Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Augustine on Images and Idolatry
04/26/2010 - James SwanIn Book IV of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin commented that history shows church councils have disagreed with church councils (IV, 9:9). In his comment, he makes a passing curious reference to Augustine and the debate over the use of images in church and worship:
Need I then recount how councils disagreed with councils? And there is no ground for anyone to murmur against me that of the two that disagree one is not legitimate. For by what shall we judge such a case? By this, unless I am deceived, that we shall determine from Scripture which one's decree is not orthodox. For this is the only sure principle on which to distinguish. It is now about nine hundred years since the Council of Constantinople, convened under the Emperor Leo, decided that images set up in churches should be pulled down and smashed. A little later, the Council of Nicaea, which the Empress Irene, in hatred toward the first council, assembled, decreed the restoration of images. Which of these two shall we acknowledge as legitimate? The latter, which gave images a place in churches, has subsequently prevailed among the people. But Augustine says that this practice involves an ever-present danger of idolatry.While not noted by Calvin, The Institutes cites "Augustine, Psalms, Psalm 1 13. 2. 5 (MPL 37. 1484; tr. LF Psalms [Psalm 115] V. 287 f." as a reference. The comment from Augustine is indeed fascinating:
5. Does anyone worship or pray with his eyes fixed on the image, without being persuaded that the image is hearing his petition and without hoping that it will give him what he wants? Probably not. So thoroughly entangled do people become in such superstitions that they often turn their backs on the real sun and pour out their prayers to the statue they call Sun; or again, while the sound of the sea is battering them from behind they batter the statue of Neptune with their sighs as though it were conscious, that statue which they venerate as representative of the actual sea. What causes this error-almost forces the illusion on them, in fact-is the human likeness with all its bodily parts. The minds of the worshippers are accustomed to living with their own bodily senses, and so they judge that a body very similar to their own is more likely to be responsive than the sun's orb, or the wide waves, or any other object clearly not built on the same plane as the living creatures they are used to seeing.
6. It may be objected that we ourselves have many vessels and other accessories made of similar metals, which we use in the celebration of the sacraments. They are consecrated to divine service and are called holy in honor of him who is worshipped through their use for our salvation. Such vessels and implements are obviously the work of human hands: what else could they be? But do they have mouths that will never speak, or eyes that will never see? And does the fact that we make use of them to offer our supplications to God mean that we are begging anything from them? Of course not.
The principal cause of insane, blasphemous idolatry is this: a form resembling that of a living person- a form that by its lifelike appearance seems to demand worship- is more powerfully persuasive to the emotions of its wretched suppliants than the plain fact that it is not alive and ought to be scorned by anyone who is. The evidence of mouths, eyes, ears, nostrils, hands, and feet in the idols has more power to lead an unhappy soul astray than the evident inability on their part to speak, see, hear, smell, handle things, or walk has power to bring such a soul back to the truth.
7. The inevitable result is the deterioration the psalm goes on to describe: May those who fashion them become like them, and all who put their trust in them. Let people with open and seeing eyes gaze at images that neither see nor live, and let their minds become closed and dead as they worship.
[John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., The Works of Saint Augustine, Part 3, Vol. 19, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., Expositions of the Psalms, Psalms 99-120, Exposition 2 of Psalm 113.5 (Psalm 114) (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2003), pp. 315-316].
Note first, the skepticism on Augustine's part, where he anticipates the Roman objection that people are not praying to the image itself, but to the thing/person represented by the image. Second, often Rome's apologist argue "we keep pictures of our family and loved ones as a way to remind us of them, we also keep statues and images in our homes and churches as a way to help remind us of our Lord and the heroes of the faith: the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints, and the angels" [Patrick Madrid, Where is That in the Bible? (Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2001 ), p. 132]. Madrid leaves out the fact that Roman Catholics also pray to these saints, asking for their help and intercession.
Augustine though states the obvious:
Does anyone worship or pray with his eyes fixed on the image, without being persuaded that the image is hearing his petition and without hoping that it will give him what he wants? Probably not. So thoroughly entangled do people become in such superstitions that they often turn their backs on the real sun and pour out their prayers to the statue they call Sun... The principal cause of insane, blasphemous idolatry is this: a form resembling that of a living person- a form that by its lifelike appearance seems to demand worship- is more powerfully persuasive to the emotions of its wretched suppliants than the plain fact that it is not alive and ought to be scorned by anyone who is.
Chantal Epie's The Scriptural Roots of Catholic Teaching (New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2002) states, "The saints did not allow themselves to be worshipped like God. Yet they did not chase away those who came to them asking for miracles. In accordance with His promise, God granted many favors through their intercessions" (p. 257). While Romanists may claim they aren't placing their faith in a saint, one can't help but agree with Augustine's caution. Rome's apologists can balk against this charge all they want, but they should consider the source from which it comes, and as Calvin states, "the ever-present danger of idolatry."