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

Holy Iconoclasm

Sometimes relics of blessed memory can become causes for sin and stumbling. Such was the case with the bronze serpent, which God had commanded to be made. The Israelites kept it after God did his saving work through it, and began to venerate it in a way that was not appropriate–indeed, in a way that caused it to be included in the same category as the high places and the Asherah. Thus when King Hezekiah destroys both it and them together, the author of 2 Kings praises him for his piety:

In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah.And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done. He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). He trusted in theLord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. (2 Kings 18.1-5)

Victorinus Strigel, a little known Philippist Lutheran theologian whom I have quoted before, comments as follows, drawing together the witness of the Fathers, of Martin Luther, and of Scripture itself:

Text and Translation

Confregit statuas et extirpavit lucos. Quid de statuis, et imaginibus seu simulachris pia vetustas existimarit, docet Tertullianus in apologetico cap. 12 et Lactantius lib. 2 cap. Et Epiphanius in epistola ad Ioannem Episcopum Ierosolymitanum, quam Hieronymus interpretatus est. Nunc vero brevitatis causa unico Lactantii dicto contenti erimus, Non est dubium, quin religio nulla sit, ubicunque simulachrum est. Nam si religio ex divinis rebus est, divini autem nihil est, nisi in coelestibus rebus, carent ergo religione simulachra, quia nihil potest esse coeleste in ea re, quae fit ex terra. Iure ergo laudatur Ezechias, qui initio gubernationis suae statuas seu imagines seu simulachra confregit, et lucos extirpavit. Ac ut omnem idolatriae occasionem e medio tolleret, non pepercit aeneo serpenti, quem Moyses in deserto fabricaverat. Cum autem filii Israel singularem honorem tribuerint huic serpenti, non sine maximis periculis, sine principum odiis, sine fremitu vulgi Ezechias abolere usitatam et longo tempore confirmatam idolatriam potuit. Quare in hoc officio ostendit specimen fortitudinis et magnitudinis animi verae heroicae, de qua Lutherus inquit: Considera fortitudinem huius regis, qui audet destruere aeneum serpentem, quem Deus ipse olim mandaverat erigi, postquam accedente horribili abusu coepit servire idolotriae. Audet insuper contemtim eum appellare Nehusthan, significans esse aeneum dracunculum, esse vile metallum, esse exiguam massulam aeris, quomodo igitur et quale id numen esse possit. Unde autem haec celsitudo animi orta sit, docet sequens clausula, Collocavit fiduciam suam in Domino Deo Israel. Nam vera fortitudo contra metum in periculis, non aliunde oritur, nisi a fiducia praesentiae et auxilii divini, ut Psal. 18 dicitur, Quoniam in te perrumpam turmam hostium, et in Deo meo transgrediar murum. Item, Qui docet manus meas ad proelium, et brachia mea, ut arcum aeneum confringam.

“He broke the statues and uprooted the sacred groves.”1 What pious antiquity thought about statues and pictures or images Tertullian teaches in Apologeticus 12 and Lactantius [in Divine Institutes] 2.2, 4, 18, and 19; and Epiphanius in his letter to John, Bishop of Jerusalem, which Jerome translate. But now, for the sake of brevity, we will be content with only one passage of Lactantius: “There is no doubt that there is no religion wherever there is an image. For if religion has to do with divine things, but there is nothing divine except in heavenly things, therefore images lack religion, because there can be nothing heavenly in a thing which is made from the earth.” Rightly therefore is Hezekiah praised, who at the beginning of his reign smashed the statues or pictures or images, and uprooted the sacred groves. And, in order that he might take away every occasion for idolatry from their midst, he did not spare the bronze serpent, which Moses had made in the desert. But since the sons of Israel bestowed a singular honor on this serpent, not without the greatest dangers, without the hatred of the leading men, without the murmuring of the masses was Hezekiah able to wipe out an idolatry that had become customary and confirmed by the long time of its use. Therefore he displays in this office an example of courage and a truly heroic greatness of mind, about which Luther says: “Consider the courage of this king, who dares to destroy the bronze serpent, which God himself once had commanded to be set up, after it began to serve idolatry once horrible abuse was added to it.”2 Moreover he dares scornfully to call it “Nehushtan,” signifying that it was a little bronze snake, that it was cheap metal, that it was a slight heap of bronze–how then could it be a divine power, and of what sort? Whence this loftiness of mind arose, moreover, the following verse teaches: “He placed his trust in the Lord, the God of Israel.” For true courage against dread in dangers does not arise from anywhere else except from trust in the divine presence and aid, as is said in Psalm 18: “Since by you I shall burst through a throng of enemies, and by my God I shall cross over a wall.” Likewise, “He who teaches my hands for battle, and my arms, so that I may smash a bow of bronze.”3

  1. Strigel’s text differs slightly from that quoted above–the “statues” refer to the “pillars,” the “groves” to the Asherah.
  2. I am guessing that the quotation of Luther ends here, though I am not certain.
  3. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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