Idle worship

(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)

According to Justin Martyr, Christians are atheists, at least as far as other people’s gods are concerned. Sadly, Justin’s reason for not believing in the Greco-Roman gods is not that such beliefs are irrational and superstitious, but merely because his God allegedly revealed to the apostles that Jupiter and friends were demons pretending to be gods. He continues in the same vein in Chapter 9, concerning the worship of idols.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to me that he starts off on a bit of a weak note.

And neither do we honour with many sacrifices and garlands of flowers such deities as men have formed and set in shrines and called gods; since we see that these are soulless and dead, and have not the form of God (for we do not consider that God has such a form as some say that they imitate to His honour), but have the names and forms of those wicked demons which have appeared.

Justin’s critique is that the Roman idols do not have the form of God, and indeed that’s an objection that goes all the way back to the Law of Moses as enumerated in the original Decalogue. The problem is, if you go back even farther, to the beginning of Genesis, it says that man was created in God’s image. The Romans also envisioned their gods as sharing a common image with men (and women), and consequently their idols were made in the same image. You can object, if you like, that God is supposed to be an infinite, omnipresent spirit, and therefore no mere human form would be adequate to serve as His image. If that’s the case, though, Justin’s objection applies equally well to Adam as the image of God.

Justin next objects to the idea of using perishable and “unworthy” materials in the construction of idols.

For why need we tell you who already know, into what forms the craftsmen, carving and cutting, casting and hammering, fashion the materials? And often out of vessels of dishonour, by merely changing the form, and making an image of the requisite shape, they make what they call a god; which we consider not only senseless, but to be even insulting to God, who, having ineffable glory and form, thus gets His name attached to things that are corruptible, and require constant service.

Ironically, if you made the same critique of, say, Roman Catholic statues of Mary and the saints, or Orthodox icons, you would quickly be informed that the objects themselves are not the thing you are worshipping, but rather are there to serve as material reminders of a spiritual reality—a kind of “window into heaven,” as icons are sometimes called. It’s not that the images themselves are supposed to be the things they represent, but rather that they serve as a kind of focal point to aid the worshipper in directing their thoughts and hearts towards the divine. Of course, only Christian images are entitled to this kind of special consideration. When it comes to pagan images, Justin can be just as materialistic and literal-minded as any other skeptic.

Even that’s not hypocritical enough for Justin, though. To properly show how wrong idol worship is, he also has to attack those who build and maintain the idols.

And that the artificers of these are both intemperate, and, not to enter into particulars, are practised in every vice, you very well know; even their own girls who work along with them they corrupt. What infatuation! that dissolute men should be said to fashion and make gods for your worship, and that you should appoint such men the guardians of the temples where they are enshrined; not recognising that it is unlawful even to think or say that men are the guardians of gods.

They even corrupt the girls who work with them! Surely that proves that idol worship is wrong. Or else it shows that priests have been victimizing the weak and gullible for a very long time, regardless of religion. Fortunately, Justin turns around at this point and says something that is absolutely—and I mean this without any sarcasm—absolutely brilliant in its common sense and down-to-earth practicality.

But we have received by tradition that God does not need the material offerings which men can give, seeing, indeed, that He Himself is the provider of all things.

That’s brilliant! He’s the Almighty Creator of everything. What could we possibly give Him that isn’t something He Himself created by His own power? Whether or not such a deity actually exists, it’s logically undeniable that Justin hit the nail on the head. God does not need anybody’s money, or anybody’s sacrificial goat or sheep or ox or whatever. God is, by definition, the provider of such things, not some poor beggar looking for a handout. Anybody who tells you God needs your donations, or asks for money in God’s name, is taking God’s name in vain, and probably trying to swindle you.

If that doesn’t irritate the heck out of today’s greedy fundamentalist preachers, perhaps this will.

And we have been taught that He in the beginning did … create all things out of unformed matter…

Whoa, wait a minute. That’s not modern, traditional creationism there, unless it’s some ultra-liberal theistic-evolutiony heresy. God is supposed to have created everything out of nothing. Having a whole cosmos full of unformed matter would be cheating, somehow. But that’s not the half of it. Justin builds on this idea of creation to try and sketch out some kind of unorthodox plan of salvation based on making rational choices. No, seriously, he does.

For as in the beginning He created us when we were not, so do we consider that … those who choose what is pleasing to Him are … deemed worthy of incorruption and of fellowship with Him. For the coming into being at first was not in our own power; and in order that we may follow those things which please Him, choosing them by means of the rational faculties He has Himself endowed us with, He both persuades us and leads us to faith.

That second sentence is a bit torturous, grammatically speaking, but he’s saying essentially that God persuades us and leads us to faith so that we can use our God-given reasoning abilities to chose to follow the things that please Him, so that we can be saved and live forever with Him in glory. That’s the theory, anyway, but in practice it doesn’t work out like that. Using our “God-given” ability to think rationally may indeed help us to see that the Greco-Roman gods are all foolish superstitions, but why stop there? If reason helps us choose what pleases God, then Christian doctrines themselves ought to be subject to rational consideration. That, however, is not a gospel that has been particularly fruitful for the church, so I suppose it’s not surprising that reason-based spirituality never really flourished in the church.

Justin claims to be glad to share the teachings of Christianity, claiming that the Gospel has a supernatural power that is even better than secular law at controlling people’s tendency to misbehave and cause trouble. Of course, in real-world practical terms, it turns out that the Gospel’s power is much less beneficial than advertised. Luckily, Justin has the ever-handy demons around to take the blame for this discrepancy.

And we think it for the advantage of all men that they are not restrained from learning these things, but are even urged thereto. For the restraint which human laws could not effect, the Word, inasmuch as He is divine, would have effected, had not the wicked demons, taking as their ally the lust of wickedness which is in every man, and which draws variously to all manner of vice, scattered many false and profane accusations, none of which attach to us.

Apparently, the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” argument dates back to the second century. And so, in a way, does the separation of church and state.

And when you hear that we look for a kingdom, you suppose, without making any inquiry, that we speak of a human kingdom; whereas we speak of that which is with God… For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ, that we might not be slain; and we should strive to escape detection, that we might obtain what we expect. But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since also death is a debt which must at all events be paid.

Back in the second century, Christians still believed that earthly political power was not worth pursuing—sooner or later everybody is going to die, and then it will be time to talk about an eternal kingdom (or at least, that’s how Justin sees it). If Christians were after earthly political power, then they ought to deny their faith and deceive people, in order to escape detection and to be free to work their nefarious schemes by which they hope to take control. Thus, the fact that they confessed Jesus, to their own detriment, is proof that they were not interested in earthly political power.

A couple big things have changed since Justin’s time. First of all, Christianity is no longer a persecuted minority, it’s the dominant majority. The path to earthly political power lies not in denying Jesus, but in confessing him loudly and publicly, as often as you can. It’s the reverse of the situation Justin describes. Even people who are not Christian pretend to be, in order to borrow whatever political power can be gained from identifying with the dominant majority.

The other big thing that has changed since Justin’s day is that Christians today are very much interested (not to say obsessed) with acquiring earthly political power (and disturbingly, power within the American military). The old-fashioned gospel about pie in the sky by-and-by just doesn’t cut it any more. Christians want their earthly blessings, based on Christian supremacy over all other views, and they want it now. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the amount of dishonesty and underhandedness that goes along with acquiring earthly political power to be used “for the glory of God.”

Chapter 12 starts a full-blown, if somewhat unorthodox, discussion of salvation by works, and that’s more than we have room for in this week’s post, so we’ll pick it up in chapter 12 next time.

2 Responses to “Idle worship”

  1. mikespeir Says:

    I suspect Justin’s argumentation would have worked better in his time than ours.

  2. pboyfloyd Says:

    These arguments by Martyr seem to amount to political persuasion more than anything else. Christianity is like the grasshoppers happily hopping away until it can gain control of a powerful state, then watch out, it’s hate o’clock already, here come the locusts, and locusts will eat their own old, poor and sick.


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