Paul’s Deconstruction of Idolatry

One of the Apostle Paul’s central concerns in his letter to the Romans is to confront the tendency of human beings to put their trust in idols rather than in God and God’s way of healing.  I address this theme in a paper I presented to the “Bible, Theology, and Postmodernity” session at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Chicago, November 2, 2008.

This paper, “Paul’s Deconstruction of Idolatry,” comes out of my interest in Christianity and violence, focused especially on biblical and theological materials that point toward ways of overcoming violence.  The biblical story often portrays violence and injustice having roots in idolatry.  I believe that we find in the biblical critique of idolatry perspectives that are important, even essential for responding to the problems of violence in our world today.

In the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul offers an analysis and critique of idolatry that I believe remains useful today.  Paul takes on two types of idolatry.  First, he criticizes what I will call the idol of lust in the Roman Empire that underwrites violence and injustice.  And, second, he critiques the claims of those (like Paul himself before he met Jesus) who believed that loyalty to the Law requires violence in defense of the covenant community.

Our present-day analogs of the forces Paul critiques—nationalism, imperialism, religious fundamentalism—all gained power with the rise of modernity in the Western world.   The much-heralded turn toward post-modernity may offer a sense of awareness to help us break free from such totalisms that foster so much violence in our world.

Our task of resisting demands for ultimate loyalty unites biblical prophets (including Paul) with present-day Christians seeking to further life in the face of death-dealing violence.  Modernity did not create death-dealing idolatries so much as give them new impetus.  The task of breaking bondage to the idols of injustice that Paul engaged in remains ours today.

4 thoughts on “Paul’s Deconstruction of Idolatry

  1. David L. Myers


    I’m wondering about the accuracy of laying the blame of the increased power of the many evil isms solely at the feet at the much aligned rise of modernity of the western world. What about the emperor cult in Japan and the Maoist cult in China. Hardly western; certainly evil; demonstrably expansionistic.

  2. Ted Grimsrud Post author


    I don’t mean to blame the “evil isms” solely on the rise of modernity. If we did that we wouldn’t be able to expect the Bible to say much of relevance to this problem (and I would be out of a job!). I mean rather than modernity exacerbated the problem in significant ways–such as the rise of nationalism (in relation to the modern nation-state) and religious fundamentalism (insofar as it is a reaction vs. modernism).

  3. David L. Myers


    For the sake of a friendly discussion, have you now modified modernity of the western world to, simply, modernity? My original point was to question the ease with which you villainized western modernity, when in fact modernity’s power to exacerbate the evil isms is transcultural. Right?

  4. Ted Grimsrud Post author

    Sure. I was only trying to make a connection between our own culture and the critique that Paul makes of idolatry. Surely cultures from around the world may be equally idolatrous. I’m not meaning to make any global claims about “modernity” so much as apply the critique to America.


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