Regular readers of this blog will remember me plugging The Christian Humanist Podcast (CHP) from time to time. If you’re at all interested in theology, philosophy, literature, “and other things that human beings do well,” as the tagline goes, then it’s well-worth listening to.
CHP just took on one of Tertullian‘s works recently, and the resulting episode is very enjoyable. Go listen to it, but before you do be sure to read the piece by Tertullian. It’s called “On Idolatry” and you can find it online here.
I had a few comments after listening which I’m sharing with the show on its website, but thought I’d post them here as well. [In case you’re interested, I’ve previously discussed one of their episodes on Luther’s Freedom of a Christian over at First Things in a post entitled“Non-Lutherans Reading Luther: What Makes Good Works ‘Good’?”.] Now, my unpolished thoughts on the Tertullian episode:
Just listened to the Tertullian podcast and thought it great. The episodes where you take on a particular text are always among my favourites.
Michial’s comments about how doing theology in general can become a form of idolatry were thought-provoking. They were balanced nicely by David’s comments about the need (and difficulty) of submitting our theological reflection to the greater authority of revelation. Otherwise we are very much in danger of re-creating God in our own image.
I can’t help but think of Helmut Thielicke’s classic A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Despite the rather patronizing-sounding title (the German original is not so offensive), the book is useful reminder to those who study theology that their “superior” learning does not give them leave to ignore the thoughts (and occasional rebukes) of “simpler” Christians. One important note Thielicke makes is that the theologian must not presume to think he can simply study theology at arm’s length. “We must also take seriously the fact that the ‘subject’ of theology, Jesus Christ, can only be regarded rightly,” he writes, “if we are ready to meet Him on the plane where He is active, that is, within the Christian church. Only the Son knows who the Father is; only the servant knows who the Lord is.” In other words, our examination of the things of faith must be mediated by the revelation of Christ—in His Word (Scripture) and His body (the Church).
This is, incidentally, why Lutherans have a bit of trouble with Calvinist approaches to theology. From our perspective, the Calvinist has too strong an urge to try make logical sense of everything, whereas Lutherans instead warn about the danger of peering into the “hidden things of God.” The prime example is the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement. It certainly makes good logical sense of the doctrine of election, but nevertheless distorts (to my mind at least) the clear Scriptural teaching that God desires all to be saved. (I’ve broached this subject at First Things before in an article entitled “Why Lutheran Predestination isn’t Calvinist Predestination.”)
I’d also like to thank Michial for his pastoral reflections on idolatry and our own guiltiness and need for grace. While Tertullian might imply we can somehow avoid sinning, Michial comes in with a much more realistic (and biblical) take: that we are all guilty, both of sin ourselves and culpability in supporting the sin of others. As St. John puts it so well, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). That being the case, claiming like Tertullian that we can fully avoid idolatry actually results in falling into another form of idolatry—one in which God declares us righteous on the basis of our sinlessness. Expecting God to say we’re doing just fine? That’s the Pharisee’s god. But it’s the Publican who gets things right, coming in repentance to a God who is just but nevertheless merciful. Otherwise you have a Christianity that doesn’t need Christ. And if that’s not idolatry, I don’t know what is.
Thanks for a great show, as usual.