Icons Images and Idols
Idol And Idolatry
The English word idol is a translation of the Greek word for "image," eidōlon. The word idolatry combines eidōlon with the Greek word for "adoration," latreia. The concept of idols and idolatry is central to the biblical narrative and to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradition. The richest home of this concept is in the Hebrew Scriptures, where we find the prophets engaged in a running polemic against the pagan worship of aspects of creation rather than of the Creator, and against the erecting, under Canaanite influence, images to Yahweh. The prophets address the predilection of the children of Israel to create images of divine beings in order to worship them, turning away from the proper worship of the "one Lord of all history." The second commandment of the Decalogue (Exod. 20:4–6; Deut. 5:8–10; cf. Lev. 26:1; Deut. 4:15–23) prohibits the making of images of anything "in the heavens above, or the earth below, or the waters beneath the earth." This commandment passes into the Christian New Testament and on to the strict monotheism of Islam, where the concept forms one of the Five Pillars of the faith.
The word eidōlon is used seventy times in the Greek Septuagint to translate sixteen different Hebrew words, while the Latin Vulgate uses idolum 112 times and its corollary simulacrum thirty-two times to translate fifteen Hebrew words. The Hebrew Bible uses thirty different nouns in references to idols and names forty-four pagan deities throughout its various narratives. While the word idol or idolatry is not found in the Gospels, eidōlon appears in many of the Epistles of the Apostle Paul and in the book of Revelation. The Bible's preoccupation with idolatry rests on the notion that the many images of deities that have flourished in human culture are false, images in "word and stone," and that those who follow after them are engaged in a fantasy at best. In the writings of the Apostle Paul the word idol takes on the connotation of deception that is the work of demons who deceive the human mind and heart about their proper nature.
The polemic against idolatry continues in an unbroken stream in the Christian tradition in both the Greek and Latin apologists and church fathers. Saint Justin (c.100–c.165) in his first Apology speaks of the error in creating human forms to replicate the divine, the lack of soul in base substance, and of how artisans and thieves use such objects to deprive people of their money. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–between 211 and 215) wrote his Protreptikos to persuade those who worshiped the embodiment of pagan mythic figures of the origin of such cultic practice. Partly inspired by Plato, Clement argues that such images are the result of the deification of human beings created by artists to honor kings. The gravity of such worship, Clement argued, is that it replaces the human compulsion to worship the true God with invented demons that are at best mere wood and stone and at worst excite the human passions.
When the Visigoths under Alaric conquered Rome on 24 August 410 C.E. the pagan subjects of the city accused their Christian neighbors of bringing the event about by destroying the worship of the gods. The Christians had chased away the divine protectors of the ancient and glorious city. Saint Augustine (354–430) was called upon to answer this charge in what proved to be the last great apologetic work against paganism, The City of God. He begins with a critique of the Roman gods and the mythology that had shaped the identity of Romans for centuries and then examines the arguments of Varro, Cicero, Seneca, Euhemerus, Apuleius, and Plato. Augustine argues that idols are not neutral inventions but are harmful precisely because they are created out of the heart and mind, a manifestation of human aspiration, ambition, and illusion. In his works On Christian Doctrine and On True Religion he continues his substantial psychoanalysis of how the demonic, born of the human mind, takes on a character of its own. Idols are not without power for they receive life and force from the invisible numen born of their origin in human misunderstanding. While idols are false gods and as such not gods, they represent the enormous struggle in the human heart and mind to apprehend the truth about human nature, creation, and the divine.
The great controversies such as iconoclasm and the Protestant Reformation illustrate the struggle within the church over what constitutes idolatry. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries various Protestant theologians accused Roman Catholicism of replacing the proper worship of the divine with the idolatrous worship of Mary and the saints. The worship of idols has remained a perennial concern in various denominations of the Christian church as they expanded into Africa, Asia, and North America.
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