"We resemble what we revere, either for ruin or restoration."
When my two daughters, Hannah and Nancy, were about two or three years old, I noticed how they imitated and reflected my wife and me. They cooked, fed and disciplined their play animals and dolls just the way my wife cooked, fed and disciplined them. They gave play medicine to their dolls just the way we fed them medicine. Our daughters also prayed with their stuffed animals and dolls the way we prayed with them. They talked on their toy telephone with the same kind of Texas accent that my wife uses when she talks on the phone. It was amazing. Most people, I am sure, have seen this with children. But children only begin what we continue to do as adults. All of us, even adults, reflect what we are around. We reflect things in our culture and our society, sometimes consciously and sometimes subtly and unconsciously.
These contemporary examples follow a very ancient pattern that has its roots in the beginning of history. In Genesis 1 God created humans to be imaging beings who reflect his glory. What did God’s people in the Old Testament, Israel, reflect, whether consciously or unconsciously? We will see what they resembled in their sinful disobedience. As we see what they reflected, we should ask ourselves whether we reflect anything similar in our culture today.
We either reflect the Creator or something within creation
What do you and I reflect? God has made humans to reflect him, but if they do not commit themselves to him, they will not reflect him but something else in creation. At the core of our beings we are imaging creatures. It is not possible to be neutral on this issue: we either reflect the Creator or something in creation.
Idol worshipers become identified with the idols around them. A number of biblical passages express the idea that instead of worshiping and resembling the true God, idolaters resemble the idols they worship. These worshipers became as spiritually void and lifeless as the idols they committed themselves to, and are ultimately judged with them. It is difficult to distinguish between being punished like the idol and becoming identified with the character of the idol.
Martin Luther’s larger catechism discussion of the first commandment (“You shall have no other gods before Me” [Ex 20:3]) included “whatever your heart clings to and relies upon, that is your God; trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol.” I might add here, “whatever your heart clings to or relies on for ultimate security.” “The idol is whatever claims the loyalty that belongs to God alone.” These are good and basic definitions of idolatry. The word idolatry can refer to the worship of other gods besides the true God, or the reverence of images. According to both the ancient Near East and the Old Testament, an idol or image contained a god’s presence, though that presence was not limited to the image.
Discussions about the nature of idolatry often include the first two of the ten commandments in Exodus 20:3–6):
You shall have no other gods before Me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.
You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
Though some commentators have seen the two commandments as separate, others have understood them as one. Whichever is the case, it seems plausible that the first commandment is to be interpreted by the second, so that to “have no other gods” before Israel’s God meant that one was not to make “an idol, or any likeness” of anything in the created world that was worshiped because it was believed that the divine presence was to be contained in that image.
Warnings against making images of God
Even making an image in which the God of Israel was believed to be present (as likely in Ex 32:1–9) was forbidden for the following reasons: first, God had not revealed himself in any form to Israel, and to portray him to any degree in the form of any part of the creation is to misrepresent him and thus to commit idolatry (Deut 4:12–16, 23–25). Second, images of God were also not allowed in order to maintain a continuing consciousness among God’s people that there is a distinction between the Creator and the finite creation, which “cannot even remotely accord with the absolute, transcendental character of the God of Israel.” Third, images were also prohibited to maintain a continuing consciousness among the Israelites that their God is different from and incomparable to the pagan gods (Is 40:18–26), whose presence could be transferred to particular images in the form of created things, whereas God’s presence could never be localized or captured in this manner.
To worship an image of any part of the creation is to take away from the incomparable glory of God.
To deny that even part of the true God’s presence can be possessed in a created object is to cause Israel to remember that every part of creation is the possession of God (“for all the earth is Mine” [Ex 19:5]) in contrast to the deities of the nations whose dominion is localized and only over the nation that worships them. “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in [the] spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24). To worship an image of any part of the creation is to take away from the incomparable glory of God: “I am the Lord, that is My name; / I will not give My glory to another, / nor My praise to graven images” (Is 42:8). God is “jealous” (i.e., intolerant of disloyalty) when people give glory to anything other than himself because he is truly the only being in the universe who deserves glory (cf. Ex 20:5; 34:14; Deut 4:24; 5:9; 32:16, 21).
In expounding on the second commandment, Calvin asserts that representing God by images of his creation is forbidden because as soon as people, who are so bound by physical surroundings, imagine a created image in connection to the deity, they are distracted from God’s true spiritual being, and to some degree the deity is conceived of in some corporeal way. It is all the more important not to make created images of God since such “idolatrous deceits besiege us on every side, [so that] we shall in the vanity of our nature be liable” to turn aside to substitutions for the true worship of God. “Since God has prescribed to us how He would be worshipped by us [i.e., apart from any images whatsoever], whenever we turn away in the very smallest degree from this rule, we make to ourselves other gods, and degrade Him from His right place.” Such divinely prescribed worship is the difference “between true religion and false superstitions.” Thus, though I have offered reasons behind the prohibition of images, Calvin rightly would say that God’s prescription of imageless worship is justification alone for such worship.
While it is true that there are appearances of God in human form, whether in heavenly visions or otherwise, it is generally acknowledged that these appear to be legitimate exceptions to the rule, especially since these are living appearances sovereignly initiated by God himself and not lifeless images made by humans in the form of parts of the creation. There is also general consensus that the second commandment did not prohibit the making of images in an artistic way to depict the parts of the creation, as long as these representations were not thought to represent God. While there is a distinction between an attempt to worship images of the true God and worshiping pagan gods (with or without images) and worshiping their images, the term idolatry refers to all of these, in line with this analysis of the first and second commandments, especially since biblical authors do not normally distinguish between them but consider both to be equally abominable.
The foregoing is adapted from G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (IVP Academic, 2008), 15–20. Used with permission of the publisher.