Aug 3, 2022

A Response to Dave Armstrong on the Church Fathers (particularly St. Augustine) and Iconography


Dave Armstrong has written a response to my article concerning what the church fathers believed concerning the veneration of images. Before we start, it is interesting to note that Dave Armstrong only dealt with two of the fathers I brought up, namely Augustine and Basil the Great. Assuming he read all of my article, I am curious as to why he neglected to respond to the passages I quoted from Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria (whom DA very briefly mentioned), Tertullian, and Lactantius? To be fair, however, it could be that DA had some time constraints and thus I will not use this issue as an polemical "weapon" against him.

First, DA grants that "letter 360", which is at times attributed to Basil (commonly cited by other defenders of icons) is indeed not authentic. He then cites the following passage from St. Basil's treatise On the Holy Spirit:

"[T]he honour paid to the image passes on to the prototype. . . . the image is by reason of imitation, . . . in works of art the likeness is dependent on the form . . ." (De Spiritu Sanctu, 18.45)

However, if one gives the entire context, it becomes clear that Basil is not addressing the issue of icons at all. Rather, he is dealing with the issue of how the unity of the divine nature is preserved in the Trinity:

"For we do not count by way of addition, gradually making increase from unity to multitude, and saying one, two, and three — nor yet first, second, and third. For I, Godam the first, and I am the last. Isaiah 44:6 And hitherto we have never, even at the present time, heard of a second God. Worshipping as we do God of God, we both confess the distinction of the Persons, and at the same time abide by the Monarchy. We do not fritter away the theology in a divided plurality, because one Form, so to say, united in the invariableness of the Godhead, is beheld in God the Father, and in God the Only begotten. For the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son; since such as is the latter, such is the former, and such as is the former, such is the latter; and herein is the Unity. So that according to the distinction of Persons, both are one and one, and according to the community of Nature, one. How, then, if one and one, are there not two Gods? Because we speak of a king, and of the king's image, and not of two kings. The majesty is not cloven in two, nor the glory divided. The sovereignty and authority over us is one, and so the doxology ascribed by us is not plural but one; because the honour paid to the image passes on to the prototype. Now what in the one case the image is by reason of imitation, that in the other case the Son is by nature; and as in works of art the likeness is dependent on the form, so in the case of the divine and uncompounded nature the union consists in the communion of the Godhead." (the part cited by DA is in underlined italics)

Basil here is not sanctioning the adoration of images in Christian liturgy, but rather making an analogy to demonstrate how the Godhead is one and unified and does not lead to Tritheism, as the heretical Pneumatomachi would have alleged against him. 

The most in-depth discussion of DA in this article centers around the views of St. Augustine. 

First, we have the passage from Augustine's Exposition of Psalm 115. I did not on purpose incorrectly cite in my original article. The New Advent website at times gives different titles to each of these expositions and it can get confusing at times. However, this minor issue is not relevant to our current discussion.

Dave Armstrong does not accurately cite what I quoted from Augustine. He says "Matt cites part of this motif from Augustine: 'For they have mouths, and speak not: they have eyes, and see not” [Psalm 113:5] . . . Do we pray unto them, because through them we pray to God? [echoing Basil above] 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'". (link)

However, if one reads my original article, one will easily notice that I quoted another sentence from Augustine, which for some reason, DA decided to omit from his citation. Here is my actual citation in full:

"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." (link)

The part that DA omitted is in underlined italics. If DA makes a counter-response to this article, a question I would like him to answer would be this: why did he omit this from his citation of Augustine and then pass it off as though that was the way I had cited him in my article?

DA then cites passages from this section of Augustine, where he speaks of idolatry in terms of worshipping false gods. However, I never denied that such was the case with what Augustine was teaching. But the fact that Augustine addresses the issue of the sacraments indicates that he, at the very least, was not limiting his condemnation of idolatry to the pagan world alone (though he most certainly included them), but also had in mind issues within the liturgy of the Christian church.

We now come to the passage I cited from Augustine's treatise On the Harmony of the Gospels, where he says "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". DA claims that in the context of this passage, Augustine is not addressing iconography at all, but rather the issue of claims that Jesus wrote personal books to Peter and Paul. Although I do grant that iconography is certainly not the main subject of this treatise, I do not grant DA's claim that Augustine is not at all addressing it in this passage. Here is the full context, as cited by DA:

"15. Nay more, as by divine judgment, some of those who either believe, or wish to have it believed, that Christ wrote matter of that description, have even wandered so far into error as to allege that these same books bore on their front, in the form of epistolary superscription, a designation addressed to Peter and Paul. And it is quite possible that either the enemies of the name of Christ, or certain parties who thought that they might impart to this kind of execrable arts the weight of authority drawn from so glorious a name, may have written things of that nature under the name of Christ and the apostles. But in such most deceitful audacity they have been so utterly blinded as simply to have made themselves fitting objects for laughter, even with young people who as yet know Christian literature only in boyish fashion, and rank merely in the grade of readers.

16. For when they made up their minds to represent Christ to have written in such strain as that to His disciples, they bethought themselves of those of His followers who might best be taken for the persons to whom Christ might most readily be believed to have written, as the individuals who had kept by Him on the most familiar terms of friendship. And so Peter and Paul occurred to them, I believe, just because in many places they chanced to see these two apostles represented in pictures as both in company with Him. For Rome, in a specially honourable and solemn manner, commends the merits of Peter and of Paul, for this reason among others, namely, that they suffered [martyrdom] on the same day. 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. Neither is it to be wondered at, that these fiction-limners were misled by the painters. For throughout the whole period during which Christ lived in our mortal flesh in fellowship with His disciples, Paul had never become His disciple. . . . How, then, is it possible that Christ could have written those books which they wish to have it believed that He did write before His death, and which were addressed to Peter and Paul, as those among His disciples who had been most intimate with Him, seeing that up to that date Paul had not yet become a disciple of His at all?" (italics are from DA, underlining is from myself)

The underline sentence in the passage above indicates that Augustine was not merely talking about alleged claims of books written by the Lord Jesus (though I have already granted that such was the main theme of these two paragraphs).

The next passage is Augustine's letter to Januarius (Epistle 55), where he says the following:

"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."

DA claims that all that Augustine is saying is that no images of God the Father ought to be made. If we grant this point, it actually backfires against DA, since there is historical evidence of such icons being made within the Roman Catholic church throughout history. This blog post gives images of such icons in traditional Roman Catholic cathedrals throughout the United States. We also have the decrees of a synod held in Constantinople during the patriarchate of Sophronius II (1775-1780), which says "It has been decreed by the Synod that the icon allegedly of the Trinity is an innovation. It is alien to the Apostolic, Orthodox, Catholic Church and is not accepted by it. It infiltrated the Orthodox Church through the Latins." (as cited in Stephen Bingham, The Image of God the Father in Orthodox Theology and Iconography and Other Studies, pg. 146)

The final passage of Augustine that I cited (which DA responds to) is from "Sermon 198". DA at first says that this is not found the 38-volume Schaff texts of the fathers. However, it is found in other scholarly collections of Augustine's sermons (link). DA claims that all that Augustine is doing is simply condemning pagan idolatry. However, anyone who reads the passage sees that Augustine is condemning more than just that:

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)

With all due respect to DA, his argumentation here is simply an example of ignoring what the text is plainly saying when read in its entirety.

Then, DA cites the following passage of Augustine from On Christian Doctrine:

"But in regard to pictures and statues, and other works of this kind, which are intended as representations of things, nobody makes a mistake, especially if they are executed by skilled artists, but every one, as soon as he sees the likenesses, recognizes the things they are likenesses of." (On Christian Doctrine, Book II, Chapter 25)

However, DA leaves out the very next sentence, which says "And this whole class [of images] are to be reckoned among the superfluous devices of men, unless when it is a matter of importance to inquire in regard to any of them, for what reason, where, when, and by whose authority it was made".

Clearly then, Augustine views images as unnecessary.

DA then gives a bunch of passages from Augustine that to pertain to the topic of relics. However, this issue is a separate one from that of iconography, and we will thus save that topic for another time.

1 comment:

Dave Armstrong said...

You can have the last word on this. In fairness, I will link to your reply at the end of my paper.

I'm working on another reply to you today on related issues.

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