Have you ever been introduced to something that feels unique? Something that feels foreign, but at the same time astonishingly refreshing? When I acquire a new belonging, I begin to have that very experience. It sounds strange and almost a little funny, but when you’ve bought a new car, an article of clothing, or a product meant for recreation, it almost puts a spring in your step. For a while, I didn’t have a winter jacket that fit very well. I recently bought one that does. And really, it’s pretty great. Water and wind resistant. Lined with insulation. Everything that I would want in a winter jacket. Also, it fits, and that’s what I was shooting for. Suddenly, I found myself having more enthusiasm to do things I’m not exactly dying to do in most cases, like taking out the trash. I’m not sure how you feel about going outside to throw out the waste that’s accumulated in your home, but I for one don’t find myself being particularly passionate about such things––unless I’m wearing my new jacket.
I realize the last few sentences probably seem a bit odd. I think it only seems weird because we don’t think about anything like that in real time. By nature, we cling to things that bring us comfort or make us feel important, and when we feel important, we go the extra mile. We tend to look at new and shiny attractions as confidence boosters. We have a habit of believing that since we have thing A or that we are now in situation B, everything is new and improved. Found in the book Leviticus in the twenty-sixth chapter, God instructs the Israelites to “not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it” (Leviticus 26:1). Idols are not just exclusively statues. They can be anything that is seen as more worthy of worship than God himself. Calvin called the human heart a “factory of idols,” and we are living proof of his very words.
But material things aren’t my point. Idolatry is.
I enjoy theology a lot. It is suffice to say that I love it. It has introduced me to precious treasures like the unfolding covenant nature of God; his absolute sovereignty, his mercy given to undeserving sinners, and his winnowing holiness. God has used it as a means to the greatest end of knowing and cherishing his Word above all else.
Well, I would be being dishonest with you if I stopped there.
Theological Idols Fall Hard
Theology, or the textbook definition, ‘the study of God and God’s relation to the world,’ has at various points of my life been a barrier. A barrier to humility and kindness. Even a barrier to things of first importance such as unity and fellowship. Theology has a way of challenging positions that you hold and introducing you to things you would of never even thought about. This isn’t all bad. Done with godly motives and humbleness, it can be a great exercise in growing towards better life application of God’s Word. Done poorly, it can leave you empty handed, jaded, and unsatisfied. As difficult as it is for me to admit, it was a source of an identity crisis for me at one point. In fact, I have to continually check myself to this day to be sure I don’t fall into the same trap again. I allowed such a great tool as right thinking about God to get twisted into a weapon against right thinking about the very soul that God has placed within each and every one one of us.
The late pastor-scholar R.C. Sproul once said this when a seminary student asked him a question about theology and idolatry during a panel discussion:
“If you have a theology that is idolatrous and that puffs up and all the rest, then you need to do more work in theology, because you have a very superficial understanding of the things of God.”
Sound doctrine must first sharpen the irons of discipleship. The soul is the center of the Christian life. To have a mind that is transformed you must first have a heart that is transformed. Discontentment with how we want or how we believe things should be within the congregations we are a part of speaks to a bigger discontentment and deeper longing to understand the great union we already possess in Christ. Knowledge can’t fill that void. Big God theology should always lead to big God obedience, love, and discipleship (Galatians 5:22-23). It should never lead to elitism, egotism, or an uncharitable attitude (Luke 20:46-47). We should be quick to remember how Jesus viewed the Pharisees. Even among disagreements with other fellow Christians on important areas of doctrine (ones not necessarily being core tenets of the Christian faith) such as how worship should be conducted, if Christians should drink alcohol, how often communion is taken, or how baptism should be performed, it seems to me that God’s church is big enough to have varying views on these issues. How those theological convictions are carried out is dependent upon motive and conscious. Diversity is much different than disunity, but as Christians, we must not become naive into thinking that our graciousness can’t be poisoned by theological idols. It tends to be a sin we are either blind to or believe that we couldn’t commit. The second we believe we are humble is the second we start being the very opposite.
Whether you are Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, painted blue, aren’t a part of a denomination, or find yourself in disagreement with what your church believes on a given subject that’s not a deal breaker, be sure to guard your heart. It can be very good and beneficial to be rooted in a theological tradition and is something I value myself to a degree. But idols are sneaky to the point of being host-like. They feed off our potential or already existing discontentment. Quoting theologians and debating theology doesn’t require nearly as much of our lives as obedience does. Nor does believing exactly everything they believe. Being a warm-hearted, hospitable, and wise saint requires radical surrender to Jesus and the death of self.
We should certainly be theologically informed. I’m certainly not saying otherwise. I highly encourage the deep questions and study of the Word of God. If you have a heart for theology, use your gift for Christ’s church. The Bride of Christ needs men and women with sharp minds to disciple others. Read good books that bleed the Gospel. Allow your heart, mind, and soul to be shaped by the Spirit of God. Have convictions and hold to them. Discuss them and build up one another in the midst of them and be kind and considerate. Agree. Disagree (but do so kindly). Talk to your elders (be sure to be kind to them too).
I know the ultimate question at hand is this: can theology become an idol? Yes. But it doesn’t have to become that. I have found that the greatest remedy to this is being honest with those who know you the best and getting alone with our Lord in prayer and more deeply intimate with the character of God. Not just studying it.
True gospel-centered theology redeems and directs us to where our deepest longings are fulfilled––the person and work of Jesus Christ. Anything other than that is useless and vain.