What Does Church History Say about Icon Veneration?
The first undisputed fact is that there existed no iconography in the Apostolic Church of the first century. Neither did the early church know anything about the legends of icons of Christ not made by human hands, nor icons of the Virgin Mary. Despite sacred tradition’s tales that icons existed from the very beginning of the church era, reliable sources negate this claim and utterly contradict sacred tradition. Sergei Bulgakov comments on this topic:
“The Christian Church came from Judaism – as something which is obvious and possessed the force of law – and inherited the ban on religious iconography. In that sense, the Church in the beginning was very iconoclastic.”
If we accept this claim of this famous Russian Orthodox theologian as true, then it certainly raises a big question. How was it possible that the first century Church was iconoclastic (e.g., the Church opposed icons) if everyone had known that Christ had blessed His image on the canvas and towels presented for people to venerate? How would it have been possible if the evangelist Luke were to have painted icons (and not just one but several), yet at that time, the entire Church still possessed an iconoclastic spirit? The answers to these questions are more than clear and obvious.
From another perspective, here is an even more extensive description of this early Church era that concurs with the statement earlier given by Bulgakov. The following quote comes from the book of an Orthodox author, this time an expert historian:
“As the church entered the end of the first period , the church first began to use pictures symbolically, and only images that portrayed people or events. However these were used very rarely and with great reluctance, for many of the first Christians came out of Judaism, which we know that in later times all the way up to the fifth century A.D. obeyed the Old Testament commandment in this regard.
The Synod of Elvira at Iliberus in Spain (306) banned images painted on walls of church buildings.
The church historian Eusebius (died 340), who was Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, was a contemporary of the above-mentioned Synod. He was a devout man who deemed religious images as mimicking pagan customs. (As a footnote, Constantina, the sister
of Constantine the Great, asked Eusebius for a picture of Jesus. Eusebius responds that religious images are pagan customs. In his ecclesiastical history which he wrote, Eusebius speaks of a statue of Christ in Caesarea Philippi, which a woman erected there in his hometown. She claimed to have been cured by Christ of hemophilia, but he says this story was only transmitted second-hand. Even if this story were true, Eusebius considered this woman to definitely have been a pagan.)
But as we mentioned earlier, the custom began and gained momentum later on. By the end of the fourth century, icons became quite widespread, although it remained the case that church leaders did not encourage their use. Either they totally condemned the use of religious images and icons, or else they considered religious images to be a dangerous habit.
Among the most determined opponents of religious images and icons was the early church father Epiphanius (died 403) at the end of the fourth century. He was from Palestine and a descendant of the tribe of Judah. He died as a church metropolitan in either Salamis or Constantia in Cyprus. His antipathy toward icons went to such an extreme that one time, when he found an icon painted on the canvas near a church door, Epiphanius tore it down, ripped it into pieces, and gave it to a church minister to bury the destroyed icon with a dead body.
But conditions changed in the fifth and sixth centuries. The use of icons found more and more allies and became common in churches, except in the Nestorian church, which wanted to retain the ancient customs and raised opposition in this matter vs. the other churches. Moreover, in the East at the end of the second period, icon veneration had also spread as people venerated icons through sacrifices, kisses, incense, burning candles, etc… And in the East, the icons first served merely as religious monuments and teaching aids. Only over time did the Eastern Church’s use of icons evolve into veneration of the icons, the person whom the icon represents.”
Let us summarize a few main points from this passage:
1. At the start of the Christian era during the time of the apostles and their successors in the first century A.D., the Church did not use any religious images.
2. The first religious images, which only had symbolic and illustrative significance, began to be introduced at the end of the “first period”, i.e., probably in the third century A.D. Such art was used only for religious instruction (such as frescoes and contemporary works of art, illustrated editions of Scripture, and pictures with the biblical themes).
3. The introduction of other images (iconography of “saints” and others) initially encountered fierce opposition from many church leaders.
4. Some of the major opponents of iconography and icon veneration included Eusebius, the famous historian of the early Church, the bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, and the Metropolitan Epiphanius.
5. Even one local church council (in Elvira in 306 A.D. during Diocletian’s persecution of Christians) decided to ban interior painting in church buildings.
6. In the fifth and sixth century A.D., iconography began to grow in popularity, such that by the end of the “Second Period”, i.e., the end of the sixth and early seventh centuries, icon veneration (which includes veneration of icons in the form of teaching people to kiss, burn incense, and light candles to icons).
7. Icon veneration as what we find today in Eastern Orthodoxy developed gradually over several centuries from the creation of the original art form of depicting symbolic images, including the representation of vineyards, fish, doves, etc. By no means was icon veneration part of the religious practices of believers in the first centuries of Christianity.
We have already determined that iconography and icon veneration are based on Greek religious and philosophical thought. Eusebius Popovic adds further confirmation to this fact as he narrates about the external and internal appearance of liturgical (i.e., worship) places:
“At first, there were no icons , for the Jews prohibited religious images. However, little by little, gospel freedom allowed in some places the first use of symbolic imagery… Finally, the pagan trend toward images prevailed over the Jewish banning of images, such as those images depicting historical imagery; such were icons of Jesus as a babe in the arms of His mother … But the majority of church teachers did not approve of religious images (icons) during the end of this (first) period: the Synod of Elvira (Iliberis) in Spain in 306 banned such pictures on the walls of churches. Some religious teachers, including the church historian Eusebius (died circa 340), a younger contemporary of the said Synod, called icons direct imports from pagan customs, with which Christians have no business to be involved.”
Now that we have this information, it would be useful to reexamine briefly the claim of sacred tradition regarding the icon not created by human hands which, allegedly, Christ Himself made and sent to the ailing King Abgar V of Edessa. Sacred tradition claims that Christ made this icon and kissed it just before His death and resurrection, that is, at the very time described by all the four evangelists. Of course, as explained earlier, none of the apostles anywhere in the New Testament ever mentioned this event. Moreover, its narrative is quite improbable – for the reason that the first Church, precisely what Orthodox author Sergei Bulgakov wrote earlier, completely opposed any kind of visual art or statue that should be venerated or kissed (which were typical acts of polytheistic idolatrous cults). How could it be possible to imagine that the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of the Father, eternal God, who was devoted to His Holy Father’s will during his earthly ministry, could do such a thing as to create an icon and thus propagate and encourage the spread of idolatrous pagan rituals “clothed” in the robes of Christianity? And, in general, does any historical evidence prove that during the time of Christ there existed a Christian kingdom of Edessa, headed by the God-fearing King Abgar V? Let us read what church history says about this subject.
The traditional story of the first Christian emperor Abgar and his alleged correspondence with Jesus Christ comes from the “Ecclesiastical History” by the famous historian of the early Church, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, who lived in the fourth century A.D. However, although the church historian may have believed that some of the legends that he heard were accurate, and that it was true that at the time of Jesus Christ existed an empire headed by the first Christian ruler in the history of the world (and that he, most likely motivated by his pagan habits, sent an artist to paint Christ’s image), the historical facts speak otherwise.
Although it is true that Edessa (which was the capital of the small independent Osroene empire, and was located near the upper stream of the Euphrates River) really was the first Christian kingdom, it had not yet been established in the first half of the first century A.D. (i.e., during the earthly life of the Lord Jesus Christ).
Edessa was founded only in the second half of the second century. In fact, coins have been discovered with the image of the first Christian emperor, Abgar VIII, which is still kept in the British Museum, and they date from the period between 180-192 A.D. The emblem on these coins contains the symbol of the cross, that is, a character that could never have been used as a Christian symbol before the Lord’s crucifixion (though, in fact, it was not the case even a century and a half after the event). However, since the time of the Lord Christ, the Edessan empire was ruled, presumably, by a man named Abgar (which is obviously the name given to the whole dynasty, akin to Herod mentioned in the New Testament, such as Herod the Great, then Antipas and Agrippa).
Later in history, it became very easy to create the legend of his conversion. Thus, the time when Edessa became the first Christian empire was moved about 150 years back in time (and declaring Abgar VIII to have lived not at the end of the second century, but instead at the beginning of the first!).
In spite of this historical manipulation of Edessa, the Bible itself testifies that in the first century A.D. no earthly rulers believed in the Lordship of Jesus Christ nor were saved by His atoning sacrifice. Inspired by the Spirit of the all-knowing God, the apostle Paul wrote:
“However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
There was a glut of inventing legends in the period after the death of the apostles, and especially since the time of Constantine and later, especially as witnessed by examples from “Church History” as Eusebius Popovic had mentioned in earlier chapters. After all, the inconsistency in the alleged instances in which Orthodox tradition claims veracity and demands us to believe that “the image of Jesus (God forbid!) transformed at that very moment” is just as illogical as alleging that He had an imaginary body. The praxis of the New Testament have no possible connection with the “Lord’s ministry” of sending an icon “not made by human hands” to heal a person.
Specifically, the New Testament states that Jesus could heal the sick from a distance not with miraculous icons, but by His mighty Word. An example is found in Luke 7:1-10,
where among other things we read of the healing of the centurion’s servant:
“Then Jesus went with them. And when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, ‘Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed’… When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him, and turned around and said to the crowd that followed Him, ‘I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!’ And those who were sent, returning to the house, found the servant well who had been sick.”
After all, as I just pointed out, sacred tradition regarding the correspondence between Abgar and the Lord Jesus Christ, who allegedly sends the King an icon to heal him (because Jesus was unable to personally travel to Edessa) comes from one of the great religious authorities in the fourth century, who strongly opposes the creation of icons and considers them to be pagan customs. Therefore, if Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, really believed this tradition to be accurate, that the Lord Jesus was indeed the first icon artist, then he ran into the problem of brushing aside the views of the majority of church leaders
who strongly opposed the introduction of iconography and icon veneration in the practice of Christ’s Church.
After all of this knowledge provided by early church history, we are left to conclude that the sources of sacred tradition provide unreliable and inaccurate information about the origin of the first icons. One example is that Eusebius Popovic, the respected Orthodox historian, in his General Church History makes no mention whatsoever. He does not recognize icons of Christ not made by human hands, nor icons painted by Luke the Evangelist, simply because they would contradict the clear historical evidence of the attitude of the first century church toward icons. The early church sided with iconoclasm.
As we witnessed from earlier studies of sacred tradition (in chapters on Christmas, Easter, etc.), the sources on which the Orthodox based their beliefs contain a lot of “stories” and legends introduced into the church centuries after the actual events occurred. It is quite obvious that the stories of King Abgar, Veronica and the iconographer Luke were invented by proponents of icons centuries later in order to justify their historical existence, even though in reality they have no historical evidence to support their claims.
We examined in a brief, yet detailed enough, manner to understand the Orthodox doctrine of icons. Through following their argument, we demonstrated that icons have no foundation whatsoever in the revelation given by God that we know as Holy Scripture. Therefore, it follows that today’s Protestant-Evangelical, not Orthodox, Christians are correct in their claim to adhere to the early Christian apostolic teachings and religious practices that marked the dawn of a new era and the emergence of the New Testament Church.
The next chapter will detail the origin and organization of Orthodox monasticism, as well as the way of monastic life. Once again, we will demonstrate that the view of traditional Eastern Orthodoxy does not conform to God’s will as He established the New Testament Church founded upon Christ’s teaching and the apostles’ preaching.