Pro-Image Quotes from the Pre-Nicene Fathers

I wanted to make a list of quotations from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers which can be used to support the use of holy images or of images in general. The reason I wanted to use pre-Nicene Fathers is because I don’t think anyone doubts that after Emperor Constantine exerted his influence, holy imagery started appearing everywhere, including in his military. But before him, some people say that the early Church taught that any use of images was idolatrous.

So I made this list to show some contributions to the support of image-use in the pre-Nicene period. Here is what I’ve come up with so far…does anyone know of any other useful quotes from this period?

180 A.D. - St. Irenaeus - “[The] virtue[s], [which] are laborious, glorious, and skilful, which also are approved universally as being good…[include] the arts…the art of painting and sculpture, brass and marble work, and the kindred arts.” (Against Heresies Book II Chapter 32 Paragraph 2)

198 A.D. - St. Clement of Alexandria - “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.” (The Instructor Book III Chapter 11)

208 A.D. - Tertullian - “No man will love the picture of his wife without taking care of it, and honoring it and crowning it. The likeness partakes with the reality in the privileged honor.” "[And] no honor is to be attributed to the image of anything which is itself unworthy of honor. As the natural state is, so will the likeness be.” (Against Marcion Book V Chapter 18, Book III Chapter 10)

222 A.D. - Tertullian mentions that the Catholics in his day had images on their chalices - “Even the images themselves on your chalices may be adduced” “wherein the lost sheep is…searched for by its pastor and brought back on his shoulders.” “That pastor [the Shepherd of Hermas]…you have carved on your chalice[s].” (On Modesty Chapter 7, Chapter 10)

~238 A.D. - St. Gregory the Wonderworker - “[W]e should allow those…good artists [who are] skilled to the utmost in their art and liberally furnished in the matter of colors, to possess the liberty of painting…not simply [things] of a uniform complexion, but also of various descriptions and of richest beauty in the abundant mixture of flowers, without let or hindrance.” (Panegyric Addressed to Origen Argument 1)

~318 A.D. - “Hence, even now the inhabitants [of Canaan] cherish the place where visions appeared to Abraham as divinely consecrated. The turpentine tree is still to be seen, and those who received Abraham’s hospitality are painted in picture, one on each side, and the stranger of greatest dignity in the middle. He would be an image of our Lord and Saviour, whom even rude men reverence, Whose divine words they believe.” (Proof of the Gospel Book 5)

Here’s another one: 131 A.D. - The Letter of Barnabas - “Moreover, though Moses commanded them: – ‘You shall have neither graven nor molten image for your God,’ yet he makes one himself to show a type of Jesus. Moses therefore makes a graven serpent, and places it in honour and calls the people by a proclamation.” (Letter of Barnabas Chapter 12)

Thankyou!!! :smiley:


I think you’re going about this from the wrong direction.

A better question would be to ask when opposition to icons began in the first place (and where it came from). Had the pre-Nicene Church been icon-free, and icons were imposed upon Her, there would have been opposition at the time (there were MANY sources of opposition during those days, but nobody mentions icons).

Iconoclasm did not begin until the mid-eighth century. Nobody prior to that had voiced any opposition.

And the opposition did not come from within the Church, but from the Byzantine Emperor Leo-3 (not to be confused with the Pope of the same name who would reign during this controversy). And opposition did not gain general acceptance among the Byzantine (Eastern) Church - they opposed it (and hung a guy who came into town to enforce the Emperor’s decrees). It continued to be pressed upon the Church by Emperors, not by Popes or Prelates. The period spanned several Emperors for about a century, and died out, and has not been heard of since, until the protestants came along.

You might find a handful of mid-eighth and ninth century churchmen who went along with the Emperor, but you will never find any serious opposition to icons from within the Church in either East or West. This has never been a matter of concern for Catholics.

Ya know, I’ve had a little time to ponder the irony of this whole question. Protestants suppose that the pre-Nicene Church had been free of icons (by icon, I mean any artistic representation), and icons were supposedly imposed upon the Church by an Emperor (Constantine). Yet, we find no mention of opposition to this imposition.

But another Emperor (Leo-3 and several successors) actually did try to banish icons (much historic documentation), and we find all sorts of opposition from the Church - riots, lynchings, mobs, threats, Ecumenical Councils, angry epistles, you name it.

So it is really the protestants who are following the lead of Emperors on this one.

DavidFilmer, I don’t think there’s a lot of disagreement between us on the question of the historical use of sacred images. I agree with the substance of your argument if I understand it right: Protestants have the burden of proof here because their position is the historically “new” one in Christian history.

But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t present the historical evidence for our position. Technically we don’t have the burden of proof, that’s true, but if we begin by showing them a little evidence for our side, perhaps the Lord will use that to motivate them to look into it more. Plus, if you tell people that they have to do the research before you’ll talk to them about this, that could shut down the dialog. Some Protestants might be convinced if you showed them the evidence for our side but won’t do the research to find out the history of this issue. I agree that this would be a wrong attitude for a Protestant to start with, but I don’t think we should give up on them and I do think we should try to work with them from where they are at.

Iconoclasm did not begin until the mid-eighth century. Nobody prior to that had voiced any opposition.

Although I think there is a sense in which that is true, that is not the sense you get if you just google the issue. If you google “Church fathers images,” you get a real mixed bag, with a lot of crackpot sites that obscure the issue mixed with some that show the historical roots of this stuff. Now if you’re asking somebody to do the research on this, they’ll probably google it first thing.

I hear you: “That’s their first mistake. Real research isn’t just googling stuff. They need to be critical of what they read and open up some history books to boot.” I agree with that, but I don’t want to refuse to talk to people because of a lack of motivation to do research and then shut down the people who do look into it by refusing to talk to them until they use a high standard of research on top of that. How are people going to be led to the high standards if you won’t talk to them until they’re already there? To me, that shuts down dialog and I don’t think we should just say, “Tough. If you can’t do things right, we don’t want to talk to you.”

There are some early Church Fathers who can sound like they were against images if you don’t examine them critically. Google Epiphanius of Salamis on images, or Origen on images, or Cyprian on images, or the Council of Elvira on images and you’ll see what I mean. I think we need to be able to explain those seemingly contradictory positions while also showing that our position has roots in the early Church. Do you see why I think that’s important?


Also, there are these scriptural passages assembled by John Salza:

I. Images and Statues

Deut. 4:15 - from this verse, Protestants say that since we saw “no form” of the Lord, we should not make graven images of Him.

Deut. 4:16 - of course, in early history Israel was forbidden to make images of God because God didn’t yet reveal himself visibly “in the form of any figure.”

Deut. 4:17-19 - hence, had the Israelites depicted God not yet revealed, they might be tempted to worship Him in the form of a beast, bird, reptile or fish, which was a common error of the times.

Exodus 3:2-3; Dan 7:9; Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32; Acts 2:3- later on, however, we see that God did reveal himself in visible form (as a dove, fire, etc).

Deut. 5:8 - God’s commandment “thou shall not make a graven image” is entirely connected to the worship of false gods. God does not prohibit images to be used in worship, but He prohibits the images themselves to be worshiped.

Exodus 25:18-22; 26:1,31 - for example, God commands the making of the image of a golden cherubim. This heavenly image, of course, is not worshiped by the Israelites. Instead, the image disposes their minds to the supernatural and draws them to God.

Num. 21:8-9 - God also commands the making of the bronze serpent. The image of the bronze serpent is not an idol to be worshiped, but an article that lifts the mind to the supernatural.

I Kings 6:23-36; 7:27-39; 8:6-67 - Solomon’s temple contains statues of cherubim and images of cherubim, oxen and lions. God did not condemn these images that were used in worship.

2 Kings 18:4 - it was only when the people began to worship the statue did they incur God’s wrath, and the king destroyed it. The command prohibiting the use of graven images deals exclusively with the false worship of those images.

1 Chron. 28:18-19 - David gives Solomon the plan for the altar made of refined gold with a golden cherubim images. These images were used in the Jews’ most solemn place of worship.

2 Chron. 3:7-14 - the house was lined with gold with elaborate cherubim carved in wood and overlaid with gold.

Ezek. 41:15 - Ezekiel describes graven images in the temple consisting of carved likenesses of cherubim. These are similar to the images of the angels and saints in many Catholic churches.

Col. 1:15 - the only image of God that Catholics worship is Jesus Christ, who is the “image” (Greek “eikon”) of the invisible God. *

What are you talking about??? You DO realize, don’t you, that I am not asking anybody to do independent scholarly research. I asked a hypothetical question and presented the answer. I didn’t “show my work” - that would be a LOT of typing, but the answers I presented are factually correct.

Anyone who is interested in a serious discussion of iconoclasm is discouraged from using Google, but by reading the works of respected Catholic historians. I highly recommend my own source, Eamon Duffy’s Saints and Sinners, Third Edition (Yale Nota Bene, 2014). A comprehensive overview of the Iconoclastic period begins at page 81 of the print edition (15% of Kindle Edition). There you will find a well-written, orderly and unimpeachable account of the period, in language easily accessible to the average layperson (it is a popular book, not a scholarly reference).

I’m not saying that nobody in the Church was ever bothered by icons. I’m saying that the Magesterium of the Church was never bothered by icons. No Bishop of the Five Ancient Sees (including Rome) ever opposed icons. There is no Ecumenical Council recognized by either East or West that ever opposed icons. The issue was brought to bear upon the Church externally by Byzantine Emperors, not by internal concern within the Church, and iconoclasm was vigorously opposed in both East and West. The only problem that the Church has ever had with icons is when Emperors wanted to take them away.

:thumbsup: Well-put, and thank you for the clarification.

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