Is There Really a Patristic Critique of Icons? (Part 1 of 5)

Editor’s Note: Following is the first part in a 5-part series by Gabe Martini addressing the claim by Presbyterian pastor Steven Wedgeworth that there is significant patristic testimony against iconography. Keep watching this space for all five parts. The response is necessarily more in-depth than the original post it responds to, because numerous quick claims are made there without much in the way of examination of their context or historic character.

Introduction

Steven Wedgeworth, Assistant Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Clinton, Mississippi, has recently written a post at The Calvinist International against the Christian use of icons. In this post, he proposes to “counter-balance” the evidence in favor of icons and their veneration with evidence to the contrary. The reason, as he puts it, is that “Not as many people … know the opposing patristic voices.” This implies that there is an evident Patristic opposition to icons in the history and tradition of the Church — one that is so substantial, one could be forced to reconsider their position on the issue as a result. Pr Wedgeworth also claims that the liturgical use of icons has a “mixed foundation,” implying that the practice and beliefs of the Catholic Church are perhaps arguable at best.

But is that really the case? Does the evidence put forth by Pr Wedgeworth demonstrate that there has always been an equal opposition to icons and their veneration within the Orthodox-Catholic Church? Is that evidence being properly represented and understood? Were they isolated voices, or part of a large opposition to icons in the history of the Church?

Orthodox Christians are well aware of the iconoclastic controversies of both the 8th and 9th centuries. We are so aware of it that we devote an entire Sunday (the first of Great Lent) to what we call the Triumph of Orthodoxy — the restoration of icons to the churches by the empress Theodora at a Constantinopolitan synod in AD 843. The fact that there was controversy over this issue is nothing new, and doctrinal controversy is simply part of the life of the Church (1 Cor. 11:19). However, when Pr Wedgeworth cites Peter Brown to assert: “dispute around the seventh council was a wholly Byzantine affair,” neither he nor Brown are being entirely accurate. Iconoclasm certainly originated in the eastern part of the Roman empire (in the 8th century), yet it was largely egged-on by political interests related to both the Carolingians of the West and the Muslims of the East.

In truth, the See of Rome was just as committed to the veneration of icons (especially prior to Charles I and the Libri Carolini) as the rest of the Church. All five primary Sees were represented at the 7th Ecumenical Council, and the Pope of Old Rome (Hadrian I) gave his full endorsement. The Second Council of Nicaea was one of the most widely represented councils in the history of the Church, and the bishops who had been previously swayed by dubious influences to reject icons publicly repented at this synod. One such bishop named Basil of Ancyra repented of both iconoclasm and his participation in a previous “robber synod” on this issue, because he desired “to be united to the Catholic Church, and to Hadrian the most holy Pope of Old Rome, and to Tarasius the most blessed Patriarch [of Constantinople], and to the most holy apostolic sees; to wit, Alexandria, Antioch, and the Holy City [Jerusalem]” (Extracts from the Acts, Session 1, Labbe and Cossart, Concilia, Tom. VII, col. 53). Basil goes on to explain how the previous synod — presumably that at Hieria in 754 — was little more than a politically-driven spectacle; the successive life of the Church would certainly vindicate such a perspective.

While the iconoclastic controversy itself was originally rooted in the eastern part of the empire, its resolution was an ecumenical one; a resolution that had the full support of the entire Catholic Church (as shown in Basil’s confession). The life and witness of the Orthodox-Catholic Church since the 9th century confirms this to be the case, over and against any ahistorical or abstract inquiries into isolated statements, both before and after that time.

As an aside, it is an irony that Pr Wedgeworth would use an image of the Хлудовская псалтырь (the “Chludov Psalter”) — one of only three illuminated Psalters to survive the destruction of iconoclasts in the 9th century — as the featured image for his blog post. The particular image he has selected connects the last iconoclastic emperor (John the Grammarian) and his erasure of an icon of Christ by a pole and sponge with the soldiers who offered both gall and vinegar to Christ while nailed upon the Cross (cf. Psalm 68:22 LXX). It also makes light of his unkempt hairdo (a faux pas in Byzantium). This Psalter is actually evidence of the Patristic consensus of the mid-800s AD: a Church that used illuminated manuscripts of the Scriptures in liturgy; Scriptures which were venerated, carried about, and treated with great respect as our rubrics of the ancient Liturgy clearly demonstrate (both then and today). The worship and life of the apostolic Church shows us the Patristic consensus far better than any abstract investigation of obscure writings can ever hope to accomplish. When attempting to understand both Patristic writings and the Holy Scriptures, it is necessary to do so within a right context; and that right context is the life of the Church, not our best guess at its reconstruction.

The Importance of the Early Church

Many of the quotations that Pr Wedgeworth offers as evidence of aniconic/iconophobic attitudes in the early Church are found in Her first three centuries. This is important to note because if the rigorists (with regards to the 2nd commandment) are correct — and the ancient, apostolic Church was against images wholesale — then there would’ve been a palpable outcry of opposition at the very onset of their introduction. By most standards, the introduction of iconography into the usage of the Church is seen to have occurred between the first and fourth centuries AD. As a result, any evidence related to icons during this period should be examined with this kept in mind. If icons were introduced during this time frame, and there is not an overwhelmingly violent reaction to such innovation and idolatry in the writings of the Fathers, what could one be led to conclude?

During this early period, Christians were keenly aware of their place as successors to the apostles. The arguments of men such as Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (against the Gnostics) are hinged upon the fact that he is only teaching what his predecessors — the apostles — have taught, while the heretics only quote the Scriptures (misinterpreting them in a manner contrary to apostolic tradition). Fr Steven Bigham notes that because of this pride in their preservation of apostolic tradition, any suggestion that these early Christians had abandoned the Gospel by allowing icons into the Church would have deeply scandalized them (Early Christian Attitudes toward Images, p. 17). If the rigorists are correct that the early Church was hostile towards icons (aniconia/iconophobia), any acceptance of icons — being itself an abandonment of the Gospel, at least according to the rigorists — “runs squarely against the highly developed awareness among these Christians that they taught only what came from the Apostles themselves” (ibid.). Since there is an abundance of evidence that the early Christians did make use of icons (along with statues and decorated liturgical elements, such as chalices with the image of Christ engraved upon them), something doesn’t quite add up for the rigorist point of view. A simple crawl through the Roman catacombs or the remains of Dura Europos (Syria) would provide a pointed demonstration.

Further, Bigham also notes that a distinction has existed between that which is Tradition (with a capital “T,” so to speak), and that which is pious custom (or “traditions” in a general sense). This was also made plain in the definition of the 7th Ecumenical Council. In short, Traditions are beliefs and practices that are essential to the Gospel, whereas customs are traditions that “are not required or defined by the Gospel itself, but they were not forbidden either” (ibid.). When customs become controversial, disturbing the Church as a whole, they are examined by Her with great care. One example of this dynamic is the dating of Pascha, which was originally a localized custom (with a variety of practices) prior to the first Council of Nicaea (AD 325). Eventually, the discrepancy in observance led to an ecclesiastical controversy that could only be settled by both Ecumenical and Conciliar decree. The usage and veneration of icons is the same: What originally began as a pious custom among the faithful became a point of substantial controversy, thanks in no small part to those who would use it for strategic, political purposes in the 8th and 9th centuries. Therefore, it was incumbent upon the bishops of the Church to assemble and attempt to settle the issue (and thus the Second Council of Nicaea of 787 and the Synod of Constantinople of 843).

As Bigham concludes on this point, “a simple custom became an essential witness to the preaching of the Gospel” and the rejection of images “implied a weakening or even a denial of the Incarnation itself” (Ibid., p. 18). What Bigham characterizes as a “humble and accessory custom” had become “essential to the Gospel” (Ibid., p. 19).

In the next post, I will discuss the burden of proof when it comes to determining Patristic consensus, as well as examine Pr Wedgeworth’s first quote from Tertullian.

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22 thoughts on “Is There Really a Patristic Critique of Icons? (Part 1 of 5)

  1. I would like to know more about this “Synod of Elvira” of 305, now that I have read Wedgewood’s article. And also about the quote by Gregory the Great: is it taken out of context? Really, his evidence seems very slim and weak, but any modern iconoclast will enjoy the support.

  2. Reblogged this on Orthodox Ruminations and commented:
    My friend Gabe Martini’s response to a Calvinist blogger who proposed patristic evidence opposing the use of icons. This is part one of five:

    “Steven Wedgeworth, Assistant Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Clinton, Mississippi, has recently written a post at The Calvinist International against the Christian use of icons. In this post, he proposes to “counter-balance” the evidence in favor of icons and their veneration with evidence to the contrary. The reason, as he puts it, is that “Not as many people … know the opposing patristic voices.” This implies that there is an evident Patristic opposition to icons in the history and tradition of the Church — one that is so substantial, one could be forced to reconsider their position on the issue as a result. Pr Wedgeworth also claims that the liturgical use of icons has a “mixed foundation,” implying that the practice and beliefs of the Catholic Church are perhaps arguable at best.

    But is that really the case? Does the evidence put forth by Pr Wedgeworth demonstrate that there has always been an equal opposition to icons and their veneration within the Orthodox-Catholic Church? Is that evidence being properly represented and understood? Were they isolated voices, or part of a large opposition to icons in the history of the Church?”

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  4. The icons in the synagogue at Dura Europas would seem to offer some small challenge to the common protestant interpretation of the second commandment in the first place.

  5. I just finished reading Brown’s article, and it does make a strong case for the position that icons were a later addition, not an original component of the kerygma. Therefore, at the least, they are adiaphora, and at worst, they represent Christian idolatry, and an attempt to bring pagan Greco-Roman customs into the Body of Christ.

    • I too read Brown’s article but I didn’t think he made a case for the late advent of icons. He does contend that icons as articles of public worship are late, but Brown is too good a scholar to suggest that icons themselves are late. There is too much evidence to the contrary.

      The weakness of Brown’s article (perhaps unavoidable in research) is that he interprets events through the lens of sociology, psychology, politics, etc.. There is no denying that anything involving humans involves those elements but for a Christian questions of faith and history can never be surveyed on the purely horizontal plane of human qualities. If we believe in God then we have to believe that He is at work in the history of His Church (opaque as that work often is) and therefore sociology, psychology, politics, etc., cannot be exhaustive explanations of theological issues, nor must they be construed as fundamental causes rather than attendent phenomena. History is a tangled skein and Brown does a remarkable job of unravelling the human threads but I don’t think we Christians can regard that untangling, leaving aside as it does the element of God’s activity, as sufficient explanation.

      One further thought, Brown contends that icons are a conceptual extension of the cult of the saints (relics) which has roots in the Old Testament (II Kings 13:21 to give a single example). Leaving aside the question of which, or whether, one came first is it possible, given Jewish examples of iconography, that the assertion that images are contrary to scripture is just as false as the assertion that relics are?

  6. Great article. However, when you say “All five primary Sees were represented at the 7th Ecumenical Council”…if I remember correctly, the church of Alexandria (The Coptic Orthodox Church) was not present, and actually till this day the Coptic Church doesn’t accept any of the 4 councils after the Council of Ephesus as ecumenical because it was not represented.

    Other than that….it’s an amazing article to answer for the use of icons in the church!

    • George,

      Thank you for your comments!

      While Dioscorus and his successors were excommunicated from the Church in Alexandria, they were replaced with a succession of Greek/Roman Orthodox Popes, which has continued down to this day.

      If you note in the fourth paragraph, Basil of Ancyra, who was repenting for having participated in the robber’s synod of Hieria, mentions the see of Alexandria. His Beatitude Theodoros II is the current Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria.

      Take care,
      Gabe

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