Icons | The Orthodox Church Has Changed the Apostolic Faith

The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the one and only apostolic church, and so does the Eastern Orthodox Church. In this series of articles, I’ll show that neither church’s claim can be true. One way of addressing their claims is to focus on their reasons why they believe they have apostolic authority, which I’ve addressed in other articles. This series takes a different approach. In these articles, I’ll evaluate one of the specific dogmatic beliefs that these churches share, and, in the process, I’ll show that their belief contradicts the historic Christian faith.

Each of these churches teaches and practices the veneration of icons, a practice that includes praying to images of Christ, saints, and angels.

Worship vs. Veneration

To someone on the outside looking in, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practice may look very much like the worship of idols. After all, these Christians address prayers to images in the hope that the person depicted in the image will hear them. They also light candles and burn incense for these images.

However, these churches very clearly teach that they are not worshiping idols. The honor that they address to these images is not intended to be the sort of worship that belongs to God alone. Instead, they intend to be showing only the honor that they would give to the person depicted if that person were present in real life.

For example, if the apostle Peter appeared to them, they would bow to him and kiss him. They wouldn’t worship him as though he were God.

Whether or not you think that there is a real difference between idolatry and the veneration of icons, it’s important to recognize that the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox make this distinction. We shouldn’t misrepresent their intended position, even if we disagree with it.

Veneration is an official practice

The veneration of icons is not only a common practice; it is specifically taught by both churches. Back when they were the same church and had not yet divided from each other, the Second Council of Nicaea mandated the veneration of icons (also called “iconodulia”).

This council is considered by both churches to be an ecumenical council. An ecumenical council is a meeting of bishops who represent what they consider to be the entire church. For Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, decisions reached during such a council have authority on the level of the New Testament. In other words, if they say that something is part of the Christian faith, then it most definitely is, even if it isn’t found in the Bible.

The Second Council of Nicaea (abbreviated as “Nicaea II”) took place in AD 787, decided that anyone who doesn’t venerate icons is to be anathema, or excommunicated from Christ’s church. Here’s what those bishops said:

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.1(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), that Christian is to be excommunicated. In fact, the council even orders Christians not to own any books that argue against iconodulia. While neither church would be so harsh today, both of them still believe that Nicaea II infallibly teaches the principle that icons should be venerated.

Notice that the council calls iconodulia a tradition of the church. By saying that, the council is claiming that the practice of venerating icons originated with the apostles, and that it has always been an accepted practice in the church.

However, the council was simply wrong. History clearly shows that the early church unilaterally rejected the veneration of images for the first centuries following the apostles. Before Constantine’s first influences on the church (starting around 313), and likely for a time following that, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice. This means that neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches a faith that is consistent with what the original apostolic church taught.

This is a huge problem for these churches. First, it shows that they have strayed from the apostolic faith. They no longer practice the unchanging Christian faith in its entirety. Second, it refutes their claim that their churches cannot err when teaching doctrine. One of their allegedly infallible councils proclaimed that the veneration of icons is a necessary part of the Christian faith, but of course, since it was wrong, this directly contradicts their claim to infallibility.

It’s important to note that, though both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches teach the veneration of icons, they approach the subject of doctrine in different ways. That’s because the Roman Catholic Church has introduced the idea that Christian doctrine can develop, in some ways, from what it was in the beginning. So in the next sections, I’ll address each of their approaches and explain why this subject creates an issue for each one.

The Eastern Orthodox Position

The doctrinal claims of the Eastern Orthodox Church are most straightforward. This church tradition typically claims to have remained essentially unchanged in both doctrine and practice since the days of the apostles. Any changes in the way a practice is engaged in, to the Eastern Orthodox, must not affect the core or the intention of the practice.

To many Christians today, this claim makes the Eastern Orthodox Church sound very attractive. Who wouldn’t want to join the church that believes and practices just like the apostles did? These Christians are often excited to find out that many of the changes that occurred in Roman Catholicism didn’t affect Eastern Orthodoxy. And because the Eastern Orthodox Church hasn’t changed much since around AD 900, it can be very easy to assume that it essentially hasn’t changed since AD 100.

The claim that the Eastern Orthodox Church is infallible and unchanging may help people feel secure about their beliefs. But a false security is no security at all. When it comes to the Christian faith, we can’t make assumptions. We need to find the original beliefs of the church, and follow the truth wherever it leads, rather than making choices based on how much we are attracted to one church or another.

Unfortunately, the strong claim of the Eastern Orthodox makes their position very easy to disprove. Since the veneration of icons was not a part of the Christian faith for the first centuries, and only developed later, the attractive claims of the Eastern Orthodox Church can be shown to be false. They no longer practice as the apostles did.

The Orthodox consider ecumenical councils to make infallible pronouncements on the faith. The conciliar decisions are what defines Eastern Orthodoxy, and they are thought to be exactly in line with the apostolic faith. So if the decision of Nicaea II does not align with the practice of the first several hundred years of the church, then Eastern Orthodoxy can no longer claim to be the unchanging, original faith.

The Roman Catholic Position

The Roman Catholic Church is in essentially the same position as the Eastern Orthodox Church, although the Roman Catholics have one thing in their favor that the Eastern Orthodox don’t. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Christian doctrine can legitimately develop over time. They agree that what is declared to be doctrine cannot change, but they believe that, if there are any gray areas where there is no consensus on what the truth is, those gray areas can be clarified with further dogmatic statements from the Pope, as well as ecumenical councils. These new statements are considered infallible doctrine and cannot be changed.

As I show in other articles, this is an incorrect understanding of doctrinal authority. However, my goal in this series is to show that these churches teach doctrines that are inconsistent with their own doctrinal criteria. So if it could be shown that the Christian church never came to a consensus about iconodulia until 787, then the Roman Catholic Church, by their own standards, would be just fine.

However, as I’ll show at the end of this article, this understanding of the source for Christian doctrine doesn’t make the case better for those who venerate icons. That’s because history shows that the Christian church did have a consensus up until (at least) the time of Constantine. Before then, Christian leaders considered the veneration of images not to be a legitimate Christian practice. So iconodulia is an alteration of the apostolic faith, not a development of it.

Near the Heart of Eastern Orthodoxy

In writing this response to iconodulia, I realize that I’m cutting very close to the heart of what Eastern Orthodox Christians believe and practice. These Christians, probably more so than Roman Catholics, deeply value their icons as an important part of their spiritual life. Because of this, they are the ones who have developed most of the arguments for iconodulia. Realistically, they’re probably the ones who will care the most about this subject, so I will mostly be addressing them.

Though I know this will disturb many Eastern Orthodox, I don’t mean to be offensive—I love the Eastern Orthodox tradition. There’s much beauty and so much love for God to be found there. But despite my love for the Eastern Orthodox tradition, I love the truth more. I’m only trying to fairly evaluate the historical evidence that we have, and I trust that anyone who wants to have a historically-grounded faith will want to know whether the veneration of icons is apostolic.

Because this subject is so important to the Eastern Orthodox, they have developed many, many responses to criticisms of iconodulia. The sheer number of arguments they have made is daunting, but I think that their arguments, though sincere, are fighting a lost cause. My goal for this series is to be comprehensive, and I will try to answer every relevant objection in this post and several related posts (which are linked in this article).

What am I trying to say?

First, I want to be very clear about exactly what I’m trying to prove in this series. I think that’s important, so that we can clear up any confusion right from the start. Here is my main contention:

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.

You can see that I’m defining the veneration of images in a very specific way. That’s not because the word “veneration” can’t have multiple meanings, but because there is one specific form of veneration which the Eastern Orthodox Church practices and which the early church condemned. In these articles, I am only focusing on that form of the veneration of images.

Since my main contention is a long sentence, I’ll use the following statement as shorthand for my main claim:

At least before Constantine, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice.

To support my claim, I’ll offer evidence from Scripture, archaeology, and early Christian writings from between AD 33 and approximately AD 313. To help give context, I’ll also include an article that addresses evidence from approximately a hundred years following 313, so as to see what changes led to Christian leaders accepting, and finally mandating, the veneration of images.

Why focus on the pre-Constantinian era?

But why would I focus on what was practiced in the pre-Constantinian period? That’s because the earliest Christians are the people who directly inherited the apostles’ faith. If they didn’t practice iconodulia, we can be pretty sure that practice wasn’t an apostolic one.

The pre-Constantinian Christians are the people who received the apostles’ teaching and who transmitted the tradition to later Christians. So, if there were any apostolic traditions that still hadn’t been written down by 313, the bishops after 313 could only have heard it from the pre-Constantinian Christians, who lived between them and the apostles. That means that we should trust earlier Christian beliefs before we trust later Christian traditions.

From 33 to 313 is a period of 280 years, which is a large enough time slice that we can tell what Christians believed and practiced during that period. We have plenty of texts and images from the pre-Constantinian era to use as evidence. This time period is also a large enough time slice that it’s easily conceivable that doctrinal drift could occur within 280 years or so following Jesus’ ascension. Keep in mind that the U.S. hasn’t even been around for 280 years, but huge amounts of changes have happened to American culture within that time period.

Finally, we have good reason to believe that changes happened to the Christian faith following the First Council of Nicaea. Some of these gradual changes could have been codified in the Second Council of Nicaea, four and a half centuries later, by leaders who mistakenly thought that their practices went back to the apostles.

So if the pre-Constantinian Christians did not consider the veneration of images to be a legitimate Christian practice, it wasn’t one—unless we can find strong evidence for it in Scripture. We shouldn’t consider the pre-Constantinian Christian teachings to be on the level of Scripture—far from it! But they are an important historical witness for what the church practiced in the beginning. If they and Scripture appear to be in agreement, then we need look no further for the apostolic faith.

Why not the pre-Nicene era?

Often, when doing historical theology, we use the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325) as a convenient cutoff point to divide writers into eras. In this article, I’ve used the earlier date of 313, which is when Constantine began to influence the church, for my cutoff point. This is not because there is evidence that, from 313 to 325, the veneration of images was a legitimate Christian practice. Instead, it’s because archaeologists, unlike historical theologians, tend to make Constantine the dividing line for their eras. That’s because, with Constantine’s favor, new churches and styles of religious images did appear pretty soon, although the legitimacy of veneration took some time to fully change. This makes sense, because images influence the outward perception of a religion or nation, and the art styles could conceivably begin to change before doctrine and practice would begin to change, and could perhaps even open the door for changes in practice.2`

What am I not saying?

Before getting into the historical evidence, I would like to clarify a few more things. I hope this doesn’t get tedious for readers, but clarification helps us not to talk past each other in theological discussions.

In this article series, I’m arguing that the practice of venerating icons is not part of the apostolic faith. That’s the only thing I’m trying to say. However, when we object to iconodulia, Eastern Orthodox Christians often hear us as saying other things as well. Because of that, I will clarify my position on several related areas.

I appreciate the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

First, I love Eastern Orthodoxy as a religious tradition. I don’t have anything against the Eastern Orthodox. In fact, I admire many things about Eastern Orthodoxy. They desire to practice the original faith as it was practiced in the beginning. They stay away from many developments that were introduced in the Roman Catholic tradition, such as Augustinian original sin. They respect the lives and memories of past Christians. And they don’t typically insist that they have clarity about speculative areas of theology, such as the atonement. I appreciate all these things. I’m not bashing them; instead, I’m trying to follow the truth where it leads.

Second, I actually am personally attracted to Eastern Orthodox icons. I understand that there are people who react negatively to the idea of icons and their veneration, but I don’t have that reaction, personally.

By saying this, I may draw some fire from people in my own camp, but I’ll be honest. I love the meaningful stories and beautiful truths that Eastern icons communicate to the viewer. I even find the concept of iconodulia to make sense. I don’t personally feel that it’s worship.

In fact, I don’t have any personal reaction to venerating saints at all. I love that the Eastern tradition cares deeply about holy people of long ago; so do I. I do react very negatively to venerating people who didn’t live holy lives, such as Constantine, whose life has been whitewashed by overly-zealous Christians. But in general, I have a wistful appreciation of bowing, kissing, and even praying to icons.

Why, then, don’t I go out and buy icons, so that I can start venerating them? Why do I argue against iconodulia, if I find the practice personally compelling?

The only reason is that I trust the witness of the early church more than I trust my own understanding. The historical evidence is just too strong for me to deny it. It is clear that, before Constantine, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice.

No matter what my personal leanings are, I can’t conscientiously practice something that masquerades as a historic practice, if is the exact opposite of what the early church universally taught.

The early Christians had images.

In the past, some scholars argued that the early Christians had no images at all. The claim was that the early church believed all figurative art to be wrong. Academia has moved on from that idea, since it’s just not true. The early Christians did have images—they just didn’t venerate images.

There may have been a few early Christians who thought no religious images should be allowed. However, we have plenty of examples of religious art from this time period, such as in the catacombs. Furthermore, we have textual evidence that the early Christians believed art to be appropriate. Clement of Alexandria, one of the bishops who wrote most clearly against the veneration of images, spoke favorably of art.3But 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)
Irenaeus discussed art in a way that suggests that he doesn’t regard it to be essentially 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 existed before Constantine. They had images; that is not under dispute. However, as I’ll show, the church did not consider veneration of art to be appropriate. That’s very much what most Anabaptists and Protestants believe today.

We believe that it is appropriate to have pictures of Christ or of dead Christians. But it is inappropriate to address communications through them to Christ or to dead Christians.

Veneration is appropriate in one sense.

Sometimes the Eastern Orthodox point out that “venerate” can simply mean “honor.” Is it wrong to honor the saints, such as through having pictures of them and placing those pictures in places of honor? And if not, then why would other forms of honoring the saints through images be wrong?

Or they might point out that many of us have pictures of departed relatives. Would we consider it wrong to speak to these pictures, or even to kiss these pictures in memory of our relatives? And if not, why would it be wrong to speak to or kiss the images of saints?

This argument is a misunderstanding of the issue. Words can have multiple definitions, and the word “veneration” is no exception. To venerate saints in the sense of honoring and praising them is different from venerating saints in the sense of praying to them. To honor someone by placing their picture in a prominent place is different from trying to communicate to the person through that image.

The key is this: When we see an image of those we love, we don’t think that the image stands in for them; instead, we believe that the image reminds us of them. If I were to speak to a picture of my grandfather, I wouldn’t be assuming that the image plays a mediatorial role. I wouldn’t think that my words will pass on to my grandfather because they were addressed to his image. Instead, I would be voicing the words that I wish I could say to my grandfather.

In contrast, the Eastern Orthodox practice of iconodulia assumes that actions addressed to an image are passed on to the subject of the image. They try to actually communicate with Christ and the saints through their images. That type of veneration is what I’m talking about in this article. That’s the kind of veneration that the early Christians roundly condemned.5I have heard it said that the Eastern Orthodox don’t venerate images; instead, they venerate saints and angels by means of images. This isn’t a historical distinction, but again, I’m responding to the position of those who pray toward material objects and expect to be heard by saints by doing so. If you do that, I’m sorry. But if you don’t do that, I’m glad! You don’t practice iconodulia. If you use images to remind you of saints and angels, but you don’t bow to, pray to, or kiss their images in the expectation that that communication passes on to the person depicted in the image, then I’m not arguing against your practice.

It’s appropriate to use images for many different purposes.

Some Eastern Orthodox Christians try to argue that non-iconodules (those who don’t venerate icons) have a huge burden of proof—if we are saying that early Christian images were merely didactic or merely decorative, we need to show them some good hard evidence for that!

Of course, this is a strawman of our position. In this article series, I’m not assuming that images must only play one particular role. Images can serve many purposes; the early church consensus was only that they must not be venerated. If we have the burden of proof, fine. The historical sources are abundantly clear.

The trouble with these arguments is that images can play all sorts of roles for religious people. The early Christians’ images could easily have ranged from artistic, symbolic, evocative, commemorative, decorative, instructive, didactic, or pious. We don’t need to limit images to just one of these roles; it seems that the Eastern Orthodox are limiting images to primarily being one (for veneration).

I’ve also heard it argued that images will affect our worship either positively or negatively, and that there is no middle ground. Thus, if early Christians had images at all, then they must have used the images in worship.

This is simply a false dilemma. It’s possible for images to aid us in worship without our needing to have the Eastern Orthodox view of veneration. Images can inspire us to remember Christ even if we don’t think that we can pray to Christ and the saints through them. Conversely, it’s also possible to argue that images are not wrong, but that images could be a distraction if they are focused on too much. There are many nuances to this subject.

Furthermore, these objections fail to notice something that is very obvious in pre-Constantinian Christian art. As I show in my article on archaeology, most of the early Christian art consisted of images that even the Eastern Orthodox wouldn’t venerate—such as symbols, animals, Bible stories, and the like. Obviously such art was not venerated. That means that early Christian art obviously filled other roles besides being venerable images. They had very few actual portraits of Christ and the saints, and since we know that many of their images certainly weren’t venerated, it seems quite reasonable to suppose that the few images of the saints weren’t venerated either (although we don’t need to suppose; we have excellent evidence).

I’m not an iconoclast, nor were the pre-Constantinian Christians.

In the 500s to 800s, as the Christian veneration of images grew in strength, a countermovement called “iconoclasm” also developed. The iconoclasts pitted themselves against the iconodules, and many of the iconoclasts destroyed sacred images. Though I agree with the iconoclasts that the veneration of icons is not a legitimate Christian practice, I’m not writing this as an iconoclast.

That’s because I don’t believe in the destruction of others’ property; I follow the apostolic church’s command to nonviolence. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the pre-Constantinian Christians destroyed other people’s images.

But even more importantly, the view I’m putting forward in this series originated hundreds of years before the iconoclastic movement gathered strength. It would be anachronistic to call the pre-Constantinian Christians “iconoclasts.”

Overview of the rest of this series

Now that we’ve clarified the matter at hand, it’s time to take a look at the evidence. Because there’s so much ground to cover, I’ve separated it into several articles, which are linked below.

I invite anyone who is researching Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy to wrestle with this evidence. Ask yourself honestly, “Has the Eastern Orthodox Church maintained the original faith unchanged? Has the Roman Catholic Church stayed true to the apostolic deposit and the consensus of the church?”

Archaeological evidence

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 Constantine, the veneration of images was a common Christian practice.

Feel free to continue to the second article and, from there, to the third one, and so on. Or, if you are more interested in particular aspects of this debate, feel free to read the overview of the rest of the series, so that you can choose which subjects you want to focus on.

Evidence from Scripture and biblical theology

My third post discusses Scripture and theology. Though Scripture speaks very clearly against the worship of idols, the Eastern Orthodox Church does not intend to worship idols. Does Scripture give us any principles that can help us better understand the veneration of images? I conclude that Scripture seems to oppose iconodulia, though it doesn’t explicitly mention the practice.

The early church’s view of icon veneration

My fourth post digs deeply into the pre-Constantinian evidence—the church fathers before 313. It copiously quotes early Christian texts, and shows very clearly that the consensus of the pre-Constantinian church is against the veneration of images.

Eastern Orthodox arguments

My fifth post discusses some arguments that the Eastern Orthodox and others use in order to maintain their beliefs, in spite of the strong evidence presented in the fourth article. It explains why those objections fail. Since I intend this series to be comprehensive, the fifth article responds to every relevant textual objection that I know of. It also addresses arguments from amateur archaeology.

The evidence that I cite, especially in the fourth and fifth posts, should be enough to convince anyone that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox position on iconodulia is diametrically opposed to the early Christian position. These churches have taken a 180-degree turn from where they started.

The origins of iconodulia

My sixth post discusses evidence starting from 313 to see how the veneration of images could have arisen. I examine the writings of John Chrysostom and other favorite saints of the Eastern Orthodox, and show that these church fathers did not practice iconodulia. I also sketch out how the veneration of images could have slowly crept into the church.

Is doctrinal development an option?

Since my first six posts show that iconodulia is so obviously a change from the earliest practice, my seventh and final post discusses the possibility that it could be a legitimate change. Of course, the early church repudiated the idea that doctrine could develop from what the apostles delivered to the church. But even if the development of doctrine were a possibility, I show that iconodulia couldn’t meet the criteria proposed by Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox for doctrines that can develop. I also discuss the possibility that iconodulia is not a doctrine at all, and that the church could therefore change it at will.

  • 1
    (Norman P. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1, Nicaea I to Lateran V, 137-146)
  • 2
  • 3
    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)
  • 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
    I have heard it said that the Eastern Orthodox don’t venerate images; instead, they venerate saints and angels by means of images. This isn’t a historical distinction, but again, I’m responding to the position of those who pray toward material objects and expect to be heard by saints by doing so. If you do that, I’m sorry. But if you don’t do that, I’m glad! You don’t practice iconodulia. If you use images to remind you of saints and angels, but you don’t bow to, pray to, or kiss their images in the expectation that that communication passes on to the person depicted in the image, then I’m not arguing against your practice.

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!

    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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