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

Augustine and the Seduction of the Image

With respect to the veneration of images, one sometimes encounters the following argument: the image itself is not worshiped, but is rather only a means by which God might be worshiped.

Such a claim may seem to have some initial plausibility for excusing the practice. After all, don’t we regularly make use of created things in worshiping God? Aren’t bread and wine, for example, means by which we partake of Christ?

But upon closer examination, such a justification with respect to the use of images turns out to be superficial and facile. The Israelites said the same of the golden calf in the book of Exodus. The Greeks and Romans did as well with respect to their own images; they were not so stupid as to think that a statue of Zeus was actually Zeus, but rather that it was a means to the worship of the god, or a site of divine power. If such a justification for the veneration of images can apply equally well to Greek and Roman idols and Christian figurings of the divine, Christians ought not to make use of it.

The reasons for avoiding such a practice are manifold, ranging from express divine prohibition to the psychology of the relation of sense-perception to thought. (I’ve touched on this previously in Eusebius here. See further here.)

Augustine had his finger on the texture of this web of issues 1600 years ago. In a sermon on Psalm 115 (according to the Hebrew numbering), he discourses at length on the following passage:1

Their idols are silver and gold,

the work of human hands.

They have mouths, but do not speak;

eyes, but do not see.

They have ears, but do not hear;

noses, but do not smell.

They have hands, but do not feel;

feet, but do not walk;

and they do not make a sound in their throat.

Those who make them become like them;

so do all who trust in them. (ESV)

For Augustine, it is a given that idols that are used for the purposes of worship are only dead parodies of the living, a masquerade that is evident even to children:

What, my most beloved brethren, is more clear, what more evident than this? What child if questioned would not reply, that this was certain, that the idols of the heathen have mouths, and speak not; have eyes, and see not; and the rest, as the inspired text hath described ?

But the temptation is subtle, and is hallowed by custom and long-standing practice. For that reason, the passage is included in the Psalm:

Why then doth the Holy Spirit take such care to insinuate and inculcate these things in many passages as if men were ignorant of them, as if they were not most open and notorious to all men ; except that the figure of the limbs, which they have seen endued with life in living beings, and which we are wont to feel in ourselves, although, as they maintain, constructed for a certain statue and set on a lofty pedestal, when it hath begun to be adored and honoured by the multitude, produceth in each man a most depraved and deceptive feeling, so that, since he findeth not a vital power of motion, he believeth a hidden deity ; and yet doth not think that the image, which is like a living body, is without a living inhabitant, being seduced by its figure, and influenced by the authority of seemingly wise institutions and reverential crowds. Hence such notions of men invite evil spirits to take possession of such idols of the heathen, by the varied deceptions of whom, when presiding over them, deadly errors are sown and multiplied.

Adoration of the image (Augustine takes it as read that posture is an index of kind of action: adopting the posture of worship shows that it is worship that is being enacted) leads to a tortured casuistry by which usage is justified through the image’s connection with the divine. But any such reflection must come later, for first comes affection and feeling which develops as it were imperceptibly into belief. The figure is seductive, and ratified by authority.  This passage of Psalm 115 and others are intended, then, to counteract specifically the kind of claim that is eventually reached by rationalization disguised as discursive reasoning:

In other passages the inspired writers guard against these things, lest any one should say, when the idols have been ridiculed, “I worship not this visible thing, but the divinity which doth invisibly dwell therein.” Thus in another Psalm the same Scripture thus condemneth these divinities. As for all the Gods of the heathen, they are but idols : but it is the Lord that made the heavens. The Apostle also saith ; Not that the idol is any thing, but that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God; and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils.

The stark terms of the Apostle will be resisted; the worshiper will rely upon his intention (“In my mind and heart, I mean to worship the divine”); and so the image will be emblematized as signifier for what we are required to worship.

But they seem to themselves to have a purer religion, who say, I neither worship an idol, nor a devil ; but in the bodily image I behold an emblem of that which I am bound to worship. They therefore interpret these images, by stating one to represent the earth, whence they constantly call it the temple of Tellus; another the sea, as the image of Neptune; another air, as that of Juno; another fire, as that of Vulcan ; another the morning star, as that of Venus; another the sun, another the moon, to whose images they give the same name, as in that of Tellus ; the various stars too they represent by various figures, and so with other works of creation ; for we cannot enumerate them all. And when they begin to be ridiculed for worshipping bodies, and chiefly the earth, and air, and the sea, and fire, all of which we use in common : (for they are not so much ashamed of their adoration of heavenly bodies, since we cannot touch or reach them with our bodies, save by the light of our eyes : ) they presume to reply, that they worship not the bodies themselves, but the deities which preside over the government of them.

But Augustine will have none of such pious argument. One remark from Paul in Romans 1 is dispositive for him:

One sentence of the Apostle, therefore, testifieth to their punishment and condemnation; Who, he saith, have changed the truth of God into a lie, and
worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, Who is blessed for ever. For in the former part of this sentence he condemned idols; in the latter, the account they give of their idols : for by designating images wrought by an artificer by the names of the works of God’s creation, they change the truth of God into a lie ; while, by considering these works themselves as deities, and worshipping them as such, they serve the creature more than the Creator, Who is blessed for ever.

Augustine understands that human beings are not cognitive computers. Thus whatever rationalizations may be given to elevate the use of the image, and whatever we may tell ourselves about what we are “really doing,” there are nevertheless (and inevitably) ramifications for the human heart that are beyond the scope of learned disquisition. A human being will attach himself more readily to the objects of sight than to almost anything else, and this can lead–seemingly paradoxically–to what is in effect a flight from reality.

But who worshippeth or prayeth with his eyes upon an idol, who is not so affected, as to imagine that he is listened to, as to hope that what he desireth is given him by his idol ? Thus men who are bound by such superstitions, usually turn their back to the sun itself, pour forth their prayers to a statue which they call the sun ; and when they are struck by the dashing of the waves behind them, they strike with their groans the statue of Neptune, as if it could perceive, which they worship in place of the sea itself. For this is a sort of necessary effect of this figure endued with limbs, that the mind which liveth in the bodily senses, should be inclined to suppose that that body which it seeth so closely to resemble its own body, is more apt to feel than a circular sun and an expanse of waves, and any thing which it beholdeth not formed with the same features as those which it constantly seeth endowed with life. In opposition to this affection, whereby human and carnal weakness may easily be snared, the holy Scripture setteth forth sentiments universally recognised, whereby it may arouse the minds of men sleeping in the thraldom of their bodies. The idols, it saith, of the heathen are gold and silver. But it is God Who made gold and silver. Their idols, he saith, are the work of men’s hands: for they worship what they have constructed out of gold and silver.

Anthropomorphized images of gold and silver are not instances of the divinity lisping to us in a language we can understand: they are rather an instance of precisely that against which the divinity warns us (and what Augustine says here is consistent with what I’ve noted previously with respect to De fide et symbolo). If we give our hearts and affections to them, they shall be our gods, and we shall be their people. Instead of dull stone and dumb wood, God has given us the living Theanathropos, as well as living bearers of his image, before whom we do not bow and whom we do not serve in the religious sense, but whom we rather serve in the neighborly sense. (The two are of course connected: God is pleased to accept such service to neighbor as service to him.)

Because it is particularly anthropomorphized images Augustine has in view, he can draw a distinction between them and the vessels used for the holy purpose of celebrating the sacraments. We do not mistake these things for God, and we do not pray to them thinking that we pray through them. Thus he says:

But, it will be said, we also have very many instruments and vessels made of materials or metal of this description for the purpose of celebrating the Sacraments, which being consecrated by these ministrations are called holy, in honour of Him Who is thus worshipped for our salvation : and what indeed are these very instruments or vessels, but the work of men’s hands? But have they mouth, and yet speak not? have they eyes, and see not? do we pray unto them, because through them we pray unto God ? This is the chief cause of this insane profanity, that the figure resembling the living person, which induces men to worship it, hath more influence in the minds of these miserable persons, than the evident fact that it is not living, so that it ought to be despised by the living. For idols have more power in perverting an unhappy mind because they have a mouth, have eyes, have ears, noses, hands, feet, than in rectifying it, because they speak not, see not, hear not, smell not, touch not, walk not.

For Augustine, there is a fundamental difference between such products of human artifice and the manufactured image. It is not means per se to which he is opposed, but a particular kind of means used for ends that are really faux-ends, and dead ends. In so focusing his attention, Augustine is simply attempting to track with the witness of Scripture, which warns particularly against images of men: for “[t]hose who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” The overindulgence of the eyes leads to the dulling and deadening of the heart. “Let them therefore,” Augustine says mordantly, “see with open eyes, and worship with shut and dead understandings, idols that neither see nor live.” The eyes can be the gateway to the heart and to the understanding. But for fallen man this is not an unqualified good, for it is attended by significant perils.

  1. I was directed to this sermon by a reference in Book 1 of Calvin’s Institutes.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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