I have been writing on the subject of how the concept of idolatry applies in our modern age. This post is a continuation on this theme – if you have not done so already, you might want to read the first part of this series.
A Rigid Form of Stone
The second important aspect of idolatry that I think we need to understand is that the nature of idolatry is to rigidly define belief in something that we don’t – and can’t, really – know all (or even really that much) about. The idol is a guess at what a god would look like that has been frozen in stone. It is a cold, rigid form that is unmovable, and refuses to admit the weak ground on which its definition was based.
In contrast to the unmoving stone form of the idol, the Bible describes God as an infinite being beyond our understanding. Psalm 147:5 declares that God’s understanding has no limit. Isaiah 40:28 repeats this theme:
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
Psalm 33:13 declares that God sees all, and I Chronicles 28:9 expands this concept to declare that God is even able to search every heart and understand every desire and thought. Jeremiah 32:17 declares that nothing is too hard for God, and in Matthew 19:26, Jesus declares that nothing is impossible for God.
With such an infinite being in mind, so completely outside of our ability to conceive and imagine, you would think that men who follow this God would practice humility in theological matters and would deal with their fellow humans with patience as we all seek to understand the unfathomable, right?
Wrong. There is a very pervasive form of idolatry that is rampant in the church today. Those who subscribe to this form of idolatry succumb to an unmoving, stone-cold pride, using God as a bludgeoning club to pound each other with and drive fear and shame into each other’s hearts. They use knowledge as a form of power over one another, rather than as a healing bandage.
Those who worship this idol declare the inerrancy of scripture as their defense, and declare with unmoving pride: “sola scriptura!” (Latin for “by scripture alone”.)
But there is a naive dishonesty to this declaration. You see, when most people defiantly declare “sola scriptura“, what they usually seem to be saying is that scripture is easy to understand and we should take the most basic face-value interpretation as the right one. They act as though, by doing this, we can safely assume that we are not actually using our own views as a filter for interpretation.
But this is really quite naive and dishonest – it’s impossible not to interpret a text! Whenever anyone tries to interpret anyone else’s words without context, what they are actually doing is forming a sort of autobiography. This is a prevailing theme in the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida – pure ideas do not pass from one human to another, but must pass through the filter of language, which is then passed through the filter of the life experience of the receiving party. We build structures of thought upon our social upbringing, and whenever new ideas are presented to us, we then compare these to the structures we’ve already built in order to find out if and how they fit. But to be honest about a text, we should really study the context of the writer’s life in order to form a better picture of the ideas they may have been trying to present.
Frank Schaeffer wrote in “Patience With God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism)“:
…we can’t look at ourselves, only through ourselves. We’re stuck inside the painting we’re trying to critique and paint at the same time – in other words, our lives. A scientist… is trapped trying to figure out what is going on inside his head while using his head to do the figuring.
You see, we must also be aware of our own context – the context of our own lives and limitations of observational powers. And we must be aware at our human tendency towards cognitive biases.
Quantum physics posits that the only way we can know anything is by understanding how our own vantage point affects our observation. In quantum physics there is a problem known as the “observer effect” (which would make a great name for a band, by the way) where an observation actually effects what is being observed. For example, in order to check the pressure of a tire, you must let out some of the air, thus changing the pressure. In physics, in order to detect an electron, a photon must bounce off of it, which will change the behavior of the electron.
What a person who declares the inerrancy of scripture and using the phrase “sola scriptura” is doing is to pretend that they have no context through which they are filtering their understanding. Perhaps even worse, they are declaring that the finite understanding of an infinite God acquired thousands of years ago is a complete understanding of this God. And even if this is so, their own understanding of this finite understanding – lacking the context in which this understanding was acquired – couldn’t possibly be wrong on any accounts. This is no less than an idol of concepts.
In my next post, I will explore some of the other problems with the claims of inerrancy and how it relates to idolatry, as this deserves more exploration.