Sunday, August 02, 2009

Pagan vs. Christian use of Images in Worship

While paganism remained the dominant religion of the Roman empire, that is, while the average plebeian family still had household images and idols that they bowed, prayed, and offered libations before, Christians made far less use of images in their worship. When Christianity was legalized in the fourth century, it went on to become the dominant religion of the state itself. Once paganism had all but died out, the risk of laity confusing the use of images in worship with pagan idolatry faded away, and gradually the use of images became common practice. But there is a fundamental difference in how Christians used images and how pagans did. Listen to this late third century apologist:
We worship the gods, you say, by means of images. What then? Without these, do the gods not know that they are worshipped, and will they not think that any honour is shown to them by you? Through bypaths, as it were, then, and by assignments to a third party, as they are called, they receive and accept your services; and before those to whom that service is owed experience it, you first sacrifice to images, and transmit, as it were, some remnants to them at the pleasure of others. - Arnobius 6.9
According to Arnobius, the image was a conduit of the pagan's adoration in such a way that the god or goddess received benefit from its use.

On the contrary, Christian use of images, as it developed, was exactly the opposite. God stands in no need of images, neither does He benefit from them in any way. It is we who benefit. For the Christian, images stand as visual reminders or catalysts in focusing our attention and effort in such a way that the sole beneficiary of their use is the worshiper.

1 comment:

Dean said...

It is amazing, and sometimes frightening how similar the pagan practice of worshiping idols, and the Catholic practice of using statues as visual aides to prayer can be when seen on the surface. Of course, when you look deeper into both practices, you see how incredibly different they are. Great quote. I had never heard it before.