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Category: Book Review (Page 2 of 6)

TF Torrance and Reformed-Orthodox Dialogue

Review: Participatio – Centennial Volume 4: T.F. Torrance (2013)


TF Torrance

TF Torrance

Thomas Forsyth Torrance, 1913-2007, commonly known as TF Torrance, was a Scottish Presbyterian theologian.  He served as Professor of Christian Dogmatics at New College, Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh.  He is widely known for his pioneering works on science and theology.  He also played a key role in the theological dialogues between the Reformed and Orthodox communities.

In 2013, the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship published a centenary issue of Participatio marking the occasion of Torrance’s birth.  The issue comprises a mix of personal reflections by those who knew him, some scholarly articles on aspects of his theology, correspondences between Torrance and Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky, and two essays by Torrance himself on Orthodoxy.  This makes for an especially rich and complex set of materials for those who want to learn more about Torrance as well as coming to grips with his interactions with Orthodoxy.

I thank Matthew Baker for bringing this centennial edition to my attention.  In this blog posting I will be reviewing Participatio with an eye to Reformed and Orthodox dialogue.  The articles deal with important theological issues like: justification, the divine monarchia, the concept of energy, and Church Fathers like: Athanasius, Ephrem the Syrian, Cyril of Alexandria, Mark the Monk, and Maximus the Confessor.  I will be discussing just a few of the articles published.  It is hoped that will be further interactions by others with the other articles in the centenary issue.


TF Torrance and Theology

Probably the word that best describe Torrance’s theology is: versatile.  He is widely known for his pioneering work in the study of theology and science as well as for his works in systematic theology.  Unlike most Protestant theologians who favored systematic theology, Torrance preferred the historic dogmas of the Church.  He did not hold to systematic theology because he believed that God was not “systematic” and because he felt systematic theology represented a holdover from the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages (Pelphrey pp. 56-57).  In his classroom lectures Torrance was especially enthusiastic about three theologians: Athanasius, Calvin, and Barth! (Noble p. 15)  Torrance’s admiration for Athanasius was such that he had an icon of Athanasius on prominent display in his office!  (Dragas p. 32)

Torrance points to the broader element in the Reformed tradition.  While some were hostile or suspicious of Barth’s theology, others like Torrance were receptive to it.  He was also critical of certain elements of Reformed theology, at least of the Dutch variant.

On this occasion, a student had defended the doctrine of Limited Atonement, arguing that Christ died only for the elect and not for all. Torrance’s reply was devastating: “That Christ did not die for all is the worst possible argument for those who claim to believe in verbal inspiration!” (Noble p. 14)

Torrance’s rejection of limited atonement stemmed from his loyalty to the Scottish stream of the Reformed tradition and that particular tradition’s debate with “scholastic federal Calvinism” (Noble p. 15).


Torrance and Reformed-Orthodox Dialogue

Torrance was one of the rare Reformed theologians of the twentieth century who not only studied the early Church Fathers but also engaged in extensive conversation with Orthodox Christians.  He was in frequent correspondence with one of the leading twentieth century Orthodox theologian, Georges Florovsky.  The warmth of their friendship is evident in the letters published in the centennial issue (pp. 287-324).  Florovsky regarded Torrance as one theologian that the Orthodox should give heed to (Dragas p. 34).  Another one of Orthodoxy’s leading modern theologian, John Zizioulas, author of Being As Communion, once served as Torrance’s teaching assistant.  In the course of his academic career Torrance got to know Orthodox Christians who would later become prominent hierarchs, e.g., Archbishop Methodios Fouyas, who arranged for Torrance to be given the title of “honorary protopresbyter” by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria (Baker Note 81, p. 317).

During the 1970s Torrance worked hard to promote theological dialogue between the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  Despite his immense knowledge of Athanasius and other Church Fathers, Torrance apparently was unaware of how the Orthodox did theology.  On this occasion Torrance wanted to draft a letter opening the way for Reformed dialogue with the Patriarch of Constantinople.  Dragas recounted:

I replied: “Professor Tom, this will not fly. Let me go through it and explain why.” He listened to me for a half an hour without saying a word (!), while I went sentence by sentence through his memorandum. Among other things, I said: “No Orthodox would approve of this opposition between the Alexandrians and the Cappadocians – we do not see the Fathers this way. Likewise, when you first go to approach an Orthodox Patriarch to ask him for a dialogue, you should not come with criticisms about his Orthodox theologians and their theological tradition. Rather, you should first present your credentials as Christians and state that in faithful obedience to the will of Christ you approach the Orthodox with a wish to be reconciled. You need first to explain to them who you are, what you believe and practice as Reformed Christians, that you have ordained clergy and sacraments, synods and so forth, and what all these mean to you.” I also suggested that he give the patriarch a copy of the Reformed Prayer Book as a gift. He was baffled, and asked: “Which Prayer Book? Every Reformed Church has its own.” (Dragas p. 39)

I laughed when I read of Torrance’s bafflement.  As a Reformed Christian who became Orthodox I can relate to both sides.  The difference here is the ancient principle: lex orandi, lex credendi.  Where for Reformed Christians a prayer book expresses what they believe, for the Orthodox the liturgical texts prescribes and regulates what they believe.  For the Orthodox one cannot willy nilly change the prayer books because the liturgical services are part of the received tradition of the Church.

In the 1980s under Torrance’s leadership a number of Reformed-Orthodox dialogues were held culminating in the “Agreed Statement on the Holy Trinity” in 1991.  But as Matthew Baker noted in his interview with Dragas the Agreed Statement seems to have been all but forgotten by the Orthodox.  Dragas’ explanation (p. 41) as to why the Agreed Statement was short lived is educational for any who wish to engage in serious ecumenical dialogue between the Reformed and Orthodox traditions.

Florovsky wrote this frank appraisal of the prospects for unity in Torrance’s “Our Oneness in Christ and Our Disunity as Churches”:

It is our tragedy that we cannot travel beyond a certain narrow limit. It would not help at all if I, as it were, “pass” the document. It would not make it any more “ecumenical,” and somebody else will point it out. I am terribly disturbed that, being brethren and friends in the sacred name of Jesus, we cannot meet at His table. But the tragedy is that we cannot, simply and purely. Let us pray together and for each other, and do what we can do together, trusting in the mercy of the Lord. (p. 312)

TF Torrance’s career points to the potential for fruitful Reformed-Orthodox dialogue but it also points to the perils of pursuing ecclesial unity.  This writer considers the former to be feasible but the latter unlikely.


Torrance on Orthodox Worship

Torrance was highly appreciative of the fact that Orthodoxy has preserved the ancient form of worship and warned Protestants against thinking that their simplified form of worship represented New Testament worship.

It would be a very great mistake for us Protestants to imagine that the way in which we worship God is a return to the simplicity of the New Testament – our Protestant worship is very far removed from the worship of the Early Christians which was grounded on a profound unity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. (Torrance p. 330)

No doubt the liturgy has become more elaborate through time, largely through further adaptations of the Old Testament ways of worship, but it remains essentially the same, and it is, I believe – let me say it quite frankly – still the most biblically grounded worship I know: grounded in the whole Bible. (Torrance p. 331)

Torrance took note of the constraints placed on Calvin that led him further away from the historic forms of worship.

Calvin himself did not know as much about the worship of the Early Church as we do, and unfortunately he allowed the mediaeval Jewish scholars to have too great an influence on his interpretation of the Bible so that he swept away many of the biblical forms of worship handed down from the Early Church. (Torrance pp. 331-332)

Torrance saw much value in the Orthodox liturgical tradition and sought to incorporate this into the Church of Scotland (Torrance p. 332).  However, ressourcement is quite different from the traditioning process that is part of Orthodoxy.  Where ressourcement allows the theologian considerable latitude as to which Church Father or teachings may be incorporated into their theological system, the traditioning process is much more constricted — the bishop or priest commits himself to following Holy Tradition as it has been transmitted from the Apostles.


 “The Relevance of Orthodoxy”

Careful reading of Torrance’s essay “The Relevance of Orthodoxy” (pp. 324-332) shows points of contact and differences.  Torrance understood the Nicene Creed as emerging from the early Church’s exegesis of Scripture.  This strikes me as a rather Protestant approach, understandable in light of his church background, but at odds with Orthodoxy.  Torrance wrote:

The Nicene Creed was distilled, as it were, through careful exegesis of the Scriptures, in order to find a basic and accurate way of expressing those essentials of the Christian faith, apart from which it cannot remain faithful to the Gospel. Hence in the tradition of the Orthodox Church the Nicene Creed has the effect of throwing the mind of the Church back upon the Holy Scriptures, and making them central in all its worship, doctrine, and life. (Torrance p. 326)

I would argue that the Nicene Creed emerged out of the interaction between the regula fidei (rule of faith) handed down by the bishops and the Church’s reading of Scripture, that is between oral tradition and written tradition.  I noticed that Torrance made no mention of oral tradition in his essay.  This is a significant omission because it is in oral tradition that the sense of Scripture is preserved.  If one looks at the early patristic writings, e.g., Irenaeus of Lyons, one finds that the rule of faith (creed) was derived from oral tradition, not from Scripture (Against Heresies 1.10.1).  Without this sense of the inner meaning obtained from oral tradition, the Scriptural text becomes susceptible to unconventional and even deviant interpretations that stray far from what the Apostles had in mind in the first place.

I also find it striking that Torrance had little to say about the episcopacy and the magisterium (teaching authority) of the bishop.  This oversight becomes even more apparent when I read what he had to say about the Filioque clause; the clause that bedeviled church relations for a thousand years to this day.

There is a difference between the Eastern and Western forms of the Nicene Creed, for the Western Church speaks of the Spirit as ‘proceeding from the Father and the Son’ whereas the Eastern Church speaks of the Spirit only as ‘proceeding from the Father’, but actually the Eastern Church thinks of that as taking place through the Son, not as through the Church. Thus in spite of the different formulations of the East and the West the Eastern Church is more Christological and preserves the Mystery of the Spirit in a way that is so often lost in the West. One of the effects of the Orthodox doctrine of the Spirit is found in the way in which they regard the structures of the Church’s life and thought as open structures, shaped by the mystery of Christ and open to the transcendent Majesty and Lordship of God. (Torrance p. 328)

Torrance understood the Nicene Creed descriptively, not prescriptively, that is, it articulates the theological consensus of the Christian community.  In significant contrast the Orthodox understand the Nicene Creed to be binding on all Christians because it was promulgated by an Ecumenical Council which represents the Church guided by the Holy Spirit.  This is because at the Council of Nicea the bishops exercised their magisterium as a collective body.  Furthermore, as it was formulated and promulgated by an Ecumenical Council, no one, including the Bishop of Rome, has the authority to modify the Creed.  Torrance’s silence with respect to the role of the bishops’ magisterium in the Nicene Creed is quite revealing to Orthodox Christians.  So, as much as Torrance is sympathetic to the Orthodox Church’s position, he does not seem to get it at certain significant points of doctrine and polity.


Cyril of Alexandria and Justification

Donald Fairbairn’s article “Justification in St. Cyril of Alexandria, With Some Implications for Ecumenical Dialogue” (pp. 123-146) is an attempt to flesh out one of Torrance’s insight.  Torrance once noted that Cyril of Alexandria was the best expositor of the Evangelical doctrine of justification by grace but made no attempt to elaborate on that statement and so the task of doing so fell on Fairbairn’s shoulders (p. 124).

The challenge here lay in finding in Cyril the Protestant understanding of justification as a passively received righteousness and sanctification as a cooperatively produced holiness/righteousness (Fairbairn p. 126).  This distinction is key to Protestant theology.  In light of the fact that Cyril conflates justification with sanctification it has been inferred that he is advocating an active works righteousness that the Reformers strenuously opposed.  Fairbairn argues that what Cyril had in mind was that justification and sanctification were both created by God in the believer as a result of the believer’s union with Christ (Fairbairn p. 127).

Using the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae search engine Fairbairn was able to gather data about Cyril’s understanding of justification.  What he found was the overwhelming use of the passive form (Fairbairn p. 128).  Cyril’s understanding justification and sanctification as passively received is based on his understanding of the Incarnation.  Fairbairn notes,

It is that God the Son became human precisely so that he, God, could do as man something for human beings that we could not do for ourselves. This Christological emphasis dovetails closely with the idea that Christ gives the believer a righteousness from without. For Cyril, even the human side of salvation is not primarily our human action; it is Christ’s human action. In order for that human action to accomplish our salvation, it had to be human action performed by God the Son. (p. 142; italics in original)

I very much appreciate Fairbairn’s even handed conclusion.  He noted the even with the strong similarities between Cyril and Protestantism (justification as passive) differences remain (Cyril’s failing to distinguish sharply between justification and sanctification) (p. 142).  Especially striking is Fairbairn’s statement that justification was not central to Cyril’s soteriology (p. 142).  I appreciate the irenic tone in Prof. Fairbairn’s challenge to both Protestants and Orthodox.

As a result, I suggest that a deeper consideration of Cyril’s doctrine of justification can both challenge Protestants and the Orthodox, and help to uncover latent common ground between them. Protestants need to recognize that justification is not merely or even mainly transactional, but primarily personal and organic. We are united to Christ as a person, and as a result, his righteousness is imputed to us. The forensic crediting of righteousness grows out of the personal union. (p. 144)

The concept of “justification by faith” is something shared by both Protestants and Orthodox but they diverge with respect to their understanding of what justification is and how it applies to the Christian.  Prof. Fairbairn’s approaching “justification by faith” via patristics is promising.  It should be kept in mind though that Cyril is just one Church Father among a whole range of other Church Fathers.


The Divine Energies

Stoyan Tanev’s article “The Concept of Energy in TF Torrance and Orthodox Theology” (pp. 190-212) touches on the Essence-Energy distinction, a subject that sets Western theologians and Torrance apart from the Orthodox.  The issue of our ability to come to knowledge of God came to forefront in the Hesychast controversyPalamas wrote that while God is unknowable in His Essence, we can know God through his Energies.  Barlaam rejected the Hesychasts’ claim that our bodies and our minds can be transfigured by the divine light.   At the Great Councils of Constantinople in 1341 and 1351, the Orthodox Church affirmed Gregory’s distinction between the Divine Essence and Energies making it a dogma of the Orthodox Church (Tanev p. 193).  This controversy is not one familiar to many Protestants.  But, nonetheless, from this controversy came positions and insights that can help deepen the Reformed understanding of God and the Trinity.  Tanev’s essay is helpful in that it approaches Torrance from the standpoint of theology, patristics, and modern science.

Torrance did not hold to the Essence-Energy distinction (p. 193).  One of his constant concerns was guarding against a dualism that sets theology against economy (pp. 194-195).  Tanev notes that Torrance did not quite grasp the later Byzantine theology which resulted in the constraining of his understanding to the pre-Chalcedonian legacy of Athanasius and Cyril (p. 202).

One fascinating aspect of Tanev’s essay is his discussion of how Torrance’s understanding of space shaped his theology.  Tanev criticized Torrance’s for his narrow understanding of science, e.g., he embracing Einstein while rejecting quantum theory (pp. 204-205).  Torrance’s commitment to realism prevented him from embracing Bohr’s quantum theory which posited that a quantum object might possess complementary energetic manifestations that depended on the circumstances of the interaction between the observer and the object (pp. 206-207).  One notable contribution in quantum physics is the discovery that there is no simple objective study of physical phenomenon; “observed reality can be transformed by the fact of observing it.” (p. 207)  This gives physical reality a dynamic and probabilistic character much like “the freedom of interpersonal human relations” (p. 209).  Tanev saw Torrance’s failing to draw on the epistemological implications of quantum theory as contributing to his lacking a proper understanding of hypostasis (p. 208; 210-211).  As a corrective to Torrance’s realism, Tanev presents Christos Yannaras who appropriated Einstein and Bohr to explicate John of Damascus who saw physical space as a locus of the disclosure of God’s personal energy (p. 210).

The distinction between the nature and the energies of God, without denying the reality of the natural distance of God from the world, preserves the world as a space of the immediate personal nearness of God and manifests God as the place of the universe: “For God is not contained, but is himself the place of all.”  (p. 210)

Torrance’s attempt to integrate theology with modern physics has yielded some interesting insights.  Tanev shows how quantum physics can lend support for the Orthodox approach to describing the Trinity.  Admittedly, this is a rather novel theological method for Orthodox Christians.  Tanev’s article is an example where the methodology of Western systematic theology can lead to interesting insights.


Torrance and Zizioulas on the Divine Monarchia

Dragas’ explication of how Torrance and Zizioulas understood the Trinity differently is both fascinating and insightful (pp. 43-45).  Torrance preferred to emphasize “the monarchy of the entire Trinity instead of the unique monarchy of the Father.”  This means that “the Trinity as revealed in the economy is wholly identical with the essential Trinity in eternity” (p. 43).  This position aligns Torrance with Barth, Rahner, and other Western theologians but against the Eastern theologians who insist that in the economy God does not reveal his Essence, but instead is revealed as Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through his energies (p. 43).  Torrance’s suspicion of drawing a distinction between God as Being and Act made him suspicious of the Cappadocian Fathers who insisted on the Monarchy of the Father as the best approach to understanding the Trinity.

Nikolaos Asproulis’ “T.F. Torrance and John Zizioulas on the Divine Monarchia: The Cappadocian Background and the Neo-Cappadocian Solution” (pp. 162-189) is an important essay given Torrance’s rejection of the Cappadocian teaching on the monarchy of God the Father.  This constitutes one of the biggest differences between Torrance and Orthodoxy for all his sympathies for Orthodoxy.  In his approach to patristics Torrance was fascinated with one particular figure, Athanasius the Great, and with two concepts: homoousios and perichoresis.

In this essay Asproulis compares Torrance against one of Orthodoxy’s leading modern theologian, John Zizioulas.  Asproulis notes that what sets Zizioulas apart was the fact that he did not approach the Church Fathers in terms of the historical study of texts but favored a more systematic exploration of theological concepts.  This is an example of an Orthodox theologian benefiting from the Western theological method.  Asproulis draws attention that something of a paradigm shift took place when the Cappadocians began assigning an ontological reality to the term “prosopon” which up till then simply meant “a mask worn by actors” (pp. 166-167).

In this light, the Eucharist renders possible the participation by communion in the very life of God, which is communion of persons caused by the person of the God the Father. In Zizioulas’ understanding, this communion legitimates discussion about God’s very being, the question of how God is – his personal mode of existence – rather than the what of the ineffable divine ousia. Where Torrance took as his starting point the economic self-manifestation of God in Christ, Zizioulas took a meta-historical approach beginning with doxological formula: Glory be to the Father, with the Son, and with the Holy Spirit (p. 168).

Asproulis notes that where the starting point for Torrance’s theology was the narrative of biblical revelation, for Zizioulas it was the Eucharistic experience of the early Christians (pp. 181-182).  He notes that Zizioulas’ theological method leads to a diminishment of the unity between theology and economy (p. 182).  Asproulis criticize both Torrance and Zizioulas for having too narrow a patristic base for doing theology: Torrance for relying almost exclusively on Athanasius and Zizioulas on the three Cappadocians (p. 183).

What makes Asproulis’ essay especially valuable for Reformed-Orthodox dialogue is his presenting an excerpt from Gregory of Nazianzus’ Fifth Theological Oration 31.14 on the divine monarchia that was read by Torrance and Zizioulas in different ways (p. 186).  Asproulis then brings to our attention Gregory’s Oration 42.15 and uses this to criticize both Torrance and Zizioulas (p. 187).  What is to be appreciated about Asproulis’ essay is his attempt to assess the theological differences of two great ecumenical thinkers of the twentieth century on the methodological level.


An Assessment

This centennial edition will be valuable for students of TF Torrance’s thought who want to better understand Torrance’s understanding of the Trinity and his engagement with the Church Fathers.  It will also be valuable for those interested in Reformed-Orthodox dialogue.  Baker notes:

As readers of this volume will discover, not everything Torrance had to say is acceptable to the Orthodox. The disagreements are real, and they are not trifling. But the affinities also are significant, and the mutual respect is profound. Orthodox theologians still have much to gain from Torrance on multiple fronts: his creative and forceful presentation of Athanasian-Cyrilline Christology, most especially regarding the high priestly work of Christ; his re-articulation of patristic hermeneutics and rigorous treatment of theological epistemology in response to modern challenges; and his patristic-inspired forays into theology-science dialogue. (p. 7)

In my opinion TF Torrance’s biggest contribution towards Reformed-Orthodox theological dialogue took place in his role as a professor and mentor to various Orthodox Christians.  It is thanks to him that we can benefit from the superb scholarship of Andrew Louth and John Zizioulas.  Personal relationships across theological traditions are especially beneficial.  This can happen at the advanced graduate level where strong personal ties are often forged in the course of advanced theological studies.

There are two common grounds that the Reformed and the Orthodox share: Scripture and the Church Fathers.  Grounding Reformed-Orthodox dialogue in these two areas would be a good starting point.  I would venture that one arena where Reformed and Orthodox dialogue can be advanced is in the academy in disciplines like theology.

The contributions made in this edition of Participatio shows the fruits of interaction between Orthodox and Reformed on issues like the divine Monarchy, the concept of Divine Energy, the Persons of the Trinity, Incarnation, etc.  There is much potential in the interaction between Orthodoxy’s grounding in patristics and the Reformed grounding in dogmatics and systematic theology.  The benefits of Western systematic theology are the rigor and disciplined thinking it brings to the field of theology.  Absent intellectual rigor patristics and liturgics can easily end up in an unthinking traditionalism that uncritically reiterates the past.  Journals like Participatio can play a strategic role in advancing Reformed-Orthodox dialogue by encouraging scholars to submit articles dealing with topics of interest across the two traditions and that endeavor to examine these topics using the theological methods from the two traditions.

As a theology professor Torrance put his focus on dogmatics rather than systematic theology.  Torrance can serve as an example for other Protestant theologians to follow.  It would help if Protestant seminaries were to offer theology classes ordered along the line of dogmatics and patristics.  This method is closer to the way Eastern Orthodox Christians do theology and would make initial contact and dialogue much easier.  The systematic approach favored by Western theologians is alien to Orthodoxy and has often impeded Reformed-Orthodox dialogue.

One of Torrance’s greatest shortcomings was his failing to understand or take seriously the conciliar nature of Orthodox theology.  This failing seems to apply not just to Torrance, but to other Protestants as well.  To put it simply, Reformed theologians do theology textually, that is, they read the text (Scripture or the Church Fathers), extract data, then proceed to organize and coordinate the data into coherent theological systems.  Orthodox theologians do theology ecclesially, that is, they seek to articulate what the Church has taught and confessed through its worship and through its councils.  Until Protestants grapple with the ecclesial and conciliar dimensions of doing theology, theological dialogue between Reformed and Orthodox Christians will be hampered by misunderstandings and people speaking past each other.

Protestant theologians need to engage in a critical scrutiny of theological methods, both theirs and those outside the Protestant tradition.  For example, Reformed Christians need to discuss with the Orthodox the importance of the Ecumenical Councils and the patristic consensus for doing theology.  Also, they will need to discuss with Orthodox Christians the implications of Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit in John 14:26 for the role of the Church in doing theology.  By bringing to light some basic differences between the Reformed and Orthodox traditions, these questions can facilitate and open and honest interfaith dialogue.

TF Torrance’s eagerness to engage Orthodoxy presents a model for other Reformed Christians.  All too often one finds Reformed theologians who are quick to stereotype Orthodox Christianity or who fail to read the Church Fathers in their historical context.  Given the fractured state of Protestantism and the plurality of Protestant theologies, there is much to be gained from engaging Orthodoxy’s ancient theological and spiritual heritage.  Orthodoxy offers the Reformed theologians a means of accessing the Church of the early Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils.  If Reformed and Orthodox theologians can interact with each other using theological methods that integrate biblical exegesis with patristics, disciplined theological reflection, and sensitivity to ecclesial structures I am confident that the common ground between the two traditions will be broadened and deepened to the benefit of both sides.

Robert Arakaki


Note: I briefly touched on Torrance in one of my earlier postings: “Platonic Dualism in the Reformed Understanding of the Real Presence?

See also a  podcast by Fr. George Dragas’ Assessment of TF Torrance



Eusebius and Christian Images

Book Review: Early Christian Attitudes toward Images by Steven Bigham (4 of 4)

This blog posting is a continuation of three earlier reviews of Father Steven Bigham’s book.  In this posting I will be reviewing and interacting with Chapter 4: “Eusebius of Caesarea and Christian Images.”

book_r60The Importance of Eusebius

Eusebius is famous for his Church History (Historia Ecclesiastica) which chronicles the history of Christianity from the time of Jesus to Constantine’s recognition of Christianity.

Bigham devotes a chapter to Eusebius because his outstanding reputation as a church historian.  Eusebius’ Church History constitutes an importance source for what we know about early Christianity in general and about the attitudes of early Christians towards images in particular.  Bigham also gives Eusebius attention because of his close association with Emperor Constantine.  Constantine’s issuing the Edict of Milan in 313 marked the Church’s transition to an established public institution and the emergence of a Christian society.

Despite his fame as a church historian, Eusebius was nonetheless a controversial figure.  He sided with the Arians and opposed the Council of Nicea (325).  With respect to the icon controversy both sides appealed to Eusebius.  Eusebius was appealed to at the iconoclastic 754 Council of Hieria.  One of the leading defenders of icons in the eighth century controversy, John of Damascus, cited Eusebius in support of icons.

Eusebius as Pro-Icon

Frescoe in Catacombs of Rome

Frescoe in Catacombs of Rome

Eusebius discussed the statue of Christ and the woman with a hemorrhage at least three times: twice in his Church History (Chapters 7 and 18) and once in his Commentary on Luke (see Note 6, p. 189).  We read in Church History 7.18:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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. [Emphasis added]

Apparently the statue of the miraculous healing was a popular pilgrimage site.  From the phrase “remained to our day” it can be inferred that the statue was not a recent manufacture but had long been existence in Eusebius’ time.  I speculate that the statue might date back to the first century but was disguised as a shrine to the god of healing, Aesclepius.  [This notion is not farfetched.  The secret Christians of Japan would conceal images of Mary or the saints within the Buddha image as a way of preserving their faith in a hostile society.]  The statue’s popularity among early Christians and Eusebius’ positive tone runs against Protestant iconoclasm.

In his Proof of the Gospel Eusebius mentioned that in his time one could visit Mamre, the site of Abraham’s hospitality to the three visitors, and see the terebinth (shrine) of that famous biblical event (Genesis 18).  Eusebius wrote:

And so it remains for us to own that it is the Word of God who in the preceding passage is regarded as divine: whence the place is even today honored by those who live in the neighborhood as a sacred place in Honor of those who appeared to Abraham, and the terebinth can still be seen there.  For they who were entertained by Abraham, as represented in the picture, sit one on each side, and he in the midst surpasses them in Honor (The Proof of the Gospel l V:9 in Bigham pp. 210-211; emphasis added).

Eusebius did not indicate that this was an exclusively Christian pilgrimage site.  It is possible that this was a popular pilgrimage site for Jews and that the Christians saw Christological significance in the person seated in the middle.

In his Life of Constantine 3.3 Eusebius described how Emperor Constantine ordered a huge mural displayed on the front portico of his palace showing a cross directly over the Emperor’s head and an impaled dragon under him.  Eusebius’ admiration for this image runs contrary to the iconoclasm of his alleged letter to Constantia.

Even more striking is Eusebius’ description of Constantinople.  Constantine desired that the new imperial capital be built free of any taint of pagan worship.  Eusebius described in detail the New Rome in Life of Constantine 3.48 and 49:

And being fully resolved to distinguish the city which bore his name with special honor, he embellished it with numerous sacred edifices, both memorials of martyrs on the largest scale, and other buildings of the most splendid kind, not only within the city itself, but in its vicinity: and thus at the same time he rendered honor to the memory of the martyrs, and consecrated his city to the martyrs God. Being filled, too, with Divine wisdom, he determined to purge the city which was to be distinguished by his own name from idolatry of every kind, that henceforth no statues might be worshipped there in the temples of those falsely reputed to be gods, nor any altars defiled by the pollution of blood: that there might be no sacrifices consumed by fire, no demon festivals, nor any of the other ceremonies usually observed by the superstitious. (Book 3.48)

On the other hand one might see the fountains in the midst of the market place graced with figures representing the good Shepherd, well known to those who study the sacred oracles, and that of Daniel also with the lions, forged in brass, and resplendent with plates of gold. Indeed, so large a measure of Divine love possessed the emperor’s soul, that in the principal apartment of the imperial palace itself, on a vast tablet displayed in the center of its gold-covered paneled ceiling, he caused the symbol of our Saviour’s Passion to be fixed, composed of a variety of precious stones richly inwrought with gold. This symbol he seemed to have intended to be as it were the safeguard of the empire itself. (Book 3.49; emphasis added)

Constantine’s attempt to commemorate the bravery of the martyrs and his celebration of Christ’s Passion is far removed from the iconoclasm and austere simplicity of Reformed worship.  In fact the lavishness described by Eusebius’ bears a much closer resemblance to what we see in Orthodox churches today!  Constantine’s appropriation of the arts represents, not a break from Christian Tradition, but rather its extension into Roman culture and public space.  This leads Bigham to write:

Do we not have here the very principle of Christian iconodulia: the distinction between an idol and a Christian image, that is, an art consecrated to idolatrous worship and an art that has been purified of idolatry and used to proclaim the Gospel? (p. 201)

It is important to note that in all the pro-icon evidence presented by Steven Bigham not one described the use of image in early Christian worship.  It would not be a stretch to say that Eusebius’ writings support the pro-icon position.  But it would be a much bigger stretch to claim that Eusebius’ writings support the iconoclastic position.

Eusebius as Anti-Icon

Eusebius’ reputation as an iconoclast comes from a letter he supposedly wrote to Constantine’s half-sister, Constantia.  In response to her request that he send her an image of Christ Eusebius scolds her for making such a request.  The first mention of this letter was at the iconoclastic council of Hieria in 754 (p. 193).  The iconoclastic tone of this letter is unmistakable but the letter raises more questions than it answers.  If Eusebius held to a rigorist interpretation of the Second Commandment then how do we make sense of the positive tone in his Church History and elsewhere?  The letter becomes even more problematic if dated not at the end of Eusebius life but in the middle of his literary career.

In his assessment of Eusebius’ iconophobia Bigham notes that the evidence is quite problematic (see pp. 193-199).  One problem is that the sole evidence consists of one letter set against a whole array of pro-icons statements.  Bigham notes that it is possible that Eusebius underwent a change of mind but this would entail a double change of mind, something highly unlikely and demands more evidence than is available.  Another possibility is that Eusebius concealed his iconoclasm in the face of Constantine’s enthusiastic iconodulia, but this founder in the face that Eusebius’ correspondent was the emperor’s half-sister.  Bigham notes that the simplest solution to this knotty conundrum is to exclude the Letter to Constantia from the Eusebeian corpus (p. 207).

Overall Assessment

Father Steven Bigham’s book makes an important contribution to our understanding of early Christian attitudes to images.  Its value lies in the wide ranging survey of early sources up to Constantine.  In terms of the recent debate between Reformed and Orthodox Christians Bigham does a commendable job showing that the historical evidence does not support but rather challenges the iconoclast presupposition that early Christians were either aniconic or were universally hostile to icons.  Furthermore, the historical evidence points to iconoclasm as a minority position.  This then points to the use of icons as part of the historic Christian and not some innovative add on as some claim it to be.  That icons are part of the historic Christian Faith mirrors the Orthodox position on icons.

I found the book oddly structured.  The third chapter on Christian attitudes before Constantine was over a hundred pages long while the next chapter was relatively short, about twenty pages long, and focused on one particular individual, Eusebius.  Going from one long chapter dealing with a three centuries long period to a chapter focusing on one individual, and ending abruptly with no summary chapter, the book leaves the reader hanging in mid air.

The unevenness of Bigham’s treatment of the evidence is further accentuated by his omitting Epiphanius of Salamis.  While understandable in light of Bigham’s promise that he would devote an entire book to Epiphanius, it does leave the reader with an incomplete picture of how early Christians viewed images.  Note: In 2008, Bigham came out with: Epiphanius of Salamis: Doctor of Iconoclasm? Deconstruction of a Myth.

While there is much to commend about Bigham’s book, the reader should be mindful of the book’s limitations.  One is that it does not cover the iconoclastic controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries.  Another is that Bigham did not explore in depth the theological issues underlying the icon controversy.  For a more comprehensive historical overview combined with a discussion of the theological issues involved I recommend Leonid Ouspensky’s two volume Theology of the Icon (1992) (Vol. 2).  Another highly recommended book is Jaroslav Pelikan’s Imago Dei (1987).

 Robert Arakaki

Christian Images Before Constantine


Book ReviewEarly Christian Attitudes toward Images by Steven Bigham (3 of 4)



This blog posting is a continuation of my earlier reviews of Father Steven Bigham’s book.  Chapter 1 & Chapter 2.

In this posting I will be reviewing and interacting with Chapter 3: “The Early Christians and Images.”

New Testament Evidence

Bigham notes that the New Testament is totally silent with respect to Christian or non-idolatrous images (p. 81).  This silence can be understood in a number of ways.  One is to view it as indicative of early Christian iconophobia.  Another is that there were many things done and said by the Apostles that did not get entered into the written testimony of the New Testament (see John 20:30).  All this is to say that we should not be surprised about the limited and partial picture of the life of the first Christians as we have it in the New Testament.  The apostolic preaching, even though only partially contained in the New Testament, is nonetheless fully expressed in its essence.

Father Bigham notes that while the New Testament is silent with respect the use of non-idolatrous images, it is risky to argue from silence.  He writes:

We are not claiming that the apostolic Christians did in fact make or order images of Christ, Mary or anyone else or that they produced any symbolic designs.  We simply want to state that the silence of the New Testament on this question does not exclude the possibility of some kind of artistic activity (p. 82).

This leads him to note:

It is quite probable that the vast majority of 1st century Christians never thought about a Christian art.  They did not have the time or money to make or order images, even if they wanted to.  It is sufficient for our purposes that they did not show themselves hostile to a non-idolatrous art, and in fact, there is no evidence to indicate that they were hostile to such imagery (p. 83).

I would add another possible reason for the apparent silence on early Christian art.  As faithful Jews the first Christians drew on the religious art already present in their Jewish tradition (see my review of Chapter 2).

Floor Mosaic - Beth Alpha. Source

Abraham “sacrificing” Isaac

It is quite probable that the first Christians used the images of Abraham “sacrificing” Isaac, Moses at the Burning Bush, and the Three Youths on display in the synagogues as visual prophecy pointing to the coming of Christ.




Three Youths in Furnace – Dura Europos Synagogue

Another factor to consider is that as pious Jews they had a keen appreciation for the visual displays on Herod’s Temple (see Luke 21:5-6) and were thus accepting of images used in connection with worship of Yahweh. The disciples’ acceptance of Jewish religious images of the time would account for the absence of first generation Christians challenging Jewish images because there was nothing to challenge.

In his examination of biblical passages where the word “eikon” (image) is used, Bigham examines Mark 12:13-17 where Jesus debates the lawfulness of paying taxes to Caesar and asks for a coin with Caesar’s image.  Jesus’ attitude here contrasts with that of the more rigorist rabbis at the time who refused to even look at or handle such coins because they bore the idolatrous image of the Roman man-god (pp. 83-84).   While the image on the coin is quite removed from the context of worship, Jesus’ tolerant attitude is quite instructive.  The attitude of iconoclastic Protestants today is closer to the rigorist rabbis of Jesus’ time than the tolerant stance of Jesus and his followers (pp. 54-56).


Images in Early Christian Tradition

Icon – Mary in Hagia Sophia

One of the most well known Christian images is the portrait of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child.  There is an oral tradition that the original painter of the portrait was Luke the Physician.  The earliest written record we have of this claim is the History of the Church by Theodore the Reader who lived in the fifth century (Bigham p. 90).

Virgin with Child - Catacomb in Rome

Virgin with Child – Catacomb in Rome







Another ancient tradition relates that the king of Edessa, Abgar, was sick and sent his ambassador, Ananias, to carry a letter petitioning Jesus to come and heal him.  Jesus turned down the request but promised to send one of his disciples at a later date.

King Abgar V

King Abgar V


One version of the story relates that Ananias painted a picture of Jesus for the king and another that Jesus imprinted his features onto a wet cloth (Bigham p. 91).  Eusebius in his Church History 1.13 gives a detailed account of this encounter and informs the reader that he himself examined Abgar’s letter at the royal archives of Edessa.





Frescoe in Catacombs of Rome

Frescoe in Catacombs of Rome


Eusebius in Church History 7.18 describes how there could be found in Caesarea Philippi a statue depicting Jesus healing the woman with the issue of blood, a reference to the healing miracle recorded in the Gospels (Mark 5:25-34, Matthew 9:20-22, Luke 8:43-48).  In addition to the three dimensional statue, this same passage also contains a description of the custom among Christians of making images of Christ and the Apostles.

Eusebius wrote:

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; emphasis added)

These accounts by Eusebius point to images as part of early Christianity.  It is not clear from these accounts that images could be found in places of Christian worship.  The chief significance of these accounts is that they refute the notion that early Christianity was aniconic or universally hostile to icons.

Protestants learning of these early accounts may be dubious about the relatively late date of the written records and skeptical of the reliability of Christian oral tradition. First, the historical gap between the events and the written records is not all that huge from the standpoint of mainstream historiography.  Second, the hostile attitude towards Christian oral tradition reflects a bias inherent in the Protestant theological principle sola Scriptura.

Sola Scriptura is intrinsically biased.  It forces Protestants to ignore Scripture passages about the faithful passing on of the Apostles’ teaching whether in oral or written forms from generation to generation (2 Thessalonians 2:15; 2 Timothy 1:13-14, 2:2). Oral Tradition, of necessity, prevailed during the early decades before any New Testament Scripture were written down (much less widely copied and distributed). Phillip did not hop into the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot with a bound New Testament in hand.  Instead he explained Isaiah drawing on the oral Tradition he received from the Apostles in Jerusalem.  The Apostles preached the Gospel, baptized converts, planted Churches, devised liturgies and ordained priests to serve the Church without a handbook to instruct them (Acts 13-14).  It would be centuries before a recognized New Testament comprised of 27 books came into existence.  The 27 book New Testament we know today reflects the dynamic development of Christian Tradition over several centuries.  The Protestant bias against oral Tradition is largely an emotional reaction to medieval Roman Catholicism. There is good reason to suspect that Protestant iconoclasm was rooted in a similar reaction. We exhort our Protestant readers: Read your Bibles with a mind open to Oral Tradition!

A more rational approach would be to have an open mind and heart to early church history.  Fr. Bigham notes:

Let us be clear here: in studying these traditions, we are not necessarily claiming that they are historical, but we are not claiming, either, that they are void of historical content.  It is, in fact, impossible to establish or disprove their historicity (p. 89).

More recently, however, ethnographic, anthropological, biblical and historical studies have given researchers a more open mind about the possibility of gathering historical information from oral traditions that were written down at a considerable period of time after the events or people described (p. 89).

As part of his survey of early Christian sources, Steven Bigham examines two major figures who held to a rigorist interpretation of the Second Commandment.  He notes that Tertullian handled the self-contradictory implications of his rigorist position by creating a listing of items exempt from the Second Commandment, e.g., the golden cherubim over the Ark and the bronze serpent (pp. 125-126).  Another early Christian writer is Clement of Alexandria who resorted to allegorizing in order to account for the construction of cherubim and other images in the Old Testament Tabernacle (pp. 132-140).

The scope of Steven Bigham’s research in Chapter 3 is wide ranging.  In addition to Christian sources, he surveys sources of dubious theological provenance that point to early use of images among quasi-Christian groups (see pp. 94-111).  This makes Bigham’s book a valuable resource for anyone interested in researching early Christian attitudes towards image.


Map of Elvira and early Spain

Map of Elvira and early Spain

The Council of Elvira

In recent debates between Protestants and Orthodox Christians over the legitimacy of icons the Council of Elvira has been cited not a few times by those who oppose icons.  This particular council took place in Spain during a period of relative peace during Diocletian’s rule, either 295-302 or 306-314.  Canon 36 reads:

Placuit picturas in ecclesia esse non debere, ne quod colitur et adoratur in parietibus depingatur.

It has seemed good that images should not be in churches so that what is venerated and worshiped not be painted on the walls.

This text is significant because the word “picturas” is a clear reference to non-idolatrous, figurative representations (p. 162).  Bigham notes that the meaning of Canon 36 is not as clear as iconoclasts presume.  First, it is not clear what was being depicted on church walls.  Were these abstract symbols or portraits of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit?  Second, we know nothing of the circumstances giving rise to this canon.  Were the bishops afraid that these images could become subject to profanation by pagans, or were the bishops concerned about superstitious attitudes by members of their flock? (see p. 163).

The Council of Elvira was not a major council.  The canons of this council were adopted by other councils but interestingly not Canon 36 (p. 165).  Canon 36’s limited influence can be seen in the fact that Frankish Church in its opposition to the Seventh Ecumenical Council did not invoke the Council of Elvira.  This is further supported by the fact that paintings on church walls were encouraged among the Franks.  This leads Bigham to suspect that Canon 36 was a corrective action intended for a particular time and place; it was not intended as a universal prescription.  In any event, two conclusions can be deduced from Canon 36: (1) it provides strong evidence that some form of paintings was put on church walls, and (2) it provides ambiguous support for the iconoclastic position. The biggest problem for the iconoclast is that Canon 36 does not support the argument that early Christianity was universally hostile to icons.  At best it can be claimed that some early Christians were opposed to images.

As a minor council the Council of Elvira faded from view until the iconoclast controversy erupted during the Protestant Reformation some one thousand years later.  There is a certain irony in the fact that an obscure regional council would be so widely “accepted” and cited by Protestants given that many Protestants treat the early councils with disdain or disregard.


The Mind of the Church

Opponents of icons claim that their opposition to icons are not just their opinion but reflect the mind of the early Church.  Of their research of ancient Christian sources Bigham notes: “They also give equal authority to all the witnesses called to testify without any regard for the value of each witnesses’ testimony.  The result is, therefore, a potpourri of witnesses….” (p. 171; emphasis added)  Bigham’s review of early sources shows that if anything the early attitudes towards Christian images was mixed and that iconoclasm was not a majority position.

In assessing early Christian sources Bigham notes that these can divided into three groupings: (1) individual opinion, (2) theologoumenon – a respected opinion accepted by some but not by all, or (3) dogma – an opinion held by the Church universal.  The last usually emerges during times of conflict and controversy.  This points to the dynamic nature of Christian Tradition.  Steven Bigham writes:

We have argued that Christian art passed through several stages in the course of its historical development: from indirect symbols, signs and images to direct images of historical persons and events.  We have also stated that Christian art was a tradition that the Church adopted and adapted to its own needs (p. 169).

The dynamic nature of Christian Tradition can be seen in Christology.  Early Christianity prior to Constantine shared a common Faith transmitted through its bishops.  Irenaeus attested to the common faith shared by Christians across the Roman Empire.

Having received this preaching and this faith, as I have said, the Church, although scattered in the whole world, carefully preserves it, as if living in one house.  She believes these things [everywhere] alike, as if she had but one heart and one soul, and preaches them harmoniously, teaches them, and hands them down, as if she had but one mouth.

The articulation of official theological dogmas stated in precise language would not emerge until the Ecumenical Councils beginning with Nicea I in 325.  Over the next several centuries controversies would lead to rulings by Ecumenical Councils settling these matters decisively. One thing inquirers will find in Orthodoxy that is strikingly absent in Protestantism is the understanding of the Holy Spirit being active in the early Church.  Many Protestants believe that the early Church fell into error and spiritual darkness shortly after the passing of the Apostles.  In Orthodoxy pneumatology is integrated with ecclesiology, but in Protestantism pneumatology is for the most part independent of ecclesiology. So as one ponders the Ecumenical Councils it is important to see the Holy Spirit guiding Christ’s Church into all truth (John 16:13).  This dynamic development of Tradition can be seen in the early simple confessions of Jesus as the Son of God to the Nicene Creed’s Christology articulated using precise and nuanced language.

Interestingly, it was not until the seventh century that the use of images in Christian worship became a major theological issue warranting a conciliar response.  Bigham notes about the timing of the Church’s dogmatic stance on icons:

The Church formulated its attitude toward non-idolatrous images, and expressed that attitude, not in the pre-Constantinian period, but some four centuries later.  In the fire of a crisis, during which the iconoclasts openly repudiated the tradition of Christian images, calling icons idols and veneration idolatry, the Church, and not just certain Christians, affirmed the legitimacy of this tradition by appealing to history and theology: to history, by claiming that images were made in the apostolic era; to theology, by stating that since the invisible God became visible in Christ, it is right to paint his earthly image.  A tradition with a small “t” became part of holy Tradition with a capital “T”; it has become part of orthodoxy itself.  (p. 172)

Thus, the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s affirmation of icons is not something added on but an affirmation of an implicitly accepted custom widespread among early Christians.  Protestant iconoclasts suffering from historical amnesia have reached the mistaken conclusion that icons are a later addition.  It then becomes something of a shock when they encounter historic Orthodoxy which claims to have kept the Apostolic Faith without change for the past two millennia and which defends images (icons) as part of the historic Christian Faith.



Father Steven Bigham deserves credit for his unflinching examination of the early evidence relating to images in early Christianity.  Reading this chapter will expose the reader to a wide range of sources: orthodox, heterodox, heretical, and even pagan.  He is to be commended for working with evidence that is at times sparse, ambiguous, and at times of dubious provenance.  While it is difficult to argue for the full fledge veneration of icons early on, the evidence Bigham surveyed pretty much refutes the notion of universal hostility to images among early Christians.  The significance of Chapter 3 is that it significantly weakens the historical basis for the iconoclastic position.  If true, this leaves Protestant iconoclasts clinging to theological bias as the sole ground for their opposition to Orthodox icons.

 Robert Arakaki

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