Hardcore truths that we must never forget:
Thirty years ago a very important volume appeared edited by Os Guinness and John Seel. It has the title which I used above: No God But God (Moody, 1992). I have referred to it often and quoted from it often. While this will not be a proper book review, it is time to devote an entire article to this key volume.
I do this in part because just yesterday I penned a piece that dealt with some of the themes found in the book. In particular I wrote that just because Christians enjoy a personal relationship with God does not mean the Creator-creature distinction is obliterated.
It remains forever: God will always be God, and we will not be. We must always have a proper – that is a biblical – view of the Living God. And that is what this book seeks to do. It has some parameters: it is written for and about American evangelicalism, but it is relevant for the whole of the West. And in good measure it deals with modernity and how it has impacted the churches.
Above all this book is about the problem we Christians have with idolatry. We can be just as idolatrous as any pagan can be. Indeed, the subtitle of the book is “Breaking with the Idols of Our Age.” Until believers deal with the idols they are worshipping, we will have little ability to break the idols of the world.
Thus the importance of this book. Incisive essays by some leading Christian thinkers are presented here. The authors are, besides Seel and Guinness: David Wells, Paul Vitz, Thomas Oden, Richard Keyes, Michael Cromartie and Alonzo McDonald. Here I will simply present some key quotes from the first three chapters. The first two are likely penned by Guinness, while the third is written by Richard Keyes.
“Our greatest need is for a third Great Awakening.” p. 11.
“It is time for our church to examine the integrity and effectiveness of its character and witness … For if the nation’s crisis is largely because of the decreasing influence of faith on American culture, the church’s crisis is largely because of the increasing influence of American culture on Christian faith.” p. 12
“[We] recognize this critical moment and reaffirm the historic call to ‘Let God be God’ and to ‘Let the church be the church – and free’ … reminding ourselves that who we are comes before what we do, that faith comes before works, that worship and contemplation come before action, that citizenship in the city of God comes before citizenship in the city of man, and that as in the past the church can only be freed from its cultural captivity today by the free Word of a free God.
“We recognize that some matters must be left to God alone and acknowledge openly that a spiritual and theological awakening within evangelicalism is our greatest need, but it is not ours to predict, initiate, or effect. Such an awakening is a matter of divine sovereignty, not human engineering or historical cycles. Yet we know too the perils of fatalism, of a passive, private devotion to God, and of presuming that praying well is the best revenge for the loss of cultural influence.
“We therefore call for a humble dependence on God that is matched by vigorous rededication to doing what is ours to do.” p. 14
“A better way for constructive engagement is to follow the prophetic dynamic of the gospel itself – law before gospel, judgment before grace, repentance before regeneration, and the disproof of Baal before the demonstration of Yahweh. We must require prophetic confrontation before personal and social transformation. The radical demands of the gospel will then be fulfilled with the demonstration that conversion, once begun, can never stop. Having touched a part of our lives, conversion must transform the whole.” p. 15
“As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has reminded us, just as a shout in the mountain can start an avalanche, so a word or stand for truth that does God’s work in God’s way in God’s time can have an incalculable effect.” p. 15
“In the biblical view, anything created– anything at all that is less than God, and most especially the gifts of God – can become idolatrous if it is relied upon inordinately until it becomes a full-blown substitute for God, and thus, an idol. The first duty of believers is to say yes to God; the second is to say no to idols.” p. 16
“The real problem is overlooked. Our problem is not that Christians are not where they should be, but they are not what they should be right where they are. In such fields as business or in such professions as law and medicine, Christians are plentiful in numbers, but are ineffective in discipleship, vision, and influence. Parallel to the priesthood of all believers, the calling of all believers is vital to the reformation of evangelicalism. Clerical dominance is a fatal handicap in secular, modern life. But the modern world has yet to see the power of lay Christian leadership exerted strategically across the multiple spheres of secular life.” p. 17
“Contemporary evangelicals are no longer people of truth. Only rarely are they serious about theology. . . . With magnificent exceptions, evangelicals reflect this truth-decay and reinforce it for their own variety of reasons for discounting theology.” p. 18
“Yet truth and theology are the royal road to knowing God. No one can love God and not be a theologian. No one can follow Christ and not be committed to taking truth seriously.” p. 19
Introduction: The Idols in our Churches and Hearts
“Idolatry is the most discussed problem in the Bible and one of the most powerful spiritual and intellectual concepts in the believer’s arsenal. Yet for Christians today it is one of the least meaningful notions and is surrounded with ironies, perhaps this is why many evangelicals are ignorant of the idols in their lives.” p. 23
“Radical opposition to idolatry is also fundamental to the Protestant principle. Confronting idols is the corollary to letting God be God, living by faith alone, and practicing the principle of ecclesia semper reformanda – the church always needs reformation. … Yet the Protestant principle is weak in American evangelicalism today. … Contemporary evangelicals are little better at recognizing and resisting idols than modern secular people are.” p. 25
“This idolizing process is taking place within our evangelical churches all the time. It is a major reason for our modern Babylonian captivity. The cultural forms of idol-worship have changed, but their essential seductiveness and menace have remained potent.” p. 26
The Idol Factory
“An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as a substitute for God. All sorts of things are potential idols, depending only on our attitudes and actions toward them. If this is so, how do we determine when something is becoming an idol? Idolatry may not involve explicit denials of God’s existence or character. It may well come in the form of an over-attachment to something that is in itself perfectly good… An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero – anything that can substitute for God.” pp. 32-33
“By this definition, all the obvious candidates are potentially idolatrous – wealth, fame, pleasure, power, and so on. We can recognize ways in which we disobey God out of loyalty to them. But many nonobvious things can work as idols as well, causing us to ignore or distort God’s commands to us. For example, work, a commandment of God, can become an idol if it is pursued so exclusively that responsibilities to one’s family are ignored. Family, an institution of God Himself, can become an idol if one is so preoccupied with the family that no one outside of one’s own family is cared for. Being well-liked, a perfectly legitimate hope, becomes an idol if the attachment to it means that one never risks disapproval. Even evangelism, carrying out the Great Commission, can become an idol if people are misused – Christian or not Christian – in the zeal to do it.
“To summarize, idols will inevitably involve self-centeredness, self-inflation, and self-deception. Idolatry begins with the counterfeiting of God, because only with a counterfeit of God can people remain the center of their lives and loyalties, autonomous architects of their futures. Something within creation will then be idolatrously inflated to fill the God-shaped hole in the individual’s world. But a counterfeit is a lie, not the real thing. It must present itself through self-deception, often with images suggesting that the idol will fulfill promises for the good life.” p. 33
This is just a small sampling of what is found in this vital volume. Three decades on and this collection of essays is just as timely as when they first appeared – even more so. The world has simply gotten even more worldly over this period, but so too has the church. We need to start dealing with the idols of our age – starting with our own.