I continue my slow but very enjoyable reading of Chris Wright's, The Mission of God (IVP, 2006). (Which also inspired this earlier post.) Wright's treatment of idolatry, the subjectof his second major section, is simply fantastic and he has both answered a number of questions and posed questions I hadn't properly thought of before. In pages 179-188 he finishes his chapter on idolatry with an examination of Paul's approaches. To summarise, in Acts Paul's evangelistic preaching treats idolatry markedly differently to how he does in Romans and 1 Corinthians. Wright suggests that Paul reserves his strongest langauge about idolatry for theological and pastoral discussions with Christians (Rom 1:18-32, 1 Cor 8-10) but moderates his tone considerably when talking to pagans (Acts 14:8-20; 17:16-34; 19:23-41).
Wright, also argues that this approach of Paul's is entirely consistent with the modus operandi of the OT prophets who would accuse the pagan nations of numerous moral wrongs but would only mock idolatry per se when confronting those who should know better, the people of God (e.g. Amos, who lists the sins of the surrounding nations in 1:1-2:3, but only mentions idol worship in connection with Judah in 2:4).
Wright concludes, "in confronting idolatry, we need to be discerning about what responses are appropriate in different contexts, learning from the apostles and prophets as we do so." (p188)
The conclusion then seems to lead us to have two faces with regard to idolatry. When talking to pagans we major on the kindness and mercy of God and don't attack their gods directly, but when dealing with those who should know better we pull out all the stops and expose idolatry in all its depraved sinfulness. Now on one hand this makes sense, there is no point lambasting people for what they cannot help, if you don't know God then you have no reason not to worship others gods (whether they be traditional idols or contempary analogues), but those who do know God are doubly culpable. But on the other hand it does seem like there is potentially going to be some inconsistency between what is said in house and in public. The problem is exascerbated by the way so little Christian discourse is actually in house anymore. We put our sermons on the internet, we publish our books, and our inter and intra denominational disuputes are the stuff of news programs and history books. What we say in private will be shouted from the rooftops one way or another, especially if it is deemed offensive by the general public. The recent furore over Brian Tamaki's oath is a good example of that. While I am convinced by Wright's arguments, I think the onus needs to be on us to make sure that what we say in private is still something we would be happy to be heard in public. And if you aren't, best not to say it at all!
Let me know what you think, :-)