“No Other Gods” in Luther’s Catechisms

The wording of the First Commandment in Luther’s Catechisms may, at first, feel a bid strange: “You shall have no other gods” (Exodus 20:3). How does one have a god? Such wording seems to imply that there are indeed other gods beside the one true God.

First, we must recognize that the wording in the catechism is an abbreviated form of the commandment, which actually runs another three verses. (In the Reformed and Eastern Orthodox traditions, the verses are divided into two commandments.) Using an abbreviated form was a medieval practice that made memorization easier. For the catechism, Luther built on this practice but included more of the text (Exodus 20:5–6) as a summary or “close” of the commandments. Here is the full statement of the commandment from Exodus:

You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

We see then that the Lord forbids His people to have or make gods/idols before which they would bow down or serve (cf. Exodus 32). To understand the word “have,” consider the following expressions: I have a family; I have a father; we have a president. The word “have” does not mean simple possession of something. It describes a relationship—a bond—between persons or things. The Creator will not allow His creation to set up objects or barriers between Him and His people. As He said it positively and emphatically in the opening to the Ten Commandments:

I am the Lord your God . . .

Now that He has freed Israel from the bondage of Egypt, He will not let them return to bondage by serving other gods or masters. This truth is foundational, not only to biblical/Christian faith, but also to western ideals of the freedom and value of the individual. Each human being is loved by God and, as a created being, has a direct relationship with the Creator.

Do Other Gods Exist?

The First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” seems to imply that other gods are real and that one can have a relationship with them. One may rightly ask, is this true?

The Bible consistently speaks against the idea that the figures of idols are true gods. Perhaps the best example of this is the prophet Isaiah’s satire of a person carving an idol from a block of wood (Isaiah 44:9–20) and then using the wood trimming to warm his room and bake his bread—an excellent example of humor in the Bible!

But seriously, those who worship idols usually regard them as representations or manifestations of spiritual realities. In fact, archaeologists now believe that a bull calf idol of the ancient Near East actually represented the mount or throne for the god (typically Baal) who stood upon it. So, the idolaters were really directing their devotion beyond the wood, stone, gold, or silver that stood in front of them. The idol was a way to reach beyond and to “have” a connection to the god it represented. Modern religions that use idols have a similar understanding.

The apostle Paul strongly warns against idolatry and sacrifices to idols when he writes: “I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Corinthians 10:20; cf also Revelation 9:20). The biblical view then is that there are indeed spiritual realities—demons/false gods—standing behind idolatrous and false worship. So false worship can in no way honor the one true God.

In the First Commandment God is delivering something like an ultimatum to us: you will have Me as God or you will have some other god, you can’t have both. To this He attaches a warning and a promise: (1) as the only true God, He will punish those who hate Him (Exodus 20:5) but (2) He will likewise show steadfast love to those who love Him and heed His word (20:6).