Paul’s critique of idolatry, part 2 – The religious temptation [Peaceable Romans #4]

Ted Grimsrud—January 24, 2022

One of the ways that the Bible is most helpful for peacemakers is in its critique of idolatry. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans especially offers an analysis of the dynamics where lack of gratitude to the Creator leads to trusting in created things rather than in the Creator —things such as human political and human religious structures. Such trust feeds a spiral of injustice and violence as seen in the social world of the Roman Empire—and other empires since. We also see a legacy of injustice and violence in religious communities.

In the first of three blog posts, “Paul’s critique of idolatry, part 1 – The political temptation,” I looked at Paul’s critique of the Empire’s idolatrous ways in Romans 1, suggesting that this critique has an on-going validity. However, the first chapter of Romans needs to be read in conjunction with Romans 2, where Paul offers an analysis and critique of a more subtle kind of idolatry—idols probably closer to home for his readers then and now.

Idolatry II: Religious boundary maintenance

Paul’s critique of Empire-idolatry has its own validity and importance. However, it should not be read in isolation from what follows in Romans. Paul combines his Empire-idolatry critique with a critique of the way people in the covenant community embrace a different kind of idolatry. Following pioneering Pauline scholar James Dunn, I will use the term “works of the law” for what Paul criticizes—in distinction from the law understood as the original revelation of Torah through Moses, something that Paul embraces. Paul’s lack of precision in his use of the term “law” makes it difficult to perceive the nuances of his argument.

Dunn sees Paul’s use of the term “works of the law” in Galatians 2:16 (“We know that a person is justified, not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”) as helpful for helping us distinguish between Paul’s critique of how the law was being understood among his opponents in the churches and Paul’s strong affirmation of the continuing validity of the law (Romans 13:8-10: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’”).

In his groundbreaking essay from the early 1980s, “The new perspective on Paul,” Dunn summarizes his core point: “Paul’s objection is not to ritual law, but to exclusivist or particularist attitudes which came to expression in and are reinforced by certain rituals. Not the rituals as such, but the attitude behind them, expressed typically as a ‘boasting’ in works of the law (Rom 2:17-23; 3:27ff).” Behind Paul’s critique here is his own earlier use of works of the law as boundary markers. He protected the “true faith” with extreme violence. Paul as Saul the Pharisee, before he met Jesus, had made an idol of works of the law in a way that made him guilty of the same kind of death-dealing injustice as the leaders of the Roman Empire in his harsh persecution of Jesus’s followers.

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