Veneration of Images – Affirmative Constructive

The question today is whether image veneration is Biblical and Historical. Well, of course, in a sense it is. In Genesis 31 we have the first reference to people having “gods” when Rachel stole them from her father’s house. Then, in Genesis 35 we have the first purge of them. Jacob hid them under the oak in Shechem.

They were again forbidden during the Exodus, but when Moses delayed coming down from the mount, the people demanded an image, and Aaron complied by making one (Exodus 32). And the Old Testament law is very explicit in forbidding these objects of veneration – not just in the second commandment, but also in Exodus 34:17, Leviticus 19:4, 26:1, and so on.

The Old Testament contains numerous warnings against idolatry, both explicit and implicit. Jeroboam, the first king of the ten tribes, was a mighty man of valour and was ordained by God himself to be their king. But as soon as Jeroboam put up idols for the worship of God, God turned against him (1 Kings 14) and he became known as Jeroboam who made Israel to sin because he set up the veneration of the golden calves.

There were, of course, images in a religious setting in the Old Testament. There were angels above the ark of the covenant, for example. But these images were not venerated. Another example would be the brass serpent. Looking at the brass serpent miraculously cured those bitten by the firey serpents. However, when the people started venerating that serpent (by burning incense to it), Hezekiah was praised for destroying it (2 Kings 18).

Indeed, Hezekiah was praised in the same place for removing all the unauthorized worship, including the high places, the groves, and the images. And that’s the constant theme in the Old Testament.

Even the Apocrypha or “Deuterocanonical” books and parts are not an exception. The story of Bel in Daniel 14 makes a mockery of the veneration of idols in a way that is roughly consistent with the canonical view of idol worship as improper and ridiculous – and reflects the views of Jews in the intertestamental period.

We see the same thing in Tobit, which predicts: “And all nations shall turn, and fear the Lord God truly, and shall bury their idols.” (Tobit 14:6)

We see the same thing in the added part of Esther, which associates idols with heathen worship (Esther 14:8-10).

We see the same thing in Wisdom 14:11-30 and 15:15, which includes a long explanation of the foolishness of venerating images.

We see the same thing in Ecclesiasticus 30:19
We see the same thing in the Letter of Jeremiah 1:73 “Better therefore is the just man that hath none idols: for he shall be far from reproach.”

Both first and second Maccabees contain only negative references to idols as well.

But what about the New Testament. Well, no surprise, the New Testament continues to be anti-idol. The dozens of references to images for veneration in the New Testament all depict the use of such images negatively.

Paul repeatedly distinguishes Christian worship from that of the pagans by comparison to worship via images. For example:

1 Corinthians 12:2 Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led.

And let’s be clear the idols and icons you see in churches today are just as unable to speak as those that Paul confronted.

Thus, when preaching to the idolaters on Mars Hill, Paul said:

Acts 17:24-31
God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

The point of Paul’s diatribe is not that the Athenians should start worshiping crucifixes instead of statues of Jupiter. Instead, the point is that idol worship should altogether shunned and the living God should be worshiped.

Do you remember the opposition that Paul got in Ephesus? It was because Demetrius, the silversmith, realized that Paul’s message was iconoclastic. He wasn’t going to have to melt down the silver shrines for Diana, if Paul’s religion was right there would be no more demand for his work.

John’s first general epistle contains a blunt admonition:

1 John 5:21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.

So then, the New Testament is fully consistent with the Old on this point. The incarnation did not change the rules – it didn’t suddenly make the veneration of images ok. Instead, they remain forbidden.

But what about the early church? Eventually, image worship crept into the church as well.

Augustine, in Sermon 198, explains:

Why have I said this? Please consider carefully the chief point I’m making. We had started to deal with the apparently better educated pagans — because the less educated are the ones who do the things about which these do not wish to be taken to task — so with the better educated ones, since they say to us, “You people also have your adorers of columns, and sometimes even of pictures.” And would to God that we didn’t have them, and may the Lord grant that we don’t go on having them! But all the same, this is not what the Church teaches you. I mean, which priest of theirs ever climbed into a pulpit and from there commanded the people not to adore idols, in the way that we, in Christ, publicly preach against the adoration of columns or of the stones of buildings in holy places, or even of pictures? On the contrary indeed, it was their very priests who used to turn to the idols and offer them victims for their congregations, and would still like to do so now.

So, by Augustine’s day such veneration of images had begun to creep in, but was being resisted. We have other examples from church history of some of the opposition to image worship as it crept in, but eventually it became quite widespread.

It’s not really until the end of the patristic period that we see John of Damascus (8th century) defend the veneration of images. And that’s not just based on my own reading – I checked the Jurgens quote book to see what Roman Catholic patristics folks could identify – there were only three quotations on the topic in the entire collection, none of those were from before Nicaea, one of them was an erroneous categorization, one was alleged to be from Basil (but is from a fragment found in an a later catena) and the one from John of Damascus.

What’s the exact day? It’s hard to be precise, but consider this – they found what appears to be some kind of ancient church at an excavation site called Dura Europos. Those excavating it concluded that it was destroyed around the middle of the third century. If that dating is correct, and if the building was really a church, it would be the earliest example we know of, of a church being decorated as it was.

We don’t seem to know anything about whatever group worshiped there. Thus, I think it would be optimism to suggest that anyone was venerating the murals in that building. Is it possible? Of course it’s possible – men have been inclined toward idolatry since at least the time of Jacob and probably earlier.

Is the veneration of such images Biblical and historical? It’s certainly been done a lot in history, and it’s mentioned in the Bible, but the Bible condemned it and our best historical reconstruction of the early church based on their writings suggest that they didn’t venerate images.

5 Responses to “Veneration of Images – Affirmative Constructive”

  1. Kirk Skeptic Says:

    Please comment about the making of pictures of Christ: do you believe this to be forbidden in the Second Commandment? I have read in a Calvinistic blog that, given the chiastic structure of that commandment, it should be interpreted as not making images for worship and not worshipping images you make; ie it says nothing about artistic renderings. My understanding of the Reformed position is, along with the Jewish understanding, that there is to be no rendering of any images of God – period; this would include pictures of Christ.

  2. Martha B. Westcott Says:

    Admin, if not okay please remove!

    Our facebook group “selfless” is spending this month spreading awareness on prostate cancer & research with a custom t-shirt design. Purchase proceeds will go to, as listed on the shirt and shirt design.


  3. Anonymous Says:

    Your discussion on the veneration of images is so poor quality and full of misleading statements that you have provoked me into a response.

    1) You seems to take worship, venerate, adoration etc as synonyms. If you bothered to read John of Damascus you would realise there is a difference. Venerate means to honour of respect. The bronze serpent became an idol when the people stopped venerating it and began to worship it.

    2) Your scepticism about the Dura Europos Church is completely unfounded. You seem to imply there is some doubt it being a church when this is simply not the case. Every single scholar who has investigated the church has included just that – it is a house church. On the walls are frescos of Jesus healing the paralytic, the good shepherd, Jesus walking on water, the Samaritan woman at the well, Adam and Eve, David and Goliath and finally the (3) women at the tomb. Found in the church was a fragment (in Hebrew no less) with a Eucharistic prayer similar to one in the Didache. A fragment of the Diatessaron was also found in the town. So, please tell me, what makes you doubt it is a church?
    Coins on the skeletons of dead Roman soldiers found in counter-mines under the city walls securely date the destruction of Dura Europos to 256 AD. The house-church seems to date to a few decades before this time.

    3) John of Damascus provides a substantial dossier of extracts showing the practice of venerating icons extending down to the fourth century.

    4) At the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Catherine's in the Sinai are icons that date to the 6th century. Hundred of years before John of Damascus.

    5) The catacombs in places like Rome and Syracuse are literally covered in art. The earliest date to the 3rd century. Archeologists do not think that the Dura Europos Church is an isolated example. Who knows what else is waiting to be discovered!

    6) As if the Dura Europos house church wasn't enough of a shock to those who though pre-Nicene Christianity didn't have art, the discovery of synagogues with art has shaken those who thought all Jews interpreted the 2nd commandment to prohibit all art. The Dura Europos synagogue is well known, but what about places like Beth Alpha, Tzippori synagogue, Gaza Synagogue, Hamat Tiberius Synagogue and Na'aran?

    7) As far as I'm aware, the earliest evidence for the veneration of icons comes from Irenaeus in the 2nd century.

    8) I agree with Augustine that the adoration of images is unacceptable. They are only to be venerated. The same goes for columns.

    9) Since you are from the Reformed tradition I'm not surprised that you see idolatry everywhere. According to the good old Westminster Confession even a Roman Catholic Mass is idolatry. Better check under the bed, there could be idols lurking.

    10) Jurgens is an interesting collection but a book like 'The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1443' by Cyril Mango (there are various editions) gives are far greater range of sources on Christian art.

    So I'm confused. Are you against religious mages themselves or only when they are venerated or only when they are worshiped? I wasn't quite clear on what you were getting at.

  4. Patrick Constantine Says:

    Before I ask a question in good faith, let me first state that no one can attack my evangelical fundamentalist bona fides. And I was always raised to believe just as this blog post says, that catholics were idolaters because they venerate Christ and the virgin mary, saints, etc. in pictoral form. As for the orthodox, they weren't on our radar screen at all – but I'm pretty sure if we evangelical fundamentalists had known about them, we would have declared that they were idolaters destined for hell, too. Venerating an image or kissing a holy picture would feel awkward to me and so it's probably never going to be part of my piety, but for others, it is very important and part of ancient tradition.

    I ask this in good faith. My question is: if the 7th Ecumenical Council condemned the iconoclastic heresy, and confirmed the veneration of the holy images, then how can this be “reformed” without holding another ecumincal council? You can't “reform” something decided at an ecumenical council, can you? How can Luther, Zwingli et al. attack a doctrine that was agreed to by the holy fathers at Nicea II? Would they think it's okay to reject Nicea I and say Christ was a creature and that there was a time that he was not? Would they think it's okay to reject the doctrine that Christ is one person with two natures, both divine and human, like they said at Chalcedon? I believe the protestants accept these doctrines, yet they reject venerating holy images, also the product of an ecumenical council.

  5. Paul Hoffer Says:

    Hello TF. I addressed the issue of the differences between definitions of worship. adotation and veneration. Your argument here seems to use those terms synonymously. Catholics do not and never have. See,

    God bless!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: