Patristic Scholarship on Images of Christ and the Second Commandment

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What is the historical testimony of the Patristic regarding images of Christ? How does the Reformed view compare to the Patristic? Is the Reformed view a novelty?

The answer is that the Reformed view is faithful to the Patristic testimony and is not a novelty or something made up in the 16th century. At the end of all the quotes are two additional quotes by early church fathers regarding when and why images came into the Christian faith..

What Lactantius said in the 3rd century is still equally true today, “Wherefore there is no doubt, but that no religion is in that place wheresoever any image is”

Justin Martyr (A.D. 100- 165)

“And often out of vessels of dishonour, by merely changing the form, and making an image of the requisite shape, they make what they call a god; which we consider not only senseless, but to be even insulting to God, who, having ineffable glory and form, thus gets His name attached to things that are corruptible”

Marcus Minucius Felix (A.D. 197 – 250)

“I must tell you that we neither adore crosses nor desire them. You it is, ye Pagans, who worship wooden gods, who are the most likely people to adore wooden crosses, as being part of the same substance with your deities. For what else are your ensigns, flags, and standards, but crosses, gilt and beautiful. ” -(Octavius of Marcus Minucius Felix, chapter XXIX). 197 A.D, Jerome’s De Viris Illustribus #58 speaks of him as “Romae insignis causidicus” [one of Rome’s notable solicitors]

Titus Flavius Clemens also known as Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150 – 215)

“It is with a different kind of spell that art deludes you…. It leads you to pay religious honor and worship to images and pictures.”

“Ages before, Moses expressly commanded that neither a carved, nor molten, nor molded, nor painted likeness should be made. This was so that we would not cling to things of sense, but pass to spiritual objects. For familiarity with the sense of sight disparages the reverence of what is divine”

Irenaeus Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (A.D. 130 – 202)

“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. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.” -Against Heresies

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (A.D. 160 – 225)

“All things, therefore, does human error worship, except the Founder of all Himself. The images of those things are idols; the consecration of the images is idolatry.”

“Tertullian, a most ancient Writer and Doctor of the Church, who lived about one hundred and threescore years after the death of our Saviour Christ, both in sundry other places of his works, and specially in his book written against the manner of crowning (Contra corandi morem.), and in another little treatise entitled, Of the soldier’s crown or garland, doth most sharply and vehemently write and inveigh against images or idols. And upon St. John’s words, the first Epistle and fifth Chapter, saith thus, St. John (saith he) deeply considering the matter, saith: My little children, keep yourselves from images or idols. He saith not now, keep yourselves from idolatry, as it were from the service and worshipping of them: but from the images or idols themselves, that is, from the shape and likeness of them. Four it were an unworthy thing, that the image of the living God should become the image of a dead idol. Do you not think those persons which place images and idols in Churches and Temples, yea shrine them even over the Lords table, even as it were of purpose to the worshipping and honouring of them, take good heed to either of St. John’s counsel, or Tertullian’s? Four so to place images and idols is it to keep themselves from them, or else to receive and embrace them.” Quoted in the Anglican Book of Homilies

Origen Adamántios (A.D. 184 – 253)

“Christian men and Jews, when they hear these words of the Law (Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and shalt not make any image) do not only abhor the Temples, Altars, and Images of the gods, but if need be, will rather die then they should defile themselves with any impiety.”

“In the common wealth of the Jews, the carver of idols and image maker, was cast far off and forbidden, lest they should have any occasion to make images, which might pluck certain foolish persons from God, and turn the eyes of their souls to the contemplation of earthly things.”

And in another place of the same book: “It is not only (saith he) a mad and frantic part to worship images, but also once to dissemble or wink at it. And a man may know God and his only son, and those which have had such honour given them by God, that they be called gods: But it is not possible that any should by worshipping of images get any knowledge of God.” Against Celsus

Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus (A.D. 200 – 258)

“Believers, and men who claim for themselves the authority of the Christian name, are not ashamed—are not, I repeat, ashamed to find a defence in the heavenly Scriptures for the vain superstitions associated with the public exhibitions of the heathens, and thus to attribute divine authority to idolatry. For how is it, that what is done by the heathens in honour of any idol is resorted to in a public show by faithful Christians, and the heathen idolatry is maintained, and the true and divine religion is trampled upon in contempt of God?”

Athanásios Alexandrías (A.D. 297 – 373)

“Nor have they escaped prophetic censure; for there also is their refutation, where the Spirit says , “they shall be ashamed that have formed a god, and carved all of them that which is vain: and all by whom they were made are dried up: and let the deaf ones among men all assemble and stand up together, and let them be confounded and put to shame together..” While those who profess to give still deeper and more philosophical reasons than these say, that the reason of idols being prepared and fashioned is for the invocation and manifestation of divine angels and powers, that appearing by these means they may teach men concerning the knowledge of God; and that they serve as letters for men, by referring to which they may learn to apprehend God… Such then is their mythology,—for far be it from us to call it a theology.”

“Let them tell, I pray you, how God may be known by an image. If it be by the matter of an image, then there needeth no shape or form, seeing that God hath appeared in all material creatures which do testify his glory. Now if they say he is known by the form or fashion: Is he not better to be known by the living things themselves, whose fashions the images express? Four of surety, the glory of God should be more evidently known, if it were declared by reasonable and living creatures, rather then by dead and unmoveable images. Therefore when ye do grave or paint images, to the end to know God thereby, surely ye do an unworthy and unfit thing. And in another place of the same book he saith, The invention of images came of no good, but of evil, and whatsoever hath an evil beginning, can never in any thing be judged good, seeing it is altogether naught.” -Against the Gentiles

Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (A.D. 240 – 320)

“But the image of the ever-living God ought to be living and endued with perception. But if it received this name from resemblance, how can it be supposed that these images resemble God, which have neither perception nor motion? Therefore the image of God is not that which is fashioned by the fingers of men out of stone, or bronze, or other material, but man himself, since he has both perception and motion, and performs many and great actions.” Divine Institutes Book 2 (Origin of Error) Ch.2. (The work is an extended examination of the folly of idolatry.)

“Thus they delude the credulity of men by lying divination, because it is not expedient for them to lay open the truth. These are they who taught men to make images and statues; who, in order that they might turn away the minds of men from the worship of the true God…” Divine Institutes Book 2 (Origin of Error) Ch.17

“God is above man, and is not placed beneath, but is to be sought in the highest region. Wherefore there is no doubt, but that no religion is in that place wheresoever any image is: Four if religion stand in godly things, (and there is no godliness but in heavenly things) then be images without religion.” Divine Institutes Book 2 (Origin of Error) Ch.19

Hippolytus (A.D. 170 – 235) Hippolytus charges Simon with,

“And they have an image of Simon (fashioned) into the figure of Jupiter, and (an image) of Helen in the form of Minerva; and they pay adoration to these.” But they call the one Lord and the other Lady. And if any one amongst them, on seeing the images of either Simon or Helen, would call them by name, he is cast off, as being ignorant of the mysteries. (Hippolytus. Refutation of All Heresies (Book VI, Chapters XIV, XV)’

Epiphanius Bishop of Salamine in Cyprus (A.D. 310 – 403)

“I entered (saith Epiphanius ) into a certain Church to pray: I found there a linen cloth hanging in the Church door, painted, and having in it the image of Christ, as it were, or of some other Saint, (I remember not well whose image it was) therefore when I did see the image of a man hanging in the Church of Christ, contrary to the authority of the Scriptures, I did tear it, and gave counsel to the keepers of the Church, that they should wind a poor man that was dead in the said cloth, and to bury him.” -Letter to John Patriarch of Jerusalem

“I pray you will the Elders of that place to receive this cloth which I have sent by this bearer, and command them that from henceforth no such painted clothes contrary to our religion, be hanged in the Church of Christ . For it becommeth your goodness rather to have this care, that you take away such scrupulosity, which is unfitting for the Church of Christ, and offensive to the people committed to your charge. And this Epistle, as worthy to be read of many, did St. Jerome himself translate in to the Latin tongue.” -Second Letter to John Patriarch of Jerusalem with second cloth

Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus commonly known as Jerome (A.D. 347 – 420) on Epiphanius and Augustine,

“We also assert that the blessed bishop Epiphanius did right when, finding on the doors of a church a veil on which was painted a picture supposedly of Christ or some saint, he ripped it down and took it away, because to see a picture of a man hanging in the Church of Christ was contrary to the authority of Scripture. Wherefore he charged that from henceforth no such veils, which were contrary to our religion, should be hung in the Church of Christ, and that rather such questionable things, unworthy of the Church of Christ and the faithful people, should be removed. Moreover, we approve of this opinion of St. Augustine concerning true religion: “Let not the worship of the works of men be a religion for us. For the artists themselves who make such things are better; yet we ought not to worship them”” (De Vera Religione, cap. 55).

“Thou hast (saith Jerome) Pope Epiphanius, which doth openly in his letters call thee an heretic. Surely thou art not to be preferred before him, neither for age nor learning, nor godliness of life, nor by the testimony of the whole world. And shortly after in the same treatise saith St. Jerome: Bishop Epiphanius was ever of so great veneration and estimation, that Valens the Emperor, who was a great persecutor, did not once touch him. Four heretics, being princes, thought it their shame if they should persecute such a notable man. And in the tripartite Ecclesiastical history, the ninth book and xlviii. Chapter, is testified, that Epiphanius being yet alive did work miracles, and that after his death devils, being expelled at his grave or tomb, did roar. Thus you see what authority St. Jerome and that most ancient history give unto the holy and learned Bishop Epiphanius, whose judgement of images in Churches and Temples, then beginning by stealth to creep in, is worthy to be noted” Treatise against the errors of John Bishop of Jerusalem Book 9 chapter 48.

Cyrillus Hierosolymitanus (A.D. 313 – 386)

“Many have left the creator, and have worshipped the creature, neither have they been abashed to say unto a stock: Thou art my father, and unto a stone, Thou begottest me. Four many, yea, almost all (alas for sorrow) are fallen unto such folly, that they have given the glory of deity or Godhead, to things without sense or feeling.” – upon the Gospel of Saint John (quoted in the Anglican Book of Homilies)

Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis (A.D. 354 – 430)

“Thus, they erred, who sought Christ and his apostles not in the sacred writings, but on painted walls.”

“know thou that none of the dead, nor any thing that is made of God, is worshipped as God of the Catholic Christians, of whom there is a Church also in your Town.“ – 44th Epistle to Maximus

“religion is most pure without images” -Lib. de civi. dei chapter 43

“images be of more force to crooken an unhappy soul, then to teach and instruct it” -Lib. de civi. dei chapter 43

“Every child, yea every beast knoweth that it is not God that they see. Wherefore then doeth the holy Ghost so often admonish us of that which all men know?” Commentary on the Psalms, In Psal. 36. & 113

Augustine’s judgment of Images in Churches; that by and by they breed error and idolatry.

Synod of Elvira (A.D. 300 -303)

The 36th canon of the Synod of Elvira prohibited images.

Council of Elibertine of A.D. 366

“Pictures ought not to be in churches, nor any object of adoration or praise be painted on the walls.” -Council of Elibertine

Seventh Ecumenical Council of A.D. 754 also known as Epitome of the Definition of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum held in Constantinople

“The Definition of the Holy, Great, and Ecumenical Seventh Synod.

The holy and Ecumenical synod, which by the grace of God and most pious command of the God-beloved and orthodox Emperors, Constantine and Leo, now assembled in the imperial residence city, in the temple of the holy and inviolate Mother of God and Virgin Mary, surnamed in Blachernæ, have decreed as follows.

Satan misguided men, so that they worshipped the creature instead of the Creator. The Mosaic law and the prophets cooperated to undo this ruin; but in order to save mankind thoroughly, God sent his own Son, who turned us away from error and the worshipping of idols, and taught us the worshipping of God in spirit and in truth. As messengers of his saving doctrine, he left us his Apostles and disciples, and these adorned the Church, his Bride, with his glorious doctrines. This ornament of the Church the holy Fathers and the six Ecumenical Councils have preserved inviolate. But the before-mentioned demi-urgos of wickedness could not endure the sight of this adornment, and gradually brought back idolatry under the appearance of Christianity. As then Christ armed his Apostles against the ancient idolatry with the power of the Holy Spirit, and sent them out into all the world, so has he awakened against the new idolatry his servants our faithful Emperors, and endowed them with the same wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Impelled by the Holy Spirit they could no longer be witnesses of the Church being laid waste by the deception of demons, and summoned the sanctified assembly of the God-beloved bishops, that they might institute at a synod a scriptural examination into the deceitful colouring of the pictures (ὁμοιωμάτων) which draws down the spirit of man from the lofty adoration (λατρείας) of God to the low and material adoration (λατρείαν) of the creature, and that they, under divine guidance, might express their view on the subject.

Our holy synod therefore assembled, and we, its 338 members, follow the older synodal decrees, and accept and proclaim joyfully the dogmas handed down, principally those of the six holy Ecumenical Synods. In the first place the holy and ecumenical great synod assembled at Nice, etc.

After we had carefully examined their decrees under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we found that the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation—namely, the Incarnation of Christ, and contradicted the six holy synods. These condemned Nestorius because he divided the one Son and Word of God into two sons, and on the other side, Arius, Dioscorus, Eutyches, and Severus, because they maintained a mingling of the two natures of the one Christ.

Wherefore we thought it right, to shew forth with all accuracy, in our present definition the error of such as make and venerate these, for it is the unanimous doctrine of all the holy Fathers and of the six Ecumenical Synods, that no one may imagine any kind of separation or mingling in opposition to the unsearchable, unspeakable, and incomprehensible union of the two natures in the one hypostasis or person. What avails, then, the folly of the painter, who from sinful love of gain depicts that which should not be depicted—that is, with his polluted hands he tries to fashion that which should only be believed in the heart and confessed with the mouth? He makes an image and calls it Christ. The name Christ signifies God and man. Consequently it is an image of God and man, and consequently he has in his foolish mind, in his representation of the created flesh, depicted the Godhead which cannot be represented, and thus mingled what should not be mingled. Thus he is guilty of a double blasphemy—the one in making an image of the Godhead, and the other by mingling the Godhead and manhood. Those fall into the same blasphemy who venerate 544the image, and the same woe rests upon both, because they err with Arius, Dioscorus, and Eutyches, and with the heresy of the Acephali. When, however, they are blamed for undertaking to depict the divine nature of Christ, which should not be depicted, they take refuge in the excuse: We represent only the flesh of Christ which we have seen and handled. But that is a Nestorian error. For it should be considered that that flesh was also the flesh of God the Word, without any separation, perfectly assumed by the divine nature and made wholly divine. How could it now be separated and represented apart? So is it with the human soul of Christ which mediates between the Godhead of the Son and the dulness of the flesh. As the human flesh is at the same time flesh of God the Word, so is the human soul also soul of God the Word, and both at the same time, the soul being deified as well as the body, and the Godhead remained undivided even in the separation of the soul from the body in his voluntary passion. For where the soul of Christ is, there is also his Godhead; and where the body of Christ is, there too is his Godhead. If then in his passion the divinity remained inseparable from these, how do the fools venture to separate the flesh from the Godhead, and represent it by itself as the image of a mere man? They fall into the abyss of impiety, since they separate the flesh from the Godhead, ascribe to it a subsistence of its own, a personality of its own, which they depict, and thus introduce a fourth person into the Trinity. Moreover, they represent as not being made divine, that which has been made divine by being assumed by the Godhead. Whoever, then, makes an image of Christ, either depicts the Godhead which cannot be depicted, and mingles it with the manhood (like the Monophysites), or he represents the body of Christ as not made divine and separate and as a person apart, like the Nestorians.

The only admissible figure of the humanity of Christ, however, is bread and wine in the holy Supper. This and no other form, this and no other type, has he chosen to represent his incarnation. Bread he ordered to be brought, but not a representation of the human form, so that idolatry might not arise. And as the body of Christ is made divine, so also this figure of the body of Christ, the bread, is made divine by the descent of the Holy Spirit; it becomes the divine body of Christ by the mediation of the priest who, separating the oblation from that which is common, sanctifies it.

The evil custom of assigning names to the images does not come down from Christ and the Apostles and the holy Fathers; nor have these left behind them any prayer by which an image should be hallowed or made anything else than ordinary matter.

If, however, some say, we might be right in regard to the images of Christ, on account of the mysterious union of the two natures, but it is not right for us to forbid also the images of the altogether spotless and ever-glorious Mother of God, of the prophets, apostles, and martyrs, who were mere men and did not consist of two natures; we may reply, first of all: If those fall away, there is no longer need of these. But we will also consider what may be said against these in particular. Christianity has rejected the whole of heathenism, and so not merely heathen sacrifices, but also the heathen worship of images. The Saints live on eternally with God, although they have died. If anyone thinks to call them back again to life by a dead art, discovered by the heathen, he makes himself guilty of blasphemy. Who dares attempt with heathenish art to paint the Mother of God, who is exalted above all heavens and the Saints? It is not permitted to Christians, who have the hope of the resurrection, to imitate the customs of demon-worshippers, and to insult the Saints, who shine in so great glory, by common dead matter.

Moreover, we can prove our view by Holy Scripture and the Fathers. In the former it is said: “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth;” and: “Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath;” on which account God spoke to the Israelites on the Mount, from the midst of the fire, but showed them no image. Further: “They changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man,…and served the creature more than the Creator.” [Several other passages, even less to the point, are cited.]

The same is taught also by the holy Fathers. [The Synod appeals to a passage from Epiphanius and to one inserted into the writings of Theodotus of Ancyra, a friend of St. Cyril’s; to utterances—in no way striking—of Gregory of Nazianzum, of SS. Chrysostom, Basil, Athanasius of Amphilochius and of Eusebius Pamphili, from his Letter to the Empress Constantia, who had asked him for a picture of Christ.]

Supported by the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers, we declare unanimously, in the name of the Holy Trinity, that there shall be rejected and removed and cursed out of the Christian Church every likeness which is made out of any material and colour whatever by the evil art of painters.

Whoever in future dares to make such a thing, or to venerate it, or set it up in a church, or in a private house, or possesses it in secret, shall, if bishop, presbyter, or deacon, be deposed; if monk or layman, be anathematised, and become liable to be tried by the secular laws as an adversary of God and an enemy of the doctrines handed down by the Fathers. At the same time we ordain that no incumbent of a church shall venture, under pretext of destroying the error in regard to images, to lay his hands on the holy vessels in order to have them altered, because they are adorned with figures. The same is provided in regard to the vestments of churches, cloths, and all that is dedicated to divine service. If, however, the incumbent of a church wishes to have such church vessels and vestments altered, he must do this only with the assent of the holy Ecumenical patriarch and at the bidding of our pious Emperors. So also no prince or secular official shall rob the churches, as some have done in former times, under the pretext of destroying images. All this we ordain, believing that we speak as doth the Apostle, for we also believe that we have the spirit of Christ; and as our predecessors who believed the same thing spake what they had synodically defined, so we believe and therefore do we speak, and set forth a definition of what has seemed good to us following and in accordance with the definitions of our Fathers.

(1) If anyone shall not confess, according to the tradition of the Apostles and Fathers, in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost one godhead, nature and substance, will and operation, virtue and dominion, kingdom and power in three subsistences, that is in their most glorious Persons, let him be anathema.

(2) If anyone does not confess that one of the Trinity was made flesh, let him be anathema.

(3) If anyone does not confess that the holy Virgin is truly the Mother of God, etc.

(4) If anyone does not confess one Christ both God and man, etc.

(5) If anyone does not confess that the flesh of the Lord is life-giving because it is the flesh of the Word of God, etc.

(6) If anyone does not confess two natures in Christ, etc.

(7) If anyone does not confess that Christ is seated with God the Father in body and soul, and so will come to judge, and that he will remain God forever without any grossness, etc.

(8) If anyone ventures to represent the divine image (χαρακτήρ) of the Word after the Incarnation with material colours, let him be anathema!

(9) 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!

(10) If anyone ventures to represent the hypostatic union of the two natures in a picture, and calls it Christ, and thus falsely represents a union of the two natures, etc.!

(11) If anyone separates the flesh united with the person of the Word from it, and endeavours to represent it separately in a picture, etc.!

(12) If anyone separates the one Christ into two persons, and endeavours to represent Him who was born of the Virgin separately, and thus accepts only a relative (σχετική) union of the natures, etc.

(13) If anyone represents in a picture the flesh deified by its union with the Word, and thus separates it from the Godhead, etc.

(14) If anyone endeavours to represent by material colours, God the Word as a mere man, who, although bearing the form of God, yet has assumed the form of a servant in his own person, and thus endeavours to separate him from his inseparable Godhead, so that he thereby introduces a quaternity into the Holy Trinity, etc.

(15) If anyone shall not confess the holy ever-virgin Mary, truly and properly the Mother of God, to be higher than every creature whether visible or invisible, and does not with sincere faith seek her intercessions as of one having confidence in her access to our God, since she bare him, etc.

(16) If anyone shall endeavour to represent the forms of the Saints in lifeless pictures with material colours which are of no value (for this notion is vain and introduced by the devil), and does not rather represent their virtues as living images in himself, etc.

(17) If anyone denies the profit of the invocation of Saints, etc.

(18) If anyone denies the resurrection of the dead, and the judgment, and the condign retribution to everyone, endless torment and endless bliss, etc.

(19) If anyone does not accept this our Holy and Ecumenical Seventh Synod, let him be anathema from the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and from the seven holy Ecumenical Synods!

[Then follows the prohibition of the making or teaching any other faith, and the penalties for disobedience. After this follow the acclamations.]

The divine Kings Constantine and Leo said: Let the holy and ecumenical synod say, if with the consent of all the most holy bishops the definition just read has been set forth.

The holy synod cried out: Thus we all believe, we all are of the same mind. We have all with one voice and voluntarily subscribed. This is the faith of the Apostles. Many years to the Emperors! They are the light of orthodoxy! Many years to the orthodox Emperors! God preserve your Empire! You have now more firmly proclaimed the inseparability of the two natures of Christ! You have banished all idolatry! You have destroyed the heresies of Germanus [of Constantinople], George and Mansur [μανσουρ, John Damascene]. Anathema to Germanus, the double-minded, and worshipper of wood! Anathema to George, his associate, to the falsifier of the doctrine of the Fathers! Anathema to Mansur, who has an evil name and Saracen opinions! To the betrayer of Christ and the enemy of the Empire, to the teacher of impiety, the perverter of Scripture, Mansur, anathema! The Trinity has deposed these three!”

When did Images start to come into the Christian Faith…

Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus commonly known as Jerome (A.D. 347 – 420)

“that the errors of Images hath come in and passed to the Christians from the Gentiles, by an Heathenish use and custom.“ -upon the tenth Chapter of the Prophet Jeremiah

Eusebius Pamphili (A.D. 260 – 339)

“ It is no marvel if they which being Gentiles before, and did believe, seemed to offer this, as a gift to our Saviour, for the benefits which they had received of him, Yea and we do see now that Images of Peter and Paul, and of our Saviour himself be made, and tables to be painted, which me think to have been observed and kept indifferently by an Heathenish custom. Four the Heathen are wont so to honour them whom they judged honour worthy, for that some tokens of old men should be kept. Four the remembrance of posterity is a token of their honour that were before, and the love of those that come after.” -Seventh Book of his history Ecclesiastical, the 14th Chapter


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