In his “Oration in Praise of Constantine,” or “Tricenallian Oration,” given to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Constantine’s reign in 335 or 336,1 Eusebius gives an account of the cause of the Incarnation of the Word: men were addicted to senseless images made by human hands, and so Christ assumed human flesh, revealing among men the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15) made incarnate, to turn them away from lifeless wood and stone to the living Creator and Redeemer. The body–the real human body rather than a depiction of it–was made the animate abode of Life itself, “a sensible habitation of an intellectual power.”
1. And now let us explain the cause for which the incorporeal Word of God assumed this mortal body as a medium of intercourse with man. How, indeed, else than in human form could that Divine and impalpable, that immaterial and invisible Essence manifest itself to those who sought for God in created and earthly objects, unable or unwilling otherwise to discern the Author and Maker of all things?
2. As a fitting means, therefore, of communication with mankind, he assumed a mortal body, as that with which they were themselves familiar; for like, it is proverbially said, loves its like. To those, then, whose affections were engaged by visible objects, who looked for gods in statues and lifeless images, who imagined the Deity to consist in material and corporeal substance, nay, who conferred on men the title of divinity, the Word of God presented himself in this form.
3. Hence he procured for himself this body as a thrice-hallowed temple, a sensible habitation of an intellectual power; a noble and most holy form, of far higher worth than any lifeless statue. The material and senseless image, fashioned by base mechanic hands, of brass or iron, of gold or ivory, wood or stone, may be a fitting abode for evil spirits: but that Divine form, wrought by the power of heavenly wisdom, was possessed of life and spiritual being; a form animated by every excellence, the dwelling-place of the Word of God, a holy temple of the holy God. (Oration in Praise of Constantine 14.1-3)
While Eusebius deals here with idolatry loosely conceived, he does not frame his treatment in terms of the worship (latreia) or service (douleia) of images, but in terms of the impact that images have on the affections: we are drawn to things that we can see–we who are to walk by faith rather than by sight. At the affective level, before we even reach the question of whether some kind of veneration is appropriate to a lifeless image, we have already encountered a problem that would render the subsequent debate moot. The issue is not so much what the wood or stone is an image of, but the fact that it is made of wood or stone in the first place. The psalmist makes a similar point in Ps. 135:15-18.
But for those of us who desire to see images of the divine (and I suspect that that is most of us, whether perversely or piously) should not despair, for that wish has already been granted. As Steven pointed out once before, each day we are surrounding by living images of God, reflecting the glory of the archetypal Image: the people around us. Those images, I’m sure Eusebius would agree, we may love and serve.
- On the date, see H.A. Drake, “When was the ‘De Laudibus Constantini’ Delivered?,” Historia 24 (1975): 345-56. The Laus Constantini, or Laudes Constantini, is actually two separate works placed together, chapters 1-10 forming an oration and 11-18 a speech at the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; cf. J. Quasten, Patrology vol. 3, 326-8. The section I quote is from this second part.