English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

The concept of "idolatry":

a shared notion with divergent applications


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Christianity, like Islam, inherits from Judaism a strong condemnation of idolatry, which is grounded in the First Commandment:  "You shall have no other gods before me."  None of these traditions limits the notion to the literal worship of idols (like the statue of the Golden Calf venerated by the Canaanites).  The fundamental idea is the worship of any false god, whether the worship is mediated by a physical image or not.  But historically the concept has carried a broader meaning still:  the worship of a "false image of" God - "image" itself being understood as "intellectual picture" or "conception."  

Now this notion has had serious consequences.  One is led to condemn as abomination persons whose reverence attaches to a God whose "identity" is different in any important way from the identity of the identity one attributes to the God one worships oneself.  Since, for example, an essential feature of the nature of God is His Will, this means that to declare any serious disagreement over conceptions of what God wants - His providence, His commands, His Law - is to convict the Other of the sin of idolatry.  Since idolatry is understood as intolerable, toleration of differences in such points of doctrine itself comes to be seen as intolerable.

These circumstances help to account for a good deal of the misery that descended upon Europe in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation.  Catholics and Protestants were united in endorsing the ancient Hebrew condemnation of idolatry.  Yet each side saw the other as guilty of it.

This means that each saw itself as holding a different conception of God ­ His Will (as expressed in his Providence, or plan for mankind) ­ than its opponent's.

And each was committed to interpreting his opponent's view of the Deity as a fabrication motivated by his own sinful nature.

Notice, too, that, despite their positions on who was guilty of idolatry, they were united in their understanding of how God would treat idolaters in the next life, how He expected his faithful servants to deal with them in this life, and what would be the consequences for those who tolerated idolatry among their neighbors.

Thinking through in detail how this is so is an illuminating exercise in historical imagination.  It makes starkly clear some of the ways in which "how the world looks" from within different frameworks of assumptions.

Let's have a look at the implications of Luther's thinking on the subject.

Luther on "idolatry" in the abstract

As time passed, Luther's situation changed from that of a Catholic dissident to the person chiefly responsible for guiding a new church.  In the meanwhile, it had become increasingly clear that different minds brought to bear upon the same Biblical text often ended up with quite different understandings of its meanings.  This was especially alarming during the German Peasant War that broke out in 1525.  Masses of people suffering under the German barons (Luther's essential backers in protecting him and his co-religionists from the Catholic forces, who were bent on burning them as heretics) were eagerly receptive to readings by scholars convinced that a restoration of Original Christianity required a return to the communal sharing among Christians in gospel times.  Luther eventually exhorted the nobles to put down the rebels with ruthless fervor.  The result was a gruesome slaughter.  Another was that Luther became convinced that people did after all need the guidance of experts in understanding the Word of God.  His emphasis changed from encouraging Bible reading (at least among the poorer and more numerous among the population) to instruction through catechism mediated via a trained and certified clergy.  He turned his hand to producing the requisite instructional materials himself.  He eventually brought forth two catechisms, known now as the Large Catechism and the Small Catechism.  The following excerpt is from the Large Catechism.  [The translator is the Rev. Robert E. Smith of the Walter Library at the Concordia Seminary in Concordia, MO.  It was made available via the "Wittenberg Project" on the WorldWideWeb.]

The First Commandment

You must have no other gods.

That is, I must be your only God.

Question:  What does this saying mean? How should we understand it? What does it mean to have a god? What is God?

Answer:  To have a god means this:  You expect to receive all good things from it and turn to it in every time of trouble.  Yes, to have a god means to trust and to believe in Him with your whole heart.  I have often said that only the trust and faith of the heart can make God or an idol.  If your faith and trust are true, you have the true God, too.  On the other hand, where trust is false, is evil, there you will not have the true God either.  Faith and God live together.  I tell you, whatever you set your heart on and rely on is really your God.

Now take some time to reflect on the above passage in the light of the following questions.

(1) Would a Catholic theologian be likely to take exception to any of this?

(2) Is the ground of the belief/trust/faith being referred to here something we should understand to be based on "reason"? Or is it grounded in some other aspect of the human constitution? (The answer will determine where we look for the fundamental source of lack of faith, or evil faith ­ hence, of sin.) From your other reading of Luther, where would you say he locates the power of man to exercise this trust/belief/faith ­ in the individual person himself or herself? Somewhere else?

(3) On the definition we have here, is it logically possible (however improbable) for a person to live without a god altogether? That is, is it possible to be an atheist, as distinct from an idolater or a true believer?

(4) Given everything else you know about Luther, would he regard a pious Jew or Muslim as necessarily an idolater, or would he agree that it is in principle possible for some Jews and Muslims to worship the true God.

In the 16th Century the polemic over idolatry was quite fundamental:  it involved the controversy between Protestants and Catholics concerning the ultimate bases of authority about what is to be believed (and hence done).

The Church represents itself as the authentic extension of God's hand through history into the present:  by embodying the Apostolic Succession initiated by Jesus (as the Second Person of the Trinity) it is thus God's chosen instrument for connecting fallen humanity to the central person of the New Testament and the Author of the Holy Scripture itself.  The successive proclamations of its councils and popes defining heresy and orthodoxy (literally, "right teaching") were thus God's means of helping men and women to hear God's Word instead of, through wrong interpretation (inspired by individuals' fallen nature), replacing it with their own - in other words, bowing down before idols (creatures of their own making).

From this point of view, nothing could be more unreliable as a criterion for an individual's decision about what to believe than the naked conscience of the individual.  Yet this was precisely the stance Luther adopted in climactic close of his famous statement at the Diet of Worms in 1521:  

Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer  Here it is, plain and unvarnished.  Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or of councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God's word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.

On this I take my stand. I can do no other.  God help me.  Amen.

For Protestants, who denied the Catholic doctrine of the Apostolic Succession, the Church itself was both the work of Man rather than God and a continual producer of doctrines that stood in place of God's authentic Word, which Protestants insisted could be found exclusively in Scripture itself.  Insofar as doctrines were human fabrications they amounted to idols.  Moreover, insofar as the Church managed to secure people's trust in its apostolic authority, it constituted an idol in itself.

Thus what for Catholics is the divinely appointed stay against the anarchic proliferation of individualist idolatries was for the Protestants itself a monstrous idol proliferating idols.  What for Protestants was a wall between Man and God's Word (which they regarded as the only authentic mediation between God and Man) was for Catholics the very bridge, provided by God's grace, between Man and God.

The contending parties were agreed that the ultimate authority, for man, in all things is the Will of God.  They thus of course agreed that it was essential for man to discover what that will is.  They differed, however, in their conception of what God had chosen as the way to publish His will to man.  Note that this itself is a specific point of disagreement over a point of what God's will is.  But it is more fundamental than all others, from a certain point of view, since depending on whether one decides that divinely chosen instrument of promulgation is the Church headed by the Pope or Scripture unadorned, the way is open to come to vastly different views of what God's will is on a host of other points:  how God wills that the true Church be governed, how God wills that salvation and damnation be determined, what God requires of his chosen, etc.

This we may call secondary authority in respect to its source, but we have to appreciate that, for man, it is in an epistemological sense "primary."  That is:  unless one believes oneself a prophet to whom God is speaking directly, one as a practical matter has to consult something other than God himself in order to know what God's will is.  This amounts to what one must first turn to and ultimately rely upon:  beyond it, one cannot go (until, of course, one meets God, if one does, "face to face," in a different life).

Now it is one thing to be a trained theologian.  It is quite another to understand oneself as an intelligent but unlearned lay person, confronted with a dispute among experts as to what God has chosen as the avenue through which those who will be saved are to learn about what His will and ways consist in.  An important piece of evidence that theologically trained minds were aware of the quandry brought for ordinary persons anxious to be good Christians is the development of what we might call prudential arguments for choosing among tertiary authorities -- that is, the recommendations of those who put themselves forward as learned in the question at issue, in this case, what God has chosen as the secondary authority through which we are to discover his will in other matters.  For laypeople who have not undertaken the study required to qualify themselves as lay experts, then, the question as practical matter boils down to:  which preachers shall I believe about whether the ultimate authority available to humans as such is unmediated Scripture or the traditions of the Church as decided by councils and popes?

An example of such a procedure for "rationally" deciding which tertiary authorities to "invest belief" in as guides to what one should believe God has willed one to accept as the ultimate guide to one's belief is the argument brought by the Bishop-in-exile Sadoleto of Geneva to convince his erstwhile flock to return to Catholicism from the Reformed Christianity (Calvinism) to which they had turned.

Another such "probabalistic" appeal to prudence is Pascal's famous "wager."

Some serious social consequences of these disagreements

In the end, every point of doctrinal difference over justification theory reduces to a dispute over the nature of God's Will.  But if disagreement over God's Will amounts to disagreement over the identity of God -- over whose "image of God" is true, and whose is false -- then doctrinal divergence over justification theory means that at least one of the parties to the dispute is involved in idolatry.

This is by no means the only factor, but it is certainly an important factor, in the frightening history of religious persecution and religious warfare that plagued Europe through large stretches of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.

A consequence in turn of the above consequence.  Thinking this through is necessary for appreciating why some among educated descendants of those who went through the Thirty Years War would find themselves inclined to imagine ways to separate religion and politics -- even to the point of searching for some framework outside religion that would enable people to decide questions of political legitimation on a strictly secular basis.  

Not all of these thinkers rejected Christianity.  But the Christianity they held to was of necessity importantly different from the one tradition had bequeathed to them.  For Luther and for Calvin and for theologians who predominated at the Council of Trent (including Pope Paul III and his immediate successors), the idea that serious Christians (the sort who might have a prospect of being saved) should agree to disagree, on fundamental points of how God intended to carry out his Plan for Creation, was simply irrational.  

In other words, depending on certain additional beliefs about what (who) God is, there can be a consequential difference between believing that X and Y are worshipping the same God in different ways and believing that X and Y are worshipping different Gods.  An historical question of some interest, then, is how it comes to be that religious and political elites in different eras tend to favor one picture of what doctrinal divergence signifies over the other.

Here's a question to keep in mind for the future.  Before long, we will encounter Francis Bacon's Novum Organum.  In one of the most famous passages of that work he describes what he calls "the idols of the mind" -- deep­rooted prejudices that interfere with our attempts to construct clear notions about the operations of nature.  What does Bacon's concept of "idols" in this passage owe to the traditional religious conception? What specific departures from that usage does he expect his readers to appreciate in his adaptation of the concept to his particular ends?

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      Contents copyright © 1997 by Lyman A. Baker

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      This page last updated 15 October 1997.