In a recent public presentation I tried to define two concepts of idolatry, but I wasn’t quite happy with either of them.
So here’s the 2.0 version, submitted to you for criticism and comment:
- idolatry (def 1): the practice of honoring a representation or symbol as if it were a god or a person worthy of honor.
This is literal idolatry, which is the rule rather than the exception in the world’s religions – bowing, etc. to things like this Jain statue I photographed in Bombay. It was this sort of practice which was forbidden in the ten commandments:
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them… Exodus 20:4-5, ESV
“Serve” here, I think, clearly signifies religious worship specifically. It is not clear, I think, that it is against any sort of respect for images, e.g. saluting a flag. But it is against the sort of image honoring typical of ancient near eastern religions.
Apart from this command, it seems to me, it is by no means obvious that the one God shouldn’t be worshiped by means of some object, be it representational or abstract. After all, millions, probably billions of people do this, either for some god or for the one God.
But very often in the New Testament, it is not the above concept which is in view. Instead, they have in mind something which is by definition a sin:
- idolatry (def 2): the sin of honoring something or someone other than God in disobedience to God.
Unless excused by ignorance, this is the sin Christians believe that idolaters typically commit in their idolatry (in the first sense, definition 1). Prime examples would be the sinful Jewish kings preceding the Babylonian captivity.
Christian preachers are fond of this extended concept. Often, they denounce celebrity worship, covetousness (Colossians 3:5), or too much attachment to one’s own theory as “idolatry.” None of these is literal idolatry (def 1) but any of these satisfies the 2nd concept of idolatry.
If def 2 is correct, here are some interesting consequences:
- It doesn’t necessarily matter who you intend to worship using the idol. Arguably, in Exodus 32, the Hebrews meant to worship Yahweh by means of the golden calf. Despite this intention, it was a big sin, due to the command they’d received, quoted above.
- God has exalted Jesus to his right hand, or to his throne – to a position of honor. Hence, as we’ve seen, it is appropriate to worship Jesus. And no, it is not idolatry, for it is in obedience to his and our God.