Paul’s Deconstruction of Idolatry

Justice Apart from the Law (and Empire):  Paul’s Deconstruction of Idolatry

Ted Grimsrud

[Paper presented to the “Bible, Theology, and Postmodernity” session at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, Chicago, November 2, 2008]

This paper 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.  Trusting in things other than the creator God who made all human beings in the divine image leads to a diminishment of the value of some human beings—a prerequisite for injustice and violence.  Torah, the prophets, and Jesus all emphasize the centrality of loving the neighbor as part of what it means to love God above all else.

The struggle against idols characterizes the biblical story from the concern with “graven images” in the Ten Commandments down to the blasphemies of the Beast in Revelation.  Certainly at times the battle against idols itself crosses the line into violence and injustice.  However, for my purposes here I will assume that those accounts stand over against the overall biblical story.  When anti-idolatry takes the form of violence, a new idolatry has taken its place.  In Walter Wink’s terms, our challenge is to seek to overcome evil without becoming evil ourselves.[1]

I would like to suggest 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.  If we use violence as our criterion, we could say that whenever human beings justify violence against other human beings they give ultimate loyalty to some entity (or, “idol”) other than the God of Jesus Christ.

It could well be that forces that underwrite violence today—loyalty to warring nations, labeling those outside our religious or ethnic circle as less than fully human, placing a higher priority on gathering wealth than on social justice—are contemporary versions of the idolatrous dynamics that biblical prophets condemn.

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.[2]   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.  These various “’isms” all have been thrown into question in popular consciousness.

This 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.

John Caputo couches this task in the “postmodern” language of “deconstruction,” arguing that the work of deconstruction is the same kind of work people of faith have always engaged in when they have resisted life-denying idols.

“The deconstruction of Christianity is not an attack on the church but a critique of the idols to which it is vulnerable—the literalism and authoritarianism, the sexism and racism, the militarism and imperialism, and the love of unrestrained capitalism with which the church in its various forms has today and for too long been entangled, any one of which is toxic to the kingdom of God.  The deconstruction of Christianity is nothing new.  It is the ageless task imposed on the church and its way to the future, the way to be faithful to its once and future task, to express the uncontainable event from which the church is forged.  To engage the gears of deconstructive thought and practice is not to reduce our beliefs and practices to ruins, which is the popular distortion, but to entrust oneself to the uncontainable event they contain, breaking down their resistance to their own inner tendencies and aspirations, exposing them to the call by which they have been called into being, which here, in the case of the church, is the kingdom that we call for, the kingdom that calls us.”[3]

With his analysis and critique of idolatry in Romans 1–3, Paul helps us in this deconstructive work.  To support this assertion, I will engage in a close reading of this text, and draw a few brief conclusions for our present appropriation of Paul’s argument.  I will read the text straightforwardly, with the intent of showing how what Paul writes challenges the idolatries of his day—and in doing so, help us come to terms with the idolatries of our present.

I do believe that Paul’s argument furthers the dynamics of the embodiment of God’s kingdom here on earth.  I share Caputo’s perspective.

“What is the kingdom of God?  Where is it found?  It is found every time an offense is forgiven, every time a stranger is made welcome, every time an enemy is embraced, every time the least among us is lifted up, every time the is made to serve justice, every time a prophetic voice is raised against injustice, every time the law and the prophets are summed up by love.”[4]

Paul’s Program

Paul begins his argument with a programmatic statement in 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile.”  When Paul asserts that the “gospel” has to do with God’s power bringing about “salvation” he surely realizes that he is appropriating common imperial terms.[5]   “Gospel” and “salvation” both point to what the emperor takes responsibility for.  For Paul, though, the true gospel and genuine salvation come from God, not from Caesar.

“Salvation” is based on faith—or, we could say, faithfulness.  The point is neither “belief alone” as in intellectual assent or the accumulation of good deeds that gain salvation.  Rather Paul has in mind an integration of belief and practice.  “Faithfulness” includes intellectual affirmation of the reality of God and Jesus as the core truths of reality (the “renewed mind” of Romans 12:1-2) and trusting commitment to God as the center of the universe and practices of love and justice, mercy and compassion, generosity and care.

When he writes salvation comes “to the Jew first and also to the Gentile,” Paul endorses the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendents (Israel).  As with the promise to Abraham, Paul here points to the purpose of the calling of Israel—to bless all the families of the earth—first Jews, then Gentiles.[6]

Paul continues with his programmatic statement in 1:17: “In the gospel the justice of God is revealed through faith for faith.”  The term translated “justice” is also often translated “righteousness.”  However, the connotation of “righteousness” had tended toward the personal and has hidden the obvious social ramifications of Paul thought.  With “dikaiosyne tou theou” Paul has in mind a cosmic transformation that brings together the personal and social in a unified transformative intervention by God to bring healing to all aspects of creation—a transformation better captured by “justice” than “righteousness.”[7]

Paul here links “justice” very closely with “salvation.”  In the Bible, God’s “justice” describes God works to bring healing in the face of brokenness—“restorative justice.”[8]   Certainly Paul understood God’s “justice” to be the characteristic of God that leads to salvation (not punishment) for God’s enemies (see Romans 5:1-11 for the affirmation that the justice-making work of God affirmed in 1:17 and 3:21 specifically includes God’s enemies).

Paul announces that God’s “justice” has now been “revealed.”  The term translated “revealed” (apokalypsis—the word from which “apocalypse” comes) in many cases in the Bible indicates an epoch-defining, transforming message from God.  For Paul, God “reveals” that in Jesus the kingdom of God has been made present.  Those who receive this revelation will never see the world the same again.  As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “when anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!”

The “revelation” of “salvation” and “justice” in Jesus Christ reemphasizes that for Paul, trust in Christ is a direct alternative to trust in Caesar.  These are two “kings” contesting the same terrain—the ultimate loyalty of human beings.  Paul claims that for those with eyes to see, the transforming work God does in creating a peoplehood out of Jews and Gentiles has been made visible and is worth their deepest commitment.

Paul asserts in 1:17 that the “just shall live by faithfulness.”  He believes that trust in God leads to blessing all the families of the earth as promised of old.  As the letter to the Christians in Rome will reiterate throughout, this faithfulness most powerfully should be characterized by the coming together of Jew with Gentile, united by a common commitment to the way of Jesus.[9]   Paul strongly desires that such a new community be clear in its witness in the heart of the Empire.

Idolatry I: The Nations (Rome)

After this introduction, Paul turns to the big problem.  He analyzes dynamics that move people from the rejection of truth to lack of gratitude to trust in created things to out of control lust to injustice and violence.  This dynamic itself is the expression of “wrath” which has to do not with direct intervention by God but with God “giving them up” to a self-selected spiral of death.

As will Paul will make clear in Romans 5:1-11 and 11:32, God’s intentions toward humanity are completely salvific—even when human beings position themselves as God’s enemies.  Hence, we make a mistake if we interpret “wrath” as God’s punitive anger aimed at people God has rejected.  We should understand “wrath” to be redefined by the gospel.  “Wrath” characterizes how God works in indirect ways to hold human beings accountable, “giving them up” to the consequences of their giving their loyalty to realities other than life and the giver of life.[10]

In 1:17 we have the salvific “revelation” of God’s justice.  In the next verse, we have the suppression of truth that leads to the “revelation” of God’s wrath.  With “justice,” people see created things for what they are (pointers to the creator), not false gods worthy of ultimate loyalty.  Such sight leads to life.  With “wrath,” the act of giving loyalty to created things results in truth being suppressed and a spiral of lifelessness.

Paul alludes to two different ways to see created things.  They can be seen as pointers to God, who is the one authentic object of worship—not least because of God’s creative work.  Or, they can be seen as themselves objects of worship or ultimate loyalty.

God has built within creation itself directives that should lead to “justice” (linking “justice” here with a basic stance of gratitude towards life that encourages kindness, generosity, and wholeness in relationships).  Many people have not lived in gratitude (1:22) and as a consequence brokenness characterizes much of human life.

The “revelation” of God’s wrath (1:18) concerns God giving those who trust in idols up (1:24) to descent into self-destructive behavior.  The revelation of this wrath, thus, is not so much about direct punitive action by God as about the dynamics when people trust in lifeless things and thereby lose a connection with life.

People make an “exchange.”  They trade their humanity as God’s children for “images” that resemble created things.  This trade leads to an exchange of justice for wrath leading to an exchange of justice for injustice, of life for death.  This exchange, Paul insists, is not necessary.  God has shown the world what is needed.  “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them…, seen through the things he has made” (1:19-20).  However, when human beings exchange “the glory of God” for images that resemble created things they lose their ability to discern God’s revelation.  The dynamic identified in Psalm 115 becomes all too apparent, where people become like the lifeless images that they worship.

Paul’s statement that “God gave them up” (1:24) points to how God’s love implies that the only way God can relate to creation is to respect human freedom.  However, when people “freely” choose idols they actually compromise their God-given freedom, voluntarily entering into bondage to the idols they elevate to divine status.  Paul is not saying that God takes revenge by taking away our freedom.  Rather, he tells us that by the nature of reality we become like what we trust.  Our trust in lifeless things leads to lifelessness.

When created things are worshiped they no longer reveal the God who stands behind them and gives them their meaning.  The paradigmatic expression of this dynamic for Paul is how inter-human love—which indeed reveals God in profound ways—comes to be reduced to lust, and relationships become unjust, broken, contexts for alienation.

Paul writes that “for this reason” (1:26) God gave those consumed by lust (the “lusters”) “up to degrading passions.”  When they exchange trust in God for worship of created things, the luster’s are led into “unnatural” behavior.  What is unnatural is when intimate human relationships become occasions for death and alienation instead of life and wholeness.

As Neil Elliott has suggested, Paul may have in mind the recent history of the Roman emperor’s court and its prolifigate sexual behavior that had scandalized many.  When the emperor Caligula went down, many understood this to be an act of cosmic vindication.[11]   Paul sees lust as the problem (not homosexuality per se) because of how it diminishes humanness, reflects worship of “degrading passions” rather than God, distorts the revelation of God in the human, and fosters injustice.

In 1:28, Paul once more refers to the dynamic where “God gives them up,” in this case to a “debased mind.”  They can’t see reality as it is.  The revelation of God’s love becomes wrath for them rather than whole-making justice.  When people trust in things other than God, their ability to think and perceive and see and discern is profoundly clouded.

Paul refers to “things that should not be done” that result from “the debased mind” that results from “God giving them up (1:28) that results from “exchanging the glory of the immortal God form images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (1:23).  The reference to “things that should not be done” points ahead to the vice list in 1:29-31 with a wide-ranging description of injustice and violence—the injustice and violence of the Empire’s leaders.

In this discussion of idolatry in Romans 1:18-32, Paul challenges his readers to see the nature of their would-be Benefactors as God’s rivals.  These Benefactors claim to act on behalf of the gods and for the sake of “peace” (they use terms such as Good News, Savior, and Pax Romana).  They desire people’s trust and loyalty and worship.  These Benefactors are actually profoundly unjust and violent.  The Pax Romana’s “peace” is actually based on the violence of the sword—it’s a counterfeit peace.[12]

When “created things” are worshiped, the progression moves inexorably toward injustice—suppression of truth (1:18), refusal to honor and give thanks to God (1:21), darkened minds (1:21), the exchange of God’s glory for lifeless images (1:23), being “given up” to lusts that degrade their bodies (1:24), the worship of the creature rather than creator (1:25), degrading passions (1:26), shameless acts (1:27), debased minds (1:28), and profound injustice and violence (1:29-31).

The Powers that exploit this progression into idolatry replace God as the center of people’s lives and as the objects of worship.  In doing so, they so distort people’s minds so that instead of recognizing that those who practice such injustice deserve judgment people instead “applaud” their unjust Benefactors (1:32).

Idolatry II: Works of the Law

Paul’s critique of Empire-idolatry has its own validity and importance.  However, in what follows in Romans, Paul combines this with a critique of the way people in the covenant community embrace idolatry in relation to the law.  Following writers on the “new perspective on Paul,” especially James Dunn, I will use the term “works of the law” for what Paul criticizes—in distinction to the law in and of itself, which Paul embraces.

Dunn sees Paul’s use of the term “works of the law” in Galatians 2:16 (“We know that a person is justified, not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”) as helpful for helping us distinguish between Paul’s critique of how the law was being understood among his opponents in the churches and Paul’s strong affirmation of the continuing validity of the law (Romans 13:9: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’”).[13]

Behind Paul’s critique here is his own earlier commitment to use works of the law as boundary markers.  He protected the “true faith” with extreme violence.  Paul as Saul the Pharisee, before he met Jesus, had made an idol of works of the law in a way that made him just as guilty of injustice as the leaders of the Roman Empire in his harsh persecution of Jesus’ followers[14].

Paul’s concerns in 1:18-32 center on idolatry and the need to be free from the bondage idolatry fosters.  If one points fingers at other idolaters while denying one’s own tendency to worship idols, one will never find such freedom.  Hence, “the very same things” (2:1) that those who point fingers (the “judgers”) are guilty of are themselves forms of idolatry. Paul experienced his own exchange—God for the boundary markers that required a violent defense.  Paul’s “degrading passions” were not sexual but ideological—and led to the same result, violence.

The words Paul quotes in 2:2, “we know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accord with truth,” come from the judgers alluded to in 2:1, when they refer to the lusters.  When they embrace God’s judgment on others, the judgers actually condemn themselves because they too are idolaters guilty of injustice.  They mistakenly believe that in condemning the idolatry of 1:18-32 while remaining idolaters themselves they have God on their side.

In claiming that their judging accords with “truth” (2:2), the judgers actually line themselves up with the “debased minds” who worship the creation rather than the creator and in doing so actually suppress the truth (1:18).

Paul had committed his own acts of violence in the name of the “truth.”  However, after he met Jesus he learned that violence is always a sign of falsehood.  The truth he thought he served was actually a lie.  The works of the law that he defended turned out to be idolatrous.  So, as a judger he was just as much of an idolater as the lusters who run the Roman Empire.  The judgers’ idolatry is simply another form of injustice and will be equally judged by God (2:3).

Paul makes affirmations about God in 2:4 that stand in opposition to all forms of idolatry.  He writes of “the riches of God’s kindness and forbearance and patience.”  The antidote to idolatry is recognition of God’s unconditional and abundant mercy.  God’s kindness comes first, then comes repentance.

Paul refers to the judgers’ “hard and impenitent hearts” (2:5), describing those who suppress the truth.  This includes both those who reduce love to lust and those who reduce the law to legalistic works of the law.  The “storing up of wrath” (2:5) he mentions may be seen as the dynamics of self-delusion and cold-heartedness inevitably following from such reductions.  The processes of life lead to justice for those who trust in God and to wrath for those who trust in idols.  As we trust in things we become more and more thing-like ourselves (in this sense, “storing up” more “wrath”).

The revelation of “the day of wrath” (2:5) may be understood in terms of the revelation of the true path to God through the witness of Jesus that illumines the death of the various idolatries and, tragically, only reinforces the fears and false worship of all the various types of idolaters.

Paul writes of “God’s righteous judgment” in 2:5 using the same terms that in 1:32 are translated as “God’s decree.”  The latter is what the lusters know but ignore in their injustice.  The former is what will be revealed to the judgers “on the day of wrath.”  This parallel usage shows that the injustices of 1:29-31 and the judging of 2:1-2 are the same kind of phenomena, both blind people to God’s authentic justice.  By denying the life-giving justice of God, both types of idolaters condemn themselves to experience God’s justice as wrath.

Condemnation comes to everyone who does evil—Jew first and also Gentile (2:9).  The description of the two types of idolatry encompasses all kinds of people.  Crucially, though, Paul immediately follows this terrifying word with a word of hope.  Salvation also comes to all kinds of people, Jew first and also Gentile (2:11).  Salvation enters through God’s chosen people and spreads to all the families of the earth.  The judgers (such as Saul the Pharisee) forgot that salvation for them was intended to lead to salvation for all.

Paul understands “sin,” a term he introduces in 2:12, in terms of the reality of idolatry he has been describing.  He sets out the basic dynamic in 1:21: Sin and idolatry arise when people live without trust and gratitude, become futile in their thinking and darkened in their minds, leading to the practice of injustice and the movement toward lifelessness.  “Sinning under the law” (2:12) seems basically to mean making an idol of some rule or other and using it to underwrite injustice (as with Saul the Pharisee).

Paul argues that the law itself is not the problem.  He affirms in 2:14 that some Gentiles do “do the law” even while ignorant of the written Torah.  They do it “naturally,” the idea linking back to Paul’s allusion in 1:18-32 that it is unnatural to worship the creature, to be ungrateful, to practice injustice, and to exchange the creature for the creator.

The faithfulness or justness or authentic obedience of Gentiles who do not know the written Torah shows that “what the law requires is written on their hearts” (2:15: to trust God, to live in gratitude, to do justice).  This comment echoes Paul’s earlier affirmation that “ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made” (1:20).

Paul’s critique of the judgers gets intense in 2:23-24.  He asserts that “boasters in the law” dishonor God.  Because of their idolatry, Gentiles blaspheme God’s name.  For the judgers, the law had become a boundary marker.  As such, the law (reduced to works of the law) had become a tool for violence.  It had become a basis for asserting a cosmic division between circumcised and uncircumcised, rather than part of an affirmation of “the fundamental solidarity-in-difference of Jews and Gentiles as together creatures of the one God.”[15]

By the time of Saul the Pharisee, law-idolatry led to violent persecution of those who followed Jesus, the one who actually embodied the true whole-making intention of the law in its original expression.  When those charged with witnessing to God’s justice for the benefit of all the earth’s families instead witness to injustice, it is as if they are not part of God’s covenant people at all; their “circumcision has become uncircumcision.”

Paul asserts that some who are physically “uncircumcised” do indeed “keep the requirement of the law” (2:26), implying that “the requirements of the law” boil down to living with gratitude, generosity, and justice—or, as Paul writes later in Romans, the law boils down to loving one’s neighbor.  “Real circumcision is a matter of the heart,” Paul writes, in the sense that one’s actual circumcision is not about a physical ritual but about one’s genuine commitment to God’s love and justice, a commitment that finds expression in one’s actions.

Paul does insist that we are “all” under the power of sin (3:9), but in saying this he is not so much asserting that each individual is (he has clearly stated that some do keep the law) as arguing that the Jews and Gentiles are equally liable to be under the power of sin (equally likely to be either lusters or judgers).

Later in Romans, Paul illumines further the problems with the idolatry of works of the law in his agonizing reflections in chapter seven.  As Robert Jewett suggests, we best read Paul here to be reflecting his own experience as one who committed terrible acts of violence in the name of what turned out to be an idolatrous view of the law.[16]

The very act of striving to follow the letter of Torah leads to living in the “flesh,” unleashing one’s “sinful passions” (7:5).  These sinful passions led to Paul’s “zeal” when he upholds works of the law through violence against followers of Jesus (Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:5-6).

When Paul writes, “the very commandment that promised life proved to be the death of me” (7:10), he has in mind how he applied the law in ways that deeply hurt others and thereby himself experienced death.  No wonder he was so profoundly shattered when he met Jesus and realized that the one he had been persecuting was truly the Messiah of the God he had sought so zealously to serve.

Paul had staked his life on a sense of responsibility zealously to enforce the “truths” of Torah—and ended up becoming a murderer, one who violated the actual truth of Torah about as profoundly as anyone possibly could.  Paul states flatly, “sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (7:11).  This truly happened in Paul’s own life.  His embrace of the legalistic approach to Torah couples with an embrace of the need to enforce works of the law with violence opened him to be dominated by the very power of sin he thought he was opposing.

The law itself is “spiritual” Paul writes (that is, of the Holy Spirit).  However, when his zealotry sought to exploit the law by using it as a basis for violence and injustice, he showed himself to have been “sold into slavery under sin.”  As a consequence, Paul was utterly bamboozled concerning the true message of Torah.  “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  What he wanted to do was serve the God of Israel, faithfully practice Torah, and live a holy life.  However, he actually worshiped idols instead of God.  His mind was darkened.  He ended up not serving God but doing the opposite (“the very thing I hate”), he served an idol.

The more “successful” Saul the Pharisee was in his persecuting work, the more “faithfully” he followed his rigorous path, the more he sinned.  This path turned out to be the wrong path.  It set him actively opposing God.  He was indeed seeking to follow the true and good law of God—and was shockingly deceived.  When his were opened (Jesus’ revelation to him of Jesus’ true identity), Paul realized that the “true Torah” (as love of neighbor, 13:8-10) condemned what he was doing.

Paul dwelled in a “body of death” (7:24), both in the sense of being the cause of death to others in his zeal and of being spiritually dead himself due to his idolatry and bondage to the Powers.  He needed to be “rescued.”  He needed outside intervention to save him when he did not even realize he needed to be saved.  He was subsumed in a “body of death.”  However, the rescue came, which is the story of Paul’s gospel.

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our lord,” he concludes chapter seven (7:25).  We know that Jesus intervened and shook Paul’s world to the foundations.  Through his rescue of Paul from death, Jesus made clear to Paul that he is indeed God’s Messiah, the one worthy of trust, the one who reveals the true meaning of Torah.  When Paul trusted in Jesus and realized that Jesus’ God was his God, Paul did find liberation from the bondage that had turned him into a murderer.  As a consequence, he was transformed from an exclusivist persecutor to a person, in Miroslav Volf’s terms, “enriched by otherness.”[17]

Justice Apart from Idolatry

When we turn back to the conclusion to Paul’s argument in Romans 1–3, we see that Paul’s own liberation was due to a revelation of Jesus apart from “works of the law.”  This liberation provides the basis for Paul’s response to the problem of idolatry.

Paul speaks to how the idolatry problem is solved:  “Now, apart from the law, the justice of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the justice of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:21-22).

Paul has already made it clear in his discussion of circumcision that salvation comes apart from works of the law.  True circumcision has to do with the heart—living in gratitude and love, practicing genuine justice.  Those who are physically circumcised are as if uncircumcised if they are unjust.

God’s “justice” here joins the thread throughout the first three chapters that links together justice, injustice, and God’s decree/just judgment—all terms with a dik root.  Another dik word is usually translated “justification,” pointing to how God will set things right and bring about healing and reconciliation.

Contrary to Saul the Pharisee’s idea that “justice” should lead to persecution of followers of Jesus, now Paul the Apostle is clear that justice involves reconciliation.  It blesses all the families of the earth.  God makes this justice known in an epoch-transforming disclosure.  God’s work is primarily a work to “make known,” to transform minds, to enlighten those whose idolatry had darkened their awareness.

The “law and prophets” attest to God’s disclosure of genuine justice.  They had proclaimed the same message.  To be just is to trust God and love God and neighbor and bless all the families of the earth and value mercy more than sacrifice.  The law and prophets also attest to the problems that arise when the law becomes an idol that underwrites injustice.  The true Torah, in Paul’s view, is totally compatible with the disclosure of God’s justice in Jesus.  “The Torah witnesses to the purpose of human life for both the circumcised and the uncircumcised, which is to do the good that the Torah itself commands (Romans 2) and that the gospel enables.”[18]

Jesus’ faithfulness in his life discloses God’s justice.  As Jesus emphasized in his teaching and practice, the law is to serve human beings, not human beings to serve the law.  Jesus’ own life of freedom from the Powers and their idolatrous dynamics frees (“redeems,” 3:24) all those who trust in his way as the true disclosure of God’s justice.  Jesus is the most clear and profound expression of God’s work already seen in the liberating stories from Israel’s scriptures.

Paul emphasizes the abolition of boundary markers as the basis for relationship with God when he asserts “there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:22-23).  The lusters are idolaters, but equally so are the judgers.  They all “fall short of the glory of God”—they are all unjust; they all violate the true meaning of Torah; they all fail to live with gratitude and to respond to the truth of God revealed to everyone.

When Paul speaks specifically of Jesus’ blood as the means of “a sacrifice of atonement” put forward by God, he refers to Jesus’ self-sacrificial life (“the life is in the blood,” Leviticus 17:14) that led to his crucifixion as a witness to God’s justice.  Jesus’ was a life of giving to others wherein he persevered to the end embodying God’s justice in face of the injustice and violence of the Powers.

God “put forward Jesus” in order “to show God’s justice” (3:25).  Jesus’ self-sacrifice was “effective” through his faithfulness (3:25).  He was faithful, consistently and amidst all opposition, thereby showing God’s healing justice to a broken world.

In this understanding of God’s justice, there simply is no place for ethnic or religious self-superiority.  “What becomes of boasting?” Paul asks.  “It is excluded” (3:27).  All have equally practiced idolatry.  Most importantly, all have equal access to the healing justice of God through trusting in the faithfulness of Jesus.  This “boasting” is excluded by the true law (“the law of faithfulness,” 3:27), which is Torah as it was intended from the start.

The point of God’s gift of Torah was to reinforce trust in God alone and faithfulness to the vocation of blessing all the families of the earth—not to provide for “works of the law” (rigid boundary makers) that would underwrite boasting, a sense of superiority that is revealed to be hypocrisy in light of the judgers’ own injustices (such as Saul the Pharisee’s violence in the name of the works of the law).

Paul concludes, “since God is one, God will justify the circumcised on the ground of faithfulness and the uncircumcised through the same faithfulness” (3:30).  Paul is not saying here that Jews and Gentiles alike must accept some doctrine about Jesus as divine or as the only valid sacrifice to satisfy God’s holiness or honor.  Rather, Paul is saying that for Jew and Gentile alike whole-making (justification) follows from faithfulness to the true message of Torah (reiterated by Jesus): trust in the God of healing justice, not in idols, and live lives befitting such trust.

Overcoming Domination

One of the most urgent tasks of theology in our present world is the work to appropriate biblical texts that might aid in our efforts to overcome the spiral of domination, retaliation, and violence that so corrupts our world.

I suggest that the text we have been considering, Romans 1–3, is indeed a useful biblical text for developing an argument for peaceable life.  In these chapters, Paul discusses two kinds of idolatry that lead to violence—the idolatry of empire and the idolatry of boundary defending religion.  In both cases, exchanging trust in the kindness of God for trust in created things and ideologies causes a descent into injustice and sacred violence.

To think of contemporary analogies to these expressions of idolatry is an important exercise.  We see constantly in the news examples of imperial violence, sexual objectification, social injustice, exclusivist religion, and scapegoating on large and small scales.

Are there strategies for response to these kinds of destructive practices that might be gleaned from our Romans text?  I will suggest three.

(1) Paul’s analysis and critique challenges us to consider whether ideologies and meta-narratives concerning American exceptionalism, Christian exclusivity, and neo-liberal economics are forms of idolatry.  Insofar as they lead to devaluing human beings and communities that get in the way, that are outside the circle of full humanity, or that are merely useful instruments to be used, they become rivals to the true God, love of whom leads to love for all actual human beings.[19]

(2) Paul’s analysis also challenges us to use as a key criterion to discern the presence of this dynamic of idolatry the simple call to love neighbor.[20]   Paul embraces Torah as the best expression of God’s will for human beings and the basis for an alternative to idolatry, though not Torah used for boundary markers that validate violence.  Rather, Torah as love for neighbor. Any religious or political belief that justifies violence or injustice reflects the presence of idolatry.  When we diminish any other human being we diminish our own humanity and blaspheme our God.  As Richard Hays concludes concerning Paul and nonviolence, “there is not a syllable in the Pauline letters that can be cited in support of Christians employing violence.”[21]

When Paul asserts that God’s justice has entered the world apart from the works of the law—through the model of Jesus’ self-sacrificial life—he also asserts that this manifestation of God’s justice is attested by the law and prophets.  The way of Jesus is the way toward genuine justice that was witnessed to by Torah and was confirmed by the proclamation of ancient Israel’s prophets.

(3) Paul’s analysis and critique ultimately points to the centrality of local communities as the context for resisting idolatry.  These communities, such the Christian fellowship in Rome made up of reconciled Jews and Gentiles, provide critical mass and collective discernment to identify and live free from Empire idolatry.[22]   They model reconciliation between former rivals and thereby reveal that the use of scripture for violent boundary maintenance is rebellion against God.  For Paul in Romans, justice and justification have to do with reconciliation, wholeness in relationships.  Such justice witnesses against violence and injustice for all the families of the earth.


 1. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Resistance and Discernment in an Age of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 1.

 2. See Ted Grimsrud, “A Pacifist Critique of the Modern Worldview,” in Ray Gingerich and Ted Grimsrud, eds., Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice, and the Domination System (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 53-64.

 3. John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 137-38.

 4. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 138.

 5. Neil Elliott, The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 14.

 6. The “postmodern” Swiss Jewish philosopher Jacob Taubes interpreted Paul as a Jewish thinker.  He presented Paul as “an apostle from the Jews to the Gentiles” (Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004], 48 [italics in original]).  For a perceptive reading of Taubes in relation to other recent European philosophers who have written on Paul and seen him is sharp tension with Judaism, see Mark Lilla, “A New, Political Saint Paul?” New York Review of Books 55.16 (October 23, 2008), 69-73.

 7. Here I follow Neil Elliott (Arrogance, 75-76) and Michael Gorman (Reading Paul [Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008], 119-21).  Another reason for preferring “justice” (and “injustice” instead of wickedness) is that we can better trace the unity of Paul’s discussion in Romans 1–3 when he contrasts “justice” with “injustice” and proposes that “justification” is the fruit of God’s transforming work.

 8. See Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice, third edition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2005); Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001); and Ted Grimsrud and Howard Zehr, “Rethinking God, Justice, and the Treatment of Offenders,” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 35.3-4 (2002), 253-79.

 9. On the social nature of justification, see John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), chapter 11, “Justification by Grace Through Faith.”  See also James D.G. Dunn, “Paul and Justification by Faith,” in Richard N. Longenecker, ed., The Road from Damascus: The Impact of Paul’s Conversion on His Life, Thought, and Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 85-101.

 10. James D. G. Dunn: “For Paul ‘the wrath of God’ denotes the inescapable, divinely ordered moral constitution of human society, God’s reaction to evil and sin.  God’s righteousness as creator, the obligation appropriate to him as creator, has determined that human actions have moral consequences.  Thus the consequence of disowning the dependence of the creature on the creator has been a futility of thought and a darkening of experience (1:21).  Focusing reverence on the creature rather than the creator has resulted in idolatry, debased sexuality, and the daily nastiness of disordered society (1:22-31).  God’s wrath, we might say, is his handing over of his human creation to themselves” (The Theology of Paul the Apostle [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998], 42).

 11. Neil Elliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 194-95; and Elliott, Arrogance, 78.

 12. Elliott, Arrogance, 78-83.

 13. James D. G. Dunn, “The New Perspective in Paul,” in Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 213: “Paul’s objection is not to ritual law, but to exclusivist or particularist attitudes which came to expression in and are reinforced by certain rituals.  Not the rituals as such, but the attitude behind them, expressed typically as a ‘boasting’ in works of the law (Rom 2:17-23; 3:27ff).”

 14. For a discussion of Paul’s conversion from violence to nonviolence, see Michael Gorman, “Paul, the Resurrection, and the End of Violence,” paper presented at the Society for Biblical Literature Annual Meetings, San Diego, California, November, 2007.

 15. Douglas Harink, “Paul and Israel: An Apocalyptic Reading,” Pro Ecclesia 16.4 (2007), 376.

 16. Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 436: “The ‘sinful passions that came through the law’ are to be differentiated from sensual passions or human weaknesses as a competitively zealopus Pharisee and an opponent of the church seems so clear.  How else is one to explain the extraordinary role of law in promoting sinful passions rather than, as traditionally believed, holding them in check?”

 17. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 51.

 18. Harink, “Paul,” 377.

 19. Walter Wink’s work in analyzing and critiquing Western culture’s enslavement to the “myth of redemptive violence” from a biblical perspective remains powerful and insightful.  See Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Resistance and Discernment in an Age of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).

 20. “The notion of making peace between humans and God and between formerly alienated humans is so central to the core of Pauline doctrinal and ethical thought that it is impossible to develop a faithful construal of Pauline thought without peacemaking and/or reconciliation at the core” (Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006], 192).

 21. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 331.

 22. Miroslav Volf uses the term “catholic personality” for one who embraces the “new creation” in Christ in a way that leads one to be enriched rather than threatened by otherness.  “A catholic personality requires a catholic community” for nurture and sustenance (Volf, Exclusion, 51).

1 thought on “Paul’s Deconstruction of Idolatry

  1. Pingback: How did Paul combat the danger of idolatry to our faith? – PH22

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