On the Veneration of Images [Commentary on Browne: Article XXII (3)]

It was previously shown in the commentary on general councils that the Second Council of Nicaea is often claimed by Anglo-Catholics to be ecumenical. On this basis, it is urged that Anglicans should embrace (or at least allow) the practice of venerating images as affirmed by that same council.[1] As we have seen, however, the Council’s ecumenical status is questionable in light of the critical response to it from the Council of Frankfurt. Indeed, Browne cites this latter council against the practice in his discussion of images: “The decrees of [the Second Council of Nicaea] were sent by Pope Adrian into France, to Charlemagne, to be confirmed by the bishops of his kingdom; Charlemagne having also received them direct from Greece. The Gallican bishops, having thus a copy of the decrees, composed a reply to them, not objecting to images, if used for historical remembrance and ornament to walls, but absolutely condemning any worship or adoration of them.”[2]

Putting aside the appeal to conciliar authority, the Council’s theological justification for venerating images rests on two principles: first, that images receive “the veneration of honour” rather than “the true worship corresponding to our faith, which pertains to the divine nature alone.”[3] This is known as the distinction between dulia and latria, characterized by Browne as follows:

It is desirable to observe the distinctions which Romanist divines make between the worship due to God, and that paid to the Blessed Virgin and the saints. They lay it down, that there are three kinds of worship or adoration: first, latria, which belongs only to God; secondly, that honour and respect shown to good men; thirdly, an intermediate worship, called by them dulia, which belongs to glorified saints in general, and hyperdulia, which belongs to the human nature of Christ, and to the Blessed Virgin.[4]

The second principle articulated by the Council in support of image veneration is that “the honour paid to the image passes over to the prototype.”[5] In sum, according to the Council, the veneration of images is a lesser kind of worship than that which is addressed directly to God, and, furthermore, veneration of images terminates in that which the image represents, not in the image itself. The Council of Trent, although it “speaks somewhat guardedly”[6] on the subject of images, upholds the teaching of the Second Council of Nicaea:

The images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints, are to be had and retained particularly in temples, and that due honour and veneration are to be given them; not that any divinity, or virtue, is believed to be in them, on account of which they are to be worshipped; or that anything is to be asked of them; or, that trust is to be reposed in images, as was of old done by the Gentiles who placed their hope in idols; but because the honour which is shown to them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent; in such wise that by the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head, and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ; and we venerate the saints, whose similitude they bear: as, by the decrees of Councils, and especially of the second Synod of Nicæa, has been defined against the opponents of images.[7]

The teaching of the Second Council of Nicaea is also affirmed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which cites both it and the Council of Trent in support of the following statement: “The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, ‘the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,’ and ‘whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.’ The honor paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration,’ not the adoration due to God alone.”[8]

The idea that veneration of an image passes to its prototype—in other words, that images are a medium or aid to veneration properly addressed rather than an object of veneration in themselves—is supposed to distinguish contemporary veneration of images from the idolatry forbidden by the Second Commandment and condemned throughout the Bible. Those who take this position appear to hold that idolaters in the Bible believed idols of gold, silver, stone, wood, etc., were literal gods. However, Browne does not accept this purported distinction between biblical idolatry and contemporary image veneration:

We are told that [Romanists] make prayers, not to the images, but to those of which they are images, yet we ask, wherein does such worship differ from idolatry? No heathen people believed the image to be their God. They prayed not to the image, but to the god whom the image was meant to represent.[9]

The accuracy of this statement is attested to by the fact that various church fathers responded to pagan objections that they merely worshiped God through images rather than worshiping images themselves. For example, Browne writes of Augustine that he “contends against the argument of the heathens, that they only used the image to remind them of the being they worshipped.”[10] The Israelites likely adopted this rationale as well, for, as Bishop Burnet observes, “It is no way credible that [the Jews] could have fallen into such a degree of stupidity, as to fancy that a piece of wood, which they had carved into such a figure, was a real deity.”[11] Rather, says Browne,

The golden calves of Jeroboam were doubtless meant merely as symbols of the power of Jehovah; and the people, in bowing down before them, thought they worshipped the gods “which brought them up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings xii. 28). But it is the very essence of idolatry, not to worship God in spirit and in truth, but to worship Him through the medium of an image or representation.[12]

We find, then, that “there were two false opinions: the one was concerning those [false] deities themselves; the other was concerning this way of worshipping them; and both were blamed; not only the worshipping a false god, but the worshipping that god by an image.”[13] If only the former were a sin, the Israelites would not have been guilty of idolatry in their attempts to worship the true God through golden calves. Moreover, if God Himself cannot rightly be worshiped via images, how can we imagine that we do well to venerate mere men by the same means?

It could be replied that the Incarnation has in some way superseded the Second Commandment, as Aquinas argues:

This commandment does not forbid the making of any graven thing or likeness, but the making thereof for the purpose of adoration, wherefore it is added: “Thou shalt not adore them nor serve them.” And because, as stated above, the movement towards the image is the same as the movement towards the thing, adoration thereof is forbidden in the same way as adoration of the thing whose image it is. Wherefore in the passage quoted [Exodus 20:4] we are to understand the prohibition to adore those images which the Gentiles made for the purpose of venerating their own gods, i.e. the demons, and so it is premised: “Thou shalt not have strange gods before Me.” But no corporeal image could be raised to the true God Himself, since He is incorporeal…. But because in the New Testament God was made man, He can be adored in His corporeal image.[14]

The idea of honoring Christ through images of Him introduces further difficulties, however. The Second Council of Nicaea states that “whoever venerates the image venerates in it the hypostasis of the one who is represented.”[15] According to Richard Price, “hypostasis” here “means the individual person, and in the case of Christ this means, as stated in the Chalcedonian Definition, the two natures, divine and human, as united to form a single person. This raises a problem that the council failed to address. If the image is to receive the same degree of veneration as its prototype, then images of Christ should receive not the mere veneration of honour but worship (λατρεία) itself.”[16]

In short, the Council’s stated principles for image veneration are in “tension (indeed contradiction)”[17]—in order to honor the image of Christ rightly, on the assumption that the honor paid to His image passes directly to Christ Himself, one would have to worship the image with the fullness of latria, which clashes with the principle that images are only to be accorded a lesser veneration of honor. This conclusion was nonetheless accepted by many Roman Catholic thinkers, as Browne notes: “Divines of eminence in the Church of Rome have taught unchecked, that to the very images of Christ was due the same supreme worship which is due to Christ Himself,—even that latria, with which none but the Holy Trinity and the Incarnate Word must be approached.”[18] In Aquinas’s formulation, “The same reverence should be shown to Christ’s image as to Christ Himself. Since, therefore, Christ is adored with the adoration of ‘latria,’ it follows that His image should be adored with the adoration of ‘latria.’”[19] On this understanding, “To worship the image with any other sort of acts [i.e., the veneration of honor], is to worship it on its own account, which they [Aquinas and other likeminded divines] think is idolatry.”[20] Alternatively, those “adhering to the Nicene doctrine, think that the image is to be worshipped with an inferior degree, that otherwise idolatry must follow. So here the danger of idolatry is threatened of both sides.”[21] This dilemma can be avoided altogether by recognizing that while the Incarnation legitimizes images of Christ, it does not follow that we are permitted (much less required) to venerate or worship such images:

So far…as the image of God in Christ is concerned, the commandment has been modified by the Incarnation. So it was on a theological question that the retention of images rightly turned in the Iconoclastic controversy, the question as to the permanent reality of Our Lord’s Human Nature. If, as Catholics hold, He is very man now, then He still wears a human frame; and may be represented in art without prejudice to the spirituality of the Godhead: for now God ever exists in human form. It is, however, for the Church of each age and country to say how far this truth can be safely applied in practice without fear of superstition.[22]

In any event, even if it could be coherently maintained that images—whether of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or the saints—are only owed the veneration of honor, the Latin text of the Article does not condemn the “adoration” or “worship” of images, as in the English text, but “veneratione,” thereby excluding veneration as well as worship.

If, then, the veneration of images is indeed idolatrous, it might be thought that those denominational bodies in which the practice is enshrined—particularly the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions—are false churches, contrary to what was said previously about them with regard to Article XIX. Burnet unfolds this line of thought:

Those of the church of Rome complain much of the charge of idolatry, that our church has laid upon them, so fully and so severely in the Homilies. Some among ourselves have also thought that we must either renounce that charge, or that we must deny the possibility of salvation in that church, and in consequence to that conclude, that neither the baptism nor the orders of that church are valid: for since idolaters are excluded from the kingdom of heaven, they argue, that if there can be no salvation where idolatry is committed by the whole body of a church, then that can be no church, and in it there is no salvation.[23]

Yet he goes on to add that, as in other contexts, we should hesitate to render judgment as to the state of men’s souls:

We, in our weighing of things, are only to consider what actions signify of their own nature, or by public authority, and according to that we must form our judgments about them, and in particular in the point of idolatry: but as for the secret thoughts or intentions of men, we must leave these to the judgment of God, who only knows them, and who being infinitely gracious, slow to anger, and ready to forgive, will, we do not doubt, make all the abatements in the weighing men’s actions that there is reason for.[24]

Having said all this, it should be noted that Anglicans are not compelled to shun images entirely. Although the Homily Against Peril of Idolatry declares that “images placed publicly in temples cannot possibly be without danger of worshipping and idolatry, wherefore they are not publicly to be had or suffered in temples and churches,”[25] Browne demurs at this: “We willingly concede, that the iconoclastic spirit of the Puritans was fuller of zeal than of judgment; for if the figures of Cherubim were commanded in the temple, figures of angels and saints and storied windows in our cathedrals could scarcely be impious and idolatrous.”[26] This is a practical example of the principle for treating the Homilies that Browne later articulates in his discussion of Article XXXV: “We are not expected to express full concurrence with every statement, or every exposition of Holy Scripture contained in them, but merely in the general to approve of them, as a body of sound and orthodox discourses, and well adapted for the times for which they were composed.”

To conclude with some brief remarks on relics, there is ample biblical evidence that ordinary artifacts associated with holy men, including their very bones, have wrought miracles. For this reason, the Church of Rome teaches that “the holy bodies of holy martyrs, and of others now living with Christ,—which bodies were the living members of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Ghost, and which are by Him to be raised unto eternal life, and to be glorified,—are to be venerated by the faithful; through which (bodies) many benefits are bestowed by God on men.”[27] But it does not follow that such relics are to be venerated:

There can be no question, that God has been pleased to give such honour to His saints, that in one instance the dead body of a prophet was the means of restoring life to the departed [2 Kings 13:21], that in another, handkerchiefs brought from an Apostle were made instruments of miraculous cure [Acts 19:11‒12]. But we have no instance in Scripture of the garments or the bones of the saints being preserved for such purposes. All evidence from Holy Writ goes in the opposite direction.[28]

As Browne points out, “The only relic to which we learn that worship was paid, namely, the brazen serpent, was on that very account broken in pieces by Hezekiah; and he is commended for breaking it (2 Kings xviii. 4).”[29] We ought instead to ensure that the bodies of the saints are “honourably buried”[30] in anticipation of their resurrection.


  1. See, e.g., Mark Perkins, “Reading the Anglican Formularies in Light of the Ecumenical Councils,” Earth & Altar, https://www.earthaltar.org/post/reading-the-anglican-formularies-in-light-of-the-ecumenical-councils, and Matthew J. J. Hoskin, “Nicaea II, Protestants, and Icons,” Ad Fontes, 20 January 2023, https://adfontesjournal.com/church-history/nicaea-ii-protestants-and-icons/.
  2. See also William Beveridge, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (London: James Duncan, 1830), 437‒38; Gilbert Burnet, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, ed. James R. Page (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1842), 309‒310; T. P. Boultbee, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1871), 189; John Macbeth, Notes on the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1894), 114; Edgar C. S. Gibson, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen and Co., 1898), 560n1; Arthur J. Tait, Lecture Outlines on the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Elliot Stock, 1910), 154; and Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 59.
  3. Richard Price, trans., The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787) (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018), 565.
  4. See also Francis J. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics: Francis J. Hall’s Dogmatic Theology, ed. John A. Porter, vol. 2, Bk. X, Eschatology (Nashotah, WI: Nashotah House Press, 2021), 613n2.
  5. Price, Acts, 565.
  6. E. Tyrrell Green, The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Age of the Reformation, 2nd ed. (London: Wells, Gardner, Darton & Co., 1912), 154. Compare Burnet, Exposition, 312‒13.
  7. J. Waterworth, ed. and trans. The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Œcumenical Council of Trent (London: C. Dolman, 1848), Twenty-Fifth Session, “On the Invocation, Veneration, and Relics, of Saints, and on Sacred Images,” 234‒35, https://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct25.html.
  8. Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2012), par. 2132, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P7F.HTM.
  9. See also Burnet, Exposition, 302; George Tomline, Elements of Christian Theology, 14th ed., vol. II (London: T. Cadell, 1843), 313; Piers C. Claughton, A Brief Comparison of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England with Holy Scripture (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1843), 76; and T. P. Boultbee, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1871), 190.
  10. See also Burnet, Exposition, 307, and “An Homily Against Peril of Idolatry and Superfluous Decking of Churches,” in Gerald Bray, ed., The Books of Homilies: A Critical Edition (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke and Co., 2015), 262.
  11. Burnet, Exposition, 303.
  12. See also Burnet, Exposition, 303‒304; William Baker, A Plain Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Rivington’s, 1883), 128; G. F. Maclear and W. W. Williams, An Introduction to the Articles of the Church of England (London: Macmillan and Co., 1895), 274; and Turretin, Institutes, 57.
  13. Burnet, Exposition, 302.
  14. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III.25.3 ad 1, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Benzinger Brothers, 1920), https://www.newadvent.org/summa/4025.htm#article3. Compare Catholic Church, Catechism, par. 2131, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P7F.HTM.
  15. Price, Acts, 565.
  16. Price, Acts, 554.
  17. Price, Acts, 49n170.
  18. See also Beveridge, Exposition, 433; James Usher, Answer to a Jesuit (Cambridge: John Smith, 1835), 432; Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 560; B. J. Kidd, The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their History and Explanation (London: Rivington’s, 1899), 196; Green, Thirty-Nine Articles, 154; and E. J. Bicknell, A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 2nd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1925), 363.
  19. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III.25.3 co., https://www.newadvent.org/summa/4025.htm#article3.
  20. Burnet, Exposition, 312.
  21. Burnet, Exposition, 312.
  22. Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 197. See also Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 364.
  23. Burnet, Exposition, 301.
  24. Burnet, Exposition, 301‒302.
  25. Bray, Homilies, 256. Compare Turretin, Institutes, 62‒66, and John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I.11.13, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 58.
  26. See also Burnet, Exposition, 315; A. P. Forbes, An Explanation of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 2nd ed. (Oxford and London: James Parker and Co., 1871), 369; Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 562n1; Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 197; Green, Thirty-Nine Articles, 155; and Laudable Practice, “‘I Quarrel Not the Making of Images,'” The North American Anglican, 24 January 2022, https://northamanglican.com/i-quarrel-not-the-making-of-images/.
  27. Waterworth, Council of Trent, 234, https://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct25.html, italics original.
  28. See also Claughton, Comparison, 77‒78; Baker, Exposition, 129; Maclear and Williams, Introduction to the Articles, 275; Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 199; Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 366; and Turretin, Institutes, 51.
  29. See also Edward Welchman, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (London: SPCK, 1842), 54; Burnet, Exposition, 317; and Claughton, Comparison, 77.
  30. Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 199.


James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.

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