Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Icons and Incense

An anonymous poster commented on Why I am Not Eastern Orthodox:

It is kind of odd to suggest that there was some kind of consensus view of the early Fathers opposed to incense and icons: that is a bit of a surprise to me. Scripture records the use of both as a part of worship in the Hebrew context.

The following is simply a matter of historical record that I believe disproves the Eastern Orthodox claim to continuity in worship. None of the following is meant to suggest that we should not have icons or incense. I do believe that continuity in worship is important but I am not a restorationist. What may have been healthy in one age may be a danger to another and vice versa. I believe that currently the use of crucifixes, icons, and incense in the Lutheran church is a very healthy thing. But I think the historical record pretty clearly shows that the earliest Christians were opposed to these things. The Roman Catholic professor Leo Donald Davis wrote in The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (pp. 291-292):

In the early Church, Christians had ringing in their ears the denunciation of graven images in the Old Testament...Only by about 200 did Christian art make its appearance and by the fourth century were churches filled with cycles of Christian painting. Only by the second half of the fourth century did Christian authors begin to speak in positive terms about pictorial art.

The following quotations are taken from A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David W. Bercot which is handy dandy book that catalogues quotations from the early church fathers on a wide variety of topics. I will only list those which specifically address icons and incense. The book itself has references so you can look up the quotations in their original context.

They call themselves Gnostics. They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material. They maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. -Irenaeus

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.-Clement of Alexandria

We are not to draw the faces of idols, for we are prohibited to cling to them. -Clement of Alexandria

The Law itself exhibits justice. It teaches abstinence from visible images and by inviting us to the Maker and Father of the universe. Clement of Alexandria

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 reverence of what is divine. -Clement of Alexandria

Those golden figures, each of them with six wings, signify either the two bears (as some would have it) or rather the two hemispheres. For the name cherubim meant "much knowledge."...For He who prohibited the making of a graven image would never Himself have made an image in the likeness of holy things. -Clement of Alexandria

Works of art cannot be sacred and divine. -Clement of Alexandria

In a word, if we refuse our homage to statues and frigid images,...does it not merit praise instead of penalty that we have rejected what we have come to see is error? -Tertullian

We know that the names of the dead are nothing, as are their images. But when images are set up we know well enough, too, who carry on their wicked work under these names. We know who exult in the homage rendered to the images. We know who pretend to be divine. It is none other than accursed spirits. -Tertullian

Demons have their abode in the images of the dead. -Tertullian

[Hermogenes the heretic] despises God's law in his painting, and he maintains repeated marriages. Although he purports to follow the law of God in defense of his lust, he despises it in respect of his art. -Tertullian

[The disciples of Carpocrates] make counterfeit images of Christ, alleging that these were in existence at the time...and were fashioned by Pilate. -Hippolytus

Nevertheless, these very individuals, in imagining that the hands of lowly artisans can frame representations of divinity, are uneducated, servile, and ignorant. -Origen

[CELSUS, THE PAGAN CRITIC:] "They cannot tolerate temples, altars, or images. In this, they are like Scythians."...[ORIGEN:] To this our answer is that if the Scythians...cannot bear the sight of temples, altars, and images, it does not follow that our reason for objecting to these things is the same as theirs--even though we cannot tolerate them anymore than they can...It is not possible at the same time to know God to address prayers to images. -Origen

Without a doubt, there is no religion wherever there is an image. For religion consists of divine things, and there is nothing divine except in heavenly things. So it follows that images are without religion. For there can be nothing heavenly in something that is made from the earth. -Lactantius

While it was yet hardly light, the prefect, together with chief commanders...came to the church in Nicomedia. The gates having been forced open, they searched everywher for an image of the Divinity. However the books of the Holy Scriptures were found, and they were committed to the flames. -Lactantius

It has been sufficiently vain it is to form images. -Arnobius

There are also plenty of quotes from Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Lactantius, and Arnobius opposing the use of incense.


Paul Pavao said...

Thank you so much! I have Bercot's book, and I have been collecting early church quotes on my own web site, but I haven't gotten to icons. I already knew this was so without listing the quotes, but thank you so much for doing so!

boehadden said...

I know this blog is about 1 1/2 old-- I just came across it.

Just on thing to point out:
You quoted Clement who wrote: "For He who prohibited the making of a graven image would never Himself have made an image in the likeness of holy things."

Clement is a little off here. He seems to be forgetting all of humankind AND the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. God made humans in his "image" or "icon". And Jesus took on flesh (created matter) and is in the "image" of the invisible God (as St. Paul puts it). Simply put, God makes icons.

I think your point is valid to a certain degree-- however, remember that a council was specifically to deal with the question of icons. We could lift quotes from Tertullian and Origen that say some weird things about the nature of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ--that doesn't deny that we still uphold what was decided in the Councils in Nicea and Constantinople about Christ and the Trinity. A Council's decision trumps non-biblical fathers' views, I think..

Excellent blog! Great thoughts! Blessings to you brother :)

Chuck Wiese said...

boehadden: I agree that Clement is wrong and I agree with the decision of the 7th ecumenical council. My only point was to show that there has been a change in litrugical practice and so although we are certainly free to use icons and/or incense, our worship should never be such that we could not imagine worship without them. When we worship we join in the with the worship of the church of all ages which includes Clement and the others. There is a difference though I think between statements by statements by Tertullian and Origen in regards to the Trinity or the two natures of Christ and statements about the liturgical use of incense. Origen and Tertullian both had teachings that were eventually rejected by the church but they also lived at a time where there was some disagreement over how we ought to speak about Christ and what we should believe about Him. Praise be to God that the teaching of the Apostles prevailed in the church but I think that even well meaning people who wanted to uphold the Apostolic teaching stumbled at times and so there was some diversity. But there does not seem to be that diversity in the pre-Nicene church when it comes to incense and icons. There seems to be a strong consensus against both (as well as musical instruments and men shaving).

Anonymous said...

I was the original anonymous poster - this certainly does not represent the latest scholarly consensus on the topic of images which has been reshaped by archaeological evidence over several decades (nor frankly does the excerpt do justice to the early Christian writings on the topic that affirm the very early use of icons). I suggest Bigham's recent Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images for both a review of the allegations of iconophobia in the early Church as well as a general overview of the topic of Jewish practice.

In any case, the main point stands: icons affirm the Incarnation and declare the Gospel - all out practices and beliefs are centered on Christ.

Anonymous said...

One meta-point: worship should be an image (really a union) of heaven - Hebrews, Isaiah, Revelation, Daniel etc is where this is revealed (the Temple of course being a pattern or shadow). While icons play an important theological/dogmatic role - and their centrality is a safeguard against heresy - they are of course only a reminder of the heavenly reality in which we participate. I think it is very dangerous and ill advised to remove them, but, yes, they are not necessary strictly speaking. Not sure I agree about incense, however - that I need to think about.