Unmasking Idolatry

From Luke Timothy Johnson’s Reading Romans (2001), 48:

Paul’s starting point is the analysis of idolatry in Romans 1:18–32. Jews thought of idolatry as a matter of worshiping the wrong gods, and therefore something that only Gentiles could do. Paul thought more deeply on the matter. He saw that idolatry was a disease of human freedom, found as widely among Jews as among Gentiles.

Idolatry begins where faith begins, in the perception of human existence as contingent and needy. But whereas faith accepts such contingency as also a gift from a loving creator from whom both existence and worth derive, idolatry refuses a dependent relationship on God. It seeks to establish one’s own existence and worth apart from the claim of God by effort and striving (“works”) of one’s own.

Paul will use the striking expression “the flesh” (sarx) and speak of “life according to the flesh” (Romans 7:5, 18, 25; 8:3–7). He means by flesh the measurement of life apart from spirit, and specifically apart from the Holy Spirit of God. It is life in denial of transcendence, a life lived on the basis of perceived reality, taken as a closed system. Seeking to establish one’s own life and worth within such a framework requires boasting and arrogance. It demands competition and hostility toward others.

The reason is simple. Since life as a gift is rejected, then life on one’s own terms must be by means of having or possessing. I am insofar as I have, own, can claim, “this is mine.” And since I view the world as a closed system, there is only so much “having” available. I am inevitably in competition with other humans for life and worth. My self-aggrandizement must be at another’s expense. Rivalry, envy, hatred, and murder are the logical expressions of the idolatrous impulse, for the “need to be” that derives from the refusal of the first gift is an endless hunger, an unslakable thirst.

God’s Sovereignty Over World Religions

As a fan of the theology of Herman Bavinck, I fully expected to enjoy Daniel Strange’s new book, Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Zondervan, 2015). And I have. Strange returns to the works of Bavinck (and J.H. Bavinck) to fill an often overlooked gap in religious studies.strange

So what are we to make of the world’s religions? What we do with all the idols?

To put the matter in a blunt summary, Strange rightly contends that all non-Christian religions are idolatrous responses to God, each ‘subversively fulfilled’ in Christ. In other words, Christ simultaneously contradicts and then counter-intuitively fulfills religious hopes and impulses (see 1 Cor. 1:22–25). Years ago I found this point essential to my development as a Christian who reads and benefits from books written by non-Christians (see Lit!, 73–75).

But Strange presses deeper into the subversive side, asking how God’s sovereignty plays out over the world’s religions and idols. Here’s how he explains it in his new book, building off Piper:

We are within standard Reformed territory to say that all things were created by Christ and for Christ (Col. 1:16), including thrones, dominions, rulers and authorities, which (given Col. 2:15 and Eph. 6:12) includes evil supernatural powers such as demons.

Unpacking this a little further, John Piper notes ‘the apex of the glory of Christ is the glory of his grace . . . and the apex of this grace is the murder of the God-man outside Jerusalem around A.D. 33. The death of Jesus Christ was murder. It was the most spectacular sin ever committed.’ By his death, Christ defeated the ‘powers’ at the cross (Col. 2:15). Piper, linking Colossians 1:16 and 2:15, argues that Christ will be ‘more highly honored’ because he allowed Satan (and implicitly the demons) to do evil for millennia before defeating them at the cross, than had he eliminated Satan immediately.

Given the constraints of this study, such axiomatic truth can be but asserted here with little further justification.

Given this assertion, however, what does require further reflection and justification is precisely how the sovereignly ordained, ‘spectacularly sinful’ and essentially God-denying worship of the religious Other can glorify the living God. . . .

The Bible’s presentation of the nature of non-Christian religions indicates that they must be understood as the impulse of opposition in fallen humanity towards the Creator God, who has made himself known in Christ Jesus. Idols and false gods feature in the narrative of Scripture as God’s rivals. They are those things that, falsely credited with divine presence, vie for the affections of God’s people, those things that contend with God. By virtue of Scripture’s portrayal of this rivalry, idols are constantly set up in comparison with the one true God, a contest in which they always emerge as ultimately powerless and defeated.

By their very deficiency, therefore, idols are constantly pointing to God’s excellences, his holiness, his power, his faithfulness and his mercy. Inasmuch as the narrative of Scripture provides us with a portrait of God, a meditation on his attributes and actions, idols function as a foil, a device to throw that portrait of God into sharper relief. They fulfill, so to speak, a hermeneutic function. God allows the religious Other to flourish because then its final defeat will glorify him all the more. It is only when this impulse of opposition is recognized that its purpose in God’s economy may be understood properly. (309–310)

Why Personal Idols Destroy Community

N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, 182:

One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around. Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sexual objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.

Wright’s point is that idolatry is more than a mere internal heart problem — idolatry is what we project onto others. Idolatry de-values others and becomes a relational cancer in our families, our communities, and our churches. In other words, personal idols dehumanize us, dehumanize our evaluation of others, and necessarily erode community.