Icons in the Early Church: Debunking Claim of Eastern Orthodoxy to Continuity

Discussion in 'Church History' started by John Carpenter, Sep 11, 2012.

Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.
  1. John Carpenter

    John Carpenter Puritan Board Freshman

    The Eastern Orthodox claim that their church has an "unbroken" history back to the Apostles. While, first, a Biblical Christian would want to note that ancient history is never made a criteria for the truthfulness of a faith, in this case, we can take on this claim with history. Let's take the use of icons, which is more central to the Eastern Orthodox than it is for Roman Catholics. The Orthodox have to assert that their iconography goes back to the Apostles. Indeed, they insist that Luke himself made the first icon (of Mary). What does history say about this claim? Do the icons go back to the earliest church? First, many of the early Christians were Jews and they had very strict rules against representing God in images. The Talmud condemns the use of images in synagogue worship. If anyone had imagined doing such a thing in the early church, there would have been an uproar and we would have known about it. There was already controversy over circumcision and eating ceremonially unclean meat. How much more would there have been if believers had violated the second commandment. Furthermore, early Christians were commonly called "atheists" by the Romans because they did not have any images in their homes or churches? Because the Romans couldn’t see any images of gods, they assumed that they were atheists. The pagan philosopher and critic of Christianity Celsus made Christian rejection of all images a point of criticism, claiming that Greek philosophers understood that the images were not the gods themselves. According to Celsus, The Greek worship of the gods did not terminate on the physical object or icon, but through them passed into the actual god never resting on the mere medium or icon. This would later become exactly the theological defense of the veneration of icons in “Orthodoxy”. Origin (84-254) responded to Celsus (in Contra Celsus, Book VII), admitting that Christians used no images, mocking the notion that images were helpful in worship, and, citing the Second Commandment wrote, “It is in consideration of these and many other such commands, that they not only avoid temples, altars, and images, but are ready to suffer death when it is necessary, rather than debase by any such impiety the conception which they have of the Most High God.” Clement of Alexandria wrote, "Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine.” (Translated by Rev. William Wilson, The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Clement of Alexandria, Book VII, Chapter V.) While there is one small church in Syria (Dura-Europas) with decorations and the catecombs contained some early Christian art, there is no evidence from the early church of using decorations as "icons" (objects of worship or "veneration"). Indeed, normally the early church appears to have been more strict at prohibiting decorations in churches than most modern evangelicals would be because they were aware of the potential for the decorations to become involved with worship.

    Christians kept these convictions against the use of images in worship for over the first 300 years. A major council of the church, meeting in Elvira, Spain in the year 305, expressed its shocked disapproval of some churches with just paintings on the walls. Canon 36 of the Council of Elvira states, "Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration."Keep in mind that even by this late date they were objecting just to the presence of art in a church; for example, they would object to our stained glass, saying that it had the potential to become idolatrous. There was no hint of actually using images as “aids in worship” or “points of prayer.” About the year 327 the famous early church historian Eusebius, who lived around Jerusalem, received a letter from the emperor’s sister, Constantia, asking him for a picture of Christ. Eusebius wrote her a very stern reply. He knew that such pictures existed in the marketplaces but he didn’t believe that the people who make such things were Christians. He took it for granted that only pagan artists would dream of making such representations. Eusebius. He insisted that even the incarnate Christ cannot appear in an image, for “the flesh which He put on for our sake … was mingled with the glory of His divinity so that the mortal part was swallowed up by Life.” This was the splendour that Christ revealed in the Transfiguration and which cannot be captured in human art. To depict purely the human form of Christ before its transformation, on the other hand, is to break the commandment of God and to fall into pagan error." (David M. Gwynn, From Iconoclasm to Arianism: The Construction of Christian Tradition
    in the Iconoclast Controversy [Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 47 (2007) 225–251], p. 227.)

    A prominent example is Epiphanius, ironically considered a "saint" in the "Orthodox" church. He was Bishop of Salamis, in Cyprus. He wrote, in the last section of Letter 51 (c. 394), to John, Bishop of Jerusalem: "I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loath that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ's church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person." He goes on to tell John that such images are "contrary to our religion".

    But as more and more people like Constantia came into the church with little or no Biblical background, they brought more and more pagan customs with them. So that although in 305 a church council (Elvira) vehemently objected to even just art in a church, in less than 100 years portrayals of Christ and the saints were widespread. With the influx of superficially converted pagans after 312, the early church began to drift away from its earlier convictions.

    Yet these images of Christ caused pain to those who remembered the older, simpler worship. And many Christians insisted that the use of such images, especially in worship was a blatant violation of the 2nd commandment. So the icons were a source of discontent which emerged in the eighth century (the 700s) as the bitter iconoclastic controversy. This was especially strong in the east, the Greek speaking part of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire. In 726, the emperor Leo started a campaign to eliminate the icons. The controversy lasted for over a century as Christian emperors in Constantinople sought to wipe out the icons. In 754 the first “Seventh Ecumenical Council” met and condemned the icons. “If anyone ventures to represent in human figures, by means of material colours, by reason of the incarnation, the substance or person (ousia or hypostasis) of the Word, which cannot be depicted, and does not rather confess that even after the Incarnation he [i.e., the Word] cannot be depicted, let him be anathema!” (Ninth Statement.) Meanwhile, the western part of the empire had completely collapsed politically. There was no effective political power based in Rome. The bishop of Rome – the Pope – was the major force there. But in the East the emperor was the major force and for a century many of the emperors were in favor of abiding by the 2nd commandment. They believed that the images were idols – which seems to me to be self-evident – and that they were associated with the idolatry Christianity had come to destroy. They believed that the representations of Christ, Mary, and the Apostles, clearly borrowed from pagan idols. And as the well-known church historian Henry Chadwick writes, “In this instinct there was a measure of truth. The representations of Christ as the Almighty Lord on his judgment throne owed something to pictures of Zeus. Portraits of the Mother of God were not wholly independent of a pagan past of venerated mother-goddesses. In the popular mind the saints had come to fill a role that had been played by heroes and deities.” (The Early Church, 283.) So there was a great struggle in the Eastern Church – that church that has evolved into what is the “Eastern Orthodox Church” to this day. For much of a century the icons were prohibited but eventually they were allowed back in, by the Empress Irene. Hence, we see that the claim of Eastern Orthodoxy that their icons and liturgy go back to the “earliest Christians” is a the myth. The assertion that their rituals have been faithfully handed down from the Apostles completely unaltered is utter nonsense.
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2012
  2. OPC'n

    OPC'n Puritan Board Doctor

    When i first saw the title I was like, "hmmmmm, idk they had computer way back then much less icons. :gpl: :duh: :p Gotta love dem icons! :bouncing: ok, back to the OP! :)
  3. NaphtaliPress

    NaphtaliPress Administrator Staff Member

    Welcome to the PB John. Please spend some time getting to know the board, look over the FAQ and also fix your signature. See the link in mine.
  4. John Carpenter

    John Carpenter Puritan Board Freshman

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks. I've tried and hope I did it right.
  5. John Carpenter

    John Carpenter Puritan Board Freshman

    I joined the Puritan Board for the purpose of posting this article (which needs some polishing). I noted that previous people had asked questions about Eastern Orthodoxy that weren't fully answered. There is a campaign to proselytize people for Eastern Orthodox based on the claim that they have preserved the traditions of the Apostles in unbroken continuity. They've been successful and winning many evangelicals, including some Reformed people, with that story. My purpose here is to give Puritan Board members and others facts that show that their claim to continuity with the early church is false.
  6. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    This thread, http://www.puritanboard.com/f18/refuting-apostolic-succession-64976/#post835512, contains one of many posts from "D" (a past poster and full of patristic knowledge) debunking many EO and Roman claims to ancient authenticity and authority.

    This link is also referenced in that thread: Complete works of Rev. Thomas Smyth, D. D. : Smyth, Thomas, 1808-1873 : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive , a helpful resource.

    Here's another Epiphanus quote from "D": http://www.puritanboard.com/f35/epiphanius-perspicuity-scripture-46864/

    On Scripture's supremacy in defining truth: http://www.puritanboard.com/f15/what-defines-orthodoxy-14503/
  7. John Carpenter

    John Carpenter Puritan Board Freshman

    Hi Pastor Bruce,

    Thanks, that's helpful. What I'm told (from so-called converts from evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy) is that the claim that the "Orthodox" are ancient and have preserved the practices of the early church is very attractive and persuasive to some. So what I've attempted to do is take the practice of venerating icons, which is very prominent in "Orthodoxy", and show that the early church was strictly opposed to such a thing; indeed, that they were more strict against images in church buildings than even many modern Reformed Christians would be. Therefore the claim to being the "ancient church" is false.
  8. arapahoepark

    arapahoepark Puritan Board Graduate

    Thank you Dr. Carpenter for your debunking the EO. It is so sad that a Christian church would distort history for their own benefit, and fellow Christians succumb to such statements and start doing cultic and pagan rituals (prayer to saints, mary, etc.)
  9. Claudiu

    Claudiu Puritan Board Junior

    Thanks for the article! My parents are from Eastern Europe, so I heard of Eastern Orthodoxy growing up (even though my parents were/are Evangelical). However, I was surprised at first to see that many in the West aren't very aware of Eastern Orthodoxy (even naming a denomination the Orthodox Presbyterian Church! At first I was like what!? That's like naming a denomination the Catholic Presbyterian Church! This is just proof that in the West Orthodox doesn't stand out as much as Catholic does). I did realize, over time, that the reason for this is because Eastern Orthodoxy pretty much stayed in the East, while the RCC stayed in the West, and therefore more people know of the RCC. Times are changing though, and in our days we see many moving to the EOC. Since this is happening, and the EOC are making many claims that are drawing Evangelicals, it is important for there to be more literature out there shedding light on EOC, especially from a Reformed perspective.
  10. a mere housewife

    a mere housewife Not your cup of tea

    I'm very grateful for these resources, having a few friends who went this direction: I wish I had had more information at the time.

    I am not quite sure how to express this and am sure I will do so badly, but it seems like perhaps the greatest danger is not this or that argument the EO church makes, as a focus that is taken up with peripheral points already -- the central vacuum of which is ready to be filled with anything that can insidiously insert itself. And that can begin and develop and flourish as a reformed person. The drawing points for those I know who went EO have been different: I think in some cases strongly held practices like head covering became more important than the traditional arguments, and I think aesthetics and thinking that true worship consists in achieving a certain state of 'felt reverence' was at least as big a draw. But in each case (and I blame myself for some of this especially with one dear friend) the focus had long been on fellowshipping around and holding fast to something other than Christ. So people who seemed to have uber-reformed convictions suddenly went off into EO, quite an opposite direction: or people who had such a separated baptistic background that they could meet with no one but family did the same, etc. And it seems often no good refuting with arguments at that point: for arguments seem only to augment the problem of peripheral focus, while the person is already invested at core in believing whatever the priest says in response to what you told them. I think perhaps the most important 'polemic' is to hold Christ as the center of our own life and conversation and theology and our fellowship. As Matthew Henry says on John 6:67: 'In times of temptation to apostasy, it is good to have recourse to our first principles, and to keep them.'
  11. John Carpenter

    John Carpenter Puritan Board Freshman

    Hi Heidi,

    I think that is an absolutely excellent response. You're exactly right. The real problem is losing one's "first love" for Christ, as with the Ephesian church in Revelation 2. When that happens, one looks for something to fill the void: maybe doctrinal precision and so they are drawn to what you called "uber-reformed convictions" and then when they get bored with that they buy the propaganda that the EO has preserved the worship of the early church. I hope I've proven from church history that that ideas is nonsense. But I believe you are right that the proof I've provided will either be dismissed or, even if it is accepted, they'll find something else to fill the void equally problematic. There's no substitute for loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and strength.

    Thank you for reminding us of the first thing!
  12. John Carpenter

    John Carpenter Puritan Board Freshman

    Hi Claudiu,

    Thanks for the affirming words. I'm working on polishing this for possible publication. I believe you are correct that we need more material about the "orthodox". I believe that because we've inherited the wisdom of theology and confessions forged in the fire of combat with Catholicism, that most of us have fairly good responses to the claims of Catholicism -- or at least we'd know where to find the knowledge we need. But we have no history of dealing with the claims of "Orthodoxy" and so aren't equipped to handle their propaganda. I hope this article does a little something to correct that.
  13. Edward

    Edward Puritan Board Doctor

    I'm not willing to concede the point that this was a "major" church council. Certainly closer to a Presbytery meeting than a General Assembly, wasn't it?

    And on your way to 36, you have to pass 33.

    "33. Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from the procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office."

    I think I'd look for other supporting authority.
  14. John Carpenter

    John Carpenter Puritan Board Freshman

    Hi Edward,

    That's exactly the kind of response one commonly hears from the "orthodox". It is wrong. First, Elvira was likely the most important Council from between the Jerusalem Council in the book of Acts to the Council of Nicea (325). Elvira is officially designated a "Council" by the Roman Catholic Church (not just a synod).

    What other canons of the Council of Elvira say is completely irrelevant. I'm not citing Elvira as a council that I'm following. I am a Reformed evangelical who holds to Sola Scriptura. So no council is in an ultimately authoritative position. I'm citing Elvira as historical evidence. Yes, it shows that the church was regrettably moving toward the error of the celibacy of the clergy. So what? That's not at all relevant to the subject under discussion. It also shows us that by 305, early Christians were so wary of the possibility of iconography that they did not even tolerate decorations in the church. And that's relevant. It establishes that the early church was strictly opposed to the use of imagery and so the Eastern Orthodox claim to have preserved the pattern of worship of the early church is spurious.
  15. Edward

    Edward Puritan Board Doctor

    It doesn't make the Catholic Encyclopedia lists of General Councils. And it certainly doesn't qualify as an ecumenical council. It was basically just the bishops from the Iberian peninsula. You overrate its importance.

    What do you consider the difference between a Council and a Synod? To quote the Catholic Encyclopedia, ". The terms council and synod are synonymous, although in the oldest Christian literature the ordinary meetings for worship are also called synods, and diocesan synods are not properly councils because they are only convened for deliberation."
  16. John Carpenter

    John Carpenter Puritan Board Freshman

    Hi Edward,

    According to this source (The Catholic Encyclopedia), it is a "council" not just a synod: CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Council of Elvira.

    Not that I really care. As above, I'm interested in it as historical evidence. It is a gathering of bishops (about 19) who give clear testimony of their opposition to decorations of any kind in church buildings lest they become icons. For that, it is very important as it shows the convictions of numerous churches in the Iberian peninsula. Nineteen bishops means 19 dioceses which is I-don't-know-how-many churches. I don't know of a larger council prior to 312. As historical evidence, it's golden.
  17. SolaScriptura

    SolaScriptura Puritanboard Softy


    Thanks for putting this together. I agree that Elvira is a helpful source for observing that at one time the early church objected to the practice of iconography.
  18. Edward

    Edward Puritan Board Doctor

    From your link: "Canon xxxvi (placuit picturas in ecclesia esse non debere ne quod colitur et adoratur in parietibus depingatur) has often been urged against the veneration of images as practised in the Catholic Church. Binterim, De Rossi, and Hefele interpret this prohibition as directed against the use of images in overground churches only, lest the pagans should caricature sacred scenes and ideas; Von Funk, Termel, and Dom Leclerq opine that the council did not pronounce as to the liceity or non-liceity of the use of images, but as an administrative measure simply forbade them, lest new and weak converts from paganism should incur thereby any danger of relapse into idolatry, or be scandalized by certain superstitious excesses in no way approved by the ecclesiastical authority. (See Von Funk in "Tübingen Quartalschrift", 1883, 270-78; Nolte in "Rev. des Sciences ecclésiastiques", 1877, 482-84; Turmel in "Rev. du clergé français", 1906, XLV, 508.)"

    Not quite the unequivocal reading that you give it.

    I've already quoted language to the effect that councils and synods can be used interchangeably. And you are aware, aren't you, that there are multiple levels of councils, ranging downward from ecumenical? And that this one is no where near the top?

    And I'd correct this to '...at one time SOME in the early church...", the actions of the council probably being binding on the Iberian peninsula, but certainly not the Church as a whole.

    Let's use this evidence for what it's worth, but if we try to overstate the evidentiary value, we weaken our argument against those whom we debate.
  19. SolaScriptura

    SolaScriptura Puritanboard Softy

    But I've heard Romanists reference Elvira in regards to the early church's position on celibacy. It cuts both ways.

    Honestly, I highly doubt that folks who are committed to EO or Romanist theology really care about our arguments at all. But I DO think that Elvira is a death knell to the idea that the practice was either apostolic or universal. Both of which is what Rome and the EO folks claim for their practices.
  20. NaphtaliPress

    NaphtaliPress Administrator Staff Member

    Taking a time out.
Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.

Share This Page