Reviews of

Image, Word and God in the Early Christian Centuries

In Ashgate, Early Christianity, Jacob Phillips, Mark EDWARDS on May 3, 2013 at 3:48 pm


2013.05.07 | Mark Edwards, Image, Word and God in the Early Christian Centuries. Ashgate Studies in Philosophy and Theology in Late Antiquity. Ashgate: Farnham, Surrey 2013. 220 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4094-0671-6.

Review by Jacob Phillips, King’s College London.

Many thanks to Ashgate for kindly providing us with a review copy.

Tertullian’s adage: quid ergo Athenis et Hierosolymis (what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?), tends to be a little overused in theological discourse. As well as being a cliché, it also fosters the view that the philosophical and theological concerns of Graeco-Roman and Hebrew thinking were somehow poles apart.  This presupposition is particularly perceptible regarding the issue of divine representation. There has been something of an assumption, no doubt nurtured by certain Biblical references, to assume that ‘pagan idols of silver and gold’ pertain to Athens, whereas the God (with an unspeakable name) of the second commandment of the Decalogue is staunchly aloof to any form of representation.

This oversimplification is, of course, a long way from contemporary readings of the thought of Ancient Greece and Israel. It is rather unsustainable historically to drive a clear philosophical-theological wedge between Athens and Jerusalem, and it is particularly unconvincing to do so on the issue of divine representation. The difficulties involved in navigating between the efficacies of different forms of representation, that is, of word and image, cut-through many of the extant texts of the Ancient World. Mark Edwards sets out to delineate the different dynamics of these issues as they are played out across a wide-range of sources. He covers issues in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the well-known figures of classical Greek philosophy from the Homeric literature to the Stoics, the key figures of the Early Roman Era (such as Philo and Plutarch), the Second Century Gnostics and apologists, Third Century Church Fathers like Origen and Clement, then Plotinus and his followers, some Fourth Century figures, then Proclus and, finally, Augustine. As can be seen from this roll-call, the breadth of this study is immense, and the book is a mere 220 pages long.

Besides challenging the questionable notion of an insurmountable split in the concerns of Greek and Hebrew orientated traditions, this work also challenges the notion of a clear dividing line between the concerns of philosophy and theology. Indeed, the avenues of investigation which Edwards opens-up in this regard are quite remarkable. For example, in his discussion of Greek philosophy, we read that the written word was generally seen as a superior vehicle than the visual image, something which is well-known regarding Plato. But what Edwards does not do is side-line these concerns, and similar ones, in, say, Hesiod, Parmenides, or Aristotle, as being of a different order to the concerns surrounding word and image in apparently different world of the Old and New Testaments. To complement the discussion on the early Greek sources, for example, Edwards argues that spoken revelation in the Old Testament is the more dominant and significant form of transmission than the visual. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the Creation narrative in which God creates the universe by his word, the discussion of which opens Edwards’ first chapter. Making room for a dialogue between areas too often ring-fenced as either strictly philosophical or theological is an insightful move.

Perceptive readers of this review might have picked-up on the fact that, to state – the more significant form of revelation in the Old Testament is verbal – is inevitably a bit sweeping. That is, the Old Testament is a collection of many books, with different earthly authors, spanning centuries in their composition. A biblical scholar, therefore, will no doubt find it easy enough to challenge this remark, and offer some points of deeply significant visual revelations from the Old Testament canon, such as the vision of Ezekiel, the whirlwind in the Book of Job, or the writing on the wall in Daniel. Edwards does deal with some of these instances directly, but the fact remains that the sheer breadth of the discussion in Image, Word and God does come at a price. To deal with texts as variant as pre-Socratic literature, the Hebrew Scriptures, Neo-Platonism and Augustine, in a book of this length, does mean that a level of detail is sacrificed along the way. Overall, I think that the overview Edwards provides of shared concerns between Athens and Jerusalem, and his challenge the rather hidebound presuppositions of classical scholars and church historians, justifies the length and level of detail here – but it is an open question whether or not specialists focussed only on one of these areas, might raise pertinent questions to Edwards regarding their respective sphere of interest.

This point is borne out in the observation that a high point of the book is the discussion on the writings of Origen. This chapter is an accomplished and impressive overview of Origen’s sources, and it can certainly be recommended for use in teaching as an introduction to Origen which could stand-alone for this purpose, apart from the broader concerns of the book. However, the fact that this chapter is rather outstanding, and that Origen is the thinker given the most extensive consideration, does seem to suggest that it remains an open question whether or not this work would have benefitted from perhaps a bit more length, and therefore more detail. This is also the case regarding the excellent discussion of Augustine, who is similarly awarded more individual attention.

Nonetheless, questions surrounding the length and appropriate level of detail for a monograph such as this are rarely straightforward, and the fact remains that Edwards’ general intentions are fulfilled successfully. This book is a fascinating and accomplished work which promises not only to interest biblical scholars and church historians. The issues here touch upon a much broader range concern which should also interest ancient historians and students of classical philosophy. Moreover, this work also has resonance in more contemporary discussions surrounding image and word in, say, theological aesthetics and the move toward a more visually orientated apologetics which is perceptible in contemporary systematic theology. The fact this book has the potential to offer insight to such a broad range of discussions, is indicative of the fact that it is dealing with some issues which go to the heart of much philosophical and theological discussion – and to achieve this in as a homogeneous and consistent fashion as Mark Edwards does here, is commendable indeed.

Jacob Phillips
 King’s College London
[ at ]


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