Paul’s critique of idolatry, part 1 – The political temptation [Peaceable Romans #3]

Ted Grimsrud—January 17, 2022

I believe that one of the ways the stories and teachings of the Bible speak to our world today is in how they criticize the dynamics of idolatry. The biblical stories often portray violence and injustice having roots in idolatry. Trusting in things other than the creator God who made all human beings in the divine image leads to a diminishment of the value of some human beings—a prerequisite for injustice and violence. Torah, the prophets, and Jesus all emphasize the centrality of loving the neighbor as part of what it means to love God above all else.

I think that the writings of Paul the apostle are also an important part of the critique of idolatry and the envisioning of peaceable life. This is the first of a three-part series of posts on Paul’s critique of idolatry. Especially the book of Romans emphasizes idolatry and how to overcome it. Noting the importance of idolatry in Paul’s thought helps us recognize how closely connected Paul was with Jesus and the Old Testament prophets. All too often, Christian theology has tended to see more discontinuity between Paul and his predecessors than is warranted—or helpful.

The struggle against idols characterizes the biblical story from the concern with “graven images” in the Ten Commandments down to the blasphemies of the Beast in Revelation. Certainly, at times the battle against idols itself crosses the line into violence and injustice. However, for my purposes here I will assume that those accounts stand over against the overall biblical story. When anti-idolatry takes the form of violence, a new idolatry has taken its place. Our challenge is to seek to overcome evil without becoming evil ourselves.

The critique of idolatry

We find in the biblical critique of idolatry perspectives that are important, even essential for responding to the problems of violence in our world today. If we use violence as our criterion, we could say that whenever human beings justify violence against other human beings, they give ultimate loyalty to some entity (or “idol”) other than the God of Jesus Christ. It could well be that forces that underwrite violence today—loyalty to warring nations, labeling those outside our religious or ethnic circle as less than fully human, placing a higher priority on gathering wealth than on community wellbeing—are contemporary versions of the idolatrous dynamics that biblical prophets condemn.

Continue reading “Paul’s critique of idolatry, part 1 – The political temptation [Peaceable Romans #3]”

Reading Paul in light of Old Testament social conflict [Peaceable Romans #2]

Ted Grimsrud—January 10, 2022

The more I read what scholars have to say about the writings of Paul, the more I feel like they miss important elements of Paul’s thought that might speak to us today. I think of Paul as a biblical prophet alongside the great Old Testament prophets, Jesus himself, and John of Patmos who wrote Revelation. As such, I think Paul is a great witness to the message of shalom that I associate with the prophets and with Jesus.

However, the Paul of Christian biblical scholars seems more like a teacher of a new religion, one centered on beliefs about Jesus’s death and resurrection and on escaping the failures of the ancient Hebrews. Such a Paul has little to say against domination and power politics and little to say about key issues of social justice such as wealth, social power, warism, and systemic prejudice. That is, the Paul of the Christian biblical scholar seems cut off from the OT portrayal of Torah, the insights of the prophets, and even the life and teaching of Jesus.

In raising this critique here, though, I am not intending to focus on recent Christian scholarship (at least not yet). Rather, I want simply to raise a few questions about how we might approach Paul in ways that are different from the standard approaches and that have promise to be more relevant for our current world healing concerns. I like the idea of reading Paul (for right now, I will focus on Romans) in the context of the Bible as a whole, where we keep the Big Story plot line from the Old Testament in mind and where, especially, we read Paul in light of the life and teaching of Jesus.

Continue reading “Reading Paul in light of Old Testament social conflict [Peaceable Romans #2]”