Saturday, June 02, 2012

Review: Early Christian Attitudes Towards Images

Steven Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes Towards Images (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute), 2004.

Dr. Steven Bigham has done the theological world a great service with his readable, concise, and well-argued little book. One does not have to go far on the internet, especially if one is associated with the "Reformed Catholicity" movement that sprang out of the defunct "Federal Vision" movement in the Reformed Christian world, to see back-and-forth on the question of early Christian (and therefore normative) attitudes and views towards the use of images liturgically. This seems to be because some (many?) who tred the Mercerburg-Moscow road end up crossing either the Tiber or the Bosphorus, both locations having well-developed iconographic traditions. Responses by the leading theologians of the movement (such as Peter Leithart or James Jordan) often include statements to the effect that early Christians were universally opposed to figurative art being used liturgically, as that would constitute idolatry. If that is what the early Christians believed, this would be a linchpin argument for Reformed scholars over against the Tradition of both Rome and the Orthodox. Bigham, however, puts the lie to this line of argumentation: every Reformed scholar should carefully consider this book and the argument presented.

Bigham's argument is simple enough: determine whether or not early (from AD 33-313) Christians were aniconic and iconophobic; that is, whether they had any images (whether liturgical or not) and, if not, was it because imagery was viewed as essentially idolatrous. He does this by examining two major parts of any iconoclastic argument: the "hostility theory" and a "rigorist" (a favorite word of Bigham's) interpretation of the 2nd Commandment.

The "hostility theory" states "that the early Christians had no images and were hostile to them because their religion forbade figurative art" (1). Most scholars, especially those from Protestant backgrounds (although Bigham notes various Roman Catholic scholars who also hold to this point), hold to some form or other of the "hostility theory." This raises the question: if the early Christians were uniformly and universally anti-image (aniconic), then how did the iconic tradition, codified in the 7th Ecumenical Council, get such a strong and enduring footing in the Church of Jesus Christ? The dominant theory, which one can see in much Reformed scholarship on Church history, is that the conservative clergy (who were more loyal to the Jewish aniconia that they inherited) bowed to popular pressure from the laity, which was unwilling to jettison their pagan ways upon entry into the Church. After time, especially after the linking of Church and Empire with the conversion of Constantine (and its aftereffects), the clergy joined the party and even came to defend and promote the use of liturgical images.

However, Bigham notes, "The strength or weakness of the modern form of the hostility theory, as well as of Byzantine iconoclasm itself, depends on whether an icon is distinguished from an idol, veneration from worship" (9). An icon is honored (or venerated) due to the role of those pictured in redemptive history (in which I include Church history, since Christ is still redeeming the world through His people); God alone is worshipped. Veneration is visual, worship is not (since God the Father is invisible); Christ is venerated and worshipped together, since He is theandros -- this, of course, is one of the more controversial claims of any iconodule, a lover of icons. If an icon is an idol, then the clergy-laity split not only is the only workable theory, but also one of the greatest tragedies of Church history. This raises the question of whether or not the holy Spirit is actually guiding Christ's Church into all truth. Bigham rejects this theory based on the close differentiation between an icon (to be honored because of who is pictured) and an idol (which claims to at least represent a god or God the Father). The early Christians (or, at least, the bishops and lay teachers: the run-of-the-mill lay Christian did not leave writings for us, but they did leave Church art) were implacably opposed to idolatry, which all parties (Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic) agree on. However, and this is the brunt of Bigham's work, they were not opposed to "non-idolatrous figurative art" (as Bigham normally describes it), even in the context of the Church's liturgy. He argues this by going through all relevant early Church sources, both written and non-written (painting, mosaic, sculpture), and determining the attitude towards art being presented. In each case, with the possible exception of one possibly inauthentic letter in Eusebius' corpus, the early Christians either are silent concerning non-idolatrous art or speak positively concerning it. Part of the problem, Bigham argues, is that "hostility theorists" come to the table with a set of errant presuppositions that color their reading of the evidence.

By the end of the book, it is obvious that non-idolatrous art was not a major concern of early Christian writers. Idolatrous art, of course, is and will continue to be till the establishment and conquest of Christendom. To argue that early Christians uniformly were aniconic or iconophobic is a misreading of the evidence based on faulty presuppositions. Where, though, do these faulty presuppositions come from? Bigham argues a falsely "rigorist" interpretation of the 2nd Commandment.

"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them..." Thus speaks the 2nd Commandment, which seems to forbid any figurative art, not just idols ("or any likeness..."). However (and Bigham doesn't argue from the Masoretic or Septuagintal text grammatically here, which would only bolster his case), the Old Testament itself should give pause to any such "rigorist" interpretation: five chapters of Exodus later, God Himself commands golden cherubim ("in heaven above") to be crafted for His glory, cherubim to be woven on the tabernacle linens, a bronze serpent to be made for the healing of His rebellious people, and so on (25-32). For adherents to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), which many Reformed people are, this should give pause. The point of the 2nd Commandment isn't the forbidding of images, whether liturgical or not, but rather the forbidding of idols, that which is worshipped instead of God. God Himself, in the Old Testament at least, is not to be figured artistically, but (and this is the point of St. John of Damascus) since God has appeared in the flesh, giving His own icon (or image, as in, "He is the image of the invisible God" from Colossians 2 and elsewhere), we are now allowed to make liturgical use of it. Bigham does not get into what the proper liturgical use of non-idolatrous art is (a debate that I, at least, consider far from over, at least as far as Protestant-Orthodox dialogue goes), but does set the stage for fruitful dialogue. Early Christians did not have a problem with non-idolatrous figurative art, nor did they interpret the 2nd Commandment in a "rigorist" (RPW-like) way; rather, there are more questions and further research that needs to be done, especially on how such images should be "used" in a liturgical context.

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