I often find that well meaning Christians, and well meaning Jews talk past and over each other on the question of idolatry, its proper definition, and whether or not a given person is engaged in the service of idols in their tradition or not.
From the perspective of Judaism Deuteronomy 4 and Deuteronomy 13 clearly emphasize that G-d is not to be likened to or worshipped in any form, nor is the “whole host of heaven” to be worshipped ie G-d’s entourage is not to be served, (even though they work for him) and G-d is to be known to Israel as he revealed himself at Sinai.
In this post, I would like to tackle this whole discussion from another, (and I believe very neglected) angle. Where does the NT and the Christian tradition itself stand (in terms of its own teachings and definitions) concerning these important messages of Duteronomy 4 &13? Does the Christian text contain similar warnings?
1. You saw no form on the day the lord spoke to you at horeb out of the midst of the fire. (Deuternomy 4:15)
Concerning the incorporeal and ineffable nature of G-d that cannot be pictured, wholly grasped, or contained.
-John 4:24, Romans 1:20-26 Luke 24:39 Acts 7:42 Acts 15:20, and many others
(from the tradition)
Tatian the Syrian
“Our God has no introduction in time. He alone is without beginning, and is himself the beginning of all things. God is a spirit, not attending upon matter, but the maker of material spirits and of the appearances which are in matter. He is invisible, being himself the Father of both sensible and invisible things” (Address to the Greeks 4 [A.D. 170]).
“I have sufficiently demonstrated that we are not atheists, since we acknowledge one God, unbegotten, eternal, invisible, incapable of being acted upon, incomprehensible, unbounded, who is known only by understanding and reason, who is encompassed by light and beauty and spirit and indescribable power, by whom all things, through his Word, have been produced and set in order and are kept in existence” (Plea for the Christians 10 [A.D. 177]).
“Far removed is the Father of all from those things which operate among men, the affections and passions. He is simple, not composed of parts, without structure, altogether like and equal to himself alone. He is all mind, all spirit, all thought, all intelligence, all reason . . . all light, all fountain of every good, and this is the manner in which the religious and the pious are accustomed to speak of God” (Against Heresies 2:13:3 [A.D. 189]).
Clement of Alexandria
“The first substance is everything which subsists by itself, as a stone is called a substance. The second is a substance capable of increase, as a plant grows and decays. The third is animated and sentient substance, as animal, horse. The fourth is animate, sentient, rational substance, as man. Wherefore each one of us is made as consisting of all, having an immaterial soul and a mind, which is the image of God” (Fragment from On Providence [A.D. 200]).
“Being is in God. God is divine being, eternal and without beginning, incorporeal and illimitable, and the cause of what exists. Being is that which wholly subsists. Nature is the truth of things, or the inner reality of them. According to others, it is the production of what has come to existence; and according to others, again, it is the providence of God, causing the being, and the manner of being, in the things which are produced” (ibid.).
“What is God? ‘God,’ as the Lord says, ‘is a spirit.’ Now spirit is properly substance, incorporeal, and uncircumscribed. And that is incorporeal which does not consist of a body, or whose existence is not according to breadth, length, and depth. And that is uncircumscribed which has no place, which is wholly in all, and in each entire, and the same in itself” (ibid.).
“No one can rightly express him wholly. For on account of his greatness he is ranked as the All, and is the Father of the universe. Nor are any parts to be predicated of him. For the One is indivisible; wherefore also it is infinite, not considered with reference to inscrutability, but with reference to its being without dimensions, and not having a limit. And therefore it is without form” (Miscellanies 5:12 [A.D. 208]).
“Since our mind is in itself unable to behold God as he is, it knows the Father of the universe from the beauty of his works and from the elegance of his creatures. God, therefore, is not to be thought of as being either a body or as existing in a body, but as a simple intellectual being, admitting within himself no addition of any kind” (Fundamental Doctrines 1:1:6 [A.D. 225]).
“John says in the gospel, ‘No one has AT ANY TIME seen God,’ clearly declaring to all who are able to understand, that there is no nature to which God is visible, not as if he were indeed visible by nature, and merely escaped or baffled the view of a frailer creature, but because he is by nature impossible to be seen” (ibid. 1:1:8).
“God, however, being without parts, is Father of the Son without division and without being acted upon. For neither is there an effluence from that which is incorporeal, nor is there anything flowering into him from without, as in the case of men. Being simple in nature, he is Father of one only Son” (Letter on the Council of Nicaea 11 [A.D. 350]).
Didymus the Blind
“God is simple and of an incomposite and spiritual nature, having neither ears nor organs of speech. A solitary essence and illimitable, he is composed of no numbers and parts” (The Holy Spirit 35 [A.D. 362]).
Hilary of Poitiers
“First it must be remembered that God is incorporeal. He does not consist of certain parts and distinct members, making up one body. For we read in the gospel that God is a spirit: invisible, therefore, and an eternal nature, immeasurable and self-sufficient. It is also written that a spirit does not have flesh and bones. For of these the members of a body consist, and of these the substance of God has no need. God, however, who is everywhere and in all things, is all-hearing, all-seeing, all-doing, and all-assisting” (Commentary on the Psalms 129:3 [A.D. 365]).
Basil the Great
“The operations of God are various, but his essence is simple” (Letters 234:1 [A.D. 367]).
Ambrose of Milan
“God is of a simple nature, not conjoined nor composite. Nothing can be added to him. He has in his nature only what is divine, filling up everything, never himself confused with anything, penetrating everything, never himself being penetrated, everywhere complete, and present at the same time in heaven, on earth, and in the farthest reaches of the sea, incomprehensible to the sight” (The Faith 1:16:106 [A.D. 379]).
Evagrius of Pontus
“To those who accuse us of a doctrine of three gods, let it be stated that we confess one God, not in number but in nature. For all that is said to be one numerically is not one absolutely, nor is it simple in nature. It is universally confessed, however, that God is simple and not composite” (Dogmatic Letter on the Trinity 8:2 [A.D. 381]).
Gregory of Nyssa
“But there is neither nor ever shall be such a dogma in the Church of God that would prove the simple and incomposite [God] to be not only manifold and variegated, but even constructed from opposites. The simplicity of the dogmas of the truth proposes God as he is” (Against Eunomius1:1:222 [A.D. 382]).
“[Paul] knows [God] in part. But he says, ‘in part,’ not because he knows God’s essence while something else of his essence he does not know; for God is simple. Rather, he says ‘in part’ because he knows that God exists, but what God is in his essence he does not know” (Against the Anomoians 1:5 [A.D. 386]).
“Why does John say, ‘No one has ever seen God’ [John 1:18]? So that you might learn that he is speaking about the perfect comprehension of God and about the precise knowledge of him. For that all those incidents [where people saw a vision of God] were condescensions and that none of those persons saw the pure essence of God is clear enough from the differences of what each did see. For God is simple and non-composite and without shape; but they all saw different shapes” (ibid., 4:3).
“In created and changeable things what is not said according to substance can only be said according to accident. . . . In God, however, certainly there is nothing that is said according to accident, because in him there is nothing that is changeable, but neither is everything that is said of him according to substance” (The Trinity 5:5:6 [A.D. 408]).
Cyril of Alexandria
“We are not by nature simple; but the divine nature, perfectly simple and incomposite, has in itself the abundance of all perfection and is in need of nothing” (Dialogues on the Trinity 1 [A.D. 420]).
“The nature of the Godhead, which is simple and not composite, is never to be divided into two” (Treasury of the Holy Trinity 11 [A.D. 424]).
The Christian bible and tradition (as can be seen above) also teaches the incorporeality and ineffibility of G-d. He has no parts, he has no introduction in time, he has not been seen at any time.
Do not Worship the whole host of heaven Deuteronomy 4:19 (physical entities of any shape, the servants of G-d, nor the angels of G-d.)
Romans 1:20-26 Acts 7:42 Revelation 19:9-10 Revelation 22:8-9 Collosians 2:18 (pay special special attention to Acts 14:11-15, because the gentiles therein want to worship Paul as a god in human form, read his reaction.)
Given all the above information, Christians should not be at all surprised at the Jewish interpretation of proper divine service, or the Jewish reaction to common christian services, because your own texts and your own teachers teach you the clear warnings that the Jewish people are trying to teach you, and your teachers reacted similarly when they saw deviation.
The problem is, your incarnational devotion to Jesus, his cross, and his blood, often crosses this clearly defined line of proper behavior. Even the institutional Church itself admited throughout its doctrine in the Church councils and history that the idolatry line is crossed in your worship of Jesus, if you do some of the following:
1. If you act with worshipful devotion, or do homage to Jesus of Nazareth believing him to be only a mortal human teacher, you are guilty of idolatry. (arianism)
2. If you believe in “Jesus only” to the exclusion of the father and his commandments, you are likewise guilty of idolatry. (oneness pentacostalism/modalism, and gnosticism)
3. If you worship as divine any other being who claims he is Jesus, or claims he is like Jesus, (and even if this person is cured from a deadly wound,) the Church also says you are guilty of idolatry. (revelation 13)
4. If you believe the trinity to be a corporeal reality, you are likewise deemed an idolater by the orthodox and guilty of tritheism. (Mormonism.)
In what sense then would there supposedly be a meaningful incarnation? The logos (speech/word) of G-d was allegedly revealed in Jesus. Dear Christian friends, you do not need a cross, a communion wafer, a 2,000 year old man’s blood, a Church building, or an organization, in order to embrace the ethical logion (words) of Jesus.
If Jesus’ word is the word of G-d, then his actual teaching should matter to you far more than the trinitarian or incarnational theological formulae about his alleged nature. EVEN THE CHURCH KNOWS ITS A SLIPPERY SLOPE.
Also if the word of G-d is in Jesus, this word shouldn’t contradict G-d’s already clealry stated instructions from the Torah. Look at common Christian devotions to Jesus, and tell me with a straight face that you blame the Jewish people for levelling an idolatry charge.