Nine Questions to Diagnose Theology Idolatry

Note from Randy: Since I was a new believer, at age 15, I have loved theology. What I’ve always loved most is that it helps me get to know God better—His person, His plans, the way He works in His redemptive purposes.

Some are quick to minimize doctrine—“all that matters is loving Jesus.” But the more you know about Jesus, the more grounds you have to love Him. The doctrines of the deity and humanity of Christ, part of the larger field of theology called Christology, are vitally important not only to sound doctrine, but also to loving our Savior and Lord by getting to know Him better.

But theology, sadly, can also become an idol—as is everything that we put above God. Love theology, but be aware that if you care more about doctrine than about God, something is desperately wrong. Marshall Segal spells it out clearly and powerfully.

Is Theology Your Idolatry?

We have often loved what we’ve learned about God more than God himself.

The Bible warns us about the dangers that come with our knowledge of God, especially for the theologically refined and convinced. “You cannot serve both God and theology.” Good theology is a means to enjoying and worshiping God, or it is useless.

Has your theology turned into idolatry? Has your knowledge of God ironically and tragically drawn you away from him, not nearer to him? Here are nine questions that might help you diagnose theology idolatry in your own heart and mind.

1. Does your theology draw you to God?

Does greater knowledge of God lead you deeper into prayer? Maybe the surest test of our theology is whether it produces greater intimacy with God. No one needed to tell Jesus anything about God, yet that didn’t in any way dilute or diminish his need to pray. Instead, it deepened and enlivened his commitment to meet his heavenly Father in prayer (Mark 1:35).

Tim Keller says,

The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life. Many people will pray when they are required by cultural or social expectations, or perhaps by anxiety caused by troubling circumstances. Those with a genuinely lived relationship with God as Father, however, will inwardly want to pray and therefore will pray even though nothing on the outside is pressing them to do so. (Prayer, 23)

2. Does your theology mobilize you?

Does greater knowledge of God send you further into the world? Knowing more of God and his word should build our burden for the world around us — that they would see and know and love the truth we have seen and known and loved. In every chapter studied, every passage memorized, and every doctrine understood there should be an impulse to go and tell.

Jesus prays this commission over us,

“Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. . . . As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world . . . so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17:7–8, 18, 23)

The purpose of our knowing anything about God is that the world too would know him. Does your theology move you toward mission, toward making much of Jesus boldly and winsomely wherever he’s placed you?

3. Does your theology free you to sacrifice in love for others?

Does greater knowledge of God liberate you to love and serve others? Good theology breaks down barriers between Christians (1 Corinthians 1:10). It doesn’t build them. The hostility between us was erased (Ephesians 2:14), and in its place is a blood-bought love — a love that declares we belong to Jesus (John 13:35).

John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7–8).

4. Does your theology keep you eager to learn?

Does greater knowledge of God grow your desire to know him more? A mark of flawed theology is its settled conviction that it can’t be wrong. No, a deep, sound, robust, and grounded theology prays, “Open my eyes, that I may behold [more] wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18).

A man or woman who truly knows God can never get enough. After all, theology is the study of an infinite Person, a God who never ends and is never exhausted. Theology, then, is not just a lifelong journey and pursuit, but something we’ll do for the rest of eternity.

Do you treasure truth enough to happily embrace correction? Are you eager to have wrong ideas in your theology made right? If you know the one, true, and living God, you will never not be learning more about him. Good theology always has room to grow.

5. Does your theology humble you?

Does greater knowledge of God increase your dependence on his grace? Paul probably knew our God as deeply, thoroughly, and personally as anyone ever has. Instead of allowing this knowledge to puff him up, though, he became a humble, yet violent enemy of pride. He boldly declares, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Everything I am and know, I am and know by God’s grace. And everything I accomplish in my life and ministry is simply another demonstration of his power, and not my own. Again, Paul, the theologian of theologians, writes, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).

6. Does your theology define what you treasure and prioritize?

Does greater knowledge of God pour over into worship to him as your greatest treasure? Jesus described the transformation that happens when a heart truly knows God with this short story: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).

Does your theology place your treasure in heaven, instead of at home or at work or online where it once lived? Would you gladly give anything and everything here to have God forever? The more we know this God, the more we wean ourselves off the things of this world and center our hearts, our ambitions, and our longings on him.

7. Does your theology produce compassion in you?

Does greater knowledge of God break your heart for the lost and needy? A heart rescued by the gospel loves to be a means of rescue. Jesus, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Therefore, we joyfully overflow wherever there is need, with whatever we have been given (2 Corinthians 8:2–4).

When the apostles heard Paul’s gospel, they did not try to correct anything in his doctrine of justification, but simply asked that he remember the poor (Galatians 2:10). That suggests that ministry to the poor and needy — physically, spiritually, or otherwise — is close to God’s heart and critical to the spread of the gospel. Those who know God truly give to the needy freely.

8. Does your theology have Jesus at its center?

The God we meet in the Bible — and in all our theology — “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Everything God spoke before Jesus by the prophets, he said about Jesus (Luke 24:27; John 5:39–40) — to prepare the world to know and love his Son. And everything God said before Jesus, he said more clearly, more fully, more emphatically in Jesus (Hebrews 1:2–4). Jesus is “the image of the invisible God,” and in him “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:15, 19). Knowing God is the same as knowing Jesus.

All good, true, lasting theology can be boiled down to Jesus Christ and his cross (1 Corinthians 2:1–2). If the crucified Son of God is not at the very center of everything you believe about God, your theology has lost its balance, its anchor, and its meaning. No, we say with Paul, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).

9. Does your theology increase your desire for holiness?

Does knowing God more make you want to be more like him? It is suicidal to disconnect your knowledge of God from your pursuit of Godlikeness. Jesus had hard words for hypocrites like these: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mark 7:6). Love for sin exposes bad theology (1 Thessalonians 4:5).

Good theology wields theology against sin. “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). God has given us himself — revealed himself to us through his word — in order to recreate us in his image. And as we grow in holiness, our light rises in the darkness, revealing more of his glory to all with eyes to see (Matthew 5:16).

Peter writes,

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3–4)

The humble and hope-filled prayer of those who know God — really, truly, joyfully know him — pleads, “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it” (Psalm 119:34–35).

photo credit: Mikhail Pavstyuk via Unsplash