I had been planning to continue my series on the Lord’s Supper but this weekend I was invited by an Eastern Orthodox Youtube channel to outline my own understanding of the use of imagery in the early church. It’d been awhile since I’d thought much about the subject but I brushed off my notes and spent an hour and a half discussing it with Craig Truglia, the host of the channel. Craig was very gracious to me and I was grateful for the opportunity to talk about something I had previously only written about.

The term Aniconism was used in the discussion itself to describe my own position but whilst I think that term is somewhat crude I see it briefly summarised by the following points:

  • The contention is that a combination of old testament prohibition of idolatry joined with platonic and aristotelian notions like that of mimesis to inform attitudes towards religious artifice in the early church. Making it critical of image worship whilst tolerating controlled forms of artistic expression.
  • This is essentially a conservative position that affirms that christ alone is the perfect image of god (re basil – he is the image to which god the father is the prototype).
  • Mankind is due dignity by being formed in gods image (secundum imaginem/according to the image) but only christ partakes of the essence of god as his perfect image. Man was created according to the image of christ and finds perfection as an image-er of god through participation in christ via the holy spirit.
  • That the early church fathers at root believed honour paid to a created image causes it to supplant the prototype – god. Basil’s statement can only extend to the uncreated image of god in christ. Anything else is mimesis – imitation which leads away from the prototype.
  • Likewise artifice when fashioned does not cease to retain its prior inanimate nature and this must inform how we engage with it. If matter is fashioned after the likeness of a man or god it should not be treated as such given the essence of wood or stone cannot be removed from the composition of the artifice in question nor the mimesis implicit in the works of the artist when fashioning an image from it.
  • That when we talk of worship a high view of the body and the actions committed by it is important, over and against the words spoken to frame those actions.
  • That attitudes towards imagery should be distinguished between those intended as, or become, objections of devotion and otherwise. Imagery for pedagogical, artistic, or ornamental purposes falls into the latter camp. This is due to the latter not conflating the essence of the object with what it attempts to depict. That is to say the distinctions between representation and reality are maintained. – i.e Aristotelian notions of mimesis.

To summarise my view is that the early church weren’t anti-icons if we understand humanity as an icon of it’s creator. That matter matters as does the nature of it’s composition. This comes from both Christianity’s inheritance from Judaism and Greco-Roman Philosophy. Art has a place as long as it remains precisely that. We talked through a range of fathers views on this in addition to the different ways in which one can read their writings. For a fuller treatment of this you can, of course, read the original series I wrote on the topic. Although my views have developed some since I wrote it several years ago and I hope that is reflected in the discussion.

The talk ranged quite a bit but even then we didn’t have time to cover everything we could have discussed. If you are interested in looking at my notes for the discussion you can see them here. You can watch the discussion itself below:

Anyway, thank you to Craig for the opportunity and gracious hosting.

One thought on “Talking about images and icons in the early church

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