The central theme of Romans 1 concerns the general revelation that God makes of himself to the whole world. Paul labors the fact that the revelation of the gospel is to a world that is already under indictment for its universal rejection of God the Father. Christ came into a world that was populated by sinners. The most basic sin found in the world is that of idolatry.
Man is a fabricum idolarum. So wrote John Calvin in an attempt to capture the essence of human fallenness. In Germany, a fabrik is a factory. It is a place where products are mass-produced. Calvin’s phrase simply means “maker of idols.”
In cultured civilizations, we tend to assume that idolatry is not a problem. We may complain about the use of statues and focus on certain ecclesiastical settings but where they are absent, we feel relieved from concern about primitive forms of idolatry. In a broader sense, however, any distortion from the true character of God is an act of idolatry. Our theology itself may easily become idolatrous. If our concept of God is incorrect at any point, that point of error is itself an element of idolatry.
The Sin of Theological Error
To commit theological error is to commit sin. We excuse ourselves lightly by appealing to the weakness of the intellect and the difficulty of the subject matter. We pride ourselves in being noble seekers after truth and dismiss our errors as mere “mistakes” along the way. Mistakes are something children make when they err in the sum of 3 + 5. We do not think of such mistakes in moral terms.
God commands us to love him with all of our minds. He calls us to diligent discipleship. We are called to meditate on his word day and night. Our errors in theology are rooted in our pride and our slothfulness. We are satisfied with sloppy views of God. We are comfortable with idols. It is our fallen nature to prefer the idols to the real God. Idols are lifeless and worthless. But they are also harmless. That is why we are comfortable with them. We make our own idols. What we make, we own; and what we own, we can control. We did not make God. We cannot control him. That makes us uncomfortable.
Special Judgment for Teachers
Let me be candid, revealing my innermost thoughts about the problem of idolatry. I am a student of theology. I am also a professor of theology who has taught the doctrine of God in theological seminaries. That is supposed to mean that I know something about the subject. Like most students, however, I realize that the more I learn about God, the more aware I become of what I don’t know about him. I realize that I should know a lot more than I do know about God.
I also know that as a teacher, I am supposed to know more about God than the average Christian. That terrifies me. The Bible warns that not many are to become teachers because there is a special judgment in store for teachers. If I am guilty of leading the little ones astray, that makes me a candidate for a millstone around my neck.
A Major Problem Among Evangelicals
I like to think that my theological errors are mere “mistakes.” The truth is, however, I err because I have not done my homework. I have not applied my mind fully to the love of God. So my own failures in theology haunt me.
There is still another matter that deeply concerns me. I see a problem with idolatry in the evangelical world. There is much that is orthodox within current evangelicalism. Sadly, there is also much that is not orthodox. I see the problem of idolatry, not as a slight deviation here and there, but as a major problem. Idolatrous views of God are rampant within current evangelicalism. I find a God who is not immutable, who is not infinite, who is not holy, and who is not sovereign. Such a god is simply not God. It is an idol.
The Roots of Idolatry
In Romans 1, the apostle Paul traces the root of idolatry. He writes,
… although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him … (verse 21)
The problem with idolatry is not a matter of ignorance. It is a problem of human attitudes toward God. The primary posture of fallen man is one of refusing to honor God.
Somehow it seems that to honor God means to sacrifice the honor of ourselves. I do not want God to get the credit for my achievements. This is our most basic sin, our pride that squeezes out any room for the proper honoring of God. The sin of ingratitude is linked to the sin of dishonoring God. Obviously, if we had a proper sense of gratitude to God for all the benefits he has bestowed upon us we would have an intense desire to honor him. Our hearts would be aflame with adoration.
The apostle goes beyond describing the roots of idolatry to providing a solid definition of the nature of idolatry. He writes,
They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (verse 25)
Idols are not made from scratch. It involves the distortion of already present truth. The truth is changed into a lie. The lie depends upon the truth it is distorting for its power, just as the counterfeit depends upon the authentic for its value. Our idols of God contain truths within them, making them all the more seductive to us. To be sure, God is love. To reduce God to love, however, is to change the truth into a lie.
If evangelical Christianity is to move beyond idolatry, we must do serious study of the character of God. We, of all people, carry that responsibility. That the “liberal” distorts the character of God is no surprise. That ardent evangelicals do it should shock us awake from dogmatic slumbers.
This article is © Tabletalk Magazine, and was originally published as “Man — The Maker of Idols” in the March 1989 issue, pages 20–21. Until now, it has never appeared online.
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