Naming the Idol Through Christ and the Law

Scripture provides two frames which, when aligned, give us a view of the world. Much like getting the two lenses of a telescope aligned, the lens provided by the person and work of Christ accounts for and is aligned by the frame of the law and Judaism so that the socio-political and personal realms of the present (with its various idolatries) are exposed.  Looking through the aligned lens of Christ and the law (with all that the law entails) is the means of diagnosing the present predicament – personal and cosmic. In terms of understanding the human predicament, the depth of the disease of sin, and the cosmic implications of evil, the law and Judaism are inadequate but it is precisely the realization of this inadequacy which sets the work of Christ in the proper frame.

For example, the Old Testament can sum up the evil of the nations, surrounding Israel, as idolatry.  The way to be saved from evil under this definition is by being a Jew who worships the One True God.  Idolatry, as it stood over and against Jewish monotheism, functioned as the clear marker within Judaism of who is a true Jew and who is a pagan. Already though, with the prophets Amos and Isaiah, it was realized that idolatry was harder to shake than was at first imagined.  Isaiah (chapter 6) says you might as well be making human sacrifices, offering up pigs blood, and breaking the necks of dogs rather than lambs.  The cultic practices of the Jews were no better than idolatry, according to the prophet.  Amos (chapter 5) makes the same sort of accusation and concludes that apart from social justice and righteousness the Jewish cultic practices are just more pagan idolatry.  Still, the Jewish idea of salvation was basically presumed to be that if one kept away from idols – keeping the law and maintaining Jewish identity – this constituted salvation. Where this diagnosis fails is made obvious in Christ’s encounters with the Pharisees and as worked out in the theology of the Pharisee – Paul the Apostle.

The term “idol” does not appear in the Gospels, but the critique leveled by the prophets, as to the emptiness of the cultic practices of the Jews, takes on a clear meaning in the conflict between Jesus and the leaders of Israel.  The Pharisees are those Jews who emerge from the Maccabean period thoroughly cleansed of the temptation to idolatry.  Here is the success of the law and the final refinement of Jewish religion.  The Pharisee, as the pinnacle of success of Israel, is also representative of the best that human kind has to offer.  Yet, what becomes obvious is that the evil previously associated with pagan idolaters has not been purged, even among those who have rid themselves of every hint of idolatry.  Jesus calls the Pharisees the devils children – liars and murderers like their father.  Jesus point in his encounter with the Pharisees and his participation in the religion of Israel is not simply to pass judgment but to show the limited nature of the law, the Temple, and the sacrifices.  For example, Jesus effort in “cleansing the Temple” is not so much aimed at cleaning up Herod’s Temple as it is in pointing to the temporary nature of the Temple and all of its practices.  He quotes the prophets to demonstrate that evil has taken root at the heart of the practices of the Temple – and it is precisely this evil which will kill him (his predictions surrounding the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple are part of the evidence introduced at his trial).

In the New Testament period the overt practice of idolatry among the Jews seems to have been done away with, yet Paul listening to Stephen’s final words (where the word “idol” first appears in the New Testament), is subjected to the accusations of Amos and Isaiah as if they directly applied to him.  Jewish failure to deal with sin and Jewish failure to shake off the deep problem marked by idolatry, according to Stephen, are evident in the fact that they murdered the Messiah.  Stephen re-narrates the history of Israel as if it is simply one failure after another which culminates in the worst possible failure: “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it” (Acts 7:52–53, NASB).  Well, no wonder Stephen was stoned and that Paul stood-by approving.  For Paul (prior to his encounter with Christ), as with the Jews in general, being faultless in regard to the law was salvation (Philippians 3:4-6).  Stephen was not only questioning Paul’s salvation but was accusing him of the worst sort of evil.  Being a Jew, in good standing, was the means of being saved from an evil and idolatrous world, yet Stephen is saying the evil cuts right through Israel and right through the hearts of his accusers.  One might assume that it is Paul who delivers the content of Stephen’s speech to Luke, as Paul will spend the rest of his life, subsequent to his encounter with Christ, working out the implications of this speech.

For Paul the Pharisee, Christianity seems to represent the new idolatry which must be destroyed.  In his purview, Judaism is adequate for salvation and any disruption in this notion needs to be obliterated.  Paul will provide us with the final insight into the murder of Christ in his explanation of what it means to be zealous and blameless before the law.  Paul is one of the purest servants of the law, exceeding his contemporaries (in his own description), and the worst of sinners due to his persecution of the Church.   “Blameless before the law” – “worst of sinners” describes a causal relation in his explanation.  Identification with God through the law, as explained in some of the most difficult sections of the New Testament, is distorted by sin.  This distortion did not show up for Paul the Pharisee but Paul can look back on his pre-Christian religion and his pre-Christian self and see evil where he previously could not recognize it. The law does not get at the depth of the problem or propose a cure for evil and sin; rather, it is like the blue dye marking and accentuating sin.  Paul, utilizing the lens provided by Christ, is going to follow the blue dye of the law to the heart of the problem which idolatry indicated.

As N. T. Wright says of Paul on the road to Damascus, “Paul was like a man who, on the way to collect a prescribed medication, studies the doctor’s note and concludes from the recommended remedy that his illness must be far more serious than he supposed” (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 751). What Paul comes to through the diagnosis of the Great Physician is that the problem of evil runs right through his own heart and evil is bent on destroying all of creation in the form of sin and death.  Much as Stephen re-narrates the history of Israel, Paul’s theology is a retelling of the Old Testament in light of the interpretive lens provided by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  The very notion of a Fall with cosmic consequences which universally distorts the image bearing capacities of humankind is absent in Judaism. With Christ as the frame of reference for apprehending Adam (Ro. 5), Adam is understood to have caused a ripple effect throughout the cosmos that only the second Adam can reverse.

In this light, the Old Testament is seen to tell a coherent story culminating in and needing the universal remedy provided by Christ.  As Wright points out, this is a long way from the Lutheran notion that what Paul discovered on the road to Damascus was that he had a guilty conscience.  What Paul discovers is that the evil of idolatry, indicated by the law, is simply the manifestation of a cosmic problem. Where the law had localized the problem in the form of idolatry, Judaism had seemed to provide the remedy.  Paul will speak of a broadened notion of idolatry, in which the tendency toward Judaism can be equated with falling back into slavery to the “elemental spirits” of their former idolatrous religion (Galatians 4:8-11).  The problem of idolatry, seen through the lens of Christ, is compounded so as to mark all people (most especially the Judaizers in Galatia). The idolatrous pagans won to Christ in Galatia are not menaced by a wicked idolatrous king (such as Daniel and his friends) but by Jews serving the same elemental (idolatrous) spirits.  The evil identified in Christ is of the same type as the evil exposed by the law but it is an evil with a height, depth, and breadth, that Paul could have never imagined apart from Christ. Now, as a Christian he can read the cosmic rescue of Christ back into the localized stories of the Old Testament.

Through the life of Christ Paul re-narrates the story of Abraham (Ro. 4) as the prototype of Christian faith.  Though he was as good as dead, and though Sarah’s womb was dead, they trusted in the promise of God in the face of death.  Paul identifies Christ as the Faithful One – the seed promised to Abraham is the Gospel in utero (Gal. 3).  The exile as it is pictured in Daniel 9 and Isaiah 40-55 is the direct result of Israel’s idolatry but Paul now recognizes that exile from God’s presence due to sin is the pointer to an alienation effecting all people and thus resolved through a new universal family (Eph. 2:13-18). Christ is the true Israelite (Ro. 9-11) through whom the cosmos itself will be redeemed (Ro. 8) through resurrection power.

In the death of the Messiah evil can no longer simply be equated with paganism or idolatry.  Idolatry is, in Paul’s description “Nothing,” and yet the reification of this nothingness is a force for death like that surrounding the reification of the law (Ro. 7).  The orientation to death constituting sin is at the heart of the human Subject and this accounts for the death of the Messiah and the history of violence and bloodshed (Ro. 3).  The presumption that life is to be had in the law is the root of evil which can be traced to the first couple (Ro. 5,7).  The prohibition (“Thou shalt not eat”) is the screen which within itself contains the means of attaining to the very position of God – knowing good and evil – and it is this original prohibition that stands behind human desire (Ro. 7:7).  Penetrate the screen, manipulate the law, become the arbiter – the very embodiment of the law – and you will be like gods (the false promise of life in the law, Ro. 7:7ff).

Just as Cain kills Abel, and Lamech presumes for himself the rights of reaping his own divine vengeance, the Pharisees represent the pure distilled form of an idolatrous law-keeping. When the first Adam encounters the second Adam there is necessarily a death in the works as this is the final and full implication of the grab for life, in defiance of the prohibition, and the presumption that life is in and through the law.  Paul’s argument in Romans and Galatians is that all are unrighteous but that through the law we can now trace the course of this unrighteousness as it is an unrighteousness marked out in its orientation to the law.  This orientation is not simply a Jewish problem; rather, the typical Jew is simply a son of Adam – or the universal representative of humanity.

This is a breezy sort of introduction to the attempt to line up the lens provided by Christ with the law so as to bring into focus an identification of the contemporary problem of evil or idolatry.  A Christianity that fails to get sin in focus through the law is bound to misplace the problem and the answer (e.g.  notions, both Catholic and Protestant, that Paul only discovers his guilty conscience; the semi-gnostic notions of accepting Jesus into your heart so as to go to heaven; Roman Catholic notions of sacrament; Luther’s imputed righteousness; Calvin’s penal substitution, etc.). A theology that does not ground itself in the context of Judaism is bound to be of the disincarnate sort that imagines salvation is mostly interior and involves being saved from out of creation.  The mistake of the Jews is carried over into this mistaken Christianity in its presumption that the law is the primary thing (rather than sin and death).  Abolish the law, cure the conscience, and go to heaven.  From Anselm’s “divine satisfaction” to Calvin’s “penal substitution” the law is made the primary problem and provides the frame of reference for an answer.  The failure of theology to describe the problem of sin (to name the idol in its seed form with its endless powers of mutation) and to displace it, is coincident with its failure to find continuity between law and grace and between Israel and the Church.  The result is that grace as it is accessed through the body of Christ, the Church, floats free of any sort of ordinary reality.

What is being described in Scripture is a real-world account of evil and a real-world resolution to the problem of evil.  This sets up the sense in which the two lenses of Scripture can be coordinated to bring into focus the contemporary evil which besets us – the evil of modernity. (For the next post.)

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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