On early christian art: a response to a protestant professor pt. 1

[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:

  1. Christianity was the natural continuation of Judaism, and so was opposed to imagery both in doctrine as well as in practice.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

On early christian art: a response to a protestant professor pt. 1