Archive for the ‘Golden Calf’ Category

Augustine Against Idolatry

April 2, 2010

Augustine, commenting on Psalm 75, wrote:

“For the cup in the hand of the Lord of pure wine is full of mixed” (ver. 8). Justly so. “And He hath poured out of this upon this man; nevertheless, the dreg thereof hath not been emptied; there shall drink all the sinners of earth.” Let us be somewhat recruited; there is here some obscurity….The first question that meeteth us is this, “of pure wine it is full of mixed.” How “of pure,” if “of mixed”? But when he saith, “the cup in the hand of the Lord” (to men instructed in the Church of Christ I am speaking), ye ought not indeed to paint in your heart God as it were circumscribed with a human form, lest, though the temples are shut up, ye forge images in your hearts. This cup therefore doth signify something. We will find out this. But “in the hand of the Lord,” is, in the power of the Lord. For the hand of God is spoken of for the power of God. For even in reference to men ofttimes is said, in hand he hath it: that is, in his power he hath it, when he chooseth he doth it. “Of pure wine it is full of mixed.” In continuation he hath himself explained: “He hath inclined,” he saith, “from this unto this man; nevertheless the dreg thereof hath not been emptied.” Behold how it was full of mixed wine. Let it not therefore terrify you that it is both pure and mixed: pure because of the genuineness thereof, mixed because of the dreg. What then in that place is the wine, and what the dreg? And what is, “He hath inclined from this unto this man,” in such sort that the dreg thereof was not emptied?

– Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, at Psalm 75:8 (Psalm 75, Section 10)

I’d like to draw the reader’s attention to Augustine’s particular expression, “ye ought not indeed to paint in your heart God as it were circumscribed with a human form, lest, though the temples are shut up, ye forge images in your hearts.”

And again Augustine wrote:

“Their idols,” he saith, “are silver and gold, even the work of men’s hands” (ver. 4). That is, although we cannot display our God to your carnal eyes, whom ye ought to recognise through his works; yet be not seduced by your vain pretences, because ye can point with the finger to, the objects of your worship. For it were much worthier for you not to have what to point to, than that your hearts’ blindness should be displayed in what is exhibited to these eyes by you: for what do ye exhibit, save gold and silver? They have indeed both bronze, and wood, and earthenware idols, and of different materials of this description; but the Holy Spirit preferred mentioning the more precious material, because when every man hath blushed for that which he sets more by, he is much more easily turned away from the worship of meaner objects. For it is said in another passage of Scripture concerning the worshippers of images, “Saying to a stock, Thou art my father; and to a stone, Thou hast brought me forth.” But lest that man who speaketh thus not to a stone or stock, but to gold and silver, seem wiser to himself; let him look this way, let him turn hitherwards the ear of his heart: “The idols of the Gentiles are gold and silver.” Nothing mean and contemptible is here mentioned: and indeed to that mind which is not earth, both gold and silver is earth, but more beautiful and brilliant, more solid and firm. Employ not then the hands of men, to create a false Deity out of that metal which a true God hath created; nay, a false man, whom thou mayest worship for a true God; one whom any man who should receive into his friendship as a true man, would be insane. For resemblance of figure, and the imitation of the limbs, hurrieth away the weak hearts of mortals with its degrading affection: but as thou shewest each member as it is constructed, so also shew the duties of each of those members, whose figure, O human vanity, doth attract thee.

– Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Exposition 2 on Psalm 115, Section 1, at Psalm 115:4

While I encourage you to read the entire exposition (link to the entire exposition – please note that ccel.org version of this particular Psalm has been subjected to significant redaction, which has been noted with elipses (…) but nevertheless omits much helpful content), notice here Augustine’s arguments against images. In particular, note his argument “Employ not then the hands of men, to create a false Deity out of that metal which a true God hath created; nay, a false man, whom thou mayest worship for a true God; one whom any man who should receive into his friendship as a true man, would be insane.” I am sure that those who wish to excuse their own idols will be quick to point out that Augustine’s comments are directed against the pagan idols. That’s very true. He is speaking about pagan idols. Yet you will read carefully and not find him defending images of Jesus as being different from these pagan idols.

Quite to the contrary, Augustine states, “That is, although we cannot display our God to your carnal eyes, whom ye ought to recognise through his works … .” Augustine does not say, “we can display Jesus, who was God and man,” but rather simply “we cannot display our God to your carnal eyes.”

And again, we recognize that some will say that when they portray Jesus, they only portray his humanity, not his divinity. Yet will anyone think that Jesus’ image is made on account of his humanity rather than on account of his divinity? Is not the very reason and purpose for the creation of the image and its use because it is acknowledged that Christ is the God-man and not a mere man?

Yet even if we were somehow persuaded that those who create such imagines really mean only to portray Jesus’ humanity (somehow separated from his divinity without destroying the unity of his person), how shall we come to accept their practice of representing the Trinity itself in human form (by three-faced or three-headed grotesqueries), or even the Father alone in human form (as so famously found centrally within the Sistine chapel)?

Surely Augustine was glad not to see the day of such widespread idolatry. Had he seen it, we may rightly suppose he would have condemned it as he did the pagan idolatry, and for many of the same reasons.

For indeed Augustine condemned not only the pagans but in the Jews condemned the idolatry of the golden calf:

“And they made a calf in Horeb, and worshipped the graven image” (ver. 19). “Thus they changed their glory, in the similitude of a calf that eateth hay” (ver. 20). He saith not “into” the likeness, but “in” the likeness. It is such a form of speech as where he said “and they believed in His words.” With great effect in truth he saith not, they changed the glory of God when they did this; as the Apostle also saith, “They changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man:” [Romans 1:23] but “their glory.” For God was their glory, if they would abide His counsel, and hasten not; unto Whom is said, “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of my head.” [Psalm 3:3] That “their glory,” that is, God, “they changed in the similitude of a calf that eateth hay,” that they might be devoured by him, by whom those who are wise according to the flesh are devoured: for “all flesh is grass.” [Isaiah 40:6]

– Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 106, Section 19 (at vss. 19-20)

Let us, therefore, learn from their error and turn our eyes from idols to worship the true and living God in Spirit and in Truth.

As Augustine explained:

“Confounded be all they that worship carved images” (ver. 7). Hath not this come to pass? Have they not been confounded? Are they not daily confounded? For carved images are images wrought by the hand. Why are all who worship carved images confounded? Because all people have seen His glory. All nations now confess the glory of Christ: let those who worship stones be ashamed. Because those stones were dead, we have found a living Stone; indeed those stones never lived, so that they cannot be called even dead; but our Stone is living, and hath ever lived with the Father, and though He died for us, He revived, and liveth now, and death shall no more have dominion over Him. [Romans 6:9] This glory of His the nations have acknowledged; they leave the temples, they run to the Churches. “Confounded be all they that worship carved images.” Do they still seek to worship carved images? Have they not chosen to forsake their idols? They have been forsaken by their idols. “Confounded be all they that worship carved images, who glory in their idols.”

– Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 97, Section 11, at Psalm 97:7 (read the whole exposition here)

– TurretinFan

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