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Theology as Idolatry

April 2, 2015

“Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.  He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?”  Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.’  Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’  Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’”  John 13:5-9 (ESV)

As I was doing my usual Holy Week contemplation of the extensive gospel passages about that special week I came across an online discussion of the above passage that is perhaps the silliest discussion of a Bible passage I have ever seen.

The two sides of the argument, and it can’t be called anything but an argument, were debating whether the passage supported Calvinism, because Jesus was the active agent in the foot washing process; or Arminianism, because at the end of the conversation Peter had to choose whether or not to let Jesus wash his feet.  I can’t imagine any missing the point more ridiculous than a rip-roaring argument over who was the active agent/decider in such a beautiful passage.

The passage itself seems unconcerned about the “active agent” question.  Any position that demands that we know the correct answer comes rather from a theological construct we have made by culling the Bible for proof-texts for our own theory and, probably, ignoring or reinterpreting any passages that seem to differ.

Nobody disputes that the washing of the disciples’ feet is a picture of the work of God in Christ. We can see is the forgiveness of God, the justification of sinful human beings, regeneration by the work of the Holy Spirit and sanctification by grace.  Equally undisputed is the reality of the yes/no choice that Jesus offers Peter and the clear explanation of the results of a “no” answer.

At the end of the day Peter had to make a choice; would he let Jesus wash his feet.  I really don’t care about the “theology” behind the process that led to that choice and, frankly, I have trouble making myself believe that God does either.  The online dispute strikes me as an example of theology as idolatry; the tendency – strong among evangelicals – to be so wrapped up in seeking “right” answers to every theological question or application we can think of that we lose sight of what God wants of us.

When theology becomes our idol we mistake knowledge for wisdom and performance on some sort of test for spiritual maturity.  Like the people in the online chat, we become so wrapped up in discerning some sort of “teaching” in the passage and ignore or lose the wonder of the king of all creation humbling himself because he loves us.

I think there is a pretty good three-question test that can warn us that our theology might be our idol.

  1. Does my theology humble me? Theology as idolatry tends to make us proud of our right answers, not humble.
  2. Does it encourage us to love and serve others? Theology as idolatry makes us want to correct others and, if they don’t take correction, look down on them.
  3. Is Jesus at the center of my theology? Theology as idolatry makes Jesus, in passages like the one above, simply an actor in some great object lesson.
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