Idolatry, Orthodoxy, and Orthopraxy

In Deuteronomy 4, there is quite a focus on idolatry.  I’ve heard a number of evangelicals say that believing the wrong thing about God is essentially worshiping another god, or an idol.  These evangelicals often say this to theists who believe that God is too loving to send people to hell, or when they want to stress that God is just and holy, not just loving.  In the minds of these evangelicals, believing that God does not send people to hell or is too loving is essentially worshiping another god, an idol.  I even read one evangelical who said that we have to get the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures right, otherwise we’d be worshiping a false god, an idol.  So I guess that Chalcedon was important, after all!

The thing is, nobody has God exactly right.  Language in limited in describing God.  It cannot capture the entirety of who and what God is.  What’s more, what we think we know about God does not capture who and what God is.  Not only is language limited in capturing God, but it can also be quite ambiguous.  Some evangelicals like to thump their chests and say that one has to believe what the Bible says about God, otherwise one is worshiping an idol.  But what the Bible teaches is obviously ambiguous, explaining the multitude of interpretations and denominations that are out there.  Moreover, there is the factor of the reader and how he or she filters the text.  We all come to the text with our own backgrounds, biases, and proclivities, and we stress some things in the text while downplaying, ignoring, or not even noticing other things.  This is true even of the evangelicals who think that we have to get God right, lest we find ourselves worshiping an idol.  If they’re correct on that, then we’re all worshiping an idol.

Something that intrigued me about Deuteronomy 4 is that its focus was not so much on orthodoxy (right belief) but rather on orthopraxy (right doing).  Don’t represent God visually.  Walk in God’s commandments, and do not add to them or subtract from them.  Granted, there are claims that are made about God: God is one, God alone possesses Israel, God freed the Israelites from Egypt through the Exodus, and God destroyed the Israelites who followed the Baal of Peor.  But, in my opinion, that is quite different from saying that one has to get God exactly right in order to avoid worshiping an idol.  Those claims about God do not exhaust who and what God is, nor do they really assert that we have to have inside of our minds a conception of God that has the exact right proportion of justice and mercy, or a conception of Christ that has a certain understanding of Christ’s divine and human natures.  Rather, in Deuteronomy 4, what’s important is how God has related to Israel: God freed her and thus possesses her, and God punishes her for her sins.  Moreover, even if the Israelites may not have had a perfect conception of God in their minds (since, as I said, nobody does, but it’s also worth noting that the ancient Israelites’ conception of God probably differed from that of Christians, and yet God still interacted with the ancient Israelites through their own framework), they could still learn about God’s kindness, mercy, and justice by practicing the law, which was about kindness, mercy, and justice. 

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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