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Apologetics and Idolatry

09/04/12+ Share

Stanley Being Stanley

Sojourners online recently posted a quote from Stanley Hauerwas that has me thinking about apologetics again. It reads, “Never think that you need to protect God. Because anytime you think you need to protect God, you can be sure that you are worshipping an idol.” [No source is cited, but I've heard him say this before.]

When I posted this quote on Facebook, I received several questions about what Hauerwas might mean here. So here is an attempt to clarify.

I like this quote because it speaks to our insecurities about God. We’ve learned, perhaps through painful conversations with intelligent unbelievers, that the God of Scripture simply cannot be proven. Faith is actually required.

Sure we can argue through observation that the universe appears to be orderly and presupposes some sort of cause beyond itself, but that does not get us to the specific God of Scripture—the one we have come to know best through Jesus Christ. Observation can only get us to the concept of a generic creator God.

God Being God

 This is not bad news. It seems to be the way God decided to create things. It is a choice God made and one that we are not in a position to second guess. If the God we worship is the God of Scripture, we are in no position to approve of his decisions. To do so is to place ourselves above God, which is idolatry.

We also commit idolatry by judging God according to the standards of contemporary society. Contemporary society is in no position to accredit God. We are not exceptional in this regard. All societies are ill-equipped for divine accreditation. Any system that can be held above God as a sort of standard to which he must be held accountable usurps God’s place and reduces him to a lower level deity.

Fred Being Fred

To illustrate this subtle but very common form of idolatry, I will talk about a famous dead theologian. It is good to talk about dead people because doing so helps us imitate their virtues and avoid their vices. It is especially good to talk about dead people with long complicated German names because they are less likely to be talked about.

In the early 19th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher (you can call him Fred if that helps) sought to make Christianity acceptable to the religious despisers of his day. The Romanticism of that time was known for its rejection of institutional religion. Such religion was perceived to be steeped in religiosity and unnecessarily encumbered with specific traditions and doctrines. They were especially critical of intellectual and ethical approaches to religion.

Sound familiar?

Sharing those sensibilities, yet not wishing to drain the baby out with the bathwater, Fred redefined Christianity along lines that were acceptable to himself and his peers. His most decisive move was to identify the core of religion with the individual’s feeling of complete dependence on the divine, the infinite, or the absolute. This immediate personal experience, which cannot be received from others, stands at the core of one’s faith. This “feeling” became the throne before which all other practices and institutions must bow.

Josh Being Josh

Fast forward two hundred years and listen to the testimony of well-known apologist Josh McDowell. Having grown up in the Church, Josh asks the question that we wish all skeptics would ask, yet few have actually heard from a real skeptic:

“What makes you so different?”

The Christian promptly responds, “Jesus Christ.”

Josh retorts, “Don’t give me that religion crap.” (my paraphrase)

Then Neo-Schleiermacher replies, “I did not say ‘religion,’ I said ‘Jesus Christ.’”

And so begins a saving conversation that ends with Josh entering into a personal relationship with Jesus, complete with doctrines and institutions to fully service his individual experience.

Simply replace philosophical terms like the “infinite,” “absolute,” or “divine” with the name “Jesus Christ” and true religion is back up and running. Put differently, replace German Romanticism with American Individualism and we have a culture-tailored faith with all the necessary supports.

Now the astute evangelical may interrupt, “That’s not fair. Josh McDowell and friends have a high view of Scripture and derive their teachings from it. Fred was steeped in Neo-Platonism. Clearly you are comparing apples to oranges.”

Not so fast. Those who read Fred know that he, too, used Scripture to back up what he said. Only, he was more upfront about the philosophical assumptions he brought to the text.

Just as those assumptions governed his interpretation of Scripture to produce his spin on the Christian faith, so do modern apologists. They are simply less aware of the cultural-philosophical tail that wags their apologetic dog.

“Maybe,” the sympathetic evangelical immediately responds, “But who can deny the genuineness of Josh’s conversion and the hundreds (if not thousands) of people his apologetic conferences and writings have helped convert?”

I do not deny that Josh’s conversion was real and that it has generated really positive results. I, myself, was strengthened in my faith at a young age after reading one of Josh’s books. He helped spark my theological curiosity.

But the fact that God has worked wonders with someone's best or worst attempts at representing him does not absolve us of the responsibility to transmit the life-giving word he has entrusted to us as faithfully as possible.

It remains true that attempts to defend God or make his gospel more attractive by presenting him as someone other than he really is—or by offering us something different from what he actually offers us—border on outright idolatry.

Us Being Faithful Translators

So how might we avoid apologetic idolatry? One way is to use Bible terms for Bible things. Here I am not denying the need for translation. By all means, we must find twenty-first century terms that our neighbors can understand to talk about first century events.

What the faithful translator must never do, which well-intending apologists have been doing since Schleiermacher’s day (really, since second century Gnosticism), is replace Bible concepts with contemporary concepts that conflict with the Bible concepts they are attempting to translate.

It is one thing to take a biblical phrase like “kingdom of God” and translate it as “God’s reign” or “God’s rule.” It is another thing to replace it with “inner feeling of dependence” or “personal relationship with Jesus.” Though there is some truth in both of these phrases, neither adequately translates the core of the Gospel Jesus preached.

Us Being Faithful Witnesses

Another way to avoid apologetic idolatry is to exchange a defensive posture with a witnessing posture. God doesn't need us to defend him or protect him from the harsh words or twisted ideas of others. He is God enough to handle that. He wants us to tell his story and to live our lives as if we believed it.

We must boldly tell the Bible story and testify to how it has impacted our lives. We have good news to tell, not a bad idea to defend. The gospel is God's gift to us. A gift cannot be forced down someone's throat or beat into their brains. It has to be received as a gift.

If your conversations with unbelievers have you feeling less like a herald of good tidings and more like a defendant on the stand, then apologetic idolatry may be lurking around the corner.

"But wait," you might be thinking, "Doesn't 1 Peter 3:15 tell us to that we must always be ready to give a defense (apologia)?"

Yes, but we have to read this verse in its context. 1 Peter 3:14-16 reads,

"But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame."

There are three important components to this verse that are often overlooked.

First, it begins by telling us not to fear what unbelievers fear but to remember that Christ is Lord. In other words, our prosecutors are not in the judgment seat, Christ is. Their categories, statistics, or syllogisms don't trump God's story.

Second, we are not told to offer a defense of God in this verse, but an account of our hope. We are people of hope who have hope to offer our accusers. We have a gift to share and an offer to extend, knowing full well that God has given all people the ability to reject that offer.

Third, we must make this offer in gentleness and reverence. We don't run people over with our superior arguments. We don't manipulate them into making forced decisions. We must respect their disbelief the way Jesus respected the disbelief and rejection he encountered in the flesh.

Me Being Concise

In sum, we must not spoil God's gift by watering it down until it is acceptable to our audience or by cramming it down people's throats until they begrudgingly concede just to make us stop. Disciples aren't made that way; slaves are. Since God is not that kind of master, we reduce him to an idol when we represent him that way.

http://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=337

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