Chapter Fourteen: The Early Church Leaders Opposed Deity Images

Testimony of Early Church Leaders

Early Church View: Peter Said that Satan Started the Error of Worshipping God Through Images

An ancient writing, “The Recognitions of Clement,” attributes the following words against images to the apostle Peter himself. (An ancient writer, Origen, quoted parts of this treatise before 232 A.D.) They give us a glimpse into the thinking of the ancient church about images (that people might make to represent God), contrasting these images with the true image of God. Here are the words attributed to Peter:
“Through the mouths of others that serpent is wont to speak in this wise: We adore visible images in honour of the invisible God. Now this is most certainly false. For if you really wished to worship the image of God, you would do good to man, and so worship the true image of God in him. For the image of God is in every man, though His likeness is not in all, but where the soul is benign and the mind pure. If, therefore, you wish truly to honour the image of God, we declare to you what is true, that you should do good to and pay honour and reverence to man, who is made in the image of God; that you minister food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, hospitality to the stranger, and necessary things to the prisoner; and that is what will be regarded as truly bestowed upon God. And so far do these things go to the honour of God’s image, that he who does not these things is regarding as casting reproach upon the divine image. What then is that honour of God which consists in running from one stone or wooden figure to another, in venerating empty and lifeless figures as deities, and despising men in whom the image of God is of a truth? Yea, rather be assured, that whoever commits murder or adultery, or anything that caused suffering or injury to men, in all these the image of God is violated. For to injure men is a great impiety towards God. Whenever, therefore you do to another what you would not have another do to you, you defile the image of God with undeserved distresses. Understand, therefore, that that is the suggestion of the serpent lurking within you, which persuades you that you may seem to be pious when you worship insensible things, and may not seem impious when you injure sensible and rational beings.

(Recognitions of Clement,” The Writings of Tatian and Theophilus, and the Clementine Recognitions. Vol. 3 of Ante-Nicene Christian Library. T & T Clark p. 317.) (For background on this writing, see pp. 137-139. Or see in The Writings of Tatian and the Clementine Recognitions, p. 51 ff.)
The writings and sayings of the early church leaders consistently opposed the use of images to represent God. Here are samples of what those men said against images to represent God.

Justin Martyr (100-166)

The foremost advocate of the early church was Justin. Born in Shechem, the ancient town in Samaria where Jesus had stopped by Jacob’s well to tell the Samaritan woman “God is spirit,” Justin’s parent were pagans. Justin started his career as a philosopher, but through reading the prophets he was converted and became an apologist for the church. He died a martyr in Rome.

Writing on the “Folly of Idol Worship,” Justin gave reasons why Christians did not make images to represent God: images are dead; images do not have the form of God; images insult God; images are used by demons. God’s name is not to be attached to them.
And neither do we honour with many sacrifices and garlands of flowers such deities as men have formed and set in shrines and called gods; since we see that these are soulless and dead and have not the form of God (for we do not consider that God has such a form as some say that they imitate to His honour), but have the names and forms of those wicked demons which have appeared.
Justin said, “craftsmen make “what they call a god,” but “which we (Christians) 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, and require constant service.” (Justin Martyr, “Folly of Idol Worship,” p. 165).

Irenaeus (130?-202?)

This bishop of Lyons is best known for the five books he wrote against the heresy we call Gnosticism. Irenaeus grew up in Smyrna; he heard Polycarp preach. He died a martyr’s death. Irenaeus is said to have once found a picture to represent Christ among the Gnostics. He rebuked them for having such a forbidden image. (I, xxv, 6).

Clement of Alexandria

“It would be ridiculous, as the philosopher says, that man being but a toy of God should make God, and that God should come into being through the play of human art.” So wrote Clement of Alexandria, evidently referring to something the philosopher Plato had said. (Herklots, p. 41.) Clement is thought to have been born about the middle of the second century in Athens of pagan parents. As a Christian he had learned that God cannot “come into being through ... art.” (Acts 17:29).

Tertullian (130-160)

Tertullian, born in Carthage, North Africa, was a lawyer and practiced in Rome. After becoming a Christian he returned to Carthage and became an elder in the church. Tertullian showed that the church of his day understood it to be idolatry to use images to represent God. “Anyone who honours an idol (an image) with the name of God falls into idolatry,” he said. (Early Latin Theology, Vol. 5 of Library of Christian Classics.)

What would Tertullian say if he knew that the church in later centuries would reverse the definition of idolatry and then feel that instead of practicing idolatry they were serving God by putting a name of God on pictures, publishing them around the world to illustrate the Gospel story?

Tertullian reported seeing a chalice decorated with a symbol of the Good Shepherd carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders. According to Harold Browne (p. 506) this emblem on the chalice was the nearest thing to a figure of Christ to be mentioned in the first three centuries of the church. (There probably were other figures, such as the figure Irenaeus saw among the Gentiles, that did exist, but they were obviously very few.)

Tertullian wrote a lengthy discourse “On Idolatry.” What Tertullian meant by idolatry, we already noticed, was to give God’s name to an image. Tertullian considered idolatry to be “the head of unrighteousness.” He considered it to be a sin which Christians must guard themselves against with special care. He saw that the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15) was meant for the purpose of deciding what the Gospel meant for Gentile believers. The Jerusalem Conference declared that circumcision and the rituals of the Law were not binding upon Gentiles, but that this did not give them license to use idols. Instead it meant that Gentiles should thereby be free so they could use all their energies to destroy idolatry.
The reason why the Holy Spirit did, when the apostles at the time were consulting, relax the bond and yoke for us was that we might be free to devote ourselves to the shunning of idolatry. This shall be our Law...(a Law) peculiar to Christians, by means whereof we are recognized and examined by heathens. (Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3, 62.)
So a basic test of real Christianity, for Tertullian, was whether it shunned idolatry.

Did Tertullian stand alone in his view of idolatry in the early church? Not according to the editors of The Ante-Nicene Fathers (which is a collection of the writings of the early church fathers). At the conclusion of Tertullian’s article about idolatry, the editors add a footnote stating their observation that all of the primitive church fathers are “of one accord” agreeing with Tertullian on this matter. This is a powerful testimonial from researchers finding that the early church rejected any picture or image that was made to represent Deity.

Origen (185-254)

Trying to explain the Christian faith in terms that the pagans could understand, Origen explained that (Christians abhorred all worship or use of deity-images because of the Second Commandment. “It is not possible at the same time to know God and to address prayers to images,” said Origen (Herklots: 41). Origen’s testimony about the Christians’ opposition to images shows how consistently the early church opposed such images.

Eusebius (260?-340?)

The testimony of Eusebius against images bears all the more weight when we notice that he was, in addition to being a bishop (in Caesarea beginning about 315), the friend and adviser of Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor. Eusebius was also called “the father of Church History” by the well-known historian, Philip Schaff.

Eusebius opposed using an image to represent Christ. Instead, he instructed a Christian widow (the widow of Licinius) to seek the image of Christ in the Scriptures. Another account says Eusebius courageously rebuked a request from the sister of Emperor Constantine. She asked for a portrait of Christ. Eusebius asked her if she had ever seen or heard of such an image in the church. He asked her if it was not true that such things were excluded from the churches. Wasn’t it commonly known that such things were forbidden for Christians? (Barnes, 8-9)

Eusebius recorded that the people of Paneas (Gnostics?) had a statue that they accepted as a representation of Christ, put there by a woman who was healed from a bleeding problem. Eusebius said that such images followed the heathen way of honoring deliverers, and he implied that other people also may have attempted to make such images of Paul and Christ. (Browne: 506, citing H. E.[Eusebius?] 7,18). Almost three hundred years after Christ a few images here and there thus were beginning to appear.

Athanasius (296-373)

This father of orthodoxy (who affirmed the Deity of Christ and stood against the error of Arianism) spoke against using images to stand for God. [Browne: 507, citing De Moribus Ecclesiae I. c. 34, No. 74,75. Tom. l, 713]

Epiphanius (c. 315-403)

Bishop Epiphanius, of Salamis in Cyprus, traveled through a village in Palestine. He saw a veil hanging on a door in front of a church; on the sheet was painted an image to represent Christ (or possibly a saint). When he saw such an image in the church, he tore it and told the people to give the cloth to the poor to use for burial cloth (Browne: 507 citing Epiphanius Epistle ad Johan Hierosol, trans. by St. Jerome, Ep. 60. Browne notes that although the Catholic writer Bellarmine argued that this passage was an interpolation, nevertheless it is found in all the manuscripts and its genuineness is admitted by Petavius.)

Images were beginning to spread in the church, so Epiphanius wrote three treatises against them. His last will and testament said, “If anyone should dare, using the Incarnation as an excuse, to look at the divine image of the God Logos painted with earthly colors, be he anathema.” (Barnes, 9-10, citing Quasten, Patrology, III, 391-393).

Augustine (354-430)

At the end of the fourth century Augustine said there were many people worshiping tombs and pictures. But the church, he said, condemned such practices and tried to correct them. (Browne: 506). Augustine said it is impiety to erect a statue of God in the church. (Browne: 507. citing De Fide et Symbolo, c. vii. Tom. vi. p. 506) Comp De Consensu Evangelist. l. 16, Tom. 3, Pt. 2, p. 506) He argued against pagans who claimed they only used the images to remind them of God. Augustine said the image more easily leads people to a real worship of the idol itself.

Augustine answered the pagans who objected that Christians, in the Lord’s supper, used gold and silver vessels, the work of men’s hands. Augustine told them to distinguish between the cup and the images (the cup was never thought to represent God Himself, but the images misled people to think that God sees us through them). Images cause impiety because “a form like life has so much power on the feelings of the wretched beings (image users) as to make itself to be worshiped, instead of its being manifest that it is not living, ... (Browne: 507-508, citing In Psalm 93; Serm. 2, No. 4-6.)

Testimony of Church Councils Against Deity Images

In addition to the statements of individual leaders of the church in the first centuries, there are also statements from the councils. They opposed using images to represent God.

Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15)

This first conference of the church declared that Gentiles are not under obligation to keep the rituals of Judaism. But it did warn Gentiles to avoid being polluted with idolatry. We observed that Tertullian saw this decision as meaning that Christians should use their freedom in Christ for the purpose of shunning idolatry.

For a conference composed of the apostles to give special attention to avoiding idolatry is very significant. It sets the priority for the church.

Council of Elvira (305 A.D.)

About the beginning of the fourth century there was evidently some inclination to bring pictures into the church. The ancient church leaders saw the danger and stood against it: at the Council of Elvira (Eliveris) in Spain, the church fathers issued a decree which shows their understanding of the Biblical principle that God cannot be painted in a picture. “It is ordained,” said the council, “that pictures are not to be in churches, so that that which is worshipped and adored shall not be painted on walls.” This council is very important for several reasons. It shows the theology of that early period. It shows that the church leaders took a stand against trying to paint pictures of God. It also suggests that a change may have been starting; they must have seen a need for such a statement. This was at the end of the Roman persecution era, the end of the days when the Christians in Rome lived in the catacombs. This was the era when it began to be popular for un-discipled pagans to join the church, often bringing their pagan theology with them.

The Council of Elvira is important for another reason: it provided the precedent that later councils and church leaders should have followed. This council shows that the earliest official tradition clearly rejected using pictures to represent Christ—that which was worshiped was not to be painted on walls.

Council of Constantinople, 754 A.D.

As late as 754 a large council fought against using pictures to represent Christ, and did so for theological reasons. Three hundred thirty-eight bishops came to Constantinople to make “a Scriptural examination into the deceitful colouring of the pictures which draws down the spirit of man from the lofty adoration of God to the low and material adoration of the creature.” (The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, Vol. 14 of A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series, p. 543 ff.)

This council found “that the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation—namely, the Incarnation of Christ.” Such paintings either divide the Son into two sons (the human son and the divine son), or else they mingle and confuse the humanity and the divinity of Christ, said the council.
The earlier councils had established certain facts about Christ:
1) No one may impose any kind of separation between the two natures; and
2) No one may impose any mingling of the natures in the hypostasis or person.
So the Constantinople Council believed it acted consistently both with previous councils and with the Biblical faith when it found that pictures to represent Christ are guilty of either:
1) separating Christ’s human nature from His divine nature, or else
2) mingling the two natures (by depicting “The Godhead which cannot be depicted” and “mingling with it the manhood”). (Percival: 543 ff).
Christ’s two natures cannot be separated nor can they be confused with each other (or changed into the other).

But to make a picture of Christ one must either picture only His humanity (thus separating the humanity from the Divine nature) or else the picture changes God’s nature into man’s nature. Either way, the picture tells a falsehood about Christ, making Him to be something different than the previous councils understood the Bible to say that He is. Thus, the council that met at Constantinople in 754 felt constrained to condemn pictures used to represent Christ. In this matter the council followed the first tradition of the church.

Testimony of Modern Researchers and Scholars

Although it may be popular to think that the church has used pictures to represent Christ from the first days of the church, there are a number of researchers who conclude that such was not the case. In reality, the first tradition of the church was to oppose pictures to represent Christ. Such is the finding of a variety of researchers.

Brooke Foss Westcott

Speaking of the relationship of Christianity to art, Westcott says that for the first several centuries the church, with very few exceptions, reverently avoided all representations of the Lord in His human presence. The people in those days did not use art to depict His form to illustrate the Gospel records. Westcott says a rude sketch of the nativity has been found on a fragment of a sarcophagus (coffin) dated 343 A.D. One of the earliest representations of the Passion is found on a sarcophagus that comes from the fourth century. He described the pictures found on several sarcophagi dated between 350-400 A.D. Thus, Westcott arrived at the conclusion that making pictures to represent Christ was foreign to the mind of the early church and did not occur until the fourth century at the earliest. (Westcott, p. 329-360).

Philip Schaff

This historian, who published many volumes of church history, says that, “The first representations of Christ are of heretical and pagan origin.” (Schaff, 563-564). The Gnostic sect of the Carpocratians, he says, worshipped crowned pictures to represent Christ along with images of other famous men like Plato, Aristotle and Pythagorus.

Walter Lowrie

In his book Art in the Early Church, Walter Lowrie says, “It is well known that the Crucifixion was not represented realistically before the fifth century ...” (Lowrie, p. 79.) All the pictures which show Christ seated among the disciples are at least as late as the fourth century, he reports. Lowrie says that, according to Eusebius’ history of the “Life of Constantine,” Emperor Constantine had a figure (possibly a statue) of the Good Shepherd—plus figures of Daniel and the lions to adorn fountains in Constantinople. Lowrie, who enjoys such forms of art, observed that this was the only theme in Christian art presented as a statue. He adds, “The use of statues in the churches can claim no sanction in early tradition.” (Lowrie: 69-70).

Adolph Harnack

This famous liberal historian and theologian observed that “the early Catholic Fathers confess that...God is...all active spirit; everything anthropopathetic and anthropomorphic is to be conceived as incompatible with his nature.” (Anthropopathy attributes human feelings to God; anthropomorphism attributes human shapes to God.) Harnack found that the early church fathers did not confuse God with man’s feelings and forms.

Summary and Conclusion: The Early Church Did Not Use Pictures to Represent Christ

The evidence is rather overwhelming that the early church did not use pictures to represent Christ. This was the tradition handed over by the apostles. It was rooted very deeply in the theology that understood God to be unpictureable. The early church understood it to be idolatrous to try to picture God. Thus, the church did not use pictures to represent Christ because the Christians believed in the Deity of Christ: they believed that He is the Lord.

The importance of this concept of Christ to them is dramatically shown by the martyrs for the faith. Early Christians suffered persecution and even death for their refusal to use images as representations of their God. During the time that the church refused to use pictures to represent Christ, they evangelized the world of their day and serve as an example for all future generations to emulate and strive to follow.

Bibliographic References & Notes

Barnes, Peter. Seeing Jesus: The Case Against Pictures of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Carlisle, PA 170/3: Banner of Truth Trust, 1990). Fourteen pages: excellent summary of the case, with bibliography.

Baynes, N. “Idolatry and the Early Church,” Byzantine Studies and Other Essays (Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1955), e.g.. see p. 122 for a quote of Eusebius rebuking Constantine’s sister for requesting a portrait of Christ.

Beckwith, John. The Art of Constantinople: An Introduction to Byzantine Art (London, England/Greenwich, Conn.: Phaedon Publishers, 1961), p. 55: “There is no period between the fourth and the eighth centuries in which there is not some evidence of opposition to images within the Church. The East Romans constantly maintained that Divinity, because it is outside the compass of the human senses, should not be the subject of artistic expression.”

Browne, Edward Harold. An Exposition of the Thirty Nine Articles. (London: Longmas, Green, & Co., 1894), p.504-510.

Justin Martyr, “Folly of Idol Worship.” Ch. 9 of the “First Apology of Justin. “Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson, eds. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. (Eerdmans, 1950), I, 165.

Clement. “Recognitions of Clement,” The Writings of Tatian and Theophilus, and the Clementine Recognitions. Vol. 3 of Ante-Nicene Christian Library. T & T Clark p. 317. For background on this writing, see pp. 137-139. Or see The Writings of Tatian and the Clementine Recognitions, p. 51 ff

Gough, Michael. The Origins of Christian Art (New York: Praeger, 1973), p. 39. Art historian finds almost no episodes from life of Christ depicted in art before Constantine.

Herklots, H. G. G. The Ten Commandments and Modern Man. (London: Ernest Benn Ltd., 1958), p.41.

Irenaeus. “Against Heresies,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, A. Roberts and” Donaldson, eds. (Eerdmans, 1981), Vol. 1, (I, xxv, 6).

Jerome, “Letters,” Vol. VI of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers P. Schaff and M. Wace, eds. (Eerdmans, 1979). See pp. 88-89 for Jerome’s citing Bishop Epiphanius’ letter against “hanging pictures of a man in Christ’s church contrary to the teaching of Scriptures, (so he) tore it asunder...’

Lowrie, Walter. Art in the Early Church; (New York: Pantheon Books, 1947), p. 79.

Leith, John H. (Professor of Historical Theology, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia). Creeds of the Churches (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1963).

Percival, Henry R., ed., The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, Vol. 14 of A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds. (Eerdmans, n.d.); p.543 ff.

Quasten, J. Patrology (Westminster, Maryland, 1986), pp. 391-3.

“Recognitions of Clement,” The Writings of Tatian and Theophilus, and the Clementine Recognitions. Vol. 3 of Ante-Nicene Christian Library (T & T Clark), p. 317.

Ridley, Nicholas. “Concerning Images; That They Are Not to Be Set Up. Nor Worshipped in Churches,” Treatises and Letters of Dr. Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, and Martyr, 1555 (London: The Religious Tract Society, n.d.).

See Tertullian’s writing in Early Latin Theology, Vol. 5 of Library of Christian Classics; Westminster, 1956. And in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3, 62.

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church (New York: Scribner’s, 1887), p. 563-564.

Westcott, Brooke Foss. “The Relation of Christianity to Art”, The Epistles of St. John (Eerdmans, 1957) p. 329-360.