Theological Idols

One book I have currently had ‘open’ (meaning I should have finished it by now but haven’t), is Peter Rollins’ How (Not) To Speak of God. I’ll save an overall review for a later date. But I wanted to share a thought that comes forth in the early pages of the book.

Peter Rollins hails from Belfast, Ireland, and did his doctoral studies in philosophy. He now leads the emerging group known as Ikon. It is true that Rollins is an adamant advocate for the emerging church. The book is basically an apologetic for emerging theology. But, while there are some things I appreciate and other things I might not appreciate as much within the emerging context, I think Rollins hits on a very pertinent point as we engage with theology (or studying God).

He begins by challenging us with regards to the idolatrous conceptions we have of God. Our ideas of God, our doing of theology, can many times get in the way of the actual greatness and awesomeness and mysteriousness One that God truly is. Rollins states:

Like an aesthetic idol (such as the Golden Calf in the book of Exodus), the conceptual idol refers to any system of thought which the individual or community takes to be a visible rendering of God. The only significant difference between the aesthetic idol and the conceptual idol lies in the fact that the former reduces God to a physical object while the latter reduces God to an intellectual object.

He goes on to help us grasp just how incomprehensible God truly is in all His greatness:

On a more fundamental level, the fact that God’s name is unpronounceable acts as a symbol of God’s otherness. The very fact that the term ‘YHWH’ lacks the vowels needed for pronunciation reminds us that this ‘proper name’ is very improper insomuch as it is impossible to say. Unlike the other references to Israel’s God, which are either generic terms or descriptions of attributes which the Israelites ascribed to God, the term ‘YHWH’ preserves the mystery of God.

Though it can be difficult to admit, there is a call, at times, to see a breaking down (‘deconstruction’) of particular concepts and ideas about God so that we might revel in all that He truly is. Rollins would not argue theology is bad or that we cannot understand something of who God is. But he reminds us, challenges us, that our theology never perfectly grasps the unfathomable One, YHWH. Even more, our theology can become the idol we worship rather than the revealed, and at times unrevealed, One.

3 thoughts on “Theological Idols

  1. Scott, I think you and I would agree that our concepts of God become idolatrous when they stray from God’s self-revelation in Scripture. I can, in part, appreciate what the author is saying, but it sounds like he’s taking a somewhat anti-theological approach in favor of a more ‘mysterious-mystical’ approach.

    To say we can completely know God is false, but so is saying that God is completely mysterious. Both are wrong. We should loudly and boldly proclaim the God we see in Scripture and remain silent where God has remained silent. I would say much more than “theology is not bad,” rather it is crucial to have the right theology because it shapes the rest of our faith and practice.

  2. Carl-

    I think you would not like Rollins’ overall perspective with an ’emerging’ perspective. He is not completely anti-theology, but does challenge overly rigorous theology, what we might call extremely ‘boxed’ theology.

    But I do believe we must chew on Rollins’ words, his challenge, to help keep us balanced. God has revealed himself, but perhaps the greatest thing God has revealed about himself is his unfathomableness.

  3. We need to be able to hold theology with broad brush strokes. For instance…PSA is a widely held theory and it is a theory that has good Biblical merit – however most of the other theories of the atonement likewise have good Biblical merit…. by holding loosely to those theories – we can then appreciate what else the Scriptures are saying and perhaps then we can appreciate and appropriate more fully the understanding of the tensions of Scripture for our own lives.

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