Veneration of Images Debate with William Albrecht

On December 2, 2010, William Albrecht and I debated the topic: “Is the Veneration of Images Sinful?” I took the affirmative position and Mr. Albrecht took the negative position. Below I’ve provided the Youtube version and mp3 of the debate, as well as some very important notes.

(link to mp3 for the debate)

I relied heavily on the Old Testament prohibitions on the veneration of images, as well as on the New Testament confirmation of the Old Testament moral law. One of Albrecht’s main attempts to distinguish his practice from idolatry was his claim: “Ancient Christianity knew how to differentiate between idolatry and true religious veneration.”

But when challenged to produce such evidence, there was no evidence of any of the church fathers actually talking about religious veneration of images. Instead, they simply made the distinction between having images and venerating them.

Moreover, Mr. Albrecht was able to document some instances of ancient churches having images, and of people worshiping nearby images (Albrecht characterized it as people having no problem “worshiping with images around them”), but never any instances of ancient Christians actually venerating the images. The same was brought up with respect to the Jews. Some allegedly permitted the carving of a stone column, as long there was no worship of them – so again, no Jewish permission to venerate images.

There was one exception – one patristic quotation on which Mr. Albrecht tried to support his claim that the early church venerated icons, specifically there was a quotation allegedly taken from a letter of Basil the Great.

He mentioned it and relied on it (beginning at around 3:30 of part 6 below), but when asked to identify it, he seemed to have trouble giving me any kind of helpful citation.

The most popular edition of the fathers, the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers has the letter in the second series, volume 8 (NPNF2, Volume 8) at page 316. The page presents the full text of the letter (Letter 360 – the title given is “Of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the invocation of Saints, and their Images.”)

The editors, at that same page, provide a note about this letter:

This letter is almost undoubtedly spurious, but it has a certain interest, from the fact of its having been quoted at the so-called 7th Council (2d of Nicæa) in 787. Maran (Vit. Bas. xxxix.) is of opinion that it is proved by internal evidence to be the work of some Greek writer at the time of the Iconoclastic controversy. The vocabulary and style are unlike that of Basil.

The editors go on to provide several examples:

  • at “I adore and worship one God, the Three,” the editor comments “Neuter sc. πρόσωπα, not ὑποστάσεις, as we should expect in Basil.”
  • at “I confess to the œconomy of the Son in the flesh,” the editor comments “ἔνσαρκον οἰκονομίαν, an expression I do not recall in Basil’s genuine writings.”
  • at “was Mother of God,” the editor comments “Θεοτόκον, the watchword of the Nestorian controversy, which was after Basil’s time.”

And the letter is only a paragraph or two long, so it’s not as though these indicia are spread out over a large amount of writing.

Elsewhere in the volume there are similar comments about this letter:

Even Letter CCCLX., which bears obvious marks of spuriousness, and of proceeding from a later age …

NPNF2, Vol. 8 St. Basil: Letters and Selected Works, p.lxxiii

N.B. The letters numbered CCXII.-CCCLXVI. are included by the Ben. Ed. In a “Classis Tertia,” having no note of time. Some are doubtful, and some plainly spurious. Of these I include such as seem most important.

NPNF2, Vol. 8 St. Basil: Letters and Selected Works, p. 316

The letter can also be found in other patristic series. The Fathers of the Church series, in the introduction to volume 1 of Basil’s letters, explains the situation:

The chronology of the letters and their order and arrangement into three classes according to the Benedictine editors have been retained. In the arrangement the first class includes all the letters adjudged by them to have been written before St. Basil’s episcopate, in the years from 357 until 370, Letters numbered 1 to 46; the second, those written during his episcopate, from 370 until 378, Letters 47 to 291; and the third, letters of uncertain date, doubtful letters, and those clearly spurious, numbered Letters 292 to 365. Three more, Letter 366, included by Mai and also by Migne in their editions, and Letters 367 and 368, lately discovered by Mercati, have been added in the translation.

Another edition of Basil’s letters provides this note:

This letter is clearly spurious. It has been attributed to the Greek Iconoclasts. The vocabulary, particularly that employed in the Trinitarian controversy, and the style are not Basil’s. Furthermore, it is missing in all the MSS. of St. Basil’s letters.

Basil: Letters, Volume IV, Letters 249-368. Address to Young Men on Greek Literature. (Loeb Classical Library No. 270), p.329 (Roy J. Deferrari and M. R. P. McGuire, translators)

It’s the problem one runs into when one researches from unreliable secondary sources (such as this one). The second source puts it this way:

St. Basil the Great died 24 years earlier than Epiphanius, in 379. Schaff cites this Father:

“….I receive also the holy apostles and prophets and martyrs. Their likenesses I revere and kiss with homage, for they are handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but on the contrary painted in all our churches.” (Basil, Epist 205, Comp his Oratio in Barlaam, Opp 1, 515 cited in Schaff, ibid, page 567; and similar expressions in Gregory Naz, Orat 19).

Albrecht also alleged (see part 10 of the debate, around 6 minutes into that part) that Gregory of Nyssa quoted from this, or said something similar to this. The reason is (we presume) reliance on a secondary source like the one above (coupled with a conflation between Gregory Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa), because there is nothing like that in either Gregory’s authentic writings (that I could find). You’ll notice that Albrecht mentions an “Oration Barlaam” which is what the secondary source says should be compared to the actual work.

What made matters much worse, in my opinion, was that around 8 minutes into my second cross-examination of Mr. Albrecht (part 10 below), he indicated that no one had contested the validity of this work, he claimed it was cited by Schaff (which it was, the tertiary source I quoted from above is quoting from the secondary source of Schaff), Bickham (his source regarding Dura Europos), and “numerous Protestant authors,” and he continued by stating: “I didn’t find one – one author – contesting its validity – so I imagine its valid.”

And then in his conclusion (part 11 below), Albrecht made the Basil quotation his leading argument – presumably because during the cross-examination period, Mr. Albrecht had acknowledged that he was not aware of any other patristic writings speaking about the veneration of images. He alleged that my opposition to the quotation was because it was so damaging to my position. And then after some other discussion he came back to it again and claimed that it had to be “pushed aside” because of its weight.

But it arguably got still worse, because Albrecht – in his conclusion – went on to complain about the authenticity of certain canons of the Council of Elvira (which I did not bring up) and of other allegedly spurious patristic writings (which I did not bring up), even while admitting that I did not bring them up. It would seem appropriate that perhaps Mr. Albrecht should check the authenticity of his own patristic works before questioning the authenticity of those that support but weren’t even cited by other side.

Finally, Albrecht brought Basil back up again in his concluding remarks.

Albrecht also made an allegation about the Vienna Genesis manuscript, which is a very luxurious high-end manuscript copy of Genesis. He claimed it was dated from the 300’s by “Hans” and that Metzger puts it in the “400’s” (in his first cross-examination of me) fourth century, but Metzger puts it in the fifth or sixth centuries (see here) and Hans Gerstinger had dated it to the late fifth or early sixth century as well (see discussion here) but subsequent evidence suggested to him that it could be dated no earlier than the sixth century (as reported here). He’s the only “Hans” that Metzger references (see the page linked above) – though “Hans” is a very common name, and so it possible that there is some guy named “Hans” out there who dates it earlier.

I don’t believe that Mr. Albrecht was intentionally relying on wrong dates and pseudographic evidence, but without such evidence, there is really no ancient support for the distinction he is trying to make. There is no evidence that he provided for the fathers of the first five centuries venerating images. He tried to paint Calvin as ignorant of early church history for suggesting such a thing, but with all due respect I think that while some additional archaeology has come to light, John Calvin was more familiar with the authentic writings of the fathers than Mr. Albrecht is (although Calvin also was fallible and capable of making mistakes – and we have even more manuscripts now than Calvin did).

Parts of the Debate

  1. Affirmative Constructive Part 1 (TurretinFan)
  2. Affirmative Constructive Part 2 (TurretinFan)
  3. Negative Constructive Part 1 (Albrecht)
  4. Negative Constructive Part 2 (Albrecht)
  5. First Negative Cross-Examination of Affirmative – Part 1 (Albrecht cross-examining TurretinFan)
  6. First Negative Cross-Examination of Affirmative – Part 2 (Albrecht cross-examining TurretinFan)
  7. First Affirmative Cross Examination of Affirmative – Part 1 (TurretinFan cross-examining Albrecht)
  8. First Affirmative Cross Examination of Affirmative – Part 2 (TurretinFan cross-examining Albrecht)
  9. Second Negative Cross-Examination of Affirmative (Albrecht cross-examining TurretinFan)
  10. Second Affirmative Cross-Examination of Negative (TurretinFan cross-examining Albrecht)
  11. Negative Conclusion (Albrecht)
  12. Affirmative Conclusion (TurretinFan)


Mr. Albrecht has provided a comment by email, which I reproduce below:

” I want to thank Turretinfan for the notes he has sent me and I have surely looked deeper into this subejct. Whereas I am unwilling to grant that the quotation on Basil is definitively spurious, I am willing to say that we can dismiss it wholly if need be. I believe that through a thorough examination of Basil’s works(that are not contested) we can clearly see he believed in proper religious honor being passed on to the person whose image is being venerated. I also want to apologize for not being more careful in regards to my comments on the Vienna Genesis. It would seem that in my constant fumbling of notes, I should have been clear that the Vienna Genesis is dated to the 400s and it is the COTTON Genesis dated to the 300s. The names are quite similar and it’s quite easy to confuse the two! I hope this helps clear up certain things and I wish everyone that reads this blog a HAPPY HOLIDAY season!”

I reply:

1) I don’t know why one wouldn’t grant what scholarship universally affirms.

2) The issue about the honor given to an image reaching the prototype is the way that John of Damascus quoted Basil (and Aquinas interestingly quotes not Basil himself but John of Damascus quoting Basil). But what John of Damascus does is to rip Basil out of context. In context, Basil is speaking about veneration of the Son (Christ) who is the image of the Father being veneration passed on to the Father (view the original quotation from Basil in context here and also see here for a similar discussion).

3) As discussed in the post, the best date for the Vienna Genesis is the 6th century, i.e. the 500’s – although it may possibly date to the late 400’s according to some scholars.

4) The Cotton Genesis is also 5th or 6th century according to Metzger (see this link to Metzger’s Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: an introduction to Greek palaeography, p. 45). Metzger even states that the Vienna Genesis is slightly later in date than the Cotton Genesis, which reaffirms the 6th century date I identified above.

5) You’ll also notice on that same page of Metzger that Metzger confirms that the earliest New Testament Manuscript with minatures date from the 6th century. This confirms the point I made during the debate that the illumination of manuscripts became progressively more elaborate into the later periods of church history. It also tends to undermine Mr. Albrecht’s seeming attempts to make this practice of adorning Biblical manuscripts a more ancient or perhaps apostolic tradition.

– TurretinFan


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