Why No Images?

In Acts 17, Paul explains why idols, statues, carvings, and paintings are all improper means of contemplating God.  He says in verses 24-29:

God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;  for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’  Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.

Now Paul is saying this on this side of the Incarnation, and so that particular theological argument just cannot stick: if the mere fact of not approving of the use of visual aids in worship is anti-incarnational, then so goes Paul.  But I think there’s a better answer, and I think it is very incarnational.

So, what is Paul’s reasoning against the Greek use of images?  The answer is found in vv 27-29:

…So that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.

We do not find the Divine nature in gold, silver or stone, and I believe it is fair to say, not even in wood.

We find it in other people, the offspring of God.

This entry was posted in acts of the apostles, icons, nt by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

26 thoughts on “Why No Images?

  1. Note that the same concepts, making basically the same points, appear in Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman in John 4.

  2. Hi Steven,

    Posting here is a first for me; I was keyed in to your blog by two mutual acquaintances, so I thought I’d check things out.

    I wanted to comment on this particular post–more for clarity before proceeding much further. But I do also have one point to make, coming as I do from an Eastern Orthodox POV.

    When you say that matter cannot provide an appropriate apparatus for “contemplating God”, am I correct in assuming you are thinking of God’s essence (ousia) as that which is being contemplated?

    This would seem to be what you have in mind in light of your closing statements which deny that we can access the “divine nature” through material images, but that we can only do so through (living) persons (or image bearers).

    In Eastern Christian and Patristic thought, there is a real and marked difference between person (hypostasis) and nature/essence (physis/ousia). For example, while the persons of the Trinity possess fully the nature of God, as hypostases they are more than that commonly held nature.

    If person were not prior to nature ontologically (logically, not temporally of course), the persons would be mere instances of the Divine Essence (which is impossible). If person did not categorically transcend nature, it would be absorbed by or subordinated to nature, making it also impossible to distinguish concretely between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit qua persons. The persons would be determined rather than free.

    Thus the West has a marked tendency to contemplate God as “having” or “possessing” persons, whereas in the East we think of Him first and foremost in personal terms, and would ultimately say that God is a Tri-Hypostatic Person.

    As the Nicene Creed opens up, “I believe in one God, THE FATHER almighty…” The Essence of God is unknowable and ineffable. It is not something we can ever penetrate or contemplate (even in our glorified/deified state).

    The Logos is not the essence of the Father; He is the image (eikon) of the Father. They are identical in their nature, but only in hypostatic terms can it be said that the Son images the Father. In fact, this is evident from the fact that if images gave us access to the Divine nature, the Father would image the Son as the Son images the Father, but that isn’t the case as any cursory reading of the N.T. shows.

    God does not reveal His essential unity by revealing to us His divine nature (which for us is incommunicable), but by revealing the persons in an economic (ad extra) way, corresponding to His uncreated energies (or actions, operations, etc).

    Since God’s actions are consistent with His nature though undetermined by it, there is a real difference in God between His activities (energies) and essence, which is the very foundation of the real distinction that exists between the essence and hypostases. (It should be noted that the persons are not identical with the energies, though the basis of the person/nature distinction is rooted in the essence/energies and vice versa.)

    All of the foregoing is simply to say that for us, deification (glorification) is a direct participation in God’s uncreated energies. (Cf. the uncreated Glory/Light of Mt. Tabor at the Transfiguration.)

    The importance of this for our understanding of the sacramental role of icons should not be missed. Icons do not communicate or mediate God’s essence to us. Icon veneration is rooted in the reality of the Incarnation; it is a personal/relational activity. It is precisely because the humanity of Christ is circumscribable that we depict Him and venerate His icon.

    Now the reason we can depict human nature in a circumscribable fashion is precisely because nature is enhypostatized in human beings or image bearers. Icon veneration is (like all the other sacraments) a direct and real participation in God’s energies, not His Divine Essence, which infinitely beyond the reach of creatures.

  3. Jonathan,

    I was recently reading something with your name in it, and so I suppose I got it from one of our mutual acquaintances. Thanks for your post, and might I say that I appreciate the way you posted it. Obviously, I am not going to agree, but I don’t feel like I’m being bum-rushed or set up for a trap (Something a couple of your online coreligionists could definitely learn from). I do think you are using a fairly “canned” approach to me, though.

    Now, I am aware with your thesis. I’ve read something fairly similar in Lossky, Meyendorf, Zizioulas, and others. I have to say right up front though, I remain unpersuaded that this is actually *the* Eastern and *the* Patristic view. The whole “start with the persons” approach is historically untenable (owing as it does to De Regnon), and it has been fairly thoroughly discredited by Barnes, Ayres, Hart, and others.

    But, aside from all of that, can you see that, in this post, the argument I am making is attempting to very closely follow Paul’s own argument? He is the one who brings up “divine nature,” and he does not say, “So picture the divine hypostasis instead.”

    Rather, he appeals to other human people: God’s offspring.

    I think that the reason for this is because of the old Jewish resistance to icons (and not a substance/person confusion). The 2nd commandment is obvious enough, and perhaps too commonplace in apologetics to persuade you, and so I’d like to point to Crispin Fletcher Louis’ excellent explanation of how this work in the old covenant religion. His paper, “God’s Images, His Cosmic Temple and the High Priest: Towards an Historical and Theological Account of the Incarnation” in Heaven on Earth is quite excellent.

    He gives five theses:

    1. The Israelite Cult (Tabernacle and Temple) Is A Mirror Image of Creation.
    2. Humanity Is Created To Function As God’s Idol In The Cosmos As Macro-Temple
    3. God’s True Humanity Is Restored In Israel, His Idol
    4. Israel’s Role As God’s Idol Is Worked Out By Her Priest In The Temple-As-Microcosm
    5. The God’s Idol Theological Anthropology Was Well Known and Axiomatic For the Theology Of The Early Church

    This is, I think, a more compelling case for the theological framework that would have been in Paul’s mind, and I think it matches his argument here in Acts. God’s true images are people. Paul does not say, “Don’t think about the divine nature at all.” He says, “Don’t think of it like this.”

  4. Steven,

    God bless you and may His grace be upon you.

    It would be beneficial to revisit in some detail the essence/energy, person/nature distinction as the exchange progresses (should you kindly accommodate the suggestion), as it is essential to grasping Eastern Tradition with respect to the very issue you have raised in your entry (not to mention many other issues); nevertheless I’d like to keep the discussion more manageable for the time being by taking a less theoretical approach to the biblical text you’ve appealed to and focus exclusively, and in a more practical way, on the message of St. Paul himself.

    And as you’ve indicated, this should be the proper focus of the dialog at this early juncture anyway, given the character of your original post.

    Perhaps I should remark at the outset that I am not a representative of the Eastern Church in any sort of “official” capacity; nor do I consider myself being anywhere near a great apologetical figure in the landscape of world Orthodoxy. I do think I have a few things to offer, and am competent and capable of being effective on a particular level, and hopefully I will continue to learn humility by recognizing my limitations and operating within the appropriate bounds. God have mercy on me, for I am a great sinner.

    As to Acts 17, the portion you quoted is (as you know) part of a dialog St. Paul is having with several groups of Greek Pagans in Athens, primarily belonging to the Epicurean and Stoic sects. The text is of course well known as constituting one of the classic, biblical expositions of the Creator-creature distinction.

    In this light, it is obvious what Paul is refuting, and that is the idea that the Divine essence itself may be likened to that which is finite via natural creation. Idol worship is an attempt to drag the divine nature down from its position as Infinite by identifying it with that which was created by the Infinite: the finite.

    In so doing, the opposite simultaneously occurs: in performing this operation, one also raises nature to a place of inherent divinity, thus merging the creature and Creator in a grossly illicit and idolatrous fashion, so that there is no longer a distinction at all (except perhaps notionally, at best).

    Our response to certain Protestant interpretations of this passage (along with the 2nd Commandment) should come as no surprise, then, and ought be fairly predictable:

    St. Paul’s message is, as you say, parallel with the ancient Jewish attitude on idols and images per the Second Commandment; indeed, the prohibition on depicting God’s essence in material objects is vigorously upheld by St. Paul (even after the Incarnation, as you rightly noted), and soberly reaffirmed by the VII Oecumenical (Iconodule!) Synod in 787 A.D. (Nicea II).

    At this juncture, a few things should be highlighted:

    (1) Icons are personal depictions of Christ (and the Saints) in their glorified (deified) state.

    Of course, even prior to the Incarnation, veneration of LIVING humans occurred as the image was hypostatically present in flesh and blood and could therefore be honored in a measure appropriate to human creaturehood (as is still salutary today). Now, with the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ, the “dead” are more alive than they were prior to the grave, since Christ has vanquished Hades.

    (2) The significance of the first point is further highlighted by the eschatological dimension of icons. Orthodox icons are two-dimensional, yet simultaneously depict the humanity of the person in order to stress the continuity of the pre- and post-resurrection existence.

    The reason this is theologically significant (and by intention) is that it communicates the truth that nature can only be deified by the Infinite condescending to finite creaturehood. That is, nature is not intrinsically divine. Icons quite deliberately ACCENT the Creator-creature distinction; they don’t compromise it in any way.

    (3) In depicting the Incarnation (and by extension of the Incarnation, the Saints), the Church simultaneously acknowledges the new reality of God’s assumption of our human nature while forbidding iconic representations of the Father, who in His Person represents the Divine Essence (which is uncircumscribable and therefore undepictable) as the Uncaused Cause (as distinct from the Son and Spirit who proceed in distinct manner from Him: via generation and spiration).

    Why is it not just important, but actually NECESSARY (per the Seventh E.C.) to depict Christ and the Saints iconically? The shortest answer is that in rejecting icons, one rejects the Incarnation. In fact, the presence of icons, far from dishonoring the holy divine prohibition against idol worship, serves as an indispensable GUARD against idolatry.

    Since God has both enhypostatized and deified human flesh in the Divine Person of the Logos, any rejection of the material depiction and veneration of the assumed human nature of the Logos constitutes an egregiously heretical posture in Christology–one which confuses the circumscribable human nature with the uncircumscribabe divine nature; and by confusing the two natures in Christ in this manner, one has also effected simultaneously the closure-to-the-point-of-identity for all practical purposes between God and the world, since the created and uncreated in Christ are merged together just as in the universally condemned heresy of Monophysitism, or even in Nestorianism (a form of Adoptionism).

  5. Jonathan,

    I appreciate your overall tone, but you are really just giving me a sort of intro to EO. I’m quite familiar with it, but my point in this post was that such an approach doesn’t seem to be on Paul’s mind.

    Something else is.

  6. Steven,

    My first point was that St. Paul is jealous to guard the Creator-creature distinction in this passage.

    The debate over icons has nothing to do with St. Paul’s problem in Acts 17 since the rationale for icons is located in the Incarnation.

    Paul’s opponents were seeking to worship the invisible and uncircumscribable in a circumscribable fashion. They reduced the Infinite to the finite, and simultaneously approached the natural world as though it were inherently divine.

    Human Persons are true images of God and that is the point of St. Paul’s statement regarding the “offspring” of God. You and I would not disagree here.

    My second and final point was to show that rejecting icons actually fails to maintain the created/uncreated distinction Paul is defending in Acts 17, since to reject icons is to confuse the difference in the created human and uncreated divine natures in Christ.

  7. In this vein, I’d like to summarize two points that are essential to understanding the Eastern position on icons:

    1.) Divine Nature did not become Incarnate; a Person with a divine nature did.

    2.) Nature only exists as enhypostatized – in the mode of persons. Once that is understood, as well as that the divinity is not like anything created, it’s all clear.

    If no. 1 were true, then the Incarnation would have to be a violation of the Second Commandment (which is ridiculous).

    Jesus is the eikon of the Father (Col. 1:15). We need to sto being Judaisers like in john 10 when they want to stone Jesus for claiming He is God.

  8. ” If no.1 were true” actually ought to read as, “If it were true that Divinity became Incarnate…” etc.

  9. Jonathan,

    Jesus is the ikon of the Father, which is to say, that He is the ikon of the first hypostasis. The “personalist” metaphysic (again, something that has been discredited) is not really germane to my discussion.

    Now, here’s a question for everyone. What do you think the Greek images looked like?

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  11. Steven,

    Is this a thread about prayers to the saints, or about images? If there could be images that remind us that the full images are persons, should we venerate the images in some manner commensurate to the proper veneration of the persons?

    Similarly, if there were an image that could communicate that the image of the Father is the this Man, would it be proper to use that image to communicate that the image of the Father is this man?

    Regarding your most recent question, probably something like this. A question back: Did the Greeks believe the ones imaged were really men?

  12. Donne says:
    “God, we see, was the first that made images, and he was the first that forbade them. He made them for imitation; He forbade in danger of adoration. For – qualis dementiae est id colere, quod melius est – what a drowsiness, what a laziness, what a cowardliness of the soul is it, to worship that which does but represent a better thing than itself. Worship belongs to the best. Know thou thy distance and thy period, how far to go and where to stop. Dishonor not God by an image in worshipping it, and yet benefit thyself in following it.”

    I have a paper with the citation here:


  13. Matt,

    This is a thread about Paul’s own theological rationale. He could have used the various iconodulist explanations (though that would be very anachronistic), but he went a different route altogether.

    Ousia/hypostasis really isn’t relevant at all, and Paul could have appealed to the incarnation, but instead he appealed to a line from Aratus to indicate the presence of God’s image in fellow humans. And as you accurately note, the Greek images were of human “persons,” so we’ve got to push beyond even that. We’ve got to go to living Adams.

    As to what the Greeks believed, it is a very tricky thing, seeing as how it changed over the years. But I do think the typical Olympian was just a super-man. He was certainly an enhypostasized essence. 🙂

  14. Steven,

    I’m not making the same point Maximus was.

    My point is that:

    1) Your argument at the end does not prove images wrong, but establishes that if we use images, they should not be seen as *the* locus of the divine among us; but rather as visible words[1] describing the image of God among us, and reminding us that though they may seem to be mere ordinary people, they are in fact gods, or at least, are becoming gods.

    2) The Christian controversy turns on a different axis than the Christian-Pagan one. The image at Athens imaged God falsely, for God *is not* a Greek deity, but is Jesus Christ. A Pantocrator images God truly (though perhaps not permissibly) because it images Jesus Christ.


    [1] I don’t mean this as a quote of Augustine, but of I John 1

  15. Matthew,

    This is just a thought, but insofar as it is likely that Paul is building on the second commandment, I think the axis of the debate would be wider, since it was clearly understood that Jews were not permitted to make images of any god, including YHWH.

  16. Andrew,

    St. Paul’s point seems to be that aside from whether the Greek images are permissible, they are inaccurate. Or perhaps they are inaccurate, and thus not permissible. There may be lots of other reasons they are not permissible which do apply to Christian icon veneration, but it doesn’t seem to me St. Paul’s point here does.

  17. Matthew,

    It’s true that Paul’s point is at least partly that the images are inaccurate, but I think the inaccuracy involved for Paul is precisely that they are hand-crafted images of “the Divine nature” (not just, Zeus or Apollos or Mars), period. As I understand it iconodulist defenses of icons has tried to block the implication of this point by appealing to the incarnation, but as Steven brought up in his original post, Paul’s Aeropagitica was post-Incarnation and ascension, and yet Paul seems to revert to basic Jewish sensibilities as if the Incarnation were irrelevant to the morality of images.

  18. Steven: “No gold, silver, or stone– that is the specific problem Paul names.

    “The rest of these interesting speculations are not the Pauline theology.”


    “Ousia/hypostasis really isn’t relevant at all, and Paul could have appealed to the incarnation, but instead he appealed to a line from Aratus to indicate the presence of God’s image in fellow humans.”

    The ousia/hypostasis distinction is absolutely relevant. The fact that you don’t see it doesn’t change that, and the notion that personalist ontology has been discredited is an assessment you will have to demonstrate.

    Paul does not appeal to the Incarnation, because it would have been categorically wrong to do so. Apples and oranges.

    In Hellenistic philosophy and pagan religion, there is only nature; there is no distinct ontological personalism. The whole notion that a Divine Person with a Divine Nature could assume the human nature without doing harm to His divinity–the whole notion of Incarnation–would have been utter foolishness to the Greeks.


  19. Jonathan,

    It has been demonstrated. See Ayres, Barnes, and Hart. Or just pick up the Orthodox Readings of Augustine book for an intro.

    You are trying to get this 20th cent. philosophy to do the heavy lifting of Biblical exegesis and 1st cent. Jewish thought. It cannot do so.

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