Is Christianity Idolatry?

Greg Leake emails: Hi Luke,

I am always impressed by the intelligence and cogency of Marc Shapiro.

I do have a few clarifications. My time spent in philosophy was largely wasted on trying to figure out how to use up the GI Bill and pick up chicks. However, one of the important things i did learn is that one needs to define one’s terms if their ideas are to have any relevance at all. For example, what does one mean by “God”, “idols”, etc, ad infinitum. Dr. Johnson used to say, “Define your terms, gentlemen. It saves a lot of argument.”

In Hinduism we have the concept avataras, and in the Vedanta dictionary produced by Ernest Wood, he says that avataras are literally descenders, incarnations from above. “Men in general are moving upwards to higher intelligence, etc., in their series of births or incarnations, but some few in the course of history have been regarded as special descendents from the region of liberation for some beneficent purpose. Thus we find Shri Krishna — who is generally regarded as the fullest avatara (purna-avatara) –saying (Bhagavad Gita IV 7,8) that whenever there is a great collapse of dharma (q.v.) and an uprising of adharma, he emanates, or incarnates himself for the purpose of re-establishing dharma.”

For example, some Hindus regard Buddha as an avatar and revere him while rejecting the Buddhist religion. Would this incarnation be regarded as God or an incarnation of something else? Generally the incarnation is regarded as some aspect of Vishnu, but that takes us further afield than I plan to go at the moment.

Protestants who are not fundamentalists do not see “idol worship” in the way that Christian fundamentalists do. For example, someone who is driven by success would be seen as an idol worshiper, because his idea of financial achievement and his picture of himself surrounded by wealth would define the chief object of his aspiration, an idol between himself and God. To the non-fundamentalist this would be seen as idolotry. Many months ago you had this YouTube of a smoking-hot Orthodox Jewish girl who was a bombshell in every sense of the word saying publicly that she would toss Orthodox Judaism aside in a second if it meant she could model on Saturdays and live her life around a career of fame, money, sexiness, beauty, and success. From the Protestant view, this would be regarded as idolatry.

This is why famed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said that people who were addicted to drugs or to sex or to some other compulsion were idolaters. Inasmuch as their addiction became the chief object of their intentions and completely obscured the larger part of their humanity that all was designed to be open freely to a relationship with God.

So you can see from these brief remarks that idolatry in non-fundamentalist Protestantism is theologically much more sophisticated than people griping about a statue.

And as far as Jesus being a idol is concerned, this also misinterprets Protestant theology. In A Handbook of Theological Terms by Van A. Harvey, he defines the well-known theological concept of the Protestant Principle:

“… The Protestant Principle may be negatively expressed as the protest against any absolute claim made for a finite reality, whether it be a church, a book, a symbol, a person, or an event. Positively, it may be expressed as the confession that grace is not bound to any finite form, that God is the inexhaustible power and ground of all being, and that the truest faith is just the one which has an element of self-negation in it, because it points beyond itself to that which is really ultimate. it is the embodiment of this Protestant Principle that makes the cross the center of true Christian faith … for Jesus is the Christ just because He ‘sacrificed himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ,’ because He did not draw men to himself, but pointed beyond himself to God.”

So as you can see, the Protestant Principle would not regard the human form of Jesus in absolute terms and see Jesus as someone who pointed beyond himself to God.

Also as you can see, any book would also be regarded as something of finite reality, whether it be the New Testament or the Torah.

It’s entirely possible that all these ideas could be reconciled with thoughtfulness and more refined definitions relative to the subject being critqued. However, on the surface of things other interpretations beyond what Mr. Shapiro has given would seem possible.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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