Overbeck’s Reply to Littledale On Icons

NFTU: The following is extracted from the 19th century Orthodox Christians writer, apologists, and polemicist, Dr. Julian Joseph Overbeck’s book “A Plain View of the Claims of the Orthodox Catholic Church.”  Dr. Overbeck replies to the criticism of certain Anglican authors who attempted to denigrate the authority of the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the veneration of icons. The specific reply addresses the objections of the Anglican scholar, Dr. Littledale.

No we have to explain some Orthodox doctrines which are a sore trial and a stumbling-block to most Anglicans, even to those who are otherwise well disposed towards the Orthodox Church—doctrines the denial of which shows how deeply Protestantism has eaten into the flesh of the Anglican body, and how the show of Catholic appearance is more specious than real. These doctrines are the Invocation of Saints, and the cultus of Icons and Relics. It is a pity that such a wild Protestant invective against these doctrines in Dr. Littledale’s “Plain Reasons against Joining the Church of Rome” should bear the name of a man whom we esteemed almost as our fellow-Churchman, but who is, as we now know, a thorough and genuine Protestant, and a bitter Protestant too. Dr. Littledale, who in his former books reverentially spoke of the “Holy” Eastern Church, now stigmatises the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the “Decrepit” Eastern Church. If this is a progress in the right direction, we may expect to see some more doctrines fall by and by.

Let us begin by examining the Orthodox doctrine respecting the Cultus of Icons or holy pictures. It is a known fact that graven images are not allowed in the Orthodox Church. Thus, strictly speaking, we cannot contravene the Second Commandment. But the burden of the Commandment was by no means contained in the word “graven,” but in the prohibition of making an image of the Deity. Dollinger expresses this beautifully (“Heidenthum und Judenthum,” p. 805). In Exod. 20:4, 5, and Deut. 5:8, not a word is said that absolutely forbade the Israelites to make a picture or image, except one of God for the purposes of worshipping Him in this figure or symbolic representation. Opposite heathenism, which constantly drew God down into nature and bodily mixed Him up with it, Jehovah was to be known and worshipped by the Hebrews as the Invisible One Who had no palpable and decaying figure, but rather was totally distinct from the world.  And the Longer Russian Catechism says: “We are forbidden [in the Second Commandment] to bow down to graven images or idols, as to supposed deities, or as to likeness of false gods.”  That images generally were forbidden is a fiction of the Iconoclasts.  Was it not God Himself Who commanded two Cherubim to be made overshadowing the Mercy-Seart (capporeth)?  Was it not God Himself Who “called by name” Bezaleel and Aholiab, and filled them “with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, and in  understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass,…and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship”? (Exod. 31:1-6)  Thus no Christian can object to the images of the Cherubim in the Holy of Holies, because God Himself ordered, and even (in a certain sense) designed them, by inspiring Bezaleel and Atholiab; yet they seem to be rather inconvenient to the taste and argument of Dr. Littedale, for (l. C. p. 26) he adds tot he words: “The figures of the Cherubim in the Holy of Holies” this significant remark: “Where, however, only one man ever saw them, and that only once a year.”  But we ask, Was the principle of making images right or wrong?  Was it wrong?—then not even a single man once a year is allowed to face it.  Was it right?—then all the people may witness it.  The Cherubin were not (as Dr. Littledale seems to imply) removed from the gaze of the people because they might have been made objects of idolatry, but because they were connected with the Mercy-Seat and the Shechinah, this typical Mystery, foreshadowing the N.T. [New Testament] Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist.  If the Cherubim were dangerous for the people to look at, why did the Lord not hesitate to command Moses: “Make thou a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass that everyone one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live”? (Num. 21:8)  How could such an image have a healing power?  Was the brass perhaps endued with such a wonderful quality?  St. John 3:14,15, reveals to us the secret: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  Here you have exactly the doctrine of the Orthodox Church respected the cultus of Icons.  Such Icons are, indeed, more than simply an historical representation, a sort of painted sermon. They are made for the purpose that the faithful may prayer before them, as the Israelites had prayerfully to look upon the serpent. And as the Israelite were not saved by the brazen figure, but by the Great Physician of our souls, Jesus Christ, Whose Atoning Death on the Cross and Final Victory over the serpent in Paradise was prefigured in Moses’s serpent on the pole: so also the minds of the Orthodox are to be lifted up by faith from the picture before them to the Only Source of all Grace, Jesus Christ, Our High Priest. If the picture represents the Blessed Virgin, the Apostles, or other Saints, our minds and prayers have not to abide with them, but to ascend with them to the Throne of Grace of Him from Whom Alone come all good gifts. Here the Iconoclasts will say: “IF we can do without Icons and need not such frail crutches to approach our God, why should we use them?” We have no doubt a free approach to God, and so had the Israelites; yet God wished them, in this particular case, to apply to Him by means of the brazen serpent. Why? They did not know at the time, but Christ declared to us His Father’s deep counsel. The Orthodox Church, the organ of the Holy Ghost, declares to us that the proper use of Icons is most salutary to us? Why? Partly because it is a necessary supplement to the doctrine of the Invocation of Saints, as we shall see hereafter. The full reason why we shall see when all veils are removed and we see Him face to face.

Now let us proceed to Christian Church history. In the beginning of the Christian Church the use of pictures was naturally restricted, though by no means in abeyance, as the safe hiding-places of the Catacombs show, in which we saw ourself plenty of pictures, reaching back as far as the beginning of the second century. The oldest picture we remember is in the Cemetery of St. Priscilla, and represents the Holy Virgin with Child, very much like our traditional Icons, with a prophet (Isa. vii.?) pointing to her. It is painted on the wall and much dilapidated, but fully recognisable. The Christian churches, or rather private houses used as churches, which were exposed to the attack of heathens, did not display anything that might arouse the suspicions of heathens or betray their religion. Therefore an outsider, on entering such a church, would find nothing, no altar, no cross, no picture. The table (mensa, trapeza) was their altar. The heathen ara, thomos was an abomination to them. The heathen altare was a vessel fitting to the ara , and placed on the top of it for the use of burnt-offerings, as Quntillian informs us (aris altaria imponere), consequently not less objectionable to the mind of a Christian than an ara. It would have been very unwise to attract the attention of enemies by the exhibition of pictures, which do not form an essential part of the divine services. And crosses? They could easily hide them, for they were undeniably used by the Christians, generally used, and more extensively used than in the present day; in fact, so much so, that the heathens called the Christian Cross-worshippers. If Dr. Littledale had attended to this fact, if he had attended to the drift of the treatises from which the passages produced are taken, he could easily have refuted himself, The bare quotation of patristic passages is no more value than the string of Bible texts in support of some heresy. Both require a closer inspection. We wonder that the Carpocratians are brought forward as witnesses against us, since they were heathens, nothing else, as St. Irenaeus (Adv. haer. i, 25, 1), St. Hippolytus (Refutat. omnium haeres. vii. 32), and St. Epiphanius (Haer. xxvii. 2) distinctly state. They believed Christ to be simply the son of Joseph and Mary. The Fatheres noticed them only because they adopted a Christian veil, borrowed from the Gnostics, for their religious system. St. Hippolytus (l. c.) says that they believed that those who despised the world-making Archons, as Jesus did, had the same power as Jesus, and some were still mightier (dunatoterous) than Jesus. Consequently, what can their mode of image-worship concern us? However, St. Irenaeus does not say a word against the veneration of Christian images, but only mentions Carpocratian “honouring these images after the same manner as the Gentiles.” The quotation of Municius Felix is most interesting and instructive. Has Dr. Littledale perhaps read the beginning of the chapter from which he quotes? If so, he would have seen what sort of crosses we neither worship nor wish for. There we read: “For in that you attribute to our religion the worship of a criminal and his cross, you wander far from the neighbourhood of the truth in thinking either that a criminal deserved, or that an earthly being was able, to be believed God.”  Now let the reader consult “Tertullian’s Apologeticus,” cp. 16, and he will see how both writers are dependent on each other. Both were contemporaries, bot lived (at least for a time) in Rome, and both were most likely countrymen of Africa. Tertullian shows still more fully that the heathens called the Christians Cross-worshippers (crucis religiosos), because they believed them to worship the cross as an idol. Tertullian sarcastically says (l. c. ): “Then if any of you think us worshipers of the cross, in that adoration he is sharer with us. If you propitiate a piece of wood, it matters little what it is like when the substance is the same: the form is of no consequence, if you have the very body of God” (ipsum dei corpus). Does it no strike our readers how the Christian could ever have been called Cross-worshippers, if not a certain lawful cultus of the cross had existed, which the heathens misinterpreted? If the Iconoclasts reply: “Such a conclusion is hasty, since the Christians were also called Ass-worshippers without the slightest reason,” Tertullian fully and satisfactorily answers them in the first part of the chapter, and in his book “Ad Nationes,” cap. xi. As to Dr. Littledale’s quotations from Origen, they are not more to the point than the preceding ones; in fact, they treat the same subject, i.e. images worshipped as gods, or heathen idolatry. No Orthodox addresses lifeless objects, but the living originals in heaven. No Orthodox offers to images his prayers, though he may pray before them, using the painted representation as a means to bring the original before his mind. But Origen is most decidedly wrong in saying: “What sensible man can refrain from smiling when he sees that one….imagines that by gazing on these natural things he can ascend from the visible symbols to that which is spiritual and immaterial?” For what purpose were, then, symbols given in the Old Testament and parables in the New Testament? Was it not to lead men from the visible to the invisible, from the corporeal to the spiritual? Has Dr. Littledale taken the trouble of reading the whole 19th chapter of the second book of the “Divine Institutions” by Lactantius? How can he then seriously produce against us a passage so plainly speaking of heathen image-worship, which is a totally different thing from the Christian veneration of images? What can there be more telling than this passage of the same chapter? —“For this is the state of the case, that whosoever shall prostrate his soul, which has its origin from heaven, to the infernal and lowest things (ad inferna et ina prostraverit), must fall to that place to which he has cast himself.” This clearly points to the opinion, shared by all the primitive Fathers, that the heathen idols were possessed by the devils or were organs of the demons. Next the 36th Canon of the Council of Elvira is quoted. But let us first hear something about the Council. It was composed of nineteen Bishops, the names of whom are given (though one Codex puts the number forty-three, however without giving the additional names). The acts mark its date 324. But Hosius of Cordoba, who figures among its members, was at that time not in Spain, but was already in 323 at the Imperial Court in Nicomedia, and lived from 323 to 325 partly in Nicomedia, partly in Alexandria and Nicea. No wonder that Berardi and Molkenbuhr (an eminent canonists of Munster) doubts of the genuineness of the Acts. Moreover, the first Canon is plainly tainted with the Novation error. Dr. Littledale can now estimate at its true value the wight of such a Council. However, even apart from these considerations, the 36th Canon seems to be a fruit of the persecution to Diocletian, and of the desire to avoid anything that could betray the persecuted Christians. That we must either sacrifice the Council or assign a much earlier date to it is quite clear from the above remarks. Moreover, the few words of the Canon do not state whether all pictures, or only the mysteries, e.g., the Holy Trinity, were forbidden, If we decide for “all,” the Canon is apparently at variance with the general practice of the Church, as we shall hear presently.  Dr. Littledale next quotes “Eusebius’s Church History,” vii. 14; but as this is a misquotation, we tried to find out its source, and found it in the book, “What is Romanism?” published by the same Society by which his book “Plain Reasons,” &c., is published. “What is Romanism?” is a series of twenty-six tracts, and forms a rich storehouse for anyone who wishes to attack the Roman and (partly at least) the Orthodox Church. In the 23d tract, p. 32, we find almost the same wording of the translation and the same misquotation, cap. 14 instead of 18. It is certainly “bookmaking made easy;” but whether it is the safest and most creditable way is another question. The passage of Eusebius is worthless for our purpose, since only the worship of Christian images by heathens, of course according to their idolatrous heathen custom, is mentioned.

The fact of St. Epiphanius tearing a curtain up in a church at Anablatha because a picture was painted on it, “contrary to the authority of the Scriptures and contrary to our religion,” must seem conclusive to our opponents. But a little more knowledge of Church history and of Patrology soon turns the scales. Who was St. Epiphanius? “A saint and great scholar.”  No doubt he was, for, besides being a great linguist, his intentions were pure. He was very zealous, but at the same time very indiscreet and injudicious; very learned, but by not means reliable (as R. A. Lipsius, in his book “Zur Quellen-Kritik des Epiphanios,” Wien, 1865, has fully shown); impulsive and passionate, carried away by the inspiration of the moment, even beyond the sacred boundaries of the Holy Canons; in short, harsh and absolute in his measure. Such a man was Epiphanius. No wonder that his life was a checkered career. What business had Epiphanius to act in the church at Anablatha as if he was the master of the house? He ought to have appealed to the Diocesan, and we should most likely have heard a very different verdict (as our illustrations from St. Basil will show). And what shall we say about his open defiance of the Holy Canons by ordaining St. Jerome’s brother Paulinianus priest? And Socrates, vi. 12-14, and Sozomenus, viii. 14, 15, tell us how he disregarded St. Chrysostom, and act at Constantinople as if he were in his own diocese. Epiphanius’s act at Anablath was far from being approved by other Orthodox people, for Epiphanius himself, in his letter to John, Bishop of Jerusalem, says: “I have heard that some complain against me, because….” and then he recounts the incident at Anablath. The letter referred to is only preserved in St. Jerome’s translation, and would most likely have been ignored by Jerome had it not been for the smart hit again Origen (and consequently against Rufinus) at the end of the letter, too great a temptation for Jerome’s pugnacious mind to be resisted.

Now let us shift the scene in a northern direction and betake ourselves to Neo-Caesarea, where on the 14th June, 370, St. Basil succeed to Eusebius on the archiepiscopal throne. Three years before (367) St. Epiphanius became Bishop of Salamis (Constantia), in the island of Cyprus. Thus both were contemporaries. Epiphanius no doubt belongs to Dr. Littledale’s “Holy” Eastern Church, but Basil, one of the greatest Saints and Doctors of the Orthodox Church, belongs to Dr. Littledale’s “Decrepit” Eastern Church, for he teaches exactly the doctrine which in 787 the Seventh Ecumenic Council at Nicea proclaimed, when “the Eastern Church had entered on its decrepitude” (“Plain Reasons,” pg. 36). Here are St. Basil’s words (Epist. 360 ad Julian Apostat., in Opp. tom. iii. p. 463, ed. Maur.) : “Whence I honour and do obesiance to the features of their pictures (Icons), particularly because they have been handed down from [the time of] the Holy Apostles, and have not been forbidden, but are represented in ALL our churches.”

Let us add a few explanatory remarks. The Greek ‘proskunein‘ (like the Hebrew ‘hishtachavah’) is used with regard to both God and creatures, and means “to prostrate one’s self before another” in toke no respect, “to kiss the hand or do obesiance to anybody,” as sign of veneration. It is, therefore, the inward act of veneration accompanied by an outward sign. St. Basil uses both verbs, ‘timan’ (to honour) and proskunein, in order to show that the veneration is not to be understood of divine worship, which is expressed by the word ‘latreia.’ In the same way the Seventh Ecumenical Council calls this veneration ‘ten timetiken proskunesin’. In order to mark the difference by single words, the Church adopted the term ‘Doulia’ for the cultus of Saints (hyperdoulia for the Blessed Virgin), because that term never at any time was use of divine worship. (1) ‘Latria’ was an old term for divine worship, used as such by the heathen. “Their pictures” refers to “apostles, prophets, and martyrs” in the text preceding our quotation. “Handed down from the Apostles.” What can there be plainer? Or shall we suppose that Dr. Littledale knows better than St. Basil what Apostolic Tradition is? St. Epiphanius, brought up in anchoretical seclusion with St. Hilarion, might have known little of the splendour of Christian temples and their Icons. An ascetic reigour and austere simplicity are features of his character. “And have not been forbidden.” This seems to imply that contradiction in some quarters had been raised, as every Christian dogma has met with contradiction. But how unavailing this contradiction was we see from the concluding words, that Icons “are represented in ALL our churches.”

It would simply be a waste of time to scan Dr. Littledale’s quotations from St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, as they are quite beside the mark, as even a superficial reader will perceive. And as to Serenus, the first Iconoclast, Dr. Littledale may justly anticipate that the majority of his readers will side with Pope St. Gregory the Great, who abhors not less the divine worship of images than the Orthodox Church always did, and still does up to the present day. The Decree (Oros) of the Seventh Ecumenical Council expressly says: “The honour shown to the Icon refers to the original, and he who venerates the Icon venerates in it the person of the one who is represented.” Therefore the Council permits only the veneration of images, and restricts the adoration proper to God.

If Dr. Littledale had read Hefele’s “Concilien-Geschichte” vol. iii. pp. 410-454 and pp. 646-671, he would better appreciate the Seventh Ecumenical Council, signed by the Papal Legates, who fully agreed with the Decree (Hefele, l. c. p.436); and he would know the Fathers of the Council of Frankfurt in 794 were deceived by falsified acts, in which ‘proskunein’ was constantly translated “adorare,” so that the Fathers rejected exactly the same thing that the [II] Council of Nicea rejected. The reader may judge how shamefully the Fathers of Frankfort were duped by the suppositious Acts before them; for the second of the fifty-six capitula, which the Frankfurt Synod set up, maintains that the [II] Nicene Council anathematised all those who did not offer to the pictures of the Saints the same service and adoration as to the Holy Trinity (Hefel, l. c. p. 646). Did Dr. Littledale know this? If so, why did he not inform the reader? If not, why did he not inform himself before judging so important a matter in such an offhand way? And as to the ecumenicity of our [II] Nicene Council, Dr. Little Dale (quite seriously) argues, p. 36: “It never has had the acceptance by Christendom which is necessary to make a Council rank as general and binding, nor can it ever acquire it now.” Did Dr. Littledale not know that the East and the West recognized it as an Ecumenical Council from 787 to the present day? The Council of Frankfurt rejected, not our [II] Council of Nicea, but an imaginary Council, and the single dissentient voices down to the fourteenth century shared the wrong impression produced by the Council of Frankurt. The present Roman Church recognises our Second Council of Nicea as Ecumenical (as Cardinal Mannin can inform Dr. Littledale), and no proof can be produced that Rome ever authoritatively rejected it. Or can Dr. Littledale mark a time, later than 787, when Rome began to recognise our Council? Beside the study of Hefele, we should advise Dr. Littledale to read Dr. Michaud’s excellent book “Discussion sur les Sept Conciles oecumeniques,” Berne, 1878. Here he will find that the opinion on the libri Carolini was the same in the East and in the West, with the solitary exception of “some Anglicans of a certain party, who seem to have made it their speciality to attack the oecumenicity of this seventh Council in any and every way, and to discredit it per fas et nefas by imputing to it a doctrine whic his has never taught” (p. 301). Then from pp. 301-305 he refutes Mr. Meyrick in a truly masterly way.

God endowed man with imagination, and as this faculty is His gift, He wished it to be appreciated and employed in the right way. Images are the instruments our imagination works with. Therefore they cannot be bad if employed in the right way. In fact, the corporeo-spiritual constitution of man cannot do without them. If we were angels we might dispense with them. The Puritan hatred of images was  unreasonable barbarity. Every one of us knows how deeply the veneration of images is seated in human nature. Have you a likeness of a departed parent or friend of whom you were affectionately fond? Did you never contemplate it tenderly and with emotions suggestive of love and admiration, and of a virtuous resolve to be worthy of their love? In short, have you never been carried away by your feelings beyond the dead lineaments on the paper or canvas to the living original? Would you assign a place of honour to such a picture, or would you not mind throwing it on a heap of rubbish? Why should you treat this picture differently from the rest? There is no intrinsic value, no magic power hidden in it. Now, if a likeness of a friend of yours is so precious to you, ought not a likeness or representation of a friend of God to be infinitely more precious to us? Can we be reproached with showing all signs of tender love and humble appreciation (addressed to the original and not to the dead materials, which were only instrumental in reminding us of the original) to those who are round the throne of God? If we fall down before a friend, beseeching him to assist us in great distress or to help us by his prayer, do we act as heathens or idolaters? Or do you think that the perfected saints round the throne of God are less powerful in pleading for us, or more indifferent as to our salvation than our imperfect brethren here below? And as to the use of burning lamps before the Icons and offering incense to them, every liturgical scholar knows that these are symbolic actions, denoting that the saints wish us to let our light shine before the whole world in faith and good works, and that our prayers to them and their prayers for us may ascend like sweet-smelling incense to the throne of God. No man in his senses will dare to assert hat the Orthodox believe that the kissing, bowing, lights, and incense are meant for the wooden tablet called Icon. It happened more than once that a Bishop, seeing an undue reverence paid to an Icon, destroyed it, as “Hezekiah brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made.” Archbishop Alexander Lycurgos did so not many years ago. But, you will ask, can it be denied that there are Orthodox who act as if they ascribed a certain undefinable magic power to Icons, or wear crosses and pictures as heathens wear amulets? We are sorry that there are such superstitious people; but how can the Church be made responsible for what she does not teach? Superstition is apt to creep in everywhere, and must be kept off and driven out by a solid instruction constantly repeated and kept alive. Let us not forget Dollinger’s gold words (Kirche und Kirchen, p. xxxi): “Also this we have to acknowledge, that in the Church the rust of abuses and of superstitious mechanism always gathers again; that the ministers of the Church sometimes by their supineness and imprudence, and the people by their ignorance, materlize the spiritual element in religion, and thus lower, disfigure, and turn it to their disadvantage. Therefore the right reformatory spirit in the Church must never disappear, but rather periodically burst forth with quickening vigour, and penetrate into the consciousness and will of the clergy.” This superstitious inclination is so strong, that even a man without religion falls a prey to it, as Disraeli in the Sheldonian Theatre (25th November 1864) truly remarked: “Man is a being born to believe, and if you do not come forward–if not Church comes forward, with all its title-deeds of truth sustained by the tradition of sacred ages and the convictions of countless generations, to guide him, he will find altars and idols in his own heart and his own imagination.” It is the duty of the priests and teachers to prevent the sound doctrine from being corrupted by superstition. Alas! how many of them have neglected and are neglecting their duty, and have thereby not only brought disgrace on our Church, but have jeopardised the souls committed to their care! But should we abolish the images because they can be misused? Then let us likewise discard the knife, the axe, the rope. Or would it not be better to instruct the people than to deprive them of an effective help and in an incentive to piety? (Cf. Confessio Orthodoxa, part iii. quest. 56)




(1) The verb ‘douleuo’ (like the Hebrew ‘abad’) is certainly also used of divine worship, but we are not aware of a single passage of the Old and New Testament in which the substantive ‘douleia’ and the correspondent Hebrew ‘aboda’ were used in this sense. And the reason why they were not used appears from Romans 8:15: “For ye received not the spirit of bondage (douleias) again unto fear; but ye received the Spirit of adoption.” And Galatians 4:24: “….these women are two covenants; one from Mount Sinai, bearing children unto bondage (eis douleian)….(v.26). But the Jerusalem that is above is free, which is our mother.” Therefore St. Paul (Rom. 12:1) requires of the Christians a “reasonable worship (latreian).”