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The Patristic Critique of Icons

The liturgical use of icons is one of the disputed points which has a mixed foundation in the early church. Most people are familiar with the Second Council of Nicaea, which demanded the veneration of icons and claimed the practice as apostolic. Not as many people, however, know the opposing patristic voices. To help counter-balance this, I will give just a few.

Tertullian explains how the bronze serpent and the decoration on the ark of the covenant do not violate the Second Commandment. It is interesting to note what he does not say. He does not say that the Second Commandment is no longer binding. Neither does he say that it prohibited pagan icons only. In fact, he explains that the Jews did not use their images in an idolatrous manner. Tertullian writes:

Likewise, when forbidding the similitude to be made of all things which are in heaven, and in earth, and in the waters, He declared also the reasons, as being prohibitory of all material exhibition of a latent idolatry. For He adds: “Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them.” The form, however, of the brazen serpent which the Lord afterwards commanded Moses to make, afforded no pretext for idolatry, but was meant for the cure of those who were plagued with the fiery serpents. I say nothing of what was figured by this cure. Thus, too, the golden Cherubim and Seraphim were purely an ornament in the figured fashion of the ark; adapted to ornamentation for reasons totally remote from all condition of idolatry, on account of which the making a likeness is prohibited; and they are evidently not at variance with this law of prohibition, because they are not found in that form of similitude, in reference to which the prohibition is given.1

There is also the Synod of Elvira in AD 305, whose 36th canon says:

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

Gregory the Great wrote to Bishop Serenus of Marseilles,

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.

Notice that he says the images are for the purpose of “reading.”

Epiphanius says, in AD 394,

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 loath 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.

What these quotes show is that the controversy around icons was an intra-Christian one. Peter Brown has shown that dispute around the seventh council was a wholly Byzantine affair. 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).

  1. Against Marcion 2.22.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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