Thursday, July 8, 2010

idolatry or unbelief?

I'm reading Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller. This is a book we brought with us, not one from the holiday house bookshelf. Keller is always good to read. His books have nice big print, thick pages, sparkly covers and one basic idea.

This book is about idolatry, and in particular the idolatry of love, power, money and success and how these 'counterfeit gods' take God's place in our lives. In each chapter, Keller takes a bible story (Abraham sacrificing Isaac, the Jacob-Leah-Rachael love triangle, the rich young ruler etc) and shows how idolatry is at the heart of what is going on. He relates these forms of idolatry to modern day situations and shows how we can pull these false gods off their thrones in our lives.

It has heaps of good stuff. Keller is insightful. His suggestions are helpful. You should read the book.

But I'm not convinced that idolatry should be the primary way that we understand sin, as Keller seems to suggest.

Keller frames the Abraham and Isaac story around Abraham's idolatrous attachment to Isaac:

"This was the ultimate test. Isaac was now everything to Abraham. ... Abraham's affection had become adoration. Previously, Abraham's meaning in life had been dependent on God's word. Now it was becoming dependent on Isaac's love and well-being. The center of Abraham's life was shifting." Keller, Counterfeit Gods, p7.

I think this is a stretch. Genesis and Hebrews interpret this event not as a test of Abraham's love for God over Isaac but of Abraham's belief in God's promises. God had told Abraham that his descendants would come through Isaac (Gen 21:13). Abraham believed this and so reasoned to himself that God must have been planning to raise Isaac from the dead (Heb 11:17-19).

In Genesis 22, it is Abraham's faith that is on trial. God was testing him to see if he really believed that he would do what he said he would do. Unbelief would have been the sin, not idolatry.

I've not finished the book yet, but in the next chapter (Jacob-Rachel-Leah) I think it is a similar stretch to say that idolatry (the idolatry of romantic love, in this case) is at the heart of what's going on.

Anyone else read the book? What do you think?


  1. Haven't read it, but it sounds like he's counterfeiting gods....boom tish. (ie, I agree with what you said)

    The Bible identifies greed with idolatry...and makes it only one aspect of pagan religion. He needs more sexual immorality in there somewhere...and it would no doubt sell even better!

  2. I'm reading it too, am a few chapters in. I like it, and think he hits the nail on a lot of things, but am on the fence so far as to being convinced that all the illustrations he gives centre around only idolatry.

  3. I've got the book but have loaned it out. I've read The Reason for God pretty closely though and have heard lots of his talks on line.

    Idolatry is a very helpful way in to understanding our condition. It preaches well and is relatively easy to understand. The strength of Keller's approach is that when taken to its logical conclusion, it's easy to see that worshipping anyone/thing other than Jesus will always disappoint. And his constant probing of the sin behind the sin is, for me, penetrating.

    But. I'm not convinced that idolatry is, in every situation, the primary way to explain sin (nothwithstanding Keller's argument, following Luther, that all of the 10 commandments hang off the first 1).

    But I think Keller might say that too (I'm happy to be corrected). He's using idolatry because it is so easily applies to both believer and unbeliever in his context. He's tailored his gospel presentation to fit the po-mo culture into which he's preaching. And it's working.

    My gripe is with all those who have bought Reason for God and have just bolted it on to their own sermons (I've done this to btw. One sermon of mine in particular was a blatant rip off).

    Falling short of the glory of God and breaking God's law are also descriptions of sin. But here, again, Keller would ask "but why do you fall short? Why do you break God's laws?" and his answer would probably be "because you have replaced God with an idol."

    btw Simone. I see you are being described as "superb" over at the Sola Panel. That'll help the blog hits;)

  4. Working my way along through the book.
    The material with Abraham reads funny to me because of Keller's reference to the importance of the first born in Jewish thought and symbolism.
    It seems a little anachronistic because Abraham and Isaac predate the Jewish people and their culture. The culture is derived from episodes like this, it does not inform how they are to be read.
    Perhaps the reference could have directed to Mosaic thought.
    The idea that Abraham would have been acutely aware of the legitimacy of God's demand of Isaac as a sin offering for his family is odd, and without much corroborating reference in the Bible.
    As an aside, I don't remember Keller making reference to the Jewish and Muslim notion that Abraham's family were manufacturers of idols.