Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol VII:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Lactantius: Chap. II.—What was the first cause of making images; of the true likeness of God, and the true worship of him
Chap. ii.—what was the first cause of making images; of the true likeness of god, and the true worship of him.
What madness is it, then, either to form those objects which they themselves may afterwards fear, or to fear the things which they have formed? But, they say, we do not fear the images themselves, but those beings after whose likeness they were formed, and to whose names they are dedicated. You fear them doubtless on this account, because you think that they are in heaven; for if they are gods, the case cannot be otherwise. Why, then, do you not raise your eyes to heaven, and, invoking their names, offer sacrifices in the open air? Why do you look to walls, and wood, and stone, rather than to the place where you believe them to be? What is the meaning of temples 119 and altars? what, in short, of the images themselves, which are memorials either of the dead or absent? For the plan of making likenesses was invented by men for this reason, that it might be possible to retain the memory of those who had either been removed by death or separated by absence. p. 42 In which of these classes, then, shall we reckon the gods? If among the dead, who is so foolish as to worship them? If among the absent, then they are not to be worshipped, if they neither see our actions nor hear our prayers. But if the gods cannot be absent,—for, since they are divine, they see and hear all things, in whatever part of the universe they are,—it follows that images are superfluous, since the gods are present everywhere, and it is sufficient to invoke with prayer the names of those who hear us. But if they are present, they cannot fail to be at hand at their own images. It is entirely so, as the people imagine, that the spirits of the dead wander 120 about the tombs and relics of their bodies. But after that the deity has begun to be near, there is no longer need of his statue.
For I ask, if any one should often contemplate the likeness of a man who has settled in a foreign land, that he may thus solace himself for him who is absent, would he also appear to be of sound mind, if, when the other had returned and was present, he should persevere in contemplating the likeness, and should prefer the enjoyment of it, rather than the sight of the man himself? Assuredly not. For the likeness of a man appears to be necessary at that time when he is far away; and it will become superfluous when he is at hand. But in the case of God, whose spirit and influence are diffused everywhere, and can never be absent, it is plain that an image is always superfluous. But they fear lest their religion should be altogether vain and empty if they should see nothing present which they may adore, and therefore they set up images; and since these are representations of the dead, they resemble the dead, for they are entirely destitute of perception. But the image of the ever-living God ought to be living and endued with perception. But if it received this name 121 from resemblance, how can it be supposed that these images resemble God, which have neither perception nor motion? Therefore the image of God is not that which is fashioned by the fingers of men out of stone, or bronze, or other material, but man himself, since he has both perception and motion, and performs many and great actions. Nor do the foolish men understand, that if images could exercise perception and motion, they would of their own accord adore men, by whom they have been adorned and embellished, since they would be either rough and unpolished stone, or rude and unshapen wood, 122 had they not been fashioned by man.
Man, therefore, is to be regarded as the parent of these images; for they were produced by his instrumentality, and through him they first had shape, figure, and beauty. Therefore he who made them is superior to the objects which were made. And yet no one looks up to the Maker Himself, or reverences Him: he fears the things which he has made, as though there could be more power in the work than in the workman. Seneca, therefore, rightly says in his moral treatises: They worship the images of the gods, they supplicate them with bended knee, they adore them, they sit or stand beside them through the whole day, they offer to them contributions, 123 they slay victims; and while they value these images so highly, they despise the artificers who made them. What is so inconsistent, as to despise the statuary and to adore the statue; and not even to admit to your society him who makes your gods? What force, what power can they have, when he who made them has none? But he was unable to give to these even those powers which he had, the power of sight, of hearing, of speech, and of motion. Is any one so foolish as to suppose that there is anything in the image of a god, in which there is nothing even of a man except the mere resemblance? But no one considers these things; for men are imbued with this persuasion, and their minds have thoroughly imbibed the deception 124 of folly. And thus beings endowed with sense adore objects which are senseless, rational beings adore irrational objects, those who are alive adore inanimate objects, those sprung from heaven adore earthly objects. It delights me, therefore, as though standing on a lofty watch-tower, from which all may hear, to proclaim aloud that saying of Persius: 125 —“O souls bent down to the earth, and destitute of heavenly things?”
Rather look to the heaven, to the sight of which God your Creator raised you. He gave to you an elevated countenance; you bend it down to the earth; you depress to things below those lofty minds, which are raised together with their bodies to their parent, as though it repented you that you were not born quadrupeds. It is not befitting that the heavenly being should make himself equal to things which are earthly, and incline to the earth. Why do you deprive yourselves of heavenly benefits, and of your own accord fall prostrate upon the ground? For you do wretchedly roll yourselves 126 on the ground, p. 43 when you seek here below that which you ought to have sought above. For as to those vain 127 and fragile productions, the work of mans hands, from whatever kind of material they are formed, what are they but earth, out of which they were produced? Why, then, do you subject yourselves to lower objects? why do you place the earth above your heads? For when you lower yourselves to the earth, and humiliate yourselves, you sink of your own accord to hell, and condemn yourselves to death; for nothing is lower and more humble than the earth, except death and hell. And if you wished to escape these, you would despise the earth lying beneath your feet, preserving the position of your body, which you received upright, in order that you might be able to direct your eyes and your mind to Him who made it. But to despise and trample upon the earth is nothing else than to refrain from adoring images, because they are made of earth; also not to desire riches, and to despise the pleasures of the body, because wealth, and the body itself, which we make use of as a lodging, is but earth. Worship a living being, that you may live; for he must necessarily die who has subjected 128 himself and his soul to the dead.
The word temples is not here applied to the buildings which the faithful set apart for the worship of God, but to the places used by the heathens for their rites and sacrifices. [For three centuries templa was the word among Christians for the idolatrous places.] That buildings were set apart by Christians from the earliest ages for their religious assemblies, is gathered from the express testimony of Tertullian, Cyprian, and other early writers. They were called ecclesiæ; churches, not temples. [For κυριακὸν, dominicum, basilica, etc., see Bingham, book viii. cap i. sec. 2.]42:120
The heathens thought that the souls of the unburied dead wandered about on the earth, until their remains were committed to the tomb.42:121
The words simulacrum, “an image,” and similitudo, “a likeness” or “resemblance,” are connected together through the common root similis, “like.”42:122
Materia is especially used in the sense of wood or timber.42:123
Stipem jaciunt, “they throw a coin.” The word properly means a “coin,” money bearing a stamped impression; hence stipendium, “soldiers pay.”42:124
Fucus, “colouring juice;” hence anything not genuine, but artificial. Others read succum, “juice.”42:125
Persius, Satire 2d, 6. Lactantius uses the testimony of heathen writers against the heathen.42:126
Ludicra, “diversions.” The word is applied to stage-plays.43:128
Adjudicavit, adjudged, made over. Cf. Hor., Ep., i. 18: “Et, si quid abest, Italis adjudicat armis.”
Next: Chap. III.—That Cicero and other men of learning erred in not turning away the people from error
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