Nice Idolatry (1)

Dave forwards to the HB a comment from a friend, who shall remain anonymous:

I have a personal relationship with Christ but my Christ is not an ass and He wants everyone to do what makes them happy including gays being allowed to marry

This statement is rich with false assumptions and error but will reward us for paying some attention to it because it captures the “spirit of the age” (Zeitgeist) perfectly. If we understand what this statement says and implies and why it is fundamentally and thoroughly false we may avoid being taken “captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col 2:8)

What we have here is a series of truth claims. Our writer is telling us that she knows things, propositions that are, as distinct from those that are not. She does not say, “What I think might but true but it is subject to further evaluation. ” She’s saying that she knows with an apparently high degree of certainty several things to be true.

How does she know and what does she know? Notice that she does not begin with revelation (either natural or special). She doesn’t begin with “God says” or  “Scripture says.” Rather, she begins with the tell-tale subjectivist qualifier, “personal relationship with Christ….” That’s evangelical code for “I am a Christian” and it’s not inherently objectionable. After all, we are persons and Christ is a person and if we do really know him, then we must know him personally. In that sense, all knowledge is personal knowledge (Michael Polyanyi). Is there any other way to know him or anything? Humans only know things, propositions, and persons personally. We cannot know Christ impersonally can we? We know about him (historical knowledge or notitia) but if he has revealed himself Holy Scripture and we trust that he is true and that what he has said is true (assensus) and if we trust that it is true not only generally but also for us personally for us (fiducia), then, presumably every believer has a “personal relationship with Christ” but which Christ?

I ask because she qualifies the person with whom she has a “personal relationship” with the odd expression “my Christ.” This is a deadly qualifier. When I was a pagan, under the influence, as it were, of the doctrines of Alcoholic Anonymous, where it is confessed that we have put our trust in “God as I conceive of him” it was orthodoxy to speak of “God as I understand him” or “my God” as distinct from “your God.” Implied in this way of thinking and speaking is that we are not necessarily referring to a God who is objective to me, who exists regardless of my experience. The intended implication of this way of speaking is that “You have your god and I have mine.” As the Beatles sang and my Pol Sci prof Bob Miewald used to say [warning archaic and decidedly unhip cultural reference coming in 3, 2, 1], “Whatever gets you through the night….” In this view there’s no claim that “my god” is actually, objectively true but only that it is of sufficient psychological value to help one remain sober or sane. We were never to ask “But is it objectively true?”

Thus, “my Christ” should be troubling because the starting point is not Christ as he has revealed himself in Scripture or as he is confessed in the catholic creeds. The starting point is not that which is outside me and comes to me. Rather the starting point is that which is inside me and particularly inside my imagination. Scripture has a very low view of “God as I conceive of him” or “my Christ:”

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:29–31)

This was Paul’s message to the Athenian Philosophical Society at the Areopagus. He knew Christ personally. He had an intensely personal encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Nevertheless, he also knew and taught that the subjective and personal does not obliterate the objective. The Christ who confronted him on the road to Damascus was not a figment of Paul’s imagination nor was he the product of psychosis. He really and truly existed.

Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. (Acts 9:3–7)

Paul’s encounter with Christ was personal and public. It was personal but witnessed by others. The Jesus who spoke to him was not the creation of his imagination, it was the same Christ who had been crucified and raised. By persecuting the church Paul was persecuting the Christ who actually is. Paul did not go to Christ, as it were. Christ came to him.

So, persons do receive and interpret truth but the acts of reception and interpretation are not the same as the act of creation. The Christ he preached to the pagan philosophers was not “my Christ” but the Christ, that same Christ who was

…conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried…the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; thence he shall come again to judge the quick and the dead (Apostles’ Creed, articles 3–7)

The Christ Paul whom announced and declared was not a figment of his subjective experience but the Christ who is and who is objectively true and who will objectively return and judge everyone on the basis of an objective, plainly revealed moral law known by all (Romans 1–3).

In that same speech, Paul also argued that God is the Creator. He is objective to us. In the words of Genesis 1, “In the beginning God….” In the beginning, before we were, God was and there was nothing else. Everything else that ever was is contingent upon God and he was and is and shall be contingent upon no one. He is that he is (Exodus 3). He just is and we are because he created us. He spoke ex nihilo (from nothing, i.e., matter is not eternal) into nothing and by the power of his Word made all that is (John 1:1–3).

So, creation is personal. It was spoken by divine a person, and accomplished through the agency of the second divine person and with the help of the third divine person of the one Triune God hovering over the face of the deep (Gen 1). Yet, creation is objective to us. We did not make it. We were made. We experience it but our experience of it does not define it. God defines it and us. He says what it is. Our vocation is to name his creation in obedience to his definition of it.

Now out of the ground the Yahweh Elohim had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would name them. And whatever the man named every living creature, that was its name (Genesis 2:19).

The business of naming is a high calling but it was to be done in submission to him who spoke first. God’s speech is creative and our speech is, as it were, only re-creative. We re-assemble what God has already created. That is why nominalism is so cruel, because it breaks the stable, divinely intended, analogical relation between God’s Word and ours. It seeks to make the creature into the Creator. Adam’s naming wasn’t arbitrary. God gave him the gift of language and he was use that gift in submission to and for the honor and glory of the Creator of language. He was to imitate his Creator.

Thus, “my Christ“ is an idol. The Christ is the Word (1 John 1:1). He is objectively true. His Word is objectively true. He was known with the senses. He was actually, physically, empirically verifiable. The Apostles touched him. They heard his Word. They watched him perform miracles. They saw him risen from the dead (Matt 28) and they watched him ascend to the Father (Acts 1). “My Christ” doesn’t exist. He is, by definition an idol, a figment of the factory of idols (Calvin, Institutes, 1.11.8).

Next time: Idolatry has consequences

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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9 comments

  1. To help update your pop-cultural repertoire:

    “Whatever deity guides my life, dear Lord please don’t let me die tonight.” -Jay-Z

  2. Scott:

    Over the last several months, vis a vis the OT prophets, I’ve (it’s all about me) have been reflecting on ISI. ISI = idolatry, syncretism, and indifference.

    You’ve (it’s all about you) have addressed the “idolatry” angle. Bravo!

    ISI is the ages-old pressure on Christ’s holy and catholic church.

    A good blogpost and more needs to be observed about ISI, notably the attachment of sex and productive deities in northern Israel.

    Thanks and good to have you blogging again.

    • Thank you for the note about “the attachment of sex and productive deities in northern Israel.”

      Our modern forms of idolatry in America seem often to have similar connections to sexuality.

  3. I sometimes attribute when people say “my Christ” or “my God” allows this or that and this or that are against the scriptures as being due to the hardness of their hearts. But lets be honest, who of us has never shown any such hardness?

    The issue of allowing same-sex marriages often shows our tendency to engage in boolean logic in a world full of continuous values. There is no doubt that homosexuality goes against the Scriptures and thus should never be practiced by those who belong to Christ. And if it is practiced by someone, especially someone in the Church, we should gently and firmly approach them and they should be listening to what is said.

    But my fear is that we might fall in the same trap that Luther regarding the Jews. For Luther commanded the German society of his day to choose between persecuting the Jews or be complicit in their rejection of Christ. So if we fall into this trap, we will unwittingly associate the Gospel with persecution or, in our case with those who are gay, opposing equality by prohibiting a personal choice that does not infringe on the rights of others and, as humanly speaking, does no harm to others. If we fall into the trap Luther did, we can unnecessarily discredit the Gospel. This associating persecution with the Gospel just might be another issue this person is responding to when they say what they said about their Christ.

    To me, the issue isn’t propositional vs personal, it is listening to someone who isn’t ready to acknowledge what God has clearly said about homosexuality. And the question becomes how can we best help people like this person to better face what God has to say?

    • Curt,

      Go back and re-read the post. I was attempting to show that the personal cannot be juxtaposed with the propositional.

      Are you familiar with Calvin’s distinction between the two kingdoms?

      Take a look at David VanDrunen’s books.

  4. Dr Clark,
    I just ordered VanDrunen’s book. My reply was not contradicting your attempt. Rather, I agree with what you wrote.

    I just wanted to add why people come to the conclusions that your anonymous source did. I do think that such people are not ready to hear God’s truth and whom among us have never been there? This is a debate that caused me to leave our PCUSA church. The ministers there didn’t want to attribute the practice of homosexuality in the church to any problem with sin.

    At the same time, I believe that the Conservative Church can make it even more difficult for people to recognize what the Bible says about homosexuality by how it treats gays outside of the Church. When we are seen, and sometimes very legitimately so, as persecutors of gays, people will rightfully rush to defend them. And in that rush, they will make conclusions that justify their actions.

    So the Church must find ways of preaching repentance to gays while treating them as equals in society. And in so doing, the Church must avoid persecuting them. In addition, if we could recognize the contributions of gays to society, then our preaching repentance to gays will less likely be associated with persecution. Having a few gay friends who have contributed positively at varying levels to me and my family guides my thinking here. It would be dishonest and ungrateful not to acknowledge how they have helped us.

    I have a blogpost on this in my blog if you are interested. If you go to the box that has the most popular blogposts, my post on “Should Christians Support Gay Marriage” is the post to access and is the post most often viewed.

    • Curt,

      “Equality” is quite the wrong category by which to analyze the problem of homosexual marriage.

      1. The magistrate is ordained by God to preserve order, which is determined by creation. That natural order is not an arbitrary, man-made category used by one class to oppress or control another. Nature is objective to all of us, it is received by us, and we must order our lives according to it or face the consequences. It’s easy to establish that there is such a thing as nature. Climb a tall structure and jump. What will happen? We can predict because there is a creational institution or law: gravity. That law, though perhaps superseded or modified by Einstein’s theory, still describes our universal sense experience. It is neither fair or unfair, just or unjust. It simply is. It cannot be defied without consequences.

      2. Pro-homosexual marriage advocates consistently ignore the reality of the natural order. The very act of homosexuality is contrary to the natural order. This is a family blog so I cannot explain in detail why it is contrary to the natural order but anyone who is unsure should betake themselves to the nearest pasture where there are sheep or cattle and simply watch the animals for a few days. Yes, one might see occasional homosexual acts but the normal or ordinary pattern of things is heterosexual activity. Homosexual activity is the exception, not the norm. Further, though humans are mammals, we are not cattle or sheep. We were created in the divine image and thus we have the natural intellectual and voluntary capacities to avoid doing what cattle and sheep occasionally do. Homosexual behavior is so obviously contrary to nature that it’s one of the behaviors to which the Apostle Paul appealed in his exposition of natural or creational law. He knew that pagans, Jews, and Christians could all see that homosexual behavior is manifestly contrary to the natural order:

      For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for ua lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

      Paul was not appealing to Moses nor to the theocratic legislation issued under Moses (613 commandments) but to nature. His citation of homosexual behavior only works because it is universal sense experience that homosexual behavior is contrary to nature. In other words, if homosexual behavior were not universally known to be contrary to nature the argument fails because the example fails and it’s his primary evidence that people have exchanged their glory as image bearers for something else.

      3. It is with nature that the magistrate must concern himself. There are limits to what people may be allowed to do. Humans may not murder other humans. Humans have a natural right to live and they may not be deprived of that right without due process. Arbitrating such cases is the magistrate’s business. Marriage is a natural, creational, institution administered by the magistrate. Marriage is not a mere arbitrary, nominal convention cruelly imposed by mean heterosexuals for the purpose of hurting or controlling homosexuals. Marriage is fundamental to the natural order and it is inherently heterosexual. The union of homosexuals, whatever it be, is not a marriage. The magistrate may no more license or sanction the violation of the natural order in marriage any more than he may sanction the violation of the natural order in physics or murder. Why don’t murderers get “equal rights”? Because they don’t have any right to commit murder. This is why “equality,” however appealing it may be to the post-19th-century American egalitarian spirit, is the wrong category. Like murder, homosexual behavior and unions are not adjudicated under “equality” because that assumes things are simply false and contrary to the creational order. This is why pedophilia or incest or bestiality are not treated under the rubric “equality.” This is why racial inequity must be treated under the rubric of equality, because it is contrary to the natural order for people to be deprived of their liberty because of their race. Yes, I’m quite aware that people appealed to “nature” in order to oppress other races and in order to commit crimes against humanity. The abuse of a category doesn’t destroy the category of analysis. The French radicals appealed to “equality” in order to justify mass murder as did the Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot but that does not obliterate the category of equality.

      I understand that late moderns are deeply suspicious of nature but I think that late moderns are capable of reason in civil matters. This is another reason why I distinguish the spheres in which God administers his sovereign rule of the universe, because of common grace or providence we may reason with fellow citizens as image bearers on the basis of reason, in a way that we would not in the spiritual sphere.

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