My colleague Jerry wrote that I have “some wrong ideas about God, and by my definition, that is idolatrous.” Uh oh. Fortunately then Jerry added “But I’m sure I have some wrong ideas about God too (though, of course, I don’t know what they are right now), and therefore also idolatrous.”
Well Jerry, you’d know what they are if you’d only pause long enough to listen to me!
But all kidding aside, this article isn’t about whether Jerry and I are idolaters. Rather, it is concerned with Jerry’s claim that by definition having a false idea about God is equivalent to having an idolatrous idea. Here’s the problem stated in the form of a reductio ad absurdum:
(1) A false idea about God is an idolatrous idea about God (assumed for reductio)
(2) Jesus had a false idea about God.
(3) Therefore, Jesus had an idolatrous idea about God.
(4) It is absurd to believe that Jesus had an idolatrous idea about God.
Obviously there are only two options at this point: we must reject either (1) or (2). I’m going to point out some difficulties with rejecting (2) leaving (1) the best candidate for rejection.
To reject (2) we would have to affirm that from the time in his cognitive development that baby/toddler Jesus could have beliefs, all of those beliefs were true and none were false. We can unpack that in a narrow theological sense and a broader sense.
In the narrow theological sense, Jesus would have held some false beliefs about God. For example, when he was going to sleep at night as a two year old, Mary may have said “God is watching over you Jesus.” And Jesus, like any two year old, would not have taken this as accommodative language. Rather, he would have taken it in a literal manner, however confused, perhaps like this:
(A) God is watching you over you Jesus much like Joseph and I watch over you at night by seeing you from above.
Thus Jesus would have naturally taken Mary’s statement to mean (A) or something like (A).
Do you think I’m being too quick in that reasoning? I demur. Even today I regularly encounter adult Christians who think in these blushingly literalistic terms about God. For example, when the worship leader in their church on Sunday morning rapturously says “God is now in this place” after a particularly moving slow number, they think vaguely of some kind of gaesous presence filling the sanctuary coupled with the divine attaining a particular visual of the ongoing proceedings. I know this because I’ve interrogated them to unpack the language of their worship leader as they understand it. If contemporary adult Christians have false beliefs — and false implicature surrounding their beliefs — what makes us think toddler Jesus would not have?
And to the extent where Jesus had even one false belief about God it would count as an idolatrous belief.
Now let’s turn to the broader sense. This sense is rooted in the omniscience of God. Here we can identify any false statement which Jesus would have believed is true. The field of possibilities is abundant. Just think about the education of any first century child and consider the range of beliefs of science and medicine, natural history and national history, that would be taught which were in fact false. (If you don’t know enough about the first century to know what those beliefs might have been, think about the contemporary landscape. As I noted a couple months ago, my daughter was once taught by her then grade 2 teacher that Canada is larger than Russia in geographic area. Blushingly false but taught to her as true and she believed it until I told her Canada is the same size as Siberia, never mind everything west of the Urals.)
Luke 2:40 and 2:52 both describe Jesus’ cognitive development as a matter of growing in wisdom. This includes not simply acquiring true beliefs but dispelling false ones.
So let’s say that for a while Jesus believed the following:
(B) “The earth is flat.”
(C) “God believes the earth is flat.”
Unfortunately (C) is false and therefore idolatrous. Thus, if we accept (1) then Jesus would have been an idolater both directly through the acceptance of beliefs like (A) and indirectly through the implication of beliefs like (C).
Finally, let’s consider for a moment an attempt to escape the wider problem. What if we said that Jesus accepted false beliefs like (B) but never reflected on the fact that (B) impies (C) and thus that he should accept (C) as well? Is this sufficient to avoid at least the wider problem?
Never mind that this appears implausible and ad hoc, there is a more immediate problem. Consider:
(i) Klaus never aided the Nazis in World War 2.
Does this make Klaus better than his German countrymen? Not necessarily. Consider:
(ii) The reason Klaus never aided the Nazis in World War 2 is because he was out of the country at the time, but had he been in the country he would have aided them.
According to (ii) Klaus’ non-complicity with the Nazis is merely one of luck. And if it is merely luck that keeps you from doing the same thing then you are still a morally (if not legally) inferior individual.
The same goes for idolatry. If the only reason you’ve never committed an idolatrous act is because you’ve never had the opportunity to, but if you had the opportunity to then you surely would, then you are no better as an individual. Thus if the only reason Jesus never accepted an idolatrous belief like (C) is because he never had an opportunity to then he is merely a non-idolater (qua the wider problem) by circumstance rather than nature. In addition, he is still an idolater directly with reference to beliefs like (A).
In conclusion, I think it is clear that in our choice between (1) and (2) we ought to reject (1). Jerry and I both have false beliefs about God. And we are both in some sense idolaters (more broadly we’re both fallen human beings). But we are not idolaters simply in virtue of having some false beliefs about God.