Is There Really a Patristic Critique of Icons

By Jonathan Pageau on June 3, 2013

Gabe Martini has written a nice concise defense of icons in the Patristic record for the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy blog.  It is a response to a Protestant article, but it shows nicely how thin the opposition to icons is in the Church Fathers.  Gabe relies strongly on our own fr.Steven Bigham’s books and so I thought it would be nice to repost his article here.  It is in five parts, but Gabe has brought them all together on his own blog:  On Behalf of All



Part One


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).

Read the rest of the article on Gabe’s blog.

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  1. Orthodox Collective on June 3, 2013 at 8:34 pm

  2. […] Gabe Martini has written a nice concise defense of icons in the Patristic record for the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy blog. It is a response to a Protestant … View full post on protestant – Google Blog Search […]

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