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.

In the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans, Paul offers an analysis and critique of idolatry that I believe remains useful today. Paul takes on two types of idolatry. First, he criticizes what I will call the idol of lust in the Roman Empire that underwrites violence and injustice. And, second, he critiques the claims of those (like Paul himself before he met Jesus) who believed that loyalty to the Law requires violence in defense of the covenant community.

This task of resisting demands for ultimate loyalty unites biblical prophets (including Paul) with present-day Christians who seek to further life in the face of death-dealing violence. Modernity did not create death-dealing idolatries so much as give them new impetus. The task of breaking bondage to the idols of injustice that Paul engaged in remains ours today.

With his analysis and critique of idolatry in Romans 1–3, Paul helps us in our needed work to deconstruct our idols. To support this assertion, I will engage in a close reading of this text and draw a few brief conclusions for our present appropriation of Paul’s argument. I will read the text straightforwardly, with the intent of showing how what Paul writes challenges the idolatries of his day—and in doing so, help us come to terms with the idolatries of our present.

Paul’s program

Paul begins his argument with a programmatic statement in 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile.” When Paul asserts that the “gospel” has to do with God’s power bringing about “salvation” he appropriates common imperial terms. “Gospel” and “salvation” both point to what the emperor takes responsibility for. For Paul, though, the true gospel and genuine salvation come from God, not from Caesar.

“Salvation” is based on faith—or, we could say, faithfulness. The point is neither “belief alone” as in intellectual assent or the accumulation of good deeds that gain salvation. Rather Paul has in mind an integration of belief and practice. “Faithfulness” includes intellectual affirmation of the reality of God and Jesus as the core truths of reality (the “renewed mind” of Romans 12:1-2) and trusting commitment to God as the center of the universe and practices of love and justice, mercy and compassion, generosity and care.

When he writes salvation comes “to the Jew first and also to the Gentile,” Paul endorses the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants (Israel). As with the promise to Abraham, Paul here points to the purpose of the calling of Israel—to bless all the families of the earth—first Jews, then Gentiles.

Paul continues his programmatic statement in 1:17: “In the gospel the justice of God is revealed through faith for faith.” The term translated “justice” is also often translated “righteousness.” However, the connotation of “righteousness” has tended toward the personal and has hidden the obvious social ramifications of Paul thought. With dikaiosyne tou theou Paul has in mind a cosmic transformation that brings together the personal and social in a unified transformative intervention by God to bring healing to all aspects of creation—a transformation better captured by “justice” than “righteousness.”

Paul here links “justice” closely with “salvation.” In the Bible, God’s “justice” describes how God works to bring healing in the face of brokenness—“restorative justice.” Certainly Paul understood God’s “justice” to be the characteristic of God that leads to salvation (not punishment) for God’s enemies (see Romans 5:1-11 for the affirmation that the justice-making work of God affirmed in 1:17 and 3:21 specifically includes God’s enemies).

Paul announces that God’s “justice” has now been “revealed.” The term translated “revealed” (apokalypsis—the word from which “apocalypse” comes) in many cases in the Bible indicates an epoch-defining, transforming message from God. For Paul, God “reveals” that in Jesus the kingdom of God has been made present. Those who receive this revelation will never see the world the same again. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “when anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!”

The “revelation” of “salvation” and “justice” in Jesus Christ reemphasizes that for Paul, trust in Christ is a direct alternative to trust in Caesar. These are two “kings” contesting the same terrain—the ultimate loyalty of human beings. Paul claims that for those with eyes to see, the transforming work God does in creating a peoplehood out of Jews and Gentiles has been made visible and is worth their deepest commitment.

Paul asserts in 1:17, the “just shall live by faithfulness.” He believes that trust in God leads to blessing all the families of the earth as promised of old. As the letter to the Christians in Rome will reiterate throughout, this faithfulness most powerfully should be characterized by the coming together of Jew with Gentile, united by a common commitment to the way of Jesus. Paul strongly desires that such a new community be clear in its witness in the heart of the Empire.

Idolatry I: The nations (Rome)

After this introduction, Paul turns to the big problem, the problem of idolatry. He analyzes dynamics that move people from the rejection of truth, then to lack of gratitude, then to trust in created things, then to out of control lust, and finally to injustice and violence. This dynamic itself expresses “wrath” that has to do not with direct intervention by God but with God “giving them up” to a self-selected spiral of death.

As Paul will make clear in 5:1-11 and 11:32, God’s intentions toward humanity are completely salvific—even when human beings position themselves as God’s enemies. Hence, we make a mistake if we interpret “wrath” as God’s punitive anger aimed at people God has rejected. We should understand “wrath” to be redefined by the gospel. “Wrath” characterizes how God works in indirect ways to hold human beings accountable, “giving them up” to the consequences of their giving their loyalty to realities other than life and the giver of life.

In 1:17 we have the salvific “revelation” of God’s justice. In the next verse, we have the suppression of truth that leads to the “revelation” of God’s wrath. With “justice,” people see created things for what they are (pointers to the creator), not false gods worthy of ultimate loyalty. Such sight leads to life. With “wrath,” the act of giving loyalty to created things results in truth being suppressed and a spiral of lifelessness.

Paul alludes to two different ways to see created things. They can be seen as pointers to God, who is the one authentic object of worship—not least because of God’s creative work. Or they can be seen as themselves objects of worship or ultimate loyalty. God has built within creation itself directives that should lead to “justice” (linking “justice” here with a basic stance of gratitude towards life that encourages kindness, generosity, and wholeness in relationships). Many people have not lived in gratitude (1:22) and as a consequence brokenness characterizes much of human life.

The “revelation” of God’s wrath (1:18) concerns God giving those who trust in idols up to descent into self-destructive behavior. The revelation of this wrath, thus, is not so much about direct punitive action by God as about the dynamics when people trust in lifeless things and thereby lose a connection with life.

People make an “exchange.” They trade their humanity as God’s children for “images” that resemble created things. This trade leads to an exchange of justice for wrath that leads to an exchange of justice for injustice, of life for death. This exchange, Paul insists, is not necessary. God has shown the world what is needed. “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them…, seen through the things he has made” (1:19-20). However, when human beings exchange “the glory of God” for images that resemble created things, they lose their ability to discern God’s revelation. The dynamic identified in Psalm 115 becomes all too apparent, where people become like the lifeless images that they worship.

Paul’s statement that “God gave them up” (1:24) points to how God’s love implies that the only way God can relate to creation is to respect human freedom. However, when people “freely” choose idols, they actually compromise their God-given freedom. they thereby voluntarily enter into bondage to the idols they elevate to divine status. Paul does not say that God takes revenge by taking away our freedom. Rather, he tells us that by the nature of reality we become like what we trust. Our trust in lifeless things leads to lifelessness.

When created things are worshiped, they no longer reveal the God who stands behind them and gives them their meaning. The paradigmatic expression of this dynamic for Paul is how inter-human love—which indeed reveals God in profound ways—comes to be reduced to lust, and relationships become unjust, broken, contexts for alienation.

Paul writes that “for this reason” (1:26) God gave those consumed by lust (the “lusters”) “up to degrading passions.” When they exchange trust in God for worship of created things, the lusters are led into “unnatural” behavior. What is unnatural is when intimate human relationships become occasions for death and alienation instead of life and wholeness.

We should recognize the political background here, remembering that Paul wrote to the Christians who live in the belly of the beast, the center of the Roman Empire. It is quite possible that he had in mind the recent history of the Roman emperor’s court and its profligate sexual behavior that had scandalized many. When the emperor Caligula went down, many understood this to be an act of cosmic vindication. Paul sees lust as the problem (not “homosexuality” per se) because of how it diminishes humanness, reflects worship of “degrading passions” rather than God, distorts the revelation of God in the human, and fosters injustice. Such lust seems to be an inherent element when people put their trust in hierarchical political structures.

In 1:28, Paul once more refers to the dynamic where “God gives them up,” in this case to a “debased mind.” They can’t see reality as it is. The revelation of God’s love becomes wrath for them rather than whole-making justice. When people trust in things other than God, their ability to think and perceive and discern is profoundly clouded. Paul refers to “things that should not be done” that result from “the debased mind” that results from “God giving them up (1:28) that results from “exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (1:23). The reference to “things that should not be done” points ahead to the vice list in 1:29-31 with a wide-ranging description of injustice and violence—the injustice and violence of the Empire’s leaders and those who trust in them.

In this discussion of idolatry in Romans 1:18-32, Paul challenges his readers to see the nature of their would-be Benefactors as God’s rivals. These Benefactors claim to act on behalf of the gods and for the sake of “peace” (they use terms such as Good News, Savior, and Pax Romana). They desire people’s trust and loyalty and worship. These Benefactors are actually profoundly unjust and violent. The Pax Romana’s “peace” is actually based on the violence of the sword—it’s a counterfeit peace.

When “created things” are worshiped, the progression moves inexorably toward injustice—suppression of truth (1:18), refusal to honor and give thanks to God (1:21), darkened minds (1:21), the exchange of God’s glory for lifeless images (1:23), being “given up” to lusts that degrade their bodies (1:24), the worship of the creature rather than creator (1:25), degrading passions (1:26), shameless acts (1:27), debased minds (1:28), and profound injustice and violence (1:29-31).

The Powers that exploit this progression into idolatry replace God as the center of people’s lives and as the objects of worship. In doing so, they so distort people’s minds so that instead of recognizing that those who practice such injustice deserve judgment people instead “applaud” their unjust Benefactors (1:32).

Paul’s agenda in relation to Rome

This critique that Paul develops is interesting on several levels. Most obviously, he begins his letter to the Jesus followers in Rome by challenging their possible inclination to have a benign disposition toward their political leaders, the Empire’s elite. He appropriates the Empire’s language to establish a contrast between Jesus’s message and the Empire’s message. Jesus is the true “king” and deserved recipient of loyalty, not Caesar and his minions. Trusting in Jesus is the way of “justice” and trusting in Caesar is the way of “wrath.”

Paul develops a devastating argument concerning the dynamics of idolatry. Without proper gratitude toward the creator, people become vulnerable to trusting in the creations of human hands—such as humanly created kingdoms that demand ultimate loyalty, even worship as was the case with Rome. These kingdoms are not God’s agents as they claim but are idols. Giving loyalty to such idols leads to the inevitable descent into a spiral of injustice and violence. Paul’s likely allusions to the devastating behavior of the Roman elite support this analysis.

It does not take much imagination to see connections between Paul’s critique of idolatry in the Roman Empire and our current context in the United States. We see the spiral of consequences when people give loyalty to an imperialistic nation state with its runaway militarism, when people give loyalty to an economic system that enriches a few at the expense of the many and at the expense of a despoiled physical environment, and when people refuse to reverse centuries of systemic discrimination that have left so many vulnerable and hurting.

As we continue on in the book of Romans, though, we will see there even more than a perceptive critique of the political idolatry of first-century Rome (an important critique that in and of itself remains an important part of this letter—and an important context for a proper understanding of Romans 13 and its comments about “governing authorities”). Paul’s critique in chapter one sets us up for a further critique in chapter two that might cut even closer to home for his readers then and now—a critique of what we might call “the religion temptation.”  

[This blog post, along with the two that follow, are drawn from a paper presented to the Bible, Theology, and Postmodernity group, American Academy of Religion annual meeting, Chicago, November 10, 2008]

Second part of “Paul’s critique of idolatry         Third part of “Paul’s critique of idolatry

More blog posts on Peaceable Romans

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

  1. Ted, thank you for the detailed referencing.

    The dynamics of idolatry reminds me of this from Louise Glück’s “Village Life”:

    In the window, the moon is hanging over the earth,
    meaningless but full of messages.
    It’s dead, it’s always been dead,
    but it pretends to be something else,
    burning like a star, and convincingly, so that you feel sometimes
    it could actually make something grow on earth.

    If there’s an image of the soul, I think that’s what it is.

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