Styles of Idolatry: BC, AD, and Today
When the people of Israel prepared to enter the promised land in 1400 BC, most of the Israelites had not been there when Moses came down from the mountain with the stone tablets 40 years before. So God commanded Moses to teach about his covenant with Israel to the next generation so that they could be faithful after they enter into Canaan. This refresher course is what we know as the book of Deuteronomy.
The first three chapters of Deuteronomy are a summary of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. But in chapter 4, Moses gets to the meat of the covenant. After preliminary remarks about the importance of keeping what is written, God said this to his people:
Diligently watch yourselves—because you did not see any form on the daythe Lord spoke to you out of the fire at Horeb— so you don’t act corruptlyand make an idol for yourselves in the shape of any figure: a male or femaleform, or the form of any animal on the earth, any winged creature that fliesin the sky, any creature that crawls on the ground, or any fish in the watersunder the earth. (4:15-18)
The number one job of Israel is to stand by her man. Don’t get lost in the creation; keep your eyes on the creator. Don’t commit idolatry, which is the worst kind of unfaithfulness to God because it replaces him with something he made.
Did you ever scratch your head when you got to the last verse in 1 John? “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” (5:21) It seems so out of place compared to the nice endings in Paul’s letters. The Apostle John just wants to give one last warning for the greatest danger facing the church. In the 1500 years since Deuteronomy was written, the greatest threat facing human beings was the same.
God rightfully wants to be the only one his people worship. Tragically, we always seem to be looking for alternatives.
Fast-forward 2000 years to 609 A.D. Despite the “Christianization” of Rome 300 years before by Constantine, the infamous Roman Pantheon still stood as an homage to the primary gods of Roman paganism. Pope Boniface IV made a request to Emperor Flavius Phocas to get rid of all of them.
What should he do with this venerable old building? He determined that “after the pagan filth was removed, a church should be made, to the holy virgin Mary and all the martyrs, so that the commemoration of the saints would take place henceforth where not gods but demons were formerly worshipped,” (The Pantheon: Design, Meaning, and Progeny, 139). Instead of worshipping Mars and Venus, the people of Rome would venerate Mary and Joseph, alongside many other saints.
In A Treatise on Relics, John Calvin comments on this decision,
Hero-worship is innate to human nature, and it is founded on some of our
noblest feelings, — gratitude, love, and admiration, — but which, like all
other feelings, when uncontrolled by principle and reason, may easily
degenerate into the wildest exaggerations, and lead to most dangerous
consequences. It was by such an exaggeration of these noble feelings that
[Roman] Paganism filled the Olympus with gods and demigods, — elevating
to this rank men who have often deserved the gratitude of their fellow-
creatures, by some signal services rendered to the community, or their
admiration, by having performed some deeds which required a more than
usual degree of mental and physical powers.
The same cause obtained for the Christian martyrs the gratitude and
admiration of their fellow-Christians, and finally converted them into a
kind of demigods. This was more particularly the case when the church
began to be corrupted by her compromise with Paganism, which
having been baptized without being converted, rapidly introduced into
the Christian church, not only many of its rites and ceremonies, but
even its polytheism, with this difference, that the divinities of Greece
and Rome were replaced by Christian saints, many of whom received
the offices of their Pagan predecessors.
This last Sunday, I briefly explained that in the pagan temples, it was believed that sinful pagan ceremonies helped improve the economy by inducing the gods to look with favor on certain cities.
Sadly, the way in which Rome replaced paganism with Catholicism did little to change its basic religious framework. Instead of praying to a god, Rome teaches to this day, that patron saints are “chosen as special protectors or guardians over areas of life”. The faithful are told that they can direct their prayers to saints to gain blessing in every category of life. For an alphabetical list of all the different problems these saints can address, see https://www.catholic.org/saints/patron.php.
In 1566, the Council of Trent turned the practice of prayer to saints into a mandate. It produced a catechism which taught all the faithful the reason why prayers to Mary were necessary for Catholics: “In this prayer we should earnestly implore her help and assistance; for that she possesses exalted merits with God, and that she is most desirous to assist us by her prayers, no one can doubt without impiety and wickedness.” In the same catechism, beneath the heading “To Whom We Should Pray” it reads, “We must also have recourse to the intercession of the Saints who are in glory. That the Saints are to be prayed to is a truth so firmly established in the Church of God, that no pious person can experience a shadow of doubt on the subject.”
Those who read my prior post on the Council of Trent might observe the similarity of this statement to many of the anathemas also given by that council. Both insist on compliance with traditions that cannot be found in the Bible and denounce anyone who disagrees with such a tradition.
To ward off the accusation of idolatry, this catechism did make a distinction between praying to God and saints, “We do not address God and the Saints in the same manner, for we implore God to grant us blessings or to deliver us from evils; while we ask the Saints, since they are the friends of God, to take us under their patronage and to obtain for us from God whatever we need.” In other words, both Mary and the rest of the saints are believed to be meritorious intercessors between God and people living on earth.
The problem with that caveat is, instead of denigrating God the Father (the one to whom Jesus taught us to pray), it shifts the error on to the sole mediator that we have, Jesus Christ. “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, a testimony at the proper time.” (1 Timothy 2:5-6)
As Christians, we have the great honor to speak directly to the Father, in the name of the Son and the help of the Spirit. Why would we ever turn to someone else?
To do so is to commit the same error God warned about in Deuteronomy: honoring the creation with worship that belongs only to God. Once idolatry takes root in a church, it undercuts true devotion to God by giving worshipers a man-made alternative. Once that happens, that church is corrupted until the idolatry is removed.
As you consider the severity of idolatry, ask yourself how you can honor God by depending on him in prayer throughout your week. At times, we keep silent about our concerns and try to address them in our own power. At other times, we turn to the internet to address our questions without asking God for wisdom as Scripture teaches in James 1:5. Another danger is turning to other people to help us in ways that only God can. Whenever we withhold prayers from God and turn somewhere else, we are entering into an idolatrous mentality. As God’s little children, we need to place our trust and our prayers in his hands, not anything that he created.