In Christianity, God is presented as the transcendent Creator who is sovereign over all of the affairs of creation. He also presents Himself as wholly immanent to all things and even fuses into creatures a mark of His divinity by supernatural and miraculous signs. He does this, especially with people whom He has chosen to share in His holiness. In what might be spooky for some and exhilarating for others, one of the more interesting ways that God does this is in the display of His saving power mediated through the relics of Saints. Relics from the Saints are some leftover remains that were bound up with the person and identity of a particular Saint. It could be an object like clothing but most usually from their dead body if not kept whole. As we will see, there are written accounts so far back as the Old Testament as well as the New Testament that speak of the power of relics. In the early decades of the Church, we already see that there was a cultus (organized honor and veneration) of relics.
What I’d like to do in this article is to contribute another piece to the outstanding discussion going on about the history of icon veneration, codified at the 2nd Council of Nicaea (787). As many know, Dr. Gavin Ortlund has given some powerful and engaging presentations on the subject of icon veneration in the first millennium of Church history and this has motivated a number of responses. I think the issues at hand should be taken seriously and carefully considered. In this piece, I would like to suggest that there are some very good reasons to believe that what became the Byzantine custom icon veneration can be organically present already in the practice of relic veneration. Now, to be clear, when we are discussing this subject, saying “veneration of icons” or “relics”, it should be understood what is meant is the veneration-of-persons through icons or relics. Of course, that puts a certain dignity, value, and status to the material that is made in the case of an icon or that is preserved in the case of a relic. But no good iconophile of the later Byzantine era would have suggested the material served an end of its own. I thus argue that the very early testimonies of Church fathers who speak about the veneration of relics are really just a primitive form of what became the veneration of created likenesses of Christ and the Saints. How is that?
When 𝑅𝑒𝑎𝑠𝑜𝑛 & 𝑇ℎ𝑒𝑜𝑙𝑜𝑔𝑦 hosted the Rev. Dr. Richard Price (Heythrop) on the subject of the Papacy in Greek and Latin sides of the 1st millennium, there were commentators who were quick to turn Price into an anti-Catholic weapon by which to falsify the 1st Vatican Council. That was not a surprise, as many Protestants and Eastern Orthodox students of history have noticed a handy help in Roman Catholic scholars themselves against Catholic doctrine. However, I think that this is a tad bit one-sided, quite often. While it is true that one can run through a good number of Roman Catholic scholars and find all sorts of concessions that seem to score points for someone who is against the Papacy, if it is equally observed what these same scholars say about foundational claims of Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy, particularly the latter, then it gets manifested that weaponizing these scholars as anti-Catholic weapons, and not anti-Orthodox weapons, is a result of being short-sighted in the study of their material.
We see this, for ex, with Fr. Price when it comes to iconology and iconodulia since he admits that while the bishops of Nicaea (787) were theologically correct, the iconoclasts were historically correct in saying icons were not produced and venerated by the Apostles and their immediate successors. That’s a massive blow under the floor of Eastern Orthodoxy, though we may contest it (and rightly so!). Nevertheless, the point is clear. Just when you’ve thought you got yourself a nice weapon, it has too much kick-back.
I wish here to draw attention to some statements by another Catholic scholar who has the potential to be used, similar to Fr. Price, as a weapon against Catholicism, but which ends up being a two-edge sword that cuts into the weaponizers. I’ll bring it all into a nice wrap in the end but challenge yourself by trying to find it on your own as I work up to the conclusion.
The late Fr. Francis A Sullivan SJ (1922-2019) was a prominent Catholic theologian in the area of the magisterium and ecclesiology. He was extremely well educated. Besides getting his PhD, he achieved the status of both 𝑆𝑎𝑐𝑟𝑎𝑒 𝑇ℎ𝑒𝑜𝑙𝑜𝑔𝑖𝑎𝑒 𝐿𝑖𝑐𝑒𝑛𝑡𝑖𝑎𝑡𝑢𝑠 (STL) and 𝑆𝑎𝑐𝑟𝑎𝑒 𝑇ℎ𝑒𝑜𝑙𝑜𝑔𝑖𝑎𝑒 𝐷𝑜𝑐𝑡𝑜𝑟 (STD), which is a Licentiate of Sacred Theology and a Doctorate in Sacred Theology. He seems to have been a center-left (?) theologian, seeing as he pitched in thoughts doubting the infallibility of 𝑂𝑟𝑑𝑖𝑛𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑜 𝑆𝑎𝑐𝑒𝑟𝑑𝑜𝑡𝑎𝑙𝑖𝑠 (regarding woman’s ordination) and the Church’s stance against contraception. One might say he wasn’t so much, even in the slightest, pro female ordination or pro contraception, but was enamored with something that we intuitively expect would be easy to grasp but is not, namely, the complexity of what makes an infallible teaching via the universal ordinary magisterium (and being able to recognize it as such!).
And that brings me to what I want to speak about regarding his work. I think Sullivan is another instance, similar to most contemporary Catholic theologians, of someone who was caught up in a very risky understanding of doctrinal development and with the dynamics of divine revelation. That is, he made some concessions which would be quite obviously seem to go against the credibility of Catholic doctrine, but he cleverly ends up regaining traction just before falling into the ditch by a complex set of nuanced thinking, all which seem unhelpful at first. Consider what he says below concerning the existence of the “Roman Papacy” in the New Testament:
Sullivan thinks that whatever God revealed in Christ with the Apostles, it was not such that a “Roman papacy” existed during that time. One can find similar statements in the scholarship of Fr. Klaus Schatz, for example. That sounds like a nice little golden nugget to bring up to the next Catholic apologist next time a debate on the subject comes up. The Papacy not existing during the times of the New Testament. Yeah, that sounds bad.
Now, before we get too excited, one will notice a few things. He doesn’t just say the Roman papacy didn’t exist. He says they did not exist “as such”, which means they existed in another form perhaps. In fact, he does say that the Roman papacy is the product of “seminal factors already present in the New Testament” but not explicitly unfolded. One might make some sense of this, though I think this kind of language tends to be less helpful. One might also refer to Sullivan’s work on the monoepiscopate, which he thinks did not exist directly after Peter and Paul in the Roman ekklesia, something which I can’t imagine is reasonably consistent with the 1st Vatican Council (though again, there is no end of supply of arguments from people who try to say that it is). At best, Sullivan is aiming for substantial continuity even if his theory has no material for it.
Moreover, the Papacy and Papal infallibility, he writes, were at the other end of centuries long development. This sounds like the early Church simply didn’t believe in it, not so much because she protested against the idea, but because it wasn’t even a consideration of mind to be dealt with to begin with! Problematic, yes.
But notice also how Sullivan thinks that Conciliar infallibility and Ecumenical Councils, too, were not concepts in existence during the New Testament. And here he doesn’t simply mean the imperial stature of those Councils, but the concept of an infallible synod altogether. Sullivan also thinks this was not present during New Testament times, nor directly after it. Rather, it also took centuries. This is quite clear in that he references the work of the Jesuit theologian Herman Josef Sieben whose work 𝘋𝘪𝘦 𝘒𝘰𝘯𝘻𝘪𝘭𝘴𝘪𝘥𝘦𝘦 𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘈𝘭𝘵𝘦𝘯 𝘒𝘪𝘳𝘤𝘩𝘦 (1979) “showed” how the Fathers in the Councils did not show a sense of recognition that their decisions were *a priori* infallible (p. 85). I happen to think this is factually wrong, but I am not going to venture in that direction. Sieben held that the only true criterion for the ecumenicity of Councils is when its decrees were received by the whole Church, as consonant with Scripture and Tradition. This, too, is also problematic and requires some further defining, but I’m staying on another point for now (if you’d like to discuss, bring it up in the comments).
Sullivan also thinks that it was understood within the 7 era of Ecumenical Councils that infallible teaching required the unique participation of the successor of St. Peter (p. 76), and not just as another Patriarch in a series of Patriarchs, or even the lead Patriarch, but because of a special investment given to St. Peter, the original primate of the Roman diocese. The idea is that a divinely instituted leadership was bestowed on Peter individually and which gets passed, by way of lineal succession, to the successors to his stationary cathedra fixed in Rome. This is a theory which is unacceptable to Eastern Orthodoxy ecclesiology, but which Sullivan thinks is present in the 1st millennium history.
Thus, we have Sullivan’s scholarship giving us what seems to be a problematic point on the lack of existence of the Papacy (as it would exist later) in the New Testament times as well as in post-Apostolic Christian antiquity, but also a heavy dose, albeit smaller, of 𝑎ℎ𝑖𝑠𝑡𝑜𝑟𝑖𝑐𝑖𝑠𝑚 to Orthodoxy’s doctrine of conciliar infallibility and her more recent ecclesiology which excludes any notion of a divinely instituted Petrine government fixed from Rome as a sine qua non for producing infallible doctrine in Councils. Now, Sullivan indeed thinks these things were organic developments, but Eastern Orthodox thinkers can often be found denigrating the idea that her doctrines developed in this fashion and find it rather troublesome to Catholicism that the latter’s dogmatic formula arising in such a fashion. All in all, I think what we have here is another instance of a Catholic scholar who can be cited against Catholicism, but who also has a blow to swing in other unwanted directions. Lastly, the Orthodox might retort with, “Bah, Erick. The Orthodox ecclesiology is far more loose and capable of withstanding more damage because of its lack of centralization and that is doesn’t focus so much of its truth criterion to the sensitivity of one man or one bishop” (etc. etc.). But realize, the 𝑎ℎ𝑖𝑠𝑡𝑜𝑟𝑖𝑐𝑖𝑠𝑚 that Sullivan would be pointing out here still cuts across the whole of what conservative Orthodox theologians would want to be something that the Apostles and their immediate successors were conscious of. Kind of like iconodulia. Err… that is, what is claimed by scholars regarding iconodulia.
St. Gregory of Tours (538-594) became the bishop of Tours (France) in the year 574. As I was working through his 𝐺𝑙𝑜𝑟𝑦 𝑜𝑓 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑀𝑎𝑟𝑡𝑦𝑟𝑠, I came across two interesting accounts of miracles that hit upon the subject of religious art, specifically a painting and statue both depicting the Lord Jesus, and possibly some rationale for their being. Now, by way of a preliminary remark, I am not suggesting these accounts are historical evidence of the full-blown doctrine of image veneration that is espoused at the Council of Nicaea (787). Anyone who thinks that needs to read the full Acts of that Council, as well as the apologia’s for icon veneration given by St. Theodore the Studite and St. John of Damascus. These men were fully aware of people who merely defended images for their usefulness to instruct, inspire, teach, or bring to memory actions or persons from the past. These were not fully orthodox in their eyes. Nevertheless, St. Gregory here shows that in 6th century Gaul, and likely prior to him since he had many Episcopal ancestors in that region, physical artwork of Christ and the Saints was not just acceptable to have on the wall of Churches but could even be associated with miraculous interventions.
One could infer, therefore, that whatever Nicaea (787) had dogmatized, the kind of images or statuary that we see being recorded by St. Gregory as existing in both East and West, from the standpoint of 6th century Gaul, had a usage that one will probably never find in the ecclesial communities that trace their origins to the 16th-century reforms. Lastly, the scholar through whom I became acquainted this particular work of St. Gregory has noted that much of the stories and historical claims lack precise details, citation, and dating. This might call into question the reliability of what is recorded, but we can safely say that what is written in the Glory of the Martyrs stands as acceptable Christian data during St. Gregory’s time and place.
Gregory first mentions the account provided by the early Church historian Eusebius (260-339) wherein he describes the statues of Christ and the woman who had been healed of her issue with a “flow of blood”. The way in which Gregory cites this story from Eusebius shows that Gregory himself looked favorably upon the statuary depiction of Christ, who is God from God. He writes:
Though Eusebius himself elsewhere espouses that images of Christ are not permitted since they are forbidden by divine law, here he simply notes that the origin of the practice among Christians probably came from the Gentiles. Nevertheless, St. Gregory does not seem to think negatively about such a thing, nor pictures of the Saints. That bit where he states, “Lest this seem absurd to anyone” suggests statuary, and perhaps images, might not have been prevalent in what St. Gregory understood to be the full scope of his readership.
Next is a story, albeit with not much historical details, St. Gregory gives about a Jew who stole an image of Christ:
Notice how St. Gregory describes the function of the image. He says “even now at this time” (during his day) “Christ is cherished with such love” by the means of hanging a “painted image of him in churches and houses to record his power in visible tablets.” How far is this from the theological concept of worshiping Christ through a pictorial? I suspect not very far, but one might reasonably hesitate to close it together with Nicaea (787). What purpose did the image have? It seems it was there for the purpose of engendering love and faith in Christ, through the image. Satan himself seems to have had a problem with it, let alone the forthcoming 16th-century Reformers. And notice how St. Gregory roots it in the “eternal enemy of the human race” which animated the Jew who then physically stabbed the image, which is intended as an attack on the person (hypostasis) of the Lord. The full act of stabbing the image and then preparing it for burning was not simply of the physical painting, but an attempt to insult the person of Christ. It stands to reason that the Christians who loved the image and had it hung up were not seeking to worship the physicality of the picture, but the eternal logos through the image.
One last story which is more puzzling than it is illuminating. St. Gregory recounts:
We can see that this account, if true, testifies to images of Christ crucified hung for all the worshipers to see in the church of Narbonne, but divine intervention came about to prevent the amount of nakedness that was in the painting of Christ, who wore a simple loincloth. Instead of the miraculous intervention requiring the removal of the image, it was altered with a curtain to cover it, and viewings were still permitted.