A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Aniconism Versus Iconoclasm?

Baptistry – Dura-Europos Church – circa AD 250


CS Comments on “John Carpenter – Round 2”


I received a comment from CS in regards to my recent article: “Responding to Rev. John Carpenter – Round 2.”  In light of the number of questions he asked and the length of my answers to his questions, I made the decision to post both as a separate blog article.  You may find the original comment here.

To assist the reader, I have put CS’s comment in block quotes and italicized them.  My responses will be in the normal font format.

Robert Arakaki


“The Incarnation changes everything.” Fr. Josiah Trenham

[1] Did something change between the Old and New Testament?

CS writes:

I think the dilemma of the icon venerator is the question of “did something change with images between the old and new covenant or not?”

If something changed, then you cannot use Old Testament images or continuity with the Synagogues as an argument for icon veneration. Because icon veneration is something wholly new.

If something did not change, then you must show that the practice of veneration of images is present within the Old Testament church and to a degree within Jewish tradition during the time of Christ.

Icon venerators often mix arguments from these two positions together in the hopes that the uninformed reader will be confused and dazzled enough to give in.

In this article, you seem to take the view that our relationship with images did not fundamentally change in the new covenant. Well, somebody forgot to inform John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite of this.

My response – Yes, something changed between the Old and the New Covenants – the Word became flesh. The Levitical sacrificial system was superseded by Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross. Jesus was the ultimate Passover Lamb who died for the sins of the world. No longer were men obliged to go to the Jerusalem Temple and offer up sacrifices for their sins. Circumcision was superseded by baptism into Christ. Christian baptism—while it has roots in the Jewish reception of converts—represents a new form of covenant initiation, especially when it superseded Jewish circumcision. That is why the Christian Judaizers, who were theological conservatives, resisted the radical implications of the Gospel, which the Apostle Paul expounded on in Galatians and Romans.

Your insistence that it must be shown that Jews in the Old Covenant kissed and bowed down to images in order for icon veneration to be valid is misplaced. By that reasoning, you might as well have insisted that there be evidence for the universality of baptism in Old Covenant Judaism. And you might as well have insisted that there be evidence of the Jewish Passover meal consisting of consuming someone’s body and blood. It must be recognized that in Christianity elements of Old Covenant Judaism were received and transformed in light of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection.

The Incarnation gave rise to a new form of worship – the Christian Eucharist. In the Eucharist, Christ’s body and blood are offered in the Sunday worship throughout the world. The real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, while it represents continuity with the Jewish Passover, also represent something new. Why else were so many offended by Jesus teaching about eating body and drinking his blood in John chapter 6? This new kind of worship reflects the transformatory influence of Christ’s Incarnation, his death on the Cross, and his third-day Resurrection. Father Josiah Trenham (5:15 mark of the video) aptly put it: “The Incarnation changes everything.”

You implied that my position was that our relationship with images did not change. That is incorrect. I wrote that Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection transformed the Jewish martyrs cult and their approach to images. When you sarcastically remarked that someone forgot to tell John of Damascus that our relationship with images did not change, you seemed not to have read the quote from John of Damascus that the momentous event of the Incarnation opened the way for the making of images of Christ. “When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw a likeness of His form.” It seemed to me that you read my article in haste and superficially. I would urge you to reread my article again more carefully, paying attention to the implications of Christ’s Incarnation for the relations between the Old and New Covenants.



[2] Aniconism versus Iconoclasm?

CS writes:

You said:

“Thus, the likely reason for the absence of images was prudence, not iconoclasm. To openly depict Christian images might invite investigation and prosecution in times of persecution. It is somewhat surprising that Rev. Carpenter cites Bigham in support of Reformed iconoclasm (see footnote no. 45), but then failed to take note of the explanation that Bigham gives for the absence of images. “

Rev. Carpenter is not arguing for iconoclasm. The fact that Dura Europas has images is perfectly fine and acceptable with his position. That is why it did not need to be addressed.

At this point, your article is starting to present a straw man. This happens every time an EOA [Eastern Orthodox Apologists] finds themselves in a tough spot. They revert back to arguing against iconoclasm. You need to argue that it is correct to bow down before images and venerate them, not that it is merely ok to create images. Carpenter does not object to the latter as this is obviously present in the old testament.

And again you state:

“Reformed apologists like Rev. Carpenter will need to present archaeological evidence that shows that the norm among early churches were four bare walls like modern-day Reformed churches.”

Why must Rev. Carpenter defend a view that he does not hold? Please address Carpenter’s actual position.

You said:

“This belief that Orthodoxy’s claim “unbroken continuity” leaves absolutely no allowance or room for any development has been a significant impediment to Reformed-Orthodox dialogue.”

When you are unable to prove a consistent teaching from 33 AD (or even 200 AD) as you advertise to converts, you punt to development of doctrine. Just an observation.

My Response – Thank you for providing the missing quotes.  This makes your comment much clearer. [Added 9-Feb-2019]

In his article Rev. Carpenter disavows iconoclasm by defining it in a very narrow fashion – active opposition to icons. This definition is not only overly narrow but unconventional. This is why I took the effort to present the definition of ‘iconoclasm’ in the Oxford Dictionary. By presenting unconventional definitions Rev. Carpenter is rigging the rules of the game in his favor. In the paragraph just above the sub-section title “A False Binary?” I pointed out the word game that Rev. Carpenter is playing and my refusal to play by his rules. I stated clearly that I would be following the conventional definition of “iconoclastic,” rather than Rev. Carpenter’s idiosyncratic definition of ‘iconoclastic.’ In light of the conventional definitions like that provided in the Oxford Dictionary, Rev. Carpenter is clearly an iconoclast. This is why I cited the major confessions of the Reformed tradition that make it clear in no uncertain terms that they oppose images in churches.

Aniconism as a conceptual spectrum ranges from moderate aniconism which allows for religious images (not necessarily with active devotion) to rigorous aniconism which opposes religious images. This is useful for understanding the variety of views held in early Judaism and Christianity. Iconoclasm likewise is a conceptual spectrum. It ranges from doctrinal opposition to active opposition that involves physical destruction of religious images. This is useful for understanding the various forms that iconoclasm takes. Aniconism is not necessarily opposed to iconoclasm. Pertinent to our discussion is the fact that rigorous aniconism overlaps with doctrinal iconoclasm. Rev. Carpenter attempts to avoid this by applying an unconventional definition of iconoclasm (involving only the active destruction of religious images) to himself. But let us call a spade a spade; if you hold to rigorous aniconism, you are also a doctrinal iconoclast. Calvinists, like Rev. Carpenter, may not have destroyed any religious images lately, but they are bound to the Reformed confessions that explicitly oppose as a matter of doctrine religious images in churches. To me, in light of the Oxford Dictionary’s definition that iconoclasm involves the rejection and/or destruction of images, John Carpenter is an iconoclast. [This paragraph added 6-Feb-2019]


Eucharist – the core of Orthodox Tradition

Your demand for proof of clear evidence of icon veneration from AD 33 to AD 200 shows an unrealistic understanding of church history. It is important when studying early Christianity that one approach it with an attitude of humble respect, not arrogant demands for evidence. Rather than ask:

Where’s the evidence for the active veneration of icons between AD 33 to AD 200?”;

one should instead ask:

What evidence is there of Christianity between the period AD 33 to AD 200?

Although not abundant, the evidence from the early writings indicate that early Christian worship was liturgical, that the Eucharist was the center of early Christian worship, and that the early Christians believed in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. This is why I closed my article urging Rev. Carpenter to focus on the Eucharist as the point of difference between the Reformed tradition and Orthodoxy. There is ample evidence to make for a fruitful dialogue about how the Reformed tradition and present day Orthodoxy compare against early Christianity. Furthermore, the Eucharist lies at the core of Orthodox Tradition. If Rev. Carpenter can show that the Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist diverges from the early Church or that a radical rupture in historical continuity with respect to the Liturgy took place then he will have presented a serious challenge to Orthodoxy’s claim to have a direct link to the early Church. On the reverse side, Rev. Carpenter will need to show how the Reformed understanding of the Eucharist and the real presence is much closer to the early Church than Orthodoxy. This is where Reformed-Orthodox dialogue should be focused on. Icons, while integral to Orthodox Tradition, do not comprise the central core of Tradition. The veneration of icons can be considered consequences from the Church’s growing appreciation of Christ’s sacramental presence in the Eucharist which resulted from his Incarnation and Resurrection.



[3] Essence/Energies Distinction & Did the Incarnation happen in the Old Testament?

CS writes:

Some icon venerators tie in the essence/energies distinction for why icons should be venerated. My response is, did the essence/energies distinction not exist in the Old Testament?

My response: The essence/energies distinction existed in the Old Testament just as the Holy Trinity existed in the Old Testament. The idea of God as Trinity was implicit in the Old Testament, became more explicit in the New Testament Scriptures, then was formalized as dogma in the First and Second Ecumenical Councils (325 and 381). The essence/energies distinction in the Church’s understanding of God has a similar trajectory. The Christological and Trinitarian controversies led the Church Fathers to appropriate terms used in Greek philosophy and invest new meanings into words like ‘ousia’ (essence) and ‘prosopon’ (person). It would not be until the 1300s that Gregory of Palamas brought greater precision to our understanding of God as ‘energies.’ God has always been essence, person, and energies, what changed is humanity’s understanding of what God is. Here again is an example of why the idea of the development of doctrine is so important and useful. Without the development of doctrine, we would likely still be debating over ancient heresies like Arianism which denied Christ’s full divinity, modalism which denied the divinity of each Person of the Trinity, Pneumatomachianism which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and Barlaamism which denies that it is possible for man to have a direct experiential knowledge of God through prayer. Key to the development of doctrine is the belief that the Holy Spirit guided the Church in its understanding of God. Without this premise one would have a secularized understanding of church history of one faction triumphing over another faction and theological terms like ‘Trinity’ and ‘homoousios’ serving as mere human invention.


Christ Anapeson – Reclining Infant Jesus. Source

Some icon venerators tie in the incarnation for why icons should be venerated. My response is, did God not incarnate (physically manifest) in the Old Testament in multiple theophanies? If you claim he did not and those were merely holograms, well that goes against Eastern Orthodox teachings on the theophanies, no?

My response: Yes, God did manifest himself physically in the Old Testament but these events were for a limited duration. The Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:7 noted that in the Incarnation, Jesus “emptied himself” (RSV).   In the Incarnation, God the Son became human in the fullest sense of the word: spending nine months in his mother’s womb, being born as we all were born from our mother’s womb, spent his early years as an infant, grew up and matured as children do, have a career, hungered and thirsted, acquired a circle of friends, and ended life by sharing in the universal human experience of dying. In the words of Irenaeus of Lyons, Christ recapitulated human existence for our salvation. That is, he as the Second Adam repeated or lived the life that the First Adam failed to lived. As the Second Adam, Jesus lived the perfect life on behalf of all humanity. The Second Adam then died on behalf of all humanity on the Cross so that those who joined themselves to him would share in his resurrection. This is why Christ’s incarnation, while similar to Old Testament theophanies, is so radically different. It is because of the Virgin Mary’s conceiving Christ in her womb that he shared in our ontology. In the Old Testament theophanies there was a close likeness to human nature but no physical linkage that made God consubstantial with our human nature until the Virgin Mary gave her assent in the Annunciation (Luke 1:37). There is an Orthodox prayer that says of the Virgin Mary: “by your wondrous conceiving you united God the Word to human beings.” Your question leads me to think that you have not grasped the radical implications of the Incarnation. I would urge to read Athanasius the Great’s theological classic On the Incarnation. Understanding the Incarnation is essential to having a sound Christology.



Dear CS,

I would urge you to read my article again carefully. Reading with haste can lead to superficial understanding and misrepresentations. Second, I would urge to familiarize yourself with early church history, especially with the evidence available to us. Third, I would urge you to reflect on the implications of the Incarnation for our salvation and how it opened the way for created matter to become vessels of divine grace. As a result of the Incarnation the world is no longer secular inert matter but potential channels of divine grace. Water blessed in the name of the Trinity becomes the laver of regeneration birthing us into the kingdom of God. Bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ. Images painted on wood become windows to heaven. Sinful men and women become holy saints partaking of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

Robert Arakaki


For Further Reading & Listening

Ben Witherington.  No date.  “The Church in the House in Dura Europos.”

—-.  No date.  “Church House in Dura-Europos.” Byzantine Legacy.

Carly Silver.  2010.  “Dura Europos: Crossroad of Cultures.”  Archaeology.

—-.  No date.  “#202: John of Damascus for Icons.”  Christian History Institute.

Fr. Thomas Hopko.  2010.  “Doctrinal Development.” [47:17]  Speaking the Truth in Love: Anicent Faith Radio.

St. Vincent of Lerins.  Before 450.  “Homily: The Development of Doctrine.”  Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto (Canada).



  1. Mark M.

    Dear Robert,
    Thank you for your patient interaction with all manner of readers of your blog – I am afraid I would not always be so patient! But God waters these seeds and sometimes they sprout in unexpected places. People coming back to read Orthodox arguments and argue is better than people going quietly away from the Church.
    God’s rich blessings on you and your labors!

    • Robert Arakaki


      Thank you for your encouraging words!


  2. C S

    Still reading this response. I used <> format to quote you for readability’s sake. Apparently the content was stripped when I did so… I’m just as confused as to why the quote sections were empty :S

    • Robert Arakaki

      Dear CS,

      Thank you for providing us with a bit of an explanation. I suggest you resend the quotations with parentheses or brackets instead of the greater than and smaller than signs. Hopefully, it will get through the second time around.


  3. Michael Bauman

    Robert, I have an observation on your comment on several heresies that we are no longer debating, Arianism, etc. While true in a sense it does not mean these and other heresies are not still virulent and not just outside the Church. Vigilence is still necessary to guard one’s own heart against such infections.

    Fr. Josiah’s statement is actually mild. The Incarnation radically changed everything. It is nearly impossible to overstate IMO.

    “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you”.

    As you state, that is the Crux.

  4. David E. Rockett

    Again, your graciousness is exemplary Robert. Good answer and tone…without yield on the truth of Orthodoxy. Michael again, also nails it adding vigor to Father Josiah’s quote…”the Incarnation changes everything”…all without destroying systemic continuity. Lord have mercy.

  5. John Carpenter

    You still don’t even understand the basic terminology. In your original post, you suggest that “aniconism” (the opposition to icons) has iconography — the veneration of icons — as one of its sources. That makes no sense.

    That you use secular dictionaries to define the terms rather than theological sources, is part of the problem. “Iconography” is a term often used in art studies to mean symbolism. It’s confusing to use “iconography” that way when discussing icons because the making of icons — the literal meaning of the term — refers to making specifically religious images for specifically devotional practices.

    Here, you write, “Aniconism is not necessarily opposed to iconoclasm.” Of course, not. Do you not understand that “iconoclasm” is the destruction of icons? One can be aniconic — opposed to icons — but not necessarily iconoclastic — destroying icons.

    Aniconic people range from the most rigorous, like Tertullian or Origen, to the moderate, like the bishops of Elvira (who implicitly allow decorations, just not in churches), to the lax, like a bishop Tertullian wrote to, who allowed images even in the setting of worship but there is no evidence that the image was actually used in worship (that is, venerated as an icon). The red line is crossed when an image is used in devotion; then it becomes an icon. An iconoclastic person could be any where along the aniconic spectrum, even lax, but then resort to destroying an icon once an image has become or threatens to become, used in worship (thus an icon). We don’t know exactly where on the spectrum Epiphanius was; he was at least as aniconic as the Council of Elvira. When he witnessed an image in a church in Palestine, which may not have even been an icon, perhaps only a decoration, he resorted to iconoclasm. He destroyed it.

    All of the early church was somewhere on the aniconic spectrum. Icons have absolutely no root in the early church. Indeed, the early church consistently opposed them. No church that uses icons can claim to be in continuity with the early church.

  6. TimOfTheNorth

    As someone who is not Orthodox (yet) but is sympathetic both to the broader claims of Orthodoxy and to the specific objections of Mr. Carpenter, I find this exchange very interesting. I agree with Mr. Carpenter that the evidence for veneration of icons in the early church is lacking for those who are not already convinced. I also believe that the Orthodox church gets it quite right on this question. So: what to do with the relative scarcity of historical evidence?

    Here’s a thought: Is it possible that the line from the early church to John of Damascus and the 7th Council is not through icons per se but through the veneration of relics? It seems to me (as an admitted non-scholar) that the historical record is fairly well established with regard to the place of honor that martyrs, their burial sites, and their relics received within the early church. It seems reasonable to me that the same sensibility that assumed the presence of the divine energies manifested in and through the martyrs and their bodily matter could relatively easily find an expression in the veneration of material depictions (icons) of those same martyrs and their Lord. This would seem to be a natural move as the number of martyrs dwindled post-Constantine.

    To reiterate: I’m not making any claims that this is what actually happened. I’d be very interested in learning of any research or explication in this direction, however.

    • Robert Arakaki


      Good point. I would say you pretty much caught the point I was trying to make in my article. Evidence for the active veneration of images in the early Church is admittedly sparse for the second century. But in the case of the veneration of relics, we have the early writings attesting to the veneration of the relics of Polycarp who was martyred 155/160. So your point addresses the absence of evidence that so troubles Rev. Carpenter.


  7. Michael Bauman

    I seem to recall reading many years ago that the veneration of icons was an extension of the veneration of relics. It makes sense as the sanctity of relics is a witness to the power of God in His creation which in turn be linked to the deep reality of the Incarnation. Not just the Incarnation as an academic, doctrinal point but the reality of God made man and the subsequent opening of the theotic mystery. As St. Gregory of Nyssa said:. “We are mud commanded to become God.”

    The radical change that God wrought when He came down from heaven and was made man is difficult to accept. Icons are but one means of showing us how transformative
    and complete God’s condescension is.

    Human beings are capable of making idols out of anything. If we refuse icons because they might be idols then we begin a reductionist journey that only logically ends with nothing.

    In the fullness of time icons will pass away but until then I glory in the God that reveals Himself through them.

    • TimOfTheNorth

      Yes, we could really call idols “false icons.” They reveal or manifest something that is not true. The problem with idols is not their materiality but that what they show us is false. They are false teachers and false guides.

      I remember the moment when I finally grasped the insistence of the 7th Council on the necessity of icons in worship. Up to that point I had gradually come to the point of acknowledging icons as “acceptable,” but I couldn’t figure out why they were mandated. Then my (very reformed and evangelical) pastor preached a sermon on 1 John. He pointed out that the first and last verses of the epistle are really parallel bookends: “That which…we have heard…have seen with our eyes…have touched with our hands” is echoed and paralleled by “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” For John, the way to avoid idols was to connect with the unmistakable physicality of the Incarnation. By His enfleshment, Jesus Christ became the “anti-idol”, forever revealing the emptiness and error of idols. That morning, the 7th Council suddenly made perfect sense. As the apostles and their direct interaction with the incarnated Christ passed away, the church would naturally seek other means of renewing and continuing the memory and celebration of His incarnation. This might take varying forms but would eventually culminate in the insistence that true worship required icons, so that we could continue to hear, to see with our eyes, and to touch with our hands the good news that God has united himself with man for his deliverance and redemption.

  8. Michael Bauman

    One more story I am led to share. Years ago after a tour of our temple I gave to some visitors to my parish I was witness to a very pure example of veneration of icons.

    One of the people on the tour was a Methodist lady with a generous face and a beautiful head of white hair. She was attentive during the tour which emphasises the role of icons in Orthodox life and worship.

    At the end of the tour she asked me if she could just sit and continue to look at the icons. If course I said yes. Then she said, “My friends told me I would not like the icons. They were wrong, they are beautiful!”

    The way she said ‘beautiful’ combined with the look on her face made it clear that she was in a state of veneration and wish to continue giving God Glory.

    I was blessed to be a small part of that moment and will remember it always

  9. Erik

    just wanted to say thank you Mr. Arakaki for being a valuable resource to those coming to EO from a reformed background.

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