The consistent biblical testimony is that idolatry is inexcusable. Scripture never condones idolatry on the grounds that men knew no better, but condemns it on the assumption that they did, and that irrespective of whether they had encountered any part of God’s special revelation or not (Isaiah 44:10-20; Habakkuk 2:18-20).
Quite so, says Paul; for it is out of general, not special, revelation that idolatry has been manufactured. Idolatry is a lie grafted on to some of the intuitions of general revelation in order to smother the rest; it was invented to provide sinners with gods they can worship while remaining their own masters. One of the contradictions of fallen human nature is the desire to be lord of what one worships.
As a creature, man yearns for a god to serve; as a sinner, he is resolved to play God himself, and demands that everything else should serve him. This explains the absurd actions of the pagan who directs acts of worship to the image he made himself (Isaiah 44:10-20), while at the same time developing techniques of sacrifice, prayer, and sympathetic magic for getting his imaginary god to do what he wants (cf. 1st Kings 17:25-28; 36, 37; Matthew 6:7).
And Scripture recognizes more forms of idolatry than polytheism. It says that idolatry exists whenever man gives himself up, heart and soul, to mastering an adored object. Covetousness is thus idolatry (Colossians 3:5). So it by no means follows that sinners forsake idolatry when they abandon polytheism.
All that happens is that they change their gods. Some ‘idolize’ wealth; and Christ calls such the slaves of Mammon in just the same exclusive sense as the Christian is the servant of his God (Matthew 6:19, 24). Others ‘idolize’ and live for ideas, ideals, a cause, power, a wife, children, country, beauty, and many other things besides.
The self-contradictory lust of sinful man to have something he can worship and master at the same time takes countless forms, each exhibiting the same pathetic ambivalence.
Trying to rule what one serves—being enslaved by what one tries to rule—trying to play God to one’s gods, and ending up the captive of them all—that is idolatry, in all its forms. It is a satanic parody of man’s original relation to his Maker, and a source of endless misery to all its practioners.
J. I. Packer (DPhil, Oxford University) serves as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College. He is the author of numerous books, including the classic best seller Knowing God. Packer served as general editor for the English Standard Version Bible and as theological editor for the ESV Study Bible.