Irenaeus and the Origin of Icons

St. Irenaeus discusses the Gnostic leader Carpocrates and his followers, and in so doing, hints at the origin of icons. He says of these heretics:

They style themselves Gnostics. They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honoring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.

From Against Heresies, I.25.6

No Sacred Space

Writing in the London Review of Books, Keith Thomas says of sacred space and the Church:

All these practices presuppose that divinity is immanent in the world, but in a localized way. The demarcation and protection of holy spaces becomes one of the means by which religious institutions assert their claim to supernatural authority. It is, therefore, all the more remarkable that the first Christians should have rejected the whole notion of sacred space. Whereas the Greek and Roman world had been full of holy places, the early Christians were encouraged to see themselves, not buildings or sanctuaries, as the temple of the living God (II Corinthians 6.16). For them, God was ubiquitous, rather than located in some particular spot. Only in the fourth century did Christians begin to construct their own sacred topography. The driving force as the cult of the martyrs and the building of urban churches to contain their relics. It set in motion a long process by which Catholic Christianity would construct a new geography of the sacred.

This same glorification of space still exists in Protestant circles with regard to Jerusalem, the “Holy City” which is thought of as somehow closer to God than Ames, Iowa or anywhere else. The fact is that all the land is now sacred.

Exciting Each Other to Idolatry

Commenting on Isaiah 41:7-8, Calvin says:

for the Prophet means that workmen, by beating “in their turn,” mutually excite each other, because by being earnestly employed in the same work, they grow warm, and each of them urges and arouses the other, to perform in the shortest time what they have undertaken. In short, he describes the rebellion and madness of idolaters, by which they excite each other to oppose God.

Carlos Eire summarizes his views by saying, “The inclination to commit false worship inherent in every individual is aggravated by society through mutual support and social conditioning.” Calvin continues:

From this passage and from all histories it is manifest that this vice was not peculiar to a single age, and at the present day we know it by experience more than is desirable. We see how men, by mutual persuasion, urge one another to defend superstition and the worship of idols; and the more brightly the truth of God is manifested, the more obstinately do they follow an opposite course, as if they avowedly intended to carry on war with God. Since religion was restored to greater purity, idols have been multiplied and set up in hostility to it in many places; pilgrimages, masses, unlawful vows, and, in some cases, anniversaries, have been more numerously attended than before. During that ancient ignorance there was some kind of moderation; but now idolaters, as if they had been seized by madness, run about, and are driven by blind impulse. There is nothing which they do not attempt in order to prop up a trifling superstition and tottering idols. In a word, they join hands, and render mutual aid, in order to resist God. And if any person wish to throw back the blame on his brother, he will gain nothing; for it adheres to every one in such a manner that it cannot in any way be removed. All are devoted to falsehood, and almost avowedly devise methods of imposture, and, trusting to their great numbers, each of them places himself and others above God. They excite each other to the worship of idols, and burn with such madness of desire that nearly the whole world is kindled by it.

Greek Orthodox Deacon Traffics Fake Relics

As I have noted here previously, relics are still for sale in our day. The idolatrous veneration of bones, teeth, hair and paintings lends itself to the unscrupulous preying on the gullible. In this case, a Greek Orthodox deacon assisted a Swiss man in trying to pass off “normal” bones as the bones of saints.:

Police in the northern city of Thessaloniki arrested 43-year-old Swiss Stephan Meyer, an electrician from Zurich, after airport security found 197 human bones and three skulls in the man’s luggage as he tried to board a flight from Thessaloniki to Germany.

Mayer was due to pass the bones onto a representative from the Russian Orthodox Church in Germany, pretending that the bones were from the skeletons of Orthodox saints.

Police also arrested Meyer’s accomplice, a 24-year-old deacon from the diocese in Sidirokastro near the Bulgarian border, after they discovered 505 human bones and 15 skulls at his home.

The bones that had been cleaned were also labelled with various names of saints.

Both men were in custody in Thessaloniki and will face the city court Tuesday charged with theft, trafficking and profanation.

Of course this begs the question regarding if they had succeeded. Orthodox folks would have been “venerating” the bones of who knows who…makes you wonder if this happens anyway?
UPDATE: This article adds details:
the items were meant to be delivered – i.e. sold – to a Russian Orthodox priest presently living in Germany. It seems that the Greek and Swiss accomplices tried to sell the items as genuine relics of deceased saints. Some items had name-tags such as St Andrew, St Dimitris and St Basil, and all of the skulls and bones had been doused in incense-like fragrances.
As of now it is unknown whether or not the receiver was to be deceived, who planned to take the ‘relics’ to India in order to start a new church, or if he perhaps knew that it was all faked and wanted to deceive his future parishioners with some ancient relics from Christian lands. Among the items found by police were also two nails labeled ‘Holy Nails of Jesus,’ apparently an attempt to pass them off as nails used during the crucifixion.
UPDATE 2: [source]
A search of the deacon’s home on Monday by Thessaloniki Security police turned up 10 narcotic pills, 505 bones and 15 skulls on which names of saints were written, as well as a 19th century Byzantine icon, a 19th century Byzantine cross, two Byzantine rings, and five ancient and Byzantine coins which are protected under antiquities laws.

Catholic Idolatry

Mark Horne has a helpful post on why he is not a Roman Catholic. An excerpt:

  1. Idolatry is a huge sin and praying through icons (whether 3d or 2d) is idolatry.  I cannot possibly engage in such a practice, allow anyone in my guardianship to do so, or excuse such a thing, without falling into rank unbelief.
  2. Necromancy is almost as huge a sin and praying to the departed saints is necromancy.  See #1 above.  People raised thinking bigamy is Christian may be true Christians, but people who know better are living in sin and without hope of eternal life unless they repent of such behavior.
  3. The way some Roman Catholic constituencies provide ministry opportunities for defectors from Protestantism is, of course, tempting–but it can hardly count as anything more than thirty pieces of silver if #1 and #2 hold.  If one must be marginalized and impoverished in the Protestant world due to sectarian sins, well, God has called many Christians and their families to far worse martyrdoms.
  4. Claiming unity can be achieved by everyone else joining one’s own denomination is exactly the sect spirit that is so loathsome in many Protestant groups, and it gains no more attractiveness in Rome.

While Mark’s honesty will offend many who justify idolatry by appealing to John of Damascus, we have an opposite example in the Internet Monk’s interview with Bryan Cross, someone who has made that plunge into idolatry. I don’t know why these issues are never raised in these ecumenical interviews. Many Protestants still seem to assume that justification is the core issue between us and Rome, while in fact idolatry is and always has been one of the central concerns of the Reformation, if one that is often ignored today.