The Vanity of Idols – Part 1 of The Epistle to Diognetus

“Come and contemplate, not with your eyes only, but with your understanding, the substance and the form of those who you declare and deem to be gods. Is not one of them a stone similar to that on which we tread? Is not a second brass, in no way superior to those vessels which are constructed for our ordinary use? Is not a third wood, and that already rotten? Is not a fourth silver, which needs a man to watch it, lest it be stolen? Is not a fifth iron, consumed by rust?… Are not all these of corruptible matter? Are they not made by means of iron and fire? Is it not a sculptor who fashions one of them, the brassworker a second, the silversmith a third, and the potter a fourth? Was not every one of them, before they were formed by the arts of these [workmen] into the shape of these [gods], each in its own way subject to change? Would not those things which are now vessels, formed of the same materials, become like to such, if they met with the same artificers? Might not these, which are now worshipped by you, again be made by men vessels similar to others? Are they not all deaf? Are they not blind? Are they not without life? Are they not destitute of feeling? Are they not incapable of motion? Are they not all liable to rot? Are they not all corruptible? These things you call gods; these you serve; these you worship; and you become entirely like them…. Certainly you do not show [by your conduct] that he [your God] is possessed of reason. And as to the fact that Christians are not accustomed to serve such gods, I might easily find many other things to say; but if even what has been said does not seem to any one sufficient, I deem it idle to say anything further.” The epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, Chapter 2

This rather abrupt repudiation of idol worship comes from the pen of an anonymous writer (the name ‘Mathetes’ in Greek simply means ‘disciple’) writing in the beginning of the 2nd century to someone named Diognetus. Apparently this Diognetus had desired to learn more about the Christians and what kind of God they worshipped (cf. Chapter 1). Mathetes, in expounding this, begins from the starting point of the rational (logikos- This word arises from the same root word that St. John the Evangelist uses to speak of The Only-Begotten Son of the Father. His Son is the Logos or The Word) Christian faith as opposed to the worship of idols, idols which are absent of reason. It is almost surprising to see someone from the 2nd century so unabashedly trampling all over the concept of worshiping stones, brass, silver and the like, but is there more here?

If we are to be honest, do we not share many of the same gods? Stones, brass, wood, silver, iron, these are all both building items and tools of labour directly linked to economy and financial well-being. I would have said they were linked to ornamentation too but I would have offended those who would not be caught dead wearing the above stones/metals when perfectly suitable gold and diamond alternatives exist. While none of us may erect a wooden figurine and ascribe praise to it, many of us would mortgage our lives and give up things near and dear to us to be able to pay off that big house or pursue that ‘cute place with the pool’. Maybe we would not bow down in worship to silver or iron (although I have definitely seen this one) but we do turn our eyes in reverence when a new sports car or fancy electric car comes whizzing by. This is not to imply that these things are evil in and of themselves but simply to say, “What is our relationship to these objects?”

In turn, it seems that the ancients may have just been more honest than we are. We tell ourselves that nothing is lord over us. Or we allow ourselves to live the lie that we simply ‘do what makes us happy’ when in reality we have fallen into the most absurd slavery. Whether to our own ideologies, big houses, fancy cars, designer brands, marble flooring, careers that will ensure we obtain the preceding list or other, we too have our own idols. This too is Israel’s story, one only has to see Exodus 32 with the episode of the golden calf or the entire book of judges wherein Israel falls into idol worship then comes back to God for Salvation only to fall again into slavery in idol worship. This again is the story of Adam and Eve; beguiled by the thought of ‘being as gods’ (Gen 3.6) they pluck slavery from a wooden tree because they have desired it. So, what is the root of the problem? Where have we went wrong? St. Gregory of Nyssa answers;

“It is our aim not that we should be persuaded to desire the things that are good; (for to incline towards the good is one of the inherent characteristics of human nature) — but that we should not be mistaken (hamartoimen) in our judgement as to what is good. It is here that our life is most subject to error, that we cannot clearly distinguish what is good by nature and what is imagined to be such because of deception.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, Fifth Homily on the Beatitudes as in St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lords Prayer: the Beatitudes. Newman Press, 1954.

One may notice that this word ‘mistaken’ is translating the Greek term, hamartoimen, This word is related in its root to the word hamartia typically translated into English as sin. Let us speak more of the concept that we mistake where the good lies in a coming post….


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