In both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the veneration of icons and images is an important part of faith and practice. Members of both faiths honor portraits of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and many saints and angels whom they believe are worthy of high honor and reverential respect. They pray to these figures through their images, requesting their intercession before God, and they bow before the images, light candles to them, and offer them incense. Such practices are not called "worship" by those who are performing them and are distinguished from a unique level of adoration due only to God. Still, even with all the nuances in expression, at the time of the Reformation such practices became highly controversial, especially on the grounds that they are never affirmed in Scripture. Indeed, anywhere in Scripture that prayer through or veneration of images is ever discussed, it is condemned as idolatry.
Members of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths, however, contend that such Scriptures were only meant to address worship of images as separate gods and are silent on the matter of the mere veneration or honor of the images of past saints. While some try to make a positive case from Scripture, most appeal to supposed Apostolic tradition. They allege that many authoritative and necessary teachings and practices were passed on orally outside of Scripture and that the veneration of images is among these. The seventh-century defender of image veneration, John of Damascus, wrote that:
"This is an unwritten tradition, just as is also the worshipping towards the East and the worship of the Cross, and very many other similar things," (John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 16).
The eighth-century council that ruled in favor of the veneration of images also admitted as much. Indeed, they condemned those who would argue on the basis of Scripture alone apart from tradition, claiming that this was the same argument used by anti-Trinitarian heretics.
"Anathema to those who spurn the teachings of the holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church, taking as a pretext and making their own the arguments of Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches, and Dioscorus, that unless we were evidently taught by the Old and New Testaments, we should not follow the teachings of the holy Fathers and of the holy Ecumenical Synods, and the tradition of the Catholic Church," (Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, Session 1).
The claim that this in any way parallels to the arguments of such heretics is absurd on its face. The Trinity is derived from and proven by Scripture itself. Christians have never regarded it as a mere oral tradition distinct from the Bible. What's more, heretics like the Arians actually claimed that their own position was the tradition of the church and that the Trinity was a novelty. They certainly tried to pull out proof texts from the Bible, but they by no means argued from Scripture alone apart from tradition. The attempt to connect those who look to the inspired Word above tradition with such heretics was an enormous fallacy and an argument from emotion and slander rather than facts.
Still, the existence of this argument demonstrates a recognition that the practice of venerating images is not a biblical one. The argument, therefore, is that it is a tradition that, while not recorded in holy writ, nevertheless has always been a part of the church. There are compelling reasons, however, to believe that this is not the case. Instead, the practice evolved over time several centuries after the time of the New Testament.
First of all, the fact that the practice never shows up in the New Testament is itself important to note. Stephen and the Apostle James die fairly early in the Book of Acts. 1 Corinthians 15:6 mentions eyewitnesses of Jesus' death who had already died, plausibly even in martyrdom given the context. If this practice were apostolic, then there were already dead saints worthy of veneration through images and we should already see this practice in the New Testament itself. Paul writes to the Thessalonians church specifically about believers who have died (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), Hebrews 11 has a great deal to say about our faith in relation to past saints, and the Book of Revelation acknowledges the souls of the martyrs crying for justice before God, (Revelation 6:9-10). Indeed, as one reads through the New Testament, it's hard to find an author that does not make mention somewhere of the faithful who have died, and yet nowhere are we told to make images of them and offer them prayers and incense. Considering how early the New Testament was written, we have a remarkably rich testimony of the Church's response to Christian death in the apostolic era, yet not the remotest hint of anything akin to the veneration of images. This is, of course, ultimately an argument from silence and is therefore not a logically conclusive case, but the silence really is quite remarkable if the Apostles were actively teaching early Christians to make and honor icons, considering how often they broach related subjects.
In writings of the second century, there is still no positive affirmation of icon veneration, but there is a rather informative reference in Irenaeus' polemical work "Against Heresies." In describing the errors of one heretical sect, he explains:
"They style themselves Gnostics. They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them," (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 25, Section 6).
He also points out that they honor the images "after the mode of the Gentiles." The possession and veneration of images such as paintings and other icons, including one of Christ that they traced back to a historical leader, is something Irenaeus points to as unusual and even heretical. This would seem odd if Irenaeus was aware of orthodox Christians venerating images of Christ and the saints. It is also interesting that, centuries later, John of Damascus' defense of icon veneration would include the appeal to a tradition about an image made for a political leader in Jesus' lifetime:
"A certain tale, too, is told, how that when Augarus was king over the city of the Edessenes, he sent a portrait painter to paint a likeness of the Lord, and when the painter could not paint because of the brightness that shone from His countenance, the Lord Himself put a garment over His own divine and life-giving face and impressed on it an image of Himself and sent this to Augarus, to satisfy thus his desire," (John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 16).
John of Damascus' story is not precisely the same in detail as the one Irenaeus describes the heretical cult ascribing to, but it does parallel it in ways that, if true, would take all the wind out of the sails of Irenaeus' critique. While the Second Council of Nicaea tried to connect an appeal to Scripture apart from tradition with the heretics of later centuries, it is noteworthy that John of Damascus is arguing for the veneration of the images in his day in much the same way that the heretics argued for the images they venerated in the second century. A case could be made that John is indeed preserving an ancient tradition, but not an orthodox one.
In the early third century, Tertullian states that Christians not only do not worship images alleged to be gods, but they also do not pay homage to the images of dead or departed men.1 He even went so far as to indict craftsmen who make images of the sort of things which men are apt to worship2 and urges them instead to use their skills toward making and mending practical things like homes and furniture which do not lend themselves to idolatry.3 Further into the third century, Minucius Felix documents that the pagans mocked Christians for the fact that they did not have any consecrated images that display whom it is that they honor.4 While this is certainly directly dealing with the fact that Christians made no idol for their God, it nonetheless could not have been said if Christians made and revered images of Jesus or venerable saints and angels during this period.
Archaeology has unearthed church buildings from as early as the mid third century that depict biblical scenes and stories in frescoes and mosaics, similar to the practice in Synagogues of the era. These were depictions of narratives rather than individual portraits, and the evidence in Jewish and Christian sources of the time would not indicate that these pictures were venerated nor were the saints prayed to through the images. The depictions were probably intended primarily as teaching aids in communicating the sacred history to those gathering, especially the illiterate. John of Damascus hints at this himself when he writes:
"But seeing that not everyone has a knowledge of letters nor time for reading, the Fathers gave their sanction to depicting these events on images as being acts of great heroism, in order that they should form a concise memorial of them," (John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 16).
This is noteworthy for two reasons. First, John says it was the Fathers who instituted this practice rather than the Apostles, indicating that it is indeed a later development rather than an Apostolic tradition. Secondly, it affirms, just as the archaeological evidence does, that the first images were scenes rather than portraits and were meant to teach rather than to represent individual saintly intercessors.
Even this initial practice seems to have been controversial, as the local Council of Elvira in Spain forbid images on church walls, apparently concerned that some might come to worship the depictions. The practice was also by no means universal. I have personally toured the excavations of ancient church buildings in Bulgaria, including some that still operate as Eastern Orthodox Churches today. While one can see centuries of iconographic mosaics, the earliest layers had simple decorative frescoes of colored patterns or floral designs. Scenes of places and people emerged in later (though certainly quite ancient) strata. The practice of placing biblical scenes or human images in church buildings was a development over time that happened at different rates in different places. It was not a universal apostolic tradition.
Finally, we can see evidence of this by tracking the Christian attitude toward secondary practices related to the veneration of images. By way of example, take the burning of incense. Many in the early church interpreted Malachi 1:11 as a prophecy of Christian worship when it reads:
"'For from the rising of the sun even to its setting, My name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense is going to be offered to My name, and a grain offering that is pure; for My name will be great among the nations,' says the Lord of hosts,"
They interpreted the incense to be entirely figurative, however, seeing in it a reference to the offering of praise, prayer, and thanksgiving while the church gathered for the communion meal.5 They also argued that the literal burning of incense was done away with along with sacrifices and other forms of Old Covenant worship.6 Indeed, Christians were called atheists by Roman Pagans in part because they did not offer even the fragrance of flowers and incense.7 Clement of Alexandria proclaimed that the only sweet fragrance we offer to God is our love and not literal incense, and he forbid the use of incense or fragrant oils even for practical purposes. He permitted scentless oils for medical use and deodorizing, but all fragrance was a worldly luxury.8 Tertullian, on the other hand, saw no harm in the use of incense for the mundane purpose of removing offensive odors, but thought it pagan to utilize it for honorary ceremony.9 Cultural applications even in honoring men of high station with the burning of incense were abandoned by early Christians as worldly compromise at best and subtle idolatry at worst. It is clear that such Christians were certainly not burning incense to the images or even the memories of dead saints during this era.
By studying these kinds of secondary matters, it becomes fairly clear that the manner of venerating images that developed a few centuries later would have been rebuked by the earliest Christians even if the motives and the distinctions between veneration and full-fledged worship were taken into consideration.
In conclusion, the veneration of images codified in the councils and traditions of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches is not only unbiblical but is also not a tradition that the Apostles or the earliest church fathers would have practiced or even recognized. While the practice is ancient, it developed centuries after the time of Jesus Christ.
- 1. Tertullian, De Spectaculis, Chapter 13
- 2. Tertullian, On Idolatry, Chapter 4
- 3. ibid, Chapter 8
- 4. The Octavius of Minucius Felix, Chapter 10
- 5. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 17, section 6 (see also ANF Vol. 1, pg. 536-537, section 37); Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 41; Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book 7, Chapter 6
- 6. see Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 8; Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 2
- 7. Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, Chapter 8
- 8. Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 8; Stromata, Book 7, Chapter 7
- 9. Tertullian, De Corona, Chapter 10