When Doctrine Becomes Idolatry

BY DONAVON RILEY

I’m a drug addict. Specifically, a recovering drug addict. More specific, a grateful recovering drug addict. And as I sit here now, clear-headed, I can reflect on what it was like just before drug use pushed me over the edge of sanity and I hit bottom. I remember that my preferred daily cocktail of chemicals was cannabis, hallucinogens, and prescription narcotics. Then, thank God, they threw me into a ditch of hopelessness that I couldn't crawl out of, and I knew it. I’d used up all my tomorrows. No more free day passes. I was awoken to the fact that I hadn’t been using drugs, drugs had been using me, and they’d used me up.

The revelation that I was powerless over my addiction, that my life had become unmanageable, drove me, eventually, to get clean. I found a twelve step meeting. I relapsed several times. In the in-between times though, I didn’t recognize that I was using my “drug problem” to hide my “reality problem.” Even though I attended meetings, listened to other addicts tell their story, and shared my personal tales of insanity, I still, all too often, transferred my addiction onto other stuff I imagined could give me relief. One example was when I threw myself into cycling. Four hours a day on a bike. Six hours a day on weekends, until my wife demanded I choose between her and our son or go semi-pro to make a living racing. And that’s the way it went for years. Until I dedicated myself to working a program of recovery I flitted from one new addiction-feeding distraction to another. Not surprising, the result was still the same. Self-destructive tendencies. Relationships neglected. Responsibilities put off, self-justifications, self-preservation at all costs, everything custom designed to escape having to deal with reality as it is, not as I would have it be.

However, there was one constant throughout my early years of recovery. There was always theology. Whether I painted, baked, biked, climbed, or played video games, theology was always my primary focus. My one, dependable, go-to relief from the anxieties, fears, guilt, and shame of trying to cope with what I’d done while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. All the other pursuits were distractions. At bottom, theology, drinking from the well of pure doctrine, was my true post-addiction addiction. What I’d done was lie to myself about why I lied to justify my addiction. Theology was my out. Not only was I doing something to better my life (earn a PhD in Church History), but more important, what I was doing glorified God. How could that be wrong? How could striving more and more to thank, praise, serve, and obey God in any way feed my addiction? 

But that’s the rub. To put it in theological terms, the power of sin drove me to find a stand-in for God, even if that meant using the god of “doctrine” as leverage against the living God, maker of the heavens and the earth. Specifically, I replaced one god, drugs, with another god, theology. More specific, to riff on Martin Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment in his Small Catechism, I had moved from fear, love, and trust of drugs, to fear, love, and trust of doctrine. Drugs hadn’t been able to save me from reality, but I was sure doctrine could. 

At a certain point, it wasn’t enough that I had read a lot of theology books. So what, I’d memorized whole swathes of the Bible? Sure, I could quote Luther’s primary texts in the original German to correct people who preferred to paraphrase him. I could explain the difference between a Nestorian, a Monophysite, and a Eutychian, and I made sure everyone knew it. I could describe in detail the shortcomings of Lutheran neo-scholasticism, what differentiated first and second wave Pietism, and why Schleiermacher’s funeral sermon at the graveside of his son was a black hole of despair. I could do all that and more. It wasn’t enough that I knew more than other graduate students. It wouldn't do, I believed, for me to be just another graduate teaching assistant. All the work I’d done. All I’d sacrificed in the pursuit of a degree. All that I’d overcome to get to where I was at had to count for something more than a diploma and praise from my professors, family, and friends. I’d done all this for God, after all. And so I worried. What would be my reward? The question drove me to work even harder, believing the reward would be great. Then, thank God, I was awoken to the fact that I hadn’t used theology to glorify God. The power of sin in me was using theology to glorify the Old Adam. I’d tried to use doctrine to escape having to deal with God as He is in Christ Jesus, not as I would have Him be for me in myself.

But that’s what we all do, whether you’re a drug addict, housewife, student, pastor, or truck driver. It’s not addiction that drives us to it. It’s plain, ordinary, I can do this better than God ever did, sin. To go back to Luther’s explanation of the First Command in his Small Catechism, Old Adam doesn’t want God to be a God for him. Specifically, he doesn’t want God to be a gift-giver God for him. More specific, the old sinner doesn’t want anything from God that he hasn’t earned for himself. And if that means he has to use God’s own words against Him to accomplish that goal, he will without a second thought. Old Adam has no shame about using his knowledge of God, or theology, or his knowledge of “pure doctrine” against God. Old Adam revels in it. What better way to stand in God’s place than to use God’s words, to speak like God, to throw down commands as if his word is God’s Word? And Good News? Old Adam’s got some. “Follow me and I’ll set you free.” Old Adam is certain he’s got all the answers. 

That’s the thing about the Old Adam’s religion. It’s how the new man in Christ can spot him when he’s at work too. Sinners never want to point anyone to Christ Jesus and His “for you” gifts. In fact, the Old Adam hates even the suggestion that God is a promise-keeping, gift-giver God. That’s also why, at bottom, for the Old Adam, theology is a spiritual hell he lives in, hating the God of grace and truth, and knowing the god he serves hates him. 

Christian doctrine in the hands of the old sinner becomes a megaphone that he uses to proclaim, “Listen to me, I’ve got all the answers.”

But that isn’t Christian doctrine, because it isn’t Christ Jesus dead and raised. The same Jesus Christ who died and shed his blood for the sin of the whole world, all sinners at all times, everywhere, on the cross, for the forgiveness of sins. Take away Christ Jesus and his gifts as the purpose and goal of all theology, and doctrine becomes idolatry. The purpose and goal of doctrine for the Old Adam isn't Christ and His gifts. The goal of knowing and confessing Christian doctrine for Old Adam is “me, my rightness, and your wrongness.” That’s when you know someone’s doctrine has become idolatry. It isn’t about giving someone more Christ and therefore more joy in the receiving of God’s promises and gifts given by Him “for you.” It’s about power, and control, and drawing attention to Old Adam. Take away the “for-you-ness” of all God’s promises and gifts in Christ Jesus and what’s left? The Old Adam trying to escape from his spiritual hell by leveraging Christian doctrine against having to deal with God as He is and wants to be known in Christ. 

“For this reason,” as Martin Luther said in 1518 at Heidelberg, “true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ.” God has given us true doctrine. Specifically, the person of Jesus who was prophesied in the Old Testament and made man in the New. He has revealed Himself to us in the Bible, in literal, historical, fact, to give Himself to us in specific ways through His speaking to us. He gives Himself to us as promise and gift through His own words. All biblical teaching, all historic, Christian doctrine, the kind of theology that shuts up the Old Adam, is always and only anchored in Christ, our Prophet, Priest, and King. Jesus, who is preached, revealed and worshipped as God-For-Us, is the purpose and goal of all Christian doctrine, given by God for the comfort and consolation of all people.

Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.
Twitter @DonavonRiley