Archive E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

Augustine the Iconoclast?

I’ve posted briefly before on images and iconoclasm (for instance: here, on Eusebius; here, on Greek aniconism; here, on the smashing of images of Constantine).

The passage below is from Augustine’s De fide et symbolo (“On Faith and the Creed”), delivered to bishops at a council in Hippo in October of 393. In this section, Augustine discusses how one ought to conceive of the session of Christ at the Father’s right hand. He urges his hearers not to conceive of it overly physically, as though the Father actually has a “right hand,” but rather to note the figurative language (at the same name, he does note in the previous section that Christ’s (still physical) body is “in heaven”). In so doing, he remarks that it is nefas (a violation of divine law) to place an image of God in a Christian church (christiano in templo), and says that it is even worse (nefarium) to do so in the human heart, which is truly the temple of God (ubi vere est templum Dei). (The Latin text can be found here; English translation here).

Text and Translation

7.14. Credimus etiam quod sedet ad dexteram Patris. Nec ideo tamen quasi humana forma circumscriptum esse Deum Patrem arbitrandum est, ut de illo cogitantibus dextrum aut sinistrum latus animo occurrat; aut idipsum quod sedere Pater dicitur, flexis poplitibus fieri putandum est, ne in illud incidamus sacrilegium, in quo exsecratur Apostolus eos qui commutaverunt gloriam incorruptibilis Dei in similitudinem corruptibilis hominis 35. Tale enim simulacrum Deo nefas est christiano in templo collocare; multo magis in corde nefarium est, ubi vere est templum Dei, si a terrena cupiditate atque errore mundetur. Ad dexteram ergo intellegendum est sic dictum esse, in summa beatitudine, ubi iustitia et pax et gaudium est: sicut ad sinistram haedi constituuntur 36, id est in miseria, propter iniquitates, labores atque cruciatus. Sedere ergo quod dicitur Deus, non membrorum positionem, sed iudiciariam significat potestatem, qua illa maiestas numquam caret, semper digna dignis tribuendo; quamvis in extremo iudicio multo manifestius inter homines unigeniti Filii Dei iudicis vivorum atque mortuorum claritas indubitata fulsura sit.

14. We believe also that He Sits at the Right Hand of the Father . This, however, is not to lead us to suppose that God the Father is, as it were, circumscribed by a human form, so that, when we think of Him, a right side or a left should suggest itself to the mind. Nor, again, when it is thus said in express terms that the Father sits, are we to fancy that this is done with bended knees; lest we should fall into that profanity, in [dealing with] which an apostle execrates those who changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of corruptible man. For it is unlawful for a Christian to set up any such image for God in a temple; much more nefarious is it, [therefore], to set it up in the heart, in which truly is the temple of God, provided it be purged of earthly lust and error. This expression, at the right hand, therefore, we must understand to signify a position in supremest blessedness, where righteousness and peace and joy are; just as the kids are set on the left hand, that is to say, in misery, by reason of unrighteousness, labors, and torments. And in accordance with this, when it is said that God sits, the expression indicates not a posture of the members, but a judicial power, which that Majesty never fails to possess, as He is always awarding deserts as men deserve them (digna dignis tribuendo); although at the last judgmentthe unquestionable brightness of the only-begotten Son of God, the Judge of the living and the dead, is destined yet to be a thing much more manifest among men.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.