Did The Early Church Believe in Icons?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (8:5-15)

In today’s gospel we hear the familiar story or parable of the sower. Our Lord teaches us that the seed is the word of God. The parable is about what happens when in our hearts we either accept or reject the word of God. There is however one potential, what happens when two different groups of Christians each claim to be following the word of God and yet they come up with dramatically different interpretations and ideas based on the same texts? This issue has troubled many Christians throughout the centuries of Christian history. If I use the Bible, and you use the Bible and we both come to extremely different understandings of the Scriptures, how do we know whose interpretations is correct? How do we discern the truth from falsehood?

We can liken this to our own country and our own rule of law. The laws of this land are supposed to be based upon the Constitution. But problems often arise with the laws themselves or their applications and so it has to be brought to someone who judges what is sound law and what is unsound. What is a proper application and what is a proper interpretation of the text of the Constitution? Ultimately these questions can come before a group of nine judges or justices who are known as the Supreme Court. They have the power to interpret the laws in the light of the Constitution and they can effectively interpret the Constitution itself.

The Church has a similar structure that works to interpret the Scriptures and the New Testament properly. This structure is known as an ecumenical council. These are gatherings of great numbers of bishops from all over the world who would come to one place to pray together, to reason, to debate and ultimately to bring to light the genuine Christian teaching on whatever controversy or issue needed their attention. But unlike the Supreme Court, this was not simply based upon their human opinions but we believe it is guided by some other factors.

One factor is that there is a universal tradition or teaching that was passed on from place to place and person to person. There is a teaching that comes directly from the Apostles and has been preserved among those who rightly believe. The main guarantors of this teaching of the Apostles were the bishops who had been appointed in every place or region. This is one of the reasons why a bishop is never consecrated by simply one bishop, but by two or three. This demonstrates that there is unity among them and that multiple leaders of the Church have vouched for this man’s Orthodoxy and faith. When a gathering of bishops, who have the same faith and doctrine and have been themselves consecrated as bishops by others who held the same faith and doctrine and can trace this faith and doctrine throughout the history of the Church all the way to the Apostles, you know that this is a special and powerful gathering and it is one that can only happen in the Orthodox Church because it is only in the Orthodox Church that we have an unchanged and unbroken connection all the way back to the Apostles of Jesus Christ. That is a bold statement yet it is totally true and easily verifiable through a historical analysis with discernment.

The second factor in the guidance of the Holy Church is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the assembly. When our Lord the Holy Spirit is present in our midst, error vanishes and the truth is proclaimed. The Church has had many such gatherings over the past two thousand years. We commonly say that there were seven ecumenical councils but that is not necessarily the case. It is really an oversimplification but it is true that there were 7 major gatherings to discuss and discern major issues within the life of the Church. Our Church is always remembering important events and people within it’s life. It is our common remembrance that helps us pass on the truth and the life of our faith from generation to generation. We begin by remembering the Lord’s betrayal, death and resurrection every time we come here for the Divine Liturgy.

Today we remember the Seventh Ecumenical Council which took place in the city of Nicaea in 787 a.d. This gathering came together to discuss the removal and the forbidding of icons in all of the holy churches under the Emperor Leo III in 726. Please take note that the state or government has been trying to find ways to subvert and change the Christian faith in every single generation, not just ours. Sometimes, standing for what is right means going precisely against what we are taught by the government and those that speak and teach on behalf of the government. This issue of the icons really caused a deep divide within the life of the Church because Leo and those who followed him, used Scripture and equated the creation of icons and their use with the idolatry that was forbidden since the time of the prophet Moses. They were further convinced because they saw the rapid rise of Islam and Muslims also taught that images were forbidden.

The bishops of the One Holy Church gathered together not to decide anything of themselves or their own opinions, but to discern the original teaching, the truth of the faith as it had been handed to them. They quoted extensively from St. John of Damascus who had died some years before the council, and was the most well known defender of holy iconography. He taught that the veneration of holy images was always part of the unwritten tradition of the Church but he showed how it was demonstrated even during the time of Moses, for instance with the creation of the cherubim who were fashioned by men and overshadowed the ark of the covenant. This was in direct conflict with a straight reading of God’s commandment to make no graven images. However St. John rightly points out that they were not created to be worshipped as idols.  God instructed them to be made so that we would have a more rich experience of worship that points past the symbol to a greater reality.

Icons are symbols that direct our minds to the living God who actually sanctified all of matter when He took flesh and became man. Icons are not something that we worship. We venerate them, knowing that our veneration is not really for the wood or the paint, but for the Word of God who made all of this possible when He appeared on the earth and was seen by men. Not only do we support the use of icons, we go further than that.  The Orthodox Church says that you must have icons in your place of worship because icons, especially of Jesus Christ, remind us that Christ was not a mere spirit but was fully God and fully man. That He was seen and heard and known. That He truly existed, and truly redeemed all matter and all creation by His coming. May God help us to truly believe this and to live accordingly. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

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2 thoughts on “Did The Early Church Believe in Icons?

  1. You are right that the purpose of a council is not to innovate but to restore the church to the original practice. Hence, we first need to establish what was the original practice of the early church. Thankfully, we have clear testimony to how the early church dealt with icons. A synod of the church, meeting in Elvira, Spain about the year 305, appears to build a fence against encroaching idolatry by restricting even art in church buildings. Canon 36 of the Council of Elvira states, “Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration.” Note the implicit distinction between mere decorations (“pictures”), on the one hand, and “objects of worship and adoration”, on the other. The prohibition was against any images in the church buildings to forestall the danger of those images becoming icons. Hence, the 19 bishops at the Synod of Elvira were objecting to the presence of art in a church because of the temptation it presented; for example, they would object to our stained glass, saying that it had the potential to become idolatrous. Hence they appear to be stricter at prohibiting decorations in churches than most modern evangelicals would be because they were aware of the potential for the decorations to become involved with worship. That it appears to be a warning against decorations so that they do not potentially become “objects of worship” suggests that there were no such icons in the early church by 305.
    About the year 327 the early church historian Eusebius (c. AD 263 – 339), who lived in Jerusalem, received a letter from the emperor’s sister, Constantia, asking him for a picture of Christ. Eusebius replied that he knew that such pictures existed in the marketplaces but he didn’t believe that the people who make such things were Christians. He took it for granted that only pagan artists would make such representations. Eusebius wrote that even the incarnate Christ cannot appear in an image, for
    “the flesh which He put on for our sake … was mingled with the glory of His divinity so that the mortal part was swallowed up by Life. . . . This was the splendor that Christ revealed in the transfiguration and which cannot be captured in human art. To depict purely the human form of Christ before its transformation, on the other hand, is to break the commandment of God and to fall into pagan error.”
    This reasoning would later be contradicted by John of Damascus (c. 675 –749), likely the most important theologian of iconography. My point here isn’t to referee the validity of their competing theologies but to note that almost four centuries prior to John’s defense of icons on the basis of the incarnation, Eusebius was making the opposite argument, to oppose images of Christ. While apparently later iconoclasts took up Eusebius’ theology to oppose icons, Eusebius seems here only to be theologically defending a practice of excluding icons that had been assumed for the first few centuries of the church. A tradition, such as Catholicism, could handle this development by arguing that the church evolved under the direction of the Holy Spirit. But a tradition that stakes its claim on “unbroken continuity” must argue that Eusebius was in error; that he was a rare dissenting voice. But even that doesn’t dismiss the historical evidence that Eusebius’s argument (as well as Canon 36 of the Council of Elvira) constitutes. Even if one argues that Eusebius and Elvira were wrong and hold no authority, both show that, at least, significant leaders in the early church opposed icons.
    Another prominent example is Epiphanius (inter 310–320 – 403), considered a “saint” in the Eastern Orthodox church. He was Bishop of Salamis, in Cyprus. He wrote, in the last section of Letter 51 (c. 394), to John, Bishop of Jerusalem:
    “I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loath that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ’s church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person.”
    He goes on to tell John that such images are “contrary to our religion” and to instruct the presbyter of the church that such images are “an occasion of offense.”

  2. It is a well known fact of the history of the early Church that there is not simply one pristine Christian faith but many competing faiths that are vying for acceptance and validity. It is the task of the Church to bring to light the true apostolic faith based on the apostolic kerygma which is of course illuminated by the Holy Scriptures (Old Testament). You have rightly quoted that some early church writers and even councils, did not agree with the use and veneration of icons. That does not change the fact that the Church always had icons at least in some of the churches. Similarly, there was a time when nearly everyone in the church was an iconoclast. It is said that at the time of the iconoclasm only Maximos the Confessor and his disciples were Orthodox in their faith and teaching. That is a stunning admission of how most of the church had become corrupt in their teachings and yet the Church survived and thrived with the correct teaching as it was made clear and apparent for all.

    You’ve also rightly noted that even among the saints we find that sometimes their theology is incorrect or suspect on certain issues. While this is the case, the Church often still recognizes such men and women for their overall faith and witness to Christ and His Church.

    Christ is the IKON of the invisible God, according to St. Paul. This makes iconography a reflection of the incarnation of Christ. Also, from a purely historical perspective we have many very early depictions of Christ in churches and places of worship.

    Blessings,

    FJ

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