Responding to Orthodox Arguments for Icons

This is part of a series in which I respond to the claim that the veneration of icons is a Christian practice. This article contains responses to what I consider the less consequential arguments for the veneration of icons.

Here are the posts in this series:

  1. My first post introduces and summarizes the issues around the veneration of icons. It deals with some high-level objections and brings all the different evidence together.
  2. My second post deals with the archaeological evidence for early Christian art. Because the evidence from art is more ambiguous, I demonstrate only the more modest claim that evidence from archaeology does not suggest that before 313, the veneration of images was a common Christian practice.
  3. My third post discusses Scripture and theology and whether they can be used in support of the veneration of images (as opposed to the worship of idols). I conclude that Scripture seems to be against the practice, though it doesn’t explicitly mention it.
  4. My fourth post digs deeply into the pre-Constantinian evidence—the church fathers before 313. It shows very clearly that the consensus of the pre-Constantinian church is against the veneration of images.
  5. My fifth post discusses some strategies that the Eastern Orthodox and others use in order to maintain their beliefs, and shows why they don’t work.
  6. My sixth post discusses evidence starting from 313 to see how the veneration of images could have arisen. I look into 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, without drawing much comment.
  7. My seventh and final post discusses the possibility that iconodulia could be a legitimate change. I show that iconodulia couldn’t meet the criteria proposed by Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox for doctrines and practices that can change.


Since I intend this article series to be comprehensive, I want to respond to all the common arguments that the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are offering today in favor of their practice. Now, the arguments given below are not a powerful bunch. They are mostly based on presuppositions, mistaken readings of quotations, and historical mistakes. However, I’m responding to them for two reasons.

First, I want to encounter the best of what iconodules (those who venerate icons) are saying on their behalf, in case it turns out that they have some good points to make. As I said in a previous article, I’m not doing this as a polemical exercise, but because I honestly want to know whose position is correct.

Second, I am concerned about how many people today are joining Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy because of arguments like these. Though the arguments are based on an inaccurate reading of history, they may sound very plausible to someone who hasn’t been able to dig deeply into the primary sources.

What arguments are out there today?

When I first started to research iconodulia, most of the arguments that were being made by Eastern Orthodox were attempts to poke holes in the evidence against iconodulia, rather than attempts to give positive evidence for their side. However, soon two apologists appeared who attempted to find positive evidence that iconodulia existed in the early church. I’m glad that they are doing so, because the previous attempts were very historically misinformed.

However, these apologists have their own historical problems. As we will see, the Eastern Orthodox case, even expressed in its best form, can be characterized as grasping at straws. While the evidence-based case against iconodulia relies on the testimony of mainstream church leaders, the evidence-based case for iconodulia relies heavily on such questionable pieces of evidence as spurious texts, descriptions of Gnostic practices, and ambiguous archaeological finds.

The Explicitness Argument—Craig Truglia

Recently, Craig Truglia of Orthodox Christian Theology has done quite a bit of work to create an argument on behalf of iconodulia. He recognizes that what the pre-Nicene Christians practiced is not what the Eastern Orthodox practice today. However, he tries to show that an early form of iconodulia was widespread before Constantine. He appears to define iconodulia similarly to the way I do—communication through images to the subject of the image. If he can find actual examples of this type of iconodulia before Nicaea, he will have proved something very interesting.

However, even this will ultimately fail unless he can show that a consensus of Christian leaders accepted the veneration of icons. The claim of the Eastern Orthodox Church is that iconodulia is a part of the Christian faith, not something that random lay Christians have done on occasion. Even if there were Christians who venerated images, doctrine is not settled by what random Christians believe.

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

Low-Quality Evidence

As you will see, the evidence that Truglia brings forward on behalf of pre-Nicene iconodulia are rather impoverished in comparison to the texts I cited in my last article. Truglia’s evidences are based on mentions of the practices of pagans, heretics, or at best individual lay people. Though that is bad enough, we will find that many of Truglia’s texts are even quotes out of context, spurious texts, or texts from after Nicaea!

In contrast, the texts that call iconodulia into question are the teachings of prominent early Christian leaders and apologists. These are the “ante-Nicene fathers,” whose writings are highly valued in understanding Christian doctrine in all other areas.

Truglia’s Strategy

Truglia recognizes that most of his texts are at best examples of heretical or lay practices, but he uses a unique strategy to try to give more weight to this evidence. The way Truglia frames the issue is key to his case.

  1. Truglia points out that we know that Christian art did exist before Constantine, as my article on archaeology also shows.
  2. He argues that, in order to settle the iconodulia question, what we need is compelling evidence for how this art was employed during this time period.
  3. He offers two alternatives for how art could have been used: for veneration or for decoration.
  4. He offers the pieces of evidence found below, which he says show that there is “explicit” or “unambiguous” evidence that images were venerated, and no explicit evidence that images were used as decoration.1Here and here

In other words, Truglia tries to give his side the edge by making two unique claims:

  • That non-iconodules must demonstrate that early art was specifically decorative, or we have no case against iconodulia.
  • That his sources are better because they are “explicit,” as opposed to the previously-cited statements of the early Christians, which don’t explicitly talk about Christian art.

Unfortunately, the problems with Truglia’s approach are manifold.

Do we need sources that specify how images were used?

Do we need sources that explicitly specify that images were to be used for decorative purposes? No. As I pointed out in my overview post, there are many, many reasons for images to exist besides for veneration or decoration. Images can play all sorts of roles for religious people. The early Christians’ images could easily have ranged from artistic, symbolic, evocative, decorative, instructive, or pious.

Non-iconodules don’t need to argue that the earliest Christian images were decorative—we aren’t claiming to know exactly what they were intended for. All we’re saying is that iconodulia wasn’t a legitimate Christian practice.

Second, we can often know that art wasn’t intended for iconodulia just based on the content of the art itself. The type of art we find in archaeology often suggests how it was used. We don’t need explicit statements to know that fish, doves, the subjects of Jesus’ healings, etc. weren’t venerated. And the way that pictorial subjects, like Christ, who are now venerated through images, are represented, suggests that their images were intended for purposes other than veneration.

Third, since it’s ridiculous to assume that all Christian art was venerated, everyone agrees that at least some Christian art was present for another reason. This is even though we supposedly don’t have sources that say they were present for another reason. This shows Truglia’s framing of the question to be inadequate.

Finally, we actually do have evidence for other uses of images. Tertullian spoke of being taught by an image, and Clement of Alexandria spoke of being reminded by images.2See below

Is explicitness the best criterion of truth?

Is it proper to frame the debate around the question of explicitness? Truglia believes that his historical examples are the most important ones because they are “explicit” or “unambiguous.” He used this as a tool in one debate, saying, “Whomever in this debate makes more historical inferences will lose this debate. So on this basis, iconodulia wins the day.”3 But this is a misguided approach.

Explicitness is not always the best criterion of truth; instead, relevance is much more important. In this section, I’ll show exactly why.

Consider this simple example. Suppose that you see a road blocked by a sign that says, “Bike race ahead.” That’s very explicit. We know that a bike race is occurring. But does that sign tell us whether we could join the race or not? No, because the sign is not relevant to who can apply.

Now, suppose you see the bikers, and they are all wearing T-shirts that say, “Franklin County Middle School.” There is nothing explicit about the T-shirts, but they indicate that the bike race is an FCMS event and that not just anyone can join. In other words, these T-shirts are relevant to who can apply.

Truglia believes that the person who makes the least inferences has the best case. In fact, it’s the person who makes the best inferences who has the best case. If you are making fewer inferences, but you are using irrelevant evidence, you don’t have a good case.

Now for an example that’s closer to the matter at hand. Suppose Fred and Jake are brothers. Their parents leave them at home alone one evening, and tell them, “Don’t watch TV.” After their parents are gone, Fred and Jake discuss whether it’s okay for them to watch YouTube on a computer instead of TV. Is it okay or isn’t it? It’s hard to know.

However, suppose their parents said, “Don’t watch TV,” and followed that up with a principle: “Watching videos in the evening is bad for your sleep cycle.” I think we’d all agree that we know what Fred and Jake’s parents want them to do about YouTube. It may be that Fred and Jake may use a computer for doing homework. But if they use it for YouTube, that contradicts the principle that their parents gave them.

In the same way, the early Christian leaders gave the principle that communications addressed to an image can’t go to its prototype. Because they gave us a principle, we can know what they believed about Christian images, not just pagan ones. It may be that Christian images may be used for decoration, instruction, or symbols, but if they are used for veneration, that contradicts the principle that the early Christians gave.

However, suppose that Fred argues in the following way:

  • Method: I know that my parents are okay with computers. So the question is how a computer can be used.
  • Inference: My parents said that I shouldn’t watch TV because videos harm my sleep cycle; this applies to YouTube as well.
  • Explicit fact: I know of examples where the neighbor kids watched YouTube at night.
  • Explicit fact: I saw my own brother Jake watch YouTube at night.
  • Explicit facts are better than inferences. Therefore, I know that my parents will let me use a computer to watch YouTube at night.

It hardly matters that the facts are explicit ones—they’re not relevant. Instead, as I’ve shown above, the implicit inferences are actually more relevant. Thus, Fred is justified in concluding that he should not watch YouTube at night.

Similarly, Truglia argues in the following way:

  • Method: We know that the early Christians were okay with images. So the question is how the images were used.
  • Inference: Multiple early Christian writers wrote that images cannot stand in for anything sacred; this applies to Christian images as well.
  • Explicit fact: We know of examples where heretics venerated images.
  • Explicit fact: We know of examples where lay Christians venerated images.
  • Explicit facts are better than inferences. Therefore, we know that the early Christian leaders believed the veneration of images to be appropriate.

It hardly matters that the facts are explicit ones—they’re not relevant. Instead, the inferences I gave in my last article are actually relevant.

Finally, it’s just not true that Truglia isn’t making inferences. He is inferring Christian practices from pagan practices. We are inferring Christian practices from Christian beliefs. Which is more relevant—pagan practices or Christian beliefs? That’s not a hard question to answer.

Reviewing the Evidence

Now that we’ve covered Truglia’s strategy, let’s look at the pieces of evidence that he presents. But first, let’s consider one thing more.

Criteria for proving iconodulia

We’re not here primarily to correct Eastern Orthodox arguments, but to find out whether, in fact, iconodulia was a legitimate Christian practice before Constantine. So let’s take a look at what would be required to prove that it was:

  1. The image must predate 313. Otherwise, its irrelevant to this discussion.
  2. Christians must have addressed communications through the image to the subject of the image. Otherwise, it can’t demonstrate that Eastern Orthodox iconodulia existed.
  3. There must be good reason to think that Christian leaders supported the veneration. Otherwise, it can’t demonstrate that the veneration was a legitimate practice.

Now let’s see if there are any examples that meet all three criteria.

Spurious Acts of John

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

I don’t see why we need to give a Gnostic source any weight one way or another. In some areas the Gnostics agreed with the Christians, and in some areas they didn’t. So whether or not they held a belief is not evidence for what Christian leaders taught.

However, if we are to use it as evidence for Christian practice, I would note that it is hardly helpful to the case of iconodulia. First, 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.

Second, as Mathews and Muller point out,

[John] exclaims in surprise, “Is it one of your gods that is painted here? Why, I see you are still living as a pagan!” The implication is that the Christian icon practice appeared no different from the practice observed among their pagan neighbors.

Of course, the only way the Acts of John describes Christian practice is if Gnostics are considered part of Christianity, as Mathews and Muller seem to assume. But their main point is sound. The implication is that the veneration of Christian subjects by Gnostics appeared no different from pagan iconodulia. Yet the Christian apologists of this day were very clear that they did nothing of the sort.

This is a text that Garten uses as well. He is surprised at how similar this looks to the way the Eastern Orthodox venerate images. He says

A Gnostic text would be unlikely to contain an apologetic for icon-veneration if there was not an existing Orthodox practice and justification for it that the author had heard.4This video

Really? Gnostics believed all kinds of things, such as that there were thirty gods. Does this reflect on Christianity?

It really should be unsurprising that the Acts of John contains this, since the pagans practiced this image veneration.

Conclusion: Since this is before 313, it meets criterion 1, but since it’s not describing Christian practice, it fails criteria 2 and 3.

Spurious Council of Antioch

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Since this is after 313, it fails criterion 1. Since it’s not describing veneration of images, it fails criterion 2. Since it is spurious, it fails criterion 3.

Christian Idol Makers

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

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

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

Conclusion: Since this is before 313, it meets criterion 1, but since it’s not describing Christian veneration of images, it fails criteria 2 and 3.

Truncated quote by Methodius

John of Damascus wrote three treatises on icons, which influenced the Second Council of Nicaea’s decision to command iconodulia. He quoted the following from Methodius, a pre-Constantinian church father, to support his claims.

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

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

  • There is no claim that people are venerating images. It does speak of honoring a royal image, but it is unclear what it means by that, or what sort of honor is being given. Note that we are discussing a specific form of veneration.
  • The images of angels are made to God’s honor and glory, unlike iconodulistic images, which are intended primarily to the honor and glory of their subject (in this case, the angels). I know many artists who create art to the glory of God. That doesn’t mean that they pray to it.

But even if we pass over the fact that this quotation isn’t speaking of iconodulia, there are a number of other serious issues with the use of this quotation:

  • Most importantly, John seems to have misunderstood the intent, as I’ll show.
  • In another quote (quoted above), Methodius made a clearer statement against the veneration of images, indicating that he doesn’t believe that the honor given to an image passes to its prototype. If this quote is an example of that principle, then it is the only example of that principle. All other authors who discuss it contradict the principle, and Methodius, in another work, appears to agree with them.
  • I’m no Greek scholar, but I note that all hangs on the word translated “make,” poioúmen. The word’s main meaning is indeed “make,” but it’s a word that can mean quite a few other things depending on the context. See the uses of this word group in the New Testament, for example. The trouble is that we don’t have much context, and John of Damascus is not known for his historical and textual accuracy.

John of Damascus’s quotation from Methodius is the only witness to that particular statement. However, another fragment which preserves significantly more of Methodius’s lost work has been found, and the larger context renders John’s interpretation dubious.

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

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

In the second quotation, Methodius says the following:

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

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

Methodius’s point is that angels themselves are images of God. Not that images of angels are reverenced in order to bring the angels honor. If honor is being given by the making of images, that honor is because of making images of images of God. That’s something that non-iconodule artists do all the time.

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

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

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

The two quotes are obviously incompatible, since in the one case, God made angels as images of himself, and in the other case, humans made images of angels to glorify God. What might explain this discrepancy?

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

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

Of course, even without the analysis of the two quotations, John’s quote is by no means a demonstration of iconodulia, since it is not even discussing iconodulia at all.

Conclusion: Since this is before 313, it meets criterion 1, but since it’s not describing Christian veneration of images, it fails criteria 2 and 3.

Images of Paul, Peter, and Christ

Eusebius wrote,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Since this is describing something from before 313, it meets criterion 1. Since it’s not entirely clear that it describes Christian veneration of images, it may fail criterion 2. Since Christian leaders from before 313 didn’t condone it, it fails criterion 3.

Graffiti of Iconodulia

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

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

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

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

Though the evidence is incomplete, it does seem reasonable that Bagatti’s interpretation of it is correct, and that at one time there was an image of Mary present, one which was “adorned.” However, other interpretations are also reasonable, given the incomplete nature of the graffiti.7Truglia seems to suggest that the image still exists, but his source says otherwise, so I may be misunderstanding him. Bigham lists this inscription with other evidence of the existence of images (which I don’t dispute, of course). Of all of them, Bigham says,

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

Thus, this source shows only that it is possible that this graffiti predates 313. Presumably, it is also possible that it postdates 313. In fact, I am as yet unaware of any archaeological reason why it could not have been made centuries later by someone who went into the church basement. If anyone knows of solid archaeological evidence otherwise, such as if fourth-century additions needed to be excavated in order to get to this inscription, let me know.

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Since this is describing something likely from before 313, it likely meets criterion 1. Since it’s not entirely clear that it describes Christian veneration of images, it may fail criterion 2. Since Christian leaders from before 313 didn’t condone it, it fails criterion 3.

Life of Pachomius

In the Life of Pachomius, a document describing the deeds of a Christian who lived from before 300 to around 346, there is a description of an icon seen in a vision. The setting places this vision after Constantine, since Theodore, mentioned in the story, was not born till after 313, and doesn’t seem to have met Pachomius until after Nicaea I.8This argument originated in a debate by Craig Truglia.

Mathews and Muller also note that “some passages contain evidence of fifth-century stages in the evolution of the monastic community.”9p. 137 Thus, we don’t even have certainty that this event was believed to have happened even in the fourth century. But here is the relevant passage:

[Pachomius] was looking at the east wall of the sanctuary and the wall became all golden, and on this wall there was a great icon in the manner of a great panel painting (of someone) with a great crown on his head.10Quoted in Mathews and Muller, p.137

Seeing a vision of an image is of course very different from seeing an image. In a vision, there is no material object that is being venerated.

However, let’s read a bit deeper into this sentence. Note that Pachomius “was looking at the east wall of the sanctuary.” This would according to custom have been the front of the building, where today Eastern Orthodox churches would be the most plastered with icons. Yet there is no mention of an actual icon existing on this wall. Christ doesn’t appear to Pachomius out of his icon; a vision is required before this icon can be seen. So this actually suggests that there were no images in this sanctuary.

Conclusion: Since this occurred after 313 and may have been recorded centuries later, it fails criterion 1. Since it likely doesn’t describe iconodulia, it likely fails criteria 2 and 3.

Theodore of Heraclea

In a recent debate,11This video Craig Truglia says that

Saint Gregory of Nyssa, in praise of blessed Theodorus, the great martyr, speaks of Theodore of Heraclea’s icon and relics. The relics are venerated by being touched, and the life-like image of Theodore causes one to pour out tears of reverence. “In this way, one implores the martyr who intercedes on our behalf.”

Of course, Theodore died during the Constantinian era, so this wouldn’t demonstrate pre-Nicene iconodulia. However, this text doesn’t contain iconodulia at all. Note what the text actually says:

These spectacles strike the senses and delight the eye by drawing us near to [the martyr’s] tomb which we believe to be both a sanctification and blessing. If anyone takes dust from the martyr’s resting place, it is a gift and a deserving treasure. Should a person have both the good fortune and permission to touch the relics, this experience is a highly valued prize and seems like a dream both to those who were cured and whose wish was fulfilled. The body appears as if it were alive and healthy: the eyes, mouth, ears, as well as the other senses are a cause for pouring out tears of reverence and emotion. In this way one implores the martyr who intercedes on our behalf and is an attendant of God for imparting those favors and blessings which people seek.

This text is speaking of Gregory’s relics, which appear alive and healthy and are the cause of tears. So this is not speaking of icon veneration but of relic veneration, which I address below.

Conclusion: Since this occurred after 313, it fails criterion 1. Since it doesn’t describe iconodulia, it fails criteria 2 and 3.

Were images of Jesus on the cross venerated?

In a recent video,12This video Craig Truglia has argued that, in the pre-Nicene era, crosses with the shape of Jesus on them were venerated. Thus, it would seem that images of Jesus were venerated.

But were crosses actually venerated? Truglia offers two pieces of evidence to support his claim. The first is the Alexamenos graffito. This is an inscription of a man apparently worshiping a human figure with a donkey’s head who is hanging on a cross, with the accompanying inscription: “Alexamenos worships [his] god.” There seems to have been a misconception among pagans that Christians worshiped a god with a donkey’s head, and this inscription appears to be mocking a Christian. Does this indicate that Christians were venerating crosses? There are any number of problems with this inference:

  1. This inscription is clearly by someone who had a poor understanding of Christian worship; thus, it’s a poor indication of what Christians were doing.
  2. There’s no indication that the image is depicting a person worshiping a cross specifically, so this doesn’t seem to support Truglia’s specific claim.
  3. The image does not depict a person worshiping an image, it depicts a person worshiping a person. Thus, it doesn’t support the more general idea that Christians were venerating images.13It’s not clear from Truglia’s argument whether he intended this more general inference. One cannot simply interpret one part of an image as depicting a real person, and another part of the image as depicting an image of a person, unless the image gives us a reason, such as a border around the “image within the image,” to interpret part of the image as depicting an image within it. Thus, the most that this image could indicate is that a person was worshiping Jesus, not that a person was worshiping an image of Jesus.
  4. Even supposing that this demonstrated that a Christian was venerating a cross or an image of Jesus, it wouldn’t indicate that Christian leaders were in favor of the practice. Thus, even if it jumps all these hurdles, it fails to call into question my argument that, before 313, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice.

Truglia’s second piece of evidence to support the idea the Christians venerated crosses comes from Tertullian. Let’s look at the quote from Tertullian in context.

Tertullian, in his book Ad Nationes, writes about the claim that Christians worshiped a god with a donkey’s head. To show how self-contradictory it is for the pagans to make this charge, he writes,

But what apology must I here offer for what I am going to say, when I have no other object at the moment than to make a passing remark or two in a general way which shall be equally applicable to yourselves? Suppose that our God, then, be an asinine person, will you at all events deny that you possess the same characteristics with ourselves in that matter? (Not their heads only, but) entire asses, are, to be sure, objects of adoration to you, along with their tutelar Epona; and all herds, and cattle, and beasts you consecrate, and their stables into the bargain! This, perhaps, is your grievance against us, that, when surrounded by cattle-worshippers of every kind we are simply devoted to asses! (Ad Nationes 12)

So Tertullian argues that the beliefs of the pagans are more ridiculous than the beliefs that they imagine the Christians to hold. He immediately continues,

As for him who affirms that we are “the priesthood of a cross,” we shall claim him as our co-religionist. A cross is, in its material, a sign of wood; amongst yourselves also the object of worship is a wooden figure. Only, whilst with you the figure is a human one, with us the wood is its own figure. Never mind for the present what is the shape, provided the material is the same: the form, too, is of no importance, if so be it be the actual body of a god. If, however, there arises a question of difference on this point what, (let me ask,) is the difference between the Athenian Pallas, or the Pharian Ceres, and wood formed into a cross, when each is represented by a rough stock, without form, and by the merest rudiment of a statue of unformed wood? Every piece of timber which is fixed in the ground in an erect position is a part of a cross, and indeed the greater portion of its mass. But an entire cross is attributed to us, with its transverse beam, of course, and its projecting seat. Now you have the less to excuse you, for you dedicate to religion only a mutilated imperfect piece of wood, while others consecrate to the sacred purpose a complete structure. The truth, however, after all is, that your religion is all cross, as I shall show. You are indeed unaware that your gods in their origin have proceeded from this hated cross. (Ad Nationes 13)

As you can see, Tertullian continues to mock the pagan position by pointing out that the pagans worship gods made out of wood. He points out that a pagan deity, as the carver is making it, might start out in the shape of a cross, and then bits are cut away to make it into a more human shape. He says that, since it’s wood in either case, what the Christians supposedly do is smarter, since a cross is a more complete structure than the deities carved out of it. Following this, Tertullian uses the exact same argument style against those who said that Christians worshiped the sun.

Truglia takes this as an admission that Christians venerate crosses, when the immediate context shows that it is Tertullian having fun at the pagans’ expense. Truglia points out that Tertullian doesn’t explicitly say that Christians don’t venerate crosses. However, there are several issues with taking this as evidence that Christians did:

  1. The immediate context, both before and after this quotation, is pagans criticizing Christians for a belief they don’t have, where Tertullian responds by showing that the pagan criticism is self-contradictory. Since Tertullian is continuing that thought, using the same response against all three criticisms, this is not evidence that the second of three criticisms is of a belief that Christians do actually have.
  2. Tertullian argues in a manner inconsistent with actually venerating crosses. He argues that the only reason you’d worship an object is to worship the material, not the form. If he actually venerated crosses—or images—that argument wouldn’t have occurred to him.
  3. Tertullian says that the cross “is attributed to” Christians, suggesting that it is not actually venerated by Christians.
  4. Finally, the cross as described by Tertullian seems not to have an image of Jesus on it.

So this quotation by Tertullian is entirely consistent with crosses not being objects of veneration and includes indications that are inconsistent with crosses actually being objects of veneration. It’s actually a good piece of evidence for the side of those of us who argue that before 313, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice.

Conclusion: Since this is from before 313, it meets criterion 1. Since it is not describing iconodulia, it fails criteria 2 and 3.

Does catacomb art indicate praying to a Good Shepherd image?

Recently, Truglia developed a new argument for ante-Nicene image veneration, this time from art found in the catacombs. It’s complex enough that I have needed to reply to it in its own article, linked here.

Conclusion: Since this is from before 313, it meets criterion 1. Since it is not describing iconodulia, it fails criterion 2. Since it has no known support from church leaders, it fails criterion 3.

Was art considered magical or apotropaic?

Truglia says of those who do not consider iconodulia to be an early Christian practice:

“They offered no interaction with the consensus view amongst ante-Nicene Jews and Christians that art was obviously perceived as apotropaic [protective] or magical. Right, so the Jews and the Christians—it’s not debated, whether it’s a cross, whether it’s a picture image, whether it’s a object you put on your door with a scripture in it, like a mezuzah—they all viewed these things as apotropaic. And this has no corresponding reality with the aniconists, because they’re secular and Protestant, so this is a glaring omission, right? So like the claim that, “Oh, you know, the art was just decorative,” when no one believed art was just decorative. There was a consensus that was apotropaic. There’s zero doubt over this.” (This video)

What is the purpose of the obscure symbolism that brings Christian truths to one’s memory? Historians are well aware that Christian art and even words, like the beginning of the Our Father prayer, would be placed at the entrances of homes in order to serve an apotropaic purpose (akin to a talisman). It is believed that Irenaeus partook in the practice (which may explain the offense at the “other modes” of veneration the Gnostics employed) and it is uncontested early Christians adopted it throughout the world. (See also Joaquín Serrano del Pozo, “Relics, Images, and Christian Apotropaic Devices in the Roman-Persian Wars”) Clement most likely saw the art as serving this purpose which is why he demanded that the art not be lifelike or accurate, which would lend it to idolatry otherwise in his view. (This article)

How does this help the case for veneration? Even if this is true, it would simply suggest that the early Christians saw images as having power. It wouldn’t say that Christians actually prayed to these magical images with the intent to passing communications through the image to the prototype. In fact, since Christians should not have anything to do with magic, this actually hurts the cause of iconodulia.

Furthermore, I’m not sure where the evidence of this “consensus” is for Christians. As far as I know, no pre-Constantinian Christian leaders thought that it was legitimate for Christians to possess apotropaic art. And even though superstitious people around them held to that practice, we know that the Christians thought differently about many things than those around them.

In fact, we have excellent evidence that Christian leaders thought differently about images than those around them did—they thought that images had no power.

Conclusion: Since this is from before 313, it meets criterion 1. Since it is not describing Christian iconodulia, it fails criteria 2 and 3.

Argument From a Broad Definition of Veneration—Michael Garten

Michael Garten is another Eastern Orthodox apologist who has recently begun to publish on the topic of icons. He also has a unique strategy that differs from Truglia’s. However, he also uses some of Truglia’s individual evidences.

Because the evidence for pre-Nicene iconodulia is so elusive, Garten admits that the methods of iconodulia have changed from the early church to today’s Eastern Orthodoxy. However, he believes that the general principles of iconodulia have always existed. How does he try to prove this?

Broad definition of “veneration”

First, Garten assumes a very broad definition of “veneration” that encompasses a huge range of practices. To him, any form of showing honor is veneration according to the Eastern Orthodox definition. Second, he finds examples of people doing practices that could be classified under this definition. Finally, he assumes that these examples exemplify later Eastern Orthodox beliefs such as that the honor given to an image passes to the prototype.

This is of course mistaken, since the Eastern Orthodox theology and practice of iconodulia is very clear about the type of veneration that is at stake—it is honor shown to an image that is believed to pass through that image to the subject of the image.

Furthermore, other forms of honor are not what are disputed by Anabaptists, Protestants, or the early church. The early church consistently rejected the specific form of veneration that the Eastern Orthodox prize so highly. That is why I define the type of “veneration” that is relevant for the purposes of this discussion as the following:

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)

Since Garten simply considers anything that can be considered to be “honoring” an image as a relevant form of veneration, he considers all the following practices to be veneration.14This video

  1. Crowning an image
  2. Lighting candles before an image
  3. Placing the image in a high place
  4. Carrying the image prominently in a procession
  5. Putting images on holy vessels
  6. Concealing images
  7. Adorning images
  8. Assuming prayer stances toward an image
  9. Remembering or visiting an image

So far as I can tell, all of these actions could be done to an image in order to address communications through it to its prototype. However, most of these could be done for other purposes. Thus, they are not necessarily examples of veneration of the type condemned by the early church.

It’s true that 1, 2, 4, 7, and 8 seem fairly likely to be intended as veneration. The trouble is that the very examples that are likely to be veneration are not found in the early church, and the examples that are found in the early church are ones that aren’t clearly about communicating through an image.

In fact, the examples of “veneration” that Garten finds in the early church are mostly examples that are found in Anabaptism and Protestantism, both of which traditions have historically taught against the Eastern Orthodox form of veneration.

So Michael Garten’s strategy is basically to set the bar really low for himself and to then meet the bar with ease, assuming that the evidence that meets that bar is sufficient to prove his case. But besides the fact that this strategy simply doesn’t engage with the real issue at hand, Garten’s conflation of all forms of honor creates two problems for the Eastern Orthodox point of view.

First, Garten in many cases takes practices of the early church that Anabaptists and Protestants also practice, and assumes that they prove the Eastern Orthodox practice, which is different. In other words, the early Christians did exactly what Anabaptists and Protestants do, and not what the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox do. However, we should assume that the early church acted like Protestants but thought like Eastern Orthodox? This seems like special pleading to me.

Second, if all these forms of honor fully count as veneration in the Eastern Orthodox sense, then why not confine ourselves to the forms of honor that the early church didn’t condemn? Why insist on moving beyond those forms to the Eastern Orthodox principle of veneration that the early Christians roundly condemned?

Again, this strategy is not only a non-starter, but in fact undercuts the Eastern Orthodox position.

Any kind of veneration = Eastern Orthodox mindset

In addition to this broad definition of veneration, Garten seeks to find the Eastern Orthodox mindset in the early texts. The principle he specifically looks for is the principle that the honor given to an image passes to it’s subject. Whenever any kind of honor is given, he assumes that someone thought the honor given to an image passes through it.

So, if the early Christians drew a cross in a manuscript and then decorated it with further symbols, for example, this means to Garten that they intended that honor to pass through the diagram of the cross to the actual cross of Christ.

The trouble is that none of the pre-Constantinian Christians accepted this principle. Garten is reading the Eastern Orthodox view back into the text rather than performing accurate historical analysis.

Elaborate interpretations of straightforward concepts

Historians have long considered early Christian images to be more likely to be didactic than cultic. In other words, they are more likely to have been teaching devices than objects of veneration.

Ironically, when an early Christian text literally says that an image is intended to teach or to remind, Garten doesn’t admit this as evidence for the opposing view. Instead, he finds elaborate interpretative techniques that assume the images, because they teach or remind, have a special power of some type.

When statements in the primary sources literally say what your opponents believe, and you have to add further theories in order to support your view, things are not going your way.

If a quote is compatible with your opponent, is it evidence for your position?

A common theme of the methods above is this: Garten takes a statement from the early Christians that is perfectly consistent with the opposing view, and then claims it as evidence for his own view. In many cases, the early Christians say nothing that an Anabaptist or a Protestant wouldn’t entirely agree with, yet Garten seems to think that they are supporting his view.

He seems unaware that, if a piece of evidence can support the opposition, it’s of no help in determining that your side is correct. Only if a piece of evidence supports your side better than the opposing side can it actually provide evidence for your side.

Pagan beliefs as evidence for Christian beliefs

Another strategy that Garten uses is to argue from pagan practices to Christian ones. In several cases, he argues that the pagan context around the Christians thought about images in a certain way, and that this is therefore how Christians must have thought as well.

This presents a huge problem for Garten’s case. First, in actuality, the earliest Christians were constantly arguing against the beliefs of the pagans around them. Just because the pagans acted a certain way is not a good reason for thinking that the Christians did—especially in the area of images, where we have such good evidence for the differences between Christian and pagan thought. Secondly, this method tacitly admits the connection between Eastern Orthodox beliefs of today and pagan beliefs in the Roman empire. This strategy is actually to admit defeat.

Reviewing the Evidence

In this section, we’ll look at the evidence that Michael Garten puts forward for his position. Note that, since he also uses some evidence that Truglia uses, some of his points have already been replied to.

Painting of the Good Shepherd on Communion Cup

In “On Modesty,” Tertullian describes paintings of the Good Shepherd and his sheep on Eucharistic cups. Since that image is present in a liturgical context,15This is Truglia’s argument. As I recall, he develops it further in a video. does it provide evidence that images were venerated?

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

Michael Garten argues the following:16In this video

  1. This shows that “images can mystagogically reveal the true meaning of the Eucharist.” This is to argue for iconodulia using elaborate interpretations of statements that straightforwardly support non-iconodulia. Just using the word “mystagogically” doesn’t prove that Tertullian meant anything other than that the image should remind them of a truth.
  2. This practice is connected to Greco-Roman practices of ritual drinking cups dedicated to a god with an image. This uses pagan beliefs as evidence for Christian beliefs. It is also to overthink the simple fact that Christians had an image of the Good Shepherd on a communion cup. They could have had many purposes for doing so other than emulating pagan practices.
  3. This shows that Tertullian believed that honor given to the painting passes to the prototype. This merely assumes the Eastern Orthodox theology of image, without it being present in the text. I see no evidence of this in the text of Tertullian. Perhaps Garten will provide some in future.
  4. “In its ancient context, the acknowledgement given to the image directs worship to the divine being who is portrayed.”17This article This uses pagan beliefs as evidence for Christian beliefs. This is precisely what the early Christians argued did not happen.

Conclusion: Since this is from before 313, it meets criterion 1. Since it is not describing iconodulia, it fails criteria 2 and 3.

Signet Rings

Michael Garten also argues that the following text from Clement of Alexandria is an example of iconodulia:

The Word, then, permits them a finger-ring of gold.1676 Nor is this for ornament, but for sealing things which are worth keeping safe in the house in the exercise of their charge of housekeeping. For if all were well trained, there would be no need of seals, if servants and masters were equally honest. But since want of training produces an inclination to dishonesty, we require seals. . . .

And if it is necessary for us, while engaged in public business, or discharging other avocations in the country, and often away from our wives, to seal anything for the sake of safety, He (the Word) allows us a signet for this purpose only. Other finger-rings are to be cast off, since, according to the Scripture, “instruction is a golden ornament for a wise man.”

. . . 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; nor a sword, nor a bow, following as we do, peace; nor drinking-cups, being temperate. Many of the licentious have their lovers engraved, or their mistresses, as if they wished to make it impossible ever to forget their amatory indulgences, by being perpetually put in mind of their licentiousness.

(The Instructor 3.11 ANF)

Note that the types of images that Clement allows are merely symbolic and intended to bring Christian truths to remembrance. Christ is not depicted, only a fish. The Spirit is not depicted, only a dove.

Garten argues that “for the sake of safety” indicates the use of these rings as protective charms. I responded to arguments from such superstitions in my response to Truglia’s claim that Christian art was magical or apotropaic. Not only is this argument un-Christian, it also doesn’t have a direct connection with veneration. However, there is absolutely no textual indication that protective charms are included. As Garten himself notes, and as Clement explicitly states above, the primary use of a signet ring is to seal documents to prove that they haven’t been tampered with. Furthermore, the types of images Clement believes are allowed are not the type that would serve as protective charms for Christians.

Garten refers to pagan customs of using signet rings reverently, but of course that is not the most common reason for having a signet ring, so this doesn’t indicate that Christians venerated signet rings. This is the mistake of using pagan beliefs as evidence for Christian beliefs.

Garten also says that this indicates that the honor given to the image passes on to the prototype, but of course, Clement says the purpose for these inscriptions is not to honor the image but to remember the subject of the image. Furthermore, the types of images Clement describes are mostly not the type that one venerates in order to communicate honor to any particular person.

Garten creates an elaborate philosophy of rings as binding agents,18This article but he seems to misunderstand Clement here. Clement is arguing that one should not wear rings, except in a very practical case like this one—where a ring could be used as tamper protection.

Garten argues further that, because Clement’s examples of images not to depict on signet rings denote such a strong form of idolatry, the positive images must therefore denote strong forms of veneration:

The negative forms of binding mentioned are very intense; they effectively amount to worship of a false god and honoring a passionate lifestyle (whether one of anger or one of desire) through images of these things.19This article

But note that Clement never says that anything stronger than memory is happening here. The rings, he argues, remind one of what is good or bad, so one should wear a ring that would remind one of what is good. Garten tries to strengthen this remembering to a special sort of remembering:

This remembering goes beyond intellectually recalling facts, and is instead participatory, concerned with the devotion of the heart.

Clement would certainly affirm that ring-wearing binds one in commemorative attachment through the worn image to what is represented in the image.20This article

But this is merely Garten’s speculation. It’s hard to see what would support it other than a precommitment to Eastern Orthodoxy and its way of looking at things. In other words, Garten for iconodulia using elaborate interpretations of statements that straightforwardly support non-iconodulia.

Conclusion: Since this is from before 313, it meets criterion 1. Since it is not describing iconodulia, it fails criteria 2 and 3.

Is decorating communion tables a form of iconodulia?

Garten argues that decorating Christian altars (communion tables) is a form of iconodulia. He finds a reference in Origen to people who were decorating Christian altars, without being condemned for doing so.21This article His argument goes something like this:

  1. Decorating a Christian altar is a way to honor it.
  2. A Christian altar is an image of an altar in God’s heavenly throne-room.
  3. If someone honors an image of something, then they are honoring that something through the image.
  4. So if someone decorates a Christian altar, then they are honoring the heavenly altar through an image of it.

The logic of this argument isn’t problematic, but I think there is an issue with points 1, 2, and 3.

First, to decorate a Christian altar is not necessarily intended as a way of honoring it. The people Origen mentions may have simply been offering the church special communion plates or cups made out of precious metals or created with fine workmanship. These vessels would have been placed on the communion table, but wouldn’t be intended as decorations for the table—they would be decorations for the church or the worship service. Furthermore, even if these vessels, or other decorations like flowers, were indeed intended to beautify the table, that doesn’t mean that the intention was to honor the table. More likely, they were intended to honor the church, the worship service, or to draw attention to the givers of these gifts. So I don’t think that (1) is true.

Second, Garten claims that a Christian altar is an image of an altar in God’s heavenly throne-room. Garten writes that he intends to support this idea from Scripture, so I will look forward to hearing his arguments. In the meantime, however, I see several problems with his claim. This is an argument from theological and typological speculation, which is notorious for leading to wild and extravagant conclusions. What assurance do we have that Garten’s speculations are any different?

The way we could be assured that our interpretation of a more speculative reading of Scripture is correct would be if we can find a consensus of early Christians, not long after the apostles, who agreed with this speculative reading. However, the early church doesn’t speak of Christian worship in this way.

It appears that Garten’s understanding of worship methods (how altars are viewed and used) is colored by contemporary Eastern Orthodox methods of worshiping, and we can’t just assume those methods. Instead, we need to find evidence for them from the era under discussion.

Third, Garten says that if someone honors an image of something, that honor is intended for the prototype of the image. Here he simply assumes the Eastern Orthodox theology of images, without it being present in the text. But even if some early Christians thought of Christian altars as being images of a heavenly altar (though I have seen no evidence that they did), we have no way of knowing that this was in the minds of those who were decorating altars, so there’s no way of demonstrating that they were intending to honor an image of a heavenly altar. Finally, Garten doesn’t seem able to distinguish between different types of veneration. Honoring objects and addressing communications to people are two different things. Even if it were appropriate to honor heavenly objects through earthly representations, that still wouldn’t mean that we can address communications to materials representing persons who are not present.

I conclude that Garten’s argument from the decoration of altars is not sufficient to demonstrate anything resembling Eastern Orthodox iconodulia.

Conclusion: Since this is from before 313, it meets criterion 1. Since it is not describing iconodulia, it fails criteria 2 and 3.

Did Ignatius venerate physical crosses?

Michael Garten argues22 that Ignatius venerated the cross. I assume that he means by this that Ignatius venerated physical crosses, since he is using this as evidence that Christians may venerate physical images.

Before looking at Garten’s argument, let’s look at how Ignatius talks about the cross. First, let’s look at where Ignatius writes that the Ephesians refused to listen to false teachers,

but stopped your ears, that ye might not receive those things which were sown by them, as being stones of the temple of the Father, prepared for the building of God the Father, and drawn up on high by the instrument of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, making use of the Holy Spirit as a rope, while your faith was the means by which you ascended, and your love the way which led up to God. (9)

But what exactly does the cross mean for Ignatius? He writes to the church in Philadelphia,

But to me Jesus Christ is in the place of all that is ancient: His cross, and death, and resurrection, and the faith which is by Him, are undefiled monuments of antiquity; by which I desire, through your prayers, to be justified. (8)

Here it appears that the cross is shorthand for Jesus’ suffering. Let’s look at another passage:

Let my spirit be counted as nothing for the sake of the cross, which is a stumbling-block to those that do not believe, but to us salvation and life eternal. (Ephesians 18)

What is the cross that is assigned to us, the cross that Ignatius is speaking of? When Jesus tells us to take up our cross (Matt 16), he is telling us to surrender our lives for Christ:

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?

This kind of total commitment to Christ is something the world cannot understand—the idea of losing one’s life to save it is a “stumbling-block.” Ignatius writes to the church in Rome, who will shortly see his execution:

Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ. (5)

Here Ignatius sees the cross as it literally is—an instrument of execution through incredible pain. However, he welcomes this suffering and many others, because he wants to attain to Christ through it. He truly is living according to Jesus’ command in Matthew 16. He knows that, through the cross—that is, Christlike surrender to suffering and death—he will conquer. Ignatius writes to the Smyrnaeans, praising them for this same valor.

I glorify God, even Jesus Christ, who has given you such wisdom. For I have observed that ye are perfected in an immoveable faith, as if ye were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit, and are established in love through the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded with respect to our Lord (1)

To Ignatius, the highest praise is that a Christian would be immovable in faith, as though nailed to Christ’s cross. He rejoices that they are steadfast in suffering, whether it is bodily or spiritual. Finally, he tells us what happens to those who do not live according to the cross:

Flee, therefore, those evil offshoots [of Satan], which produce death-bearing fruit, whereof if any one tastes, he instantly dies. For these men are not the planting of the Father. For if they were, they would appear as branches of the cross, and their fruit would be incorruptible. By it He calls you through His passion, as being His members. The head, therefore, cannot be born by itself, without its members; God, who is [the Saviour] Himself, having promised their union. (Trallians 11)

Here Ignatius, like Jesus, tells us that people can be known by their fruits, but he extends the metaphor, drawing on the fact that the cross is sometimes spoken of as a tree. People of Satan produce deadly fruit. However, if they were offshoots of the cross, they would produce incorruptible fruit. What Ignatius means by the cross is immediately obvious: “By [the cross] He calls you through His passion, as being His members.” We are members of Christ, the Vine of John 15, through participating in his suffering.

So when we look at all the writings of Ignatius, we see that he has an understanding of the cross that is very much straight from the New Testament. He accepts Jesus’ principle of suffering and dying in order to live. In fact, this is a very Anabaptist way of viewing the cross.

So let’s see whether Garten can find evidence that Ignatius venerated crosses. Garten summarizes his argument as follows:

In all of these sections, St. Ignatius speaks of the cross as distinct from Christ Himself, but an inseparable manifestation of His passion. It is treated as an object that extends Christ’s power into the world. Given Saint Ignatius’ statements about the power of Christ present in the cross, it is natural to predict that Saint Ignatius would teach that the cross—an image of Christ’s passion, filled with divine power—should be venerated. He expresses this teaching in at least two places in his letters.

Garten’s first sentence is correct—Ignatius sees the cross as representing surrender through suffering, which is not the same as Christ, but is “an inseparable manifestation of His passion.” Is the cross “treated as an object”? Well, the basic concept of a cross is literally an object, but as we saw above, the cross is treated figuratively in Ignatius’s writings. Is it true that the cross “extends Christ’s power into the world”? Not that I can see. The cross, according to Ignatius, is not a physical image but a figurative representation of suffering, which Christ has redeemed through his own suffering.

But let’s see if Garten manages to find evidence that Ignatius is speaking of physical crosses which are venerated:

[I]n his epistle to the Ephesians, section IX, Saint Ignatius says the cross is the mechanism (μηχανῆς) by which humans are drawn to heaven and united to God, and the means by which God calls us (Trallians, XI). This treats the cross as having an inherent efficacy (though obviously this power is only present in it because of Jesus’ death upon it).

Remember that Ignatius praises the Ephesians by saying that they are “stones of the temple,” “drawn up on high” by the cross, “making use of the Holy Spirit as a rope.” Obviously, Ignatius is using metaphorical language here. He is not indicating that physical crosses are raising the Ephesians any more than that the Ephesians are stones or that they are climbing ropes. The cross has efficacy, but Ignatius means something other than Garten does here.

[T]he Saint also speaks of the cross as a tree, and says that any people who are planted by God the Father will “appear as branches of the cross, and their fruit would be incorruptible.” (Letter to the Trallians, XI)

Clearly, by saying that someone appears as a branch of the cross, one is speaking figuratively. Note that in the very next sentence, not quoted by Garten, Ignatius connects the cross to the passion of Christ, which is what makes us members of him.

In his Letter to the Ephesians, Saint Ignatius honors the cross by speaking of wanting to make himself nothing for its sake: “Let my spirit be counted as nothing for the sake of the cross.” (Schaff and Wade translation)

This doesn’t suggest that Ignatius’s cross was an object. It seems more likely to be referencing the cross that Jesus tells us to take up.

In another letter, he speaks of the cross of Christ as imaged and visible to Christians, treated as an object of devotion which is gathered around in the community.

Garten quotes Ignatius’s letter to the Smyrnaeans, arguing that Ignatius is saying that the cross is a “standard” or flag:

I glorify God, even Jesus Christ, who has given you such wisdom. For I have observed that ye are perfected in an immoveable faith, as if ye were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit, and are established in love through the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded with respect to our Lord, that He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. Of this fruit we are by His divinely-blessed passion, that He might set up a standard for all ages, through His resurrection, to all His holy and faithful [followers], whether among Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of His Church.

The first issue is that what’s happening here is very figurative. There is no indication that physical crosses are part of the discussion.

The second issue is that it’s not clear to me that Ignatius is saying that the cross is the standard to which he refers. He says that we are “Of this fruit” “by His divinely-blessed passion,” so he is certainly referencing concepts of the sort that he discusses in the letter to the Trallians. However, the fact that we are fruit from his passion, is said to be “that He might set up a standard for all ages, through his resurrection.” The “standard” is not defined, and may have more to do with the resurrection than the cross. After all, it was the resurrection that proved Christ’s power and salvation.

Garten argues that

The phrase “Of this fruit we are, by His divinely blessed passion” has as the antecedent of “this” his cross, which is in view throughout the entire section of the letter, including immediately before: “and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed for us in His flesh.”23This post

This may be true; however, it is irrelevant. He is discussing the cross or the resurrection, “that He might set up a standard.” In other words, the word “standard” has no antecedent. It is in a dependent clause, not a noun phrase or a prepositional phrase. And of course the cross is in view in this section, but that hardly means that every noun in this section refers to the cross.

The third issue is that Garten defines veneration too broadly. The type of veneration given to a standard or flag is not necessarily the type of veneration that the Eastern Orthodox practice toward icons. Flags are lifted up, yes. But there are no communications addressed through them to the person that they represent.

So I conclude that Garten’s reading of Ignatius is heavily influenced by his theological and ecclesiastical presuppositions. Rather than reading Ignatius in context of his own writings and the New Testament, Garten reads Ignatius in context of contemporary Eastern Orthodox practice. Without his bias, there is no evidence that Ignatius spoke of physical crosses or venerated them. Garten in fact says as much:

The claim isn’t that St. Ignatius is talking about a portrait icon, but that he’s talking about the cross of Christ and by extension the images of it Christians would make and possess.24This post

Images are only being referred to “by extension.” Of course, we’ve seen no evidence that Ignatius himself intends images to be an extension of what he is saying.

Garten also tries to use cultural context to support his case:

We know that visual representations of the cross were present in Christianity during this time period, and several 2nd and early 3rd century authors echo what Saint Ignatius says about the cross as a standard. Further, many early Christian authors accuse Romans of inadvertently reverencing the cross because their battle standards share its form.

But I fail to see how any of this demonstrates that Christians venerated crosses.

Conclusion: Since this is from before 313, it meets criterion 1. Since it is not describing iconodulia, it fails criteria 2 and 3.

Procopius of Jerusalem

Garten quotes from “The Martyrdom of St. Procopius,”25This video which describes a metal-worker named Mark who fashioned a cross. The text, quoted by the Second Council of Nicaea, reads,

And it came to pass that, when the cross was finished and set up, then there appeared three images upon it and there was inscribed in the Hebrew dialect over the one in the midst, Immanuel, and over those on each side, Gabriel and Michael.26Mendham, The Seventh General Council, the Second in Nicaea, p. 215, Google Books

Mark is at first afraid, but he is unable to wipe out the images. A young man (Procopius?) purchases the cross and worships it.

Though Procopius was martyred in 303, I am unable to find any evidence for the date of this account. Many lives of the martyrs, containing supernatural elements of this kind, have been written centuries after their deaths as pious fictions. Unfortunately, the Second Council of Nicaea is known for having quoted inaccurate sources, so just the fact that this source appears in the minutes of that council doesn’t mean that there’s any historical evidence for it. Until more evidence is found, it is highly questionable whether this goes back to before Constantine.

Conclusion: This is probably not from before 313, so it fails criterion 1. Some sort of veneration of images appears to have occurred, so it probably meets criterion 2. Because even if this text were from before 313 we would have no assurance that the veneration in it had the support of Christian leaders, this fails criterion 3.

Theodore the Subdeacon

Garten quotes the miracles of Cyrus and John, two saints who died before Constantine,27This video from a quote found in John of Damascus. In this story, Theodore the Subdeacon saw an icon of Christ and Mary in a vision, and saw Cyrus and John praying to the image. This text was written by St. Sophronius, who was born around 560, long after Constantine.

Conclusion: This is from long after 313, so it fails criterion 1. It hardly matters whether it meets the other criteria.

Seven Martyrs at Samosata

In The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints by Alban Butler,28Garten quotes in This video there is a story of some pre-Nicene Christians that describes what might be veneration of a cross:

Hipparchus and Philotheus, persons for birth and fortune of the first rank in the city, had some time before embraced the Christian faith. In a secret closet in the house of Hipparchus, upon the eastern wall, they had made an image of the cross, before which, with their faces turned to the east, they adored the Lord Jesus Christ seven times a-day. Five intimate friends, much younger in years, named James, Paragrus, Habibus, Romanus, and Lollianus, coming to visit them at the ninth hour, or three in the afternoon, found them in this private chamber praying before the cross, and asked them why they were in mourning, and prayed at home, at a time when, by the emperor’s orders, all the gods of the whole city had been transported into the temple of fortune, and all persons were commanded to assemble there to pray. They answered, that they adored the Maker of the world. James said: “Do you take that cross for the maker of the world? For I see it is adored by you.” Hipparchus answered: “Him we adore who hung upon the cross. Him we confess to be God, and the Son of God begotten, not made, co-essential with the Father, by whose deity we believe this whole world is created, preserved, and governed. It is now the third year since we were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by James, a priest of the true faith, who since has never intermitted from time to time to give us the Body and Blood of Christ. We therefore think it unlawful for us during these three days to stir out of doors: for we abhor the smell of victims with which the whole city is infected.”29pp. 171-2, Google Books

The language “begotten, not made, co-essential with the Father” sounds suspiciously like the Nicene Creed. It is likely from after the Council of Nicaea in 325.

Interestingly, note that the text says that these men worshiped Christ “with their faces turned to the east.” The cross was on the eastern wall, but the text doesn’t seem to indicate that they were bowing to the cross specifically. When asked, they specify that they were worshiping Christ, “who hung upon the cross” in a context where they seem to be correcting those who thought they worshiped the cross. So it could be that no veneration was occurring at all.

Conclusion: This text is likely from after 313, so it fails criterion 1. It may not be describing veneration of a cross, so it may fail criterion 2. Even if it was veneration, we don’t know that pre-Constantinian Christian leaders approved of it, so it fails criterion 3.

Minucius Felix and the cross

Garten quotes a pagan in Minucius Felix’s dialog Octavius, chapter 9, as saying,

the religion of the Christians is foolish, inasmuch as they worship a crucified man, and even the instrument itself of his punishment. They are said to worship the head of an ass, and even the nature of their father

Garten says that “he has to be seeing something that would lead him to make this accusation” of worshiping the cross.30This video

What Garten seems not to realize is that what he quotes comes from the chapter heading of that section, as found in the Ante-Nicene Fathers set, not the actual text itself. The actual text does not clearly describe cross-worship, although it’s possible that it indicates it:

I know not whether these things are false; certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites; and he who explains their ceremonies by reference to a man punished by extreme suffering for his wickedness, and to the deadly wood of the cross, appropriates fitting altars for reprobate and wicked men, that they may worship what they deserve.

But notice something even more telling. This pagan says “I know not whether these things are false” and criticizes the Christians’ secrecy—in other words, he doesn’t trust them because he doesn’t know what they actually do. This hardly seems like a person who “has to be seeing something that would lead him to make this accusation.”

Furthermore, look at some of the other things the pagan accuses Christians of in this chapter:

I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion, . . . Some say that they worship the virilia of their pontiff and priest, and adore the nature, as it were, of their common parent. . . . Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily—O horror!—they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence.

Does Garten want to speculate that the pagan “has to be seeing something that would lead him to make this accusation”?

Conclusion: This text is from before 313, so it meets criterion 1. It is not a source that accurately describes Christian practices, so it fails criteria 2 and 3.

Jew Carries Picture of Donkey Priest

Garten cites a Jew,31This video described by Tertullian, who

carried about in public a caricature of us with this label: Onocoetes [donkey-priest]. This (figure) had ass’s ears, and was dressed in a toga with a book, having a hoof on one of his feet. (Against the Nations 1.14 ANF)

Garten says that the Jew was acting out a “counter-procession,” suggesting that Christians carried around images of Christ in processions. He and the host of the video in which this is discussed point out the similarities between this image and contemporary images of Christ—the toga and the book.

However, there are no textual indications

  • That the Jew knew much about Christianity (likely he didn’t, since he employed the common donkey-worship trope, but even may have got that wrong, since he labeled it donkey-priest rather than donkey-god).
  • That this was actually intended as a religious procession, rather than that the Jew was simply carrying it around so that people to see it.

Furthermore, as far as I am aware, pagan images contained togas and books at this time, so this isn’t an uncanny resemblance to Christian imagery.

Conclusion: Since this is from before 313, it meets criterion 1. Since there is no evidence that it is illustrative of actual Christian practices, it fails criteria 2 and 3.

Other Arguments

Did Luke paint the first icons?

One widely-circulated claim is that Luke the Evangelist painted the first icons. This claim is taken as proof that icon veneration existed among Christian leaders in the first century. But there’s no legitimate historical or archeological evidence for this. In fact, the first known mention of the story is from around 530 by Theodore the Studite. This is more than two hundred years after 313, and more than four hundred years after Luke’s death.

Conclusion: Since this is from after 313, it fails criterion 1. I’m not familiar with whether it is actually discussing veneration.

The Argument from Relics to Icons

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

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

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

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

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

  • During the first few hundred years of Christianity, we have no examples of “veneration,” as defined in this argument, applied to relics. There are no examples of bowing to, kissing, or praying to relics, only examples of commemorating the martyrdom of martyrs and placing their bodies in special places.32See, for example, the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, developed at least 200 years after apostles
  • This argument doesn’t address the arguments given above against the early veneration of images. As I’ve shown, venerating images was diametrically opposed to their beliefs and was completely undercut by their argumentation.
  • Showing honor to an object that was already associated with the saint by their own existence or lifestyle is different from creating a new artwork intended to represent them in a sacred way.

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

Conclusion: The relevant pieces of evidence are after 313, so this doesn’t meet criterion 1. It is not describing the veneration of images, only a practice that later developed into iconodulia, so it doesn’t meet 2 or 3.

Arguments from Cultural Defaults

“You have to understand the Eastern mindset”

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

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

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

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

We know that the culture venerated images.

One apologist, David Erhan, argues that, since we know that mainstream Roman society venerated images of emperors, we should just assume that Christians venerated images of Jesus unless we have evidence against it. But we know that mainstream Roman society did all sorts of cultic practices, such as religious prostitution, and of course quite a bit of secular prostitution. Does that mean that we should assume Christians did those unless we can prove otherwise?

Of course, we can show beyond a reasonable doubt that before Constantine, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice, so this point is moot in any case.

Just the existence of religious art suggests veneration of icons.

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

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

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

Objections to the Case Against Icons

In this section, I’ll respond to some reasons offered for not using the quotes in my article on the church fathers’ view of icons as evidence against iconodulia. Then I’ll respond to some positive arguments for iconodulia.

But these passages are talking about worship, not veneration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For another angle, even if Origen thought of communion tables as functional altars, the difference between Christian and non-Christian altars is such as to suggest that he is denying that Christians have sacred or venerated images. Altars are an integral part of sacrifice and , being a locus where a god can properly receive a sacrifice, while for Christians, “altar” is a way of speaking about a communion table, which we all know doesn’t have any power to it. Communion can be practiced without a consecrated table, while an altar must be consecrated to that god. So pagan altars are sacred, while Christian “altars” are everyday objects. Origen never seems to speak of communion tables as having any sort of sacerdotal power.33Truglia suggests that Origen speaks of Christian communion tables as altars in his Homilies on Joshua when Origen says,

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

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

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

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

These Christians were merely doing apologetics

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

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

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

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

Everybody who was against veneration of images was against all art

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

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

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

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

But some of these writers can’t be trusted

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

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

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

A Few More Objections

The following are miscellaneous objections that deserve a quick reply.

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

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

See this article that shows why we can expect changes to have occurred within that timeframe. Furthermore, my next post discusses evidence starting from 313 to see how the veneration of images could have arisen. I outline a clear pathway for how veneration of images could easily have developed without a visible disruption of society.

Why is this even necessary?

So you can see just how flimsy the ante-Nicene arguments for iconodulia are. We don’t have any evidence at all of Christian leaders who taught that the veneration of images was a legitimate Christian practice. Instead, apologists need to use flamboyant interpretations of obscure texts, in effect squeezing water out of rocks in an attempt to bolster their claims. In fact, much of the scholarship here is severely lacking, citing texts that aren’t about iconodulia at all, or misdating texts to before Constantine.

When I started, my intention was to respond to every objection out there today, and I have done basically that. However, I don’t know how much longer I want to waste time researching each of these claims, only to find such weak arguments at the bottom of them.

You’ve seen the wide range of strategies and texts that are used in these arguments, in contrast to the simple, straightforward, and credible sources that we discussed in my last article. There were so many times when I thought, “Finally. There’s nothing else that they can bring up as an argument.” Only to turn around and find several new ideas that a bit of research showed were just as misleading as the rest.

At this point, I realize that iconodulia matters so much to the Eastern Orthodox that their apologists will continue to develop new arguments for it as the old ones are debunked. They realize that, if their church can be proved not to teach the historic faith in this one area, the entire claims of their church fail. That makes this a non-negotiable issue for them.

I will likely follow these arguments for some time and continue to respond to the new claims. However, I think that the responses you can see above are sufficient to show the weakness of the Eastern Orthodox case. If their apologists must resort to these methods, they clearly do not have history on their side.

  • 1
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    See below
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  • 5
    Stewart, “The apostolic canons of Antioch. An Origenistic exercise”, Revue d’histoire Ecclésiastique, 448-449
  • 6
    Truglia notes that Stewart’s article “convincingly dates these canons to the third or fourth centuries.” Here he misreads Stewart’s “of” as “or,” a very understandable mistake that I almost did myself when reading through the article.
  • 7
    Truglia seems to suggest that the image still exists, but his source says otherwise, so I may be misunderstanding him.
  • 8
    This argument originated in a debate by Craig Truglia.
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    p. 137
  • 10
    Quoted in Mathews and Muller, p.137
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  • 13
    It’s not clear from Truglia’s argument whether he intended this more general inference.
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  • 15
    This is Truglia’s argument. As I recall, he develops it further in a video.
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    Mendham, The Seventh General Council, the Second in Nicaea, p. 215, Google Books
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    Garten quotes in This video
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    pp. 171-2, Google Books
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  • 32
    See, for example, the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, developed at least 200 years after apostles
  • 33
    Truglia suggests that Origen speaks of Christian communion tables as altars in his Homilies on Joshua when Origen says,

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

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

2 thoughts on “Responding to Orthodox Arguments for Icons”

  1. “This is hardly a pro-iconodulia quote, for the following reasons: There is no claim that people are venerating images. It does speak of honoring a royal image, but it is unclear what it means by that, or what sort of honor is being given. Note that we are discussing a specific form of veneration.”

    This is analogous to the veneration of relics. The 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on relics, said this:

    “We can only say that it was widespread early in the fourth century, and that dated inscriptions upon blocks of stone, which were probably altar slabs, afford evidence upon the point which is quite conclusive. One such, found of late years in Northern Africa and now preserved in the Christian Museum of the Louvre, bears a list of the relics probably once cemented into a shallow circular cavity excavated in its surface. Omitting one or two words not adequately explained, the inscription runs: “A holy memorial [memoria sancta] of the wood of the Cross, of the land of Promise where Christ was born, the Apostles Peter and Paul, the names of the martyrs Datian, Donatian, Cyprian, Nemesianus, Citinus, and Victoria. In the year of the Province 320 [i.e. A.D. 359] Benenatus and Pequaria set this up” (“Corp. Inscr. Lat.”, VIII, n. 20600).”

    Benenatus and Pequaria had what they believed was someone holy, so they buried it. What else were they to do? This is precisely what the early church did with the “relics” (dead bodies; bones) of the saints: they buried them. Christians would then gather and honor them at their grave once a year. Such a memorial would sometimes be celebrated on the anniversary of the saint’s martyrdom, which was called their “birthday”. And indeed, the practice of honoring and memorializing the dead by burial has been the tradition of Jews and Christians for millennia.

    Showing honor—a form of respect—in the form of a memorial is a far cry from veneration.

    1. It’s great to hear you say that, Derek! Hearing the constant conflation of the two by EOC makes me sometimes wonder if I’m odd for making this distinction.

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