An idol isn’t an all-consuming object of worship

Modern evangelical theo-psychology has over-defined idols in a way that doesn’t make sense of historical idolatry or human sin. Take for example Keller’s definition from Counterfeit Gods:

What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give

Just as Calvin said the human nature is heart is a perpetual factory of idols, so modern evangelical pop-psychology is a factory of idol-talk. And I think it’s run away from itself. Ten years ago sin was wrongly defined as fundamentally ‘selfishness’. Now it defined as fundamentally ‘idolatry’. Both are inaccurate.

In the first place, idolatry is first bad because it is a sin of false religion. Religious idolatry is wicked, even if there is no emotional engagement with it. It is wicked to perform acts of worship to a false god, even if I don’t especially care about that god. I worry that in leaving the literal definition of idolatry in favour of metaphorical psychologising, we will stop rebuking literal idolatry.

But more than this, idols are PLURAL in the Bible. Idolatry is not monotheistic. To look to one God to be at the centre of our life and consume our hopes, desires and service is a monotheistic thing. Idols did not demand that exclusive service in ancient paganism. Idolatry does not demand the kind of monotheistic worship.

Indeed idolatry can be quite emotionally distant. I don’t need to be all-absorbed by the idol. I USE the idol. Give the sacrifice in order to get a benefit. Idolatry is more pragmatic than monotheism.

In the Old Testament, idolatry is compared the the adultery of sleeping around, not the modern adultery of falling in love with a mistress. idolatry is not finding a ‘new wife’ in a false god, but running after petty pleasures from multiple partners. So do we turn aside form God and find another idol to meet all those needs? Maybe. Or maybe we drift from fix to fix, in a series of idolatrous one-night-stands.

Now you COULD say that this is because there is an underlying ‘heart-idol’ that leads us to restlessly run from thing to thing. But at this point I wonder whether we’ve left biblical talk about idolatry behind and invented a whole new layer of evangeli-psychology. Is ‘idol’ the right category for this underlying evil drive. Or is the word for that just ‘sin’?

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