In-Between People: Avoiding Idolatry
Does the Christianity you know live up to the Jesus you love?
N.T. Wright’s latest book, The Day the Revolution Began, helps sort out the nature of the incongruity with which many believers grapple and provides a biblical basis for rethinking a lot of platitudes that seem to make Christianity irrelevant. The word “revolution” in the title is a clue of the transformational reshuffling of ideas that Wright is proposing to his readers. I might suggest that Wright is advocating a massive repentance among Christians and a willingness to rethink almost everything. By repentance, I mean to change one’s mind –- a paradigm shift. Parenthetically, Seventh-day Adventists, whose ancestors courageously rethought and reconfigured many of the prevailing Christian thoughts, should relish the idea of openness to any fresh examination of the Bible. Wright describes it this way:
“Many now hear the word ‘Christianity’ within the echo chamber of a weary and cynical Western modernism, in which the ‘church’ is simply a large organization full of arcane rituals and bland platitudes, with fingers in other people’s pies, acting as a triumphal and imperial force in the world and providing guilt trips and the fear of hell for any who gets in its way.” (362)
Claiming not to negate traditional Christian precepts, Wright seeks to refocus and contextualize what was accomplished by Jesus’ life and death. For starters, he implies that scholars have collected proof texts to create a systematic theology and have, inadvertently, created something that misses the intended mark of the original writers. Wright suggests that many widely accepted precepts are just not complete. That is to say, believers have not been asking the right questions, so they have not seen the whole answer. He likens this to looking for an elephant, thus missing the hippopotamus.
Key to Wright’s assertions are three errors in Christian theology. He repeatedly returns to this trilogy of a moralized anthropology, platonized eschatology, and a paganized soteriology as examples of how interpreters of the Bible have allowed cultural influences to influence theology formation. Briefly, a moralized anthropology is one in which the purpose of humanity is distilled to accomplishing a moral checklist. The platonized eschatology is one overly concerned with the heaven/earth dualism to the extent of avoiding pressing issues in the here and now. A paganized soteriology misrepresents and effectively minimizes the power of Christ’s death by parroting phrases that make it similar to pagan sacrifices that appease wrathful gods.
Wright finds truth throughout all scripture, including the Old Testament, avoiding the common old covenant/new covenant pitfall that can make God out to be a sort of bipolar, Janus-faced deity. Though completely bypassing the book of Hebrews, Wright extensively studies Paul’s letters, making the case that Paul was seeking to validate God’s faithfulness to the covenant that He started with the Hebrew people. For Wright, Paul was not creating a new systematic theology but was validating Jesus Christ as a continuing evidence of God’s faithfulness.
Devoting one whole chapter to the book of Romans, Wright helps the reader remove preconceived notions and grapple with what is written.
“I have often reflected that if the Reformers had focused on Ephesians rather than Romans or Galatians, the entire history of Western Europe would have been different.” (33)
Consider Romans 3:24 vs. Ephesians 1:10. Which proof text tells the reality of God’s intention at the cross? The traditional presentation of the gospel (i.e. the “Romans Road”) has little contact with the story the apostle is telling in that famous epistle, Wright argues. Abstracted from the story of Israel, the traditional gospel presentation, supposedly based on Romans, becomes reduced to “Jesus bore God’s wrath in your place so you could go to heaven when you die.” That old time religion presented a narrow, but legitimate, metaphor but did not go far enough. Or, one could say that what we call old-time religion is not actually “old” enough in the sense that many assertions in what we call orthodox theology do not align with the beliefs of first century Christ followers. Wright advocates reading all the New Testament, looking for big themes as to what Jesus did accomplish by coming to earth — a larger cosmic view.
When speaking about the crucifixion throughout the book, Wright insists that it was not a one-off deal or a mere mechanism for salvation. Rather, the Messiah’s crucifixion unveiled the very nature of God himself at work and in the process was able to debunk the power structure that had been created by idolatry. This is Paul’s central argument in 2 Corinthians –- behold your God, and be changed.
This brings up the notion of idolatry, another theme in the book, the theme that was most powerful for me. The concept of idolatry in scripture is complex, powerful, and diverse. Although listed among the first rules in the Decalogue, Protestants often believe that they do not have to worry about idolatry. After all, was not idolatry a problem in ancient times when believers competed with pagan gods? And now, is it not just a problem for Roman Catholics who have icons in their churches?
Just as other commandments are not arbitrary, the edict not to worship idols is not capricious. Worshipping idols is wrong because that puts a person’s focus on something which is a diversion from the task for which humanity was created – that is to reflect the divine image. We become what we behold. In fact, Wright makes the case that all sin is a second order problem, outflowing from idolatry. Wright says sin is not a mere breaking of the law although he agrees that would be a true statement. Instead, all sin is the result of idolatry as humanity shrinks from its original purpose of reflecting the image of the creator.
“The Bible, then, offers an analysis of the human plight different from the one normally imagined. ‘Sin” is not just bad in itself. It is the telltale symptom of a deeper problem…humans were made for a particular vocation, which they have rejected; that this rejection involves a turning away from the living God to worship idols; that this results in giving to the idols—‘forces’ within the creation—a power over humans and the world that was rightfully that of genuine humans; and that this leads to a slavery, which is ultimately the rule of death itself…It ought to be clear from all this that the reason ‘sin’ leads to ‘death’ is not at all…arbitrary and somewhat draconian punishment for miscellaneous moral shortcomings. The link is deeper than that…when humans fail in their image-bearing vocation, the problem is not just that they face punishment. The problem is that the ‘powers’ seize control, and the Creator’s plan for his creation cannot go ahead as intended.” (86)
Wright proposes to expand the common view of sin which postulates that it is something that stops us from going to heaven and is somehow dealt with at the cross. Wright replaces this with what he calls a Biblical model. That is to say sin is what stops us from being genuine humans (bearing the divine image/royal priesthood) and the root for this is idolatry. The idols have gained power; humans have given their power to idols. Called to responsibility and authority within and over the creation, humans have turned their vocation upside down, giving worship and allegiance to forces and powers within creation itself. The name for this is idolatry. These idolatrous forces could be money and sex and power. They could be arcane church structures. Or, the idolatry could be in the form of an inaccurate view of God—seeing God has a vending machine, for example.
The fact that Passion Week coincided with celebration of Passover is key to Wright’s narrative. Throughout the book, Wright weaves the significance of Christ as the liberator who bestows the gift of freedom in unexpected ways. He particularly emphasizes the notion of including the excluded in table fellowship as a key countercultural Jesus methodology.
“According to that original revolution, rescued humans are set free to be what they were made to be…. An overconcentration on ‘sin’ and how God deals with it means that we see things only with regard to ‘works,”…the royal priesthood is more multidimensional…to reflect the divine image means standing between heaven and earth, even in the present time, adoring the Creator and bringing his purposes into reality on earth, ahead of the time when God completes the task and makes all things new…. The revolution of the cross sets us free to be in-between people, caught up in the rhythm of worship and mission.” (363)
In-between people, caught up in the rhythm of worship and mission.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.
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