Protestantism’s Idolatry Problem


“So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, ‘You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’” (1 Kgs 12:28)

“To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (Is. 40:18)

Our Modern-Day Golden Calves

Protestantism today has an idolatry problem. And by that I do not mean what countless Protestant preachers on both the left and the right can be heard thundering from pulpits every Sunday—that we have embraced the idol of Mammon, or of the State, or of personal freedom, or of gluten-free dieting, etc. This may all be true enough, and yet when we seek to make the pervasive biblical warnings against idolatry relevant to the modern world in this way, we manage to miss a central strand of the Bible’s teaching on the subject: that we can make an idol of Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel.

In one of the more tragicomic moments in all of Scripture, the children of Israel can be seen falling into this wickedness almost as soon as they have left Egypt, at the very moment when Moses is receiving the Commandments from God in fire and smoke upon the mountain. There, with the powerful and terrible presence of Yahweh apparent to their very eyes, Aaron is able to persuade the Israelites to fashion a golden calf and worship it as the god “who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Lest there were any room for confusion about whom this calf was meant to represent, we are told, “And Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh.”

We are apt to miss the lesson of the Old Testament’s many warnings against idolatry by chuckling at the benighted folly of those who needed some physical image with which to worship God. But what should be clear to us from the witness of Scripture is that what fundamentally concerns God is our tendency to worship the creature rather than the Creator—and this includes worshipping the Creator as a creature. The human heart is a “perpetual factory of idols,” as John Calvin observed,[1]and there are two main production lines in this factory. One starts with a creature that we are particularly enamored of because it promises to meet our deepest desires and needs, and to elevate it into an object of worship. Of the two basic modes of idolatry, this is certainly the one we are still apt to hear sermons about. The other, however, starts with the Creator, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and shudders before his holiness and incomprehensibility; needing a God that can be put on a greeting card or in a praise song, our idolatrous hearts shrink this God down to size, and make him more like us.

Thus we find ourselves faced with phenomena like The Shack, in which the protagonist is consoled in his grief over his daughter’s death by a God who appears in the form of an African American woman (the Father), a Middle Eastern carpenter (the Son) and an Asian woman (the Spirit). More recently, renowned spiritual writer Fr. Richard Rohr has claimed to introduce his readers to the doctrine of the Trinity as “the Divine Flow”: “whatever is going on in God is a flow, a radical relatedness, perfect communion between Three—a circle dance of love.” It is a circle dance that is not complete even within itself, for, writes Rohr, “creation is thus ‘the fourth person of the Blessed Trinity’! Once more, the divine dance isn’t a closed circle—we’re all invited!”[2]

It might be easy to dismiss such heterodox pop spirituality (although if we did so, we’d be dismissing the millions of evangelical readers who turned these books into runaway bestsellers), were it not that the basic ideas behind these blasphemies have long been appearing in somewhat tamer form among our academic theologians. A couple decades ago, the evangelical academy was roiled by disputes over “open theism,” which cast aside the traditional doctrines of God’s eternity and omniscience in favor of a God who lives, learns, and loves right alongside his creatures, hoping they will make good decisions and everything will turn out right in the end. Although evangelical theologians for the most part succeeded in closing ranks against open theism as just a bit too explicitly heterodox, they have been more than content to flirt with less overt denials of God’s eternity, as Steve Duby’s essay in this volume notes. At the same time, the classic attributes of divine simplicity, immutability, impassibility, and aseity have often been casually set aside if not openly rejected. In his bombshell recent book All That is in God, James Dolezal has identified these trends, comprising a new theology of “theistic mutualism,” as pervasive among leading Reformed and evangelical theologians and biblical commentators of the later 20thand early 21stcenturies. “In an effort to portray God as more relatable,” Dolezal summarizes, “theistic mutualists insist that God is involved in a genuine give-and-take relationship with His creatures.”[3]

At the same time, a radical revision of Trinitarian theology has been underway for several decades, with the fierce traditional insistence on divine unity replaced by a “social trinitarianism” in which a community of three persons—redefined as no longer the mysterious Greek hypostases, but in the modern English sense of individual subjects characterized by personality—either flow in and out of one another in a radical egalitarian dance (if you are socially and politically liberal) or exist in carefully-regulated structures of authority and submission (if you are socially and politically conservative). Such formulations are simply inconceivable from the standpoint of historical Christian orthodoxy, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant. Equally inconceivable is the fashionable modern talk of “the Father turning his back on the Son,” of the “Trinity being broken” at Christ’s crucifixion, language that originated in Jurgen Moltmann’s radical theological revisionism of the 1960s and 1970s and took only a couple of decades to become domesticated into conservative evangelical orthodoxy.

We could identify many causes for the current chaos—from widespread historical illiteracy, to the appearance of new philosophical challenges or at least intellectual fashions (often Kantian and Hegelian in origin), to methodological biblicism or Christocentricism. At the more popular level, though, I think that much of what drives our theological revisionism is what has always lain behind the human heart’s penchant for idolatry: a hunger for a God who is like me, a God who can relate to me, and meet me where I am, a God who is real enough to be there beside me in the midst of suffering. Whether it’s the anguished search by modern theologians for a God who could make sense out of Auschwitz or the infinitely superficial spirituality of the evangelical condolence card remembering that God will help us “mount up with wings as eagles,” the fundamental drive—emotivist and anthropocentric—is the same.

 

Yahweh is a Rock

What this search for a God we can relate to forgets, however, is that the only reason that the Psalmist can cry to God in anguish for deliverance is because he knows that “Yahweh is a rock” before whom the earth reels (Ps. 18:2, 7). We all know the inspirational opening and closing verses of Isaiah 40, in which the Lord promises to comfort his people and lift them up on eagles’ wings, but how often do we ponder the resounding verses in between:

Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
or what man shows him his counsel?
Whom did he consult,
and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales;

To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?

To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable. (Is. 40:13-15, 18, 25, 28).

It is precisely the incomprehensibility of God that makes him able to comprehend our every struggle and grief, the unsearchability of His understanding that enables Him to search us out and know us from our mother’s womb (Ps. 139), and His infinite incapacity to suffer change or grief that gives Him an infinite capacity to carry our griefs and be our anchor through every change. Indeed, amidst all of modern theology’s desire to do justice to the radical truth of the Incarnation—that the Almighty stooped to our level and died in our place—we have found at the end of it all that we have cheapened the Gospel into a generic love-story. If the Almighty was already at our level—suffering, changing, yearning, and dancing—then it should hardly surprise us that he decided to manifest Himself amongst us so as to have a closer relationship and add one more partner to His circle dance. Fallen man always wants to retell the story of his deliverance in more relatable terms—“behold your gods who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”—but idolatry always destroys the Gospel.

It might seem like for all the forgetfulness of classical theism, the Gospel is alive and well in contemporary evangelicalism, but Protestantism today is running on fumes, on borrowed capital from an earlier era of robust orthodoxy that informed our worship and practice. We should not be so naïve as to imagine that we can continue to maintain a biblical witness on sex and marriage, or on greed and freedom, if we have ceased to preach a gospel anchored on the biblical God. “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3)

 

A Blueprint for Retrieval

Still, we can hardly hope to rebuild these foundations merely by shrilly lamenting how far we have departed from them. We are Protestants, after all, and we are apt to self-identify in terms of William Chillingworth’s famous words: “The Bible, I say, the Bible only is the religion of Protestants.”[4]Our job, we will say, is to take the Bible at its word, and let the chips fall where they may. If that entails radical revision of the doctrine of God taught by our fathers in the faith, then so be it; we will at least be following the method of the Protestant Reformers, if not the content of their faith. Of course, the cranky historical theologian will object that this is not, in fact, the method of the Reformers, but of the anti-metaphysical, Scripture-only Socinians whom they fiercely opposed. But it will probably make little difference. This particular train is too far out of the station, and when called to account at the bar of the Reformed tradition, many contemporary theologians may be apt to say, “Well, perhaps the Socinians were onto something.”

Ultimately, the need of the hour is to show not merely that historic Protestantism is no friend to revision of the doctrine of God—although this is critical, and some of essays in this volume make crucial contributions along these lines. Nor is it merely to show that the philosophical assumptions and concepts that underlie classical theism are eminently defensible—although again this is critical, and I hope you will find some of the essays in this volume immensely helpful in this regard as well.

Beyond this, we must show that philosophy really can be a handmaiden to theology, not a competitor, that the rigorous conceptual distinctions formulated by our forefathers actually serve to illuminate the biblical text—a text which, left entirely on its own and uninterpreted, would degenerate into self-contradiction. Consider the juxtaposition of Jn. 1:18—“No one has ever seen God”—with Ex. 33:11—“the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” A wooden literalist might have some trouble here, but it does not take a great deal of reasoning ability to reconcile these two passages by privileging the more literal affirmation of John 1 with what we judge to be the more metaphorical affirmation of Exodus 33.[5]This is not “refusing to take Scripture seriously,” as many modern theologians accuse classical theists of doing. Rather, it is taking Scripture very seriously, by insisting on taking it as a whole. When we take it as a whole, we are necessarily committed to distinguishing between statements about God that are to be taken unequivocally and thus serve a more regulative role, and statements that have a more contextually-specific meaning and require careful interpretation. It is this basic task of distinguishing, essential to all good reading, that over the course of centuries bore fruit in the Nicene Creed, Chalcedonian Definition, and the elaborate formulations of the classic doctrines of the unity of God and trinity of Persons.

Not, mind you, that the purpose of these distinctions and formulations is to render God philosophically intelligible and lucid to our gaze. On the contrary, at the heart of classical theism is the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility, the rhetorical question of Isaiah: “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” It is this humble awe before the mystery of the Triune God that all idolatry fails to sustain, and that so much modern theology, with its false claims to humility before the Scriptural text, is too self-important to accept. As no less a philosopher than John Locke said, when confronted with the first wave of modernity’s redefinition of the doctrine of God, “Perhaps it would better become us to acknowledge our ignorance, than to talk such things boldly of the Holy One of Israel, and condemn others for not being as unmannerly as ourselves.”[6]

FOOTNOTES

[1]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:108.

[2]Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (London: SPCK Publishing, 2016), quoted in Fred Sanders, “Why I Don’t Flow with Richard Rohr,” The Gospel Coalition, December 2, 2016, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/the-divine-dance/(accessed April 12, 2018).

[3]James Dolezal, All That is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Theism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), 1-2.

[4]William Chillingworth, The Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation(London: Thomas Tegg, 1845 [1637]), 460.

[5]I am indebted to Fred Sanders for this particular example.

[6]John Locke, Remarks Upon Some of Mr. Norris’s Books, Wherein He Asserts P. Malebranche’s Opinion, of Our Seeing All Things in God, in J.A. St. John, ed., The Philosophical Works of John Locke (London: George Bell and Sons, 1894), II:469.

Classical Theism for The Contemporary Church