Church “fathers”on Images

The following compilation which pertains to the use and veneration of images is from the work of Jason Engwer (not me), from what are wrongly termed early “church fathers,” as in truth the church began and greatly grew before them, and its “fathers” are essentially only those who are found in Scripture, and which is the judge of all. The church fathers which Roman Catholicism and Orthodox churches look to were mostly bishops who wrote during the first eight centuries of the Christian church. These church leaders were overall holy and very pious men, and whose writings provide some edifying materials, but are inferior in quality and authority to Divinely inspired Scripture, and evidence indicates they were yet seeking to understand as well as defend many things. They are charged with not always being consistent with themselves or each other, and as lacking the unanimous consent which Roman Catholicism requires and claims for its doctrines (but which allows defining non-unanimous as “unanimous” according to the theory of the development of doctrine). I advise you see further comments on church fathers and Scripture here.

I myself am not versed in all counter arguments, but Engwer can be reached through his blogger page. Any copying of his work should be attributed to him, and used for the glory of God.

Br. Engwer has moved on to blogging and his old web sites (, are no longer operative (2011), but for more material and for replies to some citations used in this work, one may visit blogs Br. Engwers is active on such as Triablogue, and also see such resources as those of the Beggars All blog, William Webster's site, Reformation500 site, James White's Vintage site. Some of Jason's former work can be found on the Internet Archive file here, and at this site (no formal affiliation).

For the index to more compilations from Engwer as (or if) I complete them (with perhaps some additions of mine own, distinctive at bottom) see here. My own home page is here.

For a custom Google search engine of these and other selected sites, see here. Please note however that this work or offered links cannot mean I may affirm all that is on a site, with all its conclusions, but that they are some of the best evangelical sites I have found, at least on the subject and hand, and believe in “repentance towards God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Acts 20:21) by His grace through faith, and to His glory.

Table of Contents. To return here, click on TOC


Justin Martyr




Minucius Felix






"Here also the advocates of images are wont to say this also, 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" - Arnobius (Against the Heathen, 6:24)

"great profit is derived from all sacred images, not only because the people are thereby admonished of the benefits and gifts bestowed upon them by Christ, but also because the miracles which God has performed by means of the saints, and their salutary examples, are set before the eyes of the faithful; that so they may give God thanks for those things; may order their own lives and manners in imitation of the saints; and may be excited to adore and love God, and to cultivate piety." - Council of Trent, session 25, "On the Invocation, Veneration, and Relics, of Saints, and on Sacred Images")

Athenagoras condemns the use of images, and he criticizes a pagan argument used to justify the veneration of images, an argument that Roman Catholics also use:

"In a word, of not one of these statues can it be said that it was not made by man. If, then, these are gods, why did they not exist from the beginning? Why, in sooth, are they younger than those who made them? Why, in sooth, in order to their coming into existence, did they need the aid of men and art? They are nothing but earth, and stones, and matter, and curious is affirmed by some that, although these are only images, yet there exist gods in honour of whom they are made; and that the supplications and sacrifices presented to the images are to be referred to the gods, and are in fact made to the gods" (A Plea for the Christians, 17-18)

"Through sacred images of the holy Mother of God, of the angels and of the saints, we venerate the persons represented....The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, 'the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,' and 'whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.'" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1192, 2132)

Clement of Alexandria

"the law itself exhibits justice, and teaches wisdom, by abstinence from sensible images" - Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata, 2:18)

"The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols." - Catechism of the Catholic Church (2132)

"familiarity with the sight disparages the reverence of what is divine; and to worship that which is immaterial by matter, is to dishonour it by sense." - Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata, 5:5)

"The required attentiveness [in meditation toward God] is difficult to sustain. We are usually helped by...holy icons" - Catechism of the Catholic Church (2705)

"Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine." - Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata, 7:5)

"sacred image...sacred images...sacred images" - Catechism of the Catholic Church (1159, 1161, 1192)

"The holy Synod enjoins on all bishops, and others who sustain the office and charge of teaching, that, agreeably to the usage of the Catholic and Apostolic Church, received from the primitive times of the Christian religion, and agreeably to the consent of the holy Fathers, and to the decrees of sacred Councils, they especially instruct the faithful diligently concerning the intercession and invocation of saints; the honour paid to relics; and the legitimate use of images...Moreover, that the imaages of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints, are to be had and retained particularly in temples, and that due honour and veneration are to be given them" - Council of Trent (session 25, "On the Invocation, Veneration, and Relics, of Saints, and on Sacred Images")

"But to make and honour the images of Christ our Lord, of His holy and virginal Mother, and of the Saints, all of whom were clothed with human nature and appeared in human form, is not only not forbidden by this Commandment [second of the ten commandments], but has always been deemed a holy practice and a most sure indication of gratitude. This position is confirmed by the monuments of the Apostolic age, the General Councils of the Church, and the writings of so many among the Fathers, eminent alike for sanctity and learning, all of whom are of one accord upon the subject." - The Catechism of Trent ("They Do Not Forbid Images Of Christ And The Saints").

"Owing to the influence of the Old Testament prohibition of images, Christian veneration of images developed only after the victory of the Church over paganism. The Synod of Elvira (about 306) still prohibited figurative representations in the houses of God (Can. 36)." - Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1974), p. 320

"Moreover, I have heard that certain persons have this grievance against me: When I accompanied you to the holy place called Bethel, there to join you in celebrating the Collect, after the use of the Church, I came to a villa called Anablatha and, as I was passing, saw a lamp burning there. Asking what place it was, and learning it to be a church, I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loth that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ's church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person. They, however, murmured, and said that if I made up my mind to tear it, it was only fair that I should give them another curtain in its place. As soon as I heard this, I promised that I would give one, and said that I would send it at once. Since then there has been some little delay, due to the fact that I have been seeking a curtain of the best quality to give to them instead of the former one, and thought it right to send to Cyprus for one. I have now sent the best that I could find, and I beg that you will order the presbyter of the place to take the curtain which I have sent from the hands of the Reader, and that you will afterwards give directions that curtains of the other sort--opposed as they are to our religion--shall not be hung up in any church of Christ. A man of your uprightness should be careful to remove an occasion of offence unworthy alike of the Church of Christ and of those Christians who are committed to your charge." - Epiphanius (Jerome's Letter 51:9)

The Protestant historian Philip Schaff wrote:

"The church historian Eusebius declared himself in the strongest manner against images of Christ in a letter to the empress Constantia (the widow of Licinius and sister of Constantine), who had asked him for such an image. Christ, says he, has laid aside His earthly servant-form, and Paul exhorts us to cleave no longer to the sensible; and the transcendent glory of His heavenly body cannot be conceived nor represented by man; besides, the second commandment forbids the making to ourselves any likeness of anything in heaven or in earth. He had taken away from a lady an image of Christ and of Paul, lest it should seem as if Christians, like the idolaters, carried their God about in images. Believers ought rather to fix their mental eye, above all, upon the divinity of Christ, and, for this purpose, to purify their hearts; since only the pure in heart shall see God. The same Eusebius, however, relates of Constantine, without the slightest disapproval, that, in his Christian zeal, he caused the public monuments in the forum of the new imperial city to be adorned with symbolical representations of Christ, to wit, with figures of the good Shepherd and of Daniel in the lion's den. He likewise tells us, that the woman of the issue of blood, after her miraculous cure (Matt. ix. 20), and out of gratitude for it, erected before her dwelling in Caesarea Philippi (Paneas) two brazen statues, the figure of a kneeling woman, and of a venerable man (Christ) extending his hand to help her, and that he had seen these statues with his own eyes at Paneas. In the same place he speaks also of pictures (probably Carpocratian) of Christ and the apostles Peter and Paul, which he had seen, and observes that these cannot be wondered at in those who were formerly heathen, and who had been accustomed to testify their gratitude towards their benefactors in this way." (section 110).

Here's the last passage Schaff mentions, in which Eusebius associates the making of the statues with heathenism and refers to it as "indiscriminate":

"Since I have mentioned this city I do not think it proper to omit an account which is worthy of record for posterity. For they say that the woman with an issue of blood, who, as we learn from the sacred Gospel, received from our Saviour deliverance from her affliction, came from this place, and that her house is shown in the city, and that remarkable memorials of the kindness of the Saviour to her remain there. For there stands upon an elevated stone, by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if she were praying. Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward the woman. At his feet, beside the statue itself, is a certain strange plant, which climbs up to the hem of the brazen cloak, and is a remedy for all kinds of diseases. They say that this statue is an image of Jesus. It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city. Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Saviour, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers." (Church History, 7:18)

The historian Paul Maier, in his translation of Eusebius, renders the last part of the last sentence as follows:

"this is to be expected, since ancient Gentiles customarily honored them as saviors in this unreserved fashion." (Eusebius: The Church History [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1999], p. 266)

In other words, Eusebius is referring to the making of statues as "indiscriminate" and "unreserved".

In the context of describing the erroneous beliefs and practices of heretics, Irenaeus disapprovingly mentions that they venerate images "after the same manner of the Gentiles". The way in which they venerate images is no different from what Roman Catholics do. No Roman Catholic would disapprove of venerating an image of Jesus this way, but Irenaeus does disapprove of it:

"Others of them employ outward marks, branding their disciples inside the lobe of the right ear. From among these also arose Marcellina, who came to Rome under the episcopate of Anicetus, and, holding these doctrines, she led multitudes astray. They style themselves Gnostics. They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles." (Against Heresies, 1:25:6)

"These men [heretics], moreover, practise magic; and use images, incantations, invocations, and every other kind of curious art." (Against Heresies, 1:24:5)

Justin Martyr opposes venerating images of the dead and making images of God:

"And neither do we honour 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 honour), but have the names and forms of those wicked demons which have appeared." (First Apology, 9)

He mentions the fact that the entities being honored are dead as a reason for not venerating their images. He criticizes attempts to portray God with images that aren't accurate representations of what God looks like. The same reasoning would prohibit Roman Catholics from venerating images of the deceased and making images of God, since they don't know what God looks like.

"But, they say, we do not fear the images themselves, but those beings after whose likeness they were formed, and to whose names they are dedicated. You fear them doubtless on this account, because you think that they are in heaven; for if they are gods, the case cannot be otherwise. Why, then, do you not raise your eyes to heaven, and, invoking their names, offer sacrifices in the open air? Why do you look to walls, and wood, and stone, rather than to the place where you believe them to be?...Wherefore it is undoubted that there is no religion wherever there is an image. For if religion consists of divine things, and there is nothing divine except in heavenly things; it follows that images are without religion, because there can be nothing heavenly in that which is made from the earth." - Lactantius (The Divine Institutes, 2:2, 2:19)

The Octavius of Minucius Felix is a recounting of a debate that occurred between a Christian, Octavius, and a non-Christian, Caecilius. The moderator of the debate, Minucius Felix, tells us that the debate began as he, Octavius, and Caecilius were walking together along a seashore. As they passed an image along the way:

"Caecilius, observing an image of Serapis, raised his hand to his mouth, as is the custom of the superstitious common people, and pressed a kiss on it with his lips. Then Octavius said: 'It is not the part of a good man, my brother Marcus [Minucius Felix], so to desert a man who abides by your side at home and abroad, in this blindness of vulgar ignorance, as that you should suffer him in such broad daylight as this to give himself up to stones, however they may be carved into images, anointed and crowned; since you know that the disgrace of this his error redounds in no less degree to your discredit than to his own.'" (The Octavius of Minucius Felix, 2-3)

Caecilius, offended by Octavius' rebuke, challenges him to a debate, which is to be moderated by Minucius Felix. Notice that Octavius, a Christian, objects to blowing a kiss at an image. He refers to Caecilius "giving himself up to stones, however they may be carved into images". He doesn't seem to be objecting to the identity of the image Caecilius is venerating. Rather, he's objecting to venerating *any* image.

As the debate proceeds, Caecilius issues the following criticism against Christians:

"Why have they no altars, no temples, no acknowledged images?" (10)

Octavius, in his response, tries to explain why Christians reject images:

"In like manner with respect to the gods too, our ancestors believed carelessly, credulously, with untrained simplicity; while worshipping their kings religiously, desiring to look upon them when dead in outward forms, anxious to preserve their memories in statues, those things became sacred which had been taken up merely as consolations." (20)

Roman Catholics sometimes argue that the early fathers weren't objecting to images in general, but only to *some* images, such as images of people or gods who didn't exist. But Octavius goes on to comment:

"What is your Jupiter himself? Now he is represented in a statue as beardless, now he is set up as bearded" (21)

In other words, one of his objections to images is that we don't know what the people being portrayed in the image look like. One image is inconsistent with another image. The same criticism would apply to Roman Catholic images. We find different portrayals of Mary, for example, in images in different parts of the world.

Elsewhere, Octavius issues another criticism that would apply to Roman Catholic images just as much as any other image:

"How much more truly do dumb animals naturally judge concerning your gods? Mice, swallows, kites, know that they have no feeling: they gnaw them, they trample on them, they sit upon them; and unless you drive them off, they build their nests in the very mouth of your god. Spiders, indeed, weave their webs over his face, and suspend their threads from his very head. You wipe, cleanse, scrape, and you protect and fear those whom you make; while not one of you thinks that he ought to know God before he worships Him; desiring without consideration to obey their ancestors, choosing rather to become an addition to the error of others, than to trust themselves; in that they know nothing of what they fear. Thus avarice has been consecrated in gold and silver; thus the form of empty statues has been established; thus has arisen Roman superstition." (24)

How likely is it that somebody who supported the veneration of images, as long as the correct figures are being venerated, would refer to animals building nests on images? Animals can build nests on the allegedly sacred images of Roman Catholicism just as easily as they build nests on other allegedly sacred images.

Octavius goes on to say that demons are "consecrated under statues and images" (27). Any doubt that Octavius is objecting to images in general, not just non-Christian images, is removed when he explains why Christians have no images of God:

"But do you think that we conceal what we worship, if we have not temples and altars? And yet what image of God shall I make, since, if you think rightly, man himself is the image of God? What temple shall I build to Him, when this whole world fashioned by His work cannot receive Him? And when I, a man, dwell far and wide, shall I shut up the might of so great majesty within one little building? Were it not better that He should be dedicated in our mind, consecrated in our inmost heart?...But certainly the God whom we worship we neither show nor see. Verily for this reason we believe Him to be God, that we can be conscious of Him, but cannot see Him; for in His works, and in all the movements of the world, we behold His power ever present when He thunders, lightens, darts His bolts, or when He makes all bright again. Nor should you wonder if you do not see God....Do you wish to see God with your carnal eyes, when you are neither able to behold nor to grasp your own soul itself, by which you are enlivened and speak?" (32)

Contrary to Octavius, Roman Catholicism tells us:

"The required attentiveness [in meditation toward God] is difficult to sustain. We are usually helped by...holy icons" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2705)

"As, then, this act of self-restraint, which in appearance is one and the same, is found in fact to be different in different persons, according to the principles and motives which lead to it; so in the same way with those who cannot allow in the worship of the Divine Being altars, or temples, or images. The Scythians, the Nomadic Libyans, the godless Seres, and the Persians, agree in this with the Christians and Jews, but they are actuated by very different principles. For none of these former abhor altars and images on the ground that they are afraid of degrading the worship of God, and reducing it to the worship of material things wrought by the hands of men. Neither do they object to them from a belief that the demons choose certain forms and places, whether because they are detained there by virtue of certain charms, or because for some other possible reason they have selected these haunts, where they may pursue their criminal pleasures, in partaking of the smoke of sacrificial victims. But Christians and Jews have regard to this command, 'Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve Him alone;' and this other, 'Thou shalt have no other gods before Me: thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them;' and again, 'Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve.'

It is in consideration of these and many other such commands, that they not only avoid temples, altars, and images, but are ready to suffer death when it is necessary, rather than debase by any such impiety the conception which they have of the Most High is not possible at the same time to know God and to address prayers to images." - Origen (Against Celsus, 7:64-65)

There were disagreements among the church fathers regarding the use of images and their veneration. Among the earlier church fathers, for example, we sometimes find condemnations not only of venerating images, but even of possessing them. Roman Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott wrote:

"Owing to the influence of the Old Testament prohibition of images, Christian veneration of images developed only after the victory of the Church over paganism. The Synod of Elvira (about 306) still prohibited figurative representations in the houses of God (Can. 36)." (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma [Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1974], p. 320)

Tertullian wrote:

"For how could he [Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration] have known Moses and Elias, except by being in the Spirit? People could not have had their images, or statues, or likenesses; for that the law forbade." (Against Marcion, 4:22)

On another occasion:

"We know that the names of the dead are nothing, as are their images; but we know well enough, too, who, when images are set up, under these names carry on their wicked work, and exult in the homage rendered to them, and pretend to be divine--none other than spirits accursed, than devils." (De Spectaculis, 10)

And on another occasion:

"In a word, if we refuse our homage to statues and frigid images, the very counterpart of their dead originals, with which hawks, and mice, and spiders are so well acquainted, does it not merit praise instead of penalty, that we have rejected what we have come to see is error?" (The Apology, 12) TOC

  • Supplementary

  • Catholic Encyclopedia: “ the first ages of Christianity, when converts from paganism were so numerous, and the impression of idol-worship was so fresh, the Church found it advisable not to permit the development of this cult of images; but later, when that danger had disappeared, when Christian traditions and Christian instinct had gained strength, the cult developed more freely.” (The True Cross)

  • Catholic Encyclopedia: “ is not likely that the chief cause of the emperor's zeal against pictures was the example of his bitter enemy, the head of the rival religion. A more probable origin will be found in the opposition to pictures that had existed for some time among Christians. There seems to have been a dislike of holy pictures, a suspicion that their use was, or might become, idolatrous among certain Christians for many centuries before the Iconoclast persecution began...some Catholics, too shared their dislike of pictures and relics. In the beginning of the eighth century several bishops, Constantine of Nacolia in Phrygia, Theodosius of Ephesus, Thomas of Claudiopolis, and others are mentioned as having these views.” (Iconoclasm)

  • “Owing to the influence of the Old Testament prohibition of images, Christian veneration of images developed only after the victory of the Church over paganism. The Synod of Elvira (circa 306) still prohibited figurative representations in the houses of God (Can. 36).” — Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1974), p. 320.

  • Melito: “We are not those who pay homage to stones, that are without sensation; but of the only God, who is before all and over all, and, moreover, we are worshippers of His Christ, who is veritably God the Word existing before all time.” (Melito. Translation by Roberts and Donaldson. From the apology addressed to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Online version copyright © 2001 Peter Kirby. 11/18/06).

  • Hippolytus: 16:1 They will inquire concerning the works and occupations of those are who are brought forward for instruction. 2 If someone is a pimp who supports prostitutes, he shall cease or shall be rejected. 3 If someone is a sculptor or a painter, let them be taught not to make idols. Either let them cease or let them be rejected (Hippolytus. The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome.

  • Marcianus Aristides: “But it is a marvel, O King, with regard to the Greeks, who surpass all other peoples in their manner of life and reasoning, how they have gone astray after dead idols and lifeless images...But God is not in need, and none of these things is necessary to Him; and it is clear that men err in these things they imagine.” (Marcianus Aristides. Translated by D. M. Kay. Apology of Aristides the Philosopher, Chapter XIII. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 9. American Edition, 1896 and 1897).