Conceptual Idolatry

Conceptual Idolatry

Paul tells us that we now “see dimly in a mrror” (1 Corinthians 13:12), but some of us are quite certain that we see clearly. While I believe we should make every effort to get closer to the truth, it’s important that we understand that God’s ways are not our ways, and thus we will never get precisely to a “God’s eye view” of any problem or issue. In a recent comment Oloryn noted that:

. . . in reading scripture, we are in the position of listing to One who does not share our outlook. If we haven’t learned to do that with people, are we going to be able to do that with God?

Now he was responding to some comments I made about listening to God in scripture, and those were some good points, but in making that point he has also noted that God does not share our outlook. And that’s an important point to remember.

This post was triggered by a post by Joe Carter over on Evangelical Outpost. In that post he accuses Bart Campolo (son of Tony) of idolatry:

Still, it is rather shocking to hear someone be unabashedly open about their idolatry as Bart Campolo, son of Tony Campolo, is in a recent article for The Journal of Student Ministries*:

[Carter continues by quoting Campolo]

Now my intention is not to respond in detail to Joe Carter on this. It’s simply that his post came at a time when I was thinking about this sort of thing and struck me as just plain wrong. There are some points on which I disagree with Campolo as well, though my primary intention is not to defend him either.

I don’t disagree with Carter on a key point. It is quite possible to engage in idolatry with our conception of God. The problem here is that I don’t see any less idolatry in Carter’s position than I do in Campolo’s, and on this issue, I will have to say I don’t see any less idolatry in any conception of God I might come up with. Am I confessing to the sin of idolatry? Just so! I am an idolater. It’s a besetting sin. Sometimes I talk about the need to maintain an attitude of repentance, to make repentance a way of life. I have to repent of idolatry just that regularly.

What do I mean?

Moses went up into the mountain to get laws from God. Moses was on Mt. Sinai listening to God and recording God’s instructions (Exodus 24-31). Down in the camp the people became impatient. They needed a god, one who was present, one they could relate to and with whom they could be comfortable. Moses was taking way too long talking to God. So they decided to do something about it.

In passing, let me note that there is another lesson for us here relating to our pastors and teachers. How long does a teacher or preacher need to spend with God before he returns to share what he has learned with his congregation or class? As I see it, there is no such thing as “enough time” when one is talking about an encounter with the living God. Whatever amount of time you spend, if it is spent with God, will seem too small. Don’t be impatient with the meditation time. Sometimes when I’m going to teach and I’m arranging time for study, meditation, and prayer in preparation, someone will tell me, “You could teach this topic in your sleep. You don’t need that preparation time.” But I do need that preparation time if I want the presentation of that topic to also present God. There simply is not enough time. Don’t start building golden calves just because the pastor takes some extra time with God!

But back to the Israelites. They proclaim their idol “God,” even crediting it with bringing them up out of Egypt. Now since the calf had just been created, I doubt that the people thought that the physical calf in front of them had led them. No. But it was to represent their God, give them something they could hold onto, something they could see, something they could understand.

Moses comes down out of the mountain and spontaneously shatters the tables of the covenant (Exodus 32:19), and he destroys the calf and grinds it to powder. Notice that this is done simply by someone who had just come from the presence of God. Moses had been experiencing God, not just talking about him, and the idol simply couldn’t hold up beside what he had seen and what he knew.

Notice the worship of Israel as well. All the rituals lead to the center, to the inner room on the day of atonement. In other religions, this would be where the statue of the deity would be placed. But here we have no statue. We have a box that contains signs of God’s activity. We have Cherubim on guard, but they are guarding–NOTHING! At least it is nothing that we can touch.

That is the key difference between idolatry and true worship. Idolatry places its focus on the image, and thinks it can get hold of God and make him comprehensible. But true worship realizes that we haven’t gotten hold of God at all, that ultimately we stand in ignorance, experiencing something of the reality that is God.

It’s impossible, I believe, for us not to form concepts. I don’t call the formation of concepts of God as “conceptual idolatry.” But it does become idolatry when our concepts are not regularly shattered by the experience of the presence of God, when our idols are not ground into powder. The need to repent of idolatry regularly, constantly, is a characteristic of being human.

Hosea 13:2 refers to idols made “according to their (people’s) understanding.” And that is indeed the problem. Any representation we make is limited by our understanding, and once we engrave it, “set it in stone” so to speak, it becomes an idol for us.

And that leads me back to the original issue. Joe Carter’s problem with Bart Campolo is that his concept of God departs from the orthodox. Campolo is applying some different definitions to various characteristics of God. But in this area, in particular, I think it is not so good for our thinking to be too “orthodox.” There can be orthodox idols just as easily as there can be heterodox idols.

Somehow we want to combine concepts about God such as love, grace, and mercy with another set of concepts such as sovereignty, holiness, and justice (often transformed into vengeance by our human understanding). The question is how do we combine these apparently very different things.

It seems to me that to certain evangelicals all of the concepts are equal, but some are more equal than others. Somehow we can incorporate an eternally burning hell into a loving merciful God. Somehow we can work out a way to explain how a God who is capable of saving everyone can fail to do so, and yet be merciful and loving, and not want anyone to perish. With predestination we can eliminate any difference between the people themselves, any merit that they may possess, and find that solely because of God’s will, they can be placed in eternal bliss or instead toasted in the fires of hell for eternity, forever suffering for the sins of a few moments.

Clearly in this picture of God, sovereignty and vengeance has become the “more equal” concepts over “loving and merciful.” And there is some attraction in such a God. I felt the attraction of that God when I listened to a young man describe the torments inflicted on him while he was a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I could feel the hope that there was an eternally burning hell where the tormenter would forever suffer what she had inflicted on others. Unfortunately in the story I heard, the tormenter came to repent, and her victim was the one called upon to pray for her at the altar. Is God more or less merciful and forgiving than that young man?

I think this “orthodox” conception of God is just as much an idol as the next one. I freely admit that I cannot come up with a final melding of free will, sovereignty, mercy, justice, reward, and punishment. But without doing severe injury to some of the concepts involved, this idol is a pretty misshapen one.

In Bart Campolo’s view (and I hope you can still find a good link to it–look in the comments to Carter’s post as it had moved last I checked), God cannot do such a thing. A God who is capable of saving everyone must do so. But again, some concepts are more important than others. In this case we have everyone elected to salvation, and it doesn’t really matter who we were here. The unrepentant Nazi camp guard stands in eternity alongside his victim, irrespective of any repentance or determination to amend his ways. But this is no more a limited concept of God, idolatrous if held onto, than the other. Is this God made in Bart Campolo’s image, or is it his best effort to see where God is in all the bits and pieces we know about him?

I have my own concept of God. In my concept free will is “more equal” than the other concepts. To quote from my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic:

We put a low value on freedom of choice, on autonomy, and on creativity. We prefer comfort and safety. Many, many people will give up their own decisions and their own stewardship in exchange for the feeling that they are safe. But it appears that in the way that God has arranged the universe, physical safety is much lower on the priority list. Spiritual safety is much more assured than is physical safety.

Further, when God made us in his image, he declared what he had made very good. Later, in the Psalms, humankind is called “a little lower than God” (Psalm 8:5). The verse continues by telling us that God crowned human beings with “glory and honor.” Again, I’m going to suggest that this position is a little lower than God, a position that includes some of the divine nature, and one of being God’s children, comes from our stewardship of God’s power. We live and act with much less than the divine intention. One of the clearest teachings in scripture shows how humanity deteriorated after they sinned and left Eden. As a result, we are in serious need of spiritual healing. We are in need of a restoration of the image of God.

The good news brought by Jesus tells us that the image of God can be restored, that spiritual healing is possible.

But even though I like this image, the only saving grace there can be for my image of God is if I allow it to be shattered by the experience of God for myself. While I would like to improve my image of God, or more precisely replace it with a better one, I will still need to let the actual presence of God shatter that concept.

Bart Campolo has thrown some questions into the mix that are important. We can either complain about it, or start to deal with it. Simply asserting that God is merciful, and that somehow this is compatible with the idea that he will roast people eternally is not nearly sufficient. If we are so sure of that position that we will accuse anyone who questions it of idolatry, then I would suggest we are guilty of idolatry ourselves.

Every theological concept is the result of combining pieces together, and no combination of those pieces every does justice to each individual view. The ten blind men with the elephant could combine their views, but doubtless it would still not look terribly much like an element. Each view would contain truth, but the correct combination requires a viewpoint none of us actually has. I suggest that systematic theology is dangerous precisely because it is systematic. Once all the little threads have been tucked in properly, and we have a complete and coherent picture we have more likely created an idol than a true picture of God.

Perhaps we would do well to take our concepts daily into God’s presence and let God shatter our images, our illusions. I suggest we all need to repent daily of idolatry.

15 thoughts on “Conceptual Idolatry

  1. I think you may be reading too much into my critique of Campolo. My complaint is not with the way that he combines concepts of God. My complaint–and the reason I accuse him of idolatry–is that he clearly says that he (a) has formed his own idea about God without any outside reference and (b) accepts the Christian God as

  2. I think I gave warning that I wasn’t coming at you directly, but I am concerned about the accusation.

    Assuming that Campolo was doing precisely what you say (and I don’t read him that way myself) I would agree with your accusation.

  3. I suggest that systematic theology is dangerous precisely because it is systematic.

    I’m a programmer and as such regularly deal with computerized systems on which I have only partial knowledge. I’m told that a particular system generally does a particular function and I’m given instructions on how I can interface with it (typically called an API, or Application Program Interface). Now, while I can generally infer some of the internal operation of the system from its API, there are going to be some parts of it that are going to be unknown to me. Sometimes I can tell that one of several techniques is probably in use, but can’t tell which one, sometimes the system is just an utter black box to me. In programming to it, I have to be aware of what I can validly infer from the API, and what I can’t. If I infer more than what’s valid, I’m likely to make mistakes programming to it.

    Systematic theology, it seems to me, can be prone to the trap of assuming, so to speak, that the APIs God has given us are sufficient to deduce the complete operation of the underlying “system”, and declaring as complete knowledge what is only partial. It’s not enough to take what we know and make deductions from it. You also have to seek out the places where it’s likely that our knowledge is only partial, and make allowances for that partial knowledge. Systematic Theology done right will note that there are certain areas where we just don’t know. Done wrong it will project certainty where it’s not justified.

    Of all places, Job appears to me to speak to this. From my reading, the only thing that God rebukes Job for is for keeping on yapping in the face of lack of knowledge. Elihu caught it- “So Job opens his mouth emptily; He multiplies words without knowledge” (Job 35:16). When God speaks out of the whirlwind, the first thing He says is “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge”(Job 38:3) . What follows appears to be an extensive demonstration that “Hey, Job, there is a ton of stuff out there that’s beyond your knowledge. Does this really surprise you?” It’s interesting to note that in the middle of this, God stops and Job basically responds with “I’m not worthy”. That’s not the response that God was looking for, so He goes on. At the end Job echoes Elihu’s and God’s charge: “‘Who is this that hides counsel by words without knowledge?’ Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know”. Job still doesn’t know what caused all of the problems, but he does now know not to keep his yap running when he doesn’t know. Sometimes all you can do is say “I don’t know” and stop. It insults our pride, but it’s necessary.

  4. Oh, Henry Neufield, I do wish you go to and comment on what you see in dialog there regarding Humpty Dumpty. It is amazing how one person’s point of view on another blogsite about another issue can say to and entirely different issue. Your thoughts on the subject would be most welcome…at least by me. I find this post on idolotry extremely thought-provoking. However, I’m going to need much more time to digest it. I especially like what you have to say about Job. I don’t think anyone can ever say I know with total certainty about much of anything…other than God Is and I ain’t Him. selahV

  5. Oloryn: I just made a small error and thought I was replying to your comment but had clicked to reply to Neufield. You are who I want to thank for the insights you have on Job and also the presentation of your thoughtful post. See my reply to Neufield below. Thanks selahV

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