Some of my readers probably won’t get the title of this blog entry. They probably aren’t Yanks or they are probably too young to remember Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, spoof TV show. (If you like Mystery Science Theatre 3000, it was kind of like that, except it was limited to bad, really bad horror flicks.) The show was pretty cheesy, but it got the attention of plenty of young men for obvious reasons.
Apologetics can be cheesy too or perhaps better said, cheesy apologists. Such are the types who toss out references to little known events as evidence for their views without any substantial investigation or argument and without showing any proficiency in the sources that they cite. Unfortunately the Internet is replete with such persons who simply recycle oft repeated claims.
One of these is in reference to the council of Elvira in the late third century/early fourth century. (Its exact date can’t be fixed.) Elvira was a local synod in Spain which put forward 81 canons. Canon 36 is usually trotted out in reference to icons. Rarely is the text of the canon given and almost never analyzed. Sometimes the claim is that Elvira forbade all images. Sometimes the claim is that there was no uninamity regarding the legitimacy images in the early church or similar claims. I don’t think the canon supports either claim.
The canon states,
“It has seemed good that images should not be in churches so that what is venerated and worshipped not be painted on the walls.”
The canon does not prohibit the use of images per se. It does prohibit them on the walls of the church without mentioning other locations either in the church or outside it, say in private homes. The canon also implicitly recognizes that this was practised in the prior period. Probably, there would be no need to pass a canon for a practice that was non-existent. The canon also shows that Christians could distinguish between various forms of representations since it refers to images of figures in Christian theology. The canon does not equate images in the church on walls with images of pagan deities (idols). And the canon has the framework of a minor disciplinary procedure since it carries with it no sanctions or anathama. The language of “it seemed good to us” is prudential. Better safe than sorry. Consequently, the canon is not the carte blanch condemnation of images that many Protestant cheesy apologists like to spin it.
The canon itself, not to mention the council as a whole, doesn’t give us any context as to why the bishops would prohibit such a practice. Among the Jews, the attitude towards images was more or less fluid, barring direct attempts to directly depict deity. The temple after all had plenty of images engraved on and in it. This attitude depended on how much direct contact with paganism and how agressive it was. In periods of relative peace without pagan interference or domination, Jewish attitudes towards images were more lax, whereas in times of pagan interference they became quite strict. It is possible given the proximity of Elvira to the Diocletian persecutions that the bishops at Elvira moved in a more strict direction. But this is speculative, just as it is to claim that Elvira prohibited images on walls of churches based on a reading of the 2nd Commandment.
The canon therefore doesn’t address the issue of what were Christian attitudes towards images or icons per se since it doesn’t condemn them per se. It only seeks to regulate rather than condemn the practice and that for prudential reasons, yet undisclosed. This is perhaps the reason why the iconoclasts in the fourth century as well as those in the seventh through eighth centuries never appealed to it. Neither did the Franks in the council of Frankfurt in the eighth century. This is not because the text was suppressed since it shows up in a number of collections. The text is employed by iconoclasts only during the Reformation period.
Canon 36 of the council of Elvira therefore gives no substantial evidence of iconoclasm in the early church, either as a principled position or as represetnative of Christianity on the whole. Cheesy apologists would do well to cease citing it.