Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Foundational Sin: Idolatry

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.
(Colossians 3:5-6 ESV)

As fallen human beings we have a natural tendency to minimize the extent and scope of sin in our minds. The default setting of the flesh is to accept the narrowest definitions of particular transgressions to avoid being confronted with the realization of our own depravity. The repeated exhortations of scripture make it clear that even after we are converted the flesh struggles against the spirit rationalizing our sin. One of the sins that this can easily happen with is the sin of idolatry. When we hear the term idolatry our first thought is usually that of people worshipping literal idols, or perhaps pagans worshipping natural objects such as trees or the moon. Granted, enough of us have heard preachers warn us of making money, sports, celebrity, or even our career’s idols to realize that it isn’t just bowing down to statues that is involved but still many of us still do not appreciate the full scope of the biblical view of idolatry. The verses above from Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the companion passage in Ephesians 5:3-6 should help us to see that the biblical concern is broader than is generally assumed.

Notice that Paul here links all that is earthly in us, quite a range of sinful acts, with idolatry. On first glance this seems to be a strange thing to say since we often think of idolatry as one among many various sins. It would make more sense to us had he listed idolatry among those other things that he describes as “earthly” rather than summarizing all of them together as idolatry. We often think of idolatry as something we do, associating it with particular acts of worship, but notice that the list Paul gives is primarily not a list of behaviors. Each of those unholy patterns of thought and desire is idolatrous because at their foundation is a false view of God. A.W. Tozer explains it this way in his book Knowledge of the Holy:

Among the sins to which the human heart is prone, hardly any other is more hateful to
God than idolatry, for idolatry is at bottom a libel on His character. The idolatrous heart
assumes that God is other than He is - in itself a monstrous sin - and substitutes for the
true God one made after its own likeness. Always this God will conform to the image of the one who created it and will be base or pure, cruel or kind, according to the moral state of the mind from which it emerges. A god begotten in the shadows of a fallen heart will quite naturally be no true likeness of the true God. ”Thou thoughtest,” said the Lord to the wicked man in the psalm, “that I was altogether such as one as thyself.” Surely this must be a serious affront to the Most High God before whom cherubim and seraphim continually do cry, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.” Let us beware lest we in our pride accept the erroneous notion that idolatry consists only in kneeling before visible objects of adoration, and that civilized peoples are therefore free from it. The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him. It begins in the mind and may be present where no overt act of worship has taken place.

If idolatry consists in entertaining thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him then this sin is foundational to all other sin because it is a necessary component of the pride involved in any creature raising itself up against the holy, sovereign, and sustaining creator God. In this way the very first sin was an act of idolatry because Eve’s rebellious actions were the result of a false view of God promoted by the Serpent. It is this reason why Paul can aptly summarize all that is earthly in us by using the term idolatry. It therefore also makes sense that Paul would focus on the sin of idolatry in the letter to the Romans as he develops his argument about the universal sinfulness of man and the display of God’s wrath culminating in the cross (Romans 1:18-23). Those things that we often associate with idolatry are merely the fruits of idolatry rather than the thing itself.

All of this should give us pause as teachers and worship leaders. There is a tremendous responsibility to ensure that anything that comes into our worship or instruction will accurately reflect the God of heaven as He has revealed Himself. We must be careful to avoid anything that would contribute to “entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him”. It was this consideration that led the old Calvinist’s (and some others) to prohibit anything in the worship service that was not expressly found in scriptural descriptions of worship (this is known as the regulative principal of worship as opposed to the normative principal used by most other Protestants). Many churches do not hold to this principal and even many who do apply it in various ways that results in a wide range of what is considered acceptable.

The important thing is that any worship or instructional aid should in no way restrict the glory, majesty, or any other attribute of God so as to diminish Him. Any illustration or drama that diminishes the holiness and glory of God is dangerous. Likewise the use of images in the worship service is inappropriate because all such images are the product of human imagination and therefore cannot possibly convey the majesty of God without limiting it. Paul reminds us in Acts 17:29 that “we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.”

Traditions such as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches justify the use of images by distinguishing between images as the objects of worship (as the 2nd commandment clearly prohibits) and images as the objects of veneration which they claim are allowed (there were cherubim on the ark of the covenant etc). Veneration functions similarly to the way most Americans feel about the U.S. flag, it is respected and treated honorably not because of any particular devotion to the fabric or pattern itself but because of what it symbolizes. They argue that while images should never be worshiped (adoration) it is permissible that they be used as objects of veneration because they are a window to the spiritual world, and provide a method for focused devotion apart from the ambiguities of language. Even if the difference between adoration and veneration is clear to the doctors of theology I have doubts that such subtle theological distinctions are clear in the minds of most people as they actually use the images.

Protestants who use visual representations of Christ typically do not use them directly in the worship service but consider them permissible because they are not intended to be a window into the spiritual world but rather simply representations of Christ as a human being. The Catholic and Orthodox point to Christ taking upon Himself flesh in the incarnation as theological support for their view of images because in Christ the divine and incomprehensible took a physically visible form. The Protestants, being less mystical, argue that their images are only intended to depict Christ’s human nature and are not in any way an attempt to visualize The Divinity. Again, I have my doubts that the average person is making those distinctions in the common use of those images.

If Tozer is correct in his explanation of the biblical teaching on idolatry (and I think he is) then we must be very cautious about all of these uses because at the very least they are a danger to the weaker brother. Certainly any image actually used in worship or instruction is much more likely to be understood as a depiction of Jesus in His full personhood and therefore becomes a separate testimony from the scriptural picture in that it necessarily adds to or detracts from that which is revealed there. This is a concern not only for images used in the worship service but something we need to think about regarding all such images however they are used.

There is much more to study regarding these things and not only with regard to images but also any other extra-biblical conceptualizations. We must ensure that every illustration, dramatization, depiction, etc. is consistent with the biblical teaching and its proportions. To emphasize God’s love against his justice (or vise versa), for example, can lead to idolatrous thoughts on the part of people just as much as any image. Any depiction or description of God which is the product of a finite human mind or imagination cannot help but fail to capture the fullness of the transcendent and Most High God and assuming Him to be less is unworthy of Him.

 I pray that in our preaching, teaching, worship, and study that God would strengthen us and convict us of any thoughts in us that are unworthy of Him. I pray that we continually do our best to convey the awesomeness of our God. I believe the best way to do that is to preach and teach about Him just as He has revealed Himself to be in His word.

No comments:

Post a Comment