Milpitas Christian Church


A controversy over using images in worship

Question to consider: in view of the second of the Ten Commandments, what should be the Christian attitude towards images?

Exodus 20:4-6 and Deuteronomy 5:8-10

4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved 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. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandment

And if you do want to portray Jesus in a picture or statue, how do you represent both His divine and human natures at the same time, in an orthodox manner?

If you only depict His humanity, you might be accused of Nestorianism. If you only depict His divinity, you might be accused of Monophysitism!

Before the 8th century

  • Early Christians decorated places of worship and burial with paintings depicting communion, baptisms, and scenes from the Bible

  • This follows the common practice of the time among Romans. Christian art was in the same exact style as secular and pagan art, just with a different subject matter. Sometimes we even know that the same workshops or artists produced both Christian and non-Christian art.

  • Many church fathers refer to images and icons of Jesus or the saints in their writings

  • However, some church fathers did not approve of certain images. Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria said that the divine cannot be captured in mere pictures. But by the 6th century, Pope Gregory I was calling religious images “The Bible for the illiterate.”

  • Early on, the most common images are of Jesus as the Good Shepherd or performing various miracles. Not much early art portrays His suffering, and none portrays the crucifixion, although the cross by itself was a known Christian symbol from very early on

    The Good Shepherd, from the Catacomb of Priscilla, second half of 3rd century

    A depiction of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, Catacomb of Priscilla

    Jesus healing the bleeding woman, ca. AD 300-350

    The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, a Christian who died in 359. Depicts several scenes from Old and New Testaments

  • Once the Roman Empire embraced Christianity, many Christian leaders worried that the hordes of new converts coming into the Church would be tempted to worship the images they saw in churches. There were many sermons against idolatry, but no prohibition of images in general

Byzantine veneration of images and iconoclasm


The rejection and destruction of religious images (icon means image)


Referring to the Eastern Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople (which used to be called Byzantium)

  • The Eastern Orthodox Church had developed a tradition of venerating images of Jesus and the saints

    • This was linked to the Byzantine practice of venerating the emperor. Emperors increasingly dressed in lavish, exotic fashions, and people had to approach them prostrated, offering reverent kisses, and even burning incense in the emperor’s honor (yes, Christian emperors required this!). So for people who were used to treating the emperor and symbols of him with such reverence, it was natural to do so for religious icons of Jesus, Mary, and other saints. Most did not consider this idolatry

    • There were also stories, widely believed, of certain icons appearing miraculously as if given by heaven

  • 692 - The Quinisext Council decreed that images were spiritually helpful for Christians, reminding them of Jesus’ humanity. It even declared that Jesus_must_be depicted in images for this reason. But this synod was not accepted by the West

  • But in the 8th century, several Byzantine emperors turned hostile to religious images, for reasons that aren’t clear

    • It’s possible that the proximity of Islam, which prohibits images of anything physical, was an influence

    • Emperors might have been trying to curb the influence of monks, who were unanimously in favor of images and often made their living making and selling religious icons

  • Increasingly, various excesses were associated with veneration of icons

Emperor Michael II (820-9), an iconoclast, complained in a letter to King Louis the Pious of the Franks, about the excessive behavior of those who venerated icons:

They have removed the holy cross from the churches and replaced it by images before which they burn incense….

They sing psalms before these images, prostrate themselves before them, implore their help. Many dress up images in linen garments and choose them as godparents for their children. Others who become monks, forsaking the old tradition — according to which the hair that is cut off is received by some distinguished person — let it fall into the hands of some image.

Some priests scrape the paint off images, mix it with the consecrated bread and wine and give it to the faithful.

Others place the body of the Lord in the hands of images from which it is taken by the communicants. Others again, despising the churches, celebrate Divine Service in private houses, using an image as an altar (Mansi, XIV, 417-22).

  • Emperor Leo III (717-741) ordered the destruction of a popular statue of Jesus

  • 754 - his son Emperor Constantine V called a council that forbade images and condemned everyone who used them. He argued that the only legitimate image of Christ is the Lord’s Supper itself, given by Christ as His body and His blood

  • The Eastern Church was now divided between iconoclasts – destroyers of images – and iconodules – worshipers of images

  • The controversy raged bitterly for decades in the East, although the West tended to just ignore the imperial edicts against images

John of Damascus (675-749)

  • Most influential theologian of the iconodules

  • Lived under Muslim rule in Damascus; resigned from a high government position to become a monk and then a priest

  • His book_Exposition of the Orthodox Faith_systematizes Eastern Orthodox doctrine and is the first major Christian work to respond to Islam

  • For John, the iconoclast controversy was part of the debates over the dual natures of Jesus Christ

    • His argument goes: if Jesus was truly human, then God was made visible in Jesus (“I and the Father are one”). Therefore, how can we object to depicting Jesus artistically?

    • Also, God is the first maker of images, who made humanity in His own image

  • He also argued that reverent images of Jesus were invaluable in teaching people Bible stories and theology

    • And even images of godly Christians help memorialize their godly lives and inspire others to follow their example
  • Argued that since we are physical beings, we need physical images to help us understand the spiritual and divine. Images are windows into the divine and thus God can give us grace by means of them.

  • Was condemned by Constantine V’s council, but this was lifted in 787 by the Second Council of Nicaea

Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Nicaea (787)

  • Called to settle the controversy over images

  • Distinguished between two types of worship

    • Latria – strict worship, due only to God

    • Dulia – lesser worship or veneration, which can be given to special images

  • All iconoclastic writings are declared heretical and should be locked up

  • Unrelated to iconoclasm:

    • Condemned the appointment of clergy by secular government officials

    • Decreed that every church needs to be consecrated with a holy relic

    • Several other decrees aimed at regulating various aspects of religious life

Aftermath of the Council

  • The council didn’t immediately settle the issue, and for a brief time the iconoclasts gained more influence. The conflicts between iconoclasts and iconodules could be violent.

  • But by 842 the Eastern Church had definitively accepted icons for use in worship. This is still celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church as the Feast of Orthodoxy

  • In the West, the council was not well-received at first because the Greek distinction between latria and dulia was harder to make in Latin. Latin only used the word adoro for both senses. But eventually they too accepted religious images and the reasoning behind them.

  • Interestingly, images of the Cross itself were sometimes treated separately from other religious images, and with even more reverence. Even some iconoclasts would make exception and allow veneration of the Cross

Legacy of Religious Images

  • In the Reformation, theologians like John Calvin rejected images for use in worship, especially any images of the Trinity, including those of Jesus, based on their interpretation of the Second Commandment. The Reformers accused the Roman Catholics of committing idolatry in their veneration of images of Mary and the saints in particular. Certain Reformed and Presbyterian denominations still prohibit all images of Jesus.

    Westminster Larger Catechism 109

    Q. What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?

    A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are…any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all, or of any of the three Persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it…

  • However, it is to be noted that even the Westminster Catechism would not technically forbid the icons of saints that are used in the other traditions. However, the Protestant tradition pushed Christian imagination to think more of the natural world rather than be limited to paintings of angels, demons, and Bible scenes.

  • But many other Protestant denominations relaxed the prohibitions, which is why illustrated children’s Bibles are so popular. But images are still not usually used in worship

  • Eastern Orthodoxy: icons are mandated, especially of Jesus because of the Incarnation. Their theology says that the essence of the person is behind the icon, and therefore to show reverence for the icon is to show reverence for the person. However, they strongly prefer flat images over statues and developed highly formal types of mosaics and icon paintings

    • Pictured right: Christ Pantocrator mosaic from the Hagia Sophia

    • All Eastern Orthodox churches now feature an iconostasis, a massive wall of icons that separates the congregation from the sanctuary where the altar is. Only priests can pass through the door of the iconostasis

  • Roman Catholicism: shares basically the same theology of images and icons as the Eastern Orthodox, although the details of practice differ. Catholics are much more enthusiastic about statues.

    • Pictured right: _Pieta_by Michelangelo
  • In both Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, veneration can take the form of praying in front of the image, kissing it, burning incense or candles around it, or arranging image in a certain way in the church to show special reverence

What about us?

So what do you think? Should churches be decorated with images of Jesus, or of scenes from the Bible, or of people and events from church history? Does it matter whether a church building is plain or adorned with stained glass windows and elaborate sculptures?

Consider also that the same God who prohibited idols in the Second Commandment commanded Israel to adorn the tabernacle and temple with elaborate depictions of plants, animals, and angels (cherubim). Is that still permitted or desired in the Christian age?


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