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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
the adoration of artificial representations of real or imaginary objects. (See IDOLATRY).
I. Image-worship among the Jews. — It has always been a tendency of the human mind, untaught by true revelation, to embody the invisible deity in some visible form, and especially in the human form. This led to representations of God, or of the gods, as conceived by the mind, in painting or statuary, under all kinds of shapes, such as men, monsters, animals, etc. In the course of time these representations came to be considered as being themselves the gods, and to be worshipped in temples and on altars. The Jews, as worshippers of one God, were by the Law of Moses forbidden to make any image of Jehovah; but the people, corrupted by the example of the Egyptians, compelled Aaron to erect a golden calf in the Desert. After their entrance into Canaan, as the worship of Jehovah was not yet fully organized and accessible to all, they made use in their household devotions of images of the Invisible, and that practice became quite general; but, as the civil and religious organization of the Jews became more developed, this practice fell gradually into disuse, and-it was no longer tolerated under David and Solomon. After the separation between Judah and Israel, Rehoboam restored the use of images in the latter kingdom for political motives, erecting golden calves in Dan and Bethel. In the kingdom of Judah the worship of images found, however, but few partisans. After the captivity of Babylon we find no traces of it.
II. In the Christian Church. — Images were unknown in the worship of the primitive Christians; and this fact was, indeed, made the ground of a charge of atheism on the part of the heathen against the Christians. The primitive Christians abstained from the worship of images, not as the Romanists pretend, from tenderness to heathen idolaters, but because they thought it unlawful in itself to make any images of the deity. Tertullian, Clemens Alexandrinus, and Origen were even of opinion that, by the second commandment, painting and engraving were unlawful to a Christian, styling them evil and wicked arts (Tertullian, de Idol. c. 3; Clem. Alexand. Adunon. ad Gent. p. 41; Origen, contra Celsum, 6, 182). Some of the Gnostic sects, especially the Basilidians (q.v.) and the Carpocratians (q.v.), made effigies of Christ. St. Paul, etc. (See GNOSTICS).
This example of professed philosophers was not without its influence on the Church, and it was seconded by a similar usage among the Manichmeans (q.v.), and by the steady pressure of heathen ideas and habits upon Christianity. Emblems, such as the dove, the fish, the anchor, vine, lamb, etc., engraved on seals, formed the first step; then came paintings representing Biblical events, saints or martyrs, etc., which were placed in the vestibule of the church. Yet this practice was unfavorably regarded by the synods of the 4th century. When, however, in the same century, Christianity was proclaimed the religion of the state, many distinguished persons embraced it, and its ceremonial became more imposing; and in the 5th century the use of painting, sculpture, and jewelry became general for the decoration of the churches. This resulted in the adoption of a regular system of symbolic religious images. Paulinus of Nola (q.v.) was chiefly instrumental in introducing these practices in the West, and, as the images were at first chiefly used in books intended for the instruction of the poor and the laity, (See BIBLIA PAUPERUM), who were too ignorant to read, they probably did more good than harm at the time; but as the teachers of the Church became gradually more accommodating in their relations with the heathen, holding out greater privileges to them, and allowing them to retain their old usages while conforming to the outward forms of Christianity, the worship of images became so general that it had to be repeatedly checked by laws. In the 6th century it had grown- into a great abuse, especially in the East, where images were made the object of especial adoration: they were kissed, lamps were burned before them, incense was offered to them, and, in short, they were treated in every respect as the heathen were wont to treat the images of their gods. Some of the heads of the Church encouraged these practices from motives of policy, while the more enlightened and evangelical portion strongly opposed them. This gave rise to the Iconoclasts (q.v.).
Neander describes the origin of the use of images in churches as follows: "It was not ‘ in the Church, but in the family, that religious images first came into use among the Christians. In their daily intercourse with men, the Christians saw themselves everywhere surrounded by the objects of pagan mythology, or, at least, by objects offensive to their moral and Christian sentiments. Representations of this sort covered the walls in shops, and were the ornaments of drinking-vessels and seal rings, on which the pagans frequently had engraved the images of their gods, so that they might worship them when they pleased. It was natural that, in place of these objects, so offensive to their religious and moral sentiments, the Christians should substitute others more agreeable to them. Thus they preferred to have on the goblets the figure of a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulder, which was the symbol of our Savior rescuing the repentant sinner, according to the Gospel parable. Clement of Alexandria says, in reference to the seal-rings of the Christians, ‘ Let our signets be a dove (the symbol of the Holy Spirit), or a fish, or a ship sailing towards heaven (the symbol of the Christian Church and of the individual Christian soul), or a lyre (the symbol of Christian joy), or an anchor (the symbol of Christian hope); and he who is a fisherman will not be forgetful of the apostle Peter, and of the children taken from the water; for no images of gods should be engraved on the rings of those who are forbidden all intercourse with idols; no sword or bow on the rings of those who strive after peace; no goblets on the rings of those who are the friends of sobriety.' Yet religious emblems passed from domestic use into the churches perhaps as early as the end of the 3rd century. The walls of them were painted in this manner. The Council of Elvira, in the year 303, opposed this innovation as an abuse, and forbade ‘ the objects of worship and adoration to be painted on the walls'" (Neander, Church History, 1, 292).
III. Image worship in the Roman Catholic Church. The Romanists deny the charge of worshipping images, or idolatry, which has often been and is still made against them by Protestants. They have always carefully refrained from such doctrinal definitions on the subject as would fully convict the Church of idolatry. In this respect the course of the Romish Church is similar to its procedure with regard to the doctrine of good works, which it presents in such a manner as might lead one to think that it strictly asserts the merits of Christ as alone rendering our works useful, whilst in practice the believer is pointed to good works as the means of salvation. So, with regard to prayers to the Virgin and the saints, it draws a clear distinction between the adoration and the worship of saints, but practically the prayers of the Roman Catholics are more generally addressed to the saints than to Christ. The same takes place with regard to images. The Council of Trent (See. 25:De invocatione Sanctorum, etc.) states, "that the images of Christ and of the ever virgin Mother of God, and in like manner of other saints, are to be kept and retained, and that due honor and veneration is to be awarded to them. Not that it is believed that any divinity or power resides in them, on account of which they are to be worshipped, or that any benefit is to be sought from them, or any confidence placed in images, as was formerly done by the Gentiles, who fixed their hope in idols. But the honor with which they are regarded is referred to those who are represented by them; so that we adore Christ and venerate the saints, whose likenesses these images bear, when we kiss them, and uncover our heads in their presence, and prostrate ourselves." The council quotes on this subject the second Synod of Nicaea. To this "honor and veneration" belong the solemn consecration of the images, offering up incense before them, the special prayers accompanying these ceremonies as contained in the Pontificae Romanum, other prayers for private use to be repeated before the images, and the indulgences granted to those who fulfill that duty, etc. All this shows that the Romish Church, while rejecting in form the doctrine of image worship, has introduced the practice among the people. The masses do not and cannot understand the subtle distinction made by the Church, and not always strictly observed even by the clergy.
The Church knows of this evil, but places it among things she tolerates for the sake of charity, though she does not approve them. Yet some Roman Catholic theologians appear to have come very close indeed to the same conception as the masses on this point. Thomas Aquinas expressed his views of images in a dilemma: "A picture considered in itself is worthy of no veneration, but if we consider it as an image of Christ it may be allowable to make an internal distinction between the image and its subject, and adoratio and latsica are as well due to it as to Christ" (3 Sent. dist. 9, qu. 1, art. 2, 3; Summa, qu. 23, art. 4, 5). Bonaventura drew a correct conclusion from the principle: "Since all veneration shown to the image of Christ is shown to Christ himself, then the image of Christ is also entitled to be prayed to" (Cultus latrice, 1. 3, dist. 9, art. 1, qu. 2). Bellarmine says that "the images of Christ and the saints are to be adored not only in a figurative manner, but quite positively, so that the prayers are directly addressed to them, and not merely as the representatives of the original (Ita ut ipsi [imagines] terminent venerationem, ut in se considerantur et non ut vicem gerunt exemplaris). The image itself is in some degree holy, namely, by its likeness to one holy, its consecration and its use in worship; from whence it follows that the images themselves are not entitled to the same honor as God, but to less" (De Inmaginibus, 1. 2, c. 10), i.e. the difference between the divine worship and image worship is one of degree or quantity, not of nature or quality. Such theories, although far overstepping the limits of the decree of Trent, are yet freely permitted by the Romish Church; it neither openly admits nor officially condemns them, and thus leaves an opening for all possible degrees of idolatry, over which many an honest Roman Catholic priest mourns in secret.
History shows that the first tendency to image-worship was the result of a slow but continued degeneracy. The same arguments now used by the Romish Church to defend image-worship were rejected by the Christians of the first three centuries when used in the defense of idol-worship. The heathen said, We do not worship the images themselves, but those whom they represent. To this Lactantius answers (Inst. Div. lib. 2, c. 2), "You worship them; for, if you believe them to be in heaven, why do you not raise your eyes up to heaven? why do you look at the wood and stone, and not up, where you believe the originals to be?" The ancient Church rejected the use of all images (Synod of Elkira, 305, c. 36: "Placuit, picturas in ecclesiis esse non debere, ne quod colitur aut adoratur, in parietibus depingatur"). The early Christians evidently feared that pictures in their churches would eventually become objects of prayer. The admission of images into the church in the 4th and 5th centuries was justified on the theory that the ignorant people could learn the facts of Christianity from them better than ‘ from sermons or books. But the people soon lost sight of this use of the images, and made them the objects of adoration.
This took place earlier in the East than in the West; but the abuse gained ground in the latter region in a short time. Serenus, bishop of Marseilles, broke several images, and had them taken out of the church, because he found that the people prayed to them. Gregory the Great proclaims that he does not allow any praying to (adorari) the images, and adds to this that Paulinus of Nola and Nilus had already said that paintings were placed in the church only in order that the uneducated might read on the walls what they were unable to read in books (lib. 9, ep. 105). He also laid down, as a general principle, in his letter to Secundinus, that it was expedient to use the visible to represent the invisible (lib. 9, ep. 52). But he shows evidently that he is not speaking of a mere objective representation of Deity, for he says that he prostrates himself (prosternimus) before the images, making the well-known Roman Catholic condition that he thus really prays to Christ. The second Council of Nicnea (A.D. 787) decreed the validity of image-worship, and anathematized all who opposed it. The Frankish Church, on the other hand, though it did not forbid the use of images in the church, formally declared against their being worshipped. Charlemagne opposed to the decrees of the synod the so-called Caroline books (q.v.), in which it is expressly said that images are allowed in the church, but not to be prayed to, only to excite the attention on the subjects they commemorate, and to adorn the walls. "For," as it says further on, "if some enlightened persons, who do not pray to the image itself, but to him it represents, should pray before the image, it would mislead the ignorant, who pray only to what they see before their eyes" (lib. 3:16). The Synod of Frankfort (summoned by Charlemagne, A.D. 794, and consisting of 300 bishops) and the Synod of Paris (825) solemnly condemned image- worship. The latter council even ventured to reject the pope's contrary opinion in very strong terms. During the whole of the 9th century the matter was thus at rest, Claudius of Turin, Agobard, and other of the most important theologians of that period approving the action of the synods. Jonas of Orleans, an opponent of Claudius, expressly says, in his De cultu imaginum. that images are placed in the church "solummodo ad instruendas nescientium mentes." The Council of Trent, as cited above, recommends images as means of instructing the people, and to incite the faithful to imitate the saints; but in later times the Romish Church has added to this what the Frankish Church of the 8th and 9th centuries had so wisely rejected. — Herzog, Real-Encyklop. 2, 233-235. The fluctuations of opinion and variations of discipline in the Romish Church on the subject of image-worship are well exhibited by Faber (Difficulties of Romanism, p. 10 et sq.). See White, Bampton Lectures, p. 8; Coleman, Ancient Christianity, chap. 13:§ 14; Spanheim, Hist. Imaginum, Opera, tom. 2; Bingham, Orig. Eccles., book 8:ch. 8; Tenison, On Idolatry, p. 269. sq.; Winer, Comp. Darstellung, 3, 1. See also articles (See ICONOCLASTS); (See ICONOGRAPHY); (See GREEK CHURCH); (See ROMAN CHURCH).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Image-Worship'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​i/image-worship.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.