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Feedback Files - Theology as Idolatry

Today I’d like to reach into the Feedback Files and respond to a question I was asked quite some time ago but had filed away and forgotten about until quite recently (shame on me!). It is a good question and deserves an answer. I have removed some of the pre-amble, but the heart of the reader’s question is this: “A topic that I think would help to flesh out some of the non-Biblical responses that you’ve been getting … is to respond to this question: ‘When does our study of God become a god?”“

And that is a very good question, isn’t it? When does our study of God become idolatrous? This is a charge that is often levelled at Christians, and in particular, Conservative and/or Reformed Christians who may be known better for their knowledge than for their deeds.

Jesus gave us a solemn warning that we can know about God without knowing Him. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23). In the last days there will be many who have accumulated vast knowledge of God, but who have never truly known Him. They will know about God without ever knowing Him. The Scripture also tells us that unless our knowledge of God is spurring us on to a holy life, we do not have true knowledge of Him. “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:3-6). We have come to know Him if we keep (or do) his commandments, not merely if we know them.

Near the beginning of 2004 I wrote a post I entitled “The Study of the Study of God.” I recently wrote about this a little bit more in my series that examined our tendency to put God in a box. In the first article I wrote, “Theology has become a bad word in Christian circles. It seems that theology is linked in people’s minds with cold, dead religion that cares more about principles and matters of the head than deeds and matters of the heart. It is associated with fundamentalism and with cold conservatism. Yet if we look at the meaning and etymology of the word we cannot help but conclude that God requires all Christians to be theologians.”

Theology is good. And not only is it good, but it is critical to the Christian walk and is an expectation of God. The word theology is derived from two Greek words. The root “theos” means God and the suffix “-ology” comes from the Greek word for speak. So what theology really means is “speaking of God” or as has become the more accurate definition, “the study of God.” It is impossible for us to grow closer to God (ie “sanctification”) if we do not learn more about Him. While all we need to know to be saved is our own depravity and God’s grace, to grow in that grace we need to learn more about God - about His character and attributes, about our place before Him, and about His will for our lives.

In previous articles I have spoken about this “study of the study of God” as being “theology-ology.” Theology-ology is what happens when we make theology and end in itself. God has not told us to make theology an end in itself. Instead, the knowledge of God is to be only the first link in a chain. Once we have discovered something new about God, we are to examine it in the light of other Scriptures, and if it is consistent with the rest of the Bible, we are to apply it to our lives. This is not always easy, but it is the requirement of God. Everything we can and should know about God can, in some way, be applied to our lives.

God places high value on knowing the Scripture, but much higher value still on doing it. It has become a cliche that “love is a verb,” but what about theology? Theology needs to be more than knowledge - it needs to be knowledge in practice. Of course it goes without saying that we cannot keep what we do not know. Thus we need to study God’s revelation of Himself through Scripture, but need to do so with humility. We need to examine our intent when we study Scripture.

When we study God we should always examine the intent of this study. Do we study to increase our knowledge or do we study to increase our holiness?

1 Corinthians 11 speaks about the necessity of women wearing head coverings while in church. My intent in approaching this passage will probably shape my conclusions. I can look at that section of the Bible in two different ways. I can approach it with the motive of wanting to show that women are subservient to men and that all the women in my church sin when they do not cover their heads as is appropriate according to biblical standards. I can begin this study with the intent of proving to my wife and the rest of the women in church that they need to wear a head covering next Sunday, lest they make a mockery of God. On the other hand, I can turn to this section with a motive of wanting to understand what principles the Bible is teaching and how those relate to people today. I can begin my study with the intent of learning something that I can humbly and prayerfully apply to my life. While it is possible that I will reach the same conclusion, the difference is that I will have allowed God to teach me through His Word instead of allowing myself to read my own meaning into the passage.

Perhaps we can best determine intent by looking at the results of our study of God. What is the result of your study? When you study theology are you brought to your knees in awe at the power and holiness of God? Do you feel righteous indignation at those who speak falsehood in the name of God? Or do you feel pride in your knowledge? Do you find yourself thinking about who you are going to use your newfound theology against, or do you find yourself anxious to turn that knowledge into practice in your own life? Are you seeking to apply theology to your life or to the lives of others?

Another question we need to ask is this: do you find yourself taking comfort in your knowledge of God rather than in the grace of God? You can be sure that your study of God has become idolatrous if you begin to believe that your knowledge of God is what earns you favor before Him - even the tiniest, most miniscule amount of favor.

And finally, the study of God can become idolatrous when we lose the balance between knowing and doing. When we spend the bulk our time studying God, but very little time applying that knowledge through encouraging others and sharing the Good News with our neighbours, we need to re-examine our hearts. Are we storing up knowledge with no intent of applying it? Or do we earnestly seek to take what we have learned and use it to further the word of God?

I will close with some words from my study on putting God in a box. “The warning for us is that we must continually seek the Spirit’s help in applying Scripture to our lives, so that it does not become empty knowledge and an end in itself. Our knowledge of God is useless if it remains only in our minds. All we know about Him should spur us on to worship Him in spirit and truth and to motivate us to take what we know to the world, that others can rejoice with us.”