When Our Studies Become an Idol

Posted On June 05, 2024

Written by Rev. Levi Berntson, assistant professor of theology

When we bring up the subject of idolatry, the well-known words of John Calvin in the Institutes of the Christian Religion quickly come to mind: “The human person is a factory of idols (idolorum fabricam).”

Our tendency as fallen creatures is to take something that God means for our good and twist it into something that damages our relationship with God and each other. For example, when God led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, He gave them the gold of the Egyptians to build the tabernacle (Ex. 12:35–36). However, instead of using the material for God’s purposes, Israel fashioned a golden calf and engaged in idolatrous worship (32:1–6).

The proclivity to turn God’s blessings into curses did not cease with the first generation of Israelites, for even today we build our own golden calves. This is no less true in the study of theology. Idolatry can subtly creep into our lives and thoughts as we engage in the study of the Bible.

Here are five warning signs that our studies may be becoming an idol:

1. We are becoming desensitized to the holy. In The Religious Life of Theological Students, B.B. Warfield states:

“There is certainly something wrong with the religious life of a theological student who does not study. But it does not quite follow that therefore everything is right with his religious life if he does study. It is possible to study—even to study theology—in an entirely secular spirit.”

Perhaps the greatest danger to the student of theology is the constant confrontation with sacred things. Without the diligent use of prayer, the words of Scripture that speak of God’s terrible wrath and His awesome majesty become mere Hebrew verbs with Semitic etymologies.

2. Our private worship is suffering. As our wonder at the holy fades, do not be surprised that our private devotion to the Word and prayer begins to fade as well. Sometimes, the suffering of our private worship is due to poor planning or a temporarily busy schedule. But other times, it is because our desire to encounter God in a personal way is drowning in the wake of academic exertion. In other words, we love knowing about God, but we are forgetting how to know God.

3. Our sanctification is not progressing. With the suffering of our private worship, we may begin to notice that we are not as diligent in mortifying sin as we once were, for we have become more interested in mastering Scripture than in Scripture mastering us. We are no longer struck by our own sinfulness and our need for Christ, and so we go on as if we had all but graduated from the school of sanctification.

4. Our pride is growing. Having now been increasingly disinterested in the Word, prayer, and mortifying sin, now spiritual pride begins to rear its ugly head. We begin to compare ourselves to our friends, family, and other Christians, noting how we are far more dedicated to Scripture than they are. After all, we spend most of our time saturated in the Bible, and other people seem to be spending their time on much more worldly or frivolous things. A few pats on the back later, and we have puffed ourselves up with self-accolades and satisfaction. Then satisfaction gives birth to vanity, vanity gives birth to conceit, and conceit gives birth to condescension.

5. We are losing touch with those around us. A great temptation that comes with pride is dissociation from others. Not just that we may spend less time with people around us but that our empathy and care for people fade. Even our attention to the church of Jesus Christ becomes less about service to Him and more about building a platform for ourselves.

So, if we find ourselves somewhere on this trajectory, what can we do? There is only one thing to do: fall on our knees before our holy God in prayer and repentance.

The beginning of sin is to take our eyes off the Almighty, to fail to stand in awe of His majesty and our unworthiness. Yet He stands always ready to receive us because of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has atoned for our sin and covered us with His righteousness. As we run to our gracious Lord, we must acknowledge before Him that we have fashioned His treasures into an idol of sin. We must ask Him to change our stiff necks and hard hearts, knowing that even as we ask, He has already begun to do so.