Many churches in the U.S. draw heavily from the values and methods of secular businesses. When one pastor was confronted about this fact he replied, “So what? A principle is a principle and God created all of the principles.” His answer illustrates the degree to which Enlightenment thought has shaped our understanding of God and faith.
The worldview behind his statement is the same as that held by deism — God has created the cosmos with certain knowable and immutable laws. Among them are the laws of gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, and the laws of mathematics. But modern people have expanded the list to include other areas of life such as leadership, relationships, and business. In order to function properly, our task is to discover these laws and translate them into applicable principles. In this view God is the law-writer, the principle-creator, the watchmaker.
The problem with the world, this view argues, is that most people are not living by the right principles. They are trying to run a diesel truck on fruit juice — it just won’t work. Rather than applying the principles of life derived from scientists, political leaders, or Oprah Winfrey, people should be living by God’s principles. After all, as the Creator of all things, he knows what’s best, right?
This understanding of God informs how many contemporary Christians engage the Bible. They believe the Scriptures are a divine instruction manual for life; a resource to be culled for principles that may then be applied to any challenge or dilemma. I’ve heard church leaders joke that B-I-B-L-E stands for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” and others have called it the “owner’s manual” for a human being. We may chuckle at these metaphors for the Bible, but behind them is a very un-Christian understanding of God and ironically an unbiblical one rooted in Enlightenment thinking.
When the Bible is primarily seen as a depository of divine principles for life, it fundamentally changes the way we engage God and His Word. Rather than a vehicle for knowing God and fostering our communion with him, we search the Scriptures for applicable principles that we may employ to control our world and life. This is not Christianity; this is Christian deism. In other words, we actually replace a relationship with God for a relationship with the Bible. If one has the repair manual, why bother with the expense of a mechanic?
Tim Keller, in his book “Counterfeit Gods,” defined idols as “good things turned into ultimate things.” I wonder if this definition applies to what some evangelicals have done to the Bible. Rather than making the Bible the means by which we discover and commune with God, they have made the Bible an end in itself. It has come to replace Jesus Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End of their faith.
I realize that in Christian traditions holding a very high view of the Scriptures, like my own, it may sound as if I am downgrading the importance of the Bible. That is not the case. I believe it is God’s Word, inspired by Him, and the authority for our faith and lives. Through it we discover who He is — and what greater gift can there be? And it does contain many useful and applicable principles for life and faith. But in our zeal to honor the importance of the Bible and extol its usefulness, we may unintentionally do the opposite. We may reduce the Bible from God’s revelation of Himself to merely a revelation of divine principles for life. And we are not the first to fall into this subtle trap.
The religious leaders in Jesus’ time were expert students of the Scriptures. They had memorized the entire Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). And they had parsed every command, extracted every principle, and delineated every instruction it contained. But their mastery of Scripture had not resulted in actually knowing God or recognizing his Son when he stood right in front of them. Jesus said to these leaders, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
This is the sinister shortcoming of faith built upon principles, laws, and formulas. It causes us to reduce faith to divine instructions or godly self-help tips: five steps to a more godly marriage, how to raise kids God’s way, biblical laws of leadership, managing your finances with kingdom principles, etc. But discovering and applying these principles does not actually require a relationship with God. Instead, being a Christian simply means you have exchanged a worldly set of life principles for a new set taken from the Bible. But like an atheist or deist, the Christian deist can put these new principles into practice without God being involved. God can be set aside while we remain in control of our lives. He may be praised, thanked, and worshipped for giving us his wise precepts for life, but as with an absentee watchmaker, God’s present participation is altogether optional.
This posture is particularly tempting in affluent, professional communities where people are accustomed to off-the-shelf solutions and self-help manuals. Their education and wealth mean they are used to being in control of their lives, and a huge publishing industry has ensured they maintain this illusion. Many best sellers are self-help books advocating principles to overcome nearly any problem. While proven formulas might be expected for losing weight or growing a vegetable garden, we tend to apply scientific certainty to even the more mysterious areas of life. Perusing the shelves at the local bookstore can be a very comforting exercise. Knowing that there is a solution to any problem life throws at you provides a sense of control — it calms our fears. And if the answer cannot be found at the bookstore, we know there is always the pharmacy down the street.
This same trend is evident in many other areas of contemporary Christian teaching. It is now possible to have a “Christian” marriage, a “Christian” business, and even a “Christian” nation without Christ actually being present. The fact that we employ principles derived from the Bible is enough to convince us that they are — and therefore we are — Christian.
This popular form of Christianity with its emphasis on working principles and worshiping the Bible rather than God, may be appealing because it is far more predictable and manageable than an actual relationship with God. Relationships, whether human or divine, are messy, time consuming, and often uncontrollable. But principles are comprehensible and clinical. Perhaps this explains why a 2005 study found that only 3 percent of pastors listed prayer as a priority in their ministry. If he’s already given you the watch, why bother maintaining a relationship with the watchmaker?