Chapter Sixteen: How the Catholic Church Adopted Deity Images

Influences Upon the Catholic Church To Begin Using Deity Images

The Roman Catholic Church disagrees with the early church’s definition of idolatry. The Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia defines an idol as something belonging only to pagan religions. An idol is:
An image or representation of a pagan deity, fashioned in a human or symbolic form and intended as an object of worship. (p. 490)
The church slowly changed its concept of God away from that of the God who cannot be pictured toward a God who can (and should) be pictured. This change in basic assumption about God’s nature can be traced to the influence of Greek philosophy plus other similar pagan influences. During the first several centuries after Christ the church was an island surrounded by an ocean of monistic theologies.

After Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, things in the church began to change radically. Suddenly it was popular to be a Christian. People flocked into the church, and the church did not know what to do with all the people.

The church was not strong enough to teach and disciple all the new converts into the Biblical concept of God. The people’s previous concepts of deity carried over into the church. These Roman empire people previously had honored their emperors with images. Now it seemed fitting to them to honor their new Lord in similar fashion with images.

Previously, during the first three centuries, the only known pictures to represent Christ had come from such sources as 1) the pagan who mocked an unknown Christian’s Lord by drawing a man on a cross: a man with a donkey’s head; 2) Gnostics, the people who tried to reconcile and integrate popular concepts of deity into the Christian faith; and 3) some untrained Christians living in the catacombs. After Constantine’s edict, however, the church relaxed its guard against idolatry.

In this climate of success and acceptance it was not long before monistic concepts of God slipped into the church and became acceptable. Historian Adolph Harnack pinpoints the time when the theology changed. He says that when Origen identified the “logos” of Greek philosophy with the Logos (Christ the Word) of Christian theology, the change began and the two streams began to merge. People began to think that the same logos held by Greek philosophy was the Logos of the Church. The door of the church opened to Greek theology and philosophy to interpret the Bible. Authority transferred to the Greek concept of deity: it began to be considered Christian.

Harnack saw a cause-effect relation between this new brand of Christianity and the rise of images in the church. He said that this Second Order of Christianity (“Christentum zweiter Ordnung”) flourished in the fourth century and became so strong that it resulted in the dogma which sanctioned the veneration of images at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787 A.D.). (Neve, I, 168).

This monistic Second Order of Christianity had roots in the allegorical method of Biblical interpretation, in widespread acceptance of Gnostic beliefs, in the church’s familiarity with the Greek language enabling Christians to read Greek philosophers’ writings, in popular Neoplatonism, in mysticism, in monophysitism (which said Christ has only one nature), and in Gregory the Great’s saying that pictures (including pictures of deity) should be the “books” to teach people the Christian faith.

Allegorical Biblical Interpretation

The allegorical method of interpreting the Scriptures started among the Greeks before the time of Christ. Then some Jews adopted allegory as a key for reconciling the Scriptures with some prevalent Greek beliefs. Philo of Alexandria (B.C. 20 to 42 A.D.) was the Jew credited with introducing allegorism into Jewish Biblical scholarship. Later, it appeared in Christian scholarship and eventually permeated the church, though not without some resistance. For instance, Bishop Irenaeus found Gnostics using allegorical Biblical interpretation. “They (the Valentinians) disregard the order and the connection of the Scripture.” Irenaeus opposed unrestricted figurative interpretation. Gnostics used Scripture out of context. “They (adapt) the oracles of the Lord to their opinions,” said Irenaeus. (Walvoord, pp. 39-41. Also see Irenaeus, I.8,1; etc.)

Origen (c. 185-254 A.D.) was the Christian leader who popularized allegorism in the church. Origen used the allegorical method to try to show a unity between Christianity and Greek beliefs. He was trying, in his prolific writings, to make it easier for pagans to believe in Christianity.

Origen’s allegorism said that the literal meaning of Scripture covered two deeper levels of meaning—the moral and the spiritual. The spiritual level was better and more important than the literal meaning. Origen’s principle of allegorical interpretation blew away in one breath both the narratives of Scripture and the earthly life of Christ, says historian, Will Durant. Allegorism appeared to defend the Christian faith, but actually turned it over to everybody’s individual interpretations. Multiple individual interpretations disrupted church unity and church authority. Variations multiplied. (Durant, III, 614, 616).

Allegorism made Scripture moldable and plastic in the hands of the interpreter; it could prove anything; it served various theological systems. It allowed people to see in Scripture whatever they wanted to see. Presuppositions were proved—not judged—by allegorical interpretations. Allegorism did not listen to what the Bible said about God, so the Biblical concept of God faded even among the (Bible) “scholars.”


This dangerous heresy almost sank the good ship of the Church. Gnosticism was very popular during the second century, affecting most of the intellectual Christian congregations in the Roman Empire.

The apostles wrote epistles such as Colossians and First John. The church father Irenaeus wrote five books of warnings against Gnosticism. Many of the sections of the Recognitions of Clement claimed to quote the apostle Peter against Gnostics.

Many Gnostics thought of God as being like an infinite ocean too deep for man to understand. This deep ocean, which they called Bythos, or the Deep, is similar to an ancient Babylonian concept of God. The early Babylonians supposedly believed that before the heavens, earth, or the gods came into existence there was a vast expanse of waters. Similarly, the Egyptians attributed the beginning of things to Nu, the primeval deep. Likewise, the first recorded Greek philosopher, Thales, asserted that water was the first of all things. (Genesis also speaks of water, but Genesis distinguishes between God and the water: God made the waters; He Himself is not the water.)

The Gnostics carried the ancient pagan Bythos’ concept of God into the church, influencing many people. They used mysterious rituals to try to communicate their faith. Many of their rituals were hard to fathom, not because they were so profound, but because the Gnostics were often uneducated people doing their Gnostic rituals quite superstitiously.

Simon Magus, mentioned in Acts 8 as the man who Peter rejected because Simon tried to buy with money the power of the Holy Spirit, evidently went on to become an important leader of the Gnostics. Simon Magus was said by the church fathers to have been the parent of later Gnosticism. (See Irenaeus, Book I, c. 16, p. 191, Harvey; Hippolytus, Philosophumena, Book VI, c. 20, p. 267, Cruice; and Augustine, de Haeres. lib. cc. I, II, III, Praedestinatus, de Haer., Bk. I, c. 1. Also see the “Recognitions of Clement,” where disputations between Peter and Simon Magus are cited.)

“The Simonians and Carpocrations used images of Christ and other of their religious heroes in their worship.” (Schaff, II, 458)

And there was the famous heretic Marcion (c. 140 A.D.) who was sometimes classed as a Gnostic.

Cerinthus, a Syrian Gnostic, is said to have met the apostle John in the baths at Ephesus. Cerinthus believed that Christ was a man born like any other man. The Holy Spirit, he thought, descended on Christ at the baptism but left Christ on the cross when Jesus called, “My God, my God, why halt thou forsaken me?” Cerinthus believed that Christ was buried and will not rise until the last day.

However, many Gnostics denied any resurrection of the dead because they did not believe matter can dwell with God. Some believed that Christ’s appearance in Palestine was really a phantom appearance of the Logos, or Wisdom of God. They believed it was not a true body of human flesh and blood and that he did not really suffer death on the cross. (Legge, 149).

Schaff cites Epiphanus in the fact that there were pantheistic Gnostic sects in Egypt that identified Christ with nature’s powers of generation. They practiced licentiousness for worship and when they had given their strength they would say, “I am Christ.” (II, 458)

Basilides, a Gnostic philosopher who founded a school at Alexandria (Egypt) between 100-140 A.D., taught that God is unnameable but known through his emanations. Christ was one of God’s emanations.

Valentinus, the leader of a large Gnostic movement which posed a serious threat to the church, evidently considered himself to be a Christian and part of the church. Valentinus (a follower of Basilides) studied Platonism in Alexandria. He went to Rome and taught there about 140 A.D. He created a comprehensive system of 15 pairs of Aeons constituting the “All.” A survey of some Valentinian doctrines shows how far they departed from Biblical Christianity. It also gives insight to the theological world into which early Christianity moved.

Like all Gnostics, Valentinus started with a Bythos (Deep) as the origin of all. This “Unknowable Father,” according to some of his followers, had a female consort named Silence (Si-ge) or Grace (Charts) from whom all the subsequent aeons of manifestations descended.

Other Valentinians thought that the Father (Bythos) was without a spouse. But all agreed that an emanation proceeded from the Deep or Father of all. Valentinus said that Wisdom (one of the Aeons), together with Depth, produced a being outside the “All” who gave the germ of life to matter. This produced the Demiurge or creator.

Then two Aeons, Christ and the Holy Spirit, arose to restore the lost balance of “All.” From all the Aeons was produced Jesus the Savior, who was united at His baptism with the Messiah promised by the Demiurgos.

Valentinus said that the aeon called Saviro or Jesus came down through the heavenly sphere and assumed the appearance of a body. Another Gnostic theory was that this aeon was Christ who united itself with Jesus at the baptism.

According to Valentinus, the heavenly Savior brings Achamoth, after innumerable sufferings, into the Pleroma and unites himself with her—the most glorious aeon with the lowest—in an eternal spirit-marriage. With this, all disturbance in the heaven of aeons is allayed, and a blessed harmony and inexpressible delight are restored, in which all spiritual men, or genuine Gnostics share.

Valentinus tried to transform mystical pagan beliefs into a form of Christianity. It was against Valentinus (as we have noted earlier) that Bishop Irenaeus wrote the five books. (Forlong, 93-125). The wide influence of Valentinus in his day or in the days following him is indicated by the number of times he is quoted or cited by ancient writers.

Another Gnostic leader, Saturninus, founded a school in Antioch that flourished about 125 A.D. Gnosticism seemed to spring up everywhere the church spread into pagan lands.

Although the theology of many of the Gnostic teachings appeared to be philosophical nonsense (“mazes of absurdity”) and Gnostics were often called dualistic (because they saw a dualism between spirit and matter) Gnostics were seeking to get rid of materialism and dualism and find a monistic spiritual union between man and “God.”

Gnostics did not allow the redeemer to be identified with earthly matter. His physical birth, suffering and death are explained (as in Indian mythology) to be a deceptive appearance or a transient vision assumed only for the purpose of revealing himself to the physical senses of man. When reduced to a basic philosophical definition, the Gnostic Christ was really nothing more than the ideal spirit of man himself, as in the mythical gospel-theory of liberal Protestant theologians like Strauss. (Schaff, II, 455)

Gnosticism flourished in the early Christian centuries. Where the pagan concepts of deity met the growing Christian church, there arose Gnosticism, a movement trying to synthesize Christianity with paganism’s previous concepts of God. The church sometimes accepted the Gnostics, allowing the Gnostics to think of themselves as true Christians, even as more enlightened Christians.

Gnostic pictures to represent Christ would not seem inconsistent with some of their concepts. Pagan concepts of God allowed the use of images. And Jesus, seen as a separate being from Christ, could be pictureable. These Gnostic concepts show why the first “pictures” of Christ were made by the Gnostics.

Gnosticism influenced the schools of Antioch, Alexandria, and the church at large. It died back from the middle of the third century until the sixth, when it returned to a dominant influence. Gnosticism laid the foundation for Christian Science, a monistic movement in the modern era. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Christians Could Read Greek Philosophy

There was an open door for communication between monistic Greek philosophy and Christian theology. The Greek language was a common language of both. The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Septuagint made the Old Testament available in Greek, so the church could read Greek. The first Christian apologies and treatises were written in Greek. Greek was the first language of the church as it spread through the Roman Empire.

Greek had been the language of philosophy from the time of Thales, six hundred years before Christ. When educated Greeks became Christians they initiated a dialogue between theology and philosophy.

There was a “logos” in philosophy and there was a “Logos” in the church. When the logos of philosophy came to be identified with the Logos of John’s Gospel, the key to a synthesis of pagan and Christian theologies found an integrating principle. Jesus Christ came to be formulated as the Greek logos. Adolph Harnack, as noted earlier, saw this as the most important event in the history of Christian doctrine. He said that when the church accepted the Greek logos to be the same as its own Logos, the Second Order of Christianity began. The church’s concept of God was changing.


Another image-making, monistic influence upon the theology of the church came through Neo-Platonism. Plotinus (203-270? A.D.), promoter of Neo-Platonism, had the same teacher who taught Origen: they both studied under Ammonius Saccas (it is thought). The main ideas of the Neo-Platonists include a hierarchy of reality: each sphere of being is an image of the superior one above it; likewise, each individual reality in the sphere is an image or expression of a corresponding reality in the higher sphere. Degrees of being are degrees of unity (the farther from the superior sphere, the greater the multiplicity) and the highest sphere is derived from a principle which, as the source of all being, cannot be described as being. (Britannica, XVI, 216-219).

The mystic, said Plotinus, “belongs to God and is one with him, like two concentric circles.” In the mystic vision of God, Plotinus said, seer and seen are one: “if a man could preserve the memory of what he was when he was mingled with the Divine, he would have in himself an image of God. For he was then one with God ...” (Macintosh, 24).

Neo-Platonism went westward through the writings of Porphyry, writer of fifteen books against the Christians. Porphyry (biographer of Plotinus) made Neo-Platonism the philosophy of the west. Neo-Platonism, by influencing Augustine, more directly influenced the western church. In his Confessions Augustine said he was moved or influenced at one time by Neo-Platonism. Augustine was too independent to become a Neo-Platonist (and Augustine opposed using images to represent God), but he is considered to be instrumental in passing the spirit of Plotinus on to the middle ages.

Neo-Platonism went eastward in the writings of two theologians of Cappadocia (a large island region of Asia Minor near Syria). These theologians, Basil and Gregory of Nyssa read Plotinus and were influenced by some of his ideas. (Note: these men were also influenced by Origen.) More directly, Neo-Platonism came into the church through writings of Dionysius the Areopagite. He promoted a Christianized mystical theology. The mystical vision of God became the highest achievement possible for a Christian. Images, it was often thought, facilitate this vision of God.


Mysticism advanced through the Neo-Platonist belief that the divine nature is diffused through all human souls. Because the One is above all duality, and because language requires distinctness, the One is beyond description. The nearest that man can come to knowing the One is through mystic vision and indescribable (ineffable) experience. (Watson, 682). Heavenly forces work through earthly symbols and images. (Neve, I, 169).


The Monophysites were a powerful force in the East during the sixth century. Operating on the monistic assumption that all reality is basically made of the same nature (mono-physitism), they said that Christ has only one nature. This caused them to react so violently to the decision of the Chalcedon Council (AD 452) that another council had to be called in 553 A.D. at Constantinople to preserve the decision of Chalcedon.

Monophysitism, as it was taught by the later Alexandrian school, had a bent toward Greek type spirituality. “And now a picture of Jesus was looked upon as the symbol of His Deity,” said one historian to summarize the monistic influence of Monophysites upon the church. (Neve, p. 169) John of Damascus promoted this theology with his three sermons on the images. He quoted Basil as saying that “the honour given to the image passes over to the prototype.” (John of Damascus, p. 274)

The Monophysites are represented in modern times by their descendents: the Coptic church in Egypt and its daughter the Coptic church of Ethiopia; the Syrian Monophysite Church, often known as Jacobite, and the Armenian or Gregorian church.

Popular Practice

Almost everybody loved to use images to represent Deity. Pictures to represent Christ became so popular between the fourth and the eighth centuries that they endured and survived the swords of the Mohammedans and the theological opposition of the Iconoclastic controversy. This created the climate where the Catholic church gave them official sanction in 787 A.D.

Images, by that time, became extremely numerous. Church walls were painted from floor to ceiling with icons, Bible scenes, and the like. In the East especially, icons were taken on journeys for protection. Icons marched at the head of armies. Icons presided at racing events in the arenas. Icons had a place of honor in each room. Icons were painted on cups, clothing, furniture, rings: wherever a possible space was found, it was filled with a picture of Christ, Mary, or a saint.

In those times such superstitions as imploring the help of images, dressing up images in linen clothes, choosing them for godparents of children, and priests scraping paint from images and mixing the scrapings with the consecrated bread and wine and giving it to the faithful, were recorded as not unusual practices. This is the admission of The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910 edition) in its article on the “Veneration of Images.” (VII, 688).

Gregory the Great Taught That Pictures Are the Books of the Unlearned

Pope Gregory (b. 540 A.D.) used his office to support the use of pictures to teach people the stories of the Bible. He believed that uneducated people could learn Bible truths in this way. Gregory made no distinction between pictures of ordinary men and pictures of Deity.

Summary: The Catholic Church Adopted Images Because of Non-Biblical Influences

After the church moved out from the Jewish synagogues into the pagan world, there were many influences upon the church to use pictures to represent its God, and especially its God-man. No longer was the church the place where people believed that Deity could not be represented by art. Many ideas, taught by countless people, influenced the church to drift toward using pictures to represent Jesus Christ.

On one hand, it is amazing that the church held for so long a time to its Biblical concept that God cannot be pictured. On the other hand, it is amazing that the church did not read the Bible more carefully and maintain its awareness of the reasons for not picturing Jesus.

Opposition to Images From Inside and Outside the Church

Not everybody accepted the church’s use of pictures and images that were made to represent Christ. (1) Just see how big a role they played in the rise and spread of the Mohammedan religion. (2) Look also at the Iconoclastic movement and discover its Biblical understanding that God cannot be pictured.

1.) Opposition from Mohammedans

Pressure from persecution caused image users either to forsake their images or else to harden their dogmatic persistence in using images.

It may be seriously doubted that Islam, the Mohammedan religion, would have arisen if Christians had refused to use pictures to represent their deity. The Mohammedan religion arose as a reaction to idolatry in the world, including the churches’ use of images which they perceived to be idolatrous. Mohammed brought severe judgment upon idolatry wherever he found it.

Mohammed started out to defend monotheism by opposing idolatry. He started out as a serious but gentle preacher of monotheism, but met only opposition. His fighting spirit inflamed, he began to use the sword. His followers were the ones who went on to apply the sword to the church across North Africa.

Taking control of an area, the Mohammedans refused to allow the form of a man to be painted or imaged in their mosques. Such images were seen as being forbidden idols. The Mohammedans felt that they were fighting against idolatry and polytheism: they felt they were fighting to preserve monotheism and the worship of the one true God in the earth.

From Mecca in Arabia (632 A.D.) to Tours, France (732), the Mohammedans placed their crescent around the southern half of the Mediterranean. They conquered Damascus in 635, Jerusalem and Antioch in 638, and Alexandria in 641. They paused to go back and finish the conquest of Persia in 651. Then they pushed westward across North Africa toward the Atlantic, conquering, conquering, conquering. They stormed across the strait of Gibraltar up into Spain in 711, terminating the Visigoth empire. They moved north into France.

Charles Martel finally stopped the Mohammedans at Tours, in central France, in 732 A.D. The were driven back into Spain. They had conquered half the land of the church. It looked for a time like they would complete a full circle around the Mediterranean to conquer all the land of the church.

The church was destroyed in nearly all the lands conquered by the Mohammedans. Any remnants were severely weakened. Most surviving people converted to the Islamic religion. Most of the few Christians who remained moved out to find a more friendly land. The Mohammedans did not allow Christians to start new churches. They placed severe restrictions upon the few churches that did remain. These few churches declined into nonexistence or else into static, helpless minorities. The church in North Africa disappeared. Thus, the image usage of the church brought severe punishment: the Mohammedan sword.

2.) Opposition to Images from the Iconoclasts

An “iconoclast” is someone who breaks icons (images) or who advocates the destruction of religious images. Icon means an image, figure, or representation; clasm is from klaein, “to break.”

While Mohammedanism stamped out both idolatry and much of the image-using church, a reform movement began inside the church. At this critical time, while the Mohammedans were conquering and destroying the church east, south and west of the Mediterranean. the Iconoclastic movement arose to try to reform the church—at least to reform the church’s concept of God by getting rid of the offending images.

The city of Constantinople barely saved itself from the Mohammedans who besieged it. Shortly after the battle an edict forbidding worship of images was issued by Emperor Leo III. Leo’s first edict was a mild one against some superstitious use of images—they were merely to be moved to a height where they could not be touched or kissed.

Several reasons are given as to why Leo may have issued this edict. Some of his people believed that the Mohammedan invasion was a judgment from God against idolatry in the church and they urged Leo to initiate reform. Leo may also have been trying to make it easier for Mohammedans, Jews, and some stricter sects of Christianity to join the church (these people were offended by the image worship of the Catholic Church).

But the church did not obey Leo’s order. A riot occurred, led by monks (some of whom depended for income upon painting the pictures), and by some religious people who felt that God was being taken from the minds of the people when the images were taken away. This riot grew into civil war in both the East and the West. A challenger to Leo sailed into Constantinople to depose him.

Leo put down that army and killed its leaders. He issued a second edict, this time to destroy the images and whitewash the walls where the offending pictures had been. He enforced his decree with army power. His army action enraged the crowds as they saw their sacred images destroyed. The crowds attacked Leo’s officers, killing them in religious passion. Leo retaliated, putting the rioters into prison.

An army officer, sent to destroy a popular statue of “Christ,” was killed by an angry crowd. A massacre grew out of the struggle between the army and the crowd. The emperor marked the spot where the statue had stood by placing there an inscription against images. This offended the pope when he heard of it. The pope led the church in refusing to carry out the emperor’s orders to destroy the images. The pope (Gregory II) wrote a letter to the emperor in defense of images.

The pope’s letter of image-defense gives insight into both the christology of the church and into their use of images in those days. Gregory tried to persuade Leo that there is a difference between Christians’ images and idols of the pagans. Pagans worship images of demons, he said, but Christian images are true representations of Christ and the saints. Pope Gregory went on to define idolatry in his own monistic terms: the Bible only forbids the idols of the pagans, but the images of Christians are justified because they are intended to awake pious feelings. Gregory believed images had helped his own faith and he named some paintings he thought were helpful. They included a miraculous painting of Christ sent to Abgarus, king of Edessa; paintings of the miracles of the Lord; paintings of Mary and the infant surrounded by choirs of angels; the last supper; the raising of Lazarus; the feeding of the multitudes; the transfiguration; the crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascension; and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Another leading defender of images was the famous theologian, John of Damascus. John wrote three treatises on the subject between 726 and 730. His argument hinged on his interpretation of the Incarnation. John did concede to the iconoclasts that God in His eternal nature could not be represented in any way—that is, before the Incarnation. “I represented God, the Invisible One, not as invisible, but insofar as He has become visible for us by participation in the flesh and blood,” he said. (Robert M. Yule, “Icons as Christian Arts,” Evangelical Review of Theology, Oct 1982, pp. 202-214).

The next pope, Gregory III, promoted images even more zealously. Calling a council of 93 bishops and meeting in northern Italy, the pope and his council decreed that no Christian could oppose images of God. They said that anybody who would destroy, defame or oppose the sacred images of God and the Lord Jesus Christ and His mother were to be excluded from the body and blood of Christ and from the communion of the Catholic church. Thus the controversy raged on.

Iconoclastic Council (Constantinople, AD 754)

Finally the iconoclastics held their council; it was called by Leo’s son, Constantine. Both Pope Gregory III and Emperor Leo III had died in 741, but Constantine carried on his father’s crusade against images.

The Iconoclastic Council tried to operate from the platform of Biblical theology. It saw a fundamental theological problem in trying to picture God: it saw this practice as being idolatry. For instance, the Council said that Satan deceived man into worshiping the creature instead of the Creator. The Mosaic Law had been given to undo this ruin, then God sent his Son to turn us from the worship of idols, and to teach us to worship God in Spirit and in truth. The first six Ecumenical Councils preserved this Biblical faith. But then Satan began to bring idolatry back into the world under the guise of Christianity, observed the council.

The Iconoclastic Council explained how the Incarnation of Christ did not justify pictures and images. Christ has a divine nature which cannot be painted: this divine nature of Christ cannot be separated from His human nature.

The Iconoclastic Council said that to paint pictures to portray Christ is both to depict the God who cannot be pictured and to mingle the two natures into one nature in a way that cannot be done.

This Iconoclastic Council of 754 unfortunately damaged its credibility by making some extreme bans against all other images, including those of saints and Mary. No doubt the church’s abuse of images caused this ban, but it did not help to communicate the council’s important message that God is other than images.

Constantine went on to reign as emperor for 34 years, during which time he enforced the ban on images.

When Image Worship Was Officially Adopted By the Catholic Church

Image Worship Was Officially Adopted at Council of Nicea in AD 787

After the death of Emperor Constantine, his daughter-in-law, Irene, took his throne. Empress Irene reversed the anti-image policy, she became a great supporter of image users. The religious climate changed all over the empire. In 787 A.D. the Second Council of Nicea (the Seventh Ecumenical Council) established, officially, the use of images of God.

Nicea’s monistic theology shows through in its statements that pictures and images of “Christ” are to be used to represent Him as Lord and God. These images were to be accepted as images of “our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (See the wording of the creed given by the Iconoclastic Council of 754 and the creed of the Second Nicean Council of 787, in Schaff, Creeds, pp. 543-587.)

The Second Council of Nicea stated:
we define, with all care and exactitude, that the venerable and holy images are set up in just the same way as the figure of the precious and lifesaving cross; painted images, and those in mosaic and those of other suitable material, in the holy churches of God, on holy vessels and vestments, on walls and in pictures, in houses and by the roadside images of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ and our undefiled Lady, the holy God-bearer, and of the honourable angels, and of all saintly and holy men. For the more continually these are observed by means of such representations, so much will the beholders be aroused to recollect the originals and to long after them, and to pay images the tribute of an embrace and a reverence of honour, not to pay to them the actual worship which is according to our faith, and which is proper only to the divine nature: but as to the figure of the venerable and lifesaving cross, and to the holy gospels, and the other sacred monuments, so to those images to accord the honour of incense and oblation of lights, as it has been the pious custom of antiquity. For the honour paid to the image passes to the original, and he that adores an image adores in it the person depicted thereby. (Cope: 45-46)
Thus Nicea II assumed that God’s nature is such that He can be pictured. These deity pictures were to be used right along with the images of Mary and the saints.

The monistic unity of being that is shared by the picture and what it is supposed to represent shows a clear Platonistic assumption of ontological unity between type and prototype. The honor paid to the picture passes to the original, and he that adores an image adores the person depicted by the image.

The council condemned as heretics anybody who would oppose the use of images. This council is accepted by both the Roman Catholic and the Greek Catholic churches as authoritative and opposition to images is not permitted.


The Catholic use of pictures representing not only Jesus but also God the Father by a humanistic form can be documented all over the Catholic world, from the Sistine Chapel (the Popes’ Chapel) in Rome to churches at the ends of the world. Catholics do not consider it to be idolatrous by definition to try to picture God.

The official Roman Catholic Church changed the metaphysics of the church, away from faith strongly committed to the God who is other than images, to commitment to a monistic God who must be known through images and other mediating forces given by the church.

The allegorical method of interpreting the Bible allowed the church to lose awareness of the Biblical concept of God’s ontological otherness, and it allowed the world to translate the name of God into the monistic world’s concepts of deity.

This monism developed slowly but it spread pervasively by means of the influence of Greek philosophy as it spread through the Roman Empire and taught people to think of deity in terms of an unseen Prototype knowable through images. The piety of the people came to be a piety that depended upon experiencing “God” in mystical encounters. Such a climate helped to develop a tradition of using mediating images to encounter and to communicate the knowledge of God.

This Catholic tradition is not the church’s first (or earliest) tradition. Instead, it is Christianity’s “Second Order.” It took many centuries to change and officially establish this divergent Second Order, but it is now the official position of the Catholic Church.

Bibliographic References and Notes

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica (New York: Benzinger Bros., 1947), p. 1597. Note that Aquinas aid that “latria” is due to the images of Christ on account of His Divinity.

Note that Aquinas said that “latria” is due to the images of Christ on account of His Divinity.

Cope, Gilbert. Symbolism in the Bible and the Church (London: S. C. M. Press, 1959), or see the decree of The Second Ecumenical Council (787 A. D.) in Schaff, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (Wm. B. Eerdmans), XIV, 550.

Donavan, J. The Catechism by Decree of the Holy Council of Trent (Rome: Propaganda Press, 1839), pp. 35-43. Note that the Council of Trent reaffirmed Nicea II to be the Catholic position on images. The council stated, “But to make and honor the images of Christ our Lord, of his most holy and pure Mother, and of the other Saints, all of whom, having been clothed with human nature, appeared in human form, is not only not forbidden by this commandment, but has always been deemed a holy practice, and a very sure indication of a grateful mind.”

But to make and honor the images of Christ our Lord, of his most holy and pure Mother, and of the other Saints, all of whom, having been clothed with human nature, appeared in human form, is not only not forbidden by this commandment, but has always been deemed a holy practice, and a very sure indication of a grateful mind. (Donavan: 35-43)

Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ, the Story of Civilization (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1944), III, 614, 616.

Fortescue, Adrian. “Veneration of Images, The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Co., 1910), VII, 688.

“Idolatry, Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia (New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1955), pp. 491-492.

Irenaeus, ‘Against Heresies,” The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. A Cleveland Coxe. Vol. I, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1953).

John of Damascus, “Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1899).

Lee, A. D. “Images, Veneration of in New Catholic Encyclopedia (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1966), VII, 370-372. “The practice of veneration of images, however, awaited the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas to find its place within the total synthesis of Catholic doctrine ...”

Legge, Francis. Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity, From 330 B.C. to 330 A.D. (New Hyde Park, New York: University Books, 1964), 149.

Macintosh, Douglas Clyde. The Problem of Religious Knowledge (New York: Harper & Bros., /940), p. 24.

Neve, J. L. A History of Christian Thought (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946), I. 168.

Pickar, C. H. “Images, Biblical Prohibition of Vol. VII of New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p. 370.

Schaff Philip. History of the Christian Church (Eerdmans, 1952), H, 458. (“The Simonians and Carpocratians used images of Christ and of their religious heroes in their worship.” p. 458).

Schaff, Philip (ed). The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper & Bros., 1919).

Van Treek, Carl, and Aloysius Croft, Symbols in the Church (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936. Nihil obstat: H. B. Ries, Censor librorum; Imprimatur: Samuel A. Stretch, Archiepiscopus Milwaukiensis).

Note here that in 1623 (a hundred years after the Protestant Reformation started) Pope Urban VIII banned making images of the Holy Spirit in human form. The custom of representing the Holy Spirit in human form had become rather common during the time of the humanistic movement.

Walvoord, John W. Inspiration and Interpretation (Eerdmans, 1957).

Watson, Richard. A Biblical and Theological Dictionary (New York: Carlton and Phillips, 1853), p. 682.

Yule, Robert M. “Icons as Christian Art, Evangelical Review of Theology, Journal of World Evangelical Fellowship, Theological Commission (Paternoster Press, Oct 1982), pp. 202-214.

Regarding the Mohammedan opposition to images, helpful reference works include:

Bainton, Roland H. The Church of Our Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950), 63-65.

Draper, John Wm., “Image Worship and the Monks”, History of the Intellectual Development of Europe; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1876; I. 413 ff.

Kuiper, B. K. The Church in History (Eerdmans, 1951), pp. 62-68.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953), p. 286-291.

Miller, Andrew. Miller’s Church History, From First to Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1964), 282-287.

“Mohammedanism,” Encyclopedia Britannica (9th ed.); XVI, 548.

Walker, Williston, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1950) 159-160.