The Early Church Never Venerated Icons

(March 6, 2018 version)

If an Eastern Orthodox person could travel back in time to the days of the pre-Nicene church, what would she or he say? They would be shocked. They would exclaim, "where are all the images of saints!"

Venerating pictures of people is the eastern orthodox practice of adoring (but not worshipping) and praying through painted images (not statues) of Jesus, saints, or sometimes God the Father. One reason they do this is because they have been told that Christians did this from the beginning. That is false.

The Lie

The following two paragraphs are from, Aug. 21, 2017.

"Nonetheless, we know that Icons have been used for prayer from the first centuries of Christianity. Church Tradition tells us, for example, of the existence of an Icon of the Savior during His lifetime (the Icon-Made-Without-Hands) and of Icons of the Most-Holy Theotokos immediately after Him. Tradition witnesses that the Orthodox Church had a clear understanding of the importance of Icons right from the beginning; and this understanding never changed, for it is derived from the teachings concerning the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The use of Icons is grounded in the very essence of Christianity, since Christianity is the revelation by the God-Man not only of the Word of God, but also of the Image of God; for, as St. John the Evangelist tells us, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). ...

In venerating the Icons, then, the Orthodox are championing the basis of Christian faith the Incarnation of God and, consequently, salvation and the very meaning of the Church's existence on earth, since the creation of the Holy Icons goes back to the very origins of Christianity and is an inalienable part of the truth revealed by God, founded as it is on the person of the God-Man Jesus Christ Himself. Holy Images are part of the nature of Christianity and without the Icon Christianity would cease to be Christianity. The Holy Gospel summons us to live in Christ, but it is the Icon that shows us this life."

The following is very similar, from 8/21/2017

and also (Feb. 5, 2019)

"One of the first things that strikes a non-Orthodox visitor to an Orthodox church is the prominent place assigned to the Holy Icons. The Iconostasis (Icon-screen) dividing the Altar from the rest of the church is covered with them, while others are placed in prominent places throughout the church building. Sometimes even the walls and ceiling are covered with them in fresco or mosaic form. The Orthodox faithful prostrate themselves before them, kiss them, and burn candles before them. They are censed by the Priest and carried in processions. Considering the obvious importance of the Holy Icons, then, questions may certainly be raised concerning them: What do these gestures and actions mean? What is the significance of these Icons? Are they not idols or the like, prohibited by the Old Testament?
Nonetheless, we know that Icons have been used for prayer from the first centuries of Christianity. Church Tradition tells us, for example, of the existence of an Icon of the Savior during His lifetime (the Icon-Made-Without-Hands) and of Icons of the Most-Holy Theotokos immediately after Him. Tradition witnesses that the Orthodox Church had a clear understanding of the importance of Icons right from the beginning; and this understanding never changed, for it is derived from the teachings concerning the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The use of Icons is grounded in the very essence of Christianity, since Christianity is the revelation by the God-Man not only of the Word of God, but also of the Image of God; for, as St. John the Evangelist tells us, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14)."

The previous are lies. No Pre-Nicene writer, or Athanasius, venerated pictures of people, called icons.

What Early Christians Taught

Epistle of Barnabas ch.14 p.146 (100-150 A.D.) (implied) "And Moses understood that they [the Israelites] had again made molten images; and he threw the tables out of his hands, and the tables of the testament of the Lord were broken." (It does not say they sinned by worshipping a calf, though they did. The main point for Barnabas was the image.)

Athenagoras (177 A.D.) in A Plea for Christians ch.15 p.135 (implied) "Because of the multitude, who cannot distinguish between matter and God, or see how great is the interval which lies between them, pray to idols made of matter, are we therefore, who do distinguish and separate the uncreated and the created, that which is and that which is not, that which is apprehended by the understanding and that which is perceived by the senses, and who give the fitting name to each of them, - are we to come and worship images? If, indeed, matter and God are the same, two names for one thing, then certainly, in not regarding stocks and stones, gold and silver, as gods, we are guilty of impiety. But if they are at the greatest possible remove from one another ' as far asunder as the artist and the materials of his art, - why are we called to account."

Athenagoras (177 A.D.) (partial) "If, therefore, the world is an instrument in tune, and moving in well-measured time, I adore the Being who gave it harmony, and strikes its notes, and sings the accordant strain, and not the instrument. For at the musical contests and adjudicators do not pass by the lute-players and crown the lutes." A Plea for Christians ch.16 p.136

Melito of Sardis (170-177/180 A.D.) "There are, however, persons who say: It is for the honour of God that we make the image: in order, that is, that we may worship the God who is concealed from our view. But they are unaware that God is in every country, and in every place, and is never absent, and that there is not anything done and He knoweth it not. Yet thou, despicable man! within whom He is, and without whom He is, and above whom He is, hast nevertheless gone and bought thee wood from the carpenter's, and it is carved and made into an image insulting to God. To this thou offerest sacrifice, and knowest not that the all-seeing eye seeth thee, and that the word of truth reproves thee, and says to thee: How can the unseen God be sculptured? Nay, it is the likeness of thyself that thou makest and worshippest. Because the wood has been sculptured, hast thou not the insight to perceive that it is still wood, or that the stone is still stone? The gold also the workman taketh according to its weight in the balance. And when thou hast had it made into an image, why dose thou weigh it? Therefore thou art a lover of gold, and not a lover of God." Fragment 1 p.754

Melito of Sardis (170-177/180 A.D.) vol.8 ch.1 p.753 says we are to serve God and not images. He discusses this in more detail on p.755 saying that men are despicable who worship images.

Theophilus of Antioch (168-181/188 A.D.) quotes Exodus 20:3 "And concerning piety He [God] says, 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I am the Lord thy God.'" Theophilus to Autolycus book 3 ch.9 p.114

Irenaeus of Lyons (182-188 A.D.) (partial, against images of Christ, but for Carpocratians) "They style themselves Gnostics. They [Carpocratians] 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 honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles [pagans]". Irenaeus Against Heresies book 1 ch.25.6 p.351

Minucius Felix (210 A.D.) "But do you think that we conceal what we worship, if we have not temples and altars? And yet what image of God shall I make, since, if you think rightly, man himself is the image of God? What temple shall I build to Him, when this whole world fashioned by His work cannot receive Him" The Octavius of Minucius Felix ch.32 p.193

Clement of Alexandria (193-217/220 A.D.) "And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship's anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them; nor a sword, nor a bow, following as we do, peace; nor drinking-cups, being temperate." The Instructor book 3 ch.11 p.285-286

Clement of Alexandria (193-217/220 A.D.) "And if Moses commanded men to make not an image to represent God by art, ..." The Instructor book 3 ch.2 p.274

Clement of Alexandria (193-202 A.D.) "Numa the king of the Romans was a Pythagorean, and aided by the precepts of Moses, prohibited from making an image of God in human form, and of the shape of a living creature." Stromata book 1 ch.15 p.316

Clement of Alexandria (c.195A.D.) "For we are expressly prohibited from exercising a deceptive art: 'For thou shalt not make," says the prophet, "the likeness of anything which is in heaven above or in the earth beneath.'" Exhortation to the Heathen ch.4 p.189

Origen (225-253/254 A.D.) says to have no graven images at all, without qualifying it saying only images of idols instead of the true God. Origen Against Celsus book 7 ch.64 p.636

Origen (225-253/254 A.D.) (implied) "But if he thinks his statement, that 'they were never held in any reputation or account,' to be proved, because no remarkable event in their history is found recorded by the Greeks, we would answer, that if one will examine their polity from its first beginning, and the arrangement of their laws, he will find that they were men who represented upon earth the shadow of a heavenly life, and that amongst them God is recognised as nothing else, save He who is over all things, and that amongst them no maker of images was permitted to enjoy the rights of citizenship. For neither painter nor image-maker existed in their state, the law expelling all such from it; that there might be no pretext for the construction of images,-an art which attracts the attention of foolish men, and which drags down the eyes of the soul from God to earth. There was, accordingly, amongst them a law to the following effect: 'Do not transgress the law, and make to yourselves a graven image, any likeness of male or female; either a likeness of any one of the creatures that are upon the earth, or a likeness of any winged fowl that flieth under the heaven, or a likeness of any creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, or a likeness of any of the fishes which are in the waters under the earth.'" Origen Against Celsus book 4 ch.31 p.510

Athanasius (318 A.D.) "For ye carve the figures for the sake of the apprehension of God, as ye say, but invest the actual images with the honor and title of God, thus placing yourselves in a profane position." Against the Heathen ch.21.1 p.15

Lactantius (c.303-320/325 A.D.) (implied) "What madness is it, then, either to form those objects which they themselves may afterwards fear, or to fear the things which they have formed? But, they say, we do not fear the images themselves, but those beings after whose likeness they were formed, and to whose names they are dedicated. You fear them doubtless on this account, because you think that they are in heaven; for if they are gods, the case cannot be otherwise. Why, then, do you not raise your eyes to heaven, and, invoking their names, offer sacrifices in the open air? Why do you look to walls, and wood, and stone, rather than to the place where you believe them to be? What is the meaning of temples and altars? what, in short, of the images themselves, which are memorials either of the dead or absent? For the plan of making likenesses was invented by men for this reason, that it might be possible to retain the memory of those who had either been removed by death or separated by absence. In which of these classes, then, shall we reckon the gods? If among the dead, who is so foolish as to worship them? If among the absent, then they are not to be worshipped, if they neither see our actions nor hear our prayers. But if the gods cannot be absent,-for, since they are divine, they see and hear all things, in whatever part of the universe they are,-it follows that images are superfluous, since the gods are present everywhere, and it is sufficient to invoke with prayer the names of those who hear us. But if they are present, they cannot fail to be at hand at their own images. It is entirely so, as the people imagine, that the spirits of the dead wander about the tombs and relics of their bodies. But after that the deity has begun to be near, there is no longer need of his statue." The Divine Institutes book 2 ch.2 p.41.

How in the world could the early Christians all be venerating pictures, when they said these things, and nothing positive was said about any images?

After Nicea

Epiphanius of Salamis (360-403 A.D.) says that images (for Mary or otherwise) for adoration is committing adultery against the one and only God. (Panarion 3.2:4, as quoted [in part] in Examination of the Council of Trent III, p. 468, and [in part] by the Tübingen theologians in Augsburg and Constantinople, p. 141)

Some Eastern Orthodox Answers

Eastern Orthodox have two different rebuttals, not contradicting each other, but rather complementing each other: historical and logical.

Historical: Under Rome are catacombs where Christians hid and worshipped, and there were many images of crosses and fish, presumably drawn by early Christians.

Also, Tertullian (208-220 A.D. or 210/211 A.D.) wrote, "You shall have leave to begin with the parables, where you have the lost ewe re-sought by the Lord, and carried back on His shoulders. Let the very paintings upon your cups come forward to show whether even in them the figurative meaning of that sheep will shine through (the outward semblance, to teach) whether a Christian or heathen sinner be the object it aims at in the matter of restoration." On Modesty (= On Purity, = De Pudicitia) ch.3 ANF p.80

In fact, I will even help strengthen this eastern orthodox argument. The graven image, i.e. statue, of the bronze snake in the wilderness, mentioned in Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14, is positively referenced by the following:

Letter of Barnabas (100-150 A.D.) ch.12 p.145

Justin Martyr (c.138-165 A.D.) Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew ch.94 p.246

Tatian's Diatessaron (died 172 A.D.) section 32.40 p.93

Tertullian (198-220 A.D.) On Idolatry ch.5 p.63 and Five Books Against Marcion book 2 ch.22 p.314

Cyprian of Carthage (c.246-258 A.D.) Treatises of Cyprian Treatise 12 part 2 ch.20 p.524.

So images, not only of crosses and fish, but also human images were created by Pre-Nicene Christians.

Logical: Many of the preceding quotes spoke against graven images, i.e. statues. While Roman Catholics venerate statues too, Eastern Orthodox have never venerated statues, only pictures.

Our Evangelical response: - we completely agree! Early Christians were not against non-idolatrous images. But they had no knowledge of venerating images.

But read those previous quotes again. Many were specifically against images, and others lump images and statues in the same class together, indicating that at the very least they never heard of venerating images.

No Images in Human Form

Here is what we know Methodius (c.270-311/312 A.D.) said about images. "And those artificers who, to the destruction of men, make images in human form, not perceiving and knowing their own Maker, are blamed by the Word, which says, in the Book of Wisdom, a book full of all virtue, 'his heart is ashes, his hope is more vile than earth, and his life of less value than clay; forasmuch as he knew not his Maker, and Him that inspired into him an active soul, and breathed in a living spirit;' that is, God, the Maker of all men; therefore, also, according to the apostle, He 'will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.'" Banquet of the Ten Virgins discourse 2 ch.7 p.316. Methodius was a good pre-Nicene Christian teacher and bishop.

On the other hand, what about this quote allegedly by Methodius (270-311/312 A.D.) "And one who speaks against either of them, is not acquitted as if he had only spoken against clay, nor condemned for having despised gold, but for having been disrespectful towards the King and Lord Himself. The images of God's angels, which are fashioned of gold, the principalities and powers, we make to His honour and glory." Second Discourse on the Resurrection p.369. The quote by from John of Damascus Oration 2 De Imagin., tom. I p.389. There is no other reference in ancient history to Methodius' Second Discourse on the Resurrection. It does not seem like the person who made the first quote could be the same person who made the second quote.

Since John of Damascus seems to have made up the quote from Luke, then I question this when he is the only source. We have no other reference to this quote, or the Second Discourse on the Resurrection except for John of Damascus. Furthermore, this quote only refers to graven images of God's angels anyway, not pictures of people. So even if this quote were authentic, (though I believe it is made up), it only supports graven images of angels, not pictures of humans. Finally, it too says nothing about venerating these statues of angels.

But this is the best argument they have: John of Damascus alone made the claim that one early Christian (Methodius) honored (not prayed to or venerated) statues (not images) of angels (not people).

Don't pray to others or their images

Lactantius (c.303-320/325 A.D.) "But if it appears that these religious rites are vain in so many ways as I have shown, it is manifest that those who either make prayers to the dead, or venerate the earth, or make over their souls to unclean spirits, do not act as becomes men, and that they will suffer punishment for their impiety and guilt, who, rebelling against God, the Father of the human race, have undertaken inexpiable rites, and violated every sacred law." The Divine Institutes book 3 ch.18 p.67

Lactantius (c.303-320/325 A.D.) "I have shown that the religious rites of the gods are vain in a threefold manner: In the first place, because those images which are worshipped are representations of men who are dead; and that is a wrong and inconsistent thing, that the image of a man should be worshipped by the image of God, for that which worships is lower and weaker than that which is worshipped: then that it is an inexpiable crime to desert the living in order that you may serve memorials of the dead, who can neither give life nor light to any one, for they are themselves without it: and that there is no other God but one, to whose judgment and power every soul is subject. In the second place, that the sacred images themselves, to which most senseless men do service, are destitute of all perception, since they are earth. But who cannot understand that it is unlawful for an upright animal to bend itself that it may adore the earth? which is placed beneath our feet for this purpose, that it may be trodden upon, and not adored by us, who have been raised from it, and have received an elevated position beyond the other living creatures, that we may not turn ourselves again downward, nor cast this heavenly countenance to the earth, but may direct our eyes to that quarter to which the condition of their nature has directed, and that we may adore and worship nothing except the single deity of our only Creator and Father, who made man of an erect figure, that we may know that we are called forth to high and heavenly things." The Divine Institutes book 3 ch.18 p.67

From Nicea to Ephesus (325-451 A.D.)

Epiphanius of Salamis (360-403 A.D.) says "Let the saints be in honor, and their rest in glory. It is not, however, fitting to honor the saints more highly than is proper, but rather to honor their Lord. ... The honor which the saints in their time showed to God has become for others who did not see it truth turned into error." (Panarion, as quoted in Examination of the Council of Trent III, p.467)

So How Did Images Get Venerated?

How did the early church before Nicea I change and start venerating images after that time?

Pre-Nicene Christians were not against pictures; they had pictures of crosses and fish. There is no evidence they prayed to them though.

Before 340 A.D.: Eastern Orthodox have pointed out that images are mentioned in Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History book 7 ch.18 N&PNF 2nd Series vol.1 p.304. It says that in Caesarea Philippi, they made two statues, one of Jesus and one of the woman with the issue of blood, facing each other. They also made paintings of Paul, Peter, and Christ. However, notice that this would justify statues as much as images, and nothing in Eusebius says they prayed to or through the statues or images. Furthermore, Eusebius reported this history without any approval: rather, Eusebius wrote, "the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminantly to those regarded by them as deliverers."

In 626 A.D. the Persians plus 80,000 Avars besieged 12,000 soldiers in Constantinople plus their navy. Patriarch Sergius paraded around a picture of the Virgin Mary, and eventually the invaders were defeated and Constantinople was saved. Credit for their safety did not go to God, but rather to the image of the Virgin Mary. Shortly after a hymn (akathist) was written, which is still sung, to the theotokos (Mary the bearer of God).

Icons were prevalent after that until the reign of Byzantine Emperor Leo III (717-741 A.D.), nicknamed "the iconoclast". Leo banned images except for simple crosses. In 754 A.D, Constantine V call the Fifth Council of Constantinople to condemn pictures of saints. But Eastern Orthodox do not accept it as the Fifth genuine Council, and call it instead the Synod of Hiereia.

787 A.D.: The Nicea II Council said image veneration was good and condemned the Constantinople V Council. "but come up hither to aid us in the confirmation and establishment of the ancient tradition of venerable images." Divine Sacra of the Second Council of Nice 787 A.D. p.529

814-842 A.D.: was a second period of iconoclasm under Leo V within the Eastern Orthodox Church. Empress Theodora restored the icons in 842 A.D.. Eastern Orthodox celebrate this as the Feast of Orthodoxy.

Let's Worship Like Athanasius Did

John of Damascus was an influential theologian and defender of icons. When he defended images he knew of no quotes from Athanasius supporting venerating images. He certainly would have used Athanasius writing in support of venerating images, - if he had known of any writings of Athanasius supporting images.

Athanasius said nothing positive about images of God or people. But here is what he did say.

"For ye carve the figures for the sake of the apprehension of God, as ye say, but invest the actual images with the honor and title of God, thus placing yourselves in a profane position." Against the Heathen (318 A.D.) ch.21.1 p.15

Athanasius said not to portray Deity in human or animal form. "And generally, if they conceive the Deity to be corporeal, so that they contrive for it and represent belly and hands and feet, and neck also, and breasts and the other organs that go to make man, see to what impiety and godlessness their mind has come down, to have such ideas of the Deity. ... But these and like things are not properties of God, but rather of earthly bodies." Against the Heathen (318 A.D.) ch.22 p.15-16.

Athanasius is rather unique as Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Copts, Nestorians, and many evangelicals all hold him in high esteem. Athanasius did not venerate images in worship; after all, he was against images of deity in human or animal form. Now an Eastern Orthodox person might say that Athanasius did not specifically speak against saints, only deity. However, since eastern orthodox believe in "theosis", of humans becoming part of the Godhead, then they would still be worshipping Godhead (deity) in human form.

So let's worship like Athanasius did; without venerating images.


Roberts, Alexander, and James Donaldson (editors) Ante-Nicene Fathers. vols. 1-9 + 10 (Annotated Index) Hendrickson Publishers 1886, 1994

Robertson, Archibald. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers second series vol.4 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company reprinted 1998. (.doc)

For more info please contact Christian Debater™ P.O. Box 144441 Austin, TX 78714

by Steven M. Morrison, PhD.