What Does Martin Luther Have To Say About Idolatry?

While searching google about idolatry, I came across “The Prefaces to the Early Editions of Martin Luther’s Bible. In there is a list of introductions, and I happened to read from the Preface To The Prophets. Would you know it? Luther was espousing on idolatry and the false sense of worshipping the true God. Since I have been talking about false worship and idols, it is appropriate to share this excerpt with you today:

What does Martin Luther Have To Say About Old Testament Idolatry?

“The Prophets exclaimed so much against idolatry, that it is worth while to enquire what that idolatry was, and what was its ostensible character. Papists, for instance, indulge themselves in the notion that they are by no means such idolaters as the children of Israel. They do not esteem the Prophets as of any authority where they speak of the worship of images; they consider their denunciations as in no degree affecting them; nor do they connect in any relation with themselves the punishments which await idolatry. To charge them with the imputation, or to excite their apprehen’ sions that it could apply to them would be ridiculous.

The old Israelites acted in the same manner. They would not believe themselves to be idolatrous. The denunciations of the Prophets were pure fiction. Those who made them ought to be condemned as heretics. But the people of Israel were not such stupid idolaters as merely to worship wood and stone, especially their kings, their princes, their priests, and their prophets, who contributed the most to the promotion of idolatry. But this was their idolatry, they neglected or abandoned the divine worship which had been ordained and established at Jerusalem, or wherever God had ordained and established it; they allowed their own fancies and devotions without any command from God to supersede the regular worship, and to introduce new customs, new persons, and new periods, all which Moses had distinctly prohibited in the 12th chapter of Deuteronomy, having uniformly referred them to some place chosen by God for his tabernacle and for his sanctuary. This false devotion constituted their idolatry. But they considered it to be a great discovery, and they relied upon it as an improved and salutary institution, whilst it was in fact perfect rebellion against God and his commandments. Thus we find (1 Kings, ch. 12, v.28) that Jeroboam did not merely set up two calves, but that he issued this proclamation to the
people: You shall no more go up to Jerusalem; but behold, O Israel, here is thy God who has led thee out of Egypt. He does not say: Behold, O Israel, this is thy calf; but this is.. thy God who has led thee out of Egypt. He acknowledged distinctly that the God of Israel was the true God, by his having led them out of Egypt. He would not permit them to worship him at Jerusalem, but ordered them to seek him at Dan and at Bethel, in the golden calves. The meaning, therefore, evidently was that they might equally well sacrifice and serve God before the golden calves, as in a temple and before an altar hallowed by God at Jerusalem.

This was distinctly trifling with the worship of God, and confessedly denying his having selected any place of worship. They built, therefore, upon their own notions and their own works, and not upon God alone. With these feelings of religion they covered the ‘whole land with idolatry; every mountain, every valley, every grove had its altar, its sacrifice, and its incense; and this was called serving the God of Israel. He who held a different language was considered a heretic and a false prophet. This is properly the establishment of idolatry, when without the command of God we introduce a divine worship in accordance with our own views. But God is not to learn from man in what manner man is to serve him. He will instruct us by his Word, which is alone to be our rule and guidance. Without his Word, however plausible and pious it may appear, it is mere idolatry and groundless fiction. I have, however, often written upon this subject. Hence it follows, that amongst Christians all those are to be considered idolatrous and subject to the animadversions of the Prophets, who have introduced or who adhere to a new form of worship which God has not commanded, but which even with good intentions they themselves have conceived. For by this they intimate their reliance upon their own good works, and not exclusively and unconditionally upon Jesus Christ.

This is what the Prophets stigmatise as adultery, not being content with espousing Christ only but running after others, as if Christ were not alone competent to save us, and as if he had not redeemed us through himself independently of ourselves and of our own good works, but that we ought likewise to contribute our quota. But we know perfectly well that we have done nothing of the kind, that Christ died for us and took our sins upon him, not only before the world could know it but before we were born. The children of Israel had done absolutely nothing when Egypt and when Pharaoh were plagued, and when they were relieved by the death of the Egyptian first-born, solely by the almighty power of God and not in any degree whatever by their effort or concurrence. And yet the children of Israel are said to have worshipped idols, and to have served the one true God. But we, it seems, in our churches serve the true God and the only Lord Jesus Christ, and we are not conscious of any idolatry. To this we answer that the children of Israel made use of the same language, and said generally that all their divine service was directed to this object, and they would not that it should be called “worshipping idols.” Nay, they were even more intolerant than our own priests; they persecuted some of the Prophets even unto death, and they pursued religiously every true Prophet. They never would allow that they were guilty of idolatry.

We read in Judges, ch. 17, v. 2, that when the mother of Micah received from her son the thousand and one pieces of silver, she said to him—Blessed be thou of the Lord, my son, ‘that my son shall take it, and I have consecrated this silver to the Lord, to make me an idol and an image out of it. We see from this clearly that the mother had the true God in her mind the whole time, and that it was to [1]. It should be considered that when this was written the Roman Catholic was the prevailing religion, Protestantism was not established and the Reformation only in its cradle.

Him that she had consecrated the silver, with a view to an image and to an idol being made out of it. For she does not say, I have consecrated this silver to an idol, but to the Lord—a word which was perfectly well known amongst the Jews to designate the one true God. The Mahometans act precisely in the same manner, and pray according to their form of worship to the one true God who hast made heaven and earth. And in the same way the Jews, the Turks, the Tartars of our days; but it is all pure idolatry. Again, that extraordinary man Gideon, how singular was his fate! (Judges, ch. 8,v. 27) who, when the children desired that he and his children should be their sovereign, answered (v. 23, 24)—I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you; the Lord that is the only one true God, he shall rule over you. He then took the jewels which they gave him and he made out of them, not an image or an altar but priests’ garments, and introduced into his own city the worship of God according to his own ideas of devotion.

The Scriptures, however, say that all Israel became through these means guilty of idolatry, and that his house in consequence went to ruin. But yet this great and holy man did not intend to establish idolatry but to worship the one true God, and this may be gathered from his own words which are in themselves full of wisdom. The Lord, not I, shall rule over you. He thus clearly ascribes honour to God alone, and recognises the one true God as the only God who ought to be acknowledged and to be worshipped. It is thus, as we have just now read, King Jeroboam did not call his golden calves idolatry, but the God of Israel, who had led them out of Egypt. Of course, he means here the only one true God, for no idol ever led them out of Egypt; and it was not because he wished to worship idols or false gods, but because he was apprehensive, as the text shows (v. 26, 27), that his people would revolt from him to the King of Judah, in consequence of their being under an obligation to
go up to Jerusalem to worship. He established, therefore, a different form of worship in order to attach his people more strongly to him. He believed at the same time he was worshipping the one true God, whose temple was at Jerusalem, but that it was not obligatory on him to serve God at Jerusalem. But to what purpose so many words ‘.7 God himself tells us that the children of Israel did not in their public worship intend to commit idolatry, but to worship the one true God. For Hosea says (ch. 2, v. 16)—Thus says the Lord: thou shalt call me my husband, and no longer call me my Baal ; for I will take away the name of Baalim from their mouths; the name of Baalim shall no longer be remembered. Here we may perceive that the children of Israel were not conscious and did not intend the public service to be idolatrous, but to represent the worship of the one true God,since in Hosea God plainly declares they shall no longer call him my Baal. Now, the worship of Baal was the most extensive, the most conspicuous, and the most splendid in Israel. And yet it was pure idolatry, although they actually supposed they were celebrating the worship of the one true God.

It is, therefore, no sound argument on the part of our clergymen when they allege they have no idols in their churches, but that they spiritually worship the only one true God. It is not, therefore, to say or even to delude ourselves into the thought—I do all this for the honour of God, or I am now serving in spirit the true God, because all idolaters do and think the same. It is not a question of intention or of thought, otherwise those who martyred and persecuted the first Christians would be equally the servants of God, for they believed, as Christ himself says (John, ch. 16, v.2), that by this they were doing God service. St. Paul also (Romans, ch. 10, v.2) bears testimony to the Jews that they were zealous for God. Again (Acts, ch. 26, v. 7) he says that they serve God day and night in hopes to attain the promised salvation. Every one should be satisfied and convinced that the mode in which he serves God is in conformity with the Word and ordinances of God, and not the produce of his own imagination and good intentions. For he who worships God in a manner which is unsupported by the testimony of God or the Holy Scriptures ought to know that he does not worship the one true God, but an idol of his own imagination, namely, his own thoughts and favourite opinions; or, in other words, the Devil himself,—and thus renders applicable to himself the denunciations of all the Prophets.

For the God does not exist who desires us to serve him as we choose, or as our own devotion suggests, or that we should establish any optional form of worship without the evidence of his sanction; but the one true God has amply declared, and by his Word has revealed to mankind the mode of worship which he requires and accepts. To this it is our bounden duty to adhere, and we must not deviate from it either to the right or to the left. We must not increase or diminish it. We must not make it better or worse, otherwise there would be no end of idolatry, we should not be able to discriminate what is the real worship and what is idolatry; all mean to serve the one true God, and all to use his right and his true name. Therefore, to Him the only one true Supreme Being, be all honour and glory through his blessed Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

By Martin Luther

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  1.  I observe in my translation I have put whale, which must be a mistake, as both Luther, Diodati, and our version use the word great fish in the Old Testament. There are no whales in the Mediterranean, but plenty of sharks; and the vulgar belief of the whale arises from the word in Matt, ch. 12, v. 39 being rendered whale, evidently copied from the arm in the Septuagint, which is an argument against St. Matthew having translated his own Hebrew Gospel into Greek. It may have been done by some other hand—G. D.

Source: Title of Book Mentioned Above. Chapter 2 Preface to the Old Testament. Pages 56-63 Edited by T.A. READWIN F.G.S. Publisher, LONDON: HATCHARD A: (10., 187, PICCADILLY. MANCHESTER: ALEX. IRELAND & CO. 1863.


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