Wright, Idolatry and Humanity
Paul has not ‘revised’ or ‘rethought’ the standard Jewish belief about pagan idolatry, a belief rooted in the sneers of the prophets and the scorn of the Psalms. He has reaffirmed it. We are monotheists, he insists, not pagan polytheists! Those who scramble over themselves to declare that the Areopagus Address in Acts 17 could not have been given by Paul because it is so positive about pagan philosophy, quoting from pagan poets and so on, regularly fail to notice that the heart of the speech is a classic Jewish denunciation of idols, their shrines and their sacrifices. The speech is set, of course, on the rock of the Areopagus, in full view of the magnificent Parthenon and the smaller but still stunning Temple of Nike, two of the most beautiful constructions ever erected by human hands. And the Paul of Acts declares that they are a waste of space, a category mistake. The Paul of the letters shakes hands with his shadowy Lukan Doppelgänger across the void of critical fashion: that is exactly what they are. So much for the first, and most important, pagan symbol. There is one God, the creator of all things, and it is a mistake of the first order to suppose that this God can be contained within, or identified with, anything in this present world. So far, this is precisely what we would expect from a strict first-century Jew; from a strict monotheistic Jew who believed that the one God had made, and owns, the whole world and all its ways and wisdom; from such a Jew who has been transformed from within so that he believes the Jewish story has reached its long-ordained climax. God is not, and cannot properly be manifested in, any kind of object within the world of space, time and matter.
With one exception. Written into the charter deeds of creational monotheism – i.e. the opening chapters of Genesis – Paul knew that there was one creature who was designed, not to contain the creator God (as if such a thing were possible) but, at least, to reflect him. Part of Paul’s radical and robust rejection of pagan idolatry was based on the clear belief that idolatry not only diminishes God; it diminishes, also, those who actually do bear God’s image. It steals their privilege and bestows it elsewhere; or rather, since it is these same humans who are doing it, pagan worship sells its own birthright for a mess of idolatrous pottage. It puts humans below the birds, animals and reptiles. Humans were supposed to be running God’s world as his vicegerents, his image-bearers, reflecting into the world the glory and wise ordering of its maker. Paul’s typically Jewish reaction against the dehumanization that results directly from idolatry was only heightened by his belief that there had come at last a truly human being, ‘the image of the invisible God’, whose aim was precisely to rehumanize other humans, to rescue them from the corruption brought on by idolatry and to re-establish them as what they were supposed to be. Paul’s rejection of the central symbols of paganism was heightened by what he believed about Jesus.