In doctrinal disputes, theological constructs are often intertwined with differing interpretations of historical source material. It is all too easy to interpret evidence in such a biased way that the apologetic is historically dubious at best.
This is all too common for Protestants trying to prove their belief in Forensic Justification from the Patristics and Roman Catholics looking for oblique passages where they can infer the Immaculate Conception or Purgatory.
How about us Orthodox? Is our Achilles heal our doctrine on icons?
A 2017 article by a reformed Pastor, John Carpenter, has been making the rounds on the internet recently making a simple argument: Orthodox doctrine on icons is incorrect because the most persuasive reading of the early historical and Biblical evidence is that the Church was permeated with aniconism and merely used art as decoration.
In this article, I will in “brief:”
- Point out important gaps of logic in his presentation, as well as add Biblical and historical evidence he has not considered.
- Offer thoughts on historical interpretation as it pertains to Christianity in general.
Ultimately, what I can show is that Mr. Carpenter cannot provide any of his readers epistemic certainty that Biblically and historically aniconism was the dominant early Christian practice. However, what I cannot show is that the Orthodox case is beyond question. Likewise, I cannot offer epistemic certainty.
Rather, what I can offer is the argument that the Orthodox interpretation is the most plausible take on the historical and biblical evidence.
Many may find my apologetic to be “lame,” but I believe it is not for two crucial reasons:
First, unlike the doctrines Forensic Justification or Purgatory, iconodulia does not require huge stretches of the imagination in order to argue its historicity. It does not require inferences, drastically developed doctrines, or anything of the sort. Orthodox can plausibly argue that iconodulia has essentially always existed within Judaism and the Church. This puts Orthodox in a different league, historically and Biblically speaking, than Protestants and Roman Catholics.
Second, the Orthodox reading of the historical evidence is the only reading we can take without throwing the whole historical basis of Christian religion into utter disrepute. This is a massive point which people hardly consider and sadly space will only permit me to treat this, and all the topics here, in not as much detail as they deserve.
A review of Mr. Carpenter’s arguments. Overall, Mr. Carpenter makes a strong argument in favor of aniconism in the early Church. It is sometimes within strong arguments that gaps in logic or interpretation are especially acute. Sadly, I can only cover and critique his argument broadly–this article is more than 7,000 words.
His overall argument is pretty well summed up by his headings, if one wants to take only a cursory look. I will list his evidence with my responses to them:
Objections to “icons are like family photos” Orthodox apologetic.
Mr. Carpenter quotes an Orthodox source which states, “Just like a deployed soldier may kiss a photo of his wife, we kiss icons of Saints who have fallen asleep in Christ.” To this he replies that, “This is, of course, a false dilemma.” He does not explain how or why–which is profoundly problematic.
Why? There is a Christological dilemma if I can kiss pictures of living and dead people because they are “real,” but not Jesus and saints because implicitly they somehow are not (which is why elsewhere I compared iconoclasm to Docetism). Granted, this does not prove that icons weep miracle working myrrh and other side issues that Mr. Carpenter may take issue with, but it shows that at its most basic intellectual level his critique has not really grappled with iconodulia’s most salient, Christological point.
Having brought this theological issue to bear, I will now survey many of the historical points he made:
Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian are “rigorous” in their aniconism.
I would happily concede that Clement and Tertullian did not venerate icons in the Orthodox manner. One can plausibly argue, but only from silence, that they represented an opinion which was popular in some form. We Orthodox, reading the same sources, likewise will presume that these sources were criticizing pagan idol worship and not specifically iconodulia. But this too is an argument from silence, and an “appeal to endless specificity” which requires a historical source to be so specific and categorical in its denunciation of something, that it allows one to interpret the source as permitting their belief in iconodulia.
I do not pretend to be an expert, but merely one somewhat informed and interested on the topic. Here is my humble take.
I do not think that Clement was in favor of the veneration of images from what I have seen in his writings. I also think that this is a somewhat consistent thread among Christian intellectuals in Egypt, where habits perhaps tracing back to Alexandrian Judaism and its aniconism died hard.
However, how about Tertullian? His view is more extreme than that of Clement (who allowed for some religious depictions.) Tertullian, who was a true rigorist, seemingly disallowed for any images whatsoever (On Idolatry, Chap 4)–which ironically contradicts plain passages of Scripture. (But so did his position on remarriage!)
In On Idolatry we can justifiably infer he is writing against Christians making art (apparently its their vocation) and not simply pagans.
We will certainly take more pains in answering the excuses of artificers of this kind, who ought never to be admitted into the house of God, if any have a knowledge of that Discipline…they have the hardihood to bring even from the Scriptures...Let the Church, therefore, stand open to all who are supported by their hands and by their own work; if there is no exception of arts which the Discipline of God receives not. But some one says, in opposition to our proposition of
similitude being interdicted, cause, stand in a class by themselves. (On Idolatry, Chapter 5)
What is interesting here is that Tertullian is responding to people who are quoting to him the Scriptures. In this, he betrays that his position is not that of the whole Church (“Let the Church”) and that his “proposition of similitude” has notable opposition. This means, there are others with less rigorist stands on religious art. Tertullian even exclaims, “Idol-artificers are chosen even into the ecclesiastical order” (On Idolatry, chap 7)!
It should be noted that when we read the source on the surface the point at issue is not images in the Church per se. We even find that there seems to be some allowance for crosses (“the serpent of bronze, after the manner of one uphung, denoted the shape of the Lord’s cross, which was to free us from serpents,” On Idolatry, chap 5). The debate is seemingly over whether someone can make pagan images for someone else as his vocation. Whether we can infer anything more, such as Tertullian exaggerating his ban on all images as the cross does not fall under it, is (at first) hard to tell.
His opponents’ opposition was not merely that they did not worship the images they made (“‘
I make,’ says one,
but I worship not,'” On Idolatry, chap 6). Tertullian never says they did it because they needed the money, did not care to be pious, or any tangible reason. This means that Tertullian’s position against the existence of images leaves half open a can of worms.
What precisely was the reasoning of the alleged “idol makers?” Was their position merely that making images, which are bad, is okay as long as they are made for others? Perhaps. Tertullian ascribes this as one of their views. But, why does Tertullian ascribe to them the motivation of making these images as equivalent to literally worshiping them? Why go that far if his critique? Clearly, an ordained man working as an alleged “idol maker” would not be worshiping what he allegedly made.
There seems to be an indication that the point at issue was not always (or almost never) that Christians were making pagan deities. We can perhaps infer a little more from Tertullian in a bizarre passage where he rants against the extra-canonical book of the Shepherd of Hermas:
[T]hat” Shepherd,” will play the patron whom you depict upon your (sacramental) chalice, (depict, I say, as) himself withal a prostitutor of the Christian sacrament, (and hence) worthily both the idol of drunkenness, and the brize of adultery by which the chalice will quickly be followed, (a chalice) from which you sip nothing more readily than (the flavour of) the “ewe” of (your) second repentance! (On Modesty, Chap 10)
As we can see, the chalice has a portrayal of the “Shepherd” (probably literally a shepherd representative of Christ, something found commonly in early art). Tertullian calls the chalice an “idol of drunkeness” due to the image and a “brize of adultery” because a repentant adulterer is allowed to commune. Rigorism concerning adulterers and second marriages would prove to be the minority position of the Church. Considering Tertullian puts these side by side, would it not be a sensible reading that banning religious images in worship contexts was also the minority view? Mr. Carpenter is aware of the passage (it’s footnote 47), but he apparently has not connected the dots…
Saint Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition implicitly does not allow for icons.
Carpenter cites Apostolic Tradition, chap 16:3, which states:
If someone is a sculptor or a painter, let them be taught not to make idols. Either let them cease or let them be rejected.
From this Mr. Carpenter concludes:
Note the implicit allowance of making non-idolatrous images but also the lack of encouragement to make icons. This appears to reflect a milder form of aniconism in which images are allowed for non-religious purposes.
This is a somewhat charitable reading, but it also speaks to how a lack of content in a source makes categorical conclusions hard to draw. Elsewhere in chap 16, Hippolytus gives prohibitions of people retaining their old careers as pimps, actors, and the like from retaining their old jobs. Clearly, he would have agreed with Tertullian that alleged “idol makers” cannot keep making pagan idols. We can infer that these idol makers were not quit their job altogether, because “let them be taught not to make idols” implies they are permitted to make something else.
There are only a few exclusions like that of the idol makers in chap 16 which provides they learn related work consistent with the Church’s teachings inasmuch as possible. These exceptions are that teachers of “secular” knowledge are told to cease (unless “he has no [other] trade, let him be permitted”), soldiers must not kill people (but they can otherwise retain their job, I suppose guarding the baggage are something), and concubines may remain as such provided they are a slave, raise their children as Christians, and are sexually faithful to their master. While the latter two jobs really cannot be repurposed for use within the Church, surely a teacher can begin teaching Christianity, right?
This bring us back to the idol makers: “let them be taught not to make idols.” Taught what, precisely? Surely, someone making expensive statues with years of experience working metals would not need the Church to teach him how to be a blacksmith or house painter. The only sensible interpretation is that the Church had artists and commissioned enough art that even during persecution a former idol maker can be plausibly put to work for the Church. What Hippolytus is instructing, it seems, is that idol makers put their talents to vocationally making art for the Church.
Now this does not mean these men were painting icons all of the sudden (though, this is not altogether impossible, but beyond the meaning of the text). However, it offers us a glimpse into what Tertullian seemed to be fighting against within the Church–even amongst the clergy. Tertullian very obviously did not want these men repurposed for extensive work.
This explains why Tertullians opposition invoked several Biblical arguments against his rigorism. Further, making crucifixes and chalices with Shepherds on them probably would have not been enough to keep them busy–as Apostolic Tradition implies.
Hence, these former idol makers could have been busy making not just baptisteries and assorted fineries, but making religious art as well. Now, when we read Tertullian reporting the objection of his detractors that they make art, but don’t worship it, I cannot help but think that maybe the point at issue was not just the making of pagan idols. They could have been citing, in different terminology, the latria-dulia distinction in the defense of making Christian art.
Now, the preceding may be reading far too between the lines. But, when we have limited source material and tons of archaeological evidence of religious art (including a third century grotto of the Theotokos in Jerusalem where graffiti adjacent to it specifies that the image was “adorned”), an interpretive lens that reads icondoluia between the lines instead of aniconism historically makes more sense.
Judaism was aniconic.
Carpenter then proceeds to make another argument from silence, interpreting Jewish evidence of religious art’s acceptance as evidence for aniconism. His argument is because iconodulia was not explicitly endorsed, it was implicitly condemned.
This is not very compelling argumentation.
Granted, those making the case for iconodulia have the burden of proof on one hand, because we have to prove that the art was used for a specific purpose. However, Protestants have the burden of proof on the other hand, because no one shared their perspective by their admission for about 700 years and even then, a cursory look at history would show that iconoclasts were themselves for their time, innovators.
Any honest appraisal of history, especially if we accept the authenticity of Epiphanius’ writings, is that aniconism (if it existed in any pervasive way) was dead by the fourth century. And so, if the Church was iconodulic for at least 1100 years until the Protestant Reformation, the burden of proof is on those who interpret pre-fouth century as aniconic. It does not mean their position cannot be proven, theoretically, but they need solid evidence–not arguments from silence.
But, this back and forth gets us nowhere. It is abundantly clear that Josephus was aniconic, to the point where he considered statues in Solomon’s temple to be sinful. Other sources, which Carpenter quotes, take both the extremely unbiblical view of Josephus, but also the opposite view which allows for the creation of images.
Due to a lack of archaeological evidence which explicitly spells out, “Hello, I used this fresco in Pompeii to venerate Solomon,” a historian divorced from theology must remain agnostic as they could not presume first temple practice persisted to the second temple. However, as a Christian, I can presuppositionally assume there is some sort of continuity between first and second temple Judaism, though not on every point.
We have evidence in the Scriptures themselves that veneration was paid to religious art. I will not bother giving a defense of their existence, such as the Cherubim all over the tabernacle and temple. This would not even be debatable. Judaism was never like Islam.
But, how about positive evidence of veneration paid to religious art (i.e. iconodulia)?
For one, Ps 99:5 (98:5 LXX) literally admonishes its readers in the original language to “venerate God’s footstool [i.e. the Ark of the Covenant].” Now compare this to Ps 99:9 which states “venerate at His holy hill.” Most translations add the word “at” in verse 5, but it is not originally there. This means, if taken literally, Ps 99:9 is admonishing us to do something different. In short, Ps 99:9 is about what is done at the whole temple complex, and Ps 99:5 is about what priests do behind the curtain.
Old Testament worship is strange in that sacrifices to God are not made to any object per se. Outside of the Holy of Holies, the altar is situated and all sacrifices and washings take place. Only once a year is blood taken from the altar and brought behind the curtain.
Daily the lighting of incense occurred in the “tent of meeting” or the Temple equivalent, in front of a curtain on the other side of the ark (Heb 9:3-4, Ex 30:6, Lev 4:7). Incense likewise was brought into the Holy of Holies once a year with blood. (Lev 16:12-13 and 34, Heb 9:7)
Leviticus never makes incense alone any sort of propitiatory sacrifice (which definitionally is worship), though it can make “atonement” without sacrifice for the sins of Israel in specific situations (such as Korah’s rebellion, see Num 16:46). In Num 16:48, the incense was taken from the altar and put between the people and God. This was an action correcting the “strange fire” that was between the people and God when Korah and his schismatics offered their incense at the entrance of the tabernacle with “all the congregation” present in Num 16:19.
From the preceding, we can gather that incense was used in veneration and that God’s “footstool,” representing a God that “no one has seen” (John 1:18) received this veneration. The blood which was offered was a propitiatory sacrifice, which is why only the yearly offerings of blood are mentioned as sacrifices in Heb 9:7-9.
On a side note, we also have indications that Jews venerated the relics of their saints and man-made memorials to them. After all they built “tombs of the prophets and adorn[ed] the monuments of the righteous” (Matt 23:39). There are several passages in the Old Testament and the New making reference to the location of where these men and women were associated with. Geographic indicators (or references to knowledge of their whereabouts being common knowledge) are indicative that these sights were used for pilgrimage and veneration. For example:
Then his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre the field which Abraham purchased from the sons of Heth; there Abraham was buried with Sarah his wife. (Gen 25:9-10)
So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Jacob set up a pillar over her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day. (Gen 35:19-20)
Then Joshua set up twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan at the place where the feet of the priests who carried the ark of the covenant were standing, and they are there to this day. (Josh 4:9)
The large stone on which they set the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite. (1 Sam 6:18)
When you go from me today, then you will find two men close to Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah. (1 Sam 10:2)
After him Nehemiah the son of Azbuk, official of half the district of Beth-zur, made repairs as far as a point opposite the tombs of David, and as far as the artificial pool and the house of the mighty men. (Neh 3:16)
He came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph; and Jacob’s well was there. (John 4:5-6)
I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. (Acts 2:29)
Later 3rd-4th century Talmudic sources spoke of prostrations on the grave sites of the patriarchs (BT Sot 34b) and visiting tombs on fast days so the deceased would pray for the living (BT Taan 16a). (Sources cited here) This is unlikely some sort of “contamination” of Judaism from early Christian or pagan practice, as the Scriptures themselves credit healings to relics such as Paul’s clothing (Acts 19:12) and Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:21). These relics were coveted and used in memorials for the saints, something we can find in early third century Christian sources such as the Martyrdom of Polycarp (Chap 18).
At this point, it is extremely obvious that we have ventured off the path of icons and onto that of relics. The reason I did this was to demonstrate that the veneration practices paid to the ark of the covenant itself had analogues for not only God, such as the pile of stones in the Jordan where the ark once stood, but monuments for saints as well. So, this shows that man-made material things were venerated for both God and the saints. Honestly, the evidence of this appears beyond dispute. The fact that bones and such were also venerated simply speaks to the diversity of veneration practices employed.
More can be said on this topic, such as Jewish practices pertaining to venerating the written word of God itself (such as kissing a Mezuzah, a practice that both Samartins and rabbinic Jews have in common). Suffice it to say, in Judaism there is a clear idea that homage paid to an object passes on to its prototype–which is iconodulia’s theology in a nutshell.
“Luke’s” icon, Irenaeus’ citing of Gnostics’ use of images, and Origen’s and Eusebius’ opposition to religious art.
Carpenter proceeds to make some fair points, but again it is my humble opinion that his historical bias is pretty glaring. I would agree wholeheartedly that we do not have compelling evidence that Saint Luke painted any icons, at least by secular standards.
Citing Irenaeus is also a fair enough point. The passage in question simply states that there are Gnostics out there who venerate images of Jesus and other great philosophers. It certainly is not a positive gloss on the topic. Orthodox often respond, “Well, he must have meant it was bad that they equated Jesus with the philosophers” or something to that effect–but this is not what Irenaeus says. It’s an argument from silence.
What is also an argument from silence, however, is that Irenaeus was condemning icons. Because, he was neither explicitly doing this, either. This may appear to be an apologetic “cop-out.” However, with my historian hat on, I would express serious caution against automatically taking Carpenter’s reading of Irenaeus.
Why? One can read another passage from Irenaeus and come to the conclusion he rejected the doctrine of baptismal regeneration (AH, Book 1, Chap 21, Par 4-5). However, we know this is false because of Fragment 34 explicitly endorses it. This means that a reading of Irenaeus which sees a negative mention of something requires restraint, provided that Irenaeus does not state anything categorical about what he mentioned being universally bad.
Some Protestants could object and say fragments quoted in other words are not reliable. However, about a hundred years ago, we discovered an Armenian manuscript of Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching. In Par 3 and 7, Irenaeus explicitly endorses baptismal regeneration again. So, the point of this all is that we have a bona fide example of a seeming rejection of an Orthodox doctrine in Against Heresies, but due to additional manuscript finds we have been able to know that such a reading would be out of context. Hence, to read any passage from Irenaeus that does not explicitly reject icons as implying the rejection of icons is, in my mind, foolish given that the same logic cannot be applied elsewhere.
Onto Origen… As I discussed elsewhere, I am willing to concede Origen and other theologians hailing from Egypt had an aniconist streak. However, we have some indications from Origen himself that it is possible we are misapprehending his words due to taking his critique, contextually about paganism, and in a wooden and literalistic fashion applying it to Christian iconodulia. From Carpenter’s own article, he cites Origen saying the following:
Jews and Christians are among “those who cannot allow in the worship of the Divine Being altars, or temples, or images.”
Carpenter certainly appears well read enough to have known that this passage should have alerted him that he is perhaps taking too narrow a reading of Origen. For example, Christians do allow worship of “the Divine Being” with altars–something Origen seemingly excludes in the above. Saint Paul writes confidently that, “We [Christians] have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat” (Heb 13:10). An early Christian catechesis states, “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving [lit. “eucharist” in Greek] after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure” (Didache, Chap 14). Saint Ignatius writes, “For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons.” (Philadelphians, Chap 4) Near Pompeii, what appears to be an early Christian altar is preserved. All of these passages were written (and the altar was built) sometime during the Apostolic Era and shortly afterwards. Certainly, Origen writing about 125 years later would have been aware of every single Christian church having an altar.
Yet, we have a quote from Origen “unequivocally” saying that Christians do not worship with altars, images, etcetera. However, this obviously cannot be an unequivocal statement. Clearly, what Origen was actually trying to convey was that Christians do not worship with pagan images, pagan altars, and pagan temples. The pagans often considered their images actual gods. Their temples were circular buildings, with no laity inside, where the priest propitiated the deities using a sacrificial altar on behalf of the otherwise uninvolved people. This is contrary to pre-Covidian Orthodox Christianity, in which the laity has a role in the liturgy alongside the priest, who merely presides over it. We Christians do not worship according to the pagan practice.
It would be out of context to take this passage, about images, and say it is condemning icondulia. Now the preceding does not mean that Origen actually endorsed icons (like I said before, I concede that he probably did not), but it also does not mean Origen indicated that all Christians rejected their use.
Now onto Eusebius’ of Caesarea’s opposition to icons. Eusebius, himself an Origenist, may have taken to the rationales common in that school of thought. In his opposition to icons, he concedes both that they were venerated for some time and that one worked miracles:
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 [since the first (!) century], so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city.
Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Saviour, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers. (Ecclesiastical History, Book VII, Chap 18, Par 3-4)
Granted, it is a “strange plant” working miracles instead of streaming myrrh. Also, its unlikely the statue was really from the first century, though it had to be plausibly old enough so that by the late third century (the time this was penned) it would have been older than anyone alive. We can easily date it to the early third or late second century–far before significant “nominal Christian” pagan converts “altered” the practices of the Church.
Even though Eusebius was aniconist and gives the monkier of “Gentiles” to simpler lay Christians, we can infer a lot from the passage about how the images were used. He even speaks of the simple Christians he disapproves of having paintings and “pay[ing]…honor” to them.
Now, on top of Tertullian’s oblique critique of those who allegedly “made idols but did not worship them,” we have another indication consistent with the Jerusalem Grotto from the third century cited earlier. People were knowingly venerating these images. Ironically, what we do not have in any of the historical evidence is an explicit mention that the proper use of images anywhere was for mere decoration and never veneration. It is the Orthodox doctrine which is actually demonstrably historical–not the aniconist revisionism. Aniconism is an inference made from the evidence, but not actually explicitly found in any of it.
Taking into account all of Mr. Carpenter’s arguments, we can see something crystallizing which is inconvenient for his whole apologetic. Though we clearly see some sources explicitly critical of iconodulia, in these same passages we see that there exists a clear opposition to the critics. This opposition seems buttressed by a clear Biblical witness that dulia was paid to man-made memorials and to relics, with early rabbinic Jewish support for the practice.
A comprehensible understanding of Christian history. Were aniconists the minority and iconodules the majority? Or was it vice versa? How does the historian assess this?
The archaeological record cannot speak for itself. Historians could give differing weight to whether Tertullian or Saint Clement of Alexandria’s opposition was common or not. However, it is my contention we have historical sources that portray for us explicitly how widespread iconodulia was vis a vis aniconism.
Let’s now discuss Saint Epiphanius–the aniconists’ chief defender and the Orthodox apologists’ worst nightmare for centuries. The typical Orthodox apologetic is that his iconoclast writings were forged. This apologetic is very old and invoked by the Second Council of Nicea.
A good review of this saint and his writings is Father Steven Bigham’s Epiphanius of Salamis, Doctor of Iconoclasm? Deconstruction of a Myth. It gives an overview of Epiphanius’ life, notes that the scholarly consensus that the writings attributed to him are considered genuine (a consensus that Father Bigham disagrees with), and even covers how certain saints like the Damascene amongst others would concede the possibility that the works were genuine.
I am going to work under the assumption that they are genuine, because:
- As an armchair historian, I have a very high burden of proof that must be fulfilled to accuse a manuscript of forgery.
- The arguments that Epiphanius’ Letter 51 was forged are both torturous and convoluted (though I concede the Greek version is likely more accurate, and less “incriminating”). The conspiracy theory that this badly translated letter led to the outright invention of several writings from Pseudo-Ephinanius, including a false memoir and forged letter to Theodosius, is absolutely baseless. As an armchair historian, I reject them.
- These documents contain details a forger would never retain, as they obviously both embarrass and undercut Epiphanius’ position to the extreme.
It is the final point, as we will see, will form the linchpin of my argument in favor of iconodulia.
Saint Epiphanius was a child of Jewish converts to Christianity. He was schooled in Egypt between the 330s-340s. Epiphanius was a simple, straightforward thinker who never took to Origenism–though he was undoubtedly exposed to it in Egypt and then Palestine.
Whether it was the remnants of his Judaism, his exposure to (what I posit was) an aniconist streak within certain circles of Greek Christianity in Egypt, or simply his literalist, traditional acumen (for example he accused Origenists of “distorting the sense of the Scriptures and making them mean what they do not mean at all” [Part 4] and other appeals to simpler interpretation)–or all of these things combined that made him an iconoclast, we do not know. Nevertheless, we have a good basis to infer he had the intellectual makings of surface-level literalist in Biblical interpretation and an iconoclast.
Father Farrar’s (Anglican) Gathering Clouds: A Tale of the Days of St. Chrysostom describes Epiphanius in the following, unflattering way:
Epiphanius was saintly and fairly learned, but his simple nature had two great foibles, which made him an easy tool in the hands of the astute intriguer. He had written a book which he regarded as a sufficient answer to all heresies, and having all his life long entertained that rooted belief in his own theological infallibility which is the specialty of many ecclesiastics, he had now sunk into a senile vanity which made him indignant if anyone disputed his oracular utterances. (Chapter XLIV)
Now, Nicea II rejects the preceding, appealing to the saintliness of the man and this, by default, invalidating any manuscript which would ascribe to him a heretical position. This is certainly good theology which should inform our reading of Christian history, but not good secular history. Being that I am writing in response to someone outside the Church, Rev. Carpenter, I will not appeal to Christian history here, but to secular history.
And so, I can argue that by accepting the scholarly consensus, that the writings ascribed to Epiphanius are genuine, I can prove iconodulia.
First, let’s look at the Letter to Theodosius, preserved for us by Saint Nicephorus:
([Nicephorus:] First of all, Epiphanius confessed that laughter and mockery spread throughout the assembly be cause of his vain blabbering, and then he added …)
[Epiphanius:] I have often advised those who are reputed to be wise — bishops, doctors, and concelebrants — to take down those things. Not everyone paid attention to me, actually only a few.
Who has ever heard of this? Who among the ancient fathers has painted an image of Christ in a church or placed it in his own house? Who among the ancient bishops has painted Christ on door curtains, dishonoring him in this way? And who has ever painted on door curtains or on walls Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and the other prophets and patriarchs, or Peter, Andrew, James, John, Paul, or the other apostles? Who has ever dishonored them this way and exposed them to public ridicule? Do you not see, O Emperor beloved of God, that these works are not proper for God?
…If it is possible to remove these things, that will be very good. If, on the other hand, it is impossible, people should be happy with the mosaics that have already been put up, but not to make any more. In fact, our fathers drew nothing other than the sign of Christ, the cross, on walls and that, everywhere.
The letter is of interest to us for several reasons. First, it proves that iconodulia was the near universal practice of the Church at his time. Epiphanius, who was on the Christian scene in several lands (Egypt, Palestine, Asian Minor, etc) throughout the Mediterranean at this point, asserts that he argued against icons to bishops and priests everywhere, with laughter given to him in response. In his own words: “not everyone paid attention to me, actually only a few.”
This admission is huge. While other source documents we have dealt with did not give us any sense of whether they were the majority or minority opinion of Christians (Tertullian allows us to infer he was a minority), this document from an aniconist explicitly says he’s the minority.
Second, the letter shows us how ancient writings use exaggerations. Epiphanius writes incredulously, “Who has ever heard of this?” Aniconist interpreters answer “no one” while the previous sentence gives us the real answer: practically everyone. He asserts that curtains in churches never had icons on them, while Letter 51 in its last paragraph discusses the existence of such a curtain. Either the forgers, who were inspired by Letter 51, had really bad memory and a very low bar for forgery, or, more likely, Epiphanius was using hyperbole to push what was clearly his minority viewpoint.
Being that Epiphanius is supposed to be born in the early fourth century, if he clearly remembered growing up without icons (and these only grew in huge popularity after the Council of Nicea), why does he fail to mention this? Why resort to personal interpretations of Scripture and rhetoric? Granted, this is an argument from silence, but I ask these questions to show how difficult it is to take the stance that there is good historical evidence that the early Church was aniconic. Epiphanius, after all, had a foot in both the pre-Nicene and post-Nicene eras. The evidence his letter brings to bear hardly gives one confidence in the prevalence of aniconism.
An aniconist may respond, “Well, the preceding just proves that Epiphanius was against art, but even he allowed for mosaics and such to stay. You have not proved the latria-dulia distinction existed!”
This distinction was invoked, ad verbatim, in Book I of Augustine’s On the Trinity. However, he did not apply the doctrine to art (Augustine in Book 10 of the Confessions has a negative view of all art, secular and religious, for personal reasons).
Nevertheless, in Saint Epiphanius’ treatise later titled Against Those Who, Following an Idolatrous Practice, Make Images with the Intention of Reproducing the Likeness of Christ, the Mother of God, the Angels and the Prophets, we have indisputable evidence that iconodules venerated, but did not worship, artistic representations of God and the saints:
But you will say to me, “The fathers detested the idols of the nations, but we make images of the saints in their memory, and we prostrate ourselves in front of them in their honor.” Precisely by this reasoning, some of you have had the audacity, after having plastered a wall inside the holy house, to represent the images of Peter, John, and Paul with various colors, as I can see by the inscriptions written on each of the images which falsely bare the name [image]. The inscriptions have been written under the influence of the painter’s insanity and according to his [twisted] way of thinking. (Par 3)
From these supposedly pro-aniconic letters, we see the secular historical basis of aniconism evaporate.
Epiphanius, the very proponent of their position, explicitly puts in the mouth of iconodules their rationale for their practices–which not so coincidentally is identical to the modern Orthodox doctrine. Furthermore, other medieval and modern Orthodox practices, such as inscriptions identifying the saints, were apparently widespread in the fourth century. This is verified by archaeological evidence, as there is a Jewish image of King David with an accompanying inscription in a synagogue dated between 508-509 AD. This demonstrates further historical continuity. From Epiphanius himself we can prove that iconodulia with an understood latria-dulia distinction was widespread and acknowledged.
How about other issues, such as the aniconism in the Synod of Elvira? I will leave it to others to debate the authenticity of canon 36 of the Synod of Elvira, its translation, or its interpretation. I honestly do not find this even necessary. Elvira was essentially “the sticks” of the Christian world when compared to Egypt, Palestine, and Asia Minor–in all of which, by Epiphanius’ admission, iconodulia was near universal.
So, I can easily interpret said canon 36 to be a regional oddity–a blip on the radar. For what it is worth, canon 60 indicates that martyrs were commemorated, which means that their relics likely were as well.
As a secular historian, one can easily be convinced of iconodulia being an early Church practice. The Biblical witness that man-made memorials were venerated, the universal practice of venerating relics (Vigilantius not withstanding), the archaeological record showing widespread use of art (and one graffiti, plus passages from Eusebius and Tertullian, explicitly telling us how the art was used), the admissions of Tertullian and Hippolytus that Christians commissioned art, and explanations given by Epiphanius attesting to iconodulia’s universality are all convincing.
Now, compare this to the tenuous and tangential evidence that Protestant and Roman Catholics have to invoke for their disputable doctrines! It’s not the Orthodox who are reaching to prove their historicity.
Let’s be honest. There’s no competition between the Orthodox and the heterodox. It is insulting to our collective intelligence to equate the two.
Let’s be honest about something else. The historical case for iconodulia is stronger than the disputed passages that aniconist interpreters give for a few, disputable sources.
Now, taking my historian hat off for a moment, all of the preceding begs the question: Why don’t Orthodox usually take my tact? Why did Nicea II not make this argument? This requires for us to have a Christian, instead of secular, understanding of history.
Understanding history like a saint. We moderns, infected by enlightenment thought and subsequent 19th century German skepticism and textual criticism, no longer read history like how the rest of humanity read history every previous century. I have been schooled in this way of thought and so I cannot shed it away. I cannot help but read into texts subtle subtexts, class conflict, and a potpourri of other anachronistic interpretative lenses.
I do not have a mind of a saint, so I cannot read the fathers like a saint. However, I have read enough history and the saints. So, I know how the saints themselves interpreted history.
Reading Nicea II, I was surprised by how little of their “historical arguments” in favor of icons would be today considered “validly” historical. Space does not permit me to get into a lot of detail, but I will summarize it as such: While Nicea II has some prooftexting and historical reconstruction, the vast majority of it (Sessions 3 through 5 especially) appeals to “Saints lives,” as if they were valid sources of historical content in which to prove a latria-dulia doctrine always existed.
As a modern, one cannot help read what sounds like fairy tale after fairy tale where in passing references are made to a healing icon, or a blasphemer of icons being punished, or a holy man venerating an icon. While a historian may perceive that these spiritual lives (dated to the sixth and seventh centuries) have some historical merit, they would not give them nearly the weight the conciliar fathers do. They do not bring us secular historians far enough back to the early centuries to be very convincing.
This is because we are not looking at the history like the saints do. For example, in Nicea II an appeal was made to the church buildings themselves used for previous councils–the most recent about 110 years previously. This council subsequently issued canons allowing for icons. They asked rhetorically at one point (I do not have a citation handy, so I am going by memory) that if iconodulia was not always the teaching of the Church, why do all the churches used for previous ecumenical councils (such as those in Nicea, Chalcedon, Ephesus, and Constantinople–all of which were still standing) have icons? Why did the church built in Epiphanius’ honor have icons? If iconodulia is false, then, what are we to say of the saints and those who have recognized them subsequently who worshiped in the iconodulic manner whose Christology we accept uncritically?
This is where the rubber meets the road. We cannot honor the memory of earlier ecumenical councils if they are, in fact, immersed and surrounded by the heresy of idolatry. And if this is the case, then, how can we be certain of their Christological doctrines?
Spiritually speaking, to depart from the testimony of the saints is to render all doctrine incomprehensible. The Scriptures tell us:
[W]e have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. (1 Cor 2:12-14)
According to my own wisdom, I can understand nothing of God. But according to the Spirit, I can understand spiritual thoughts and spiritual words. Who are “those” taught by the Spirit? Obviously, the saints–living and in glory.
The testimony of the saints means everything (no exaggeration) and this is what Nicea II implicitly understood. If the saints, in their lives and where they worshiped, venerated icons–that settles the matter spiritually. One does not need to be a mega-historian to settle the matter. Any other reading of history would be according to the “natural man,” who cannot understand the things of God.
A secular historian, a “natural man” himself, may find the preceding to be irrelevant. It does not pertain to the historical reconstruction of early Christian teaching–and by secular standards it is. But for the Christian, the teaching of the saints and the ecumenical councils get at the very center of Christianity–the person of Christ.
While Christological orthodoxy is eminently Biblical, the whole theological lexicon and paradigms for understanding it is through the ecumenical councils. Protestants and other schismatics, departing from these councils, have found themselves repeating old, already refuted heresies. Protestants and schismatics who held the line with the teaching of these councils, whether they knew it or not, maintained Christological orthodoxy. One cannot part with the teaching of these councils lightly without undercutting the person of Christ Himself.
This train of thought now brings me to an appeal original to myself. Looking back at early Church history, the sources we have before Nicea I are something of a large textual puddle. There’s something there, but it cannot be compared to the tidal wave of sources that appeared after Nicea I. So, when arguing for aniconism from pre-Nicene evidence, the historian admittedly is working with a jigsaw puzzle missing most of its pieces. Only a fool would confidently say they know what the picture is with most of the pieces missing.
Compare this to post-Nicene historical attestations. Instead of a puddle, we have a textual tidal wave. We are missing some pieces to the puzzle, but we have most of them. From what we have, widespread iconodulia is hard to reject apart from the most obstinate interpretation of the evidence.
And so, I must ask myself first as an armchair historian. Why would I take the inferences made from a textual puddle over a chronologically adjacent textual tidal wave immediately afterwards?
Then I ask myself as a Christian–could I really firmly understand Christianity, its teaching, and its saints apart from that tidal wave?
The answer is no.
Let’s apply this logic to the Biblical Canon. Sure, the pre-Nicene Church had much of the Biblical canon. They also had a lot of books of questionable authority. I am not talking about Gnostic books. We are talking about the Shepherd of Hermas, the Deueterocanon, and the Gospel of the Egyptians (cited by 2 Clement, Hippolyus, and Clement of Alexandria), etc. How do we decide, today, if they are in and out? Are Saint Melito of Sardis’ list of books (which lacks Esther) and Origen’s (who includes Maccabees) convincing in isolation? Or do we need to be informed by numerous Canons from the fourth century and onwards which consistently and universally match our modern ones?
I certainly agree that the first century Bibilical Canon essentially matched the fourth century one. However, I cannot look at scattered pieces of the puzzle from before the fourth century and with confidence categorically reject an additional book or accept certain other books, like Esther. Our minds are undoubtely shaped, and decided by, the tidal wave. And if we are honest with ourselves, so is our Christology–and so should our iconodulia
Even if we do not have the Holy Spirit and the mind of His saints, I think we can understand Christian history–but only if we Christians without out such Spiritual clarity (if they are honest with themselves) tip our hats to the fourth century. And in doing so, we must accept iconodulia as it is undoubtedly attested to and pervasive by this point in time.
Conclusion. Let me conclude this article by saying it is both too long for a blog post and too short to be considered “scholarly.” However, I think we have accomplished the following:
- Substantiated that the only explicit rationale given for the use of religious art in pre-Nicene historical sources is that it was venerated and not worshiped. No other rationale, such as the art being mere decoration, exists in pre-Nicene sources.
- Post-Nicene sources make clear that iconodulia was essentially a universal practice.
- Biblically, we have an solid basis for believing that man-made objects such as stone piles, monuments, and tombs were pilgrimage sights and venerated.
- In early Judaism and Christianity, the relics of saints and their tombs were likewise venerated.
- While historical evidence exists for aniconism, it is not as strong as the evidence in favor of iconodulia.
- When evaluating other Christian doctrines such as Christology and the Biblical Canon, the fourth century Church consensus and onwards is interpretatively crucial. It is only logical that we apply the same principle to iconodulia.
We Orthodox, when encountering Protestant argumentation, need to give a more nuanced apologetic than we usually give. Concessions should be made, and if not, at least we should seriously interact with evidence that is inconvenient to our position. Otherwise, we risk looking ignorant and losing converts.
And pray for me, that I am not ignorant and blathering on. Hopefully, this article will help us dig deeper into the historical arguments for both sides, have a greater appreciation for the saints, and a true love for icons–a gift from God for His people.
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