Thursday, July 23, 2015

Isaiah's Polemic Against Idolatry

I came across a profound statement by John Oswalt regarding Isaiah's polemic against the idols as it is found especially through Isaiah 40-48.
  Many interpreters accuse Isaiah of creating a straw man at this point. They argue that he has engaged in reductionism of the worst sort, refusing to admit that no pagan ever thought his or her god was restricted to an idol. In pagan thought, the idol partook of the holiness of the being who was spiritually continuous with the idol but yet transcended it. The accusers say that Isaiah understood this quite well but conveniently chose to overlook it because it was much easier to attack the practice of idolatry. Isaiah, however, is not disregarding that issue at all, as is clear from his case against the Babylonian gods in 40-48. He challenges their worshipers to produce evidence that any of the gods had ever explained "the former things" or, failing that, "the latter things." That is, could the gods explain how the world began or how it would develop in the future? Of course they could not because they are a part of the world's cycles, and, just as the thunderstorm does not know how it arose or where it will go, neither do the gods. A further question is even more pointed: which of the gods ever once specifically foretold the future? The answer is never. Of course there were plenty of cases of prediction, but like those of modern astrologers, they were so cloaked in ambiguity that they would always be "right" no matter what happened. 
Yahweh, on the other hand, did make specific predictions in case after case, particularly those of the exile and the return. He can do that, the prophet says, because he "sits above the circle of the earth" (40:22). He is not a part of the stars, "the host of heaven," but is the one who calls them forth by name (40:26). In short, Isaiah boldly asserts that Yahweh is not a part of earth's cycles. He is not a personification of any of its forces. He is beyond it and directs it. Therefore, he alone can specifically predict the future. Furthermore, he alone can do "new things." The gods can only do what they have always done. They cannot transcend the past because they are part of the past. Neither can they alter the future because they are whatever that future unfolds to be. This is a far more sophisticated argument than merely an attack on idol making. To be sure, the prophet includes idol making in his polemic because that is at the heart of the issue. To make your god into an idol is a fundamental expression of the conviction that the gods are continuous with the cosmos and fundamentally at one with it. The Bible's profound iconoclasm is aimed precisely at this point. 
If Isaiah was struck in his call experience with Yahweh's absolute transcendence, both in essence and in character, there was something else that struck him in the experience with equal force. Although Yahweh is utterly other than the earth and all that is in it, it is his glory and his alone that fills the earth (6:3; cf. 40:5). Transcendence is often faulted by its detractors as making creation completely inaccessible to God and making God completely inaccessible to the creation. This was certainly the concern of the neo-Platonists, who sought to overcome what they saw as this inevitable outcome of the doctrine. Isaiah (and the rest of the Bible) is blithely unconcerned about philosophical conundrums. Although God is not the creation and has no essential continuity with the creation, he is everywhere present in his earth He can intersect it at any and every point. Thus, its glory is his glory, and it has no other. This is the wonder of the biblical doctrine of revelation. Truth does not emerge from within the cosmos because the cosmos is not self-explanatory. To attempt to make it explain itself is to deify it and that is the way of endless horror, as both Romans 1 and modern film culture amply demonstrate. 
Instead, truth and glory have broken in upon us from beyond ourselves. More than that, God has broken in with his truth and glory for the express purpose of sharing that truth and glory with us. Thus, we have the astonishing phrase The Holy One of Israel." He is the only Holy One in the universe, and yet he has chosen to become immanent in Israel. He has chosen to be owned, as it were, by this broken, fallible people. He is pleased to become localized in them.[1]

     [1] John N. Oswalt, “The Book of Isaiah: A Short Course on Biblical Theology” Calvin Theological Journal 39 (2004), 69-70.  For more general reflections on similar themes from Acts 17 see my essay “Thoughts on God’s Transcendence and Immanence.”  Available online: