Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Lutherans and Idols

This week I was blessed to be asked another theological question via email which I thought I'd share the answer to publicly:

Q Why does Luther separate the 10 Commandments as he does? He seems to leave out "have no idols" and makes the "do not covet your neighbor's stuff" into two commandments.

A Luther doesn't. Luther numbers the commandments the way the the entire Christian tradition numbered them until protestants like John Calvin renumbered them in order to make "not making graven images" the second commandment. This is an important point to grasp: protestantism likes to change things and then act as if it's others who have changed things.

Theologically, Luther and Christian tradition have understood that "not having idols" is the same as "not having other gods." One way or other, you end up with a two commandments that seems repetitive on the surface. The question is whether or not you prefer to change things that make no difference, or let things that make no difference remain the same for the sake of stability. This is the difference between a Lutheran approach to tradition and a protestant one:

a. Lutheran: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
b. Protestant: It might not be broke, but let's fix it anyway.

This is just a trend, or a normal way of approaching things, but it is highlighted by the way we approach the commandments.

The real trick with the commandments is an exegetical one. The text of Scripture does not number them, nor does it actually call them commandments. In the Hebrew, it simply says that the Lord spoke 10 words and then it has a paragraph/list of text, including other portions such as "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, etc." Along with the traditional and protestant ways of numbering, the Jew's have a third way which leaves "I am the LORD your God" as the first "word." (I'm partial to that personally as an exegetical interpretation.)

But, when it comes to the catechism, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Lutheran catechism covers the gambit, as well as avoids the legalistic pitfall of "iconoclasm" or the teaching that having images is breaking the "2nd commandment." The iconoclastic controversies date as far back as the early church, are blamed for the split between east and west (statues vs. flat icons), and now leave protestant churches bare of statuary and fine artwork while our homes are flushed with pictures (not to mention tv images.)

The Lutheran understanding is that God is not against images (hence, carvings on his temple, on the ark of the covenant, etc.) but against having other gods. That's what we teach our children to beware of.

Hope that answers it. We can talk about it more Friday. Just remember the general rule: if something is different, it wasn't (unless its having the Bible in the native tongue) it probably wasn't the Lutherans who changed it. More than likely it is the protestant tradition that has inserted the novelty. One might even say that is it inserting novelties which is the protestant tradition.


Rev. Jonathan Fisk

St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, Springfield, PA

"Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit." Clement, Bishop of Rome. c. 110 AD


Larry said...

Coming from Calvinism in both the SB and PCA churches to confessional Lutheranism this helps a lot. My wife asked me this a few months back when we were going through the 10 Commandments in the catechism with the kids, "why the change". All I could answer was, "Well really if you look at it the old #2 commandment we knew as "idols" is inherent to the's really one big commandment. But this helps expand on that PLUS.



RevFisk said...

Thanks for commenting! And glad to hear it. I wasn't sure if the readership here would get value out of this, but I am excited to see that I was mistaken.

God bless your sojourn!

  ©Template by Dicas Blogger.