Jul 28, 2022

Did the Church Fathers Teach the Veneration and Worship of Images?


#1 - Eusebius of Caesarea

“For there stands upon an elevated stone, by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if she were praying. Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward the woman. At his feet, beside the statue itself, is a certain strange plant, which climbs up to the hem of the brazen cloak, and is a remedy for all kinds of diseases.They say that this statue is an image of Jesus. It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city. Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Savior, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.” (Ecclesiastical History, Book VII, Chapter 18)

I respond by noting the following things:

[1]. In this specific text, Eusebius does not necessarily give a positive or negative view of images.

[2]. In 327, Constantia (the sister of the Roman emperor) wrote a letter to Eusebius asking for a picture of Christ (link). He admonished her for this, saying that “we no longer know Christ after the flesh”. He even said this:

“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.” (as cited in  David M. Gwynn, “From Iconoclasm to Arianism: The Construction of Christian Tradition in the Iconoclast Controversy,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 47 (2007), pg. 227)

#2 - St. Basil of Caesarea

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox apologists quote the following passage from a letter which is commonly attributed to St. Basil the Great:

“I acknowledge also the holy apostles, prophets, and martyrs; and I invoke them to supplication to God, that through them, that is, through their mediation, the merciful God may be propitious to me, and that a ransom may be made and given me for my sins. Wherefore also I honor and kiss the features of their images, inasmuch as they have been handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches” (Letter 360).


However, it is likely that this letter was forged by iconophiles and was not actually written by St. Basil. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that there were many apocryphal letters of Basil.


John B. Carpenter, a Reformed scholar, had personal correspondence with Istvan M. Bugar concerning whether or not “letter 360” was really written by Basil:


“The letter has the sound of evidence created after the fact. István M. Bugár concludes that letter 360 is ‘anachronistic’ and is so widely doubted that it ‘does not feature in most collections; of Basil’s letters.” (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/answering-eastern-orthodox-apologists-regarding-icons/)

Testimonies from the Fathers Showing they Didn't Venerate Images, but rather Condemned Them

Such, then, being the case, the Greeks ought by the Law and the Prophets to learn to worship one God only, the only Sovereign; then to be taught by the apostle, but to us an idol is nothing in the world, 1 Corinthians 8:4 since nothing among created things can be a likeness of God; and further, to be taught that none of those images which they worship can be similitudes: for the race of souls is not in form such as the Greeks fashion their idols.” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book VI, Chapter 18)

“It were indeed ridiculous, as the philosophers themselves say, for man, the plaything of God, to make God, and for God to be the plaything of art; since what is made is similar and the same to that of which it is made, as that which is made of ivory is ivory, and that which is made of gold golden. Now the images and temples constructed by mechanics are made of inert matter; so that they too are inert, and material, and profane; and if you perfect the art, they partake of mechanical coarseness. Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine.” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book VII, Chapter 5)

Whoever, therefore, is anxious to observe the obligations to which man is liable, and to maintain a regard for his nature, let him raise himself from the ground, and, with mind lifted up, let him direct his eyes to heaven: let him not seek God under his feet, nor dig up from his footprints an object of veneration, for whatever lies beneath man must necessarily be inferior to man; but let him seek it aloft, let him seek it in the highest place: for nothing can be greater than man, except that which is above man. But God is greater than man: therefore He is above, and not below; nor is He to be sought in the lowest, but rather in the highest region. Wherefore it is undoubted that there is no religion wherever there is an image. For if religion consists of divine things, and there is nothing divine except in heavenly things; it follows that images are without religion, because there can be nothing heavenly in that which is made from the earth. And this, indeed, may be plain to a wise man from the very name. For whatever is an imitation, that must of necessity be false.” (Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book II, Chapter 19)

For they have mouths, and speak not: they have eyes, and see not Psalm 113:5….But, it will be said, we also have very many instruments and vessels made of materials or metal of this description for the purpose of celebrating the Sacraments, which being consecrated by these ministrations are called holy, in honor of Him who is thus worshiped for our salvation: and what indeed are these very instruments or vessels, but the work of men's hands? But have they mouth, and yet speak not? Have they eyes, and see not? Do we pray unto them, because through them we pray to God? This is the chief cause of this insane profanity, that the figure resembling the living person, which induces men to worship it, has more influence in the minds of these miserable persons, than the evident fact that it is not living, so that it ought to be despised by the living.” (Augustine, Exposition of Psalm 113)

Thus to fall most completely into error was the due desert of men who sought for Christ and His apostles not in the holy writings, but on painted walls” (Augustine, On the Harmony of the Gospels, Book I, Chapter 10)

The first commandment, in which we are forbidden to worship any likeness of God made by human contrivance, we are to understand as referring to the Father: this prohibition being made, not because God has no image, but because no image of Him but that One which is the same with Himself, ought to be worshiped; and this One not in His stead, but along with Him” (Augustine, Letter 55 to Januarius)

Why have I said this? Please consider carefully the chief point I’m making. We had started to deal with the apparently better educated pagans — because the less educated are the ones who do the things about which these do not wish to be taken to task — so with the better educated ones, since they say to us, “You people also have your adorers of columns, and sometimes even of pictures.” And would to God that we didn’t have them, and may the Lord grant that we don’t go on having them! But all the same, this is not what the Church teaches you. I mean, which priest of theirs ever climbed into a pulpit and from there commanded the people not to adore idols, in the way that we, in Christ, publicly preach against the adoration of columns or of the stones of buildings in holy places, or even of pictures? On the contrary indeed, it was their very priests who used to turn to the idols and offer them victims for their congregations, and would still like to do so now.” (Augustine, Sermon 198)

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