Is There Really a Patristic Critique of Icons?

Is There Really a Patristic Critique of Icons?

Part One


Steven Wedgeworth, Assistant Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Clinton, Mississippi, has recently written a post at The Calvinist International against the Christian use of icons. In this post, he proposes to “counter-balance” the evidence in favor of icons and their veneration with evidence to the contrary. The reason, as he puts it, is that “Not as many people … know the opposing patristic voices.” This implies that there is an evident Patristic opposition to icons in the history and tradition of the Church — one that is so substantial, one could be forced to reconsider their position on the issue as a result. Pr Wedgeworth also claims that the liturgical use of icons has a “mixed foundation,” implying that the practice and beliefs of the Catholic Church are perhaps arguable at best.

But is that really the case? Does the evidence put forth by Pr Wedgeworth demonstrate that there has always been an equal opposition to icons and their veneration within the Orthodox-Catholic Church? Is that evidence being properly represented and understood? Were they isolated voices, or part of a large opposition to icons in the history of the Church?

Orthodox Christians are well aware of the iconoclastic controversies of both the 8th and 9th centuries. We are so aware of it that we devote an entire Sunday (the first of Great Lent) to what we call the Triumph of Orthodoxy — the restoration of icons to the churches by the empress Theodora at a Constantinopolitan synod in AD 843. The fact that there was controversy over this issue is nothing new, and doctrinal controversy is simply part of the life of the Church (1 Cor. 11:19). However, when Pr Wedgeworth cites Peter Brown to assert: “dispute around the seventh council was a wholly Byzantine affair,” neither he nor Brown are being entirely accurate. Iconoclasm certainly originated in the eastern part of the Roman empire (in the 8th century), yet it was largely egged-on by political interests related to both the Carolingians of the West and the Muslims of the East.

In truth, the See of Rome was just as committed to the veneration of icons (especially prior to Charles I and the Libri Carolini) as the rest of the Church. All five primary Sees were represented at the 7th Ecumenical Council, and the Pope of Old Rome (Hadrian I) gave his full endorsement. The Second Council of Nicaea was one of the most widely represented councils in the history of the Church, and the bishops who had been previously swayed by dubious influences to reject icons publicly repented at this synod. One such bishop named Basil of Ancyra repented of both iconoclasm and his participation in a previous “robber synod” on this issue, because he desired “to be united to the Catholic Church, and to Hadrian the most holy Pope of Old Rome, and to Tarasius the most blessed Patriarch [of Constantinople], and to the most holy apostolic sees; to wit, Alexandria, Antioch, and the Holy City [Jerusalem]” (Extracts from the Acts, Session 1, Labbe and Cossart, Concilia, Tom. VII, col. 53). Basil goes on to explain how the previous synod — presumably that at Hieria in 754 — was little more than a politically-driven spectacle; the successive life of the Church would certainly vindicate such a perspective.

While the iconoclastic controversy itself was originally rooted in the eastern part of the empire, its resolution was an ecumenical one; a resolution that had the full support of the entire Catholic Church (as shown in Basil’s confession). The life and witness of the Orthodox-Catholic Church since the 9th century confirms this to be the case, over and against any ahistorical or abstract inquiries into isolated statements, both before and after that time.

As an aside, it is an irony that Pr Wedgeworth would use an image of the Хлудовская псалтырь (the “Chludov Psalter”) — one of only three illuminated Psalters to survive the destruction of iconoclasts in the 9th century — as the featured image for his blog post. The particular image he has selected connects the last iconoclastic emperor (John the Grammarian) and his erasure of an icon of Christ by a pole and sponge with the soldiers who offered both gall and vinegar to Christ while nailed upon the Cross (cf. Psalm 68:22 LXX). It also makes light of his unkempt hairdo (a faux pas in Byzantium). This Psalter is actually evidence of the Patristic consensus of the mid-800s AD: a Church that used illuminated manuscripts of the Scriptures in liturgy; Scriptures which were venerated, carried about, and treated with great respect as our rubrics of the ancient Liturgy clearly demonstrate (both then and today). The worship and life of the apostolic Church shows us the Patristic consensus far better than any abstract investigation of obscure writings can ever hope to accomplish. When attempting to understand both Patristic writings and the Holy Scriptures, it is necessary to do so within a right context; and that right context is the life of the Church, not our best guess at its reconstruction.

The Importance of the Early Church

Many of the quotations that Pr Wedgeworth offers as evidence of aniconic/iconophobic attitudes in the early Church are found in Her first three centuries. This is important to note because if the rigorists (with regards to the 2nd commandment) are correct — and the ancient, apostolic Church was against images wholesale — then there would’ve been a palpable outcry of opposition at the very onset of their introduction. By most standards, the introduction of iconography into the usage of the Church is seen to have occurred between the first and fourth centuries AD. As a result, any evidence related to icons during this period should be examined with this kept in mind. If icons were introduced during this time frame, and there is not an overwhelmingly violent reaction to such innovation and idolatry in the writings of the Fathers, what could one be led to conclude?

During this early period, Christians were keenly aware of their place as successors to the apostles. The arguments of men such as Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (against the Gnostics) are hinged upon the fact that he is only teaching what his predecessors — the apostles — have taught, while the heretics only quote the Scriptures (misinterpreting them in a manner contrary to apostolic tradition). Fr Steven Bigham notes that because of this pride in their preservation of apostolic tradition, any suggestion that these early Christians had abandoned the Gospel by allowing icons into the Church would have deeply scandalized them (Early Christian Attitudes toward Images, p. 17). If the rigorists are correct that the early Church was hostile towards icons (aniconia/iconophobia), any acceptance of icons — being itself an abandonment of the Gospel, at least according to the rigorists — “runs squarely against the highly developed awareness among these Christians that they taught only what came from the Apostles themselves” (ibid.). Since there is an abundance of evidence that the early Christians did make use of icons (along with statues and decorated liturgical elements, such as chalices with the image of Christ engraved upon them), something doesn’t quite add up for the rigorist point of view. A simple crawl through the Roman catacombs or the remains of Dura Europos (Syria) would provide a pointed demonstration.

Further, Bigham also notes that a distinction has existed between that which is Tradition (with a capital “T,” so to speak), and that which is pious custom (or “traditions” in a general sense). This was also made plain in the definition of the 7th Ecumenical Council. In short, Traditions are beliefs and practices that are essential to the Gospel, whereas customs are traditions that “are not required or defined by the Gospel itself, but they were not forbidden either” (ibid.). When customs become controversial, disturbing the Church as a whole, they are examined by Her with great care. One example of this dynamic is the dating of Pascha, which was originally a localized custom (with a variety of practices) prior to the first Council of Nicaea (AD 325). Eventually, the discrepancy in observance led to an ecclesiastical controversy that could only be settled by both Ecumenical and Conciliar decree. The usage and veneration of icons is the same: What originally began as a pious custom among the faithful became a point of substantial controversy, thanks in no small part to those who would use it for strategic, political purposes in the 8th and 9th centuries. Therefore, it was incumbent upon the bishops of the Church to assemble and attempt to settle the issue (and thus the Second Council of Nicaea of 787 and the Synod of Constantinople of 843).

As Bigham concludes on this point, “a simple custom became an essential witness to the preaching of the Gospel” and the rejection of images “implied a weakening or even a denial of the Incarnation itself” (Ibid., p. 18). What Bigham characterizes as a “humble and accessory custom” had become “essential to the Gospel” (Ibid., p. 19).

Part Two

Patristic Evidence and Burden of Proof

Any evidence that is set forth as proof of either an iconoclastic or iconodulic mindset in the first three centuries of the Church, therefore, is of significant importance if one is going to understand the icon debate, along with the actual, historic beliefs of the Church (the “Patristic consensus,” if you will).

Again, the witness of the Orthodox-Catholic tradition manifests that iconodulism is the norm, and has been the accepted practice since the earliest centuries. This is what the 7th Ecumenical Council claims, as well. The Fathers stated that they were only following the “royal pathway” of tradition that leads all the way back to the apostles. Arguments set forth in opposition to the usage of icons must be supported by such an overwhelming amount of evidence, that no one can possibly conclude otherwise. Since the Church has ruled that the veneration of icons is no longer merely a pious custom, but is now an integral part of the Gospel itself, it is no small matter to deny their validity. From the Orthodox perspective, such a denial is an attack upon the essentials of the Gospel, and so an isolated selection of quotations from a few early sources is less than compelling. To speak of “the Fathers” or a “Patristic” viewpoint is to point to the Church of the Fathers, and Her common practice down to this day. As I have already mentioned, following Bigham’s arguments, if the introduction of icons into the Church was seen by anyone as a denial of the Gospel (idolatry), there would have been a noticeably violent outcry in response; and yet, we have no such response. The burden of proof for the iconoclast is weighty.

The Church Fathers (and other early Christian writers) are sometimes treated by those who do not believe in the unbroken continuity of Orthodox tradition as a compendium of proof-texts for whatever viewpoint they wish to defend, with no regard for the actual, historic beliefs or practices of the Church — and many often ignore the fact that there are “Fathers” among us today (the Church is alive, and our Tradition is of the Spirit, not a “dead” letter). This also occurs regularly when it comes to the exegesis of the Holy Scriptures. Rather than being seen as a living, breathing part of the life of the Church, they are abstracted from that context and subjected to the scrutiny of those outside of Her community.

With all of the aforementioned points being given due consideration, Pr Wedgeworth has provided a few citations from early Christian sources to which I will briefly respond. One of the difficulties with his post, however, is that he mentions the proper veneration (Gk: δουλεία and προσκύνησις) of icons in his introductory paragraph (related to the 7th Ecumenical Council), but then proceeds to cite writings that appear to oppose their worship or “adoration” (Gk: λατρεία). It is unclear to me whether he is attempting to argue against the very existence of icons, their veneration, their worship (which is due to God alone), or perhaps all three? I believe that he is arguing in favor of the existence of icons, but against their placement in churches, their veneration, and obviously their worship. Whatever the case, I will interact with the selections he has provided, as well as his comments.

It should be noted that the distinction between δουλεία/προσκύνησις and λατρεία was not novel to the 7th Ecumenical Council, but is rather a distinction made in the Scriptures themselves (both Old and New Testaments; cf. חוה, the hitpa’lel of שׁחה, although the Masoretic Hebrew is less precise than the older Septuagint Greek). It is quite possible for a person to pay honor to another person or object, and not commit idolatry. If every act of “bowing down” or “prostration” before another person or object was idolatry, no one would be able to tie his shoes without being guilty of denying the Gospel. The attitude of one’s heart is equally important as one’s physical actions. The Scriptures provide numerous examples where a person or object is being prostrated before (for the sake of paying honor or veneration), and without it being mistaken as idolatry: Leah and her children, along with Rachael and Joseph (Gen. 33:7); Absalom before the king (2 Sam 25:23 [2 Kings LXX]); a woman before a man (1 Sam 25:23 [1 Kings LXX]); a woman before a prophet (2 Kings 4:37 [4 Kings LXX]); and even before the ark of the covenant, which was adorned with statues of the cherubim (Psalm 99:5 [98 LXX]).

The ancient Jews understood this distinction (between veneration and worship/adoration), as did the Christians who came forth from Judaism as its true fulfillment in Christ. Everything from the mezuzah to the Torah was venerated (kissed) by pious Jews, and Christ would have done the same; this is an ancient custom. The Roman catacombs are filled with predominantly Old Testament imagery, demonstrating that the early iconographers came from the Jewish Christians and not only the Greeks. The tabernacle/temple itself was replete with images, practically everywhere that one would look (and while prostrating before them): on the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:18), on the curtains (Ex. 26:1), on the veil of the Most Holy place (Ex. 26:31), the statues of cherubim (1 Kings 6:23 [3 Kings LXX]), on the walls (1 Kings 6:29 [3 Kings LXX]), on the doors (1 Kings 6:32 [3 Kings LXX]), and on the furnishings (1 Kings 7:29,36 [3 Kings LXX]). Since the temple was an image (or “icon”) of heaven, it was made to represent heaven itself (Heb. 8:5; cf. Ex. 25:40). One can even read examples of favorable attitudes towards images in the Palestinian Talmud: “In the days of Rabbi Jochanan, men began to paint pictures on the walls, and he did not hinder them … In the days of Rabbi Abbun, men began to make designs on mosaics, and he did not hinder them” (Abodah Zarah, 48d). As already mentioned, the synagogue (and house church) of Dura Europos (Syria, ca. early-3rd century AD) is filled, wall-to-ceiling, with images of Old Testament stories and saints — and all in places where the Jews would’ve been prostrating before the Torah scrolls. The assertion that either ancient or Second Temple Judaism was inherently iconoclastic is truly a modern polemical myth.

We can now turn our attention to the selection of quotes set forth by Pr Wedgeworth, interacting with them one-by-one.


Pr Wedgeworth quotes Tertullian in one of his responses to a Marcionite apologist (Against Marcion, 2:22), where he argues that the liturgical artwork of the tabernacle, along with the brazen serpent, are not a violation of the 2nd commandment. Pr Wedgeworth’s commentary suggests that this citation of Tertullian shows a balanced rejection of idolatry when it comes to icons, while also leaving room for the icons that the Lord himself commanded (the serpent and the items of the tabernacle). However, Tertullian is here actually disagreeing with himself. He does not have a consistent viewpoint on this subject, and is actually far more rigorous (and inconsistent) than I think Pr Wedgeworth would appreciate. Known for his extremism, Tertullian’s rigorist interpretations in such matters eventually led him out of the Catholic Church and into heresy (Montanism). His perspective on this issue should be seen as a cautionary tale, rather than as Patristic evidence against the Catholic Church and Her proper usage of images.

There is no question that Tertullian rejected “idolatrous images.” What’s interesting is that he rejected all images as idolatrous. The passage from Against Marcion would suggest that Tertullian only rejected idolatrous images, making an exception for the brazen serpent and the images of the tabernacle. However, the rest of Tertullian’s writings contradicts this idea, demonstrating that he is either inconsistent on this issue, or rather simply uses whatever argument suits him at the time. Bigham suggests that Tertullian would often change his viewpoints to fit the circumstances of debate, and a thorough examination of his writings confirms this hypothesis (Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images, pp. 123-131).

For example, in On Idolatry, 3-4, Tertullian says that “every form or form-ling” is “an idol.” Under this name “idol,” he includes (quoting the OT) “things which are in the heavens, and which are in the earth, and which are in the sea.” In this, he does not make a distinction between images that are used as idols, and idols themselves. In other words, he is arguing that every image is an idol. This same rigorist interpretation is espoused in The Shows, 23, where he writes: “And in regard to the wearing of masks, I ask: Is that according to the mind of God, who forbids the making of every likeness, and especially then the likeness of man who is His own image?” As Bigham notes, it is not a stretch to conclude that — at least in these two debates — Tertullian plainly equates “image” with “idol.” Here, Tertullian is so extreme as to deny the creation of any image, even outside of a religious context!

It seems to be the case that Tertullian only allows for the approval of the brazen serpent and the images of the tabernacle as extreme exceptions to the rule; and he only does this in order to refute the Marcionite’s argument that God contradicts himself in the Old Testament. The Marcionite was familiar enough with Tertullian’s viewpoints on this issue to use his rigorist interpretation of the 2nd commandment as a way to “corner him,” forcing him to change his views in the midst of their debate. Incredibly, Tertullian even refused to admit as catechumens any painters or sculptors into his church (Bigham, p. 126), showing that his views in On Idolatry and The Shows are not exceptions, but are rather representative of his actual belief. His response to the Marcionite seems to be an exception, and he even continues to explain that the brazen serpent shows “the power of our Lord’s cross” for those who “turned with an eye of faith to it” (3:18). This was an image not for the purpose of “reading” or decoration, but a true symbol of the Lord’s presence and healing — and even Tertullian was reluctantly forced to admit it. If the Orthodox Christian belief that symbols (such as icons and the brazen serpent) can make the Lord mystically present is a “Greek” idea, we must count Moses among the Greeks.

As a Montanist, Tertullian continued in his extremist arguments; for example, rejecting the idea that a person could repent of adultery and be re-admitted to the Church, and of course writing at length on the folly of idolatry (e.g. On Modesty, an attack on the Church). An Orthodox Christian would join anyone in their rejection of idolatry, but when every image is equated with idolatry — even in a non-religious context — we cannot possibly join in his beliefs. And neither would Pr Wedgeworth.

What Tertullian represents, really, is a trend of conflict within the Christian world that goes all the way back to its very beginnings. As Ouspensky notes, following Florovsky:

In the eighth-ninth century conflict, the iconoclasts represented an unreformed and uncompromising position, of an Origenistic and Platonic trend … the symbolic-allegorical method of its reasoning could not have been more favorable to the argumentation of iconoclastic theology … it marked a return to the ancient dichotomy between matter and spirit. In such a system, an image can only be an obstacle to spirituality: not only is it made of matter, but it also represents the body, which is matter.

Theology of the Icon, Vol. 1, pp. 148-149

The Christian worldview, where both matter and spirit are united in the risen Christ, is a worldview that the Montanists, and especially Tertullian, rejected.

This rejection of matter (and even of the glorified body of the Lord) is exemplified in letters such as Eusebius of Caesarea’s to Constantia (Eusebius being a devoted Origenist and semi-Arian), where he condemns their desire to obtain an icon of Christ, “since the body of the Lord was transformed, at present, into an unutterable glory … only in spirit could one contemplate the glory in which Christ finds Himself after his Ascension” (ibid., p. 149). Ouspensky remarks that this sort of reaction underlines the struggle the early Christians had “in accepting and assimilating the Christian revelation in its fullness.” A revelation that rejected both Arius and Origen — embracing the orthodox Christology of the ecumenical Church — a rejection of the older, pagan viewpoints.

On this same point, Von Schönborn notes, “wherever a polemic against the Christian image starts, it is all too often based on a questionable theological vision (Eusebius, Epiphanius, Asterius of Amasea, the Montanist Tertullian of De Pudicitia [On Modesty])” (L’icone du Christ, p. 84). Ouspensky reminds the reader that the ecumenical Quinisext Council (which rejected mere symbolism in favor of icons of the divine-human Christ) cast this rejection of iconography as “pagan immaturity” set forth by “Origen, Didymus and Evagrius, who restored Greek fables” (Canon 1; Ouspensky, p. 149). The Catholic Church did not see icons as an adoption of pagan, Greek idolatry, but as a conscious rejection of it.

In conclusion, Tertullian is not exactly the best example to follow on this matter, as his own views are far too extreme and inconsistent; not to mention the fact that his rejection of icons stems from a rejection of basic, orthodox, Christological foundations, and especially as related to symbolism and the redemption of matter. His rejection of the Church altogether should serve as a reminder that such iconoclastic or interpretive rigorism — well-intentioned as it may be — does not necessarily aid in preserving one’s faith. In rejecting the good and holy results of the Incarnation of our Lord, Tertullian ended up rejecting the Lord’s Body altogether.

Part Three

The Synod of Elvira

The next example of an alleged Patristic critique of icons comes from the 36th canon of the local synod in Elvira (Spain/Granada), somewhere around the beginning of the 4th century. Pr Wedgeworth lists this synod as having occurred in 305, which would put it squarely in the middle of the Diocletian persecution — a fact that is most helpful in attempting to understand the context of this obscure assembly. Hefele lists the synod as having occurred in either 305 or 306 (A History of the Councils of the Church, Vol. 1, Sec. 13). Pr Wedgeworth quotes the canon in translation (from Wikipedia) as follows:

Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration.

The Latin original of the canon is:

Placuit picturas in ecclesia esse non debere, ne quod colitur et adoratur in parietibus depingatur.

Bigham, among many others, has suggested the following, more accurate, translation (p. 161):

It has seemed good that images should not be in churches so that what is venerated and worshiped not be painted on the walls.

Thanks to my affiliation with Logos, I have direct access to some of the foremost Latin scholars and translators in the world. I asked one of them (who translated Aquinas in its entirety) to give me his translation, without any foreknowledge of how others have done it. He sent me this:

It seems to me that we ought to not have pictures in the church, lest what is honored and adored be painted on the walls.

When I sent him the translation that Pr Wedgeworth used, he responded: “Yeah, that’s wrong.” Notably, in the eminent Ford Lewis Battles edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1.11.6), canon 36 is translated:

It is decreed that there shall be no pictures in churches, that what is reverenced or adored be not depicted on the walls.

As with the Scriptures themselves (ala Hilary of Poitiers), the importance of this canon is not in the reading, but in the understanding. If this assembly of bishops did, in fact, occur during the Diocletian persecution, what are the implications? For example, Anton Joseph Binterim, Giovanni Battista de Rossi, and Karl Josef von Hefele all read this canon as prohibiting the use of sacred images in above-ground church buildings, in order to avoid their caricature or vandalism by pagans. More specifically, Hefele records:

Binterim believes that this Synod forbade only one thing — namely, that any one might hang images in the Church according to his fancy, and often therefore inadmissible ones. Aubespine thinks that our canon forbids only images representing God (because it says adoratur), and not other pictures, especially those of saints.

A History of the Councils of the Church, Vol. 1, p. 151

Bigham proposes several helpful thoughts (pp. 161-166):

  • Both iconoclasts and iconodules have cited this canon in favor of their own positions in the history of the Church. As such, it is not a stretch to say that no one knows the exact context or meaning of this canon, rendering it moot as a piece of “evidence” for any one position. At best, it is interesting fodder for the discussion.
  • The canon shows that Christians of the pre-Nicene period were distinguishing between images and idols, by its usage of the word picturas.
  • The painting of Christian images was not something new at the beginning of the 4th century, but was an established custom of the church in Spain, and presumably elsewhere (archaeological evidence confirms this, of course). Even Tertullian mentions the image of Christ “The Good Shepherd” on Eucharistic chalices as early as AD 200 (On Modesty, 10). Generally speaking, disciplinary canons (like these) are proposed in response to long-standing practices of the Church.
  • We have no idea what kind of images are being spoken about — images which are colitur et adoratur (“venerated and worshiped”). The Holy Trinity? Christ alone? Saints? Pagan deities? Palm trees?
  • We don’t know what motivated the bishops in this region of Spain to issue this particular canon. Was it to prevent the defacing of icons during the Diocletian persecution? Was it to prevent icons in temporary church buildings (such as a house) from being desecrated at a later point in time? Was it in response to abuse or superstition?
  • The interdiction only applies to paintings or images in parietibus (“on walls”). Does this apply to images elsewhere (such as portable icons on wood)? The canon does not specify anything beyond picturas in parietibus. Bigham notes that this implies a specific restriction of this canon’s interdiction; it is not a “blanket statement” of disapproval.
  • This canon is one of 81 disciplinary (not theological) canons. The canon itself is limited in scope, and carries with it no anathemas or condemnations of idolatry. There is no indication that the bishops intended to ban all kinds of images (for either personal or religious use), nor do they cite theological reasons for the aforementioned canon.
  • No church in Spain, either before or after this synod, obeyed the canon — if indeed it was a wholesale condemnation or ban on religious and liturgical images of any kind. There was never any iconoclastic controversy in the Church of Spain, and the implications of this highly-localized, disciplinary canon to the icon debate were completely ignored for centuries.
  • Other canons from this synod can be found reproduced in other local assemblies and their canons, but not canon 36. Most of these occasional rules were eventually lost to history, as many other canons that have lost their importance due to a change in the historical circumstances that led to their proposal. This canon (among the rest at Elvira) were neither ecumenical in scope, nor eternal in application. Like many other encyclicals, epistles, and synods in the history of the Church, the scope was both locally and historically specific.
  • The mildly-iconophobic Frankish churches did not cite this canon in their debates with both the iconoclasts and the iconodules. In fact, they both encouraged and utilized “paintings on walls” in their churches.

Bigham concludes: “That it is an expression of a generalized iconophobia in Spain, and in the whole ancient Church, a repudiation of all figurative art, and a blueprint for an imageless Christianity seems to be a very heavy load, indeed, to put on the back of such a frail, little donkey” (Ibid., p.166).

Ouspensky also follows a more accurate translation: “It seemed good to us that paintings should not be found in churches and that that which is venerated and adored not be painted on the walls.” He notes that “other types of images” besides “monumental decoration” are not mentioned at all, and that we know — at this exact time in early-4th century Spain — there existed numerous images on “sacred vessels,” sarcophagi, etc. Since these are not mentioned by the canon, it is reasonable to conclude that the canon is not a denial of sacred images in general, but is more likely motivated by practical concerns. He concludes: “Should one not see in canon 36 … an attempt to preserve ‘what is venerated and adored’ from profanation?” He further speculates “Could there not have been any [abuses] in the veneration of images also?” (Theology of the Icon, Vol. 1, p. 40).

Ouspensky’s general approach to canon 36 of Elvira aligns with Bigham, in that we don’t know nearly enough about this synod to make any radical changes to the theology or worship of the Church as a result of it. Any attempt to do so, based upon such flimsy and inadmissible evidence, would be both reckless and intellectually dishonest. Other Protestant scholars have admitted as much: ”No great weight can be attached to this, the exact bearing of the canon being unknown” (Edward James Martin, A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy, p. 19). Pomazansky seems to follow both of Ouspensky’s proposals, stating:

The discoveries of ecclesiastical archaeology show that in the ancient Christian Church there existed sacred images in the catacombs and in other places of assembly for prayer, and subsequently in Christian churches. If in certain cases Christian writers have expressed themselves against the existence of statues and similar images, they have in mind the pagan worship (the Council of Elvira in Spain, 305). Sometimes, however, such expressions and prohibitions were evoked by the special conditions of the time — for example, the necessity to hide one’s holy things from the pagan persecutors and from the non-Christian masses who had a hostile attitude toward Christianity.

Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Ch. 9

I personally believe that the fear of sacred images being desecrated during the Diocletian persecution is the most plausible explanation, and is possibly connected with canon 52 of this same synod: “Anyone who writes scandalous graffiti in a church is to be condemned.” During periods of persecution, sacred items pertinent to the liturgical assembly were kept in the homes of the faithful, only to be brought to the church building for the time of worship. This included everything from the bread, water, wine, and oil of the Mysteries, to the Gospel book itself. The “Little Entrance” of the Gospel in the present Liturgy is a reminder that the bishop, presbyter, or deacon would walk from the altar into the nave and retrieve the Gospels or other sacred writings from whoever was “hiding” them at home that week. These early practices remind us of the persecution that occurred with varying frequency in the early Church, and the necessity of protecting what is venerated. Perhaps this is all that canon 36 is attempting to do?

Regardless, it must be reiterated one last time that this canon was always local, and was never received nor intended to be seen as ecumenical. As my friend Robert Arakaki has pointed out, looking to canons such as this one as being ecumenical, “Patristic,” or even theological in scope, is like a layperson looking at legal rulings with no regard for the distinctions between a district court, an appellate court, and the supreme court. If we did not have this judicial hierarchy we would end up with juridical anarchy or a mishmash of conflicting legal opinions. Where an ignorant layperson sees a jumble, a trained lawyer sees an unfolding progression of legal reasoning.

While one might ignore all of the above, and still lay hold to Elvira as a code of theological law that is ever-binding on the consciences of Christians, one cannot help but point out the inconsistency of claiming to do so. Why? Because no one actually follows the rest of these canons.

For example, do Protestants/iconoclasts obey canon 26?: “The rigorous form of fasting is to be followed every Saturday.”

How about canon 33?: “Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from the procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office.”

What about canon 60, which (interestingly enough) forbids the smashing of idols?: “If someone smashes an idol and is then punished by death, he or she may not be placed in the list of martyrs, since such action is not sanctioned by the Scriptures or by the apostles.”

Do Protestant/iconoclastic husbands forbid their wives from writing letters to other people without their consent (canon 81)? Do Protestant/iconoclastic husbands submit their wives for excommunication when they get their hair done at a hairdresser (canon 67)?

It makes very little sense to obey canon 36, or to strongly imply that it bears “Patristic” weight, without giving all 81 canons their due obedience. This glaring inconsistency completely undermines even the audacity of citing this canon as Patristic evidence.

Part Four

St Gregory the Great

Pr Wedgeworth then quotes St Gregory I (of Rome) in his letter to Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles (AD 590-604):

Furthermore we notify to you that it has come to our ears that your Fraternity, seeing certain adorers of images, broke and threw down these same images in Churches. And we commend you indeed for your zeal against anything made with hands being an object of adoration; but we signify to you that you ought not to have broken these images. For pictorial representation is made use of in Churches for this reason; that such as are ignorant of letters may at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books. Your Fraternity therefore should have both preserved the images and prohibited the people from adoration of them, to the end that both those who are ignorant of letters might have wherewith to gather a knowledge of the history, and that the people might by no means sin by adoration of a pictorial representation.

Register of the Epistles of St Gregory the Great, Book 9 (Originally quoted in translation in The Early Church Fathers and Other Works, published by Eerdmans)

In this letter, St Gregory is forbidding the destruction of sacred images, as well as their abuse. There is no blanket condemnation of images, as Pr Wedgeworth notes, and St Gregory encourages their presence in church buildings. His statements condemn both the actions of the iconoclasts in the 8th and 9th centuries, and the more extreme destruction of church buildings, relics, icons, frescoes, mosaics, and illuminated manuscripts by violent mobs during the Protestant Reformation (e.g., the Huguenots destroyed both the tomb and relics of St Irenaeus of Lyons in 1562).

Orthodox Christians do not approve of the adoration or “worship” of icons, which should only be given to the Holy Trinity. We do not “worship” icons as idols; rather, we pay them respect, as we would kiss the precious photograph of loved ones, or as an American citizen might salute the American flag. We are not worshiping the paper of the photograph or the fabric of a flag, but are rather paying proper respect and affection (“service” or δουλεία) to their prototype (or to what they re-present to us). In any case, we would affirm the words of St Gregory that any abuse or superstitions related to icons (or relics) should be condemned. In fact, the Church did this very thing during the deliberations of the 7th Ecumenical Council, while affirming an icon’s proper veneration. St Gregory’s letter is not an opposing, Patristic voice to the proper use of icons; rather, it stands firmly in the same Tradition as the consensus of the Church. Similarly, St Athanasius of Alexandria instructs:

We, who are of the faithful, do not worship images as gods, as the heathens did — God forbid — but we mark our loving desire alone to see the face of the person represented in image. Hence, when it is obliterated, we are wont to throw the image as so much wood into the fire. Jacob, when he was about to die, worshiped on the point of Joseph’s staff [Gen. 47:31 LXX], not honoring the staff but its owner. In the same way do we greet images, just as we would embrace our children and parents to signify our affection.

The Hundred Chapters, 38

More significant than any speculations about St Gregory’s beliefs regarding icons (as intuited from a single letter), Ouspensky notes: “In 540, St Gregory I (590-604) carried the venerable icon of the Mother of God, ‘which is said to be the work of St Luke’ (quam dicunt a sancto Luca factam), to the basilica of St Peter in a solemn procession and with the singing of litanies” (Theology of the Icon, Vol. 1, p. 64). Further, Pope Hadrian I, at the 7th Ecumenical Council, “quoted a series of texts by Greek and Roman Fathers who, in his opinion, were in favor of icons, especially the one by Pope St Gregory I” (ibid., p. 132). The Greek bishops of the council, following on the citation of St Gregory, added: “through the intermediary of images, those who gaze upon them ascend to faith, and to the recollection of salvation through the Incarnation of our Lord, Jesus Christ” (Ibid., p. 133). It is a shame that modern art in the Western Church has not always followed upon the heritage and beliefs of one of their greatest Popes — a bishop with both feet firmly planted on the “royal pathway” of the Fathers.

St Gregory’s belief that the sight of icons could not only instruct the illiterate, but also lead men of all ages (and educations) to a contemplation and encounter of the Divine, was a belief shared among many eminent Fathers of the Church. For example, St John of Damascus once said that “we are led by perceptible icons to the contemplation of the divine and spiritual” (PG, 94:1261a), St Gregory of Nyssa remarked that he could not see an icon of Abraham attempting to sacrifice Isaac “without tears” (PG, 46:572), and of this, the 7th Ecumenical Council comments: “If to such a Doctor the picture was helpful and drew forth tears, how much more in the case of the ignorant and simple will it bring compunction and benefit?” (NPNF2, Vol. 14, p. 539)

St Epiphanius of Salamis

Next, Pr Wedgeworth offers forth a passage from Letter 51 of Epiphanius of Salamis, written to John of Jerusalem (as quoted in The Principle Works of St Jerome, NPNF2):

Moreover, I have heard that certain persons have this grievance against me: When I accompanied you to the holy place called Bethel, there to join you in celebrating the Collect, after the use of the Church, I came to a villa called Anablatha and, as I was passing, saw a lamp burning there. Asking what place it was, and learning it to be a church, I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loth that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ’s church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person. They, however, murmured, and said that if I made up my mind to tear it, it was only fair that I should give them another curtain in its place. As soon as I heard this, I promised that I would give one, and said that I would send it at once. Since then there has been some little delay, due to the fact that I have been seeking a curtain of the best quality to give to them instead of the former one, and thought it right to send to Cyprus for one. I have now sent the best that I could find, and I beg that you will order the presbyter of the place to take the curtain which I have sent from the hands of the Reader, and that you will afterwards give directions that curtains of the other sort—opposed as they are to our religion—shall not be hung up in any church of Christ. A man of your uprightness should be careful to remove an occasion of offence unworthy alike of the Church of Christ and of those Christians who are committed to your charge.

Epiphanius of Cyprus (310-403) is numbered among the saints in the Orthodox-Catholic Church, being commemorated on May 12. His greatest written work was the Panarion (“medicine chest”), written between 374 and 377 as an enumeration and “anti-dote” to every major heresy in the history of the Church. The postscript above was presumably part of a letter being written to John II, Bishop of Jerusalem from 387 to 417. However, according to a number of Church Fathers (as well as modern scholars), this postscript was a fabrication, being falsely ascribed to St Epiphanius in order to aid in the iconoclasts’ arguments of the 8th and 9th centuries.

The controversy over the authenticity of this letter is discussed in the writings of St John of Damascus, the 7th Ecumenical Council, St Theodore the Studite, and — most extensively — by St Nicephorus of Constantinople. All of these sources argue that the postscript was not by the hand of St Epiphanius. Assuming that it actually was, a single voice among millions is not sufficient cause to reject the long-standing Tradition of the Church.

For example, in On the Holy Icons by St Theodore the Studite, the following dialogue is found (under the heading, “Patristic Authority for Iconoclasm”):

Heretic: Epiphanius is one of them, the man who is prominent and renowned among the saints.

Orthodox: We know that Epiphanius is a saint and a great wonder-worker. Sabinus, his disciple and a member of his household, erected a church in his honor after his death, and had it decorated with pictures of all the Gospel stories. He would not have done this if he had not been following the doctrine of his own teacher. Leonitus also, the interpreter of the divine Epiphanius’ writings, who was himself bishop of the church in Neapolis in Cyprus, teaches very clearly in his discourse on Epiphanius how steadfast he was in regard to the holy icons, and reports nothing derogatory concerning him. So the composition against the icons is spurious and not at all the work of the divine Epiphanius.

St Theodore even entertains the (unlikely) possibility that Epiphanius (or any other beloved person) had done such a thing against an icon, first referencing the words of the apostle Paul in Gal. 1:8-9, and then concluding:

Raise your eyes, look around, and see everywhere under heaven, throughout the sacred edifices and the holy monuments in them, these images depicted and necessarily venerated in the places where they are depicted. Even if there were no dogmatic reason nor voices of inspired fathers to uphold both the erection and the veneration of icons, the prevailing ancient tradition would be sufficient for confirmation of the truth. Who can presume to oppose this tradition? By his opposition he falls away far from God and the sheepfold of Christ, because he thinks like the Manicheans and the Valentinians, who babbled heretically that God had dwelt among those on earth only in appearance and fantasy.

When Emperor Leo III enacted policies against icons in 730, Cypriot Christians defied his pronouncements. It is important to note that, at this point in history, Cyprus was under neither the Caliphate nor the Empire (despite paying taxes to both). They were “practically independent,” free of any external military or political influence. With regards to the iconoclast debates under Leo III (and after), Charles Anthony Stewart further notes:

A central dogma in the debate centered on the teachings of St. Epiphanius. Iconoclasts argued from a dubious text that the venerable saint stated his rejection of icons … In response, the iconodule John of Damascus (676-749) apparently visited the multiple-domed basilica of Salamis-Constantia in the eighth century, recording that “The proof that he [St. Epiphanius] did not object to images, is to be found in his own church, which is adorned with images to this day.”

Domes of Heaven: The Domed Basilicas of Cyprus, p. 87

When the iconoclastic synod of 754 was assembled at Hieria, the Cypriot bishops refused to participate. Their approval of icons came not from the force of an emperor (for they were free from both imperial influence and threat), but rather from their inheritance of the apostolic tradition; a tradition that was previously preserved by St Epiphanius on that same, isolated island. The robber’s synod of 754 condemned the Archbishop of Salamis-Constantia by name (George), along with St John of Damascus and St Germanos of Constantinople. “Nevertheless,” Stewart notes, “the Cypriot Church maintained their resolve against the Empire’s iconoclasm” (ibid.). During this time, men such as St Stephen the Younger advised iconodules to flee to the island of St Epiphanius for shelter from the iconoclasts. The Emperor even had rebellious, iconodule monastics and clergy exiled to Cyprus, which he now considered a sort of penal colony, due to their defiance on the icon issue.

In 780, a presbyter from Salamis-Constantia was appointed as Patriarch of Constantinople (Paul IV). He tried (unsuccessfully) to restore icons and their veneration to the empire. However, his successor (Tarasius) would do what he could not, and helped to assemble the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787. Five Cypriot bishops were in attendance, including Archbishop Constantine of Cyprus. The Cypriot delegation was given the highest of honors at this assembly, being seen as champions of the iconodule cause, even in the face of imperial persecution. At this council, the Empress Irene’s deacon noted: “If he [Epiphanius] had despised the sight of icons, why did his disciples even paint an icon of him?” Stewart continues, “To confirm this argument, Archbishop Constantine testified to the Council that indeed paintings were on display in Salamis-Constantia” (ibid., p. 88).

If one of the greatest saints in the history of the island was an iconoclast, how is it that his successors were so relentlessly in favor of the veneration of icons? Even to the point of being eminent among the iconodules? It certainly wasn’t political, and it makes no sense to claim that they were simply going against the traditions of St Epiphanius. That would be akin to blasphemy, given how Christians felt about apostolic tradition. Does it not make far more sense to conclude that his iconoclastic feelings were a later fabrication, as all the evidence cited would seem to indicate?

A full study of the alleged iconoclastic writings of Epiphanius can be found in a 2008 work by Fr Steven Bigham, Epiphanius of Salamis, Doctor of Iconoclasm?: Deconstruction of a Myth. Fr Steven gives an extensive treatment of every major argument both in favor and against the authenticity of the aforementioned letter that is attributed to St Epiphanius, among other writings falsely ascribed to him. He also discusses the debate on this very issue between Karl Holl (1866-1926) and George Ostrogorsky (1902-1976), concluding that the evidence points to what the Fathers have already argued over a millennium before us: an iconoclastic Epiphanius is an iconoclastic fantasy.

Part Five

A Summary of the Critiques

Part of what often makes the icon debate frustrating is that iconoclasts are almost never consistent in their critiques. Pr Wedgeworth begins by saying that “The liturgical use of icons is one of the disputed points which has a mixed foundation in the early church,” and further “Not as many people, however, know the opposing patristic voices. To help counter-balance this, I will give just a few.” Not only were we not given any exacting Patristic evidence to the contrary (that is, being opposed to the 7th Ecumenical Council and the practice of the Orthodox-Catholic Church), but this post is also not clear in what “critique” it’s attempting to substantiate.

It was claimed that the liturgical use of icons is both disputed and indebted to a mixed foundation. This would imply an argument against the liturgical use of icons. By this, I can only assume it means their veneration (honor): carrying them about, kissing them, censing them, and so forth.

His first quote from Tertullian (not an orthodox Church Father, and so not exactly a “Patristic” critique) shows that there are some images allowed for liturgical use; namely, the brazen serpent and the images of the tabernacle/temple. However, Tertullian also equated all images with idols, refusing artists to the catechumenate as a result. He was a fanatic — an extremist — and, as a result, an eventual Montanist, attacking the Church on a number of issues. This is not an insult, but rather an historical assessment of the facts. He laments (as a Montanist, not as a Christian) that the Church accepts painters and sculptors into clerical office: “Idol-artifacers are chosen even into the ecclesiastical order. Oh wickedness!” (On Idolatry, 7). This demonstrates that such artisans were officially sanctioned among the orders of clergy. There is no Patristic evidence against their liturgical use here, as Tertullian was on the outside looking in.

With regards to the 36th canon of the local synod of Elvira, the finer points of canonical law were disregarded, and we were presented with a poor translation of this obscure, disciplinary canon. Given the fact that this canon was ignored (if indeed it means that images should not be in churches), it can reasonably be concluded that this canon bears no Patristic weight, and that it does not mean what iconoclasts imply it means. We know for sure that it is not a theological canon, that it says nothing related to the kind of images on church walls, and that it was never obeyed or repeated in future canons in the way that iconoclasts assert. This is another miss when it comes to demonstrating a cohesive, tangible, Patristic critique of the liturgical use of icons, as sacred images were on both the walls of Spanish churches and the sarcophagi of the Spaniard Christians at this very point in history. The tangible evidence outweighs the speculative or inadmissible.

In the quote from St Gregory the Great, it is concluded that since St Gregory condemns the abusive worship of images, he was also against their veneration. It is claimed that St Gregory only approves of them for “reading,” as an aid to the ignorant or unlearned. However, it has been demonstrated that St Gregory was also an advocate of their veneration, himself carrying an icon of the Mother of God (painted by the apostle Luke) through the streets of Rome in solemn procession. Additionally, his testimony related to sacred images was relied upon during the deliberations of the 7th Ecumenical Council. He was neither a Muslim nor an iconoclast, but was fully orthodox with regards to icons. There is no Patristic critique of icons here — only a prudent and orthodox condemnation of their abuse.

By way of taking inventory up to this point, we have been presented with quotes that both deny the placement of images in churches (Elvira and Tertullian), while also affirming their usage in churches (St Gregory, although the conclusions about Gregory’s beliefs are inaccurate). Again, I would truly appreciate it if critiques of iconodulism by iconoclasts would be consistent: either consistently argue against their existence altogether, or consistently allow for their existence, while arguing against their veneration. Mixing and matching quotes that are all across the spectrum only muddies the waters. And asserting that the Orthodox worship icons as idols or false gods is both absurd and irrelevant.

We were finally presented with a quote attributed to St Epiphanius. In this example, a perspective more akin to Tertullian’s is alleged; that is, all images should be destroyed. This disagrees with the idea that images are acceptable, so long as they are used for “reading”; that is, for the illiterate/unlearned to receive the Gospel message without words. Regardless, I think there is an abundance of evidence — both ancient and modern — for rejecting this postscript as a forgery. It does not make its first appearance until the debates of the 8th and 9th centuries, and the Fathers of that day condemned it as a scandalous invention. Those who actually knew Epiphanius all point to his orthodoxy with regards to icons. He was even buried in a church (the Cathedral of Agios Epifanios in Cyprus) that was filled with sacred images, where his wonder-working relics were venerated. According to his disciples, that is what he would’ve wanted. Is this a solid Patristic critique of icons? It makes for an interesting debate, but the “real world” evidence and the testimony of those who knew him calls into question the legitimacy of the postscript.

In summary, then, we have been given two pieces of evidence against the very existence of icons (one from a Montanist and one from a forgery), one mistranslated piece of evidence that does not ban icons altogether, but — for reasons we can’t possibly know — has suggested that the churches of Spain in the fourth century not paint images (of which type we can’t be certain) upon their walls, and one piece of evidence from a Saint who venerated icons that says icons should not be worshipped (with which the Orthodox fully agree).

Pr Wedgeworth’s conclusion is that “these quotes show … the controversy around icons was an intra-Christian one,” and:

The Reformers were not, by their rejection of the veneration of icons, necessarily anti-patristic. Indeed, it was because they knew the complexity of the antique record that they could confidently interact with it, claim parts of it, and ultimately move beyond it to the earlier Biblical testimony (Exodus 20:4–6, Acts 17:29).

There are many things that can be said in response to this conclusion.

As pointed out above, the preceding quotes do not show much in the way of a substantial “controversy” around icons, but they are — for the most part — intra-Christian discussions. However, the only incontrovertible piece of Patristic evidence related to images that has been presented (that of St Gregory) is from a Saint who venerated icons. The fact that he does not mention it in this particular writing does not betray the reality of his own personal practice, not to mention the practice of the Church. If there was a substantial Patristic critique of icons, where was the mob of iconoclasts as he paraded a first century icon of the Mother of God through the streets of Rome? There was no mob, because there was no substantial subset of iconoclasts within the Church at that time.

The Reformation Witness

It has been implied that the Reformers were against the veneration of icons, and that this position can be deemed “Patristic.” But which Reformers? As with many others, the Reformers (both Magisterial and Radical) employed a wide array of beliefs on the present subject.

There were many who were in agreement with men such as Tertullian, in that no images of any kind (not just religious) are permissible — e.g. John Calvin (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:11:1-16). However, Calvin seems completely unaware of the writings of the Fathers on this matter, such as St John of Damascus or St Theodore the Studite. Not once does he interact with their writings. Calvin also utilizes several mis-translations of both the Vulgate and the 7th Ecumenical Council (apparently the same mis-translation that the Franks relied upon) in order to further his assertions. Perhaps if Calvin had access to more of the Greek Fathers, to a better manuscript of the Scriptures, and to a proper translation of the 7th Ecumenical Council, he would’ve held a different opinion? As it stands, his entire argument is a straw-man against the worship of idols as false gods. Nevertheless, this is certainly one evident perspective among the Reformation churches.

There were also men such as Martin Chemnitz who allowed for images (even in churches), but rejected their explicit veneration:

Thus we are only arguing about the use of historical images which are used either for a memento of things which have been done or for the sake of decoration. These uses are in no way prohibited in Scripture, and it can be a perfectly legitimate use for them.

Loci Theologici, p. 376

And thirdly, there were men such as Martin Luther, who allowed not only for the presence of images in their churches, but also considered them praiseworthy and honorable. He believed that the 2nd commandment clearly forbade the worship of images (especially of non-religious images), but he did not forbid the use of either crucifixes or holy icons in a liturgical setting:

According to the law of Moses no other images are forbidden than an image of God which one worships. A crucifix, on the other hand, or any other holy image is not forbidden. Heigh now! you breakers of images, I defy you to prove the opposite!

Complete Works, Vol. 40, p. 86

As is evident from this quote (and the context of his letters on this issue), Luther was opposed to iconoclasm and the breaking of images. While a number of the images being destroyed were not religious, many of them were. Luther is ambivalent about the first category, saying that they are now (in the new covenant) “nothing,” as with circumcision, but that breaking them is clearly wrong. He argues that not only is it (iconoclasm) unloving, but that it implies one’s zeal for destroying images can somehow justify them, being contrary to his novel doctrine of justification by faith alone (ibid., p. 85):

Their idea that they can please God with works becomes a real idol and a false assurance in the heart. Such legalism results in putting away outward images while filling the heart with idols.

Further, Luther’s exegesis of the 2nd commandment argues that sacred images are not idols, because they are not being treated as such. They are not meant to replace God, as with pagan idols, but are rather meant to point our hearts and our minds to Christ (ibid., p. 87):

No conclusion can be drawn from the words, “You shall have no other gods,” other than that which refers to idolatry. Where however images or statues are made without idolatry, then such making of them is not forbidden, for the central saying, “You shall have no other gods,” remains intact.

Beyond this, Luther claims that sacred images and the Cross are both praiseworthy and honorable (ibid., p. 92):

But images for memorial and witness, such as crucifixes and images of saints, are to be tolerated. This is shown above to be the case even in the Mosaic law. And they are not only to be tolerated, but for the sake of the memorial and the witness they are praiseworthy and honorable, as the witness stones of Joshua [Josh. 24:26] and of Samuel [I Sam. 7:12].

For Luther, sacred images are not only a “witness,” but also a “memorial” (ἀνάμνησις); a symbol that re-presents the prototype being signified. They lift up our hearts to Christ and to the imitation of those being presented, who in turn had devoted their lives to his imitation. This is why some people have deemed icons “windows to heaven.” This does not mean that one can literally see into heaven with an icon, but that they serve as a true memorial of the Lord’s presence, by virtue of the people (or events) that they signify. There is nothing sacred about the wood, gold, or paint; it is the people, who are created in the image of God and show us true and venerable images of Christ, which makes icons to be what they are. This is why we cense individual people and greet them with a holy kiss in the Orthodox churches to this day. This is not idolatry; it is a personal love and affection for one another in the Body of Christ.

This theology of icon/symbol/representation, and of the honor passing to the prototype, was not only extensively argued among the Fathers (such as St Basil the Great, St John of Damascus, and the Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council), but was also taught by Christ:

He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. (Matt. 10:40)

Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. (Matt. 25:40)

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me. (John 13:20)

There are a number of implications with this theology, many of which reach far beyond the confines of the icon debate. For example, the Orthodox care for the sick and the suffering, along with our concern for all of creation, is rooted in a theology that believes all of creation serves as an image and reflection of God, and that the mouths of the homeless are the mouths of Christ himself.

I am already being long-winded, but Luther’s conclusion on this topic is worth reading:

I have myself seen and heard the iconoclasts read out of my German Bible. I know that they have it and read out of it, as one can easily determine from the words they use. Now there are a great many pictures in those books, both of God, the angels, men and animals, especially in the Revelation of John and in Moses and Joshua. So now we would kindly beg them to permit us to do what they themselves do. Pictures contained in these books we would paint on walls for the sake of remembrance and better understanding, since they do no more harm on walls than in books. It is to be sure better to paint pictures on walls of how God created the world, how Noah built the ark, and whatever other good stories there may be, than to paint shameless worldly things. Yes, would to God that I could persuade the rich and the mighty that they would permit the whole Bible to be painted on houses, on the inside and outside, so that all can see it. That would be a Christian work. …

Of this I am certain, that God desires to have his works heard and read, especially the passion of our Lord. But it is impossible for me to hear and bear it in mind without forming mental images of it in my heart. For whether I will or not, when I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it. If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes? …

However, I must cease lest I hereby give occasion to the image-breakers never to read the Bible, or to burn it, and after that to tear the heart out of the body, because they are so opposed to images.

Complete Works, Vol. 40, p. 100

Luther sees the decoration of churches with sacred images to be “a Christian work” — something that should even be done in households. Were it up to him, sacred images would be everywhere one looks. And, according to Luther, these images are both praiseworthy and honorable. This is a far cry from Calvin, and even closer to the Orthodox position than those like Chemnitz. While I respect Pr Wedgeworth’s position on this issue as being a part of various Reformation views on icons, it is not the only one.

The practice of prostrating before the Cross on Holy Thursday in many Lutheran traditions today is an example of a position more aligned with Luther than other more radical Reformers, such as Chemnitz, Melanchthon, Zwingli, and Calvin. The Anglo-Catholic or “Oxford” movement of the 19th century also served as a helpful corrective to some of the more extreme developments in the Reformation churches. Rather than reverting back to an alleged “Biblical witness,” many Protestants and Anglicans have attempted to revert back to the Patristic, orthodox practices of the Church.

A Biblical Witness

With regards to the Biblical witness, the concluding remarks highlight again the frustrating incongruity when it comes to icon debates of the post-Reformation era. I must also remind the reader that a number of Scriptural references were given in my earlier posts, supporting not only the existence of sacred images (and relics; e.g. 2 Kings 13:20-21; Acts 5:15-16, 19:11-12), but also their proper veneration.

While it seems that many iconoclasts would affirm the existence of icons as a Gospel message for the young or unlearned, Pr Wedgeworth equates holy images with pagan idols by citing Exodus 20:4-6 and Acts 17:29. If one believes that the 2nd commandment speaks to the Christian use of icons, one is either asserting that all images are idols (which denies the Incarnation, and implies that God contradicts himself in the Old Testament), or that holy icons are worshiped as idols (which is not true). Either way, this neither agrees with other statements regarding “reading” icons, nor does it contribute coherency to the debate. All images are not idols, and they are not — and should not be — worshiped, making the 2nd commandment as well as Acts 17:29 irrelevant to the topic at hand. The Second Council of Nicaea ruled decisively against the idolatrous worship of any image, arguing in favor of their proper veneration or honor alone. Showing the most balance of all the Reformers, Martin Luther apparently argues the same.

Every Scriptural reference that is presented as a condemnation of icons and their proper veneration is a reference that condemns idolatry and the worship of false gods. In other words, there aren’t any Scriptural references that condemn icons and their proper veneration. The images of the tabernacle/temple were highly symbolic or of angelic beings alone, and the images of the New Covenant (in light of Christ’s Incarnation; cf. 1 John 1:1-3) are of people — of images of the incarnate and resurrected God-Man, and of those created (and redeemed) after his likeness. Since there is no Scriptural condemnation of sacred images, what we are really arguing about is tradition. And as mentioned in an earlier post, what was once a pious custom has now become an essential witness of the Gospel. In response to those who would do away with images for the wrong reasons — undercutting the very essence of who Jesus Christ is and was for our redemption — sacred images are now an indispensable part of Christian tradition.


What we have seen is that iconoclasts are incoherent when it comes to responding to the Orthodox-Catholic use of sacred images (along with relics, the Cross, and the Eucharist). The assertions come from a number of contradictory starting points, and rarely make sense in the end. I believe that I have demonstrated that we have not been presented with a Patristic critique of icons — supposedly undermining both their placement in the life of the Church and their veneration — but rather a series of quotes that are either irrelevant, out of context, or part of a larger, heterodox perspective that goes far beyond either the validity or invalidity of images.

Certainly, no one denies that there was great controversy around images among the elites of the Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries (the popular opinion never changed), but such a late date for controversy hardly calls into question either the origin or use of icons as both the Patristic consensus and the ordinary practice of the Church for centuries.

What the post shows is that the Church Fathers, the Scriptures, and other early Christian writings are being used as little more than a compendium of historical and scholarly data from which one can assemble a variety of doctrinal perspectives. Pr Wedgeworth himself has stated that the Church Fathers are “academic and historical tools rather than a strict interpretative grid or paradigm.” And they are certainly being treated as such. However, when an Orthodox Christian makes an appeal to apostolic tradition, they are not making an entirely epistemological claim as much as they are making an ontological one. It’s not that this is what some people long ago believed, and Orthodox Christians are retroactively citing them as proofs — like a person could also proof-text the Scriptures to “prove” a number of imaginative things. Rather, we are saying “We are a part of the Church — a living community of faithful Christians that have preserved the apostolic faith. The same faith of the apostles and the Fathers before us. The same faith that we live, breathe, eat, and drink today.” The appeal is to the ontology of the Church as the Body of Christ — “without spot or blemish” (Eph. 5:27) — and not to a set of arguments or abstract ideas, removed from their historical or incarnational context.

Along the same lines, one could point to how the Mercersburg theology is being co-opted by some today. Practically none of the present-day Mercersburg theorists are members of the United Church of Christ — arguably the actual, ecclesial heirs of the Mercersburg theology and of the German Reformed Church here in the US. Instead, the long-since-deceased Mercersburg theologians (Nevin and Schaff) are being retroactively appealed to as proofs for belief systems today — belief systems that are unnaturally being grafted onto communions that have no actual, incarnational connection with the Mercersburg theologians or their churches. It is a nostalgic theology of ideas with a bodiless ecclesiology. All conservative Protestants disown their “liberal,” mainline churches, but are these churches not the living, breathing outcome of their formative, foundational doctrines?

The same issue can arise when it comes to citing the Holy Scriptures. Since the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit, and Theosis is “acquisition of the Holy Spirit” (St Seraphim of Sarov), one’s experience of Theosis directly correlates to one’s ability to properly understand or interpret the Scriptures. And no amount of intellect, quotes from the Church Fathers, or historical studies can ever fully supplant this. I would say that to imply otherwise is an insult to both the value and purpose of the Scriptures, not to mention their Divine quality. And thus, one must largely rely upon the Saints and Martyrs that came before us, and upon the Church for whom they both lived and died. Fortunately for Christians, our Lord promised that he would never abandon the Church, and that it could never fail. These promises are more than sentimental assurance; they are light and life.

It must be mentioned, as well, that these posts are not really for Pr Wedgeworth. Steven is an admirable husband, father, and lover of Christ, and I know that quite likely none of this will change his mind. While we obviously disagree, this is not a personal quarrel with him. Instead, this is about the ideas and perspectives being both assumed and presented. And ultimately, these sorts of dialogues are for those in the surrounding space; that mystical realm of both inquiry and conversion that is seemingly indefinable. I have personally come home to the Orthodox Church partly as a result of examining poor arguments against matters such as icons, and I pray that others might do the same. The purpose of all of this is to show that context is king, that shifting sand is not an appropriate footing for theological doctrine, that there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to presumptuous quotations from the Church Fathers, early Christian writings, and the Holy Scriptures, and that ideas without a Body are as weightless as one might imagine.

There are actually other, more compelling quotes from the Fathers and other early Christian writings on this issue. If anyone is interested in a response to essentially everything out there, I would strongly encourage them to read Theology of the Icon, Vols. 1-2 by Leonid Ouspensky, as well as Early Christian Attitudes Towards Images by Fr Steven Bigham. There are others, but these two modern works have been extremely helpful for me personally. The deeper issue, of course, is not alleged, Patristic critiques of icons, but rather the underlying approach. In any case, I hope that it has been made clear that the Orthodox Church has a plain answer for these sorts of allegations, and that we pray as we believe, and believe as we pray. We are not ignorant of history or of other, dissenting voices; the history is ours, and we all share in it as the Body of Christ; as the unworthy made worthy, with the fear of God and faith and love.

My primary hope is that even one person would stumble upon these posts and begin to reconsider their own perspective when it comes to the Christian veneration of icons (as well as relics, the Cross, etc.). We are not worshiping idols; we are not seeking to dishonor the Lord. We are simply following the royal pathway of our Fathers before us — not presuming to create a Church in our own image, but rather to receive the Body of Christ as it has faithfully been handed on to us. After all, that’s what it means to believe in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” The Church is the πλήρωμα (pleroma) of the Trinity; the Body of Christ; the temple of the living God; and the pillar and foundation of truth. It is whole, complete, and lacking nothing (i.e. “catholic”).

By receiving this living, breathing, assembly of witnesses as one’s context for faith and belief, one can more perfectly understand what it means to live and pray as a Christian. This is a far cry from treating the Fathers as “academic and historical tools,” and I hope that this post has made that apparent.


  1. sharon jackson says

    I “stumbled” upon your website today, and the Lord knew I needed to read your astounding article. I am transitioning from Calvinism (Presbyterian church) to the Orthodox faith at this time, and now I can see more clearly about the icons, and where I can send the critics that I am sure will come my way from my family…thanks so much for your work.!

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