Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Do We Need to Call It Idolatry?

I know this is going to aggravate a few people, but can I just ask a few questions without being painted with a specific brush or by attracting a firestorm of response?

There has been a lot of talk recently in certain evangelical circles on idolatry. I remember talking with someone who had just read Greg Beale’s book, We Become What We Worship. The young man reading the book basically summed it up by saying that the root of our sin is idolatry. I countered that I thought that the root of our sin is our selfishness. It could then be countered that our selfishness is when we elevate our desires above our desire for God, thus we become idols unto ourselves. Or, the things we desire become the idols.

I read Keller’s very helpful book, Counterfeit Gods. I greatly benefited from it. Keller defines an idol as: anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. It is what you spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources on without a single thought. “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.”

I understand that and I even agree with it to an extent. But, I still don’t understand the idolatry language. I’ve been studying Mark 7 and Jesus’ renunciation of what the Pharisees called “The Tradition of the Elders” (Jesus called them the traditions of men). I would imagine that Keller, Beale and others who agree with this kind of thinking would say that the traditions of the elders became the idols of the Pharisees, and those like it. This takes me back to my original question, why call it idolatry. Jesus doesn’t call it idolatry. In fact, as far as I can tell, the terms idol, idols or idolatry are not found in the words of Jesus or the gospels themselves. In fact, when idols or idolatry is used in the New Testament, overwhelmingly it is referring to literal pagan idol worship. There is one place in Col. 3.5 that does use idolatry as way of discussing greed (or it could be sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires as well, which are lumped together in that verse).

My main question is, why do we have to be so quick to label issues like this so quickly and not examine the texts and see how idolatry is defined. I am not saying that books like Beale’s and Keller’s aren’t helpful, I’ve already stated my appreciation for Keller and his book. But can’t I ask this question without being put into a camp or being shouted down. I just want to discuss these issues. It seems if you disagree with certain popular teachers or camps, you get criticized and your orthodoxy is questioned. (I fall into this camp with some of my favorites). Anyway, I don’t have a proper conclusion to this rant, but my study of Mark 7 got me thinking, “Why didn’t Jesus refer to sinfulness as idolatry?”


Rik said...

Words and labels have been stumbling blocks to all kinds of people. Say idol to you and it gets you worked up. But define what you mean, as you did with Keller, and we can all get behind it.

When you friend you mentioned says that idolatry is the root of all sin and you say that selfishness is the root, you are both communicating the same thing.

There is a local Christian Bible College in town. If you use the word Calvinist to them, they get scared and run away. Sit down and talk about what it means to be a wretched sinner who saved only by the grace of God and they get excited.

We can go as far back to Luther. What your friend calls idolatry and you call selfishness, Luther calls breaking the first commandment. But is all the same thing.

billy v said...

I don't disagree. I'm not even trying to mischaracterize my friend. I agree with what you are saying, but I was trying to make a textual observation. I'm more of a technician than a theologian and this is what technicians do, we take things back to the texts. Keller makes good observations and applications that are helpful. I remember the first time I brought this up, I attracted immediate reaction because "How dare I question Tim Keller?" I've seen this with other prominent teachers (esp. Pastor Mark and JP). You can't disagree with MD without being called Roger Moran Jr in this state. And forget questioning JP. I just want to ask questions. I appreciate your response. I don't disagree with you. Just getting a few things off my chest.

Josh Collins said...

good questions. The language of idolatry does seem to be the prominent OT theme (I'm certain that Beale's book largely focuses on the OT I'm guessing; Keller's certainly did).

It might be interesting to see a thematic study of the issue of idolatry in the Gospels. I'm guessing (based on my own failed memory) that the entire lack so far of idolatry talk you've found in Mark so far might be due to the relative scarcity of teaching passages with the focus being on Jesus' actions. I'm through chapter 6 in Luke and I haven't found a lot of "idol talk."

If you were in Matthew, I'm guessing that Jesus' personification of Mammon in chapter 6 would have to be looked at for sure. That seems to be idolatry language.

I think the Gospels also are so busy pointing us to Jesus as the one to be worshipped and obeyed that they don't need to be as polemical against idols. That's one problem with the renewed "idol" talk in the church, people are so busy identifying idols and stopping at that point without turning from idols to the true and living God.

Rik said...

You can disagree with Driscoll, because he can harsh and maybe even mean.

You can disagree with Piper because he can a bit confrontational and extreme.

But Keller you cannot disagree with because he is obviously so smart and he is gentle.

By the way did you use only nicknames and or initials because your computer will throw red flags when you use their actual names?

Josh Collins said...

If you think questioning those guys is dangerous, ask my wife about questioning Pope Beth at a woman's Bible study!

billy v said...

Josh, I saw that on twitter. I can see that. Rik, I don't criticize Keller, I only ask questions.
Josh (again), there is very little (if any) idol talk in any of the gospels. Mammon is the only thing you could make a case for. You are right about the OT and that is true, that Keller does make that case. But the OT is speaking to a group of people that are dealing literally with idol worship. Again, just asking questions. I loved Keller's book.