My father used to refer to the danger of abstract theology. When I first heard him use that term, I remember thinking the concept of abstract theology seemed itself a bit abstract to me. I have since come to realize it is, in fact, extremely common.
Abstract thought is a thought process where ideas are separated from real objects. If we said, “George Washington was a patriot,” we tie the term patriot to the life and service of the first president. If, however, we say, “A patriot is one who…” we sever the term patriot from a real person and make it an abstraction which demands definition. Abstract thought simplifies communication because it leaves concrete details ambiguous, vague, or undefined.
Abstract thought can be very helpful. We do not always want to speak of the individual trees in a specifically defined area, so we use the term “the woods.” The more general the collective term, the more vague it becomes. A case in point would be the commonly used term “nature.” Nature is often credited (thanks to evolutionary thought) with oversight, wisdom, design, and governance. These are all part of man’s definition of his own abstract which he has called “nature.” The problem with abstract thought for the Christian, however, is when it is applied to theology or to God himself.
Examples of Abstract Theology
The rationalist sees truth as an abstraction which man must decipher and define. This means the human idea of “truth” is over everything. Even if truth is used in reference to God, truth as an abstract principle is put over God. Men can then shamelessly ask, in so many words or not, “Is God’s Word true?” They can do this because they have defined truth and can say, “This is truth, and this is God’s Word.” In reality, they are not holding up truth, but their own abstract definition of what they have declared truth. The comparison is not between truth and God’s Word, then, but between man’s word and God’s Word. By assuming truth is an abstract concept separate from God and His revelation of Himself, man’s definition of truth then dictates to God and stands in judgment on Him. Man’s definition of truth has then become a law of man to which God must conform.
Creating abstract ideas to which we hold God is common to modern thought. One of the reasons men of all religions and ideologies can refer to “god” is that all they have in common is the term “god.” Each may be defining “god” in his own way by his own criteria. The evangelical churches are also very prone to speaking of God in terms of attributes they have defined. For example:
- “God is good.” I have no problem with this as long as “goodness” is defined in terms of what God is. If, however, we have any human-conceived standard of goodness to which we hold God we have subsumed God to our abstract notion of goodness. To the extent that our abstraction of goodness differs from the God of Scripture, we have redefined Him and have created a false god after our own image, or at least our own definition.
- “God is fair to all men.” When we were all children, one of our favorite lines was, “That’s not fair.” What that means to a child is, “I’m not getting what someone else is getting.” Those who grow out of such thinking do so when they learn life is not fair, it is hard and rewards go to those who excel. Those who do not grow out of such thinking develop a socialist entitlement mentality. God, however, is not a socialist; He gives to some and denies to others; He saves some and condemns others; He makes of one a vessel to honor and of another a vessel to dishonor. When the disciples asked why a man was born blind Christ answered that it was so the works of God could be manifested in Him (John 9:3).
- “God gives all men an equal chance at salvation.” This is the result of taking an abstract modern political model (equality) as the right of all men and then demanding God recognize that right in the moral realm of salvation. Scripture, of course, teaches no such thing. God is not democratic; He is the “Lord,” or “Master” of man.
- “God is love, so He would not send anyone to hell.” This begins with John’s statement (1 John 4:8) and draws a completely unwarranted inference from it. God is love, but John’s point was that we learn what love is from God, so “His love is perfected in us” (v. 12). Learning love from God and His revelation of Himself is far different than creating an abstract concept of what love means, then holding God to that concept and dictating what He would or would not do based upon this humanly defined paradigm called “love.” Such thinking makes the abstract “love” a principle that constrains the nature of the God we profess and His behavior. By assuming we can define love rather than God, we have taken John’s words and defined a false god.
- “The God I believe in would not predestinate people to hell.” This is my very point. The God of Scripture does predestinate; if you believe in a god that does not predestinate, you believe in another god, one of your own imagination. You have created an abstract god, one divorced from the Sovereign Creator Who revealed Himself in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. This abstract god, as your creation, is now held accountable to your standards.
- “Our God is an awesome God.” As true and as powerful as these words are, they can be used in different ways. How is God awesome? Are you defining awesomeness as God’s love, mercy, grace, and promises and then saying, “This is why God is awesome”? If so you have created a limited definition of God, an abstract concept and used it to describe Him as awesome. On the other hand, when you say those words, are you proclaiming that God is awesome for all that He is? Are you saying God is great and good in everything He does, even in His justice, His law, and His judgment? Scripture tells us to fear God; fear is a healthy respect for something that is very real. Otto Scott once said, “God is no buttercup.” When men think and speak of God only in terms of those aspects which they find pleasant, they have created a false god, an abstract idea of a god, one divorced from the person of the God of Scripture. We cannot pick and choose the aspects of God we prefer; God is real and we must praise Him for all that He is.
Jesus Is Not an Idea
When John said Jesus was the “Logos” or “Word,” he was not inventing a new term. Logos was a word already in general use. To Greek philosophers, the logos was the mind of the cosmos, it was an abstract idea.
What John did was to use the word, not to represent the impersonal cosmos, an idea, but a person, Jesus Christ. Logos for John emphasizes the incarnation of the person of God whereas the Greeks had emphasized the idea, really the intellect of man (because it was men who discovered and explained the mind of the cosmos). This is why John said, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). The antinomian who sees John as contrasting the inferior law to the greater grace and truth miss John’s emphasis entirely. John’s point was to contrast how Jesus Christ was qualitatively different than Moses. The latter may have communicated God’s Word to man, but John’s thrust is to say Jesus was in His person the Word, and grace and truth were part of His incarnate nature. The very next verse (1:18) has John saying that Jesus was the declaration of the Father. Moses only spoke words from God. Jesus was the Word—God in human flesh.
God is not an idea; He is a person. He identified Himself to Moses as “I am that I Am” (Exod. 3:14), that is, the self-defining One Who is not limited by human description. When He gave the law, it was given by a person: “I am the Lord thy God which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt” (Exod. 20:2) and in His law declared His very name was to be kept holy (20:7). The reaction of the Hebrews to this very real person was one of fear, and they begged Moses to be their mediator (20:18–19). This, then, is the first remedy to abstract theology, remembering that God is not an idea we define but a person, and one that must not be taken lightly.
The second remedy is to remember God was incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is very real, so real we will one day stand before His judgment seat.
A third remedy in avoiding abstract ideas of God is to acknowledge the authority of His Word. A silent god is one in need of definition and one who needs man as a mouthpiece. The God of the Scripture says, “Thus saith the Lord.” God defines truth. We understand truth only to the extent we understand God’s revelation of Himself.
The Real Nature of Abstract Theology
All thinking about God based on abstract ideas of God is idolatrous. They violate the first and second commandments because they first create (even if only conceptually) a false, fictitious deity, one separated from the self-defining God of Scripture. Such false gods are then worshipped as the true God. When we call these false gods by the name of God, we violate the third commandment and we use His name in vain.
Some of the popular televangelists of recent years are obvious examples of such worship of false gods. Often they preach a gospel of humanism and falsely call it Christianity. They speak of positive thinking, joy and blessing, but some have freely admitted they do not preach sin, obedience, or judgment lest they turn people away. God for these men is an idol they have defined, one who serves man’s purpose. Such men quote the Bible often, as many evil men have over the years, but they do not believe or teach the every Word of God. Their abstract ideas of God make Him and all His Word dependent on man’s thinking; man’s word then becomes the authoritative word.
God’s Word reveals God, not man’s words about God. If the God you worship is not the God Who defines Himself in Scripture, you are worshipping a false god, one of your own imagination.