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.

As I discussed in my previous post, [link] Paul’s concerns in Rom 1:18-32 center on idolatry and the need to be free from the bondage idolatry fosters—with an emphasis on Empire-idolatry. Moving on to chapter 2, we learn that it is the case that if one points fingers at Empire-idolaters while denying one’s own tendency toward trusting in idols, one will never find such freedom. So, Paul confronts those who point fingers and asserts, “the very same things” (2:1) that those who point fingers (let’s call them the “judgers”) are guilty of are themselves forms of idolatry—that is, violence and injustice, 1:29-31. We may assume that Paul had his own violence in mind here—and those who shared his particular form of idolatry. He had experienced his own exchange—trading God for the boundary markers that required a violent defense. In using such violence, Paul reveals his own “degrading passions.” They were not sexual but ideological—and they led to the same result, violence.

Paul’s idolatry was the misdirecting of his sincere desire to serve the God of Israel by being faithful to Torah. Instead of understanding God’s call as a challenge to bless all the families of the earth, Paul focused on the boundary markers that set his people apart from the nations—and enforced those boundary markers with violence. He thereby revealed that at the heart of his faith was not a loving response to God’s love, but a possessive desire to protect his identity with whatever means he deemed to be necessary. He became what we could call a “judger.”

The idolatry of “judgers”

The words Paul quotes in 2:2, “you say, ‘we know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accord with truth,’” come from the judgers he alluded to in 2:1. The judgers say this when they refer to the lusters of 1:26-32. When they embrace God’s judgment on others, the judgers actually condemn themselves because they too are idolaters guilty of injustice. They mistakenly believe that in condemning the idolatry of the Roman elite they have God on their side—not realizing they remain idolaters themselves. When they claim that their judging accords with “truth” (2:2), the judgers actually line themselves up with the “debased minds” who worship the creation rather than the creator. They show that they too actually suppress the truth (1:18).

Paul had committed his own acts of violence in the name of the “truth” when he was Saul the Pharisee. However, after he met Jesus, he learned that violence is always a sign of falsehood, the manifestation of idolatry. The truth he thought he served was actually a lie. The works of the law that he defended turned out to be idolatrous. So, as a judger he was just as much of an idolater as the lusters who run the Roman Empire. The judgers’ idolatry is simply another form of injustice and will be equally judged by God (2:3).

Paul makes affirmations about God in 2:4 that stand in opposition to all forms of idolatry. He writes of “the riches of God’s kindness and forbearance and patience.” The antidote to idolatry is recognition of God’s unconditional and abundant mercy. God’s kindness comes first, then comes repentance. It is God’s generous love present in creation from the beginning that should evoke gratitude—and it is the lack of gratitude that triggers the spiral of idolatry leading to injustice where kindness is absent.

Paul refers to the judgers’ “hard and impenitent hearts” (2:5), describing those who suppress the truth. This includes both those who reduce love to lust and those who reduce the law to legalistic works of the law. The “storing up of wrath” (2:5) he mentions may be seen as the dynamics of self-delusion and cold-heartedness inevitably following from such reductions. The processes of life lead to justice for those who trust in God and to wrath for those who trust in idols (the contrast shown in 1:17-18: the revelation of “justice” juxtaposed with the revelation of “wrath”). As we trust in things, we become more and more thing-like ourselves (in this sense, “storing up” more “wrath”). Paul experienced this personally when he trusted in “works of the law” and became a person of violence.

The revelation of “the day of wrath” (2:5) may be understood in relation to the revelation of the true path to God through the witness of Jesus (1:17). That path illumines the death of the various idolatries. Tragically, such a revelation will reinforce the fears and false worship of all the various types of idolaters. When Paul writes of “God’s righteous judgment” in 2:5, he uses the same terms that in 1:32 are translated as “God’s decree.” The latter is what the lusters know but ignore in their injustice. The former is what will be revealed to the judgers “on the day of wrath.” This parallel usage shows that the injustices of 1:29-31 and the judging of 2:1-2 are the same kind of phenomena; both blind people to God’s authentic justice. By denying the life-giving justice of God, both types of idolaters condemn themselves to experience God’s justice as wrath.

Condemnation comes to everyone who does evil—Jew first and also Gentile (2:9). The description of the two types of idolatry encompasses all kinds of people. Crucially, though, Paul immediately follows this terrifying word with a word of hope. Salvation also comes to all kinds of people, Jew first and also Gentile (2:11). Salvation enters through God’s chosen people and spreads to all the families of the earth. The judgers (such as Saul the Pharisee) forgot that salvation for them was intended to lead to salvation for all.

Paul understands “sin,” a term he introduces in 2:12, in terms of the reality of idolatry he has been describing. He sets out the basic dynamic in 1:21: Sin and idolatry arise when people live without trust and gratitude, become futile in their thinking and darkened in their minds, leading to the practice of injustice and the movement toward lifelessness. “Sinning under the law” (2:12) seems basically to mean making an idol of some rule or other and using it to underwrite injustice (as with Saul the Pharisee).

The law itself is not the problem

Paul argues that the law itself is not the problem. He affirms in 2:14 that some Gentiles do “do the law” even while ignorant of the written Torah. They do it “naturally,” the idea linking back to Paul’s allusion in 1:18-32 that it is unnatural to worship the creature, to be ungrateful, to practice injustice, and to exchange the creature for the creator. This indicates that Paul still sees the law as God-revealed and the normative guide for wholeness. Just as creation is good but can become an idol without negating its goodness, likewise with the law.

The faithfulness or justness or authentic obedience of Gentiles who do not know the written Torah shows that “what the law requires is written on their hearts” (2:15: to trust God, to live in gratitude, to do justice). This comment echoes Paul’s earlier affirmation that “ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made” (1:20).

Paul’s critique of the judgers gets intense in 2:23-24. He asserts that “boasters in the law” dishonor God—the people within the covenant whose judging blinds them to the true meaning of the law. Because of the judgers idolatry, those on the outside (Gentiles) blaspheme God’s name. For the judgers, the law had become a boundary marker. As such, the law (reduced by them to works of the law, the particular practices that strengthen the boundary lines separating the faithful from the Other) had become a tool for violence. It had become a basis to assert a cosmic division between circumcised (insider) and uncircumcised (outsider), rather than part of an affirmation of the fundamental solidarity-in-difference of Jews and Gentiles as together creatures of the one God. This is not a Jewish problem. Paul remains a committed Jew. It is a problem of how some Jews misused the law—like Paul himself had before Jesus set him straight.

By the time of Saul the Pharisee, law-idolatry led to violent persecution of those who followed Jesus, the one who actually embodied the true whole-making intention of the law in its original expression. When those charged with witnessing to God’s justice for the benefit of all the earth’s families instead witness to injustice, it is as if they are not part of God’s covenant people at all; their “circumcision has become uncircumcision.” We could say the same thing about what happened with Christianity. By the time of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, the cross—in the New Testament the symbol of Jesus’s faithful peaceable life that led to his execution by the Empire—became a symbol for the wars of the Empire. Something good became an idol that justified sacred violence.

 Paul asserts that some who are physically “uncircumcised” do indeed “keep the requirement of the law” (2:26). He implies that “the requirements of the law” boil down to living with gratitude, generosity, and justice—or, as he writes later in Romans, the law boils down to loving one’s neighbor (13:8-10). Paul, of course, got this saying from Jesus, who asserted that the love command summarized the law and prophets (Matt 22:40). “Real circumcision is a matter of the heart,” Paul writes, in the sense that one’s actual circumcision is not about a physical ritual so much as about one’s genuine commitment to God’s love and justice, a commitment that finds expression in one’s actions.

Paul does insist that we are “all” under the power of sin (3:9), but in saying this he is not so much asserting that each individual is (he has clearly stated that some do keep the law) as arguing that the Jews and Gentiles are equally liable to be under the power of sin (equally likely to be either lusters or judgers). The tendency toward idolatry is present among all peoples. Religious people (including Jews along with Gentile Christians) all too easily make idols of their rituals and doctrines—as seen in their all-too-common practice of sacred violence against those who threaten their boundaries. The religious temptation remains just as powerful and potentially deadly as the political temptation illumined in Romans 1. Of course, the years since Paul’s time have shown the especially deadly consequences of people combining these two types of idolatry.

Paul’s own profound struggle with sacred violence

In my next blog post, I will discuss Paul’s solution to the idolatry problem. Beginning at 3:21, Paul gives a quite dense explanation of how God’s healing justice works. He will expand on that justice in the following chapters before returning to his own personal struggle with idolatry in chapter 7.

In that chapter, Paul illumines further the problems with how his idolizing works of the law led to violence in an agonized set of personal reflections. As Robert Jewett suggests in his commentary on Romans, we best read Paul here to be reflecting his own experience as one who committed terrible acts of violence in the name of what turned out to be an idolatrous view of the law: “The ‘sinful passions that came through the law’ are to be differentiated from sensual passions or human weaknesses…. How else is one to explain the extraordinary role of law in promoting sinful passions rather than, as traditionally believed, holding them in check?”

Paul writes that the very act of striving to follow the letter of Torah leads to living in the “flesh,” unleashing one’s “sinful passions” (7:5). These sinful passions had led to Paul’s “zeal” when he upheld works of the law through violence against followers of Jesus (Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:5-6).

When Paul writes, “the very commandment that promised life proved to be the death of me” (7:10), he has in mind how he applied the law in ways that deeply hurt others and thereby led him to experience death. No wonder he was so profoundly shattered when he met Jesus and realized that the one he had persecuted was truly the Messiah of the God he had sought so zealously to serve.

Paul had staked his life on a sense of responsibility zealously to enforce the “truths” of Torah—and ended up becoming a murderer, one who violated the actual truth of Torah about as profoundly as anyone possibly could. Paul states flatly, “sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (7:11). This truly happened in Paul’s own life. His embrace of the legalistic approach to Torah couples with an embrace of the need to enforce works of the law with violence and opened him to be dominated by the very power of sin he thought he was opposing.

The law itself is “spiritual” Paul writes (that is, of the Holy Spirit). However, when his zealotry sought to exploit the law by using it as a basis for violence and injustice, he showed himself to have been “sold into slavery under sin.” As a consequence, Paul was utterly bamboozled concerning the true message of Torah. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” What he wanted to do was serve the God of Israel, faithfully practice Torah, and live a holy life. However, he actually worshiped idols instead of God. His mind was darkened. He ended up not serving God but doing the opposite (“the very thing I hate”); he served an idol.

The more “successful” Saul the Pharisee was in his persecuting work and the more “faithfully” he followed his rigorous path, the more he sinned. This path turned out to be the wrong path. It led him actively to oppose God. He did indeed seek to follow the true and good law of God—and was shockingly deceived. When his eyes were opened (Jesus’s revelation to him of Jesus’s true identity), Paul realized that the “true Torah” (as love of neighbor, 13:8-10) condemned what he was doing.

Paul dwelt in a “body of death” (7:24), both in the sense of being the cause of death to others in his zeal and of being spiritually dead himself due to his idolatry and bondage to the Powers. He needed to be “rescued.” He needed outside intervention to save him when he did not even realize he needed to be saved. He was subsumed in a “body of death.” However, the rescue came, which is the story of Paul’s gospel.

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our lord,” he concludes chapter seven (7:25). We know that Jesus intervened and shook Paul’s world to the foundations. Through his rescue of Paul from death, Jesus made clear to Paul that he is indeed God’s Messiah, the one worthy of trust, the one who reveals the true meaning of Torah. When Paul trusted in Jesus and realized that Jesus’s God was his God, Paul did find liberation from the bondage that had turned him into a murderer. As a consequence, he was transformed from an exclusivist persecutor to a person enriched by otherness.

Paul’s statement that “all are under the power of sin” (3:9) could be understood as a statement that all are vulnerable to idolatry. This assertion especially applies to those living rigorous religious lives whose sense of their own closeness to God blinds them to their practice of sacred violence against those they consider Other. Even those whose sincerity resembles Saul the Pharisee’s own sincerity in being faithful end up only serving an idol when their commitments lead them to do violence.

The answer, as we will see in my next post, is to recognize that the way of Jesus (love toward all) is our only reliable criterion for discerning how to navigate the temptations toward idolatry that we all face. Paul insists on an inextricable link between the way of “Jesus Christ our Lord” and the authentic gratitude toward the Creator that gives us freedom.

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

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

More blog posts on Peaceable Romans

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