Tertullian on Images in the Early Church

Tertullian ca. 160-220

You shall have leave to begin with the parables, where you have the lost ewe re-sought by the Lord, and carried back on His shoulders. Let the very paintings upon your cups come forward to show whether even in them the figurative meaning of that sheep will shine through (the outward semblance, to teach) whether a Christian or heathen sinner be the object it aims at in the matter of restoration. (On Modesty 7)

In this work Tertullian in his Montanist period attacks a North African or Roman bishop of the Church for absolving Christians of adultery. He believed this to be wrong due to Montanist rigorism. This is the oldest proof that the catholic Church made use of images in it’s liturgy and in concert with it’s Mysteries.

Likewise, when forbidding the similitude to be made of all things which are in heaven, and in earth, and in the waters, He declared also the reasons, as being prohibitory of all material exhibition of a latent idolatry. For He adds: You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them. The form, however, of the brazen serpent which the Lord afterwards commanded Moses to make, afforded no pretext for idolatry, but was meant for the cure of those who were plagued with the fiery serpents. Numbers 21:8-9 I say nothing of what was figured by this cure. Thus, too, the golden Cherubim and Seraphim were purely an ornament in the figured fashion of the ark; adapted to ornamentation for reasons totally remote from all condition of idolatry, on account of which the making a likeness is prohibited; and they are evidently not at variance with this law of prohibition, because they are not found in that form of similitude, in reference to which the prohibition is given. (Against Marcion Bk. 2.22)

Why, once more, did the same Moses, after prohibiting the likeness of everything, set up the golden serpent on the pole; and as it hung there, propose it as an object to be looked at for a cure? Did he not here also intend to show the power of our Lord’s cross, whereby that old serpent the devil was vanquished—whereby also to every man who was bitten by spiritual serpents, but who yet turned with an eye of faith to it, was proclaimed a cure from the bite of sin, and health for evermore? (ibid. Bk.3.18)

Tertullian was so rigorous that at times he linked all images with idolatry. The Marcionites asked how was it possible to reconcile Old Tetstament images with a rigorist interpretation of the second commandment. They rejected the Old Testament God altogether thus avoiding the problem for them. Tertullian had to counter their assertions by creating a special class of images which could manifest the power of what they prefigured.

Fr. Steven Bigham: “What is therefore, the result of Tertullian’s writings on the question of images? The ambiguity remains. He accepted the equation “image=idol” but also accepted non-idolatrous images. He justified these latter images not only by appeal to an extraordinary divine precept, which he invoked not only the bronze snake, but also for the enlarging the category of permitted images that escaped the thunder of the 2nd Commandment. Having thus accepted, some 500 years before the iconoclastic crisis, the essential argument of the iconodules in reference to Old Testament images, Tertullian can only with great difficulty be called as a witness for the supposed hostility of early Christians toward all figurative art.” (Early Christians Attitudes Toward Images, pg. 127)