Monday, April 4, 2011

Steven Paulson's Interpretation of Idolatry in Romans 1.

The Paulson book is very interesting.  His method is to try to follow Melanchthon's use of the Loci method in Loci Commmunes 1521.  Melanchthon wrote a work to be a theology text-book on the chief topics one might want to know about in order to understanding theology.  He ordered these topics on the basis of the Epistle to the Romans.  Paulson wants to follow this order and much of Melancthon's argument as a road into the Lutheran tradition.  By following Melanchthon's loci ordered on Romans, he thereby also enters into a discussion of Romans.  As he comments, Romans is in a sense Paul's introduction to the Old Testament.  Thereby, Paulson enters into a discussion of the whole of Scripture.

The interpretation of idolatry in Romans 1 is particularly interesting to me.  Paulson observes that Luther states that prior to the Fall humans would have properly received and heard God in all things.  He notes that Luther talks about "eating" God in bread when we have a regular meal.  The unbelieving fool, comments Luther, eats the bread but does not realize that he eats God "in the bread."  

This is not intended as pantheism or something, but rather to acknowledge that God is present to all creatures in his sustaining power.  Luther's worldview was in many ways hyper-sacramental.  God frees his creatures by his Word to see his goodness to them in all things.  We can observe this in particular in Luther's description of Adam and Eve sacramental worship prior to the Fall in the Genesis commentary.  Sin destroys our ability to hear God properly through his creatures, and therefore we cannot clearly hear God testify to his grace.  Here's where idolatry comes in.

Paulson notes that Paul states that the Gentiles make "images" for themselves of the gods.  There are several implications for this.  First, it should be noted that the problem with idolatry is not that humans find God in physical objects.  This is a problem that the Reformed have, but not Luther.  God in fact wants to be found in physical objects (Incarnation, sacraments, etc.).  In fact, in that an idol as an image of a God who is not present, it is a sign that the person who makes the idols does not acknowledge God's already present reality to his creatures. 

Instead, the problem with the idol is that is a image.  As an image, it is not a Word from God by which he testified to his hidden reality in creatures.  Hence, as an image it serves either two purposes.  First, it can be used to manipulate God.  For the idolator, God is not sacramentally present in the image, but rather God is reduced to the image so that he can be manipulated.  As a finite subject among others, God is made manageable and controllable by our works in relation to the image.  Secondly, the image can become an image of a distant God.  As distant, God needs a mediating image to help creatures see want he is and become like him.  They now become active in trying to be like God through imitating the image.  Hence, they deify themselves by their works.  

This is why Israel didn't need a image of God.  He was present in the Temple, so why have an image?  If God is present and gracious, why make an image of a distant God?  Also, note the similarity between the glory which the 70 elders in Exodus saw on Mt. Sinai and the golden calf.  They need a surrogate now that Moses is gone and God is far away. Later, they are afraid when Moses is present with the real glory of God on his face, as they were when God actually spoke to them from the cloud on Sinai.

Both functions of an idol are essentially tied up with human self-justification.  First, making God small and controllable is important for those who practice works righteousness.  Keeping God distant is also important.  Making God distant means we can move towards him with our good works and becomes like the image of him.  Also, if we recognize the "wrath of God revealed from heaven above" through the mediums of creation, this will be unbearable to us.  It will destroy us and all our self-justification projects.  Conversely, the presence of God as gracious through the fruits of the garden made it impossible for Adam and Eve to try control God.  God who is present and gracious is equally unbearable for those who wish to engage in self-justification.  The God present "pro me" can't be bought off or controlled because he already unilaterally redeems and blesses.  

Think also of the rejection of Jesus.  Again, Jesus testified with his Word that he was God present and gracious.  Hearing is essentially passive.  Jesus doesn't seem like God (weakness and bad company- i.e. he is not an image to be imitated) so we must trust his Word that he is who he says he is.  His Word makes many angry becomes it takes away their power to control with good works.  By killing God himself, they reveal their idolatry.  

Bottom line: You need to trust in a Word that discloses a presence (faith).  You can only imitate an image (works).


  1. You write:

    "Instead, the problem with the idol is that is a image. As an image, it is not a Word from God by which he testified to his hidden reality in creatures."


    "You need to trust in a Word that discloses a presence (faith). You can only imitate an image (works)."

    What about the image and likeness of God? Can the category "image" be illegitimate if Adam and Eve were created "good" in it, even if it was lost later? Isn't Jesus the true image of God?

  2. Yes, Jesus is ontologically. Meaning that he does not make an absent God present, but is the presence of God himself.

    Also, unlike idols, he is not visibly God to us, but only know to be God by faith. Jesus weak and associated with sinners. As a visible image he fails. We only have his Word and the Word of the Old Testament to reveal this fact to us.

    Humans were the image of God because of their righteousness in the original state. Again, this was not visibly true of them. Rather they were this image because they trusted God's Word. Their righteousness was indicated by their absolutely truthful use of their own words and God's Word.

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  4. “For the idolator, God is not sacramentally present in the image, but rather God is reduced to the image so that he can be manipulated.”

    I was wondering if you could expand on this a bit more because I’m attempting to grasp this better, what an idol is. Coming from a reformed/baptist background (we are now LCMS) an “idol” was for us as you say a form of worshipping God in things. Thus idols in that way of thinking are more or less “stock and stone” and other “images”. But when one says “God is reduced to the image so that he can be manipulated” how is He reduced? Would a fairly clear example of this be how Baptist doctrine/theology reduces baptism down to a more or less “image”. I.e. God’s not there for you (pro me) doing anything, a baptist would not say, “I am baptized”, for assurance, but it becomes “an outward sign of an inward reality and the “death and resurrection” is then to be imitated usually through some form of works that then become the inward evidences of the presence of true saving faith and thus saved/truly reborn/regenerate and election?