This article will lack theatrics and will respond to the unsubstantiated, ahistorical claims made by Joshua Schooping on the issue of icons. I will respond to three articles of his to demonstrate the weakness in both his research and presentation. Being that his book and presentations merely repackage the same information, this will double as a refutation of these as well. Let’s go.

1. Iconology and Imperial Captivity: A Case Study of the Metamorphosis of Theology in the Byzantine Church.

In this article Schooping alleges:

[H]istory is clear that the early Church was for centuries aniconic, and only adopted the religious use of icons after the imperialization of the Church, which is to say after the creation of the Byzantine State Church.

Schooping must prove two contentions for the preceding to hold any water. First, history must positively demonstrate the Church was aniconic. Second, history must positively demonstrate that the Roman government had any role in creating iconodulia. Does Schooping demonstrate either of these points? No. Rather, he relies upon arguments from silence all the meanwhile ignoring actual recorded history that demonstrates the historical existence of iconodulia.

One of Schooping’s arguments from silence is as follows:

[E]arly architecture that has religiously themed art on its walls does not serve as evidence for iconodulia, iconodulia being the religious veneration of representative images. Specifically Byzantine iconodulia is the necessity of venerating such images.

Schooping makes a good point that simple archaeological evidence that Christian art existed does not prove it was used in an icondulic manner. That in of itself would be an argument from silence. However, this argument of his is a double-edged sword. He likewise, based upon silence, asserts that art was not used in an iconodulic manner.

There appears to be three decisions a historian must make based upon the evidence or lack thereof. Primary sources that exist either: explicitly explain that art was used in an icondulic manner, a decorative manner; or no source exists explaining how it was used. In the first case we are compelled to accept the icondulic explanation, in the second case the aniconic, in the third we must remain agnostic as we simply would not know.

Simple! This is not very complicated for the honest historian. Three decisions. What decision is most justified?

In short, one second century source (the Acts of John) describes Christian art being venerated using a crowning ceremony. (Session 5, Mendham, Nicea 2, 269-272) Another source, from the second to third centuries, is a graffiti in front of an icon which described a similar sort of veneration: “adorning” the icon. (Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images, 100-102) Lastly, beginning in the fourth century (as will be detailed below), a plethora of sources contain similar explicit explanations concerning the use of religious art likewise expounding iconodulia.

In the first four hundred years of church history, there is not a single mention that art is merely decorative. Additionally, the fact that there are sources that do explain how art is used (in the iconodulic manner) disallows for historical agnosticism on the question. Hence, the voice of recorded history drowns out the speculations derived from the silence that Schooping depends upon. Due to the fact that almost all of these sources predate the Edict of Thessalonica, when Christianity became an official religion of the Roman Empire, this also disallows for the undocumented thesis (i.e. conspiracy theory) that the Roman state had somehow concocted or fomented iconodulia. In short, it is beyond a shadow of doubt that iconodulia already existed before the “Byzantization” of Christianity.

Schooping then moves on to the point that the earliest Christian writers explicitly rejected Christian images. He relies upon the work of another to stake his claim:

Moshe Barasch demonstrates in his work, Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea, ‘what these early Christian apologists have to say about the images of the gods is so similar, actually unified’ (Barusch, New York University Press, 1995, p. 98).

As follows are citations that essentially argue that the Christian apologists made statements along the lines of existence of idols=paganism=differentiating factor from real Christianity. This would be a plausible if it were not for the more fleshed out apologetic on this note that Origen provides.

Origen concurs with the statements of earlier apologists in his condemnation of pagan images. He maintains that images differentiate pagans from Christians. However, here is the interesting part: Origen likewise condemns pagan altars in the same breath, similarly asserting this differentiates pagans from Christians.

In Against Celsum, the pagan polemicist Celsum is quoted criticizing the Christians, because: “They cannot tolerate temples, altars, or images.” (Book VII, Chap 62) This is a contention that Origen does not deny:

[W]e hold that the worship, which is supposed among the Greeks to be rendered to gods at the altars, and images, and temples, is in reality offered to demons. (Book VII, Chap 69; cf De Principiis, Book 4, Par 3: “since the overthrow of the temple, victims are neither offered, nor any altar found, nor any priesthood exists.”)

These are the sort of statements that Schooping and those that he cites take at face value as proof that Christians categorically did not have images, altars, sacrifices, or whatever else. It is this obtuse sort of reading of Origen and earlier apologists which has led to such serious misconceptions. Consider the following statement from Origen found in Against Celsum and likewise take it at face value:

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

Clearly, taking statements here or there at face value is a dead end. What is the actual point? Let’s take another look against at Book VII. Origen reveals that Christians have a Eucharistic sacrifice in contrast to the pagan ones:

For to keep a feast, as one of the wise men of Greece has well said, is nothing else than to do one’s duty; and that man truly celebrates a feast who does his duty and prays always, offering up continually bloodless sacrifices in prayer to God…he who considers that Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us, and that it is his duty to keep the feast by eating of the flesh of the Word, never ceases to keep the paschal feast. (Book VII, Chap 21-22)

[S]upposing that there are such beings as demons to whom the sacrifices are offered, it has been clearly shown that we are forbidden to take part in these festivals, when we know the difference between the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (Book VII, Chap 24)

As one can see, Origen rejects pagan festivals, which is a euphemism for ceremonies surrounding a sacrifice; but endorses the Christian festival, which is “eating the flesh of the Word.” A few chapters later, Origen, condemns a pagan altar (“table”), but notes that Christians have their own. On the same note, in the next book Origen contrasts the “thank-offerings” given to demons and “the Eucharist” (literally “thanksgiving”) given “to God.” (Against Celsum, Book VIII, Chap 57)

Why is the preceding important? It reveals transparently what the context is behind statements where Christians reject the existence of images, altars, or whatever else. It is not a inference that such passages merely condemn pagan images if these same passages apply similarly to pagan altars. Christians have always had altars, as not only a (potentially) first-century Christian altar outside of Pompei still exists (Cook, Alleged Christian Crosses in Herculaneum and Pompeii, 7-11; see a picture here), Saint Ignatius of Antioch makes frequent allusion to literal altars (Ephesians, Chap 5; Magnesians, Chap 7; Trallians, Chap 7; Philadelphians, Chap 4), as do other pre-Nicene fathers, such as Cyprian in the third century. The idea that churches named by both the Apostles Paul and John would have physical altars mere decades or even a few years (in John’s case) after their lifetimes renders impossible that a rapid pre-Byzantine, paganization had already taken hold in Christianity.

In short, just as these passages condemn pagan altars, but not Christian ones; they condemn pagan images, and not specifically Christian ones. This would be contextually the most consistent reading, especially considering how the same issue will be treated by later fathers. As for Origen, for those curious, I personally deny he was defending literal Christian statuary as the above quote may imply—however, a consistent reading of him would prevent us from automatically concluding he was rejecting all form of Christian art and its veneration.

Due to a lack of breadth in research, Schooping then (unintentionally) follows up with a self-eviscerating point:

But what might be less known is that Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus actually selected out and published Origen’s (a fortiori) rejection of Byzantine iconodulia, arguing that much less than God’s Commandments forbidding, even “common sense, nevertheless, forbids us to think that God is by any means corruptible matter, or that He is honoured when He is fashioned by men in forms of dead matter, supposed to pictorially or symbolically represent Him” (Basil and Gregory, The Philocalia of Origen, Chapter 19). In this way it is shown that these two great Cappadocian Fathers maintained the Christian rejection of images. (Emphasis added)

Take note of Schooping’s historical conclusion: the Cappadocian Fathers allegedly rejected the use of images, because they favorably cited Origen. Schooping is wrong on both counts. While Origen did not necessarily reject the existence of Christian imagery as discussed, the Cappadocian fathers explicitly endorsed both the existence of images and their literal veneration.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa (Saint Basil’s brother) in his authentically ascribed In Praise of Blessed Theodore the Great Martyr records what one would expect walking into church, invoking art’s veneration:

God’s temple is brightly adorned with magnificence and is embellished with decorations, pictures of animals which masons have fashioned with delicate silver figures. It exhibits images of flowers made in the likeness of the martyr’s virtues, his struggles, sufferings, the various savage actions of tyrants, assaults, that fiery furnace, the athlete’s blessed consummation and the human form of Christ presiding over all these events. They are like a book skillfully interpreting by means of colors which express the martyr’s struggles and glorify the temple with resplendent beauty… These spectacles strike the senses and delight the eye by drawing us near to [the martyr’s] tomb which we believe to be both a sanctification and blessing. If anyone takes dust from the martyr’s resting place, it is a gift and a deserving treasure. Should a person have both the good fortune and permission to touch the relics, this experience is a highly valued prize and seems like a dream both to those who were cured and whose wish was fulfilled. The body appears as if it were alive and healthy: the eyes, mouth, ears as well as the other senses are a cause for pouring out tears of reverence and emotion. In this way one implores the martyr who intercedes on our behalf and is an attendant of God for imparting those favors and blessings which people seek. (p. 12)

Here, Saint Gregory is referring to both an icon of the Lord and that of the saint kept in front of his relics. One venerates the image and the relic according to his homily.

Saint Basil the Great by no means rejected images as Schooping claims. In fact, he taught that icons were windows into heaven. He told his audience that “the painting” of the Forty Martyrs which brought the “deeds” of onlookers:

to their gaze…For not even sermons about the saints permit accommodation to the rules of economia. This is why those who applaud them take the starting-point of their applause from worldly materials. How could anything worldly provide material to make conspicuous those for whom the world is crucified? (Allen, Dehandschutter, Mayer, “Let Us Die that We May Live,” 68-69; cf Theodoret, Life of St. Symeon the Stylite, Par 11/p. 165 where images of Symeon are said to “provide thereby some protection and safety.”)

As one can see, the icon is understood to contain actual power and is a “starting-point” for both veneration and actual interaction with the divine.

For those who may doubt the geographic spread of these images, Saint Epiphanius reported to the Emperor Theodosius that icons were literally everywhere and only “a few” rejected them; elsewhere, he explained precisely how they were used:

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.” (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, Par 3)

Both of these letters can be found in Bigham’s Epiphanius of Salamis, Doctor of Iconoclasm? Deconstruction of a Myth. The author begrudgingly concedes, contrary to his own Orthodox convictions that they are forgeries, that the mainstream scholarly position is in favor of their authenticity.

In the preceding, Schooping’s whole thesis evaporates. Schooping’s later citing of Alexander in his claim that iconodulia is a sixth century innovation is hardly convincing. Not only does Alexander place John of Thessalonica in the wrong century, he likewise fails to understand the issue is not whether the pagans believed idols were actual gods. More recent scholarship than Alexander’s recognizes that the issue is that icons have actual prototypes, which idols do not. Critics of idolatry since Origen recognized this distinction. (Parry, “THEODORE STUDITES AND THE PATRIARCH NICEPHOROS ON IMAGE-MAKING AS A CHRISTIAN IMPERATIVE,” Byzantion, 180) Citing Alexander in order to make the unsubstantiated claim that “[t]he theological metamorphosis in the Byzantine Church regarding icons is conclusive,” based upon a shallow parallelism not mindful of the distinction between type and prototype, shows how deficient Schooping’s interaction with the source material really is.

Scholars and saints (such as Theodore the Studite) endorsing this distinction aside, it is noteworthy that the Scriptures themselves repeatedly make this distinction—contrasting the dumb, dead, and blind idols that are merely the work of men’s hands (Ps 135:15-17) with the one true God. To quote Saint Paul, “an idol has no real existence.” (1 Cor 8:4 ESV) The Scriptures while banning the creation and worship of pagan images (Ex 20:3-5), allow for the creation of images of real things: like palm trees, lions, angels, and etcetera—fully informing the reader the actual significance of the Biblical prohibition being against images of man’s fantasy lacking in real prototypes.

In closing, Schooping’s reliance upon dated secondary sources is problematic. His conjectures ignore swaths of recorded history that demonstrate both the existence of icons and how they were used. The conspiracy theory concerning the “Byzantization” of Christian iconodulia is both anachronistic and completely undocumented—it’s a blind assertion made on the basis of a parallelism all the meanwhile failing to apply a very basic Scriptural distinction between type and prototype.

2. Veneration vs. Worship: A Lesson in Casuistry

This is a short article that is little more than name calling. He begins as follows:

When Romans Catholics and Eastern Orthodox say, “We are not worshiping Mary,” and “We are not worshiping icons,” the tragic reality is that too many will do X but call it Y.

Perhaps such a claim could be true if he named one Orthodox parishioner he had in the past who thought he was worshipping Mary, or had one anecdote from the internet or history, or any Orthodox Christian on Earth that has done this. One thing I have had always marveled at is when speaking to many simple, cradle Orthodox people, they never, ever get confused between veneration and worship. To make the accusation as Schooping does, surely one example would be needed?

And, who is this one example? Priest Joshua Schooping when he for years partook in these activities he vociferously condemns at present? If so, it is lamentable he has never publicly repented of such an error, if he continues to insist it is indeed an error found somewhere in the Church. Surely, the guilt would be upon his own head at minimal, no?

3. Ad Hoc: Assessing John of Damascus’ Argument for Icon Veneration

Schooping begins by laying out syllogisms he infers from Saint John of Damascus, only to immediately devolve into major error in the second sentence of his critique:

For, on the one hand, imagery is forbidden because God was invisible and implicitly not susceptible to representation. On the other hand, imagery was forbidden because apparently even a true image of God would have been abused due to the hardness of their heart.

Now, it is no contradiction that an admonition would have both a theological and moral component. For example, the Scriptures permit divorce. Christ states that this is due to the hardness of heart of the Jews and that in specific circumstances concerning sexual immorality, divorce is still permitted. Nevertheless, the whole doctrinal dynamic behind the moral facet of the admonition is the theological one—we are not to apostatize in marriage any more we ought to apostatize from God. God desires not the death of a sinner, but his repentance—and so God does not completely close Himself off from man in a final way which makes no room for repentance. Hence, the Scriptures cautiously allow for separation, but absolutely forbid divorce.

The making of an image of the Father, the Spirit before His procession through the Son, or the Son before He was incarnate were all not allowable forms of imagery. The Father cannot be depicted due to it being impossible, which is mostly what the Damascene concerns himself with. The incarnate Son and the Spirit could not be depicted due to the fact that even if God revealed the future appearance of these things to the Jews, without being informed by the incarnation, they would have not been able to understand them properly. And so, the creation of preincarnational images, like that of Rublev’s Trinity, may have been theologically allowable but imprudent. There is no contradiction in this.

Schooping continues to make arguments which miss the forest from the trees. He quibbles over a broad point of the Damascene to assert a wooden reading of John 5:37 that the Father allegedly has never been heard whatsoever (something contradicted by Mark 1:11, John 12:28-29, etcetera). The overall point of the Damascene is clear enough: the Father is invisible, uncircumscribable, inimitable—the incarnation of His Logos, being very God of very God, changes that. This is simple and generally true across the board, though even the incarnate Son can render Himself s uncircumscribable by surrounding Himself with light. (Acts 9:3, 7)

Schooping then quotes Ps 135:15-18 as proof that the reason images cannot be made is not specifically because depiction is impossible and imprudent, but because “matter as such is not living.” However, his interpretation, though not irrational, is not the full picture. As discussed already, the real issue is that idols are not merely lifeless, but lack prototypes. They are types of phantasms. And so, Schooping fails to prove that “the entire foundation of John of Damascus’ entire argument” is “undermined.”

Schooping then accuses Damascene’s argument of being ad hoc. At first glance, I am not inclined to disagree. The Damascene had inherited a practice which was already at least six centuries old and had generally faced no serious opposition with the exception of Saint Epiphanius (who was told the latria-dulia distinction in response). And so, trusting that the faith was delivered once and for all as Saint Jude teaches, the Damascene mined the Scripture for the basis of the Church’s universal practice. Confessional Reformed are no different, accepting for example that Sunday is the new Sabbath, simply because they received this from the Roman Catholics and there was a Protestant consensus on this point at the time of the varying confessions’ composition. The Scriptures themselves are not explicit concerning the replacing of Saturday with Sunday. Any such Scriptural argument, which I am likewise sympathetic to, would likewise be ad hoc. Schooping is dabbling in “confessionalism” these days so he should be sympathetic.

In any event, good historical evidence indicates the Damascene was not concocting a novel justification. The fourth/eight canon of the pseudonymous “Canons of Antioch” admonishes Christians to “fashion for themselves the theandric undefiled, not made with hands, the pillar of the true God and our Saviour Jesus Christ and of his servants, as opposed to idolaters and to Jews, and are no more to go astray to idols, nor imitate the Jews.” (Stewart, “The apostolic canons of Antioch. An Origenistic exercise”, Revue d’histoire Ecclésiastique, 448-449) The previously cited article convincingly dates these canons to the third or fourth centuries. Severin Binius identified their content in the Apostolic Constitutions, which corroborates the dating of modern scholarship. Hence, Christian imagery was to be deliberately different than idolatry and conspicuous, in contrast with the pagans and Jews respectively. What else can this mean than the makers of the canon understood that art was not worshipped and that its absence would be an equivalent, though contrary evil? This source justifies the making of art as a necessity in that it is necessary to portray the incarnate God and it significantly predates the Damascene’s later apologetics on the same topic.

Schooping’s argument that Christians, contrary to the Damascene, do not “have the ‘habit of discrimination’” is troubling considering Saint Paul’s teaching that:

the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. (Gal 3:24-25)

If Schooping demands that the old rules would still apply in some arbitrary way with no fundamental change by the incarnation, he is a Judaizer falling under the same saint’s warning:

Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? (Col 2:20-22)

The point of a regulation is to Christologically center one’s life. Regulations are not arbitrary rules that God demands by fiat. We are not saved by following rules. We are saved by a substantive union with Christ, a synergy with His grace.

One can see how moral laws like lying and adultery would all contradict a God who does not lie nor forsake us. God does not forbid bad things because “they are yucky.” They are forbidden because God desires us to live according to Christ. Hence, the whole Law shifts according to the incarnation.

Moral components remain stationary as these pertain to attributes of the divine essence (we love because God is Love, we are truthful because God is Truth, etcetera). Ceremonial/governmental components* shift to extol post-incarnate realities, like the Sabbath and the Christian’s relationship with the state. We see this shift in the New Testament itself. This is not ad hoc. Damascene merely recognized this is always how it worked. It is precisely Schooping’s failure to recognize this Scriptural change in emphasis that leads to his further errant critiques concerning “general commands and the special commands of God.”

*The fathers themselves conflated ceremonial/governmental decrees in the Old Testament as simply ceremonial shadows of future Christological realities, the moral law being in fact “natural law” which is eternally in effect. The ceremonial/governmental dichotomy comes from Aquinas, though helpful to a degree to western eyes and ears, and is not explicitly Patristic. (Caselli, The Threefold Division of the Law in the Thought of Aquinas, p. 189-195) I merely used these terms out of condescension.

Schooping follows up expressing confusion that the Damascene “does not venerate matter as God.” He then conflates this with the concern that icons depict the literal hypostasis of Christ, but an icon cannot really depict the “an incommensurable gap” with “Jesus Himself, a gap that does not exist between Jesus’ flesh and Jesus’ Person.” The concerns here appear unrelated. The reason the Damascene “does not venerate matter as God” is because:

we do not do homage to that which is created. For we worship Him, not as mere flesh, but as flesh united with divinity, and because His two natures are brought under the one person and one subsistence of God the Word. (Exposition, Book 3, Chap 8)

In other words, Christ’s humanity is not worshipped per se. Rather, the literal person (one subsistence) of Christ which is tangible and visible to us in His human nature is worshipped. Schooping appears to grasp this as he notes that His humanity is “ontologically united with His Person.” All an icon does is depict an actual person (which is why the prototype-type distinction spoken of previously is so important). It is precisely because the icon is a type that it can be venerated, which disallows for heresies such as Leo of Chalcedon’s as he tried to join the depiction to the literal hypostatic prototype of Christ. It is not terribly complicated. Christ’s actual person was visible. Like all other visible people, that makes Him depictable. There is no “incommensurable gap.”

Schooping’s observation that “the veneration of an image of Jesus somehow intensifies to become worship of Jesus Himself” seems to me wholly unjustified, as no image of Christ is worshipped. Veneration is merely how the matter is treated. The intent behind the Eucharistic sacrifice, the communion of the ekklesia, the literal eating of the Eucharist, and the devotion of the mind are all separate from the postures, movements, and even feelings elicited by art. As I referred to previously, every faithful Orthodox Christian knows this by experience. Schooping, as an apostate, perhaps never did. If so, he was a literal idolater and it is better that he apostatized than continued in idolatry. However, due to the fact he has never admitted nor repented of idolatry, it seems to me his critique on this point is disingenuous.

Conclusion. In closing, I feel in all counts Schooping fails to bring forward a serious critique of iconodulia. His history is wrong, his arguments are ad hominems, and his grasp of logic as applied to the Damascene and Scriptures leaves much to be desired. Those who are looking for reasons not to be Orthodox or to maintain their present aniconism or iconoclasm will not see these things, because Schooping is merely telling itching ears what they want to hear. As for everyone else, whether they are many or few I do not know, they will see the deficiency of his critiques and will look upon his future work with magnified suspicion.