Peter Brown sets forth this third-century Coptic frieze as a prototype for later Alexandrian iconography.  It isn’t terribly difficult to connect the dots.  In Bede, we find out that Pope Gregory instructed Augustine of Canterbury to retain much of the native religious infra-structure.  As late as Cortez in Mexico and Jesuit missionaries in Japan, this same approach was used.

Now, certainly there is some value in bringing Christianity to the world through receivable media.  “All things to all people” serves as a sort of Pauline missionary approach, consistent with the theology of Pentecost.  But to suppose that this can be done even in the context of idolatry is a bit too much of a stretch.  The Jerusalem Council required Gentiles to honor Jewish scruples on these matters, and John reminds his readers to flee from idols.

And so it seems that when churchmen over the ages point out these issues, they should not be dismissed as kooks.  It should not require a great leap of the imagination to see idolatry in the Church.  It happened in the Old Testament, it is warned against in the New Testament, and we see numerous examples of it throughout the early, medieval, and modern church.  To deny that this is even possible really is to voluntarily cover your eyes, something that I view as moral failing.

We’ve got to be able to critique our own traditions, while still claiming them as our own.  This is what our Reformers did, by the way.  Richard Field explains this in some length.  Bucer also argued this way, as did Calvin on the whole.  Their harshest critiques were aimed at the minority of hierarchical leaders who either deny that the errors existed or suppose that they are of no special interest, as if submission to an office is the chief concern.

And that’s where the doctrine of justification comes in.  If submission is the linchpin of religion, then we’ve got a very different religion from St. Paul.

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About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

32 thoughts on “Traditions

  1. Steven,
    I’m missing something: Is that Coptic painting not a Christian one?
    Good thoughts, by the way.

  2. But we don’t make pictures of the resurrection of Osiris. We don’t make liturgical or devotional accommodation to Osiris-ism.

    This is proof of from where that icon came, as well as its original religious use.

  3. But if I were preaching to a Buddhist, I would probably tell him “let me tell you the true four noble truths. All is dukkha, all is havel. The cause of suffering is desire for dying goods as if they were Life. The end of suffering is the coming of Life into this world. The way of the avoidance of suffering is to trust in the resurrection of the dead.” If I were preaching to a Greek, I may well say “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Similarly, if I were preaching to an Egyptian, I may well say “Let me show you the true God on His mother’s lap.”

    And anyway, I surely don’t have a problem with, say, retelling the story of Cupid and Psyche in a Christian manner.

    Or in short, Bulverism is a falacy.

    We must evaluate the thing itself. If icons or the doctrine of the Incarnation are idolatrous, or worship of Christ as Incarnate is idolatrous, sure the icons are bad. But if they aren’t, whether the icons look like Egyptian paintings is irrelevant.

  4. Matt,

    As usual, we’ve got to unpack some of your compound claims here.

    1st) The charge isn’t that the icons look like the Egyptian painting. It is that in this case they are the same picture. In Brown’s book, he shows the same icon, with one name in one century and another name in another. It isn’t a likeness charge. It is an identity charge.

    2nd) Bulverism has to do with motivation. I am not making a motivation charge. I am making an historical point.

    3rd) You can explain the real use or real meaning of anything, it is true. This requires, however, that you explain the false use and false meaning as well. But when dealing with religious ceremony, we are not given a license to be “gentle” with idolatry. You can see 1 and 2 Kings for the Biblical case for this. There’s not a lot of time taken to explain the true Asherah. The smashing happens pretty quickly.

    4th) None of us has an issue with the doctrine of the Incarnation. The Protestant position is *more* incarnational than the iconodule view because we locate the divine presence in people. The New Testament is just as clear as the old. On this side of the incarnation (Acts 17:29), Paul says that we are not to think of the divine in terms of images. He says we are to think of the divine in terms of God’s offspring.

    5th) Speaking of Lewis, you might remember that Screwtape tells us why he wants folks believing that God is contained in religious imagery. Lewis’ point was that this was a demonic desire.

  5. Steven,

    I’m trying to set aside the issue of whether icons in general are problematic. I don’t see anything in the original post that relates to say, the Pantocrator icon. Nor do I see any reason to dispute whether the iconodule or the iconoclast values the incarnation more. In other words, point 4 and 5 are completely aside my point, and the point of your original post. I didn’t bring up either, nor did I say anything remotely related to either. Note that I separate the worship of icons from the Incarnation in my post. If, on the one hand, icons are idolatrous, we should object to Theotokos icon; if, on the other, the Incarnation is objectionable (for that is what the icon portrays) we should object. But the possible origins are irrelevant to the present practice.

    Regarding your specific points:

    1) This is new. But actually it weakens your point. Perhaps in one century they thought the picture was of Isis; and in a later one, of Christ. That doesn’t show religous influence, but only a cultural change, along with a forgetting of things past. But even so, you should know enough philosophy to know the context determins the nature of something.

    2) But perhaps you aren’t at all making the charge that the icon of the Theotokos is just repackaged Egyptian religion, but merely claiming that messy things happen. If so, I guess I missed your point. Your meaning turns on what you mean by “these issues”. Do you mean “the issues regarding the Egyptian origins of the Theotokos icon” or “the issues regarding idolatry in the Church: the Church Reformed, Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, Anglican…”?

  6. Steven,

    Are you saying (in “1st” in the above comment) that Alexandrian Christians took a pre-existing painting of Isis & Horus, and mentally or physically relabeled it as Mary and Jesus? In other words, that they took a pagan idol and used it to worship Jesus?

    That’s pretty damning. If I were an iconodule, I have no idea how I could possibly live that down.

  7. Amen and Amen. There is no fair historian I am aware of who actually thinks that icons originated with Luke painting Mary or anything of the sort. It clearly came far later and was imported into the Church – just look at how Epiphanius reacted to the image in Bethlehem. Would he have done that if there were an unbroken chain of icons back to Luke??

  8. Steven — It was not just “claimed” — major theologians (John of Damascus) and an Ecumenical Council said so. What’s the criterion of authority to reject it? Don’t just say “Scripture” — aside from the Reformation, what are the mechanics by which Scripture over-rides a council?

  9. John,

    Reason and the rules of inquiry suffice to reject the claims of the iconodules, whose arguments depended much on the notion that the practice was apostolic and catholic.

    But more directly to your point, the normal way would be for another synod to reject the conclusions of the misguided one: in the case of the so-called 7th Council, this happened when the Emperor of the West summoned the Frankish Church to examine, and finally to reject, the decrees of the iconodule council.


  10. Thanks for your response Peter. I wholly agree with you regarding “reason and the rules of inquiry” to reject icons, but what I’m saying is that, the “official” church of the day did not reject such things.

    I’m guessing that you are talking about Charlemagne as the emperor of the west(?), but the council you are discussing is not something that was recognized either by Rome or Constantinople at the time, and so, given that the Frankish church rejected “the 7th council,” their rejection didn’t seem to carry much weight with the church authorities whose “official sanction” was really what seemed to matter.

  11. John,

    I believe it was recognized by Rome since the Pope named Charlemagne the true Roman Emperor. He really would have had no choice. The business of “Rome” only recognizing papal councils had not yet arisen on the scene.

  12. More to the point however, the Church did not accept the position of the council of Frankfort on icons, nor was it ever appealed to till very recently. It did not affect the practice of the Western Church, its position on icons was not accepted by the faithful, nor the priests and bishops, and it was not even recognized as an authority till within the last two hundred years.

  13. Regarding your point earlier: “It isn’t a likeness charge. It is an identity charge.”

    The problem with this charge is that you cannot change the name without changing the identity. Romeo by any other name would still be alive. And Matthew without the name of the Father and the Son and the Spirit would still be dead. The identity charge is hollow: there is a name change; therefore there is an identity change.

  14. Matt,

    So you think Frankfurt was an empty gesture, and everyone went around defying King Charles? He wasn’t an authority? He and his court weren’t a part of “the faithful”?

    Try again.

  15. Regarding the first: Come on. I don’t really know what Carolus Magnus and his court did. But they decidedly are not the Church Catholic. Under anyone’s ecclesiology.

    Regarding the second: Whether or no I’ve quoted Shakespeare accurately, my point stands. We are not merely members of sets named willy-nilly. Our names are a part of our identities. When Adam named the animals, he was telling their nature. When we take the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit we receive a new nature.

    But I did quote Shakespeare. And not unknowingly. The irony of Juliet’s speech is that Romeo, Romeo call’d, smells of death; but Romeo by any other name smells of life.

  16. Actually, as Roman Emperor, Charlemagne would be the head of the Church Catholic, at least under Nicene ecclesiology. And that was a continuing feature of the Western magistrates, most certainly during the Reformation.

  17. Oh my…well…

    First, you are simply wrong. The Roman Emperor was decidedly not the head of the Church under Reformation ecclesiology. If the Roman Emperor were the head of the Church, the Protestants would have remained Catholic, or become Orthodox, or Muslim; as the only claimants to that position were the Holy Roman Emperor, the Tsar, and the Sultan. At Nicea they believed the Ecumenical Emperor, the Roman Emperor, was head of the Ecumenical Church. There are no Ecumenical Emperors any more. Don’t pretend there is no difference here.

    But aside from that…Charlemagne was only Emperror if the Pope has authority to make Emperors–that is, only if the Pope is above the State. Otherwise, the Emperor of the Romans dwelt on the Bosporus, and used icons in his church, the Hagia Sophia.

    Moreover, all the emperors of the robber synods were also, according to Caesaropapism, heads of the Church; yet because the Church rejected their decision, it is void. And the Church rejected Charlemagne’s decision. Thus, even given your last post, my point stands, completely unaffected.

  18. Or else you could perhaps say that there no Concil revoking Frankfurt. One may question whether a local synod has authority to overturn an Ecumenical Council, and whether a local synod even need overturned; but to appeal to it, you must prove that it ever carried authority, which it did not. Why would the Church have overturned something She did not even know of? Or else you have to make rather tenuous claims about de jure authority of the council, even apart from any de facto attempt to enforce it.

  19. Honestly Matt, I’m pooped from all the goings on. I’ll answer quickly.

    HRE granted legitimacy to Augsburg, endorsing the cuius regio eius religio, which of course was the rule for all the Reformed lands. Several churchmen used the language of “ecumenical” in regards to this settlement.

    Charlemagne was Emperor in fact, no matter who recognized it, though the Patriarch of Jerusalem added his support to the Pope’s move. With Irene as the other option, Charlemagne was the obvious choice. Charlemagne certainly didn’t believe that his kingship was mediated, though.

    Robber synods and councils were later rejected by, you guessed it, imperial councils.

    The Church re-endorsed Frankfurt at the Reformation.

  20. Matt,

    It is you, I’m afraid, who are simply wrong, not Steven; and the political theology of the late middle ages and early modernity is something of a specialty of mine. The Emperor would very much be the head of the visible church on the principles of Reformation ecclesiology. The hope was that he would embrace reform. As it was, he did not; but allowed coexistence, with the peace of Westphalia, and the Empire became officially bi-religious (even some knightly orders did).

    But with the failure of the Emperor to embrace reform, the principle of the lesser magistrate came into play: hence, the Reformers said that the jus reformandi belonged to the local magistrate- the “Notbischof”- even without sanction of the Emperor. The situation was made even more complex by the extremely loose structure of the HRE until mediatisation, and the existence of centralized national state sovereigns in England, France, and Spain, with quasi-imperial claims. The Crown of the United Kingdom regarded itself as having imperial prerogatives due to the union of the three kingdoms.

    You are, of course, begging the question with your definition of “the church”. For us the church is eminently those communities with right doctrine: thus, Athanasius was the church when the majority was against him; Charles the Great was the church in his Libri Carolini; and the Reformation churches are the truest churches now.


  21. Peter,

    Frankfurt is dubious. Schaff doubted it. It had no de facto authority from c800 to c1800. It was not even treated as having de jure authority from c800 till c1800. It is tenuous at best to claim that it had authority that whole time. “In regard to the council of the Franks which never possessed the royal power, is this state of things proper?”

    No, I am not begging the question regarding the Church. The Church is the baptized. Athanasius was not the sole member of the Church–all the baptized were in the Church. Athanasius rightly stood for where the Church should be against a rebellious Church. Similarly here, you could say the Church was rebellious from Second Nicea till Calvin, you could say that councils err; but you should say that the Church erred, governmentally and in practice, rather than pointing to a historically dubious council to deflect the force of the Ecumenical decision.

    Regarding whether Charlemagne was Emperor: That section was mostly tongue in cheek, but the point is valid. He was clearly king without the Pope–at least setting aside his father’s ascension to the throne–but he was not Roman Emperor. Unlike Napoleon, he did not crown himself. So to claim the synod was overseen by Emperor and thus Ecumenical implies that the Pope is above the Emperor, which undermines your point. If the Pope does not have authority to crown someone Emperor, Frankfurt was just a synod, and the true Ecumenical Council is still Second Nicea.

    Regarding the position of the Emperor: Constantine was not a worldly king, he was the king of the whole world. Dante thought the King of France was rebelling against his overlord when he defied the Emperor. But by the time of the Reformation, if Philip II of Spain wished to think of himself as the king, Elizabeth of England knew he was just being silly. She was his equal. He was not the king, but a king. Would not Henry VIII have seen it as usurpation of English power just as much if the Emperor had tried to dictate religion in England as if the Pope did? Though the Reformers and the Ancients argeed the king had responsibility for the Church, they disagreed over what a king was.

  22. Matt,

    You are wrong and you are right. Charles the Great (Charlemagne is an old French affectation first used in the Chanson de Roland – – Karl was a Frank) was only king, and not emperor, and thus had no prerogative according to this Frankenstein ecclesiology her put forth. Frankfurt was in 787, and Karl was not crowned Augustus till 800. Einhard tells us he refused the title, though did grant it to himself some years later and crowned his own son Ludwig, I believe in 812. Gee, maybe you should crown yourself emperor and then you could tell these fellows where to get off.

    As to Frankfurt, it wasn’t accepted by the pope, indeed Hadrian I wrote Karl reprimanding him (the Franks had been working off a bad translation of the 787 acta which used adoratio instead of veneratio when referring to dulia). Karl himself, as well as Alcuin, later accepted Hadrian’s rebuke, and thus Frankfurt was never recognized. By the bye, Frankfurt as well condemned Heireia of 754, and accepted that Icons were for the instruction of the pious, but they were not to be worshiped. All of this was unknown to the Reformed when they started citing Frankfurt against Roman, and Rome quickly called them on it. Thus we see John Jewel writing to Henrich Bullinger about 1566 asking him whether he knew about Frankfurt working off of faulty information, and whether it had ever been accepted.


  23. Cyril,

    Your historical points are good and not unknown to Peter and I. They are not germane to our particular point, however.

    Peter has explained our doctrine of the Church, and Frankfurt (even with corrected errors) still articulates the correct positive doctrine.

    Regarding Charles’ royal status, the coronation was indeed an unwanted show. None of it was of any real matter, though, seeing as Charles was the clear and undisputed leader, and his hegemony over Western Europe was well established by the time of Frankfurt. Constantine’s history is just as checkered.

    The Pope was personally an iconodule, but again, we do not grant the Pope the same authority that the Pope now wishes to have, nor do we admit that he had it back then. Upon crowning Charles, however, he would have to at least allow Frankfurt and Charles’ theology (“allow” is an understatement to say the least).

    This is all a problem for the unreformed doctrines of the Church (as is the rest of history), but it is what the Evangelicals expect. And as we’ve said before, the theology of Frankfurt was reaffirmed at the Reformation, and it lives on today.

  24. Pingback: Sensus Divinitatis News - Traditions

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