AN APPEAL FOR SUPPORT
We invite you to support this ministry. Contributions in support of this Ministry can now be easily sent through PAYPAL. Please click on the PAYPAL LOGO, which will take you to PAYPAL website. Send your contributions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, please buy your books using the AMAZON link given in every page. Even the smallest contribution will help in running this journal.
BOOKS FOR YOU TO READ
SEND YOUR ARTICLES FOR PUBLICATION IN Christian Literature and Living.
- E-mail your articles and book-length reports to email@example.com.
- Your articles and booklength reports should be written, preferably, following the MLA Stylesheet.
- The Editorial Board has the right to accept, reject, or suggest modifications to the articles submitted for publication, and to make suitable stylistic adjustments. High quality, academic integrity, ethics, and morals are expected from the authors and discussants.
Copyright for the journal © 2005
M. S. Thirumalai
You can easily access all the back issues, articles, and books published in CHRISTIAN LITERATURE AND LIVING by clicking on the BACK ISSUES link given on every page.
EARLY ARGUMENTS AGAINST IDOLATRY PRIOR TO THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA IN A.D. 325
M. S. Thirumalai
POSITIONS ON IDOL WORSHIP
This long article is a continuation of my two other articles published in CHRISTIAN LITERATURE AND LIVING, Idols and Idol Worship, and
The Bible on Idol Worship.
In the currrent article my goal is to present the early Christian's arguments and positions against idolatry until the convening of the Council of Nicaea in A.D.325. I identify several major sources and present their viewpoints on the subject. I show how, slowly but steadily, opposition to idol worship gave room for erection of memorials for the martyrs and subsequently even statues for the Christian personages. The arguments against idolatry continued to present a comparison between the values of Christian faith and the degradations to which the worshippers of idols were forced into.
The quotes cited here in the article are all taken from the great compilation of the writings of Early Church Fathers published in the series of volumes called Ante-Nicene Fathers: 10 Volumes (Hardcover) by Alexander Roberts (Editor), James Donaldson (Editor), Philip Schaff (Editor), Henry Wace (Editor). Unfortunately, I have not cited the exact page numbers, since this project of compilation and re-interpretation was taken up by me several years ago, and then discontinued for quite a few years. I propose to rectify these errors when the article is re-written for an updated study. The article is presented here as a working paper.
PIVOTAL ROLE OF POSITIONS THAT OPPOSED IDOL WORSHIP
When we look at the stages of the progress of Christianity in the Roman world until the Council of Nicaea in A.D.325, we notice the pivotal role played by positions, which opposed or supported idolatry. A position against idol worship and worship of pagan gods became the identity marker, the very being, of the early Christian. He was willing to give up his life for this position, because, in asserting it the glory of the one true God was magnified.
Likewise, insistence on idol worship and of the pagan gods became a symbol of loyalty to the empire, from the point of view of the non-Christian.
We also find that the heretics were describing the fundamental fact of Trinity as a practice of pantheism and this was recognized as pushing the Christian faith into idolatry, explicitly detested by the one true God. Thus, the position against idolatry came to be closely liked to the doctrine of Trinity.
The art of making the Deity visible through visual representations emerged slowly after the apostolic period, that is, after the death or martyrdom of all the apostles including Paul. The Apostles did not approve of idol worship nor did they approve of giving worship and veneration due to the Lord to the human beings including themselves.
The Early Church Fathers also strictly followed this model set by the Apostles. They lived and preached the gospel at a time and places wherein the dominant religious system encouraged and revolved around idol worship. Their immediate task was to prove to the pagans the worthlessness of their gods and the folly of idol worship. Thus there were series of writings on the vanity of idol worship by these early church fathers. These Church Fathers were also forced to counter the growing heresy, which aimed at redefining the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, even to the extent of denying the Trinity. The Early Church Fathers were against idol worship even as they were against denying the incarnation of God in human flesh and blood in Jesus Christ.
Development of Christian iconography clearly shows the delicate path the iconographers had to take in order to avoid being idolatrous. Early Christian art, as evidenced in archaeological findings, did not cover all the Biblical themes. Notable among the conspicuously absent themes is the representation of the Passion of the Lord. There were no signs of venerating the visual representations of Jesus Christ or other Christian personages. Moreover, the form and manner of presenting Jesus Christ, other Christian personages, and the Biblical events varied from period to period and from artist to artist. And yet, the history of Christian iconography and that of Christianity itself shows that the finer distinctions between iconography as a pure art of representation and idol worship could be easily blurred.
The doctrines of tradition emphasized some iconic representation of the Deity. The doctrines of worship, intercession and the relative roles and functions of Christian personages also helped evolve iconic representation and some form of idol worship. But these were developments closely preceding and following the first Nicaea Council held in A.D.325.
Explicit Opposition to Idolatry and Visual Representation of God
The Early Church Fathers, both of the Greek and of the Latin traditions, were vehemently opposed to idol worship. They linked the idols to the demons and considered idol worship as demon worship. Illustration of Christianity was made in comparison with the folly of worshipping the idols. The Greeks were urged to give up the idol worship and become worshippers of the true God.
Idolatry Destroys the Soul
The Epistle of Barnabas, written around A.D.100, is perhaps the earliest treatise against idol worship. This includes idolatry as one of the things that destroy the soul. Idol worship is the way of darkness and is crooked and full of cursing, the Epistle declares. Idol worship is the way of eternal death with punishment. Idol worship is put together in the same category as over-confidence, the arrogance of power, hypocrisy, double-heartedness, adultery, murder, rapine, haughtiness, transgression, deceit, malice, self-sufficiency, poisoning, magic, avarice, want of the fear of God, in this Epistle. Note that idol worship is clubbed together with mental and behavioral sins.
Exhortation to Martyrdom Against Idolatry
The Martyrdom of Ignatius, written perhaps around A.D.116, speaks of the threats the early Christians faced when they refused to worship the idols. The early Christians who were living godly lives were compelled either to sacrifice to idols or die. Ignatius, however, resisted this pressure, and refused to worship the idols. He called them the demons of the nations. He would worship only the true God in Jesus Christ who made heaven and earth and the sea. Ignatius refused to worship the idols and thus was martyred.
Invitation to Pagans to Give Up Idolatry is Explication of the Gospel
Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, written around A.D.130 was an invitation to all the pagans to become the hearers of a new system of doctrine, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Epistle invited the pagans to leave aside the prejudices and their clinging on to their tradition and
come and contemplate, not with your eyes only, but with your understanding, the substance and the form of those whom ye declare and deem to be gods. Is not one of them a stone similar to that on which you tread? Is not a second brass, in no way superior to those vessels which are constructed for our ordinary use? Is not a third wood, and that already rotten? Is not a fourth silver, which needs a man to watch, lest it be stolen? Is not a fifth iron, consumed by rust? Is not a sixth earthenware, in no degree more valuable than that which is formed for the humblest purposes? Are not all these of corruptible matter? Are they not fabricated by means of iron and fie? Did not the sculptor fashion one of them, the brazier a second, the silversmith a third, and the potter a fourth? Was not every one of them, before they were formed by the arts of these (workmen) into the shape of these (gods), each in its own way subject to change? Would not those things which are now vessels, formed of the same materials, become like to such, if they met with the same artificers? Might not these, which are now worshipped by you, again be made by men vessels similar to others? Are they not all deaf? Are they not blind? Are they not without life? Are they not destitute of feeling? Are they not incapable of motion? Are they not all liable to rot? Are they not all corruptible? These things ye call gods; these ye serve; these ye worship; and ye become altogether like to them.
Note that the Epistle of Mathetus repeats, in essence, the arguments of Isaiah against idol worship. However, the thrust of the arguments in the Epistle is two-fold: first of all, the Epistle offered justification for the Christian refusal to worship the idols; secondly, it aimed at the explication of Christian religion and, through this, the conversion of the pagan and not just condemnation of the pagan. Hence, this Epistle exhorts the pagans to contemplate the substance and the form of their gods with an understanding in mind, not just with their eyes. For, such a contemplation with an understanding in their minds would reveal the worthlessness of what they considered to be gods. They would realize that they were indeed worshipping inert materials as gods.
Since the aim of the Epistle was the conversion of the pagan, the Epistle aimed at showing the self-contradictory posture of the pagans themselves. The pagans themselves did not respect their gods. When a god was made of stone or earthenware, they did not bother to protect these from theft. When they were made of gold and silver, these gods became very valuable and were given protection from theft. Did this not amount to insulting the gods of stone and earthenware? Was it not contempt shown to these gods, more contempt than what the Christians did by refusing to worship them? Was not such discriminatory behavior an insult to the gods of earthenware and stone?
This is not all. The offerings given to these gods were pointless because these idols were inert materials, lacking any sense. Even if these idols were to be living gods, the offerings would be, indeed, loathsome to every living being, including these gods. These gods were subjected to seeing blood and raw flesh as offerings and were invited by the worshippers to partake in such cruel food. And they were given incense all the time and the smoke would subject any living organism to untold suffering.
The Epistle calls these offerings as indignities. Would the worshippers of these idols themselves put up with such indignities? Because the idols were not endowed with any sense or reason, they were able to withstand such indignities. Offering such things to idols, which did not have sense or reason is sheer folly. God who created the heaven and earth and all that there is in them does not need any such things from men. The pagan's presumption in this regard was nothing but sheer folly. Such an offering was an act of folly, not of divine worship, declared the Epistle of Mathetus.
Reminiscent of Isaiah's argument, the Epistle said that men who offered sacrifices to such objects destitute of sense became men destitute of reason. The Epistle firmly affirms that by faith alone we could see God, not by visual representations in inert materials. No body understood who God is, until He himself revealed to men. Some Greek philosophers named fire to be god, and some others named water to be god.
... and still others some other of the elements formed by God as God. But if any one of these theories be worthy of approbation, every one of the rest of created things might also be declared to be God. But such declarations are simply the startling and erroneous utterances of deceivers; and no man has either seen Him, or made Him known, but He has revealed Himself. He has manifested Himself through faith, to which alone it is given to behold God.
Attack on Idolatry: An Integral Part of Christian Apologies for Faith
Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-165) is called `the founder of theological literature', and `a man who was not far separated from the apostles either in age or excellence.' He made attacks on idolatry one of his major points in his apologies. Christians were accused of being atheists at that time, because they refused to worship the Greek gods. These gods were given various forms and shapes and assigned functions according to the imagination of the Greek poets. Justin's apology was intended to clarify the Christian position to the Greeks and to turn them away from the worship of these gods and to worship the only true God.
Justin's arguments in his first apology for Christianity aimed at showing the falsity of accusation against Christians that they were atheists because they refused to worship the idols, the Greek gods. Justin argued that even among the Greeks there were people, called philosophers, who did not believe in the Greek gods and who refused to worship these gods. These philosophers taught atheism. Likewise, the poets of the time, made fun of the Greek idol gods. They talked about the uncleanness of Jupiter with his own children. When these were discussed by the poets there was no criticism or violence shown to them. These people were not restrained in any manner. own children. On the contrary such poets had been honored as great writers. However, the Christians who did not profess to do any wickedness were hauled up for their refusal to worship the idols. The Christians were not atheistic but they worshipped the true God in spirit and truth. The Greeks thus had given themselves to unreasoning passion when it came to the condemnation of the Christians. They had yielded themselves to the instigation of evil demons, the idols. Justin declared that the truth be spoken:
since of old these evil demons, effecting apparitions of themselves, both defiled women and corrupted boys, and showed such fearful sights to men, those who did not use their reason in judging of the actions that were done, were struck with terror; and being carried away by fear, and not knowing that these were demons, they called them gods, and gave to each the name which each of the demons for himself ...
Thus, Justin found that the idol gods of the pagans were nothing but demons and were there since of old times. Justin also explained in this manner the beginning of idolatry. Idol worship was not brought about in love and appreciation but in fear of the powers that resided in them. Idols were to be treated as inert materials, but at the same they were also the abodes of demons. Christians were not afraid of calling themselves to be atheist, Justin declared to the Greek pagans, so far as gods of this sort were concerned. However, Christians worship and adore the true God, Father of righteousness, the Son and the prophetic Spirit. Justin solemnly declared:
And neither do we honor with many sacrifices and garlands of flowers such deities as men have formed and set in shrines and called gods; since we see that these are soulless and dead, and have not the form of God (for we do not consider that God has such a form as some say that they imitate to His honor), but have the names and forms of those wicked demons which have appeared.
Justin, continuing his argument that the idols were the abodes of demons, seemed to suggest that the demons entered into the idols also because the idol making processes were full of impure acts. The idols were often made out of vessels of dishonor, by merely changing form. The idol makers made images of the requisite shape and called them gods. As these idols were senseless they became ;an insult to God, `who having ineffable glory and form,' thus got his name attached to corruptible things. The makers of these idols were also not pure. They indulged in all sorts of vice and were given to infatuation. Thus neither the profession, nor the maker nor the material used nor the product itself had any purity in it. Everything relating to idol worship thus was cheapening the true God.
On the other hand, Christians had received a tradition, which did not emphasize any material offering but imitation of his own virtues in his worshippers -- temperance, justice, and philanthropy and other virtues. The true God of the Christians is not called by no proper name. Because of this name, and because Christians insisted upon using this name only, they were hated by the Greeks. Justin declared that
though we say things similar to what the Greeks say, we only are hated on account of the name of Christ, and though we do no wrong, are put to death as sinners; other men in other places worshipping trees and rivers, and mice and cats and crocodiles, and many irrational animals. Nor are the same animals esteemed by all; but in one place one is worshipped, and another in another, on account of their not worshipping the same objects. And this is the sole accusation you bring against us, that we do not reverence the same gods as you do, nor offer to the dead libations and the savour of fat, and crowns for their statues, and sacrifices.
Note that Justin included offering given to the dead as part of idol worship.
Justin attacked idol worship also from the angle of what and whom they visually represented in the Greek mythology. the characters represented by these idols were not in any way noble and moral in their character. Bacchus and Apollo, Proserpine and Venus, Aesculapius are not at worthy of being called divine in nature, because of their immoral conduct. The Christians, who before they became Christians, were worshippers of these gods. Now they were ashamed of the conduct of these gods, because they have realized who and what a true God is in Jesus Christ. Through learning about Jesus Christ, they had begun to despise these false gods, even when threatened with death for it.
Those who believe these things (idols) we pity, and those who invented them we know to be devils.
Justin, speaking historically of the developments after Christ's crucifixion, found that there were many claiming themselves to be gods. And these were men the devils put forward, just as they put forward the idols as gods. But those men were not persecuted by the Greeks despite their false claims. In other words, the pagans were permissive of all falsehood, but were intolerant of truth. Justin cited the case of a Samaritan, Simon, who claimed to be a god and performed magic with the help of the devils. Simon was honored by the Romans with a statue in their city.
Persistence of idol worship and its flourishing in the world was seen by Justin as part of the efforts of the devil to deceive men, even after the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The miracles and the marvelous deeds performed by these godmen in the name of the idol gods and incorporated in the myths of the pagans wee nothing but the acts and influence of the demons to deceive and lead astray the human race. The people were misled by these to go astray from the true God.
For having heard it proclaimed through the prophets that the Christ was to come, and that the ungodly among men were to be punished by fire, they put forward many to be called sons of Jupiter, under the impression that they would be able to produce in men the idea that the things which were said with regard to Christ were marvelous tales, like the things which were said by the poets...
Truth is thus confronted by falsehood in idol worship. Idols are to be treated no more as mere inert materials. They are the abodes of demons and the demons have set up various magical acts so as to make the people believe that the incarnation of Jesus Christ was not any more than these magical acts performed by men. Idol worship, in the Justinian position, thus became a very ominous happening, which needs to be checked by the spread of the gospel. All the same the emphasis was on the worthlessness of the idols. Justin recognized that in the idols the demons resided, and yet these were just inert material.
Justin the Martyr was not attacking idolatry and the idolaters as an end in itself. For him evangelization and conversion of the gentiles was the goal whenever he expounded on the folly of idol worship and the folly of believing in the myths surrounding them. Justin the Martyr made a heroic apology for the Christians and their faith, even as he aimed at converting the gentiles. Idolaters will have the salvation when they give up their idolatry and follow and worship the true God, he emphasized. In his Dialogue with Trypho, (Trypho was presented as a Jew), Justin pointed out that even for those who worshipped images and who did not have a knowledge of God, the Scripture had promised hope in Christ and predicted that they would give up idol worship.
In his Hortatory Address to the Greeks, Justin spoke to the Greek pagans exhorting them to find out for themselves the reason as to why the gods were first fashioned in the forms of men. If they did investigate, they would find that the reason for fashioning gods in the forms of men was taken from the divine history. It was indeed from Moses's history, the poets of Rome borrowed this idea, according to Justin. These men misunderstood what God said when he said `Let us make man in our image and likeness.' These men misunderstood these words, assumed that men were like God in form, and thus began to fashion their gods in the likeness of men, `supposing they would make a likeness from a likeness.'All these showed that those who made idols in the form of men were not original in their ideas, `but merely propounded by some allegorical device in their own writings what they had learned from Moses'.
Immoral Influence of Idol Myths
The Address to the Greeks by Tatian (A.D.110-172) gave several reasons for the emergence of idolatry. One of the arguments given against idolatry was the immoral influence the personages represented by the idols had on their worshippers by their conduct in the myths surrounding them. Thus, Tatian wondered that
the swan is noble, forsooth, because it was an adulterer; and the Dioscuri, living on alternate days, the ravishers of the daughters Leucippus, are also noble! Better still is Helen, who forsook the flaxen-haired Menelaus, and followed the turbaned and gold-adorned Paris. A just man also is Sophron, who transported this adulteress to the Elysian fields!
By their immoral character, these gods influenced men to be immoral in their lives too. For, by whatever actions they (the demons) manifest to men their characters, by these they prompt their hearers to copy their example.
Idol Worshippers Dishonor God
By their conduct the idol worshippers indeed dishonor God. They rob God of worship that is due to him. Tatian argued
Why have you robbed God? Why do you dishonor His workmanship? You sacrifice a sheep, and you adore the same animal. The Bull is in the heavens, and you slaughter its image.
Tatian ridiculed the heathen divinities.They were metamorphosed into animals, birds and trees, all for some mythical game and manipulation. They sought vain glory. They were eager to get presents from their worshippers. They became angry if they did not receive any presents from them. Who could then revere such gods?
Note that these arguments were not restricted to the visual representations of the deity. These arguments were also about the mental constructs regarding the gods. In a way, visual representations are interlinked with the mental constructs regarding the gods. Both are seen to be inseparable.
Idolatry: Worship of Diverse Creatures and Disgraceful Objects
In his book written to Autolycus, Theophilus of Antioch (AD.115 - 168/181) also attacked the idolatry of the nations on the ground that the idolaters, for example, the Egyptians, worshipped the reptiles, cattle, wild beasts, birds, and river-fishes; they even worshipped and wash-pots and disgraceful noises. Greeks and the other nations worshipped stones and wood, and other kinds of material substances including the images of dead men. There were so many gods bearing the same name: Jupiter surnamed Olympian, then Jupiter Latiaris, and Jupiter Cassius, and Jupiter Tonans. these were not gods but idols, the works of men's hands and demons. Affirming the Psalmist's revelation (Psalm 135:15-18) Theophilus said that those who made the idols and put their trust in them also became like the objects they created.
The Irony of Valueless Idols
Theophilus was amused to see that the gods were despised when they were made, but became valuable when they were bought. The painters, carvers and such others made the idols and portraits of gods and when these were made they did not have much value. But as soon as they were bought, placed in temples and treated as gods of power they became very valuable.
... not only those who bought them do sacrifice to them, but also those who made and sold them come with much devotion, and apparatus of sacrifice, and libations, to worship them....For when you read of their birth, you think of them as men, but afterwards you call them gods, and worship them ...
Theophilus asked that if the gods were born as human beings why was it their progeny was not sufficiently prolific? The gods were there for many generations, and naturally they should have been more in number than the human beings by now. But then why were they so limited in number?a The attack on idolatry was not restricted only to a rejection of the idols but it encompassed a rejection and repudiation of the beliefs and myths beneath the idol worship.
Idolatry is Blind Inner Belief
The writer of the Letter to Diogenetus, written around A.D. 129, argued that when we saw with our outward eyes (that is, when not blinded by our inner beliefs in false gods) we would recognize the idols for what they were. They are made of inert materials such as stone, bronze, etc. They are no better than the vessels made of steel, bronze, wood, etc. These things were all made out of perishable material. Only the artisans had created these forms. It was equally easy for these materials to take other shapes in the hands of these artisans. And even now this was possible, for these idols could be melted or transfigured in some fashion even now. The writer of this letter also followed the Psalmist position and declared
They are all dumb, after all, and blind. They are without life or feeling or power of movement, all rotting away and decaying. These are the things you call gods, the things you serve. You Gentiles adore these things, and in the end you become like them.
The arguments and illustrations of the writer of the Letter were, generally speaking, a repetition of what had been presented and discussed by Justin the Martyr. This trend continued also in several other writers who wrote against idolatry and idolaters.
Idolatry: Whole Procuring Cause of Judgement
Tertullian (A.D.145-220) wrote a book on idolatry, which he called the whole procuring cause of judgement. In this, Justin the Martyr and Tertullian held identical views. Tertullian suggested that every fault could be accounted under idolatry. Adultery and fornication were related to idolatry, for he who served false gods was doubtless an adulterer of truth, and so he was sunk in fornication. It was also a fraud, because it did fraud to God by refusing to him, and conferring on others, His honors. It was also murder because and the idolater murdered his own self by the offence done to God. Lust for the world, lasciviousnesses and drunkennesses, unrighteousness, vanity, and mendacity were the other characteristics of this sin of idolatry. Thus idolatry was no more to be conceived as consisting only in idol worship. There was abundance of idolatry everywhere and in every walk of life in this world. Its palpable manifestations were still in the worship of concrete idols. However, it is like adultery. Adultery cannot be accounted only in kisses, in embraces and in actual bodily contacts.
Idolatry, thus, is not to be restricted only to the idol worship, offering of victims, sacrificial banquet, and burning of incense, etc. these were certainly outward manifestations of the inward idolatrous worship. But it was the inward idolatrous tendency that should be taken care of first of all. Idolatry was to be identified not only as specific concrete acts performed to concrete objects but also in the function of acts not connected with concrete idol worship.
Idolatry: Not a Consequence of Idol Making, But a Cause for It
Tertullian finds that there was no idol worship in ancient times. The temples stood solitary and shrines empty. However, idolatry used to be practiced, not under that name, but in that function. It could be practiced outside a temple, and without an idol. Note that in Tertullian's view idolatry was not a consequence of idol making but a cause for it. The devil introduced into the world makers of statues and of images, and of every kind of likenesses. Idolatry then received a name and a development. From then onwards every art which in any way produced an idol instantly became a fountainhead of idolatry. For the quality or the kind of material used to make the idols was of no consequence. It was the idea of the idol that was relevant.
No Idol Making, No Idol Worship: Ban All Idol Makers
Tertullian argued that idols not be made, much less worshipped. He placed the idols and idol-makers in the same category. This was indeed a new and revolutionary development. God had prohibited worshipping of idols as much as he prohibited making idols.
In so far as the making what may be worshipped is the prior act, so far is the prohibition to make (if the worship is unlawful) the prior prohibition.(Do not make idols, Lev.36:1; Exodus 20:4, Deut. 5:8).
Since there is prohibition against making idols, the maker of the idols became equally guilty as the worshipper of the idols. Tertullian was assertive that to make an idol is to worship it:
If no law of God had prohibited idols to be made by us; if no voice of the Holy Spirit uttered general menace no less against the makers than the worshippers of idols; from our sacrament itself we would draw our interpretation that arts of that kind are opposed to the faith.
Tertullian also lamented that idol makers were chosen for the ecclesiastical order. This observation of Tertullian was proof for the trend that by the Tertullian's time idol-making became somewhat tolerated. But we do not know whether those who had the background as idol makers continued to make idols even after being admitted into the ecclesiastical order.
Tertullian argued that as there were many more avenues of gainful employment than idol making, one should give up idol-making jobs and opt for some thing different. Tertullian warned against other arts which furnished the adjuncts to idolatry:
For it matters not whether you erect or equip: if you have embellished his temple, altar, or niche; if you have pressed out gold-leaf, or have wrought his insignia, or even his house; work of that kind, which confers not shape, but authority, is more important.
Give Up All Idolatrous Professions
Tertullian found several professions allied to idolatry. For example, astrology was one such art/profession, which needed to be totally avoided. Astrology was abuse of the heaven.
Tertullian tried to assess the impact of every art that confronted men of his times in relation to their potential towards the glory of the only true God. For him, learning even the literature had potent dangers of idolatry. For the literature taught and learnt those days was glorifying all sort of gods. So, Tertullian cautioned against teaching and learning such literature.
Let us see, then, the necessity of literary erudition; let us reflect that partly it cannot be admitted, partly cannot be avoided. Learning literature is allowable for believers, rather than teaching; for the principle of learning and teaching is different. If a believer teaches literature, while he is teaching doubtless he commends, while he delivers he affirms, while he recalls he bears testimony to, the praises of idols interspersed therein.
On the contrary, catechizing about idolatry did not involve such potent dangers of being idolatrous, according to Tertullian. Thus every teaching activity should be for the glory of God and not for distracting people from God.
Tertullian established connection between covetousness and idolatry. Also he argued that any trade which supported idolatry, for example, selling of frankincense to be used for idolatry is idolatry in itself. The trader served the demon by selling incense to be burnt and offered to the demons.
No art, then, no profession, no trade, which administers either to equipping or forming idols, can be free from the title of idolatry; unless we interpret idolatry to be altogether something else than the service of idol-tendence.
Give Up All Idolatrous Observances
Tertullian was against the observance of days connected with idolatry. He viewed the festivals in honor of emperors, victories and such items also forming part of the idolatrous practices, if these were not kept within the limits of discipline, and were not kept separate from idolatry. Things which descended from the honors done to the idols should also be avoided. Tertullian wanted us to take note of the specificity of the context and the intent of an event and act accordingly. Fore-knowledge of what is intended to be performed should regulate our presence in an idolatrous practice.
Idolatry in Official Duties: What Should a Christian Do?
As regards the offices a Christian can or cannot hold, Tertullian said that we could render service even `to magistrates and powers', after the example of the patriarchs and the other forefathers, who obeyed idolatrous kings up to the confine of idolatry'. Tertullian is concerned even of the relationship between dress mode and idolatry. If a dress mode was to be associated with any idolatrous practice, then the same should be given up.
Tertullian said that `even in words, also the inroad of idolatry must be foreguarded against, either from the defect of custom or of timidity.'
Active Rejection and Not Acquiescence of Idolatry
Tertullian argued in favor of an active rejection of idolatrous practices. He was against Christians being silently acquiescent in heathen formularies. By being silent when idol worship was performed, the Christians tended to affirm the majesty of the idol gods.
Why should we not recognize the subtleties of Satan, who makes it his aim, that, what he cannot effect by our mouth, he may effect by the mouth of his servants, introducing idolatry into us through our ears? At all events, whoever the adjurer is, he binds you to himself either in friendly or unfriendly conjunction. ...
Swearing and Blessing in the Name of Idols
Christians should not allow themselves be blessed in the names of the gods of the nations. Being blessed in the name of the gods was to be cursed in the name of the true God. There could not be any compromise between the two.
Tertullian was against Christians' swearing which is idolatrous, according to him. This swearing either in tongue or in letters was to be avoided.
To conclude, Tertullian held that nothing could be easier than caution against idolatry, because idolatry is the greatest peril that man faces.The shunning of idolatry shall be the Christian's Law,by means of which Christians should be recognized and examined by heathens.
This Law must be set before such as approach unto the Faith, and inculcated on such as are entering it; that, in approaching, they may deliberate; observing it, may persevere; not observing it, may renounce their name. ... At all events, an idolater is not found in the type of the Ark: no animal has been fashioned to represent to represent an idolater. Let not that be in Church which was not in the Ark.
Christian Values Revolve Around Anti-Idolatry
Tertullian had written several books, each one analyzing ways of life that a Christian should follow in terms of what God has said in the Scripture. For Tertullian, adding on to God's glory should be the goal of an individual. Any human activity that would hamper this should be avoided. Thus in his book On the Shows, Tertullian argued that Christians must keep away from theatre, arena, circus, and so forth, because these entailed idolatry in addition to these being immoral. In his book On the Soldier's Crown, he repudiated the military service because a Christian soldier would be forced to pay obeisance to idols worshipped by the rulers of the time. Tertullian's book On Women's Dress, did not approve of vanity and luxury because these were not morally correct. Also the dress modes of the time had pagan associations. Thus Tertullian built his Christian values around an insistence against idolatry. Idolatry came to symbolize everything evil and thus should be totally avoided.
Tertullian's treatises were meant both for the Christian and the pagan in addition to these being justifications for the Christian beliefs. Before the Christian, these treatises set forth guidelines for a living style appropriate to what had been said in the Scripture. These treatises cautioned him against the pitfalls. For the pagan, these treatises showed the folly of which he was a part. Showing the folly, Tertullian invited the pagans to turn to true God. What is to be noted is the fact that the treatises were not just apologies for the Christian belief submitted before the ethereal pagan powers of the day. From the original tone of apology found in earlier literature on idolatry, Tertullian assumed the role of the educator both for the Christian and the pagan.
Incredulity in Truth and Credulity in Myth: A Spirit of Artful Sorcery
Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 153- 193 -217), in his Exhortation to the Heathen, made a critique of the falsity heathen's beliefs as regards his idols. The heathen was willing to believe all kinds of myths, but was unwilling to see the true God. He looked at the true God with incredulous eyes, whereas he believed in all the myths and tales about the idols.
The Greek poets Thracian Orpheus, Theban and Methymnean possessed by a spirit of artful sorcery,
were the first to entice man to idols. They built up the stupidity of the nations with blocks of wood and stone, -- that is, statues and images, --subjecting to the yoke of extremest bondage the truly noble freedom of those who lived as free citizens under heaven, by their songs and incantations...
Gods are Inhuman Demons
The gods of the heathen are inhuman demons thirsting for the blood of the Christians in the stadia. They were behind the wars because wars provided them with pleasure, with the murder of human beings. The heathen did understand their gods to be deadly and yet they were unwilling to turn away from them.
If the images were inspected, the heathen would understand the silly nature of his custom of worshipping the senseless works of men's hands.
Clement of Austria illustrated the falsity of idol worship not only from the practices adopted by the Greeks but also from the practices found in various people groups. He showed that in none of these people groups the senseless wood and other material gods cared for savory odor, or blood, or smoke offered by their devotees. Clement wondered:
I am at a loss to conceive how objects devoid of sense were deified, and feel compelled to pity as miserable wretches those that wander in the mazes of this folly.
Animals at least have some sense but not these images. Thus it had become by now a convention to begin the arguments against idolatry or to proffer arguments against idolatry by affirming the lack of senses, sensory perceptions, and the helpless of the inert material that was the idol against theft, fire and so on. This method was taken directly from the Psalmist and the prophets.
Earth and Art, Not Gods, are Worshipped
Clement asserted that the makers of the images transform the earth from its nature into idols and induce people worship the images. But the makers of images do not worship the gods and demons, but the earth and art. On the other hand, Christians do not have any image of the sensible matter. Their image of true God is perceived only in mind.
Moved, as I believe, by such facts, and despising such fables, the ancient kings unblushingly proclaimed themselves gods, as this involved no danger from men, and thus taught that on account of their glory they were made immortal....And not kings only, but private persons dignified themselves with the names of deities...
Idolatry Despises the Present and Clings On to the Past
Clement related the attitude of the heathen to the gospel to a generally observed behavior among people groups to despise the present and to cling on to the false past.
what is present is wont to be despised through familiarity; but what is past, being separated through the obscurity of time from the temporary censure that attached to it, is invested with honor by fiction, so that the present is viewed with distrust, the past with admiration.
The dead men are respected and regarded as gods by posterity through this delusion.
Matter always needs art to fashion it, but the deity needs nothing......while the preciousness of the material makes it capable of being turned to profitable account, it is only on account of its form that it comes to be deemed worthy of veneration..... I hold it wrong to entrust my spirit's hopes to things destitute of the breath of life. We must therefore approach as close as possible to the images. How peculiarly inherent deceit is in them, is manifest from their very look. For the forms of the images are plainly stamped with the characteristic nature of demons.
Appreciation of Art Admissible, But Idol Making is a Deceptive and Unlawful Art
Unlike Tertullian, Clement had some appreciation and allowance for art. However such appreciation was no good reason for the art to take on the role of the original:`Let art receive its meed of praise, but let it not deceive man by passing itself off for truth'. Idol makers are makers of mischievous toys. People who worshipped idols believed in idols, because they had a craving after their licentiousness. They would not believe in God, because they could not have a life of self-restraint.
Since we are prohibited from exercising a deceptive art (Exodus 20:4), Clement regarded the art of painters and sculptors as unlawful for Christians. The responsibility of the artist is highlighted in Clement's condemnation:
But while you bestow the greatest pains that the image may be fashioned with the most exquisite beauty possible, you exercise no care to guard against your becoming like images for stupidity.
Worship the Creator and not the creation is the continuing theme in the works of Clement also. `The only refuge, then, which for him who would reach the portals of salvation is divine wisdom,' declared Clement.
Devotion to Luxury An Idolatrous Act
In The Instructor (Book II), Clement wrote that the lust committed fornication with gold and thus was to be treated as idolatry.Luxury is an idol, not a reality. Devotion to ornaments thus is an idolatrous act.
Therapy for the Sickness of Idolatry
In The Stromata, (Book VI) Clement offered some steps to help the idolaters to give up their worship of the idols. The Greeks should learn first to worship one God only, the only Sovereign; then they will be taught by the apostle, `but to us an idol is nothing in the world', (I Cor. 8:4). They would know that nothing among created things could be a likeness of God. They would then be taught that none of those images which they worshipped could be similitudes:
for the race of souls is not in form such as the Greeks fashion their idols. For souls are invisible; not only those that are rational, but those also of the other animals. And their bodies never become parts of the souls themselves, but organs -- partly as seats, partly as vehicles -- and in other cases possessions in various ways. But it is not possible to copy accurately even the likenesses of the organs...
The next step is that after abandoning idols, the Greeks would hear the Scripture. This would complete their understanding because they would come to recognize that `He who prohibited the making of a graven image, would never Himself have made an image in the likeness of holy things,' so declared Clement.
Self-Image as Gods
The Stromata, Book VII, reports that the heathens made gods like themselves and from where sprang all superstition. The Greeks represented the gods as possessing human forms with human passions. Ethiopians designed their gods as black and apes, the Thracians ruddy and tiny. The Barbarians made them savage and wild and the Greeks made them more civilized.
Arguments of Pagans in Favor of Idolatry Shattered: Are Not Are Christians Worshippers of Many Gods?
Origen (A.D.185-230/254) wrote a treatise called Against Celsus. This treatise answered the charges against the Christian faith and the Christians leveled by the philosopher Celsus who wrote a treatise earlier with the title True Discourse. It is understood that Origen wrote Against Celsus in his old age, and thus it fully reflected the orthodoxy of Origen in many respects. This is a classic work and is very much valid even today. Book VIII, in the treatise Against Celsus, is relevant to us in our discussion on the early Christian postures against idolatry.
Origen was in a period in which the idolaters, sensing the progress of Christian faith and sensing such progress to be a threat to their own belief, had begun also to counter the arguments of Christians in their writings. From an exclusive dependence on brute force and political power these writers sought to offer reasons in support of their idolatry. Thus Origen had to counter the idolaters' arguments in several ways.
Origen challenged Celsus to prove that the right to be honored had been given to these gods, demons and heroes by God, and that it had not arisen from the ignorance and folly of men who went astray from God to whom alone honor and worship were due. The worship of Jesus,on the other hand, was commanded by God, that `all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father'.
Celsus objected to Christians' monistic stance, for according to him, `they paid excessive reverence to one who has but lately appeared among men.' They (the Christians) worshipped also His servant in this manner, Celsus claimed.
Origen answered this criticism by saying that had Celsus known the fact that the Father and the Son are one and the same, he would not have raised this objection. The most important fact to be noted is that the Christians were now being accused of being worshippers of more than one god, just as the heathen. If this were so, then the Christian's argument against idolatry would have no substance, they themselves being worshippers of more than one god. It was true that they might not yet worship the idols, but they did seem to worship more than one god, and this step was not farther from designing idols for them in a near future. According to the arguments given so far by the Christian apologetics, worship of multiple gods was idolatry. Hence, if the Christians were to be found that they had more than one god, then they were idolaters. From now onwards much energy was expended to explain that Triune God is one God, not a multiplicity of gods.
Origen then wrote an enigmatic, rather a very reluctantly worded piece which could be interpreted variously:
He (Celsus) further supposes, that `because we join along with the worship of God the worship of His Son, it follows that, in our view, not only God, but also the servants of God, are to be worshipped'. If he had meant this to apply to those who are truly the servants of God, after His only-begotten Son, -- to Gabriel and Michael, and the other angels and archangels,-- and if he had said of these that they ought to be worshipped, --if also he had clearly defined the meaning of the word `worship', and the duties of the worshippers, --we might perhaps have brought forward such thoughts as have occurred to us on so important a subject.
Origen did not go further because Celsus would include the demons also as servants of God. The question of worshipping and serving demons was no option at all for the Christians.
Accordingly, we worship with all our power the one God, and His only son, the Word and the Image of God, by prayers and supplications; and we offer our petitions to the God of the universe through His only-begotten Son. To the son we first present them, and beseech Him, as `the propitiation for our sins', and our High Priest, to offer our desires and sacrifices, and prayers, to the Most High. Our faith, therefore, is directed to God through His Son, who strengthens it in us.
Are Christians a Secret Society? Is Refusal to Worship Idols a Badge of Secret Society?
Quoting Celsus as saying that the Christians refused to raise altars, statues and temples for the gods because they kept such refusals as `the badge or distinctive mark of a secret and forbidden society,' Origen claimed that the Christians regarded `the spirit of every good man as an altar from which arises an incense which is truly and spiritually sweet-smelling, namely, the prayers ascending from a pure conscience.'
Christians would raise a statue according to the image of the Creator, by imitating Him according to their ability in their hearts. `Contemplation of God with a pure heart' leads on to raising altars and statues not of a lifeless and senseless kind, `and not to receive greedy spirits intent upon lifeless and senseless but to be filled with the Spirit of God who dwells in the images of virtue. ... the image of the Creator'.
Christians would refuse to build lifeless temples to the Giver of all life, because, declared Origen,`our bodies are the temple of God.'
when they reproach us for not deeming it necessary to worship the Divine Being by raising lifeless temples, we set before them our temples, and show to such at least as are not blind and senseless, like their senseless gods, that there is no comparison between our statues and the statues of the heathen, nor between our altars, with what we may call the incense ascending from them, and the heathen altars, with the fat and blood of the victims; nor, finally, between the temples of senseless gods, admired by senseless men, who have no divine faculty for perceiving God, and the temples, statues, and altars which are worthy of God. It is not therefore true that we object to building altars, statues, and temples, because we have agreed to make this the badge of a secret and forbidden society; but we do so, because we have learnt from Jesus Christ the true way of serving God, and we shrink from whatever, under a pretence of piety, leads to utter impiety those who abandon the way marked out for us by Jesus Christ.
Idol Offerings are Demon Offerings
Idol offerings, which Celsus called holy sacrifices, are in fact demon offerings, according to Origen. Often the Christians by way of the nature of positions they held were asked to take part in public feasts, some of which were of pagan worship, and some of which had nothing to do with religion. Origen encouraged Christians to participate in public feasts if these were for the worship of the true God and if these feasts had nothing wrong in them otherwise.
Is the God of Israel an Impotent God?
Christians were in the habit of reviling the pagan gods, saying that these did not have any life in them. If Christians reviled Bacchus and other gods in person, the mockers would have received a suitable punishment from these gods. But what did your god do, when he (Jesus) was reviled and mocked at in person? Was he not then as impotent and as lifeless as the pagan idols? So asked Celsus. Origen in a way agreed that we should refrain from reviling these inert materials, but the criticism of the Christians was not just about the inert materials, but those who worshipped them.
As for the mockers of Jesus Christ, Jerusalem where the Jews crucified Jesus Christ in preference to the robber`was utterly overthrown and laid waste; for God judged the inhabitants of that place unworthy of living together the life of citizens'. And yet, God saved these people and not destroy them. Not only this God in his abundant mercy enabled the gentiles also to know the Truth and accept it as their own.
Celsus also claimed that because Christians cast insults upon demons and used abusive language against them, they incurred their revenge. Origen asserted however that the demons wanted to take revenge against the Christians, not because of the use of abusive language but because they drove them away out of the images, and from the bodies and souls of men. Origen found truth in what Celsus said, for, `it is true that the souls of those who condemn Christians, and betray them, and rejoice in persecuting them, are filled with wicked demons.'
It is important to note that an explication of the falsity of idol worship became an occasion to expound the truth about the demons and their hold over men. Idols were not treated lightly any more. They were places for the indwelling of the demons and they took hold of the men who worshipped them. Furthermore, they were active in working against the Christians because they truly recognized the threat posed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus idol making and idol worship become an integral part of the theology against demons. Thus we read Origen in his book On Prayer that idolatry is inexcusable and that a priest cannot forgive idolatry.
Rejection of Idols is No Atheism
Athenagoras the Philosopher, who wrote A Plea Regarding Christians between the end of A.D.176 and the early part of A.D. 177, made a forceful justification for the Christian's faith. Those who accused Christians of being atheists did not themselves agree upon the specific gods they should venerate.`When, then, they fail to agree among themselves about their gods, why do they charge us with disagreeing with them?'
From city to city and from nation to nation, people worshipped different gods. Thus one group of people could charge the other being irreligious because not all of them worshipped the same gods. Secondly, even if peoples of different cities and different nations worshipped the same gods, what kind of gods these were? People did not distinguish between matter and God or appreciate the chasm that separates them. They took recourse to idols made of matter. The Christians, however, distinguished and differentiated the uncreated from the created, the living from the nonliving, the intelligible and the sensible from the nonintelligible and nonsensible. Christians would not give names to these images and worship these statues. If matter and God were identical, two names for the same thing, Christians would be surely irreligious for not thinking that stones, wood, gold, and silver were not gods. But if there was a vast difference between them, as great as separates the craftsman and his materials, why were the Christians called to account?
If, then, we were to worship material forms as gods, we should seem to be insensitive to the true God, identifying what is eternal with what is subject to dissolution and corruption.
These are all the words of a Christian who wanted to justify his faith before those who had not believed in the true god and who had chosen to worship the idols. These are words couched in reason and prayer for the heathen to understand and give up first of all his suspicion of the Christian and then to abstain from inflicting torture on the Christian for his faith. At the same time these words gave out the supreme and unshakable faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, in spite of the strength of the adversary.
I will not beg of matter what it cannot give; I will not pass God by to worship the elements, which can do no more than they are bidden. For even if they are beautiful to behold as the work of their maker, yet are they by the nature of matter corruptible....If, then, I admire the heaven and the elements for their artistry, I do not worship them as gods, for I know they are subject to dissolution. How much less can I call those objects gods, whose makers I know were men?
The Spirit of Matter is the Cause for Idols
Every statue on the surface of the earth was made by man and was subject to destruction. One could identify the name of the artist who made them. If, then, these were gods, why did they not exist from the beginning? They were more recent than those who made them. They came into existence with the help of the art and the artist. They were just matter of different sorts, earth, stones, metal, etc.
Then turning to answer the argument that although these idols were only inert material, the gods in whose honor these were made were real, Athenagoras argued that the lifeless and motionless images did not have any power by themselves without someone being responsible. There were other powers which surrounded matter and pervaded it. The spirit which inhabited matter was hostile to God.The spirit of the matter was opposed to the spiritual quality of goodness in God, which was an essential quality with him and which coexisted with him. Angels were assigned to exercise power over the thing God had set in order. The universal and general providence over everything was with God, but the providence over the parts was entrusted to them.These latter angels fell into lusting and
the prince of matter became negligent and wicked in managing what was entrusted to him....the irrational powers of the soul, which produce fantasies, bring forth all kinds of images. Some they derive from matter. Others they form and project by themselves. The soul experiences this especially when it partakes of the spirit of the matter and is mingled with it. It then ceases to fix its eyes on heavenly things and on its creator. It lowers its vision to earthly things...hence the demons which haunt matter, eager for the smell and blood of sacrifices, and ready to lead men astray, avail themselves of these capacities for fantasy in the souls of the multitude. Occupying their minds, they pour visions into them, making it seem as if these came from the idols and statues.
Thus the theology of Athenagoras sought to explain not only the reality of the powers of these gods behind the magical acts of the idols but also explained how the images came about into being. The images were not simply the handiwork of men, these were instigated into being by the demons themselves. The irrational powers of the human soul bring out the images which may be derived from the matter or formed on their own. These would have remained as such but for the human soul partaking of the spirit of the matter. In any case the irrational powers of the human soul lent themselves to a manipulation by the prince of matter. The moment this took place, man's vision was no more heavenward, but toward earthly things. Moreover, Athenagoras pointed out that since the soul was immortal, it could be moved to foretell the future in ways one might not be able to specify. The demons reaped the glory for this and all such acts.
The Question of Showing Reverence to the Cross
The question about displaying the cross and showing reverence and/or worshipping it became a subject matter of discussion very early, especially in the context of Christians' attack on idol worship. For example, Minucius Felix (A.D.210), in his Octavius, stated clearly that the Christians did not worship the cross. However, the heathen worshipped all kinds of objects and animals and birds, etc.
Thus they invoke their deity, they supplicate their images, they implore their Genius, that is , their demon; and it is safer to swear falsely by the genius of Jupiter than by that of a king. Crosses, moreover, we neither worship nor wish for. You, indeed, who consecrate gods of wood, adore wooden crosses perhaps as parts of your gods.
And yet in the visual perception of Christians, the cross was an important symbol. They saw it everywhere displayed in nature and manmade objects and took this as evidence of the all pervasive nature of its significance. The early Christians used this to convince the heathen the greatness of Christ, how God is revealed even to the heathen, despite the heathen's refusal to see it. Thus Minucius Felix told the idol worshippers who apparently accused the Christians of worshipping the cross:
For your very standards, as well as your banners; and flags of your camp, what else are they but crosses gilded and adorned? Your victorious trophies not only imitate the appearance of a simple cross, but also that of a man affixed to it. We assuredly see the sign of a cross, naturally, in the ship when it is carried along with swelling sails, when it glides forward with expanded oars; and when the military yoke is lifted up, it is the sign of a cross; and when a man adores God with a pure mind, with hands outstretched. Thus the sign of the cross either is sustained by a natural reason, or your religion is formed with respect to it.
Thus cross is an integral part of nature and of every religion; it is a symbol through which God reveals himself in a general way to all the peoples, whether they are Christians or heathens, the argument suggested.
Worship of Demons
The Instructions of Commodianus in Favor of Christian Discipline, Against the Gods of the Heathens (A.D.240) has this to offer as to the worship of demons: Almighty God sent the angels down to earth to beautify the nature of the world. However when these angels came to the earth, attracted and contaminated by the women, they despised His laws. They could not return to heaven, because they were contaminated. They rebelled against God and uttered words against him. Following the judgment of God they remained on the earth only and from their seed the giants arose. It was through them all the arts of the earth were born. When they died, men erected images for them.But the Almighty did not approve of that, and because they were of an evil seed, they could not get back to heaven and were thus forced to wander around. From this wandering these fallen angels subvert many bodies. It was to these especially that the heathens paid worship and prayed to as gods.
Note the continuing effort to explain the idols of the heathens not just as mere inert materials, but as gods who, in their turn, came into being because of their fallen nature. The gods are thus demons and these are worshipped by the heathens.
Idol Worship: An Individual's Sin?
Cyprian (200-258 A.D.) writes in his Epistle No. 101 that idol worship is a sin committed by an individual, and is not carried over to others by his act. Every one was responsible for his own sin; no one could become guilty for another. Quoting Paul the Apostle, Cyprian wrote that adulterers and fraudulent persons were guilty of the crime of idolatry. Whoever committed sins did the will of the devil, served demons and idols. For no evil deed came from the Holy Spirit.
Wandering Spirits Lurk in Idols
In Treatise No VI of his Treatises, Cyprian explained the origin of the power that the idols had. The power of the idols came from the impure and wandering spirits. These spirits attained this status by their corruption through the earthly vices they committed. They did not cease and when thus were ruined by their own acts, they sought to ruin others; `and when degraded themselves, to infuse into others the error of their own degradation.' These spirits lurked under the statues and consecrated images. These always mixed up `falsehood with truth, for they are both deceived and they deceive; they disturb their life, they disquiet their slumbers; their spirits creeping also into their bodies, secretly terrify their minds, distort their limbs, break their health, excite diseases to force them to worship of themselves' and caused many more evil things to happen. These could be, however, adjured through the true God and constrained to go out from the bodies possessed. When they were let out, the possessed underwent all kinds of agony, and made terrible noises. The spirits might spring forth or vanish gradually. Thus Cyprian's theology against idolatry is fully linked not only with idols as inert and dead material, idols as indwelling places for the evil spirits, but also with the casting out of such evil spirits from the people possessed by these demons.
Anti-Idolatry Position - A Heavenly Precept
In the third book of his Treatises, Cyprian presents what he calls heads, 120 in number. These heads were `bearing upon the religious teaching of our school', according to Cyprian. This was intended to be `a summary of heavenly precepts', `a wholesome and large compendium for nourishing its memory'. Of these heads, one is about idol worship, `of the idols which the Gentiles think Gods'. Since the statements are intended to be a summary of the teachings, Cyprian arranges this section only with verses from the Wisdom of Solomon 15:17, 13:1-4, Psalms 135:16-18; 96:5; Exo.20:23; Exo. 20:4; Jer.10:2-5,9,11; 2:12,13,19,20,27; Isa.96:1,2,5; Isa. 46:6,7; Jer.101:16-19; Rev. 9:1, 13-21; Rev. 14:9-11. Cyprian's position against idolatry, thus, is grounded in the Scripture.
Human Beings are God's Image: The Purpose of Incarnation is to Restore God's Image
Methodicus (260-312), in his treatise From the Discourse on Resurrection, recognized in Part II of the discourse that the images of the kings were honored by all. These statues might not have been made of gold or silver, and yet these were honored. If any one disregarded them or spoke against them, they were not held guilty as if they abused the gold,silver, stone or any other material with which the images were made. The value of the material used was of no consequence. The disrespect was shown to the King and not to the material. Thus if God's image became corrupt it would amount to showing disrespect to God himself. Extending this comparison further, Methodicus argued, in a fragment of his discourse titled On Resurrection, that in order not to show any disrespect to God's own image, that is, the human beings, the Word came to earth and restored the glory of God by saving God's image,that is, the human beings.
On Resurrection, Methodicus said:
Consider that God had images of Himself made as of gold, that is of a purer spiritual substance, as the angels; and others of clay or brass, as ourselves. He united the soul which was made in the image of God to which was earthy. As, then, we must here honor all the images of a king, on account of the form which is in them, so also it is incredible that we who are the images of God should be altogether destroyed as being without honor. Whence also the Word descended into our world and was incarnate of our body, in order that having fashioned it to a more divine image, He might raise it incorrupt, although it had been dissolved by time. And, indeed, when we trace out the dispensation which was figuratively set forth by the prophet, we shall find the whole discourse visibly extending to this.
The most important thing to be noted here is the ease with which making images, showing respect to the images made and such matters which were considered not appropriate, if not sinful, were being used by Methodicus albeit for purposes of comparison and for driving some points home. By now honoring images of the humans, especially those of the kings and other lords appeared to be evoking no resistance, at least in wordy descriptions. Note also the implicit agreement on the part of Methodicus to doing honors to the images of kings and other powers. This was not the position the fathers would have agreed to, say, a century ago. For example, Tertullian and Clement would have found this totally unacceptable. For one thing, they both had severe reservations about the art of making images. For another, any implicit acceptance that the images, even of the kings, could be honored would have been beyond their belief.
Gods are Angry with Christians
Arnobius (297-303) in his treatise which was presented in seven books (rather, short chapters), titled Against the Heathen, continued the attack on idols and idol worship on the same lines as done by the Psalmist, prophets and the church fathers who preceded him. The idols were all inert material. Sacred rites were performed even to the harlots. Temples had been constructed for the cats, beetles and heifers, thus the gods were equated with the animals. The gods,however, accepted such insults. When they accepted such ill treatment, why should they be inimical to the Christians alone? They seemed to be most angry with the Christian, because they worshipped
their Author, by whom, if they do exist, they began to be, and to have the essence of their power and their majesty, from whom, having obtained their very divinity, so to speak, they feel that they exist, and realize that they are reckoned among things that be, at whose will and at whose behest they are able both to perish and be dissolved, and not to be perished?
Idols Have Only a Fictional Semblance to Gods
The question to be asked of the heathen was as to how he knew that these which he formed and worshipped in the place of the gods bore any semblance to the gods themselves (Book VI).
For it may happen that in heaven one has a beard who by you is represented with smooth cheeks; and another is rather advanced in years to whom you give the appearance of a youth; that here he is fair, with blue eyes, who really has grey ones; that he has distended nostrils whom you make and form with a high nose. For it is not right to call or name that an image which does not derive from the face of the original features like it; which can be recognized to be clear and certain from things which are manifest. For while all we men see that the sun is perfectly round by our eye sight, which cannot be doubted, you have given to him the features of a man, and of mortal bodies ... what, pray, is the meaning of so great audacity to fashion to yourself whatever form you please, and to say that it is an image of a god whom you cannot prove to exist at all? ...
Arnobius concluded that it was the wanton fancy of artist which had resulted in visually representing the bodies of the gods, giving strange, peculiar and laughable forms.
It is important to note that the question asked of the heathen by Arnobius is relevant also for the portraits, images and icons made of the Christian personages in due course. What is valid as a matter of criticism of the heathen's practice is also valid when we wish to make a scrutiny of the practices of visual representation of the Christian personages. This necessity to be consistent, however, led to an elaboration of the relevance of such visual representations in some theologies, as we shall see later on.
Change in Form of Substance No Guarantee for Godhood
Arnobius continued the attack on idolatry, saying that because some metal or other material had been converted into some form or the other, one could not assume them to be gods.
there is no man so stupidly blind that he will class among the gods silver, copper, gold, gypsum, ivory, potter's clay, and say that these very things have, and possess in themselves, divine power. What reason is there, then, that all these bodies should want the power of deity and the rank of celestials if they remain untouched and unwrought, but should forthwith become gods, and be classed and numbered among the inhabitants of heaven if they receive the forms of men, ears, noses, cheeks, lips, eyes, and eyebrows? Does the fashioning add any newness to these bodies, so that from this addition you are compelled to believe that some thing divine and majestic has been united to them? ... What stupidity it is -- for I refuse to call it blindness -- to suppose that the natures of things are changed by the kind of form into which they are forced, and that receives divinity from the appearance given to it, which in its original body has been inert, and unreasoning, and unmoved by feeling!
People fell under the feet of these images, offered sacrifices, begged them to give them good health, wealth and power, good harvests and so on. They deceived themselves by such prayers, for these gods were lifeless. Arnobius' arguments against idolatry were based firstly from a viewpoint which held the inert idols as gods in themselves.
These gods of yours, to whom the smoothness of their exterior gives a majestic appearance by its alluring brightness, are only a framework of flexible plates, particles without shape joined together; that they are kept from falling into ruin and fear of destruction, by dove-tails and clamps and brace-irons; and that lead is run into the midst of all the hollows and where the joints meet, and causes delay useful in preserving them.
Worship of Inert Materials or Worship of the Spirits Dwelling in Them?
Arnobius recognized that the worshippers of the idols could claim that what they worshipped were not the inert idols but the spirits dwelling in them:
in them we worship and venerate those whom their dedication as sacred introduces and causes to dwell in statues made by workmen.
This reason, an attractive proposition for any idolater, was also rejected by Arnobius on the ground that the gods would not give up their heavenly abodes for earthly habitations in narrow vessels like these images. Would the rite of dedication impel these gods to give up their heavenly abodes? Then Arnobius had several questions for the idol worshipper:
- Do the gods dwell in gypsum and in figures of earthenware?
- Do they do this against their will by the rite of dedication -- or, are they ready and willing?
- What do the gods find interesting in figures of earthenware to keep them remain there, instead of remaining in the heavenly abodes?
- Do they remain in these images all the time? Would they not be compelled to leave for momentous necessities? Then what would happen to these images?
- Why are some gods small in size while others are very big? Are the gods compressed in the small statuettes? What is the relationship between them?
These and other questions raised by Arnobius were aimed at showing to the heathen how his gods were constrained by spatio-temporal necessities and how the heathen's own myths came to impose such restrictions on his gods. Moreover, most of these questions were based on the insistence that idols were gods in themselves, one of the positions taken by the Psalmist and the prophets. Arnobius found that despite such apparent flaws in the belief of the heathen he still continued to believe that his gods were alive. Believing so, the heathen still continued to provide watch and ward staff to protect his gods.
Images Intended Only for Unmanageable and Ignorant Mob? A Questionable Proposition
Arnobius anticipated one of the arguments that would be often repeated in favor of the need and the act of visually presenting the Christian personages and the Deity in subsequent periods of Church history. Arnobius recognized that the advocates of image worship would say
that the ancients knew well that images have no divine nature, and that there is no sense in them, but that they formed them profitably and wisely, for the sake of the unmanageable and ignorant mob, which is the majority in nations and in states, in order that a kind of appearance, as it were, of deities being presented to them, from fear they might shake off their rude natures, and, supposing that they were acting in the presence of the gods, put away their impious deeds and, changing their manners, learn to act as men: and that august forms of gold and silver were sought for them, for no other reason than that some power was believed to reside in their splendor, such as not only to dazzle the eyes, but even to strike terror into the mind itself at the majestic beaming lustre.
In presenting this argument, the emphasis of Arnobius was on creating fear in the minds of the ignorant about the gods so that these ignorant and unmanageable people could be controlled in some manner. Note that this argument in favor of visual representation was not for inculcating or increasing the piety of the people, as claimed in certain quarters of the Christian faith in subsequent history for the visual representation of Christian personages. Arnobius found that despite such claims evil deeds were on the increase being committed by the very same people for whose benefit the gods had been visually presented. The images, set up for the purpose of striking terror into the mob, had failed to check commission of evil deeds. There was nothing special about the grandeur of these images which could have subdued these men.
Against the Use of Incense and Wine
In Book VII, Arnobius talked of other items of worship, incense and wine. These were used by the heathen as part of his religious ceremonies and acts. Arnobius told the heathen that the use of incense was a novelty, because the incense was not known earlier. It was not mentioned by the ancient writers. Why was this new custom introduced? Was it because the people thought the old custom was imperfect? Did they think that the heavenly gods became gentle by such a quantity of incense? In that case the ancients would be deemed to have been full of guilt. On the other hand if in ancient times neither men nor the gods desired this to be used, what was the need now to use the same? So the conclusion was that the antiquity did not believe in it and the modern times desired it without any reason.
This way of putting things is one good example of the logical approach adopted by Arnobius to disprove the claims of the heathen. He would analyze the belief systems and practices, arrive at a reasoned picture of the same and then question the assumptions, mainly in terms of the internal contradiction of such beliefs and systems. This would result in revealing the vacuous claims of the heathen. He would continue to raise questions so that the heathen would be forced to admit his folly, for he could not cling on to his beliefs when such contradictions could not be reconciled.
What (is) the reason, that incense is put on the altars before the very images of the deities, and that from its being burned, they are supposed to become friendly and gentle. What do they acquire from this being done, or what reaches their minds, so that we should be right in judging that these things are well expended, and are not consumed uselessly and in vain? For as you should show why you give incense to the gods, so, too, it follows that you should manifest that the gods have some reason for not rejecting it with disdain, nay more, for desiring it so fondly. We honor the gods with this, some one will perhaps say. But we are not inquiring what your feeling is, but the gods'; nor do we ask what is done by you, but how much they value what is done to purchase their favor. But yet, O piety, what or how great is this honor which is caused by the odor of a fire, and produced from the gum of a tree?
If these gods were incorporeal, then how could this affect them? If these gods were just material, how could the inert material enjoy the incense, breath its sweet smell? Arnobius would dissect every act into its logical and minutest parts and would show the irrelevance of the act. The he moves from incense and wine to the garlands, wreaths and flowers, the jingling of brass,the shaking of cymbals, use of timbrels and symphonious pipes which were used in the worship of pagan gods. Did these have any effect on these gods, or were these desired by the gods? Thus Arnobius was interested not only in repudiating the concept of idols and their worship, but also in showing the forms and content of their worship were equally erroneous.
Fashion It and Then Be Fearful About It!
Lactantius (A.D.260-330), considered to be the Christian Cicero, wrote, in his Divine Institutes, arguments against the falsehood of pagan gods and pagan worship. His arguments against idolatry followed in general the trends set by both the precedent and contemporaneous fathers. He added, however, several insights into the problem. Some of the arguments he offered against idolatry are relevant even against image worship adopted in some denominations of the Christian faith later on. It was because of this reason that Lactantius was often quoted by the adherents of the Reform, in particular, Luther, Zwingli and Calvin.
Lactantius began his arguments against idolatry asking the idolater as to why he should look to walls, and wood, and stone, rather than to the place where he believed the gods to be (if he considered these to be not just objects and if he claimed that he was paying honor to the gods represented by these visual representations). He who fashioned images considered it a serious business. Why should he fashion the images in the first place and then become afraid of it?
Note that here also the emphasis was on the object of worship as being fearful, just as we found in the arguments of Arnobius. Both Arnobius and Lactantius did not consider these objects to be intended for pure piety. In their view, these objects (the idols) performed only the function of discipling their worshippers through fear created in them by their appearance and physical presence.
Images are Memorials for the Dead or for the Absent
Lactantius found that the images were just the memorials for the dead or for the absent. Likenesses were made to retain the memory of those who were dead or absent, to begin with. To which category, then, did the gods belong? To the dead or to the absent? In both the cases they were useless. Not only that. One would be out of mind to believe that the absentee through the visual would give us solace.
For the likeness of a man appears to be necessary at that time when he is far away; and it will become superfluous when he is at hand. But in the case of God, whose spirit and influence are diffused everywhere, and can never be absent, it is plain that an image is always superfluous.
The reason for setting up images was the fear of the idolaters that their religion would be in vain if they did not see anything present before them, Lactantius argued. As these images were only representations of the dead, they resembled the dead, with no perceptual abilities of their own. On the other hand, the image of the Living God had to be necessarily full of perception and mobility. Thus these images, which the idolater called gods, could not resemble the Living God.
Therefore the image of God is not that which is fashioned by the fingers of men out of stone, or bronze, or other material, but man himself, since he has both perception and motion, and performs many and great actions. Nor do the foolish men understand, that if images could exercise perception and motion, they would of their own accord adore men, by whom they have been adorned and embellished, since they would be either rough and unpolished stone, or rude and unshapen wood, had they not been fashioned by man. ... Therefore he who made them is superior to the objects which were made.
Unfortunately, the idolaters did not understand this, and they failed to look up to the Maker himself, Lactantius moaned. If one did not worship a living being, God, he would necessarily die and not have eternal life. Things subjected to the eyes and the hands were inconsistent with immortality, because in their very nature they were perishable. What was the use of precious gifts to insensible objects? The dead were honored with ornaments and other things and then buried. Was not the act of adorning these objects similar to this? For these objects also did not have any sensory perception to receive what was offered.
Two Kinds of Errors of the Idolater: Idolatry is Man's fulfillment of His Own Desires
Lactantius identified two kinds of errors in this act of worshipping the inert material. Firstly, the idolaters preferred the elements in place of God; secondly, they gave human form to these elements and worshipped them. They had developed a great fondness for visual representations and they considered the real as less valuable. However, in this development, Lactantius said, men pretended to worship gods, but in reality offered to these gods what they desired, and thus they worshipped their own desires, and avarice. Thus, idolatry is seen by Lactantius as a reflection and reiteration of man's own desires.
They approach the gods, therefore, not so much on account of religion, which can have no place in badly acquired and corruptible things, as that they may gaze upon the gold and view the brilliancy of polished marble or ivory, that they may survey with unwearied contemplation garments adorned with precious stones and colors, or cups studded with glittering jewels.
Authority of Antiquity: Basis for Idolatry
The religious institutions of the idolaters were admired, defended and maintained by them with great obstinacy, solely on the ground that these were established by their ancestors. No scrutiny of these traditions was ever tolerated and when done would be treated as a crime. The authority of antiquity decided everything for them and was to be treated and accepted as established truth. It is amazing to note that with such clarity Lactantius foretold some of the characteristics the adherents of image and icon worship within the Christian faith would demonstrate in subsequent periods.
How did the False Religion Originate?
The origin of false religion was linked to the worship of the elements by those scattered over the earth after the Great Floods, by Lactantius. Those who were scattered away from Noah's land admired the elements and began worshipping them. They did not have images made then nor did they have temples. They offered sacrifices in the open air and soon came to erect temples and statues to the most powerful kings. They started the practice of honoring these images with animal sacrifices and burnt offerings. They went astray from the knowledge of the true God and thus became the heathen. Lactantius asserted that heathenism thus came into being after and not before the worship of the true God. This is totally in consonance with the Biblical position.
Note that a discussion on idolatry became the occasion not only to repudiate the false gods and the worship offered to them but also to prove and assert that the worship of true God was no discovery but the original religion of man.
The treatise of Lactantius, thus, is as much a treatise against idolatry as it is a treatise on the characteristics of true religion.
Idolatry is a Mimicry
Lactantius suggested that if religion was taken to be a matter of divinity, then there was nothing divine except in heavenly things. The images were thus without religion, as these were made from the earth. These were just imitations, even according to the idolaters. An imitation was always an imitation, a false identity, a counterfeit. Should one prefer the counterfeit over the true object? Thus there was no religion in idol worship, but only a mimicry. The worship offered was unsettled and uncertain honor because there was no source or origin for this act. Note that this assertion was based on the position that the idols were gods in themselves, and since these were inert material, the worship offered to them was for the inert material, with none to receive and respond to such worship.
Nature of True Religion
Discussing further the nature of true religion and how it should be defended, Lactantius argued that
religion is to be defended, not by putting to death, but by dying; not by cruelty, but by patient endurance; not by guilt, but by good faith.........For nothing is so much a matter of free-will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist.
Idol worship restricted religion to a spatio-temporal context of worship and as such people tended to leave religion the moment they finished their sacrifices to the idols. Thus they left the temple empty-minded as they entered it. On the other hand, true religion existed in the soul of the worshipper.
Idolatry is an Enemy of Religious Systems
Lactantius found that one of the mischiefs of the idolatrous religions was that these tended to destroy the religious systems. For, they did allow mockery of their own gods, in addition to their inherent practice of worshipping all kinds of creatures, including animals and birds. They tended to destroy themselves more from their own acts of derision and mockery against their own gods in public, than by the criticism of their practices by the Christians.
What kind of a religion is this, or how great must that majesty be considered, which is adored in temples and mocked in theatres? And they who have done these things do not suffer the vengeance of the injured deity, but even go honored and praised? Do we destroy them in a worse manner than certain philosophers, who say that there are no gods at all, but that all things are spontaneously produced, and that all things which are done happen by chance? Do we destroy them in a worse manner than the Epicureans, who admit the existence of gods, but deny that they regard anything, and say that they are neither angry nor are influenced by favor by which words they plainly persuade men that they are not to be worshipped at all, inasmuch as they neither regard their worshippers, nor are angry with those who do not worship them.
In a way, Lactantius seemed to argue that it was idolatry which encouraged godlessness. If true God was ever worshipped and insisted upon, there would have been no occasion to indulge in idolatry and then no opportunity would have arisen to mock at it and to encourage godlessness.
Against Lighting Candles
Lactantius argued against lighting candles before these gods, "for God is all brilliance and gives light to us and he needed no such light. The light which He required from us is of another kind. ... the light of the mind. This no one could exhibit unless he had known God."
He needs not a temple, since the world is His dwelling; He needs not an image, since He is incomprehensible both to the eyes and to the mind; He needs not earthly lights, for He was able to kindle the light of the sun, with the other stars, for the use of man. What then does God require from man but worship of the mind which is pure and holy?
Idolatry - A Consequence of Loss of Knowledge of God
Idolatry was a consequence of the loss of knowledge of the one True God; knowledge of God is the only bond of human society. The moment this bond was broken, people began fighting against one another. Lactantius found that in the history of Greece, there was indeed a golden age during which people knew of one God only. This was during the reign of Saturnus.After this period the people of Greece became subject to worshipping idols. This resulted in breaking the one bond of human society, and the people began to harass to fight against one another. It is the loss of the knowledge of true God and consequent idolatry that was the reason for all the plunder and wars.
Demons are the Occupants of Idols: A Vicious Cycle
Lactantius asserted that `as God is the parent of man, so is the man of the statue'. However, the idols became occupied by the demons. To the demons, temples were built and libations offered. These demons turned away men from the knowledge of the true God, introduced all kinds of superstitions and encouraged worship of gods, and the dead. These were responsible also for the images to be made so that the honor given to God would be reduced. Their aim was to increase the honor paid to them and to encourage sinning, so ;that men would be deprived of immortality. Through their magical acts they deceived men into belief that the idols were gods.
Lactantius thus posited a vicious cycle of idol making, and idol worship. To begin with, the initiative of the fallen men who had lost the knowledge of true God resulted in idol making and idol worship. This enabled the demons entering the idols thus made and activating them through their magical and cunning acts so that men would be strengthened in their beliefs that the idols they made were indeed gods. As part of the cycle, the demons began to encourage men to make idols, build temples for them and to worship them in place of the true God. What began as an act of ignorance on the part of men thus became a deliberate tool in the hands of the demons to achieve their own ends.
The treatise of Lactantius, thus, was no ordinary treatise against idolatry. It sought to explain the root cause of idolatry, relating it not only to the loss of knowledge of God on the part of men, but also to the deliberate design of the evil power hostile to God and men. It showed the fundamental necessity of having the knowledge of God as the one and only bond of human society for peace and prosperity. It showed the futility of worship with objects such as candles and incense and emphasized true worship with a pure heart and mind.
Apostolic Constitutions and Idolatry
Apostolic Constitutions, most of which were written by the end of the third century, give us some interesting information on the attitudes towards idolatry and worship of saints and martyrs. Apostolic Constitutions consist of eight books, seven of which are considered to be written by the end of the third century. Thus, practices prior to the Nicene Council are attested in this work. Although there is not much concerning idolatry in these books, (the contents of these constitutions were mostly prescriptive procedures for those who were already Christians and these were not works of apologetics), there is indeed condemnation of idolatry in the Apostolic Constitutions.
Veneration of the Martyrs
The compilers of these books encouraged providing support for the persecuted, and encouraged veneration of the martyrs. The laity were urged to support those who might have been or might be persecuted for their faith:
If any Christian, on account of the name of Christ, and love and faith towards God, be condemned by the ungodly to the games, to the beasts, or to the mines, do not ye overlook him; but send to him from your labor and your very sweat for his sustenance, and for a reward to the soldiers, that he may be eased and be taken care of.
Whoever was condemned for the name of the Lord was to be considered a holy martyr. These were the times when there was persecution of the Christians for their faith. It became necessary to show some respect not only to those who laid their lives for the glory of God but also to those who were presently being persecuted. The church encouraged the believers to come out and help these in whatever possible ways. Through the martyrs and those who were being persecuted, the glory of God was magnified and the faithful were strengthened, the Constitutions asserted. The faithful were called upon to contribute whatever they had, even their livelihood to redeem them out of prison. The second category was that of the martyrs, who laid down their lives for the glory of God. These should be honored by all.
Rules for Spiritual and Natural Conduct
The Constitutions laid down rules for both spiritual and natural conduct. For example, these prohibited men from swearing and singing heathen songs, and suggested that prayers should be conducted with great dignity:
the Scripture somewhere says: `Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice unto Him with trembling.' Even your very rejoicings therefore ought to be done with fear and trembling: for a Christian who is faithful ought neither to repeat an heathen hymn nor an obscene song, because he will be obliged by that hymn to make mention of the idolatrous names of demons: and instead of the holy Spirit, the wicked one will enter into him.
Apostolic Constitutions: Idols are Wicked Demons or Ridiculous Contrivances of Men
Quoting the Scripture, these asserted that the Christians should not worship the idols, for these were `either wicked demons or the ridiculous contrivances of men'. The Constitutions asked the Christians to abstain from things offered to idols; these offerings were made in honor of demons and these dishonored God. The faithful should not become partners with demons by partaking of the offerings given to the idols.
Nor do the legislators give us only prohibitions concerning idols, but also warn us concerning the luminaries, not to swear by them, nor to serve them. For they say: `Lest, when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, thou shouldest be seduced to worship them.' And elsewhere: `Do not ye learn to walk after the ways of the heathen, and be not afraid of the signs of heaven.' For the stars and the luminaries were given to men to shine upon them, but not for worship.
Remembering the Dead: Prayer for the Dead
The Apostolic Constitutions asked the Christians, in connection with death ceremony, to assemble, read the holy books, sing for the martyrs and all the saints of the past. They should sing also for their brethren who were dead, and offer Eucharist. Note that the martyrs and the saints be remembered in all the death ceremonies. Note also that all the dead were remembered.
The Constitutions asked that the bishop pray for, among other things in the bidding prayer for the departed, that the Lord also looked upon this dead person with favor and forgive him if he had sinned voluntarily or involuntarily. The prayer should ask for the help of merciful angels and for placing him in the bosom of the patriarchs, and prophets, and apostles, and of all those that pleased God. Thus the prayer for all the dead became an important feature of these ceremonies. In a society which had a mix of both the Christians and the non-Christians, the Christian relatives of the non-Christians, who had a burden for their non-Christian relatives naturally felt for the salvation of their relatives. Prayer for the dead was seen to be a mechanism to pray to the Lord to forgive the sins of the dead and save their souls. However this mechanism developed into great rituals. What is most important to notice is the fact that the prayer for the dead was instituted and that the living prayed for salvation of the dead.
Liturgies and Idolatry
There are certain early liturgies which also speak against idolatry, among other things. Liturgy refers to the service used in the celebration of the Eucharist. There are several liturgies such the Liturgy of St.James, the Liturgy of St. Mark, the Roman Liturgy, and the Liturgy of the Apostles Adaeys and Maris. The age, authorship and genuineness of the liturgies could not be given with any certainty. The general consensus has been that these liturgies were not composed by the Apostles, but developed out of the unwritten traditions of their time.
In the Liturgy of James there is a prayer of the incense, done at the beginning. this prayer, after praising the Sovereign Lord Jesus Christ as Word of God and so one, asks the Lord to accept from the worshippers `this incense as an odor of a sweet smell, and make fragrant the evil odor of our soul and body, and purify us with the sanctifying power of Thy all-holy Spirit.'
The Liturgy of St. James has references to the blameless life of the saints and prays to the Lord that the worshippers find favor with the saints:
Remember, O lord, according to the multitude of Thy mercy and compassion, me also, Thy humble and unprofitable servant; and the deacons who surround Thy holy altar, and graciously give them a blameless life, keep their ministry undefiled, and purchase for them a good degree, that we may find mercy and grace, with all the saints that have been well pleasing to Thee...
At one place in the Liturgy of Mark, the priest offers the incense, and says:
The incense is offered to Thy name. Let it ascend, we implore thee, from the hands of Thy poor and sinful servants to Thy heavenly altar for a sweet-smelling savour, and the propitiation of all Thy people.
At another place in the same liturgy, the priest offers incense, and says:
As Thou didst accept the sacrifice of our father Abraham, the incense of Zacharias, the alms of Cornelius, and the widow's two mites, accept also the thank-offerings of these, and give them for the things of time the things of eternity, and for the things of earth the things of heaven.
One of the prayer requests was that the Lord uproot idolatry from the world.
In the Liturgy of St. Adaeus and St. Maris, we find the priest putting on the incense, and saying this prayer:
O Lord, Lord, grant me an open countenance before Thee, that with the confidence which is from Thee we may fulfil this awful and divine sacrifice with consciences free from all iniquity and bitterness. Sow in us, o Lord, affection, peace, and concord towards each other, and toward every one.
The above liturgy provides also for the priest to say a prayer in secret. The secret prayer, however, was just a praise of the Lord, exalting him by enumerating the fact that the hosts of angels and spirits worshipped him.
Eusebius the Church Historian
Eusebius (A.D.260-339 or 265-340) is considered to be a very important writer for various reasons. He wrote the first church history, recording events of importance beyond what was recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. In addition, he wrote extensively on various aspects of theology as well. His writings were not considered to be original, but were full of information which helped understand the course the Christian theology took.
There is, however, a true and solid merit which marks his works almost without exception, and raises them above the commonplace. His exegesis is superior to that of most of his contemporaries, and his apologetics is marked by fairness of statement, breadth of treatment, and instinctive appreciation of the difference between the important and the unimportant points under discussion, which give to his apologetic works a permanent value (McGiffert 1890:26-27).
The Church History of Eusebius aims at covering the period from A.D. 1 to 324. (In the original version of this article, I gave a brief introduction in the beginning to the times of Emperor Constantine who ruled as Roman emperor from A.D.306 to 337 and who was the first Christian emperor.) Since this work aims at recording the history, and is not intended to be an apologetic work, there is not much reference to arguments against idolatry. However, while presenting information on the progress of the spread of Christianity and while presenting short sketches of the martyrs, saints, kings and other personages, Eusebius makes it a point, on occasions, to refer to what happened to idolatrous practices during the time of his reporting. Eusebius makes references to heresies of the period reported, and the heroic exploits of Christian personages.
We come to know from Eusebius' History the importance given to the martyrs, the construction of shrines for the martyrs and many other matters relating to Christian practices and beliefs of the period reported.
Eusebius' References to Idolatrous Practices
We give below some directly relevant references against idolatrous practices of the time.
When the emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor, entered Rome in triumph, Eusebius writes,
immediately all the members of the senate and the other most celebrated men, with the whole Roman people, together with children and women, received him as their deliverer, their saviour, and their benefactor, with shining eyes and with their whole souls, with shouts of gladness and unbounded joy. But he, as one possessed of inborn piety toward God, did not exult in the shouts, nor was he elated by the praises; but perceiving that his aid was from God, he immediately commanded that a trophy of the Saviour's passion be put in the hand of his own statue. And when he had placed it, with the saving sign of the cross in its right hand, in the most public place in Rome.
Note that the practice of erecting royal statue was not given up, but the statue was made to carry a cross thus signifying some Christian message.
Eusebius reports that the emperor Constantine prohibited idolatrous worship, but honored martyrs and the Church festivals. The emperor's service of his God began almost with his prohibition of idol worship. All his subjects, both civil and military, found him opposed to idol worship. At the same time, his subjects, both civil and military, throughout the empire, found a barrier everywhere opposed against idol worship, and every kind of sacrifice forbidden. He also passed a law for the observance of the Lord's day and the days commemorative of the martyrs and to respect the festival days appointed by the church.The law was enforced in every province of the empire.
Eusebius reports that these were complied with to the entire satisfaction of the emperor.
The Book 15 of the Church History reports that the emperor caused himself to be represented on his Coins, and in his Portraits, in the Attitude of Prayer. His likeness was stamped on the golden coin of the empire with his eyes uplifted in the posture of prayer to God. As this money was current in all empire, people came to know of the desires and the spiritual side of the emperor, and thus were goaded into themselves seeking to know the good news of Jesus Christ. His portraits, placed in full length in the palaces in some cities, showed him with his eyes looking towards heaven, and the hands outspread in a prayerful attitude. In other words, the emperor Constantine made it a point to preach the gospel in as many different ways using his position for the glory of God.
Book 16, on the other hand, reports how the emperor Constantine forbade by law the placing of his likeness in idol temples:
In this manner he represented himself, even through the medium of painting, as habitually engaged in prayer to God. At the same time he forbade, by an express enactment, the setting up of any resemblance of himself in any idol temple, that not even the mere lineaments of his person might receive contamination from the error of forbidden superstition.
Note that this order was against keeping his own statue in any of the pagan temples. Note also that the emperor Constantine was not against keeping his royal statues in other places. Thus, while keeping his image in an idol temple and worshipping and sacrificing to idols were forbidden, making his own images and keeping them in places for people to see and show respect was not forbidden. As already shown, he, in fact, would add the Cross to such representations in order to show to the people his own piety and preference. In a sense, sanction for image making, which was much vilified and sought to be prohibited in the writings of early fathers such as Tertullian, Origen and Cyprian, was now officially given.
Book 21 reports that Constantine ordered the Sign of the Cross to be engraved on his soldiers' shields. He commanded that his forces out for the battle should be preceded not by the idols, the golden images, but by the but only by the standard of the cross.
From a Theological Prohibition Against Idolatry to a Royal Edict Against Idolatry
The Life of Constantine written by Eusebius speaks of the steps taken by the emperor Constantine to abolish idolatry and to build churches:
A similar change was effected in several other cities; for instance, in that town of Phoenicia which received its name from that of the emperor, and the inhabitants of which committed their innumerable idols to the flames, and adopted in their stead the principles of the saving faith. Numbers, too, in the other provinces, both in the cities and the country, became willing inquirers after the saving knowledge of God; destroyed as worthless things the images of every kind which they had heretofore held most sacred; voluntarily demolished the lofty temples and shrines which contained them; and, renouncing their former sentiments, or rather errors, commenced and completed entirely new churches (Book 39).
Thus, the royal initiative had led to voluntary demolition of the idols of every sort by the citizens in many cities. This had led to the destruction and discard of the temples also. The subjects had become willing inquirers of the new faith and these newly converted built churches for the Lord. A sea of change was spreading all over the empire.
The Emperor Preaches Against Idolatry
The Oration of Constantine, appended to Eusebius' work Life of Constantine, has a chapter (chapter 4) on the error of idolatrous worship. In his oration, the emperor said (chapter 4) that the things which had a beginning had also an end. These were subject to corruption. The lapse of time always impaired their beauty. Corruptible things were not thus immortal. The supposition of the ignorant multitude was that there were marriages and birth of children among the gods. If these were true, then, these should been more than the human beings. And neither the earth nor the heaven could contain such vast multitudes. Thus, the arguments of the emperor against the gods and idol worship followed the arguments offered earlier against idolatry by the fathers. He pointed out the immoral acts of these gods as reported by the poets themselves.
Once more the experienced and skillful sculptor, having formed the conception of his design, perfects his work according to the rules of art; and in a little while, as if forgetful of himself, idolizes his own creation, and adores it as an immortal god, while yet he admits that himself, the author and maker of the image, is a mortal man. Nay, they even show the graves and monuments of those whom they deem immortal, and bestow divine honors on the dead: not knowing that which is truly blessed and incorruptible needs no distinction which perishable men can give; for that Being, who is seen by the mental eye, and conceived by the intellect alone, requires to be distinguished by no external form, and admits no figure to represent its character and likeness.
Thus, the emperor was emphatic in his beliefs against idol worship, which he seemed to equate only with the worship of the pagan gods. He accepted that the true God could not be represented and could be seen only by the mental eye, conceived by the intellect.
The Emperor On Honoring the Christian Martyr and on Heathen Honoring of the Dead
The Emperor was also against the honors shown to the dead, that is, the pagan dead. On the other hand, the emperor did not feel averse showing respect to the martyrs to the
the honors of which we speak are
given to those who have yielded to the power of death: they once were men, and tenants, while they lived, of a mortal body.
At this point of time, a distinction was sought to be made between idol making, idol worshipping and worshipping of the dead of the heathen on the one hand, and the worshipping of the saints and the martyrs of the Christian faith, on the other. There was no indication yet of the sanctioning of making images for the Christian personages, but there was certainly an approval given to the honor paid to the martyrs and the saints (in the general sense of the saintly persons, and not those canonized) who were persecuted. The making of images for the royalty and such other personages was not treated with contempt, nor was the respect shown to such statues. The reversal of the positions taken by the early fathers was coming in small but steady steps.
Emperor Constantine gave a graphic description of the victories of martyrs in their death in the hands of the tyrant king Maximin:
Astonishment seized the spectators themselves, when they beheld the very executioners who tortured the bodies of their holy victims wearied out, and disgusted at the cruelties; the bonds loosened, the engines of torture powerless, the flames extinguished, while the sufferers preserved their constancy unshaken even for a moment. What, then, hast thou gained by these atrocious deeds, most impious of men? And what was the cause of thy insane fury?
The martyrs laid down their lives for the glory of God. They refused to worship the idols, although the heathen insisted and believed that there was some special power resided in these images.
Demolition of Idols: A Historical Inevitability
The Oration of Constantine assigned historical inevitability to the demolition of idols, abolition of idol worship and the overthrow of idolatrous cities. It was all predicted by the prophets. Along with the time of incarnation, the ruin of evil ways of idol worship, ruinous to the ways of righteousness, was predicted. Partaking of the virtues of wisdom and sound discretion would be through the worship of true God after the utter abolition of the rites of superstition.
Emperor Constantine's Steps Against Idol Worship
The Oration of Eusebius mentioned the steps taken by the emperor Constantine against idolatrous practices. It gave a graphic description of the demolition of idols, not by force of the military power, but by a band of friends close to the emperor. In other words, it showed that the emperor took a personal interest in the destruction of the idols and care was taken not to use undue force in enforcing his decisions. It was, however, a decision from the top.
For as soon as he understood that the ignorant multitudes were inspired with a vain and childish dread of these bugbears of error, wrought in gold and silver, he judged it right to remove these also, like stumbling stones thrown in the path of men walking in the dark, and henceforward to open royal road, plain and unobstructed, to all. Having formed this resolution, he considered that no soldiers or military force of any sort was needed for the repression of the evil: a few of his own friends sufficed for this service, and these he sent by a simple expression of his will to visit each several province. Accordingly, sustained by confidence in the emperor's piety and their own personal devotion to God, they passed through the midst of numberless tribes and nations, abolishing this ancient system of error in every city and country.
With the subtle backing of the imperial power, the friends of the emperor called the priests of these temples and used their very services to destroy these idols. Already the idol worship was thoroughly weakened by the solemn testimony of the martyrs. People were, on their own, distancing themselves from the practice of idol worship. However, there were temples still with idols, and the ignorant multitude who still followed these practices. The final push given by the imperial order and executed by his friends force the helpless idols go out of fashion.
They ordered the priests themselves, in the midst of general laughter and scorn, to bring their gods from their dark recesses to the light of day. They then stripped them of their ornaments, and exhibited to the gaze of all the unsightly reality which had been hidden beneath a painted exterior: and lastly, whatever part of the material appeared to be of value they scraped off and melted in the fire to prove its worth, after which they secured and set apart whatever they judged needful for their purposes, leaving to the superstitious worshippers what was altogether useless, as a memorial of their shame.
Iconoclasm was carried out with much enthusiasm and with much exhibitionism so that the worthlessness of the worship of helpless idols would be driven home in the hearts of all around. The Oration of Eusebius jubilantly recorded that even the emperor himself was involved in these iconoclastic acts. The emperor also
attacked those composed of brass; causing those to be dragged from their places with ropes, and, as it were, carried away captive, whom the dotage of mythology had esteemed as gods.
The emperor took personal interest in the demolition of idols wherever they existed in his empire. From his palace, he maintained a close watch `as the keen-sighted eagle' over the `hidden and fatal snare of souls' in the province of Phoenicia and elsewhere. He made it a point to destroy all such temples and their idols.
Rejection of Idols Lead to Peace
Eusebius called these `engines of an impure superstition'. He also mentioned that in some places military force was used in purging these places of worship. The empire was thus rid superstition and this resulted in peace all over:
Wars were no more, for the gods were not: no more did warfare in country or town, no more did the effusion of human blood, distress mankind, as heretofore, when demon-worship and the madness of idolatry prevailed.
In the past the kings did indeed have a lot of regard for these gods and worshipped them with all kinds of sacrifices and offerings. However, these gods did not bring peace; instead they encouraged war. On the other hand, war and strife were totally abolished along with the abolition of idol worship, claimed Eusebius. In other words, as we noticed earlier, the occurrence of wars and consequent sufferings were related to and instigated by the prevalence of idol, that is, demon worship. Eusebius proclaimed
the objects of their worship could hold out to these sovereigns with artful flattery the promise of prophecies, and oracles, and the knowledge of futurity: yet could they not predict their own destruction, nor forewarn themselves of the coming ruin: and surely this was the greatest and most convincing proof of their imposture.
Idol Gods Hid the Good News of God's Incarnation
Not only these. These idol gods did not announce the new revelation and in fact impeded the spread of the new revelation of the advent of the Saviour. On the other hand, the emperor proclaimed the sign of the Cross to the whole world after his victory. Eusebius, here, seems to compare the guilt of the pagan idols which failed to proclaim the advent of the Saviour with the image of the emperor Constantine holding aloft the sign of the Cross in its hand. Was it also an oblique justification for the erection of the image of the emperor? Eusebius declared that the emperor
proclaimed this triumphant Sign, by monuments as well as words, to all mankind, erecting it as a mighty trophy against every enemy in the midst of the imperial city, and expressly enjoining on all to acknowledge this imperishable symbol of salvation as the safeguard of the power of Rome and of the empire of the world.
Cross is to be Venerated
Again, the Cross was seen to be having divine efficacy.
Before this the hosts of his enemies have disappeared: by this the powers of the unseen spirits have been turned to flight: through this the proud boastings of God's adversaries have come to nought, and the tongues of the profane and blasphemous been put to silence. By this Sign the Barbarian tribes were vanquished; through this the rites of superstitious fraud received a just rebuke: by this our emperor, discharging as it were a sacred debt, has performed the crowning good of all, by erecting triumphant memorials of its value in all parts of the world, raising temples and churches on a scale of royal costliness, and commanding all to unite in constructing the sacred houses of prayer.
Monumentalism - A Newly Acquired Characteristic of Christianity
As the citation above indicates, along with the destruction of idols and idol temples, came the insistence of erecting Christian monuments, emphasis on the divine efficacy of the sign of Cross and the reiteration of veneration given to the martyrs.
The emperor Constantine was applauded not only for the destruction of idols and idol temples but also for the substitution of such temples by monumental churches. Eusebius lists the various churches, the `splendor of which no language can describe,' built by the emperor Constantine -- in Constantinople, the Bithynian capital, principal cities of other provinces, and in Palestine and so on.
Eusebius praised the emperor Constantine for the magnificent churches the emperor built and the marvelous memorials he erected throughout the empire. At this period, Christians came to look upon with approval and as a sign of the glory and success of the Lord, the magnificent church buildings and the memorials erected for the martyrs. Eusebius ends his oration with a plea that the emperor would continue
to offer memorials of our Almighty Saviour's conquest which well become the imperial dignity of him by whom they are bestowed. With such memorials have you adorned that edifice which witnesses of eternal life: thus, as it were in imperial characters, ascribing victory and triumph to the heavenly Word of God: thus proclaiming to all nations, with clear and unmistakable voice, in deed and word, your own devout and pious confession of his name (Chapter 18).
Note adorning the places of worship became a major theme at this time. The involvement of the royal power made it possible for the magnificent church buildings to be built and with this adorning of places of worship also came into practice.
Adore the Creator, Not the Created Objects
Eusebius, in his oration, continues to emphasize the need to worship the Creator and not the created objects, however. One should not lose himself in the beauty of the monuments, but seek the true God. Was this a subtle recognition of the danger that people would forget the true God and go in for the magnificence of the monuments? Was it an implied warning to the faithful that they should rather worship the Word of God and not be influenced by these monuments?
Those who transfer the worship due to that God who formed and rules the world to the works of his hand; who hold the sun and moon, or other parts of this material system, nay, the elements themselves, earth, water, air, and fire, in equal honor with the Creator of them all; who give the name of gods to things which never would have had existence, or even name, except as obedient to that Word of God who made the world: such persons in my judgement resemble those who overlook the master hand which gives its magnificence to a royal palace; and, while lost in wonder at its roofs and walls, the paintings of varied beauty and coloring which adorn them, and its gilded ceilings and sculptures, ascribe to them the praise of that skill which belongs to the artist whose work they are: whereas they should assign the cause of their wonder, not to these visible objects, but to the architect himself, and confess that the proofs of skill are indeed manifest, but that he alone is the possessor of that skill who has made them what they are" (Chapter 11).
Secular Victory Over Idolatry
Note that Eusebius, at this time, was interested, not in writing an apologia for Christianity, not even in repudiating idolatrous practices through any reasoned arguments, but in emphasizing the defeat of the false religion of idol worship and the worship of the only True God. It was not an apologia in the sense that these writings were not intended to explain the much misunderstood and much criticized Christian belief. The oration was more of an assertion of the victory of the Christian faith and truth than of a plea. It simply explained the glory of the Lord and assumed that idol worship and heathen religion were already overcome by the Christian faith with the victory of the Emperor Constantine.
Polytheism and Idolatry
One of the important contributions of Eusebius was his argument against the folly of and the evils caused by polytheism. Since the world were divided into many parts, could we assume that there were also different agents? Likewise, there were manifold creations, and this did not mean that there were manifold creators. The polytheistic worshippers were grievous in their error.
Yet such is he who from the component parts of a single world can devise for himself a multitude of gods, or even deem that world which is the work of a Creator, and consists of many parts, to be itself a god: not knowing that the Divine Nature can in no sense be divisible into parts; since, if compounded, it must be so through the agency of another power; and that which is so compounded can never be Divine. ...
Men did not exercise self-control when they devised idols. They gave themselves to the evil spirits which lurked within the statues. The nations throughout the world applied the name of gods to the brutes,the reptiles and all kinds of creations. The gods became models to be emulated by the nations around the world. Since these gods were themselves embodiment of immorality, the nations were deceived by these:
from the fables they had themselves devised respecting their own deities, they deduced occasions for a vile and abandoned life, and wrought the ruin of body and soul by licentiousness of every kind.
Perversion of every kind, thus, was from the source of idolatry. The blind operation of chance, the necessity of fate, the belief that soul and body were alike dissolved by death, all were part of idolatry. These beliefs had made them to lead a brutish life. Note idolatry was not viewed just as a simple worship of false gods or inert material. Idolatry was recognized as a system, a collation of beliefs, which was inimical to whatever the fundamental principles the Christian faith stood for. Truly it was recognized that wherever idolatry prevailed, it was always accompanied not only by polytheistic worship but also many other acts which not only degraded the honor given to God but degraded and subjugated the spirit of man. It was the strongest conviction of a future life that enabled the Christians, `with fearless and unshrinking zeal to maintain the conflict with Gentile and polytheistic error.'
Eusebius, overtaken by jubilation about the victory over idolatry and by the fact that the Christians would no more be subjected to cruelties of the past, wrote that the division of the world into various states and principalities came to an end just as the polytheistic error also came to an end. The original division was the influence of the polytheistic religions, a Satanic fraud. Two roots of blessing, as Eusebius put it, came into being -- Christian piety and the establishment of the Roman Empire, bringing peace among all warring nations of the earth. And all these depended on the abolition of idol worship.
CLICK HERE FOR PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION
JESUS' VIEWPOINT CAN BE OURS | EARLY ARGUMENTS AGAINST IDOLATRY PRIOR TO THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA IN A.D. 325 | RAISING A DISCIPLE | HOW CAN CHRIST COME INTO OUR HEARTS? | TRIALS AND PERSEVERANCE | ON DIVINATION | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR
M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Bethany College of Missions
6820 Auto Club Road, Suite C
Bloomington, MN 55438,U.S.A.
Send your articles
as an attachment
to your e-mail to
firstname.lastname@example.org. You must give your e-mail address in the body of your article, and also a declaration that the article is not published earlier. We do not accept the previously published articles for publication in CHRISTIAN LITERATURE AND LIVING, except under special circumstances and contexts.