Richard Baxter once said, “It is almost incredible how much ground the devil takes when he has once made sin a matter of controversy: some are of one mind, and some of another; you are of one opinion and I am of another.” Nowhere is this more apparent than when we discuss the use of images in prayer. We are given straightforward commands regarding this, but the commands go contrary to something that runs deep in the human heart, and so it has become controversial.
The apostle John warns his children to stay away from idols, and he does this because (presumably) it was possible that true Christians might not want to do so (1 John 5:21). This being the case, we should distinguish various kinds of idolatry. For my purposes here, I am understanding idolatry as placing a created thing where only the uncreated God should be. This clearly happens whenever images are used in prayer, but images need not be involved. Idolatry is more subtle than that.
1. Idolatry without images. The apostle Paul tells us in an aside that coveteousness is idolatry (Col. 3:5). This means that the objects of a man’s covetous desire have come to occupy the place of devotion in his heart that only God should occupy. We don’t think this happens only if the coveteous man starts burning votary candles in front of his bankbook. The fact that this idolatry is “low church” doesn’t keep it from being idolatry. And given the nature of covetousness, we can see that idolatry can extend to anything — if your neighbor can have it instead of you, you can covet it (Ex. 20:17). And when you do, that’s idolatry.
Idols of the heart are really hard to smash. The heart is deceitfully wicked, and is fully up to the challenge, for one example, of fashioning even iconoclasm into an idol. When that happens the idol leers from his intellectual shelf in the temple of reason, as much as if to say, “Get me now.”
This kind of covetous idolatry doesn’t need images, but it is not surprising that it still kind of likes them. Do covetous people pour over catalogs, full of desiderata? A godly woman looking at a catalog is shopping. A covetous woman pouring over a catalog is worshiping.
Incidentally, this is why the use of porn is clearly idolatry. The covetousness is right there, which is idolatry. And whatever icon you click on your desktop, it ought to be an image of a man bowing down before a buxom Astarte.
2. Idolatry as traffic with false gods. The Scripture clearly teaches us that it is also idolatry to worship false gods (who are really there) with images. “Turn ye not unto idols, nor make to yourselves molten gods: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:4). In this instance, the problem is not the images, the problem is what they represent. The gods themselves don’t mind those images; they encourage them. The images truly represent the false.
In biblical vocabulary, false gods are not the same thing as non-existent gods. There were spiritual realities behind these images.
“As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one. For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him” (1 Cor. 8:4-6).
Paul is saying that for believers there is only one God. He acknowledges that there are “gods many and lords many” out there, but in the biblical parlance, these are demons, not divine beings (1 Cor. 10:20). Demons are not non-existent. At the same time, they are not what they claim to be. The clearest instance of this is when Paul casts a spirit out of a girl at Philippi (Acts 16:16). The Greek says that she was possessed with the spirit of a python, making her a devotee of the god Apollo. Or, as a Christian would say, demon-possessed.
With such idolatry, the images are not rejected because they are inaccurate, but because they are accurate representations of terrible gods. For the idolater they are accurate because they open up the way to “spiritual realities,” which they really do. For the faithful believer, they are accurate because they are impotent wood and stone (Is. 44:15), which accurately represent the ultimate impotence of the spiritual realities behind them (Ps. 115:5).
3. Idolatry as superstition. I don’t want to spend a lot of time here, because this is not a significant biblical category. But suppose someone made up a little Kwaanza god, or used a Hummel figurine to represent the “spirit of recycling” or something in their morning NPR meditations. These things would have no spiritual realities behind them, and are just dumb. But they would still be idolatry — at a minimum they would be idolatry in my first sense.
4. Idolatry as the worship of the true God through images. Note what Aaron says when he convenes a festival around the golden calf.
“And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To morrow is a feast to the LORD. And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play” (Ex. 32:4-6).
So we may distinguish the worship of false gods with true images (#2) and the true God with false images (#4). But this is not a distinction between idolatry and non-idolatry. The Bible condemns them both, and in the same terms. When the people of Israel were prohibited from making images, they were prohibited from making images of the true God as much as anything else in the creation that they might bow down to in the name of a false god (Dt. 4:12).
We know this because when Paul discusses the golden calf incident, he calls this worship of YHWH idolatry.
“Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand” (1 Cor. 10:7-8).
So the apostle Paul condemns a certain form of YHWH worship as idolatry. What? Because of the presence of the calf, not because of the absence an invocation of YHWH. This means that people who worship Jesus Christ, the true God, in the form of images, are still guilty of idolatry.