Chapter Thirteen: The Church’s First Tradition Rejected Images to Represent Jesus

Did the first tradition of the Christian Church use or reject pictures to represent Christ?

The first tradition is the authorized tradition, so it is vital and profitable to know and follow that tradition and follow it.

To the Fathers of the Early Church, tradition (paradosis) referred to God’s revelation which was delivered to His people through the prophets and apostles. Tradition was something “handed over,” not “handed down.” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church; p.1369. Cited by Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, p.526) It was a “deposit” handed over to the church.

But tradition (in popular usage) has come to mean something that is handed down, as from father to son, from generation to generation. A tradition is a long, popular memory of something, an extended memory made possible by the handing down from one generation to the next. A tradition is a long standing custom that has become an unwritten law (It must be done that way because it was always done that way). What our great-grandparents tolerated as innovations we assume they approved; we assume they faithfully received it from their grandparents.

The modern church has developed a tradition, a custom, of using pictures to represent Christ. On a popular level, no one can remember when this tradition did not exist. It appears to be so integral to the church that one might guess the tradition has always existed as it is today. Looking at the enthusiastic usage of pictures to represent Christ in the modern church, one would assume that this tradition came from the beginning.

But, in fact, image usage was not the original tradition of the church. The apostles did not hand over to the churches any pictures to represent Christ. Instead, they handed over to the church the precedent and principle of opposing such images. The apostles did hand over the Scriptures which opposed making images to represent God.

The First Tradition

In God’s providence, the earliest tradition of the church developed in the matrix of the Jewish synagogues where images to represent God were not allowed. The early church knew that God is not like an image. It knew that it would be idolatry to make an image to represent Him. Any person that could be represented by an image could not be the true God.

During the Apostolic period the church did not use such images. This seems almost incredible. Most people just assume that the apostolic church must have used images to represent Christ. How could the church spread so fast into Gentile lands and keep so free from image usage? The lands into which the church was spreading were lands where everybody took it for granted that one’s concepts of Deity could and should be symbolized with an image. How could the church tell these people about Christ (winning them to faith by the thousands) and not have them making all kinds of pictures and images to symbolize this Christ?

Reason: To Avoid Idolatry

The Jewish opposition to Deity images came to fruition during the Maccabean era before the time of Christ. Jewish opposition to images had taken centuries for the Jews themselves to learn. The Jews finally realized that their God could not be artfully and imaginatively created, held or seen in images. The apostles grew up in Judea, this unique country that finally would not permit images to stand for God. The apostles knew that God’s temple had no place for a man-made image to represent God (2 Cor 6:16). Now the stage was set for the church to announce that Christ is the one and only true revelation of God.

The apostle Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, knew that God is not to be likened to a man-made image when he proclaimed that Jesus Christ is the image of God. (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:15). He preached this Christ to the people he evangelized, whether they were Jews or Gentiles; he was giving them the true image of God. Paul was not starting a new form of idolatry: wherever he went he destroyed idolatry. He did it by giving people knowledge of the Christ who is the true image of God and by refusing to let the people make images of this Christ. For example, in Athens where there was no synagogue, he did not preach Christ in his sermon until he made certain that his audience would not add another image to their standing pantheon of deity images. He made it clear that it is not reasonable to think of the “Unknown God” in terms of images made by man’s artwork. He pointed to their “Unknown God” image, and said it is not reasonable to think God is like such an image. On this foundation he proclaimed Christ as the revelation of the unknown God, making him known by the word. Since Paul could not bring his converts in Athens into a Jewish synagogue where they would be able to learn that the true God is not like an image, Paul made this point very clear to the Athenians from the start—before he made a convert.

Apostolic method: “To the Jew first!”

The Jewish synagogue was the “landing point,” the beachhead of the church for proclaiming Christ to the Gentiles. Jews lived in most of the major cities of the Roman empire, and they built synagogues. Most of the first Christians in each city were from these Jewish communities. The Roman world first thought of Christianity as just another Jewish sect. The apostles made it a practice to preach Christ first to the Jewish community when they would come into a new city. Jewish converts would usually become the nucleus of the new Christian churches. In this manner Paul (and the other apostles) spread the knowledge and worship of Christ into idolatrous lands and still preserved imageless worship.

This was God’s method in the book of Acts. As Jewish people accepted Jesus as Lord, they would understand that, since He is Lord, they could not make images of Him. The Jews were thus equipped to guide and disciple the new Gentile Christians into a Scriptural concept of Deity. On this foundation the apostles showed that Christ is the Revelation of that God. The New Testament gives us nothing to supersede this method. In the one case (Athens) where we glimpse Paul being compelled to go directly to Gentiles, the method is followed in spirit: he first established his hearers in the truth that we cannot make images of any revelation of God.

Here, at the synagogue beachhead, ends the history of the New Testament church as it is given in the Acts of the Apostles. What happened after Acts? The early Christian faith was a vigorous and vital faith that destroyed idolatry at its root: God is of such a nature that He cannot be pictured. The tradition was established and it proved to be successful. We see here the true, apostolic faith and tradition beginning to spread around the world. Spreading as fast as it did in its first century, it was enough that its converts made no compromise with image worship.

Idolatry considered unforgivable

The opposition of the church to images during the first several centuries is shown by the fact that, for a time during the Roman persecutions, the church held idolatry to be an unpardonable sin. During these times Christians were put to death for being Christians. If they would bow to images, they could save their lives.

Idolatry was a life and death matter in those days. Most Christians, when the real test came, would refuse to bow to the images. Their faith is revealed by teachings such as that in the “Epistle of Barnabas” which warned that the Antichrist was at hand to lead people into idolatry. That letter reminded Christians that Israel had broken its covenant with God by practicing idolatry. (“The Epistle of Barnabas,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers 1953, I, p.138-139. It was probably written around 100 A.D., though critics would say it was written by another Barnabas than Paul’s companion).

But the temptation was too great for some people. Some did bow to the idols. When the persecution storms had passed, they came back to the church for fellowship. The church questioned whether these people could or should be forgiven: wouldn’t this weaken the church and let idolatry in? Had not true Christians died rather than permit idolatry?

By the latter part of the second century the church began to think idolatry was a final sin; there could be no forgiveness for it. Christians of the Roman Empire, east and west, held this view for a time. Origen is one example of a writer of that day who reported that idolatry was a sin for which there was no remedy. Eventually, this extreme view was modified. One writer, Cyprian, said that before his time idolatry was considered unforgivable, but after the Decian persecution it had come to be included among sins capable of being forgiven.

The significance of the church’s opposition to idolatry, as it pertains to pictures to represent Christ, is that it shows the clear position of the church against idolatry of any kind. It was obviously pagan idolatry that the Roman empire was trying to force upon the church. But the church could not have stood against “pagan” idolatry if it had been involved in image usage of its own. After the Roman persecutions finally ended, the church began to relax its discipline against making images to represent Christ. But that was three centuries after the beginning of the church. The staunch position of the early church against idolatry testifies to its clear conscience in this matter, for if the church had images in its own closet it could not have stood against the mighty Roman Empire’s idolatry.

Testimony of Jews and Pagans that Christians Did Not Use Images

Jews did not call Christians idolators
If early Christians had used images to stand for Christ, the Jews would have labeled them idolators, but the Jews did not accuse those Christians of having idols. Instead, unbelieving Jews based their opposition to Christianity upon Jewish rejection of Jesus as God. These Jews were more concerned to see that all males were circumcised. They tended to see circumcision and the law as being an end in itself; they saw no need for a Christ who fulfilled what the law pictured.

So Christians tended to see Jews as the idolators: servers of the forms of the law, rejecters of the Christ foreshadowed (pictured) by the forms of the law. The chains of idolatry were shown to remain on the idol-hating Jews who remained in the forms and legalisms of Judaism.

So much the more would the angered Jews have called Christians by the hated name of idol worshippers if they could have found any Christian images. The silence of the Jews is strong indication that they could find no sign of image usage among the Christians of those days. This means the Christians, in the early days of the church, had no pictures or images to stand for the divine Christ they worshipped. The Jews would clearly see such images as idols.

Pagans called Christians “atheists” (because they had no images)

The pagans also saw that the Christians had no visible gods and decided that they must not believe in a Deity. Allowing no images to stand for their Deity must mean they did not believe in any God, reasoned the Romans. This is a strong indicator that the Christians of those days did not use pictures to stand for Christ.

Charged with being atheists was no trivial matter in those days in the Roman empire. For instance, Polycarp might have escaped death if he would have only said, “Away with the atheists” (meaning, “Away with the Christians”). Polycarp was the last of the church leaders who had been taught personally by the apostles. As the bishop of Smyrna, he was arrested and brought into an amphitheater which was filled with an immense crowd that had come to see a Christian leader executed. Polycarp was ordered to say, “Away with the atheists!” The aged leader, keenly aware of who were the real atheists; wryly responded, “Away with the atheists!” But then he added a clear explanation: he was not referring to Christians; he was not denying his Christian faith. For eighty-six years he had served Christ and not once had Christ failed him, he told the crowd. He could not disown Christ and fail his Christian brothers now. So Polycarp was burned at the stake, executed as a leader of the “atheists,” the Christians who would not have any visible images of Deity.

Being charged as “atheists” for having no pictures of their God gave good opportunities for the Christians to explain to the Romans their faith about who the real God is.

Following is a letter from Theophilus (the historian Eusebius said Theophilus was the sixth bishop after the apostles in Antioch). The letter is written to a pagan to explain why Christians do not use images to represent God. It explains the Christians’ belief that God’s image is of such a nature that it cannot be represented by an image. Theophilus said that Christians consider such images to be idols. First, he noted the anger of the pagans at Christians for having no images for Deity, and he labels such Deity-images as “idols.”
Since, then, my friend, you have assailed me with empty words, boasting of your gods of wood and stone, hammered and cast, carved and graven, which neither see nor hear, for they are idols, and the work of men’s hands. (“Theophilus to Autolycus,” The Writings of Tatian and Theophilus; and the Clementine Recognitions pp. 53-54.)
Then, Theophilus explained that God is not like images. He cannot be seen with physical eyes, but with the eyes of the soul. A reader of Theophilus’ letter is reminded that the early church’s rejection of images for Deity was based clearly on their theology, on their concept of God. Theophilus explained to the pagan that God’s nature is such that it cannot be known by the physical senses. Theophilus goes on in the letter to say that purity of heart is a condition of seeing God.
But if you say “Show me thy God,” I would reply, “Show me yourself and I will show you my God.” Show, then, that the eyes of your soul are capable of seeing, and the ears of your heart able to hear; for as those who look with the eyes of the body perceive earthly objects and what concerns this life, and discriminate at the same time between things that differ, whether light or darkness, white or black ... and as in like manner also, by the sense of hearing, we discriminate either sharp, or deep, or sweet sound; so the same holds good regarding the eyes of the soul and the ears of the heart, that it is by them we are able to behold God. (Theophilus: 53-54)
Testimony of other enemies (Tacitus and Celsus).
Two historians from that period, who were not Christians and generally were not sympathetic to them, give us more documentation that the Christians did not use images to represent their God. Tacitus, the Roman historian who lived from 55-117 A.D., reported that the Jewish people would not use such images: They opposed portrayals of their Deity. (The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Vol. 5, 452). Celsus, the second century enemy of Christianity, wrote that Christians “could not tolerate either temples, altars, or images.” (Herklots, p. 41)


So what is the first tradition, the authorized tradition, regarding the use of images to represent Christ?

We find that during the apostolic period the church did not use such images. Most of the first Christians were Jewish, trained to know that God cannot be likened to an image, and they did not use images to represent the Son of God, nor did their Gentile converts to Christianity use such images.

Nor did the Apostle Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, give any license to use Deity images when he freed Gentiles from the law. Christians are not free to practice idolatry. The first tradition of the church was to separate itself from idolatry.

The first tradition of the church was so separated from image usage that pagans thought Christians must be atheists, and pagans put Christians to death for refusing to use deity images. Furthermore, non-Christian Jews who hated Christians did not accuse Christians of using images to represent Christ. Such images would have been proof of idolatry to the Jews, and if they had found Christians using such images they would have made it known publicly.

Bibliographic References & Notes

Barnabas. “The Epistle of Barnabas,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers; (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), I. 138-139.

Ellison, H. L. “Tradition,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), p. 526-527.

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

“Tradition,” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press, 1957); p. 1369.

The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Vol. 5, 452.

“Theophilus to Autolycus,” The Writings of Tatian and Theophilus; and the Clementine Recognitions (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1871), pp. 53-54.