated.”

    Please tell me which of the writers you quote in this article takes this approach that Christian art is ok as long as it’s for educational purposes.

    1. I would assume that the default position would be that Christian art is ok for any purpose, except for purposes that contradicted Christian beliefs. No longer being under the Old Testament, having art wouldn’t be a problem, unless the Christians specifically contradicted it. In the article, I offered two examples of Christians who believed art to be ok. Do you know of any pre-Nicene Christians who believed that art was forbidden for educational purposes?

  6. Hi Lynn,
    Clement of Alexandia (who was not a bishop) is talking about signet rings not decoration on the walls of churches. It was a practical piece of advice as many people were illiterate and needed a ‘singature’. Eusebius talks of images of Christ, Paul and Peter being created in gratitude. Where is the written evidence to back your claim that art is being used for teaching?
    You suggest the written evidence paints a complete picture (so to speak) of early Christian practice so according to you there should be written evidence to back your assertion.

    Also, what do you think Eusebius means when he says people ‘honored’ the images?

    1. Hi Stephano, I’m not sure what you’re suggesting. Either these images, including Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, the ten virgins, are intended for veneration or they are intended for purposes other than veneration. Are you saying they’re intended for veneration? As far as I know, Orthodox don’t venerate David and Goliath or the ten virgins. If Orthodox do not venerate them, then these images are intended for purposes other than veneration, and these images themselves are evidence that Christians used images for other purposes.
      Also, I didn’t mean to suggest that the written evidence paints a complete picture of early Christian practice; just that we have enough evidence to draw some inferences. And note that Eusebius didn’t say that people honored the images.
      I know this is an issue that is very near to the Orthodox heart, and I don’t mean this article to be offensive. I suggest you get Orthodox sources on icons, such as orthodoxchristiantheology.com, and try to fairly compare their assessment of the evidence with mine. There are good points to be made on both sides. In the end, I think that my assessment is more accurate, but I can see how you’d disagree. I just think you could make a more informed argument for your side than you’ve made so far.

  7. Hi Lynn,
    I hope you don’t mind if we continue this dialogue. Let me know if you get bored.
    The Orthodox Church doesn’t deny the educational value of religious art. For us it is fairly obvious. Pope Gregory the Great says this clearly in his letters to Serenus of Marseilles (Letters IX.209, X.10) “Pictures are used in churches so that those who are ignorant of letters may at least read by seeing on the walls what they cannot read in books.” So for us it is not an either/or question.
    Orthodox don’t venerate Goliath but we do venerate King David. The Wise Virgins are a parable. Veneration is about real people. In a sense Orthodox don’t venerate icons but people. This is what I think Eusebius is talking about when he mentions the images. The people who have these images are clearly Christians but Eusebius suggests they were made in the far past by recent converts. Why would they still have them centuries later if they weren’t important. I should also point out that the Greek word Eusebius uses is ‘icons’, the typical Greek word for a picture. The word now has a more technical meaning in English but it is just the plain old word for image/picture/drawing/art (even in modern Greek)
    Interestingly enough, going back to the Dura-Europos Church, in my church there are depictions of Jesus walking on water and the paralytic up on the walls.
    We can’t detach the veneration of icons from the veneration of the saints, apostles and prophets. I suggest do some research on the graffiti in the catacombs and in Peter’s house church in Palestine to see the practice of visitors venerating the saints there.
    Icons are a big issue for Protestants/Anabaptists but we don’t spend all our time thinking about icons. You’ll find there is a deepness to Orthodoxy that is missing from Reformation churches. I strongly suggest you visit an Orthodox Church. We make just as much fuss about the Bible for example, which a lot of outsiders conveniently ignore.
    I am not aware of the orthodoxchristiantheology blog but I’ll take a look.
    Can I ask a question? The early Anabaptists were strongly all art. The Swiss Brethren broke with Zwingli over that issue (and baptism). They wanted all art gone. Were they wrong? Does the church you go to have any educational art?

    1. Sure, the comments section here is for conversation about these posts, so more conversation is definitely good. However, I’d suggest keeping comments under a post to be mainly about the issue the post is discussing. If you’d like to range into other areas, I’d love to discuss them over email. Feel free to contact me through the contact page on this site with anything, and we can continue the conversation there.
      I agree with much of what you say here, but I would note that Eusebius seems to suggest that the creation of the art was the way these Gentiles gave honor to the apostles, not that they were giving honor through venerating the art. It seems that the artists may not even have been Christians, and Eusebius offers this as a Gentile (maybe he means pagan?) sort of thing to do, rather than something that would represent Christianity as a whole. Anyway, thanks for the recommendation on artifacts to look into. That’s one of my next projects.
      I haven’t looked as deeply as I would like to (sometime) into veneration of saints, having confined myself to the issue of venerating them through icons for now. It’s not because this issue is necessarily central to Orthodoxy, but because it’s an area where we have fairly clear evidence of how the early Christians practiced, and it provides a litmus test for the idea that Orthodoxy has never changed. I’ve offered two other such areas as well.
      I do appreciate (and love) the ancientness of Orthodoxy. However, I would rather go deeper in history and practice as the apostles and the church they established. I find the Anabaptist tradition to be close to the essentials of that practice. Also, Anabaptism is more flexible, since we don’t claim that our church’s decisions are infallible, so we can continue to adjust to better live the historic faith, while it’s hard for Orthodoxy to do so. I think you’re right that some of the Swiss Brethren were against all representational art, but where I want to follow them is in their zeal for returning to the apostolic truth, not necessarily in every belief (which would of course be impossible, because not all agreed on every issue).

      1. Hi Lynn,
        Eusebius implies that the icons of Christ, Peter and Paul are ancient. Why and how would pagans still have them and even know who they were after 250 years? I suggest they are Christians and Eusebius is (disaprovingly) trying to explain their use of icons by Christians by claiming it was a pagan habit. As an Origenist he was very cerebral and rather dismissive of common Christians.
        For a smallish group that is supposedly flexible the Anabaptists have a lot of schisms over trivia things like buttons and dolls with faces.
        You didn’t answer my question if your church has art?
        I’ve been reading through some of your posts. Sorry but the early church wasn’t as pacifistic or unpatriotic as you think. It also baptised infants (and everybody else with no age limit). The image of the early church created by the early Anabaptists (one thousand, five hundred years later) was a figment of their imagination based on a misreading of the New Testament.
        Consider this, how similar is the Judaism of the Jews who wandered in the desert for 40 years to the Judaism of the Kingdom of Solomon? A misinformed observer might think they were different, or the latter was a ‘corruption of the simplicity of the earlier one.
        The Orthodox Church is simply a continuation of the church in Acts 28 with 2,000 years of history under its belt. Over the centuries there have been some tough questions on doctrine but once a decision is made you can’t go back. For example, the Nicene-Constantinoplian Creed is now a necessity. You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.
        It’s interesting that you don’t consider the decisions of your churches infallible. Can I ask about the Holy Spirit in history? Where exactly are the ‘real’ Christians in the 4th century or the 6th century or the 10th century?

        1. Hi Stephano, I went and read Eusebius’s account, and I think you’re right that he’s not indicating that it was pagans who made and kept the statue. But note that I did say later in my article, “What is more to the point is that Eusebius takes special notice of these images, as though they were curiosities, not typical Christian practice. He speculates that they were created due to a pre-Christian habit, not that they were created due to beliefs inherent to Christianity. Thus, this quote actually is evidence against the early veneration of images.”
          You’re absolutely right that the Anabaptists have divided over many deplorably small issues. I mourn that. And since you asked, my church does use images as teaching tools in our church services.
          You say that the early church wasn’t as pacifistic or unpatriotic as I think. Can you find me any Christian text predating 313 that holds that a Christian may use violence? Can you find me any Christian text predating 313 that holds that a Christian may give patriotic allegiance to his earthly nation? I will revise my position, if so. I’m simply following the evidence that I’m aware of, and I welcome you to let me know with any evidence I’m missing.
          I’ve given evidence here, here, and here that changes such as the Orthodox Church has made are not apostolic. I’d be grateful if you’d give your specific objections in the comments at those articles. I’m always looking for things I’ve missed.
          And I believe that there have been real Christians all through history. They’ve belonged to many different movements and churches. For broad swaths of history, many Christians have been mistaken with regard to some apostolic doctrines. But I believe that God will have mercy on those who sincerely seek him, despite their faults. That’s the only way I can be saved, after all.
          And The Holy Spirit has worked to save, comfort, and aid Christians all throughout history. But as the articles I linked show, no further doctrines have been revealed other than what the apostles knew and taught the churches.

  8. Hi Lynn,
    I was specifically referring to the paintings/icons. The quote ‘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’ points to an ancient practice of veneration by Christians. Eusebius disapproves but it is happening. This is fairly clear because he is relating it to the way gentiles act. As for how widespread it is, this text provides no evidence.

    Over the years people have told me many things about the pre-Nicene church. They didn’t baptise infants. They didn’t have bishops. They didn’t have art. They didn’t have purpose built places of worship. They only held the eucharist once a month. They didn’t drink wine. They believed in papal infallibility. They didn’t believe in the trinity. They believed in TULIP. Etc, etc, etc.
    I believe you are being simplistic and mishandling/misunderstanding the evidence. That Christians were serving in the army and government in Pre-Nicene times is fairly well documented. Was the ideal for peace/non-violence? Yes! Was the church willing to tolerate using violence to defend the innocent? Yes! It didn’t force Christians into violence but (begrudgingly) accepted the reality. I should note here that the Orthodox Church never adopted the crusader mentality of the west and has never believed in holy war.
    As we have been attacked by jihadist Muslims, Western Crusaders, Nationalist Turks, Communists and Nazis over the centuries then we have a right to defend ourselves. Even all those ‘sola scriptura’ types (basically) agree with the Orthodox position and the Anabaptist interpretation is a tiny minority interpretation that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I should also say that 4/6 million Orthodox were martyred in the 20th Century, particularly by Communists, Nazis and Turks so there is plenty of room in Orthodoxy for passive resistance. I, myself, am a pacifist but I acknowledge others don’t have that luxury like my grandfather who fought in World War Two to defend Greece from the Italian Fascist/German Nazi invasion.

    Sorry Lynn, but your response about ‘true’ Christians in history left me unimpressed. You need to be specific. The Holy Spirit guides us not only in the New Testament but through history. You can’t find any Anabaptists before 1625 because there aren’t any. That is very problematic for me. Their eccentric combination of re-baptism, rejection of art, civil life and absolute pacifism only reached that combination very late in the history of Christianity.

    1. Hi Stefanos,
      To clarify, my goal is to live out the faith that was lived and taught by the apostles and those who came after them. I’m an Anabaptist because the evidence leads me to conclude that Anabaptism is very close to that faith, so it’s easier for me to live it out among Anabaptists. But I honor all those who live out that faith in other traditions. And I’m always glad to learn to better understand that faith.
      So I’d be glad to know any places where you notice that I’m misreading the evidence, and any places where I’ve missed evidence that contradicts my interpretation. Feel free to share that in the comments under any of the posts you disagree with. It’s a little hard for me to respond to more general objections like this.
      I’ll respond to your mention of Christians in the army in my response to the article you were so good as to share with me through email.
      I’d like to say here that I respect and honor Orthodox martyrs for their testimony of faith. Anabaptist history began in martyrdom, and we also seek to emulate the faith of those who died for Christ.

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