Can We Quote Origen Against Icons?

In my post on icons, I cited Origen as evidence against the early Christian use of icons. The quote below shows that Origen didn’t believe veneration of images to be a Christian practice:

[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)

Or does it? In this post, Craig Truglia begs to differ. He calls the face-value understanding of the previous statements by Origen an “obtuse sort of reading of Origen.” He points out that, later in this work, Origen makes a statement that sounds like Christians had temples, statues, and altars, even though the previous quote makes it sound otherwise:

[T]here is no comparison between our statues and the statues of the heathen, nor between our altars, with what we may call the incense ascending from them, and the heathen altars, with the fat and blood of the victims; nor, finally, between the temples of senseless gods, admired by senseless men, who have no divine faculty for perceiving God, and the temples, statues, and altars which are worthy of God. (Contra Celsum, Book VIII, Chap 20)

Truglia writes, “Clearly, taking statements here or there at face value is a dead end.” But does this really change the position?

No. The quote I offered is in a context that suggests that it should be read literally, as you can see if you read chapters 62-65 here. On the other hand, Truglia’s quote is in a context that demands a figurative reading, since in the previous chapter, Origen defines the temples he is talking about as our bodies. Note that he speaks of “what we may call the incense” rather than incense itself.

Truglia argues that Christians have always had altars, as in the communion table, so Origen clearly isn’t condemning altars; thus he also isn’t condemning images. Perhaps Origen isn’t condemning altars; however, he is very clear that he is condemning images. Note that he says, “[I]t is not possible at the same time to know God and to address prayers to images” but makes no corresponding statement about altars.

In sum, it is entirely legitimate to use Origen as one example of the evidence against pre-Nicene iconodulia.

2 thoughts on “Can We Quote Origen Against Icons?”

  1. Thanks for your interaction. For the record I feel origen makes rather clear that the statue (and even altar) in that passage refers to individual Christians. This is why I warned against using the passage as proof for Christian statuary. In any event, my point was to make clear that Origen was condemning pagan images specifically just as he condemned pagan altars and sacrifices explicitly. And so, to emphasize the passage as iconoclastic is to actually miss the actual thrust of the package. So it is not proof for images but it isn’t evidence for iconoclasm.

    1. Thanks for the reply, Craig. That makes what you were saying a bit clearer–I figured you were saying something of the sort, but wasn’t sure exactly. I agree that it can be hard to know when we should accept statements against pagan images as against Christian veneration of images, but I think we’re justified in reading between the lines here, especially since Origen singles images out specifically for a direct rebuff in ch. 65, and especially given what I see as the overwhelming aniconic context. However, I know you’ve interpreted the evidence to be overwhelming in the other direction, so I would value your comments on my other posts featuring extensive quotes from the early fathers. I may be missing something.

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