Advocates of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy sometimes respond to patristic contradictions of their beliefs by dismissing the patristic sources in question as representative of only a small number of people. Even if we were to accept that characterization, we ought to ask why even a minority of people would oppose something if that something is supposed to have been an apostolic tradition always held by the church, a church to which the minority in question supposedly belonged.
However, what if we have no reason to think that these people were in the minority? What if an Evangelical’s citation of, say, five or ten patristic sources is countered with one patristic source or none from the same timeframe? Objecting that five or ten isn’t everybody doesn’t change the fact that it is more than one or none. If you’re claiming that your denomination is the one true church, to which all or almost all of the earliest Christians belonged, and you’re claiming that your denomination has always taught the same things, isn’t it problematic if Evangelicals can cite more patristic support for their belief on a relevant issue than you can cite for yours?
Roman Catholics disagree among themselves, and Eastern Orthodox disagree with each other, regarding the history of their beliefs. One Eastern Orthodox will appeal to something like the popular Roman Catholic arguments for development of doctrine, whereas another Eastern Orthodox will argue that the doctrine in question was always understood and accepted by the early Christians. The anonymous Eastern Orthodox layman who posts here and goes by the screen name Orthodox is an example of the latter. After I mentioned some examples of opposition to the veneration of images during the patristic era, Orthodox ignored some of those examples and tried to dismiss the remainder with the following comment:
“Yes we know about Spain, and a couple of ECFs, and your favourite scholars."
In contrast to the sources I’ve cited, including both Christian and non-Christian sources from the ante-Nicene era, Orthodox hasn’t cited any from the earliest centuries. He’s cited some support for the use of images among some ante-Nicene sources, but use and veneration are different issues. His argument for the veneration of images focuses on patristic sources from the fourth century onward, and even in that timeframe he’s mentioned fewer sources than I’ve mentioned against his position. He could add more names to his list, as I could add more to mine, but if he thought that I was naming too few sources, then why has he named fewer in response?
Similarly, in another thread he claimed that the church had historically agreed with his interpretation of Acts 15. I asked for documentation, and he thought that producing one source (John Chrysostom) was sufficient. After I documented that even that one source actually didn’t agree with him, he left the thread without responding. Apparently, one (mistakenly cited) source is enough for him, but it’s not enough for me to cite far more than one in support of my position on an issue.
When Orthodox refers to “Spain” in the quote above, he has in mind the council of Elvira, which opposed the hanging of images of Christ in churches in the early fourth century. The council was attended by dozens of church leaders, including nineteen bishops. One of those bishops was Hosius of Cordova, who was prominent at the Council of Nicaea. Concerning him, the Eastern Orthodox patristic scholar John McGuckin writes:
“Hosius was also adviser to the emperor Constantine from 313 to the time of the Council of Nicaea I (325)….Because of his high reputation, Constantine sent him as a personal delegate to Alexandria to investigate the dispute between Arius and Alexander of Alexandria. His report became the basis for the arrangement of the Council of Nicaea. The tone was set in advance by an anti-Arian synod at Antioch in 325 where Hosius presided. He was an important speaker at Nicaea, and is thought by many to have originated the idea of inserting the term homoousion into the creed. Hosius presided over the anti-Arian Council of Sardica in 343” (The Westminster Handbook To Patristic Theology [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], p. 172)
It doesn’t seem likely that Hosius would have been ignorant of some apostolic tradition of venerating images that had always been held by the church. If Eastern Orthodoxy was the only denomination in the first millennium of church history, and people like Hosius belonged to that denomination, as Orthodox has claimed, then why didn't that denomination discipline Hosius for what he and dozens of other church leaders did at the council of Elvira? Why was Hosius unaware of the apostolic tradition of venerating images in the first place?
We can ask similar questions about why non-Christian sources like Celsus and Caecilius spoke as if they perceived Christians in general as opposed to the veneration of images. Why did ante-Nicene fathers from a wide variety of locations, backgrounds, personalities, etc. oppose the veneration of images in various contexts? Dismissing somebody like Eusebius of Caesarea, Epiphanius, or Hosius as an opponent of something that almost everybody else accepted isn’t a good explanation of their behavior, nor does it explain the many other sources who seem to have agreed with them. If this sort of evidence against an early patristic belief in venerating images is to be dismissed as too little, then at least our little is better than what’s offered from the other side.