The Foolishness of Idolatry – Romans 1:21-23

Because humans suppress the truth and do not honor God, they became unable to respond properly to God (v. 21a). The verb “render futile” (ματαιόω) is used of idolatry (Jer 2:5) and has the sense of emptiness or worthlessness. The word-group is used to describe idols as worthless things. Several commentaries suggest the possibility of an allusion to Psalm 94:11 (LXX 93:11), “the thoughts of man are worthless.” Kruse, Romans, 96, for example. Although the form of the word is different (LXX Ps 93:11 has a noun rather than a verb), that both texts combine a word from the ματαιόω word group and διαλογισμός makes this allusion probable.

What has been “rendered worthless” is humanity’s thinking. The noun here (διαλογισμός) refers to discussions or arguments, the “content of reasoning or conclusion reached through use of reason” (BDAG). The idol-worshiper has a logical, rational reason for worshiping something which is not worthy of worship, but that reasoning is itself futile.

Lord Subrahmanya in MalaysiaThe hearts of those who suppress the truth are foolish and darkened (v. 21b). The heart is the place where one thinks and reasons (not the head). The word Paul uses is not the common word for foolishness but the rare word ἀσύνετος (asynetos). It is used only here and 1:31 (Matt 15:16/Mark 7:18, not understanding Jesus’s teaching).

This noun has the sense of “lacking understanding” (BDAG), but also a lack of moral character (T.Levi 7:2). An inscription at Ephesus uses this word with the sense of “stupid,” but Moulton and Milligan comment that “it seems clear that “foolish” here does not primarily denote lack of brains but moral obliquity” (MM 87).

To become darkened (σκοτίζω) is also used for “moral darkening” in Second Temple period literature.

TestReub 3.8 And thus every young man is destroyed, darkening his mind from the truth, neither gaining understanding in the Law of God nor heeding the advice of his fathers…

TestLevi 14.4 For what will all the nations do if you become darkened with impiety?

This moral darkening is the reason the Gentile world practices idolatry. Humans became fools by exchanging the knowledge of the creator for images of creation (v. 22-23). They claimed to be wise, but they became fools when they worshiped creation rather than creator. To worship a god that looks like a human is foolish, but at least a human is in the image of God. To worship other created things (birds, animals and reptiles) is even more foolish since they were not made in the image of God in the first place (Kruse, Romans, 97).

In describing idolatry as foolishness, Paul does not depart at all from the prophetic condemnation of idolatry (for example, Isa 44:13). Paul may be alluding to Psalm 106:20, “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass” or Deuteronomy 4:15-18. In the context of that Psalm, the wilderness generation “forgot their God and Savior” and what he did for them at the Red Sea. Because they exchanged that knowledge for foolishness, they fell under God’s wrath (ὀργή, cf. Rom 1:18).

It is remarkable Paul would describe worship practiced by the entire world at that point in history as “foolishness,” but even some Greek and Roman writers who considered the worship of gods to be foolish. Although describing someone’s religious beliefs as foolish is not polite in the modern world, Paul is not far from his contemporaries in mocking the worthlessness of worshiping idols.

Once again, I wonder how well this “works” in modern presentations of the Gospel. In the modern west, dismissal of gods and idols is passed over quickly since few would consider worshipping an idol. But for the majority world, this is a serious question. How can the Gospel be presented to a world which does worship a variety of gods and idols in a way which dismisses the gods yet still attracts people to the Gospel? For example, how do Asian Christians deal with veneration of ancestors?

I would love to hear from readers in non-Western countries on this issue: How is Romans 1:21-23 taught and preached in cultures which are dominated by worship of gods?

Book Review: Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry

Lints, Richard. Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion. New Studies in Biblical Theology 36. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 190 pgs., Pb.; $22.00 Link to IVP

This contribution to the NSBT series by Richard Lints offers a biblical theology of the image of God as a basis for understanding idolatry. Lints admits connecting the image of God and idolatry is a kind of “strange bridge,” but he argues a proper understanding of human identity as the image of God will correct a misunderstanding of idolatry as well as realign the Christian self-understanding with a proper view of image of God across the canon. In fact, Lints pulls together several threads to create a biblical theology of identity which includes the idea image of God as well as the “inverted” rebellion of worshiping another idolatrous image.

For Lints, imago Dei is a “methodological postulate” at the very beginning of the canon. Human identity is contingent on God, so when Scripture refers to idolatry to refers to a subversion of god in “religiously significant ways” (29). Elaborate theological and philosophical explanations of the image of God ignore larger canonical issues. For Lints, theologians have erred by assuming the image of God is some metaphysical or moral element essential to human identity. Instead, Lints argues the image ought to be understood in the larger context of Israel’s covenant relationship.

In his third and four chapters, Lints argues Eden is a “liturgy of creation in the cosmic temple” and this cosmic Edenic temple is connected to the image of God. Solomon’s Temple was designed to reflect the theology of the Garden and the image of God. The image bearers reflect God and relate to him in a unique way as they serve him in the cosmic temple of creation. Graven images pull humans in the opposite direction, neither reflecting the creator or his creation (76).

In the next two chapters Lints tracks the theme of idolatry through the former and latter prophets and into the New Testament. Although idols are forbidden in the Law, God is not threatened by then since they do not actually exist. Lints argues Israel’s own well-being is threatened by the idols (89). According to the prophets, idolatry is “turning the imago dei upside down” (chapter 5). Lints correctly sees a covenantal aspect to idolatry across the Old Testament, especially as illustrated by the image of marital infidelity. This section briefly surveys the pervasive prophetic comparison of idolatry and adultery, beginning with Hosea. He cites Ortlund’s NSBT volume God’s Unfaithful Wife. I reviewed much of this material and connected it to Jesus’s ministry in Jesus the Bridegroom.

The New Testament, Lints argues, “turns this story upside down” by present Christ as the image of God (chapter 6). It is in the mission to the Gentiles where the conflict with idolatry occurs. He calls Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 10 a “theology of idolatry,” although Paul’s critique of idols does not move far beyond that of the prophets. What is more interesting in this chapter on the New Testament is the comparison between idolatry in Israel’s history (Acts 7) and Paul’s confrontation with idolatry on Mar’s Hill (Acts 17). Perhaps this section of the book could have been enhanced by integrating Paul’s brief sermon in Lystra (Acts 14). Lints includes a brief discussion of the imperial cult in the chapter, although he does not focus on this as a background for reading Paul’s anti-idolatry texts. In addition, although the book attempts to take into account the whole canon, this chapter does not make use of Revelation and its critique of the imperial cult. The New Testament section concludes with a Paul’s Adam-Christ typology (Romans 5). If Christ is the perfect image and the Christian is the “in Christ,” then the believer is “in the image of the image” (126). The one who is “in Christ” has a new identity, they are being renewed and will bear the image of Christ in heaven.

Chapter 7 examines modern explanations of idolatry as psychological projection or examples of alienation and oppression. Lints traces this development from Kant to Nietzsche, including Freud’s pronouncement idolatry was the origin of all religion. Religion, for Freud was a response to fear and humanity will never develop until it moves beyond dependence on religion. For Lints, these “withering critiques by secular prophets” (146) ought to drive the church back to the prophets and their call to holiness.

In his final chapter, Lints develops the significance of his thesis applied to the “idolatries of consumption.” Here Lints engages in prophetic speech as he condemns the “plastic narratives” of contemporary culture. He points out this narrative has crept into Evangelicalism by embracing the “solitary mind” and the “what does this mean to me” style of Bible study. The antidote to this is a recovery of the biblical narrative of imago dei, the “eternal story told across time.”

Conclusion. The title and introduction to the book will lead the reader to think this is a biblical theology of idolatry, which in some respects it is. But Identity and Idolatry is really a biblical theology of the redemption of the image of God from idolatrous worship. Lints does not really concern himself with the nature of idolatry or the allure of idolatry in in the Old Testament, nor does he deal in any detail with the issue in the Second Temple period. The final two chapters attempt to draw appropriate conclusions (and perhaps reachable applications), but it is not always clear how these final two chapters relate to the biblical theology of imago dei and idolatry in the rest of the book.

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.