Divine Images in Scripture and Tradition

This is the second paper I wrote for my Early to Medieval Christian history class.  I did fairly well on this paper as well.


As the undisputed writer of On the Divine Images, St. John of Damascus wrote his “Three Apologies against Those Who Attack the Divine Images” after becoming a monk, and ordained priest, in the Mar Saba Monastery in Palestine.[1] Since John lived under the Muslim caliphate, he was “relatively free from the political reach of the Christian emperor in Constantinople.”[2] Since Emperor Leo published an edict in 730 against icons, some believe that “if [John] lived in East Roman territory, it is likely that his [treatise] would never have seen the light of day outside his own monastic community.”[3] While many used icons “in personal devotion to help focus their prayer and meditation” others “treated the icons as if they were the persons they represented, having them present at baptisms, for instance, to stand in the place of godparents.”[4] As far as Leo III was concerned, “the veneration of icons appeared to be a practice that was forbidden by the Ten Commandments.”[5] He was so passionate about this that “the patriarch of Constantinople, who opposed the emperor on this, was removed and replaced by a candidate who shared the emperor’s point of view.”[6] In order to make his case for icons, St. John of Damascus used Scripture extensively in his First Apology and presented “Ancient Documentation and Testimony of the Holy Fathers Concerning Images” in hopes that he would be able to convince many of the Scriptural and Traditional foundation of icons.


As stated above, the biggest complaint iconoclasts had with the veneration of icons was due to the fact that as they understood it, iconodules were blatantly breaking the second of the Ten Commandments which states unequivocally that “you shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex. 20:4) and then proceeds to say “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:5a).  In fact there was also concern “that the people’s devotion to the icons was supplanting their attention to the divine liturgy.”[7] The general public was so passionate about icons that when Leo III published his edict against icons, “riots broke out when soldiers tried to remove icons from public locations” and as things escalated, “people, notably groups of women in the city, tried to stop them.”[8] Thus John set out to make a Biblical case for the worship or icons in his First Apology against Those Who Attack the Divine Images.  John uses both allusions to scripture as well as direct citations.

John’s use of allusion is evident in the very opening of his First Apology where he declares that “impious men seek to rend asunder the seamless robe of Christ [alluding to John 19:23] and to cut His Body to pieces: His Body which is the Word of God [Alluding to John 1:1&14] and the ancient tradition of the church.”[9] John weaves Scripture into his writing in a seamless way in order to ground his arguments in the Word of God.  He also uses the Scriptures to justify the very writing of his apology.  With a direct quotes, John recalls “the warning of Scripture: “If he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him” (Heb. 10:38) and “If you see the sword coming and do not warn your brother, I shall require his blood at your hand” (cf. Ezek. 33:8).”[10] Indeed John declares he has “heard David…singing: “I will speak of Thy testimony before kings, and shall not be put to shame (Ps. 119:46).”[11] John goes on to say he is “stirred to speak even more vehemently, for the commanding words of a king must be fearful to his subjects.”[12] So John is not only using the Scriptures to justify his writing in general, but also to specifically delineate his duty to speak the truth to the Emperor on this matter.

Now that he has grounded his writing in the scriptures using allusion and justified his Apology using direct quotes from the Word of God, John goes on to make a direct case for the use of icons.  In what begins the extensive use of Scripture, John declares, “I heed the words of him who cannot deceive” and then quotes Exodus 20:4, among other scriptures, which is the very verse the iconoclasts are using to condemn the use of icons!  It seems as though John is trying to establish common ground with his opponents.  However at this point, John departs from the way his opponents understand Scripture claiming “they do not find in the written word its hidden, spiritual meaning” since “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”[13] John does believe that “no created thing can be adored in place of the Creator, nor can adoration be given to any save Him alone.”[14] He clarifies these statements however, telling his readers that “these commandments were given to the Jews because of their proneness to idolatry,” saying “that it is impossible to make and image of the immeasurable, uncircumscribed, invisible God.”[15] However, the incarnation of Jesus changes things as John sees it since “when the invisible One becomes visible flesh, you may draw his likeness.”  John also quotes Hebrews 10:1 which says, “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of realities.”  In light of this, it makes sense to him that “if the law forbids images, and yet is itself the forerunner of images,” so he says “I make an image of the God whom I see: I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter.”[16] In essence, as John sees it, Jesus has negated the prohibition of images.


After proving his case for icons using the Scriptures, as stated above, John makes the bold claim that this is “the tradition of the Church.”  In order to further this claim, John includes the Florilegium in his treatise to prove just that.  While there are not direct quotes of Scripture in this portion of his treatise, that is understandable since he is here preserving the voices of the Church Fathers in relation to icons.  It should be noticed however, that not all of the Church Fathers John quotes make use of the Scriptures.  The first person John quotes is St. Dionysius who says, “we ought to comprehend their [referring to images] sacred significance, and not despise their divine origin or the sacred things which they portray, for they are visible manifestations of hidden and marvelous wonders.”[17] John proceeds and later includes the words of St. Basil the Great.  He says, “the honor given to the image is transferred to the prototype.”[18] In his commentary on the passage this quote is taken from, John states,

If you say that only intellectual worship if worthy of God, then take away all corporeal things: lights, the fragrance of incense, prayer made with the voice.  Do away with the divine mysteries which are fulfilled through matter: bread, wine, the oil of chrism, the sign of the cross.  All of these are matter!  Take away the cross and the sponge of the crucifixion, and the spear which pierced his life giving side.  Either give up honoring all these things, or do not refuse to honor images.[19]

His argument is strong against those who accept some of these images, but deny the orthodoxy of worshipping icons.  When he quotes Leo, Bishop of Neopolis in Cyprus, it is the first church father John chooses that has Scriptural quotations.  In the portion of Leo’s Against the Jews that John has included, after quoting numerous scriptures directly or indirectly, he says, “worship has always been given to Him by use of images” and later he claims that “when you see Christians bowing down before the cross, know that they bow down to Christ crucified, and not to the wood.”[20]

Severianus, the Bishop of Gabala, is one of the last church father’s John quotes.  He says, “Tell me, devout servant of God, will you do what is forbidden, or will you ignore what you have been commanded to do?  He who said, “You shall not make for yourselves a graven image,” who condemned the golden calf, now makes a bronze serpent, and not in secret, but openly, so that it is known to all.”[21] In explaining this, Severianus says, “Moses would answer that this commandment was given to root out material impiety and to keep all the people safe from apostasy and idolatry, but now I cast a bronze serpent for a good purpose—to prefigure the truth…as an endeavor to prepare them for the sign of the cross, and the salvation and redemption it brings.”[22] Thus, after creating a Biblical base for icons, it seems as though a traditional foundation has been laid on top of that.


The arguments brought forth by St. John are challenging and insightful.  However, it seems as though there are a couple incongruities in the ideas he presents.  For one, though he makes a bold and well founded case for Jesus as the image of God and clarifies his understanding of the different types of worship, his support of the extension of this to “honor His friends and companions”[23] seems shaky at best.  True, Jesus is God in human form, and true there are instances within the biblical text of individuals showing respect by bowing down to others, how does this apply to an inanimate object?  To show respect to a living human is to show respect to the fact that each person bears the image of God, but is show respect to a painting of someone showing respect, dare I say, to the painter?  And while even Paul tells various churches in his letters to them to “imitate me” (cf. 1 Cor. 4:15-17), would it not be more effective to say, “Imitate Christ”?  And do we need a picture of Jesus in order to do that?  Secondly, John heavily emphasizes the point that if a person decides to speak against icons, they should also throw out veneration of all sacred items to include the bread and wine which remind us of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross.  There is no mention that Jesus instituted this sacrament.  Has Jesus also instituted icons?  There is no Biblical evidence that this is the case.  And in this realm, it seems as though John’s inclusion of Moses’ staff, the tent of meeting, the jar of manna, and the like, continuing ad nauseam, is a bit ridiculous.  Have there really been instances where people have worshipped Moses’ staff?  That said the fact that “images are the books of the illiterate”[24] is a point well said.  This, coupled with John Chrysostom’s statement that images “are not our gods, but are like books which lie open in the churches in the sight of all”[25] puts a great deal of perspective on the issue as it was experienced by the early church.  Though illiteracy may not be as big of a problem in the United States, it is still an issue in many parts of the world and what the church learned in the iconoclastic controversy could most definitely be applied in bringing the gospel to those who cannot read.

[1] John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk, eds., Readings in World Christian History, vol. I: Earliest Christianity to 1453 (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2007), 289.
[2] Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, vol. I: Earliest Christianity to 1453 (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2008), 363.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 360.
[5] Ibid., 361.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Coakley and Sterk, eds., 289.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 290.
[14] Ibid., 291.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid., 293.
[17] St. John of Damascus, On the Divine Images: Three Apologies against Those Who Attack Images, trans., David Anderson (Crestwood, New
York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 34.
[18] Ibid., 36.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 42.
[21] Ibid., 45.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Coakley and Sterk, eds., 292.
[24] Damascus, 39.
[25] Ibid., 44.


Coakley, John W., and Andrea Sterk, eds. Readings in World Christian History. Vol. I: Earliest Christianity to 1453. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2007.

Damascus, St. John of. On the Divine Images: Three Apologies against Those Who Attack Images. Translated by David Anderson. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.

Irvin, Dale T., and Scott W. Sunquist. History of the World Christian Movement. Vol. I: Earliest Christianity to 1453. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2008.


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