I used to wonder whether the interpretive move from worship of wood and stone images to heart issues like greed, lust, and gluttony was hermeneutically proper. I mean, we don’t always — and we shouldn’t always — spiritualize things that are physical in their original contexts. Isn’t that what allegorizers do?

No, such a move is not illegitimate. Let me tell you how I came to that conclusion, and then explain why I think such a conclusion is warranted.

First, here is how I discovered that this move (from idols of wood and stone to matters of the heart like greed, lust, appetites, and the like) was proper. One day, during the period when I started pondering this question years ago, I was reading Colossians, and stumbled upon this verse: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5, italics mine). I had never noticed that Paul makes the exact interpretive move I was wondering about: he referred to covetousness (an issue of the heart) as idolatry.

Not long afterward I noticed the same thing in Eph. 5:5: “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”

But is the extension limited to covetousness? No, once I had seen these two examples, I began to notice other similar examples in Paul’s letters. Paul writes about “the enemies of the cross” in Phil. 3:19: “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” Notice the words “their god is their belly.” Shortly thereafter, I noticed that Paul strongly implies that sexual immorality is idolatry in two passages: Rom. 1:21-25 and 1 Cor. 10:7-8.

By this point, I was convinced that the move from idols of wood and stone to idols of the heart was appropriate. But why was this a legitimate hermeneutical move for Paul? And further, is it appropriate for us to make the same move?

Yes, I think that it was legitimate for Paul — and for us as well.

The reason, I propose, is because from the beginning, the problem with idolatry is centered on the heart — and more precisely, a person’s allegiances. From the beginning, God wanted the hearts of his people to be wholly his.

The Bible is saturated with wide-ranging calls to set one’s allegiance and affections on the Lord alone, such as, “love the Lord your God with all your heart …” (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37). There are also many biblical warnings which connect idolatry to issues of the heart.

In his excellent book, The Mission of God, Christopher Wright organizes idolatry into idolatrous categories that reflect matters of the heart. These four categories overlap with modern tendencies toward idolatry.[1]

  1. Things that entice us (Deut. 4:19). We see this in four words in Psalm 96:5-6: splendor, majesty, strength, glory. Think of the drive for power, prestige, and celebrity.

  2. Things we fear. Ps. 96:4 says that YHWH “is to be feared above all gods.” Some people fear the ocean. Some people fear death. Both were “gods” in Canaanite religion (Yam = the sea; Mot = death).[2]

  3. Things we trust (Ps. 33:16-17). Financial security, military security.

  4. Things we need (Deut. 8:17; Ezek 29:3). The sun, rain, food.

So, when the Apostle Paul makes the move from idolatry into greed, gluttony, sexual immorality, and the like, it looks like he is doing what he has already discerned was the intention of the Old Testament passages about idolatry. And so can we.


[1] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 165-171. See full discussion on Old Testament idolatry on pp. 136-188.

[2] Wright, The Mission of God, comments (p. 168): “The idolatrous power of fear is enormous and seems to bear no direct relation to the scale of what is feared. It has been pointed out that although in contemporary Western society we live lives that are immeasurably more safe, healthy and free from risk than any previous generation, yet we are consumed by anxieties, fears and neuroses.”