I wanted to share a note on an interesting documentary about icons that you might find helpful, if you are looking for an introduction to icons. This documentary was made in Russia, but the voice over is in English, so it’s easy to follow. You can find the first of seven videos at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMqI-9mcR1Y&feature=relmfu. Just follow on to the others from links on the side.
[To understand what this blog is, read this first.]
I recently sat down with my parish priest for another in a long series of discussions, which I’ve recently begun to record. I wish I had been recording them all along, but better late than never. We discussed the recent emailing I did with a protestant professor, and the issues of iconography and apostolic succession (among other things).
[To understand what this blog is, read this first.]
Today I just received a copy of Early Christian Attitudes toward Images by Fr. Dr. Steven Bigham, and man do I wish I would have had that in hand before writing my previous responses to the protestant professor. That would’ve saved a lot of time. I’m glad I did the research I did, but just from what I’ve read so far I can see that Dr. Bigham does a great job of taking this information and really going deep with it. He does a very well rounded take on icons from all sides, archaeological, literary and theological that is way beyond anything I could do on a blog, even if I were qualified. So, if you are interested in trying to understand icons as a non-Orthodox Christian, or to defend them (or even just to understand the issue better), you definitely need to get that book. I have also had Imago Dei, by Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan recommended to me, but I haven’t read it personally. I have many books by Dr. Pelikan and can recommend all the ones I have read, so I don’t doubt that he did a wonderful job on that subject as well, so you might check it out too.
[To understand what this blog is, read this first.
This is part 2 of a letter I wrote. For part 1 see here.]
Apostolic Succession, or Continuity
The much more important question you raised, and that really controls the issue of iconography from start to finish, is how do we deal with doctrinal development? You asked this question in a couple different ways. What is the true church, and how is it identified? Didn’t the church suppress doctrines and writings? Where did the “mark” of apostolic succession get its force? Answering these satisfactorily answers the question of iconography as well, I believe.
Certainly history demonstrates that the Church was no stranger to disagreement, schism, and heresy. Starting even in the time of Jesus you can find large breakaways. A good example is in John 6, during the very hard teaching on the Eucharist, many (perhaps most) of his disciples left him. You can see disagreement in Acts 15 over the gentiles. You see it in the constant pastoral correction of Paul in his epistles. You find it in the polemics against the gnostics, and the dating of easter, and on and on. We know that writings that were out of favor were suppressed, and that could be interpreted as winners writing history. The problems go on and on.
It seems to me that you have two ways of addressing this problem. One is that you can distrust the development that occurred and hang on to only the most basic items that you determine are most essential, or you can trust the developments and invest them with authority as the standard of truth. How does one decide which approach is correct? Is there anything that is trustworthy? I think it is possible to make that decision in favor of trust. First, let me point out the problems with basic Protestant approach, which is to distrust the development of the church, or some portion of it.
One problem is that it puts the individual in the position of choosing which doctrines are acceptable and which aren’t. While on some level each person is responsible for responding to the call of God and exercising faith in Him, there is no Biblical or even philosophical warrant for that sort of individualistic decision making. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find this sort of determination of truth. Not even the apostles (even Peter) exercised this sort of papal authority as an individual. When issues arose needing determination they met in council (Acts 15). So the Biblical model of determining truth is in consensus. Protestantism makes everyone a pope.
The second problem is that there is no mechanism to determine what is essential or not. Even the idea that there are some essential teachings and some teachings that can be ignored at will is absent in the New Testament. Nowhere do we find a list of the essential points of orthodoxy in Scripture, so any attempt to formulate them relies on an individual’s discretion and reading of history to determine what they think is essential. This raises problems galore. I think Ireneaus is most helpful on this point. When he dealt with the gnostics and they claimed competing standards of Christianity he told them to demonstrate the accuracy of their understanding by showing the succession of their leaders who delivered this truth. I’d ask the same of any Protestant, and I wouldn’t expect a satisfactory answer. At some point there will be a gap, where a person broke with their previous community and reformulated their ideal of Christianity based on their personal beliefs.
The third problem is that the position of distrust of development is internally inconsistent. Those who put forward a determination of what is essential to Christianity rely on sources that are themselves non-authoritative. The canon of Scripture is the most blatant example of this, but we also rely extensively on the early ecumenical councils of the Church to point out solid truths, and yet we have no means of proving the authority of either. Anyone could argue that the New Testament is incorrectly formed or corrupted (Jehovah’s Witnesses), or incomplete (JW and Mormons), and there’s not a good and consistent answer to the charge for Protestants. Relying on councils is equally problematic. So holding this position puts one in the position of denying certain developments while simultaneously accepting others of the same time period and people for arbitrary reasons. Any mechanism for explaining the accepting or rejecting itself relies on non-authoritative means for its authority. Quite circular. You could say that the position of distrust in developments is itself a development, and therefore untrustworthy.
One thing I found interesting was your use of the Vincentian Canon in your book and email. Now, personally I agree with you that Vincent’s idea is both correct and binding, however I have to point out that nowhere can you prove authoritatively that Vincent’s ideas are either correct or binding on Christians. He didn’t speak the words of Jesus, and nowhere that I’m aware of was he even suggesting that his idea derived from an apostle. Right or wrong then, it was a development. On what basis then do you derive any value from his ideas? I’d also say that it is odd to hold so highly the one idea of Vincent in regard to determining what correct doctrine is, and yet disagree strongly with his actual practices. Now I am making an assumption there, that you disagree with his practices, based on your identification with evangelical Protestantism. If I mis-characterized you please forgive me, but certainly that would hold for most Protestants.
Now I think that the problems I’ve pointed out demonstrate the circularity of the Protestant position on what truth we can know, but you suggested that the Orthodox Church rests its claims on a circular argument of apostolic succession, or perhaps multiple circular arguments of which one primary one is apostolic succession. The thought would continue that if an identifying characteristic of the Church can’t be definitively sourced in Scripture it cannot be trusted to uniquely demonstrate anything. I find a few problems with this.
1) Succession is something that is sourced very early in Christianity, as you underscore in your comments and your book. It is found in the New Testament, and in the early writings of Clement and Irenaeus, where the succession of bishops is shown to be quite important from the very beginning. You make a distinction between apostolic succession, which you reject, and episcopal succession, which you accept. I take it from that statement that you associate “apostolic succession” with the idea that bishops all share in an equal authority with the early apostles in the sense of delivering revelation, but that is not the way that Orthodox use the term. Otherwise I’d have to say this is an early concern for the church, and not a later development.
2) This rejection relies on overly Roman Catholic understandings of succession. The Orthodox understanding of the succession in the church isn’t the same as it has become in Rome. Rome overly emphasizes the bishop and locates succession as a peculiarity of the office of bishop. Orthodoxy puts the locus of succession squarely in the community, and uses its central identifying member, the bishop, as the marker for that succession. The consequence of that is that “apostolic succession” in Orthodox terms means that the community, not the bishop, is the continuous embodiment of the Church founded by the apostles, holding fast the deposit of truth from the apostles. It’s an apostolic church, in the Nicene creed, not an apostolic bishop.
3) This same criteria being applied to other doctrinal positions would lead to the rejection of all central teachings. If one could only source doctrinal positions from what is unassailable in Scripture and/or the earliest Christian writings one would have to reject the canon of Scripture itself, since it cannot be demonstrated from Scripture or the earliest writings. One would have to reject the findings of the ecumenical councils. One would have to say that it was acceptable to see Jesus as a created being, as the Arians did and successfully argued from Scripture. One would have to reject the deity of the Holy Spirit as a necessary mark of Christianity. One would also have to accept the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic meal, which is about as clearly delineated a doctrine as you could hope for from Scripture and early writings and church practice.
4) This ignores the organic nature of the church and the power of the Holy Spirit. Taking the position that anything a person, in their own judgment, can’t find proved to their own satisfaction from the Scriptures and early writings can be freely rejected is a misunderstanding of the nature of the church and the work of the Holy Spirit. The church is a temple being built up by the Holy Spirit, over time, by the various gifts and the promise that it would be led into all truth. Therefore we must accede to the clear evidence of that work, that building up, in the history of the church by accepting the things that have been accepted. We do good to maintain the accepted canon, and the ecumenical councils. We should also hold to the practices of the church that have been accepted and approved in that God pleasing way as the work of the Holy Spirit. This would certainly hold for all 7 ecumenical councils, whether we agree with them or not. It would also hold for the icons.
If one is approaching this question as a believing Christian then we have a better way to rest our convictions than mere philosophical or historical contentions. We have Scripture!
“Christ promised that he would never leave us, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). He also promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18). We know that he is ever-present with the church by means of the person of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-18). Also, through the Holy Spirit the ascended Christ has gifted the church with not only first-generation apostles and prophets, but also enduring leaders called evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11). The implication is that the truth-telling and life-giving ministry of the Holy Spirit will prevail in the church against the hellish attacks of Satan.” [a quote from the author’s book]
I think this is key in understanding the development of doctrine. The Holy Spirit will be working to produce ever more clarity in the Body of Christ on all truth, and I think that is guaranteed by the words of Jesus. (John 16:13) Let’s not forget also that the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth. (1 Tim. 3:15) Taking all of the Scripture together paints a picture of a Church triumphant and pure, that is protected and guided by the Holy Spirit.
I think the implications of this is that you wouldn’t expect there to be any significant and long term apostasy in the Church. Certainly there have been heresies that have affected the Church, but you would have to believe that the Holy Spirit will actively correct those. That is in fact the contention you make in your book on page [XX]. Therefore you can (and do) have correction of the Church, but never re-formation.
In this light I think it’s good to recognize that the Nicene Creed, when it makes the statement on the church, shouldn’t be seen as a set of beliefs about the church, but rather a statement of belief in the Church. I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. They did, and I do too.
The common Protestant understanding of the ministry of the Holy Spirit to the Church is much more limited than what I outlined. The Holy Spirit will keep the central things intact, but all else is fair game. Protestants have really been maneuvered onto the horns of a dilemma in order to accept this teaching, which is far from the understanding of the early Church and the Scriptures. The Reformers needed to be able to justify breaking communion with Rome, but they also needed to feel that they were maintaining continuity with the early Church. They declared that the Church is an invisible union of people who believe ([believe] like me), and ceased to recognize any authority outside themselves short of God. This allowed them to break communion with the church as they knew it, and reorganize themselves in new ways. However, in avoiding one horn, they dropped all Protestants squarely on the other, which is a self-authoritative individualism that has nothing to do with Christianity.
(Of course all of this was avoidable. There was another option available to the reformers, which would be to rejoin the Orthodox. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the opportunity to read the correspondence between the theologian successors to Luther at Wittenburg, and the patriarch of Constantinople. It’s interesting.)
Protestants still seek unity, but because they are stuck with the individuality they don’t have the means that have always been effective for the Orthodox, clarity through consensus and communion. All they are left with is a smaller and smaller set of “core” doctrines which they can hold to as agreeable. The core beliefs then become Christianity because no other course seems possible. The ecumenical movement has solidified this thought ever more strongly as the only path to unity.
However, this minimization of Christianity isn’t the Biblical model, and it’s not the model of the early Church. In the Bible and early Christian history we can see time and again that when differences arose the Church met in council to achieve consensus and return to a state of unity. Over time you see a sense of what it means to be Christian with increasing clarity. But post-Reformation the trajectory is the opposite, with less and less to agree on. This leads me to have no hope in the future of unity in Protestantism. Recent history agrees with me. I fear for the future of evangelicals. If things keep up on their current trajectory I expect to see more and more people fleeing the relativity of Protestantism for the solidity of Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
What seems unsupportable about Protestantism is that by severing the community they’ve destroyed their ability to recognize what Christianity is. They accept the Bible, but not the way we got it. They accept the content, but not the way it was historically understood. They accept only what interpretations seem right to them. They accept the conclusions of (some) councils while simultaneously rejecting the Christianity of the men at those councils. This picking and choosing makes their doctrine arbitrary, and thus ultimately meaningless. This has never been the way that Christians arrived at truth. Looking at the disunity that has resulted it appears that it still isn’t.
Unity requires continuity. As Vincent told us, “everywhere, always, and by all.” You cannot have unity by forgetting or disowning the work of God in prior generations. Since you just wrote an entire book on this I know you’ll agree with that. You also can’t have unity by rejecting the remaining continuing presence of the first millennium catholic church (by that I mean the Orthodox Church, not the Roman Catholic Church) here through the second and now into the third millennium. Given that the work of the Holy Spirit is to guide the church into truth and protect it from being overcome one must conclude that the organized community of believers has been progressively becoming more attuned to the will of God, and that has dramatic consequences for how one views issues like iconography. It is simply unthinkable to assume that the Holy Spirit left the Church in a state of idolatry for 1,300 years until the Reformation. Rather one must conclude that it is the Protestants that have rejected the work of the Holy Spirit as it built the church into the magnificent temple it has become.
I think Protestants should strongly consider the possibility that the Reformation replaced one distortion of Christianity with another distortion, and the new one may be much worse.
Given the nature of the Church you can never say that it develops in ways contrary to prior revelation due to the activity of the Holy Spirit. It can implement revelation in new ways, though. This may be the case with iconographic use. It’s possible that the earliest church did not have art in their house churches, and it’s certain that the early church didn’t have the developed sense of iconography that the Orthodox do today, but there’s nothing inherently contradictory between the two states. And there’s nothing wrong with the Church stating that iconography is necessarily true Christianity, as a valid understanding of revelation, just as it has every right to insist on the Chalcedonian formulation of Christology, the canon, and the Nicene creed, all of which the earliest church did not have and were developments. One can’t accept the development in some cases and reject it in others. They are parallel cases and equally valid.
So, to sum up:
- The Holy Spirit leads the church into all truth, and protects it from failure.
- Therefore the Body of Christ can never fall permanently into error or cease to exist.
- Finally, any long term and accepted development must be considered the work of the Holy Spirit, and therefore essential to what it means to be Christian.
Over time I have looked through all the problem doctrines in Orthodoxy (including iconography, infant baptism, real presence in the Eucharist, saints, etc.) and have yet to find anything that I could say was clearly anti-Scriptural or anti-historic. I know this is my own estimation only, but so far as I can see it is true. I really appreciated your thoughts and your candor. It’s been a helpful exercise to reconsider iconography, and to put down some thoughts on “paper”.
I know this has become a very long email, and you are under no obligation to read it or respond. If you find the thoughts here useful, or care to respond in any fashion I welcome it. If you have additional reading you think would be valuable on any of these topics I’m always willing to delve into new books. Otherwise you can always just say a prayer for me and my family, and I’ll be grateful for that.
[To understand what this blog is, read this first. If you would rather just listen to discussion on icons, look for links down at the end.
Today I just received a copy of Early Christian Attitudes toward Images by Fr. Dr. Steven Bigham, and man do I wish I would have had that in hand before writing. I’m glad I did the research I did, but just from what I’ve read so far I can see that Dr. Bigham does a great job of taking this information and really going deep with it. He does a very well rounded take on icons from all sides, archaeological, literary and theological. So, if you are interested in trying to understand icons as a non-Orthodox, or to defend them, you definitely need to get that book. I have also had Imago Dei, by Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan recommended to me, but I haven’t read it personally. I have many books by Dr. Pelikan and can recommend all the ones I have read, so I don’t doubt that he did a wonderful job on that as well, so you might check it out.]
This letter (again, long long long) is in response to some correspondence from a protestant professor of patristics. I asked him about his thoughts on Orthodoxy, and he actually responded in some detail, which was a bit of a surprise. After reading his response, which focused on the use of icons as an example of deviations from historic Christian doctrine, and on apostolic succession as the foundation of Orthodoxy’s claim to fame I went back to the drawing board and rethought my understanding on these issues. As I re-examined early Christian art I found the book The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art to be very helpful. The book Ante Pacem has really good material as well. I also discussed the issues with some Orthodox Ph.D.s. I received some excellent thoughts from them. The response below is my own writing and thoughts. Any mistakes are mine, not the excellent people who shared their thoughts with me.
Dr. [Patristics Ph.D.],
I’m back. 🙂 It’s been a few weeks since you last wrote back to me, and I’ve been reading and considering your emails, doing additional research and such, and now I’d like to share some thoughts. You said it would be ok to email back, so you brought this on yourself. 🙂
I thought it was funny that you started working through these issues after reading through the Ante-Nicene Fathers. That’s how I got started down the rabbit hole as well. Since beginning to experience the early church writings and digging more into history I’ve found myself less and less happy with what I see in Protestant doctrine and practice, and that has led me to consider Orthodoxy. I really appreciate your help in thinking this through, and maybe in some way this response will help with your book idea. Certainly it helps me, and I need it. Since you let me impose a bit already, I’m going to take additional liberty and impose again. I’d like to lay out my thinking on what you’ve said so far and ask you to use your expertise to point out any problems you see. I understand that your time is valuable, and I wouldn’t ask except that this is a crucial juncture for my family and I’m driven to seek out the best advice I can get, and to make the absolute best choice in serving God. So, forgive me for asking for your attention again, and I’ll understand if you can’t respond in any depth.
How We’ve Viewed the Early Church (and Iconography)
Let me lay out my case for the icons for you first, and then segue into my thoughts on apostolic succession. I have examined these issue in the past, but your comments made me want to start over and dig deeper and make sure that I had given ear to all sides, considering latest scholarship as best I was able.
As I was reading over the questions you brought up in your last email I was struck with how appropriate they were on the subject of the standard interpretative matrix that has dominated historic views of early Christianity and images. The “orthodox” view of early Christianity has been a very schizophrenic one, dominated in recent memory by the views of Adolf von Harnack, as reinterpreted by Theodore Klauser. The basic story told has been that:
- Christianity was the natural continuation of Judaism, and so was opposed to imagery both in doctrine as well as in practice.
- This opposition was maintained by clergy into the fourth century, but this opposition was quickly eroded in the laity and they disdained the correct views of their leaders, demanded images and got them.
- The introduction of images was a contradiction of the views and practices of the early Christians.
This idea of how images were introduced into the church (“the standard interpretation”) has held sway for quite a while, but is now being quickly challenged with new views that owe less to the heritage of John Calvin’s interpretative matrix and bad archaeological knowledge, and more to a contextual understanding of the evidence we have now. Back in 1977 Sister Charles Murray published an article that began to challenge the standard interpretation, and she has since been followed by other historians, such as Margaret Miles, Justo Gonzalez, Graydon Snyder, Robin Jensen, and Paul Finney (that I know of) in rejecting the earlier held view. The viewpoints of these historians intentionally tries to see past the post-reformation interpretations and review the data itself again in light of current knowledge of the ancient context. Doing so has caused them to arrive at very different conclusions than Harnack/Klauser and followers.
“In the early church, there seems to have been no objection to the use of images, for the catacombs and other early places of worship were decorated with paintings depicting communion, baptism, and various biblical episodes. Later, when the Empire embraced Christianity, several leading bishops expressed concern that the masses now flocking to the church would be led to idolatry, and therefore they preached, not against the images themselves, but against their misuse as objects of worship.” (pg 259, The Story of Christianity, Dr. Justo Gonzalez)
“Having supposed the [patristic] literature was fairly accurate in its perception, church historians have for centuries described an early church that first was pure and then, by a gradual erosion of faith and practice, fell into heretical schisms. Walter Bauer, in his classic study of orthodoxy and heresy in the pre-Constantinian church, shattered this naive presupposition.” (pg 15, Ante Pacem, Dr. Graydon Snyder)
“This picture of an essentially aniconic early Christianity, strongly advanced by such eminent art historians as Theodore Klauser in the 1950s and 1960s, came to be widely accepted. Klauser and others portrayed the earliest Christians as proto-Protestants — puritanical, anti-wordly, and opposed to visual art, particularly in worship settings, and cited the writings of the early Christian theologians who were critical of Roman idol worship as evidence of this original iconophobia. Many historians of Christianity accepted this explanation rather uncritically, and readily incorporated it into their studies of early Christianity and Roman society. Such a position accords well with a view that Christianity became increasingly decadent or Hellenized in the third and fourth centuries as the church became assimilated to culture. This view, however, relies on far too literalistic a reading of the ancient literature, rather than presenting a picture of early Christianity that accords with the actual archaeological or textual evidence.” (pg 14, Understanding Early Christian Art, Dr. Robin Jensen)
“…Klauser introduces archaeological materials into the discussion of attitudes toward art, and on principle this is a real step forward, but due to his interpretative framework, much of what he has to say about these materials is either problematic or demonstrably false.” (pg 10, The Invisible God, Dr. Paul Finney)
I particularly found Dr. Finney’s (professor of Ancient History at University of Missouri) book The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art to be instructive (as well as Dr. Jensen’s Understanding Early Christian Art). He presents the issues of the standard interpretation with clarity and demonstrates how a synthesis of the literary and archaeological evidence can be found that respects the early Christian context.
You cautioned in your email that it is easy to mis-read early literature. Without paying attention to the social context and literary genre one can easily devolve into seeing what one wants to see, or proof-texting the fathers. Dr. Finney points out that the bulk of early literary evidence on the subject of images is found in apologies on Roman idolatry, and not on treatises dealing with art. Art was secondary to their purpose of dealing with Roman idolatry. This must be considered in understanding the aims of the literature, and what it applies to. Too often the literature is anachronistically dragged into an iconographic debate that wouldn’t occur for many centuries, when in reality it was dealing with a different topic altogether, pagan idolatry.
In my survey of the passages from the Fathers this became strongly confirmed. Over and over the later apologetic writings against icons misused and abused earlier writings that were not intended to speak to the subject. I read over passages from Polycarp, Marcianus Aristides, Melito, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, Athenagoras, Tertullian, Minucius, Hippolytus, Arnobius, and others that were referenced as iconoclastic. In all cases the quotations were dealing with idolatry, and not the Christian practice of iconography, and of course most of those were not even from the early Christian time period and so don’t speak to early Christian attitudes on art in any case. Much hay was made from some quotations by Origen from his Contra Celsus, but again when read in context it was clear that the subject matter was not iconography. I appreciated the concerns you raised about anachronism, and it seems that apologetics against iconography are clearly suffering from that malady in spades.
Many arguments against icons drew strongly from texts by Epiphanius, but I think the argumentation against the authenticity of those texts is reasonable, and so I place no trust in them. Anyways, Epiphanius seems to oppose the use of icons on curtains and walls, but it is clear from his writings that he was opposing the common practice, and so his work shouldn’t be used as a proof that the early church uniformly opposed icons. Also it is interesting that his descriptions of the pictures of the different Apostles seem to confirm the existence of an iconographic tradition.
There is a Gnostic work ascribed to the early called the Acts of John that criticizes icons. This is interesting because this would seem to imply that Christians used icons at this time, and its criticism of icons probably comes from the gnostic rejection of the importance of matter, which Christianity rejected.
I probably don’t have to mention Eusebius of Caesarea to you, but just so that you know I’ve dealt with it I’ll note that quotations are taken from a letter of his to Constantia, sister to Emperor Constantine, to demonstrate his iconoclastic doctrine, but the quotes are in doubt by many historians as to their authenticity, and the quotes don’t even truly demonstrate iconoclasm. I don’t find them very illuminating.
Finney says that the reading of the apologies as “faithfully reproducing the real-life conditions that obtained both for themselves and their enemies in the second and third centuries” is “naive and misleading” (pg 16). Certainly this is the case for almost all apologetic writings, ancient and modern, and should be accounted for. There is a huge gap, a definitive difference, in the quality of what can be gleaned from apologies against non-Christian practices verses doctrinal instruction from theologians to their flock. We have much of the former, but not much of the latter, in the literature regarding images. In the end it is crucial to remember that the early Christian apologists created an attack against Greek religious art, which is not consonant in subject matter or use with Christian religious art.
So, the first problem with the standard interpretation is a misleading reading of the apologetic literature. The second is due to misleading assumptions about the character of early Christians that would lead them to be anti-art, stemming from the archaeological evidence of the first two centuries. Or rather, the lack of such. Finney points out this issue of interpreting the lack of evidence, quite correctly, I think.
“To repeat, the point of departure is the fundamental claim (No Christian art before 200), and we can extend the scope of this generalization indefinitely to include the entire universe of material culture in the first and second centuries: nothing in any material category (papyri excepted) that is distinctively Christian and predates the third century. The inference that flows from this absence of evidence is compelling: before 200 Christians produced nothing that was materially distinct, no art and no separate material culture in any form [meaning things like houses, tools, weapons, money, etc. that are distinctively Christian].
“But this too is an archaeological argument from silence, and arguments in this genre are notoriously slippery. This one is no exception. The major pitfall is the tendency to confuse absence of evidence with negative evidence: as any undergraduate history major can tell you, they are not the same. Not knowing if a thing exists is different from knowing it does not. Before 1932, for example, the complete absence of figural art from pre-Byzantine Judaism was taken as a sign that the so-called normative form of (a la George Foote Moore) this ancient religion was strictly aniconic. Then came Dura[-Europos]. The discovery of the synagogue with its rich complement of biblically inspired wall paintings forced a reevaluation–indeed, a dramatic and rather far-reaching one. Sixty years later, the historical assessment of Judaism in later antiquity is still in progress, including an ongoing evaluation of the putative role that aniconism played in the life of this community. A similar discovery in the Christian realm could have equally dramatic consequences.” (pg. 100, The Invisible God)
Certainly the study of Christian archaeology is a very old discipline, and the lack of early, found evidence must be taken into account, and yet in the last century we’ve had very striking discoveries that have changed the field and caused people to reevaluate their ideas. Dura-Europos is certainly enough to give one pause. There you have the oldest surviving, positively identified Christian church. In it, surprisingly, we find iconography dating from the early third century. So, the oldest church we know of had icons, and this at the time period where much apologetic material against images (pagan idols) was being produced. Much more surprisingly the Jewish synagogue at Dura-Europos also had very detailed iconography. This sheds enormous light on the oft-repeated contention that Jews were strongly anti-image. Apparently, not so much. Since this is used as common justification for why early Christians would’ve been anti-image I find this to be very important.
For a survey of the earliest Christian art I turned to Ante Pacem, by Dr. Graydon Snyder, one time dean and professor of New Testament at Bethany Theological Seminary and Chicago Theological Seminary. In this excellent book Dr. Snyder discusses all of the types of art that we can definitively date to pre-Constantinian periods. I found it very helpful. His discussion of early veneration of the dead was extremely interesting, and while it bears on iconography and clearly points at veneration of saints at the beginning of Christianity, that is a side topic for another time. Dr. Snyder notes 31 separate types of pictorial representations all to be found in sepulchral art, fresco, mosaics, etc. Of those 31 at least 12 types would’ve included depictions of Jesus. The earliest age of the surviving art work would date back to the late 2nd century. Within a century of the last living apostles we have evidence of imagery being used. Based on that alone it would be reasonable to say that early Christianity was not opposed to images.
And yet, again, the study of early Christian archaeology, which dates back to the 1600s, has failed to find anything of Christian culture except for some writings, that can be dated back before 200. Finney spends time filling in the big question that his reinterpretation leads to, which is where is the art in the first two centuries. Here I will note a few points.
- The assumptions that early Christians were anti-art are just that, assumptions. A reinterpretation needs to be logical and fill in the gaps, but in combating a (widely held) set of assumptions sans evidence the bar of proof is necessarily lower.
- Early Christians weren’t the only groups in the time period to leave no material cultural evidence. For parallels you could also look to Roman neo-Pythagoreans from the first century, or the gnostics. The gnostics had a similar strongly documented belief system in literature, but no material cultural remains to demonstrate their existence. “Material culture” encompasses not just art, but buildings, goods, tools, weapons, domestic utensils, etc. Christians left nothing in the first few centuries. Contrast this with the Jewish people of this time period, who certainly left traces of themselves in many ways that are identifiable as a separate culture. Absence of these things commonly denotes the absence of a distinct culture.
- The standard interpretation which posits a strongly anti-image early Christianity gives no convincing reason for an abrupt about-face in the 200s. Klauser’s interpretation is very unsatisfying, and fails to adequately explain not only the attitude shift, but the complete disregard of this attitude shift from Christian leaders in the remaining literature.
- Given that a pre-supposition of the standard view is an anti-image Judaism, which is being re-evaluated by historians due to recent finds, we don’t have a convincing reason to presuppose that early Christianity was necessarily anti-image. (I’d also posit that that view of Judaism on a theological level doesn’t match the Biblical injunctions against idols, but requiring imagery in worship, from the Old Testament)
Finney goes on to posit an explanation for the lack of art work from the early centuries. I’ll leave it to his book to lay out the ideas in a more full and convincing argument, but you could sum it up by saying that Christians lacked a definitive culture. They did not have their own land, or economy or ethnicity. The surrounding culture was their culture. This might be illustrated by the anonymous Christian writing in 200 to the procurator of Egypt:
“Christians distinguish themselves from other people not by nationality or by language or by dress. They do not inhabit their own cities or use a special language or practice a life that makes them distinctive or conspicuous. … They live in Greek and barbarian cities, following the lot that each has chosen, and they conform to the indigenous customs in matters of clothing and food and the rest of life” (Epistle to Diognetus)
“A.D. 180 was the date at which the Christian subculture was willing to say to the majority culture that it existed and had a right to exist. Because of that courage, we now may see how the early Christians assimilated symbols and practices from the Roman world to create its own discreet cultural characteristics.” (pg 297, Ante Pacem)
Taking a step back I know that what I’ve argued for is an early Christianity that isn’t anti-image, but I haven’t demonstrated an early Christianity that uses images in worship and prayer. Unfortunately at this stage of archaeological knowledge this seems un-provable. I think we have a consistent and convincing interpretation of early Christianity’s views on art, but we can’t say that they used art in worship unless we start getting more data from before 200. At that time we have evidence of the use of art in worship and Christian specific practices. Prior to that we are just speculating. That being said…
A benefit to this reinterpretation of early Christian attitudes about art is that it gets rid of a very discontinuous view of early Christianity, where clergy and laity are pitted against one another and you have some parts of the Church strongly anti-image, while others are merrily creating them, followed by a resounding silence in the 4th century and beyond from the church leadership about this widespread idolatrous practice. This interpretation really makes no sense.
In his second book of five on the development of doctrine the historian Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan (a Lutheran who late in life became Orthodox) makes a very interesting point when he quotes another historian and then comments:
” ‘In view of the sharpness with which Christianity originally directed itself agains the idols, it always remains surprising that later, without being blocked and almost without being observed, the pagan practice was able to establish itself even within the church.‘ Such a comment begs many of the questions at stake in the controversy, above all the question of whether the Christian worship of images was indeed ‘the pagan practice’ that had originally been attacked by Christians and that had now crept back into the church, but also the question of how much ‘later’ this had happened.” (pg 97, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700))
There doesn’t seem to be a good explanation for this in the standard interpretation. Apparently the church practice just spontaneously devolved. Or did it? Really there are two interpretations, two stories being told about what happened with iconography. One story would have me believe that within 100-150 years after the death of Jesus the church became strongly divided with the laity largely falling into idolatry, eventually dragging the clergy with them, and staying in idolatry pretty much until the Protestant Reformation giving the lie to the promises of Jesus to maintain His Church. The other story would have me believe that the early Christians developed their own culture around 200 where they began to incorporate their own particular use of art in their spiritual life, while protesting the idolatrous use of the culture around them, that the clergy and laity were united in their activities, and that they remained united in accord with the promises of Jesus.
There are many other things that could be discussed about iconography. We could work through the practice after Constantine. We could work through the theology. We could consider my own personal experience with them as I’ve engaged with the Orthodox, but I’ll just confine myself to answering the objection you raised. Now I’d like to shift the issue slightly and look at it from another angle.
[For the second part of the letter see the next post.]
For more reading on this subject see:
And if you just want to listen:
[To understand what this blog is, read this first.]
I recently read a new book by a Protestant professor at a well known seminary (not naming names as usual) on the subject of Evangelicals reconnecting with history. For reasons that should be obvious to anyone reading this blog this is a topic that is very interesting to me. I want to know more about the subject of history for Protestant sources as a double check on what I’ve been thinking, and I’m also interested in resources that might be helpful for my family.
(I didn’t find this professor’s book particularly helpful, but I’m not going to name names. One book that I thought was very good from a Protestant perspective is Retrieving the Tradition, by Dr. D. H. Williams (not the author I’m talking to). I can recommend that book for anyone who wants to spur on Protestant family or friends to engage with early church history.)
While I was reading this professor’s book I noticed many references to Orthodoxy in a negative light, but since the book wasn’t directed at Orthodoxy the author never developed his reasoning for dismissing it. I emailed him and asked why he never became Orthodox, and this is what he said. Since the professor didn’t write with the intent to do public debate I’ve withheld his name and edited the letter down to just a few relevant bits:
The ways that various traditions have claimed to be the “One True Church” actually amount to circular (or self-authentication) arguments. Apostolic succession is one such claim, as the concept of apostolic succession itself as the mark of the One True Church is itself a development. It is not something that had been believed everywhere, always, and by all. Which means at some point it began to be affirmed as the mark of authentic apostolicity…. So, for any tradition to point to their succession from apostles as a mark of their authenticity, they must assume that the development of this doctrine as the mark of authenticity is itself an authentic development….
I do believe in “episcopal and presbyteral succession,” as did the earliest church. That is, the apostles pretty clearly established the presbyters in each local church, with the intention that those offices continue on. But as I treat this in chapter X, the hierarchical developments that occurred when the church grew in the Imperial period do not reflect what was established by the apostles. So the development itself cannot be authenticated with apostolic authority….
Also, it can be demonstrated through a study of the earliest fathers and reading chronologically, that a number of doctrines that are central to the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions are developments (and even deviations) from what had been held in earlier centuries. We can actually see when these doctrines and practices enter the Christian tradition; they usually enter with protest from the earlier doctrines or practices; then they eventually take over, claiming to have been the original practice from the beginning. The devotional use of icons is one such practice…. The Fathers of the first few centuries actually use the LACK OF IMAGES among Christians as a point of marked difference between Christian and pagan worship…
So, to any objective reader of the history, images were not only not used in the first few centuries of catholic Christianity, but their liturgical use were explicitly rejected. Yet the seventh “ecumenical council” (Nicaea II) condemns iconoclasts and claims that the liturgical use of images is THE (not just “a”) Orthodox, Catholic Faith. This is obviously an error, especially from the standard of St. Vincent of Lerins’ mark of catholicity: “that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”
So, because all claims to being the One True Faith are circular, I had to conclude that either 1) ALL orthodox Christian traditions [as I describe them in the book] all make up the One True Faith in its historical and contemporary diversity [including the Eastern and Western catholic traditions, Protestantism, etc.] OR 2) there is no One True Church. What Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox want me to believe is that they are, in fact, the One True Church even if it takes a circular argument to authenticate their claims.
I wrote him back and thanked him for his comments, and asked if he wouldn’t mind a clarification at a later point. He followed up with this email, again edited:
…I am always astounded when a student spends a few months or a year or so reading just a fraction of sources and concluding that the Anglican, Orthodox, or Roman Catholic church is the One True Church. The few that do come to me for advice can’t answer the simplest critical questions, in fact, don’t even know the questions that need to be asked: 1) how does one avoid anachronism in reading the primary sources? 2) What is the nature of doctrinal development? 3) What constituted the authentic church in apostolic times? 4) Does evidence of episcopal succession imply apostolic succession? 5) How do we deal with the fact that later church authorities picked which early church Fathers to keep copying and preserving? Etc., etc.
I was really surprised that the author wrote back in such detail, and that gave me a lot to think about. I’ve worked through the issue of icons and apostolic succession, and I’ve written a bit to my family on the subject of iconography, but having a Ph.D. in patristics make such strong assertions gives you pause and makes you want to re-evaluate your previous conclusions. I’ll follow up on this in my next blog post.
[To understand what this blog is, read this first. If you would rather just listen to discussion on icons, look for links down at the end.]
Here’s my first attempt to explain one of the common struggles of protestants with Orthodoxy. Icons are the most visible difference when a protestant walks into an Orthodox church. They cover almost every square inch of the sanctuary, it seems. Here’s an example [to the right]. In that picture you’ll see icons covering a large wall, called an iconostasis, which is in the sanctuary. You’ll also find icons in the Orthodox home. Since they are present all around the Orthodox, it’s worth taking a second to understand what they are, and are not.
The icon can be loosely defined as sacred art, but that really mischaracterizes what an icon is. The icon is a picture of a person, but it is not intended merely for appreciation, and so I would not call them art. They aren’t meant to be decoration. Their use is mostly functional, though they are often beautiful. Icons are the products of a very controlled process of a trained iconographer. They are seen as visual theology, or a visual depiction of the Word. The styles and symbols are laid out ahead of time. Iconography is not a place for innovation, so much as imitation. This is important, as icons are meant to be instructive as part of their use.
The most important set of icons would be those of Christ. The icon of Christ is always seen directly to the right of the central door in the iconostasis. In the picture above you can see the icon of Christ holding the book of life, hand raised in blessing, wearing a robe of red indicating divinity, covered by a robe of blue indicating humanity. Christ’s halo will almost always have greek letters inside it. They will either be the alpha and omega, with obvious symbolism, or a set of omicron-omega-nu, which means “He who is”. The rest of the icons will be depictions of saints and angels, sometimes revolving around Biblical scenes, but many are from post-biblical time periods.
Finally, icons are seen as “windows into heaven”. They are always two dimensional, rather than 3d art such as statues. The idea is that icons are depictions of the reality of God’s existence and the saints with Him. Since they are in a different, higher type of reality (heaven) the icon is flat so as to give the viewer the clear idea that this person isn’t in “our” space, but that we are seeing into their space. A window indeed.
That’s a basic idea of what an icon is. Physically, it’s just a picture. Spiritually it is considered something more. Let me quickly run down some historical notes, and then I’ll address the common complaints against icons.
First, there’s a common misconception that goes like this. Jewish religion was rabidly anti art, or at least religious art, and in particular any depictions of God. They never had any depictions in their synagogues, and would have considered them idols. The Christians would have clearly continued this practice as they were practicing Jews. It must have been a later corruption of Christianity from paganism that added in icons. This was the assumption of the Reformers that instituted the mostly shared Protestant iconoclasm, based on archaeological knowledge at their time, but more recent archaeology has shown that synagogues closer to the time of Christ have been found with quite extensive iconography. So it’s likely that at the time of Christ this was normal practice. There have also been Christian churches found from the ante-nicene period before Constantine that also showed extensive iconography, and iconography has been found in the underground churches of the Roman catacombs. You can see some of the iconography at http://www.sacred-destinations.com/syria/dura-europos. From this we know that iconography was in use at least by the 200s. There’s not any particular reason to believe it wasn’t in use prior to that, but we just don’t have any data prior to that. The earliest known Christian church that has been excavated had icons. That’s all we can say from the strict historical record.
Theological objections to icons
The Reformers may not have been privy to our archaeological information, but they mostly based their renewed iconoclasm (there was an iconoclast movement in the 700s) on theological grounds. Calvin was the originator of protestant iconoclasm it seems. Luther didn’t seem to have any particular objections to pictures in the church, but Calvin would have none of it. Today protestants mostly follow his lead. Calvin saw God as unknowable, and said that putting any form in connection with God necessarily made it a lie. He also had the impression that Judaism was completely imageless, following hard on the prohibition against graven images, but completely ignoring the many instances of images in the Old Testament that were commanded or approved by God, and the full context of God’s prohibition against making an image of Him. Certainly at the time God had no revealed form. Imaging Him at that time would have been false in any case.
But there were plenty of images in the Old Testament: the cherubim on the Ark and on the walls of the tabernacle curtains, among others. See Exodus 25 & 26, 1 Kings 6 & 7, and Ezekiel 41:18. So Scripture itself demonstrates a different interpretation of the second commandment. A look at Deut 4:11,15-18 can clarify that the second command had a good reason, and one that made perfect sense at the time, but points at a change when Christ comes. God wasn’t to be depicted because He wasn’t known in visible form. When Jesus came this was no longer the case, and the Orthodox would argue that in fact it becomes necessary to depict Christ. If depictions of Christ are not allowed then there is an implicit denial of the incarnation. Can he be said to be truly human if you can’t depict Him? At the least it leaves the door open to question His true humanity. Allowing for physical depictions safe guards our understanding of who Christ is.
I think most Protestants, like myself, are not terribly upset about depicting Christ at all. They don’t follow as closely with Calvin in insisting on completely removing any depiction of Christ. If you were to talk into a Church and see a painting of Jesus, you wouldn’t be upset I suspect. I wouldn’t normally think twice about it. It’s not common, but not unheard of. What about seeing the same painting of Jesus in the sanctuary. Now it gets a bit more odd, but probably still not too concerning. What if the painting is at the very front? What if when the pastor prayed he turned to face the icon. Now most of us are going to be uncomfortable. Here’s where our iconoclastic tendencies will surface. Have we just made the painting of Christ into an idol?
The Orthodox say no, and after some thought I have to agree. The worship shown toward an icon of Christ is worship of Christ, not the icon. The same holds true of veneration shown toward a saint, but I’ll address saints in a different email. You can see how this worship or veneration is going to the depicted, not the depiction. Ask yourself, am I ever confused when I look at a picture hanging on my wall and believe the photo is the person, or did it merely allow me to make a mental connection with that person? If the soldier in war pulls out a picture of his family during a moment of peace and gives it a kiss, has he suddenly fallen in love with a piece of paper with ink on it, or did he feel love for his actual family? I’ve seen people talk to a photo of a dead relative. I don’t think they were conversing with the paper. Personal experience and a minimum of understanding towards other people is enough to show that when you look at an icon of Christ and pray, your prayer is directed at Christ, and the icon serves as an aid. I’m confident that if Jesus had been incarnated today every Christian in the world would have a photograph of him, and copies of all the video they could get their hands on. We would want the pictures hanging in our house, and wherever we would pray.
So, to recap the whole argument, the historical data indicates that as best we know both ancient Judaism and Christianity were both using icons in their worship environment. This use continued without interruption until the 700s, when the Emperor tried to have icons removed, and the people revolted. Christians all used them until after the Reformation, when Protestants largely dropped their use based on the belief that historically Christians and Jews hadn’t used any images and tied this to the second commandment, ignoring other Scripture that both expanded the 2nd commandment, and clear indications that the 2nd commandment did not prohibit the use of any images in worship due to counter examples in the construction of the tabernacle. Depictions of Christ are not excluded by the second commandment, because He has been incarnated into a true human form, and that form can and must be depicted. Depictions of God the Father and Holy Spirit would still be off limits, and indeed the Orthodox do not depict them. Reverencing an icon is true reverence to the person depicted in the icon, and so is not inappropriate unless it is inappropriate to reverence that person. Finally, use of icons protects our understanding of who Christ is, and has a great utilitarian function in worship and prayer.
[My local priest had this to add: The Orthodox Church does depict the Holy Spirit, but only in two specific instances — the Baptism of Christ as a dove and Pentecost as tongues of fire. Otherwise, you are absolutely correct that we don’t have icons of the Holy Spirit. There is also an icon of Christ which is called Almighty — a title given to the Father in the Nicene Creed. Using Christ’s words from John that those who have seen Christ have seen the Father, this particular icon of Christ is our icon of the Father. Technically, though, you are correct that we do not depict the Father in icons.]
Perhaps the last practical objection, which you mentioned, is that icons could become objects of worship themselves, rather than being “windows into heaven”. While I can see the possibility I have never heard of this occurring in actuality, seen it in my experience with Orthodox Christians, or been at all confused in my own experience with icons. Now having been around them its is hard to see how this could actually happen. I could see how they might become objects of superstition though. A person might treat them as if they were magic objects, imparting good luck or deflecting bad events. That’s possible, but the same issue is present in the Protestant use of cross necklaces or even Bibles, which sometimes become objects of superstition. A clear understanding of what icons are, and a consistent use in the life of a Christian is the antidote.
Here’s my personal experience. When you walk into an Orthodox church you know that you are in the great cloud of witnesses. It’s so real that it is palpable. I have found myself MUCH more connected to Christians who lived in times past now that I have been surrounded by their faces whenever I go to worship God. It’s great to feel like the Body of Christ is present with you. Hopefully reading this you can make sense of the basic argument. I have personal experience now with icons, as does [my wife], and we can both affirm that icons are not disruptive to our faith. On the contrary, I’ve found icons of Christ to be deeply moving and very helpful in prayer. At one point in the liturgy the people are told to bow their heads to Christ. We all bow our heads toward the icon in the iconostasis. No one is bowing their head to paint and wood.
There’s much more to be said, or read, and I’ve included some links below to more full explications of icons. Some of the issues around icons are really issues with veneration of dead saints. I’ll deal with that separately, since this email is already long enough.
I’m still a little uncertain how to best approach these topics. I want to be respectful and not argumentative, but the only way to present my reasoning in a way that shows HOW I made my peace with these various struggles requires that I be somewhat apologetic in tone. Hopefully this doesn’t cause a problem. If you find that this is frustrating or angering, let me know and I can ease back. Again, I don’t expect that you will necessarily agree with me, but hopefully you can at least see a soundness in the reasoning.
For more reading on this subject see:
And if you just want to listen: