Paul says in Romans 1:21 that humanity “became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools…”
He then ties this folly directly to idolatry. Paul’s vision of idolatry is complex and rich. It involves at least two perversions.
First, it perverts humanity’s role within creation in relation to God. Daniel Kirk has been developing this theme brilliantly for some time now. God appointed humanity to rule over creation on his behalf—to fill the earth and subdue it. Humanity was to oversee the development of creation and the spread of shalom as it transformed more and more of creation.
In doing this, humanity performs its role as “image” of God. Our doing these things is something of an earthly reflection of God’s very own identity.
Idolatry perverts this radically, as humanity takes its cues and gets its identity from something within creation rather than the transcendent Creator God. This is what Paul is getting at in Romans 1:23—humanity exchanged being in the image of God (our intended role) for being in the image of something within creation (a perverted role).
Adam & Eve become in the image of the serpent, which is shameful, degrading, and idolatrous.
This much is reflected in Romans 1:23-25.
A second perversion is reflected in Luke’s account of Paul’s speech in Acts 17:22-31. Idolatry confuses our relation with the one true God regarding who needs to be “served.”
Paul sees idolatry as folly because humans ought to take stock of themselves and their own capacities and conclude that whoever made them is greater than they. It is foolish to point to a chunk of wood or stone and confess, “that’s what is greater than me, the thing that is served with human hands, needing to be placed just so and cared for.”
These reversals call to mind a connection between Genesis 2 and 1 Samuel 5. In Genesis 2:15, God “took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” God acts upon humanity here, taking him and placing him in the garden with a specific task.
In 1 Samuel 5, the Philistines capture the ark of the covenant and put it in Dagon’s temple. In the morning, they find their god fallen down before the ark in the posture of worship. So the Philistines “took Dagon and set him in his place again” (v. 3).
This ironic note highlights the folly of idolatry—they need to act upon their god, serving him with human hands. This is a direct reversal of the relationship between humans and the one true God. Paul develops the same line of thought in Acts 17.
We are rulers over creation, put here to cultivate and tend creation as kingly representatives of God. We don’t act upon God, cultivating and tending God. Nor do we act as representatives of creation, as the image of anything within creation. We represent the transcendent God as we cultivate creation, overseeing its flourishing.
To get this wrong—and we still do so in a great variety of ways—is to descend into the degradations of our humanity associated with idolatry.