Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Athenagoras and Iconography

Because I have an interest in Patristic studies, I have occasionally been asked why I'm Lutheran rather than Eastern Orthodox; it is claimed that the Eastern church is consistent with the Patristic tradition, but the Lutheran church is not. Well, there are various reasons why I wouldn't join the Orthodox church including a denial of sola fide and sola gratia, but among these reasons is the Patristic tradition itself.

I understand the desire to have some kind of consistent theology between the early church and the contemporary church. The Eastern Orthodox do this by claiming to have identical doctrine with the Church Fathers. The Roman Catholics used to do it by professing a "unanimous consensus" among the fathers. Thomas Oden tries to do it today by arguing the Protestant distinctives are found in the majority of the fathers.

The problem is that there is no monolithic teaching of the church fathers, though it is my contention that all of the doctrines found in the Book of Concord can be found in Patristic writings. And, there are certain teachings that are unanimous among the fathers such as baptismal regeneration and the conviction that salvation can be lost.

Nonetheless, while many Eastern Orthodox teachings can be found in the fathers, or at least certain fathers, the teachings of the Eastern Church on iconography are not found in the earliest sources, which actually argue against such a view.

In the Eastern Church, icons are sacramental. They serve as windows into heaven when blessed by an Orthodox priest, and should be venerated by the faithful. This includes both images of Christ and of the Theotokos and the saints.

One of the early apologists for the Christian faith, Athenagoras demonstrates that this teaching was absent from the early church. One of the primary arguments that Athenagorus uses throughout this book is that the Christian God cannot be contained in images made by human hands. Within this polemic, he attacks the use of images by pagans in the Roman Empire, arguing against using them as instruments of worship. One would think that if images were used in worship, this would have been brought up, and would have actually hurt the point that Athenagorus was making. But he makes no such qualification that images could be used for veneration rather than worship, etc.

Well, an argument from silence doesn't prove the point, but there are some statements in Athenagoras that make his position more clear. One of the qualifications made by the Eastern Church is that they are not venerating images, but are venerating the saint or Christ behind the image. This flows from their doctrine of the images as windows into heaven.

Athenagoras understands this distinction, and when critiquing the Pagan version of image worship, he does not only critique the idea that images can't be worshiped, but also that they can be used as objects to worship their representations. He condemns the following idea:

"[I]t is affirmed by some that, although these are only images, yet there exist gods in honour of whom they are made; and that the images are to be referred to the gods, and are in fact made to the gods; and that there is not any other way of coming to them." (A Plea for the Christians XVIII)

Now, to be clear I am not an iconoclast. I have icons in my office, and a crucifix on the altar in my church sanctuary. I think that these can be helpful things. However, what I disagree with is the idea of using images as objects of worship or veneration. It seems to be a consistent point in all of the early Apologists, when writing against paganism, that images are not used as objects of worship in the Christian faith.


Anonymous said...

I think some kind of veneration is okay--for instance bowing as the cross goes by in procession, or bowing or kneeling towards the altar. However, I am uncomfortable with some of what passes for veneration amongst some EO and RC, such has processions of icons of the saints or crowning statues, etc.

Doubting Thomas

J. Dean said...

That's one of the things I like about Lutheranism as well; it puts the icons in a well-balanced (and I believe Scriptural) center from Rome/Orthodox theology on the one hand and the iconoclastic RPW advocates on the other.

Steve Martin said...

I'm with you 100%.

I like so many things about the E.O. Churches.

But icons that contain some sort of power and Christ + (your efforts) aren't among them.

Are they historic episcopate adherents, as well?

Martin Yee said...

Hi Jordan,

Wow, this is really an excellent piece. Many Asians took to Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy because of iconography. It is like a transference from one set of beliefs to another but without the pain of leaving behind the icons (idols). Thank you so much.


Jordan Cooper said...

Doubting Thomas,

I have no issues with bowing before the altar or a crucifix, but this is a far cry from the type of veneration seen in EO and RC churches.

Anonymous said...

I have no issues with bowing before the altar or a crucifix, but this is a far cry from the type of veneration seen in EO and RC churches.

Agreed. It seems the safe course would be to balance the Christological affirmations implied by iconography, defended at Nicaea II, with the restraint regarding the USE of the icons, as determined by the Council of Frankfurt.

Doubting Thomas

Joe said...

Hi Jordan.

Appreciate the post. The issue I wrestle with is that why would any veneration, even bowing to a cross or altar, be acceptable. If we are rebuked from bowing before God's messengers (Revelation)...why would a man-made altar or crucifix be acceptable?

I am a Lutheran as well, and mean no disrespect by this question. Since I respect your opinion and thougths greatly, figured I would run this past you.

Joe H

Anonymous said...


Outstanding piece. Excellent way to get started with your coverage of early church history. I look forward to seeing where you will be going in the coming weeks.


Jordan Cooper said...


John bowed down in Revelation to an angel in an act of worship. That was forbidden. Bowing before a cross is done in honor of what Christ did on the cross, not to venerate the object itself. In the same way, bowing before an altar is honoring the Christ who is present there through bread and wine.

This is much different from the Eastern Orthodox doctrine which attaches a sacramental significance to icons.

SamWise said...


How does this come across in the Reformed World? I believe Calvin was not too keen on Crucifixes. Is that true?

Jordan Cooper said...

Calvin was against the use of images at all in worship. He adopted the iconoclastic position as an overreaction to the abuse of images in the middle ages. If you click on the "worship and liturgy" tag on my blog you should be able to find some previous posts I did on this topic.

Joe said...

Hi Jordan.

Yea, I certainly see a difference between the EO view an Lutheran...and your point. But it seems to me that bowing is a form of worship itself.

And that bowing at the altar/Supper is really an act of worship since we believe Christ is really there in a unique way, whereas a crucifix does not have that same import and wonder if it should be frowned upon.

Also, I thought Calvin's point of throwing out all images is because people were so entrenched in the practice and he thought it was just better to remove all of them for the time being. And not that he thought they were evil in themselves. Perhaps your other articles deal with that, and perhaps I am way off. That is what I remember RC Sproul saying.

Joe H

Anonymous said...

When I was leaving Calvinism, part of what made me leave was reading the church fathers. I tried the investigate the claims of the various groups that laid claim to the Apostolic faith and compare them to what the church fathers said. Among the earliest church fathers there seems to be a pretty consistent negative attitude towards images. I'm not an iconoclast either and have quite a few icons and a couple crucifixes but there does seem to be a problem when a church makes the claim that its iconography is part of the Apostolic tradition and when you can no longer imagine a church without them. I'm not opposed to having icons of the saints as a reminder that we are joining in with the worship of all the company of heaven but when they become central to worship itself I think it becomes a problem and borderline idolatry. The same could be said of a whole host of things including organs in non-EO churches.

What I eventually determined after reading the church fathers is that although they disagree on a great number of issues, they seem to all see the Bible as being all about Jesus. They take Jesus seriously when He says that the Bible is all about Him. The ecumenical creeds are also all about Jesus. And that's what I found in Lutheranism when Lutheranism is doing what it's supposed to be doing. EO, Roman Catholic, and evangelical preaching all tend to be very moralistic and very similar. Rome seems to be preserving to one degree or another the medieval scholastic tradition and the EO are perhaps preserving the tradition that was present at the seventh ecumenical council, but I don't see how anyone can read the church fathers and think that Rome or the EO are preserving the Apostolic faith unless you just become fixated ecclesiology or a supposed succession.

Jordan Cooper said...

That is an excellent point. Christ is central in Patristic preaching and teaching; even if they didn't always have the precision of Luther on the doctrine of justification, there is great continuity between the Patristic and Lutheran tradition.

Jason said...

I have heard of Lutheran pastors converting to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Can't figure out why they would do that knowing what they know.

I personally don't know much about the EOC, but my interest was perked when I learned that my favorite Detroit Red Wing Pavel Datsyuk was Eastern Orthodox.

I look forward to you doing a podcast on this church.

Anonymous said...

"7. As Lutherans and Orthodox we affirm that the teachings of the ecumenical councils are authoritative for our churches. The ecumenical councils maintain the integrity of the teaching of the undivided Church concerning the saving, illuminating/justifying and glorifying acts of God and reject heresies which subvert the saving work of God in Christ. Orthodox and Lutherans, however, have different histories. Lutherans have received the Nicaeno?Constantinopolitan Creed with the addition of the filioque. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, which rejected iconoclasm and restored the veneration of icons in the churches, was not part of the tradition received by the Reformation. Lutherans, however, rejected the iconoclasm of the 16th century, and affirmed the distinction between adoration due to the Triune God alone and all other forms of veneration (CA 21). Through historical research this council has become better known. Nevertheless it does not have the same significance for Lutherans as it does for the Orthodox. Yet, Lutherans and Orthodox are in agreement that the Second Council of Nicaea confirms the christological teaching of the earlier councils and in setting forth the role of images (icons) in the lives of the faithful reaffirms the reality of the incarnation of the eternal Word of God, when it states: "The more frequently, Christ, Mary, the mother of God, and the saints are seen, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these icons the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honored and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred objects" (Definition of the Second Council of Nicaea)." www.helsinki.fi/~risaarin/lutortjointtext.htm