Volume 43 - Issue 3

Answering Eastern Orthodox Apologists regarding Icons

By John B. Carpenter


The Eastern Orthodox Church claims that their practices have been preserved unaltered from the early church, thus making them the pristine church in perfect continuity with the apostolic church. Eastern Orthodox Apologists use this claim to offer potential converts certainty amid competing truth claims. In particular, they claim that the early church venerated images (icons) in the liturgy just as the Eastern Orthodox (and often Roman Catholics) do now. However, a careful examination of the evidence, both archaeological and written, reveals that despite the claim to continuity with the early church, the Eastern Orthodox practices of iconography directly contradict the consistent teachings of the early church. The early church, with only varying degrees of vehemence, strictly prohibited icons. This article engages typical Eastern Orthodox Apologists’ strategies for dealing with the evidence of the early church while maintaining their claims to continuity and argues that there is no evidence for the use of icons in the early church.

For decades, the Eastern Orthodox in the United States have been claiming to be drawing many evangelicals into their fold. The 2017 conversion of apologist and “Bible Answer Man” Hank Hanegraff brought attention to this apparent wave of conversions that has been occurring at least since the 1980s. Then Campus Crusade missionary Peter Gillquist led the network of house churches he established in the early 1970s seeking to restore what they thought was original, pristine Christianity to first become the Evangelical Orthodox Church (EOC) and then join, en masse, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America in 1987. Two thousand former evangelicals became Eastern Orthodox in one swoop.1 In 1990, Frank Schaeffer, son of renowned evangelical philosopher Francis Schaeffer, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. By 2015 the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America could report that “Almost half the nearly 1 million Orthodox Christians in the United States today are converts,” including many “former Evangelicals in search of historicity.”2

Rod Dreher, himself originally a Methodist who became Eastern Orthodox by way of Catholicism, claims that such conversions are because of Eastern Orthodoxy’s continuity with the early church: “Many evangelicals seek the early church; well here it is, in Orthodoxy.”3 Hanegraff claims that the Eastern Orthodox Church represents the “roots” of Christianity, “that for the first millennium of church history there was essentially one orthodox New Testament faith rooted in seven ancient ecumenical councils.”4 Ed Stetzer, in his Christianity Today commentary on the Hanegraff conversion, implicitly concedes that Eastern Orthodoxy is, indeed, in continuity with the early church.5 Amy Slagle, in her PhD dissertation studying the causes of conversions to Eastern Orthodoxy, concludes, “Orthodox Christianity appeared attractive in offering potential newcomers moral and epistemological stability, in remaining, in their eyes at least, historically and doctrinally unchanged and unchanging.” She notes that it is thus especially attractive to “those from avowedly Christian backgrounds,” including those with a formal theological education and who hold the early church as the pristine church to which they seek to return. She reports that converts tend to cite the similarities between the Eastern Orthodox Church they encounter today with what they think are was the pattern of the original church:

The early church had bishops and priests, so does the Orthodox Church; the early church had a liturgy, as does Orthodoxy; veneration of Mary, saints, and images was documented in the early literatures and has remained significant in the present-day Orthodox Church. No other Christian confessions, informants maintained, fit this mold between past and present so neatly.6

The problem, of course, for Eastern Orthodox apologists (EOAs), is that it is precisely this claim that is at question. Did the early church really have images that were venerated in the liturgy? Converts have been sold on the claim. Is it true? We are focusing, in particular, on the issue of icons since it is an easily identifiable issue, an “integral part” and “indispensable participant” of the Eastern Orthodox “divine liturgy,” 7 and an issue about which we have several (but not an overwhelming number) of early church sources.8

1. What Is an Icon?

We should differentiate between art (including imagery and decorations) and icons. Orthodox theologians and icon “writers” make that distinction themselves. “Icons are not ‘art’ in the modern sense of individual expression, although they have many aesthetic qualities. Icons are a collaboration between the writer and the spirit.”9 Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, notes, “The icon’s purpose is liturgical.” Hence, “A gallery is the wrong place for icons.”10 The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America defines an icon as follows:

In the Orthodox Church an icon is a sacred image, a window into heaven. An image of another reality, of a person, time and place that is more real than here and now. More than art, icons have an important spiritual role…. The primary purpose of the icon is to aid in worship.11

The Orthodox Church of Estonia notes, “the word ‘icon’ is normally used to refer to images with a religious content, meaning and use…. They come from prayer to be used in prayer and worship.”12 Thus, an icon is a sacred image used in religious devotion.

This is a crucial distinction. It means that the discovery of early Christian art does not necessarily mean the discovery of early Christian iconography.13 EOAs frequently neglect this distinction when discussing the archaeological evidence, leaving the impression—wittingly or not—that any religious themed art is an icon and so the archaeological discovery of decorations and symbolism among early Christians is necessarily evidence of iconography.14

Frequently EOAs make the case that since the Bible allows and even encourages images, such as the cherubim over the ark of the covenant and the bronze serpent Moses made for the snake bitten (Num 21), thus iconography is acceptable.15 However, this reasoning conflates decorations and symbolic images with iconography.16 But as we have seen, for an image to be an icon it must be used in worship. They may deny that the image itself is being worshipped but it is a tool in worship. This is not the case with the decorations of the original tabernacle, the later temple, and not even with the famous bronze serpent Moses made. Nowhere in scripture are we told that these decorations were involved with worship.17 Indeed, when later the bronze serpent became used in worship, King Hezekiah had it destroyed (2 Kgs 18:4).

So the discovery of decorations in catacombs or the synagogue and church of Dura Europos does not necessarily suggest iconography. One can still be “aniconic” (opposed to icons) and allow decorations. Aniconism is the belief that images should not be used in worship; it is opposition to icons but not necessarily to all images. There is a spectrum of aniconism. Rigorous aniconism insists that the natural or supernatural world should not be represented in any visible way.18 The ban on images may only apply to the divine or extend to “saints”; it may encompass all living beings, and even, at its most rigorous, include everything that exists. When this prohibition is enforced by the actual destruction of images, aniconism becomes iconoclasm. But it need not be so extreme. It is helpful to understand aniconism etymologically. Icon derives from Greek noun εἰκών (an image), the negative prefix an- relates to the Greek alpha privative (“non-“), and the suffix -ism comes from the Greek –ισμός (a belief in). According to its etymology, aniconism is “non-iconism,” the lack of belief in images. The Greek word εἰκών is a general term that may refer to any image. However, the term icon, as described above, has become a technical term for a particular type of image. All images are not icons. Aniconism is the opposition to that particular type of image (not necessarily images per se). Aniconism, then, is the belief that icons ought not be used.

Milette Gaifman, in a 2017 Religion article, defines aniconism as the practice of denoting “divine presence without a figural image in religious practice.”19 Likewise, for Tryggve N. D. Mettinger aniconism refers to “cults where there is no iconic representation of the deity (anthropomorphic or theriomorphic) serving as the dominant or central cultic symbol.”20 Thus, an aniconist could have religious art on the walls of his or her home, on the pictures in a wallet, or even where the Bible is taught so long as the images are not involved in “the framework where religion is performed.”21 That is, aniconism means that images are not used in worship (however one defines worship). Aniconism, at its barest, is imageless worship.

Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–215) and Tertullian (155–240) held to rigorous aniconism. Clement wrote, “Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine.”22 EOA Steven Bigham notes Clement’s rigorous aniconism, that he believed all images fell under the second commandment’s prohibition, including images in the tabernacle. Bigham critiques Clement by appealing to the authority of scripture, arguing that he dissolved “the historicity of the passage into allegory, and in so doing, he preserved the intellectual integrity of his rigorism but falsified the scriptures.”23

Likewise, Tertullian defended the proposition of “similitude being interdicted.”24 The image of the serpent in the wilderness was an “extraordinary precept” (i.e. a rare exception). He wrote that we are only allowed to follow suit if, like Moses, God has bidden us to do so. He required all artists to stop making images in order to be accepted into the church.

Simultaneously, “The Apostolic Tradition” (attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, c. 235) took a laxer approach: “If someone is a sculptor or a painter, let them be taught not to make idols. Either let them cease or let them be rejected.”25 Note the implicit allowance of making non-idolatrous images but also the lack of encouragement to make icons. This appears to reflect a milder form of aniconism in which images are allowed for non-religious purposes. Lax aniconism allows for images as decorations, drawing the red line at involvement in worship.

Aniconism, then, covers a range from rigorous aniconism in which all images are forbidden, including secular art, in any contexts, whether secular or religious, to mediating views of some images being acceptable in non-religious contexts; to the laxest form of aniconism, that images of all kinds are acceptable, even as decorations in places of worship but not used in worship. It is the prohibition on using an image in acts of devotion that is the sine qua non of aniconism.

The spectrum of aniconism must be remembered when EOAs try to create the impression that the choice is binary: we are either rigorously aniconistic, consistently “iconophobic” to the point of destroying even our family photos, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, fully engaged in iconography. EOA Steven Bigham claims that proponents of the “hostility theory” (that the early church was aniconic) are arguing “ancient Christianity and Judaism preached and practiced an absolute prohibition of figurative art based on the second commandment.”26 Notably, he cites, as far as I could see, no example of anyone making that case.

If EOAs can frame the debate as a binary choice between radically rigorous aniconism or full-blown iconography, many people will succumb to the logic of iconography. Hence, they typically argue, “Icons are like family photos. Just like a deployed soldier may kiss a photo of his wife, we kiss icons of Saints who have fallen asleep in Christ.”27 This is, of course, a false dilemma.

2. Was Second-Temple Judaism Really Aniconic?

In order to explain how early Christians could rapidly develop the use of icons arising out of the Jewish synagogues that apparently prohibited such imagery, EOAs often argue that first century Judaism was not aniconic (opposed to icons) or that, at least, not to the degree we’ve been led to believe. For example, Steven Bigham dedicated 35 pages in his book Early Christian Attitudes toward Images to reinterpreting the sources from first century Judaism, concluding that the archaeological evidence discovered in the last century (such as Dura-Europos) has undermined the received idea that first century Judaism was opposed to images and that Christians had no images.28 Bigham, followed by many EOAs, seeks to show that first century Judaism out of which the early church sprung, was not as aniconic as originally believed and so the development of iconography from that environment is not inconceivable. Andrew Louth, an Eastern Orthodox Emeritus Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University, notes that the synagogue discovered in Dura Europos, Syria and another in Sepphoris, Palestine show the aniconic Jewish synagogue “is a later development, not something the early Christians would have been familiar with.”29 EOA G. V. Martini, states, “Judaism of [the first century] was emphatically not iconoclastic.”30 Robert Arakaki, himself a former evangelical and now an EOA, quotes the Babylonian Talmud in Abodah Zarah 33 as evidence that first century Judaism accepted some use of images:

If it is a matter of certainty that [statues are] of kings [and hence made for worship], then all will have to concur that they are forbidden. If it is a matter of certainty [that the statues are] of local officials [and hence not for worship], then all will have to concur that they are [made merely for decoration and hence] permitted.31

However, note the implicit distinction in it of images for “worship,” which are forbidden, and those that are not for worship, which are permitted. This is the key issue. As long as the images were not allowed to be involved in worship, the position is still aniconic. Arakaki, citing Bigham, quotes a claim that the Jews allowed “curtains embroidered with figures” in their synagogue.32 But the excerpt presents only one example in the Jewish Encyclopedia, the lax view of Rabbi R. Ephraim, about images in synagogues. Since the images in the curtains are not reported as in any way involved with worship, this still arguably falls within the aniconic spectrum. There follows a series of other rabbinical opinions more conservative—that is, more strictly aniconic. “The great rabbi Akiva in the early second century … prohibited the representation of all animal creatures, heavenly bodies and angels as well as anything under the earth, including whatever is reflected in water.”33

The commitment of second-temple Judaism to build a “fence” around the Second Commandment is demonstrated by Pontius Pilate himself and the Jewish coins of the period. Bigham extensively deals with the rigorously aniconic convictions of Josephus, otherwise considered a moderate first century Jew.34 Josephus tells how Pontius Pilate caused an uproar by introducing images on Roman standards in Jerusalem:

By night he brought into the city busts of the emperor that were attached to the military standards, when our law forbids the making of images. For this reason, the previous procurators used standards that had no such ornaments. The next morning, the Jews were indignant and hurried to Pilate in Caesarea, imploring him to remove the images. When he refused, deeming it an insult to the emperor, they prostrated themselves around the palace for five days and nights. On the sixth, Pilate took his seat on the tribunal in the stadium, and when the Jews again pleaded, he gave a signal. The people were suddenly surrounded with a ring of troops three deep, their swords drawn, and Pilate threatened death if they did not stop the tumult. But they bared their necks, declaring that they would rather die than transgress the law. Astounded at such religious zeal, Pilate immediately transferred the images from Jerusalem to Caesarea.35

Jewish coins showed their aniconism in the first century. Although first Greek and then Roman coins typically had images, usually of gods, temples or political leaders, Jewish coins of the Hasmonian period (ca. 140 and c. 116) did not, except for the occasional palm tree or stalk of wheat. These coins were still preferred in Jewish contexts in Galilee in the first century. “No “graven images” ever appeared on [Jewish] coins—not even Herod the Great, who displaced the last of the Hasmoneans, stepped over that red line.”36 While Herod’s son Herod Philip put images on his coins in mostly Gentile Gaulanitis (east of the Sea of Galilee), his other son “Herod Antipas of Galilee, whose territory was more extensively Jewish, had no images on his coins.”37 Further, a cache of Jewish coins discovered in 2014 from AD 69–70 show that “Jewish coins of the era were characterized by images that strictly obeyed the second commandment.” The coins had engravings of lulavs (date palm frond) and etrog (citrons) but not of people or animals.38

3. Did Luke Make the First Icon?

It is a conviction of the Eastern Orthodox Church that Luke the Evangelist painted the first icon, giving posterity an eyewitness icon of Mary, the “Theotokos” (i.e. God-bearer).39 This report is meant to root iconography at the very inception of the church. However, this claim appears to be from the sixth century at the earliest. Later authors, like Theodore Anagnostes (died after 527) supposedly reported about Eudocia, the wife of emperor Theodosian II (408–450), sending to Pulcheria (399–453) from Jerusalem the icon of “the Mother of God” depicted by “the Apostle Luke.”40 However, other sources claim that the earliest attestation of the supposed icon of Mary by Luke is from Andrew of Crete (ca. 712–740).41 There is no evidence of the claim of icons by Luke in the early church. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) wrote that no one knew the appearance of Jesus or that of Mary. “For neither do we know the countenance of the Virgin Mary.”42 It is highly unlikely that a bishop as erudite as Augustine would be ignorant of the claim of an eyewitness rendition of Mary if that claim had originated by his time. Bissera V. Pentcheva concludes, “The myth [of Luke painting an icon] was invented in order to support the legitimacy of icon veneration during the Iconoclast controversy [8th and 9th centuries]. By claiming the existence of a portrait of the Theotokos painted during her lifetime by the evangelist Luke, the perpetrators of this fiction fabricated evidence for the apostolic origins and divine approval of images.”43

4. Doesn’t the Archaeological Evidence Demonstrate the Existence of Iconography?

EOAs make much of the synagogue and house church discovered in Dura-Europos, Syria. Gabe Martini writes, “The Christian “house church” (and synagogue) discovered at Dura Europos (ca. AD 235) are about as explicit as can be when it comes to demonstrating—in an historical and archaeological manner—the existence of iconography within both Jewish and Christian architecture of the post-resurrection era; and importantly, in both cases being in the context of places of worship.”44 However, besides the conflating of decorations with iconography noted above, Bigham reveals that the famous, decorated house church in Dura-Europos, so often cited by EOAs as proof of icons in the early church, had in its large assembly hall “no paintings.”45 In other words, while there are frescoes in other rooms in the house-church, the actual meeting place for the early Christians contained none of the decorations so prominent in the nearby synagogue (itself a rarity). Contrary to claims by Robert Arakaki, and others, that such synagogues are not exceptional, archaeologist Jodi Magness noted about a fifth century AD synagogue with art found in 2012, “Synagogues of this particular type—which is best represented by the synagogue at Capernaum just a couple of miles away—typically don’t have mosaic floors.”46

Certainly the catacombs demonstrate the existence of early Christian decorations and symbolism. We know from Tertullian’s off-hand mention of an image of “The Good Shepherd” on a chalice used by a bishop that such decorated items were used.47 However, the crucial question is whether they ever crossed the red line separating aniconism from iconography. Archaeology can rarely indicate the use of the images it uncovers. But the written testimony of the early church can reveal their attitudes. While, on the one hand, Irenaeus (ca. 130–202) spoke admirably of art, “a beautiful image of a king … constructed by some skillful artist,”48 on the other he says this of the Gnostic Carpocratians use of icons:

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 honoring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.49

Notice that crowning and honoring of the images, “after the same manner of the Gentiles,” means that they are being used not simply as decorations but as icons.

Hence, the archaeological evidence has not produced any examples of iconography and when interpreted by early church fathers such as Irenaeus, it shows they understood the distinction between decoration and icon and did not cross that line.

5. Is Origen’s Testimony Invalid?

According to Origen (184–254), the pagan philosopher and critic of Christianity Celsus made Christian rejection of images in worship a point of criticism. He claimed that Greek philosophers understood that the images were not the gods themselves. According to Celsus, worship of the gods did not terminate on the image (i.e. icon) used in worship, but through the images passed into the actual god, never resting on the mere medium or icon. The image was a symbol for the god and not the god per se; honoring the symbol was therefore a way of honoring the god.

Origen rejected this line of thought. He replied to Celsus by admitting that Christians used no images. He states that Christians “being taught in the school of Jesus Christ, have rejected all images and statues.”50 Jews and Christians are among “those who cannot allow in the worship of the Divine Being altars, or temples, or images.” 51 His refutation of Celsus would be made more powerful if he could undermine Celsus’s credibility by pointing to examples of images, such as Luke’s reputed icon of the Theotokos, if they existed. Also, he could have coopted Celsus’s theology of iconography, building bridges with the reigning religious philosophy of the day. Celsus’s philosophy defending idolatry is strikingly similar to the theological justifications for iconography later developed by John of Damascus (676–749) and other iconodules. But Origen did not do so. Rather, he mocked the contention that images were helpful in worship; that is, he rejected the theology behind iconography. Citing the second commandment he wrote, “It is in consideration of these and many other such commands, that [Christians] not only avoid temples, altars, and images, but are ready to suffer death when it is necessary, rather than debase by any such impiety the conception which they have of the Most High God.”52

The typical EOA answer to this is that Origen was a heretic and therefore not to be trusted. It is true that in 400, Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria convened a council in Alexandria that condemned Origenism as heretical and called Origen himself the “hydra of all heresies.” In 553, the Second Council of Constantinople (the Fifth Ecumenical Council) condemned teachings associated with Origen but it’s not clear whether they officially condemned Origen himself as a heretic. But this is beside the point of whether his reporting on Christian worship in the third century is accurate. The orthodoxy (or heterodoxy) of Origen’s theology is not relevant to the validity of the historical data he provides. Origen’s contribution to this investigation is not theological but as evidence to the practice of early Christian worship. Even if he had been fully condemned as a heretic, why would he misrepresent the lack of images in Christian worship?

In fact, Origen’s apologetic to Celsus was typical for the early church. Explaining the absence of images in Christian worship was a staple of other early church apologists, including Marcus Minucius Felix (d. ca. 250) and Anthengoras (ca. 133–190). Romans frequently considered the lack of religious images among Christians as prima facie evidence of atheism. These apologists were at pains to explain that was not so.53 Like Celsus, Marcus Minucius Felix’s fictional polytheist, Caecilius Natalis attacked Christians for lacking images in worship.54 The fictional Caecilius Natalis, asks, “Why do [Christians] have no alters, no temples, no public images?”55 The question for EOAs is, why would early church apologists be answering this question if the early church used icons?

6. What of Basil of Caesarea?

EOAs will often quote the following saying of Basil of Caesarea (ca. 330–379): “…because the honor paid to the image passes on to the prototype.”56 The implication is that Basil provides a theological rational for iconography; that it is not, as iconoclasts frequently charge iconodules, “idolatry,” a violation of the second commandment (Exod 20:4–6) to use icons because, as in Basil’s supposed reasoning, the honor given to the icon goes to God or whatever saint is represented (and then, presumably, to God). However, first, the second commandment doesn’t condemn “idolatry,” leaving it up to us to ascertain what qualifies as idolatry. It condemns the making of an image and bowing to it. Further, it doesn’t appear that Basil is referring to physical images in worship. He doesn’t appear to be commenting on liturgy at all. He is instead offering a theological argument for the Trinity. Here is the frequently quoted phrase in context:

So that according to the distinction of Persons, both are one and one, and according to the community of Nature, one. How, then, if one and one, are there not two Gods? Because we speak of a king, and of the king’s image, and not of two kings. The majesty is not cloven in two, nor the glory divided. The sovereignty and authority over us is one, and so the doxology ascribed by us is not plural but one; because the honor paid to the image passes on to the prototype. Now what in the one case the image is by reason of imitation, that in the other case the Son is by nature; and as in works of art the likeness is dependent on the form, so in the case of the divine and uncompounded nature the union consists in the communion of the Godhead.57

More relevant is this quote from letter 360 attributed to Basil, which appears to settle the debate conclusively for the iconophiles:

I acknowledge also the holy apostles, prophets, and martyrs; and I invoke them to supplication to God, that through them, that is, through their mediation, the merciful God may be propitious to me, and that a ransom may be made and given me for my sins. Wherefore also I honor and kiss the features of their images, inasmuch as they have been handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches.58

To their credit, EOA rarely quote this letter, likely because it is almost certainly spurious. Basil was a major target of forgery after his death. The existence of a “Pseudo-Basil” has long been known, so that even John Calvin references “Pseudo-Basil” twice in his Institutes (IV.5.8n23, IV.13.8n12). Pseudo-Basil was a devotee of Thecla, a reported follower of Paul according to the late second century text “Acts of Paul and Thecla.” The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that some of the letters attributed to Basil are “probably apocryphal.”59 Andrew Louth states that several of Basil’s letters are “spurious.”60 Further, the language of letter 360, apparently addressed to no one in particular, betrays a later date, like near the iconoclastic controversy. First, we know from the other evidence of the early church that at least significant parts of the church prohibited icons, and so the assertion that iconography, which is what is described in the honoring and kissing of the images, is “not forbidden” is false. Further, if iconography was really “handed down” from the beginning and ubiquitous, as the letter claims, why would Basil state the obvious? That is, why would an ancient Christian write to another about a supposedly ancient, pervasive Christian practice stating that it “not forbidden,” if everyone knew it was not forbidden? When we do ever defend ancient, widespread Christian practices, like singing? The letter has the sound of evidence created after the fact. István M. Bugár concludes that letter 360 is “anachronistic” and is so widely doubted that it “does not feature in most collections” of Basil’s letters.61

7. Is the Synod of Elvira Irrelevant or Misunderstood?

That large portions of the early church, at least, were aniconic and determined to stay that way is demonstrated with canon 36 of the Synod of Elvira (ca. 300–314): “Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration.” Given that there is no real question about this canon’s authenticity, it appears to settle the debate. EOAs typically deal with Elvira’s canon 36 by either belittling it or obfuscating it or both.

The Council (or “Synod”) of Elvira is frequently belittled by being labeled an unimportant local assembly, not an ecumenical council, with no authority over the church.62 Such descriptions are irrelevant historiographically. We cite Elvira not dogmatically, seeking instruction; if we did, we’d also have to follow their resolution for clerical celibacy.63 We cite it as historical evidence of what the church at the time practiced. Just as Elvira can be legitimately cited as evidence that the practice of clerical celibacy was prevalent (at least in the west) and was gaining support by the early fourth century, so too it is evidence about the church’s attitude toward images. Neither are binding on the contemporary church. We can depart from its canons, either because we believe in Sola Scriptura and don’t accept church councils as finally authoritative or because we recognize that, indeed, Elvira was a local synod and not an ecumenical council. However, the history and practice of the early church is the issue, not dogma. Elvira is historical evidence, regardless of whether one accepts it (or any councils) as authoritative. Elvira, as one of the most important church councils after the close of the New Testament and before Nicea (325) is solid documentation for the practices of the early church at that time. It is an official testament, issued by representatives of the church in Spain, substantiating the church’s practice on images. This is a major obstacle for EOAs. They do not argue, as do many Catholic apologists, that their church evolved over time, but that their practices preserve the pristine liturgy of the early church, with unbroken continuity.64 Hence, Elvira’s canon 36 is extremely problematic to their cause.

The nineteen bishops from the Iberian Peninsula did not necessarily discourage Christians from art, even of biblical or Christian subjects. They were not rigorously aniconic, like Tertullian. However, they drew a red line with the church. They were not as lax as aniconism allows. Art was not allowed in churches where it had even the potential to be used in worship. These bishops make the distinction between mere decorations (“pictures”), on the one hand, and “objects of worship and adoration,” on the other. Pictures are not banned outright. Hence, the counsel was not rigorously aniconic. But the council was against any images in churches in order to prevent those images from becoming icons. That it warns against decorations so that they do not potentially become “objects of worship” (i.e. icons) suggests that there were no such icons in the church by the early fourth century.

Being a debate-ending piece of historical evidence, Elvira’s canon 36 is subject to much attempted obfuscation. Some claim the standard translation—“Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration”—is inaccurate.65 Bigham, among others, suggests the following translation: “It has seemed good that images should not be in churches so that what is venerated and worshiped not be painted on the walls.”66 While this debate on the precise translation may create a sense of uncertainty about what canon 36 actually says, none of the proposed translations changes the two relevant statements: that pictures were not allowed in churches (a moderate aniconism) and that the Synod of Elvira did not want what is “worshipped and adored” depicted in images. Karl Josef von Hefele (1809–1893), a German Roman Catholic church historian and bishop, quotes the original Latin (placuit picturas in ecclesia esse non debere ne quod colitur et adoratur in parietibus depingatur) and comments that “these canons are easy to understand” and that “the ancient church did not tolerate images” and that “the prohibition conceived is in very general terms.”67

Another way to obfuscate this apparently straightforward statement is by reinterpreting it and narrowing its intent. According to von Hefele, Anton Joseph Binterim (1779–1855), a prominent leader of Catholics in Prussia, believed that canon 36 forbade only that anyone might hang images in the church according to his preference, to prevent inadmissible images. Why not, then, require the permission of the bishop or presbyter for an image? Some claim that canon 36 forbids only images representing God (because it says adoratur), and not other pictures, especially those of saints. But the canon also says colitur (“is honored”). Even if it were a temporary canon (due to the Diocletian persecution), and nothing in the text suggests it was, it still demonstrates that if images could be excluded entirely, they played no indispensable part in Christian worship by that time. Decorations are dispensable. Icons (if used) are not.

Bigham concludes that since both iconoclasts and iconodules have cited this canon in favor of their own positions in the history of the Church, “it is not a stretch to say that no one knows the exact context or meaning of this canon, rendering it moot as a piece of ‘evidence’ for any one position.”68 This is a logical non-sequitur. Some people’s refusal to accept lucid statements does not mean that the statements aren’t lucid. Finally, Bigham belittles Elvira’s canon 36 as “a frail, little donkey.”69 The reality, however is that Elvira’s canon 36, as the resolution of nineteen bishops, is weighty historical evidence of the use (or lack thereof) of imagery in the early church.

8. Was Eusebius Supportive of Icons?

EOAs will cite the early church historian Eusebius’s (ca. AD 263–339) report of a statute in Caesarea Philippi of a man “clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward” a kneeling woman, who, by his time, was interpreted to be the woman with an issue of blood (Luke 8:43–48).70 This sparse, uncritical report is taken to be approval on Eusebius’s part of the image, the honor given to it (thus making it effectively an icon) and pilgrimage to the site. However, in the report, Eusebius mentions that the statue and its veneration was “according to a habit of the Gentiles” (i.e. pagans).71 A dispassionate report should not be assumed to be approving.

About the year 327 Eusebius, who lived in Jerusalem, received a letter from the emperor’s sister, Constantia, asking him for a picture of Christ. He rebukes her for the request, saying that such images are inadequate and tend to idolatry. He reports that a woman had brought him two likenesses, which might be philosophers, but she claimed were images of Paul and Christ. He confiscated them lest they should prove a stumbling-block to her or others. He reminds Constantia that the Apostle Paul declares his intention of “knowing Christ no longer after the flesh.”72 Eusebius wrote that even the incarnate Christ cannot appear in an image. “To depict purely the human form of Christ before its transformation, on the other hand, is to break the commandment of God and to fall into pagan error.”73 Hence Jaroslav Pelikan, a former Lutheran pastor who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, calls Eusebius “the father of iconoclasm.”74

9. Was Epiphanius Forged?

Like Elvira’s canon 36, the evidence from Epiphanius (d. 403), if true, is debate-ending. Epiphanius, considered a “saint” in the Eastern Orthodox Church, was Bishop of Salamis, in Cyprus. He wrote, in the last section of Letter 51 (ca. 394), to John, Bishop of Jerusalem:

I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loath that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ’s church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person.

He goes on to tell John that such images are “contrary to our religion” and to instruct the presbyter of the church that such images are “an occasion of offense.”75

This is the first, and most referenced, of writings attributed to Epiphanius that were contested during the later iconoclastic controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries.76 The EOA answer is to raise doubts about the authenticity of these documents, especially Letter 51. Iconodules during the iconoclastic controversy first claimed the letter was spurious when the iconoclasts cited Epiphanius for their cause. Ninth century iconodule Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Nicephorus (758–828) claimed that Epiphanius’s iconoclastic letters were forgeries based on Epiphanius’s claim in his letter to the Emperor Theodosius that he was of the Nicene faith from an early age conflicting with the claim in a hagiographical biography of Epiphanius (Vita Epiphanii) that he was converted from Judaism at age 16. Nicephorus reasoned that the perceived conflict revealed the letter to Emperor Theodosis to be a forgery and thus, by extension, all his other aniconic writings to likewise be spurious, including Letter 51.77 As thin as that chain of reasoning is, from a source with a vested interest, it held sway for over 1,200 years until Karl Holl (1866–1926) challenged it in his important 1910 manuscript Die handschriftliche Überlieferung des Epiphanius.78 However, to this day, EOAs will deny the authenticity of Letter 51. For example, Andrew Louth continues the questioning of Epiphanius’s aniconism: “In the case of Epiphanios [sic], in particular, there are problems both of interpretation and of authenticity.”79 Other than Nicephorus’s strained reasoning, it’s unclear if there are any other grounds for these “problems.” The interpretation seems as lucid as Elvira’s canon 36. The questions of authenticity do not appear to be text-based; that is, there are no extant copies of Letter 51 without the iconoclastic remarks. According to Istvan M. Bugár, “the overwhelming majority of twentieth century scholars” accepted Holl’s conclusions about the debated letters and Epiphanius’s iconoclasm.80 Bugár agrees, “Letter 51 … is authentic.”81

Finally, contrary to EOAs’ claim that even if Epiphanius’s aniconism was authentic, “a single voice among millions is not sufficient cause to reject the long-standing Tradition of the Church,”82 the reality is that the aniconism reflected in Epiphanius’s documents is perfectly consistent with all that we’ve seen from the early church on the subject. The tearing down of the curtain reflects the same convictions expressed by the Synod of Elvira and Eusebius. As yet, I’ve been presented with no contrary evidence. That is, despite zealous attempts by EOAs, I’ve seen no authentic examples of iconography in the early church. Paul Finney, in his important book on art in the early church states, “No distinctly Christian art predates the year 200. This is a simple statement of fact.”83 The imagery that developed in the 3rd and 4th centuries is mainly narrative, such as Noah’s ark, and was not likely to have encouraged worshippers to offer it veneration or focused use in prayer. It was art for viewing not icons for worship.84

Hence, the archeological evidence gives us some examples of Christian imagery but not necessarily in places of worship and, even if it were, as in Dura-Europas or the Catacombs, there is no evidence that it ever went beyond decorations. The actual writings of the early church leaders are consistently opposed to the dangers of iconography, ranging from the extremely rigorist aniconism of Tertullian to the moderate aniconism of Elvira and the apparent lax aniconism of a bishop with an image of the Good Shepherd on his chalice. Perhaps most revealing, Eastern Orthodox claims notwithstanding, is the absolute lack of any description of anything like iconography by anyone in the early church. As yet, I’ve found no evidence of an early Christian using icons. Hence, the supposed strong point of Eastern Orthodoxy, their raison d’être for many evangelical converts to Orthodoxy, their claim to continuity with the early church, is actually their Achilles’ heel. At least as far as icons are concerned, their claim to continuity is baseless. Their practices are, in fact, in direct contradiction to the consistent convictions and practices of the early church.

[1] Peter Gilquist, “Retrospect on the EOC Reception into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese,” The Word (September 2007),

[2] Jonathan M. Pitts, “Conversions Gradually Transforming Orthodox Christianity,” Baltimore Sun, 24 June 2017,

[3] Rod Dreher, “Bible Answer Man Embraces Orthodoxy,” The American Conservative, 11 April 2017,

[4] Hank Hanegraaff, “The Eastern Orthodox Church,” (at 1:30).

[5] Ed Stetzer, “Hank Hanegraaff’s Switch to Eastern Orthodoxy, Why People Make Such Changes, and Four Ways Evangelicals Might Respond,” Christianity Today, 13 April 2017, Stetzer denies that the trend out of evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy is large, claiming that more Eastern Orthodox are being converted to evangelicalism. This maybe but we should still seek the reasons for why evangelicals would be drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy.

[6] Amy Slagle, “Nostalgia Without Memory: A Case Study of American Converts to Eastern Orthodoxy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, 2008), 214–15.

[7] “The icon … is an integral part of liturgical space, which is the church, and an indispensable participant in divine services.” Hilarion Alfeyev,“Theology of Icon in the Orthodox Church,” Lecture at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 5 February 2011,

[8] I will define the “early church” as that up until and including Augustine of Hippo (354–430).

[9] Patricia Miranda, “The Tradition Of Iconography,” The National Altar Guild Association, 2011,

[10] Alfeyev,Theology of Icon in the Orthodox Church.”

[11] Cindy Egly, “Eastern Orthodox Christians and Iconography,” Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese,

[12] “Icons,” Orthodox Church of Estonia,

[13] “Iconography” is the use of icons; an “iconodule” is one who supports their use.

[14] For example, G. V. Martini, notes what he calls “iconographic frescoes in these churches (both at Megiddo and Dura Europos)” (in “Iconography in Ancient House Churches,” Orthodox Christian, 15 January 2014,

[15] For example, Jack N. Sparks states the following with reference the cherubim in the tabernacle: “images directly connected with the presence of God, and commanded by Him” (in “No Graven Image: Icons and Their Proper Use,” Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese,, original emphasis).

[16] Martini conflates imagery and icons thus writes, “If one is being honest about the witness of the holy scriptures, we must admit that there are several approving commandments related to the creation of iconography and even statuary in the old testament [sic]. Both the tabernacle and temple were adorned with a multitude of images, both two- and three-dimensional, which depicted everything from angels to pomegranates” (“Iconography in Ancient House Churches,” original emphasis).

[17] Robert Arakaki writes, “The Old Testament witness presents both a historical and theological justification for images in Jewish worship” (in “A Response to John B. Carpenter’s ‘Icons and the Eastern Orthodox Claim to Continuity with the Early Church,’” Ancient Faith, 16 September 2013, Martini states, “The priest [of the Old Testament] would prostrate himself before these images and statues, no less” (in “Iconography in Ancient House Churches”). Neither provide an example of images used in worship, instances of decorations notwithstanding, and I know of no such instance in the Bible.

[18] “According to Tryggve Mettinger, in aniconic cults ‘there is no iconic representation of the deity (anthropomorphic or theriomorphic) serving as the dominant or central cultic symbol, that is, where we are concerned with either (a) an aniconic symbol or (b) sacred emptiness’” (Milette Gaifman, “Aniconism: Definitions, Examples and Comparative Perspectives,” Religion 47 [2017]: 337,

[19] Ibid., 335.

[20] Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, “The Absence of Images: The Problem of Aniconic Cult at Gades and Its Religio-Historical Background” SEL 21 (2004): 89.

[21] Batairwa K. Paulin, “Aniconism and Sacramentality: Rethinking the Riddles of Representing the Sacred” (unpublished paper, October 2014), 76,

[22] Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 7.5 (ANF 2:530).

[23] Steven Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes toward Images (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2004), 133.

[24] Tertullian, Idol. 5 (

[25] Trad. ap. 16:3 (

[26] Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes toward Images, 13.

[27] “The Sign of the Cross, Icons, and Tradition in the Orthodox Church,”,

[28] Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes toward Images, 21–78.

[29] Andrew Louth, The Church in History, Vol. III: Greek East and Latin West (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007), 43. In so doing he appears to contradict Bigham who argued the opposite: namely, that it was the first century that was rigorous in its interpretation of the second commandment and laxity was a later development. He writes, “We now know, however, due to recent archaeological discoveries, that in the centuries following the destruction of Jerusalem the Jews of the Diaspora, and even in Palestine, greatly enlarged the category of non-idolatrous images admitted into holy places such as synagogues and cemeteries” (Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes toward Images, 66).

[30] Martini, “Iconography in Ancient House Churches,” original emphasis.

[31] Arakaki, Arakaki claims the quotation is from the Babylonian Talmud, according to Steven Bigham, but I was unable to find it in the Talmud, including Abodah Zarah 33 and Abkat Rokel. (Arakaki cites Steven Bigham, “Early Christian Attitudes toward Images,” 73n101).

[32] “Indeed, curtains embroidered with figures are in use in almost every country where the Jews are scattered, without any fear of disturbing the thought of worshipers in the synagogue, for the reason that artistic decoration in honor of the Torah is regarded as appropriate and the worshiper, if disturbed by it, needs not observe the figures, as he can shut his eyes during prayer.” Arakaki claims the citation from “Abkat Rokel” is a description of “early Judaism” but it apparently is a product of the sixteenth century. For example, Elisha Ben Gabriel Gallico who died at Safed in about 1583 is frequently mentioned in “Abkat Rokel” (Isidore Singer, The Jewish Enclopedia, 5:141, Even if it is authentically from early Judaism, note that the images were not used in worship, that worshippers are encouraged to shut their eyes if they are distracted by them.

[33] Louis H. Feldman, Josephus and Modern Scholarship (1937–1980) (New York: de Grutyer, 1984), 515.

[34] Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes toward Images, 42–65.

[35] Josephus, J.W. 2.169, in Josephus: The Essential Writings, trans. Paul L. Maier (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1988), 263.

[36] Colin Shindler, “Pocket history: the secrets of ancient coins,” The Jewish Chronicle, 29 August 2017,

[37] Anthony J. Blasi, Paul-André Turcotte, Jean Duhaime, ed., Handbook of Early Christianity: Social Science Approaches (Oxford: Altimira, 2002), 249.

[38] Ran Shapira, “Hoard of Bronze Coins from Jewish Revolt Found Near Jerusalem,” Haaretz, 17 August 2014,

[39] Martini writes “There is also the tradition of Luke the Physician painting the first icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) and the infant Jesus (the Hodegetria, which is currently enshrined at a church on Mount Athos)” (in “Iconography in Ancient House Churches”).

[40] Cited in Jelena Erdeljan, Chosen Places: Constructing New Jerusalems in Slavia Orthodoxa (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 80n28. After this time and especially during the iconoclastic controversy, insistence on this claim was common. For example, Andrew of Crete writes, “All who (where) then told (that) Apostle Luke painted with his own hands the Incarnated Christ and His spotless Mother and (that) Rome possesses the icons of them in a glorious house. And they accurately say to exist (these icons) also in Jerusalem” (De Sanctarum Imaginum Veneratione, P.G. 97,1304B).

[41] David, “Another Icon Myth: Icons Painted by St. Luke,” Icons and Their Interpretation, 27 October 2011,

[42] Trin. 8:5 (NPNF1 3).

[43] Bissera V. Pentcheva, Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 2006), 124.

[44] Martini, “Iconography in Ancient House Churches.”

[45] Ibid., 68. Michael Peppard, in a specialized book on just this church, confirms this: “A few graffiti were preserved from [the assembly hall], but no formal paintings, if there ever were any” (The World’s Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual in Dura, Europos, Syria [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016], 17).

46 A. R. Williams, “Surprising Mosaics Revealed in Ancient Synagogue in Israel,” National Geographic, 17 July 2015,

[47] “That Shepherd will play the patron whom you depict upon your (sacramental) chalice” (Tertullian, Pud. 10 [ANF 4:85]).

[48] Irenaeus, Haer 1.8.1 (

[49] Haer. 1:25.6 (

[50] Origen, Cels. 7.41 (

[51] Origen, Cels., 7.64 (

[52] Ibid.

[53] Paul Corby Finney, The Invisible God, 40.

[54] On see Minucius’s imaginary dialogue, see Robin M. Jensen, “Aniconism in the First Centuries of Christianity,” Religion 47 (2017): 409.

[55] Finney, The Invisible God, 42.

[56] Basil, De Spiritu Sancto 18.45 (

[57] Ibid., emphasis added.

[58] Basil, Letter 360 (

[59] “The correspondence with Julian and with Libanius is probably apocryphal” (Joseph McSorely, “St. Basil the Great,” Catholic Encyclopedia [1913],

[60] Louth, The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 294.

[61] Personal correspondence, 14 February 2018.

[62] Martini, citing Bigham, contends, “This canon (among the rest at Elvira) were neither ecumenical in scope, nor eternal in application. Like many other encyclicals, epistles, and synods in the history of the Church, the scope was both locally and historically specific” (in “Is There Really a Patristic Critique of Icons? [Part 3 of 5],” Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, 20 May 2013,

[63] Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira states, “Bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and all other clerics having a position in the ministry, are ordered to abstain completely from their wives and not have children. Whoever, in fact, does this shall be expelled from the dignity of the clerical state.”

[64] For example, “The Orthodox Church of today can trace its history back to the New Testament Church in unbroken continuity” (“Origin of the Eastern Orthodox Church,”,

[65] This is the common translation, quoted in Adrian Fortescue, “Veneration of Images” (citing Hefele-Leclercq, “Histoire des Conciles,” 1:240). The same translation is used with commentary by Karl Josef von Hefele and Joseph Binterim, and others, according to “The Gentile Exit,”

[66] Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes toward Images, 161. Former Catholic monk-priest A. W. Richard Sipe offers an alternative translation, “There shall be no pictures in churches, lest what is worshipped and adored be depicted on walls.” Robert Grigg quotes a substantially similar translation: “There should be no pictures in church, lest what is reverenced and adored be painted on the walls” (“Aniconic Worship and the Apologetic Tradition: A Note on Canon 36 of the Council of Elvira,” Church History 45 [December 1976]: 429). Russian icon painter and author Leonid Ouspensky also offers another rendition: “It seemed good to us that paintings should not be found in churches and that that which is venerated and adored not be painted on the walls” (Theology of the Icon [St. Yonkers, NY: Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992], 1:40).

[67] Karl Josef von Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church, from the Original Documents (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1883), 1:151. Catholic apologists claim that Hefele elsewhere “thought it was only a precaution against possible profanation by pagans who might go into a church.” (Adrian Fortescue, “Veneration of Images,” The Catholic Encyclopedia claims that von Hefele, with others, interpreted “this prohibition as directed against the use of images in overground churches only, lest the pagans should caricature sacred scenes and ideas” (“Council of Elvira,” They imply that Hefele is in agreement with Binterim and Aubespine but, in fact, he summarizes their conclusions and then states, “but…,” offering contrary evidence and apparently rejecting their attempts to narrow the scope of canon 36.

[68] Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes toward Images, 161.

[69] Ibid., 166.

[70] For example, “He tells us further that portraits of the Savior and of Peter and Paul had been preserved, and that he had examined these with his own eyes as well” (Sparks, “No Graven Image: Icons and Their Proper Use”). Martini writes, “Eusebius of Cæsarea even wrote about the existence of icons and statues of Christ, which had existed well before his time” implying that such citations were approving (“Iconography in Ancient House Churches”).

[71] Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 7.18 and Dem. ev. 4.9.

[72] Henry Wace, “Eusebius of Caesarea,” in Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D. (1911), §40,

[73] David M. Gwynn, “From Iconoclasm to Arianism: The Construction of Christian Tradition in the Iconoclast Controversy,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 47 (2007): 227.

[74] Cited in ibid., 243.

[75] Epiphanius, Letter 51, ch. 9 (

[76] See also Epiphanius’s “Treatise against Those who are engaged in making, after the fashion of idols, images in the likeness of Christ, the Mother of God, Martyrs, Angels and Prophets.”

[77] Andrew S. Jacobs, Epiphanius of Cypress: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016), 241.

[78] Reprinted in Karl Holl, Die handschriftliche Überlieferung des Epiphanius: Ancoratus und Panarion, Classics in the History of Early Christian Literature 53 (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2010).

[79] Louth, The Church in History, Vol. III, 44. Steven Bigham makes the case against Epiphanius’s apparent iconoclasm in his book Epiphanius of Salamis, Doctor of Iconoclasm? Deconstruction of a Myth (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2008).

[80] Istvan M. Bugár “What Did Epiphanius Write to Emperor Theodosius?,” Scrinium 2 (2006): 72–91, doi: 10.1163/18177565-90000006.

[81] Bugár’s entire sentence reads, “Briefly, Basil Ep 360 is as anachronistic for the fourth century as the Epiphanian “fragments” (except for Letter 51 which is authentic, but Jerome’s translation seems to have significantly altered it).” (Personal correspondence, February 14, 2018). In my 2013 article, “Icons and the Eastern Orthodox Claim to Continuity with the Early Church,” (JISCA, Volume 6, No. 1), I reported that Bugár dissents from the scholarly consensus affirming the authenticity of Epiphanius’s Letter 51. I was incorrect.

[82] G. V. Martini, “Is There Really a Patristic Critique of Icons? (Part 4 of 5),” Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, 22 May 20 2013,

[83] Finney, The Invisible God, 99.

[84] Jensen, “Aniconism in the First Centuries of Christianity,” 408.

John B. Carpenter

John Carpenter is pastor of Covenant Reformed Baptist Church in Danville, Virginia.

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