“Mingled vanity and pride appear in this, that when miserable men do seek after God, instead of ascending higher than themselves as they ought to do, they measure him by their own carnal stupidity, and neglecting solid inquiry, fly off to indulge their curiosity in vain speculation. Hence, they do not conceive of him in the character in which he is manifested, but imagine him to be whatever their own rashness has devised…With such an idea of God, nothing which they may attempt to offer in the way of worship or obedience can have any value in his sight, because it is not him they worship, but, instead of him, the dream and figment of their own heart.” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.4.1)
Clearly Calvin had in mind non-Christians when he penned these words. And he was right, for "the world did not know God through wisdom" (1 Cor. 1:21) "for although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools" (Rom. 1:21-22).
However, the sad reality is many in our churches have such a shallow understanding of God as revealed in Scripture, that their "Christian" theology might be better referred to as Christian “superstition." Every Sunday, we rub shoulders with men and women who have professed faith in Christ, but continue to hold a "vague and wandering opinion of Deity" (Institutes, 1.4.3) that just happens to include Jesus.
Every pastor can probably relate to having someone in their church enthusiastically sharing with them what the “Holy Spirit” has taught them, even though it has zero resemblance to biblical teaching, even, at times, outright contradicting it. This is truly a sad and dangerous place for the Christian to live. J.I. Packer wrote, "To follow the imagination of one’s heart in the realm of theology is the way to remain ignorant of God, and to become an idol-worshipper - the idol in this case being a false mental image of God, ‘made unto thee’ by speculation and imagination” (Knowing God, 42). Considering that "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24), superstitious Christianity is dangerous both to the life of the individual Christian and to the life of the church as a whole.
Causes of Superstitious Christianity
But what contributes to superstitious Christianity? According to Calvin the non-Christian demonstrates "mingled vanity and pride." I would suggest the superstitious Christian is shaped by mingled apathy and naivety. Apathy is displayed in a neglect to read, study, and delight in Scripture. As wonderful as Twitter and other social media outlets are in spreading words of inspiration, God has revealed Himself in more than 140 characters. It takes reading, really reading, to know Him better. Naivety is revealed in the happy acceptance of all things labeled “Christian” as biblically accurate. It is a dangerous thing to acquire our theology solely from Christian music, Christian books, and Christian movies. Those can be wonderful resources, as long as they are firmly grounded in the resource.
Of further consideration as pastors is the harrowing question, “Have I contributed to the superstition of my people?” By way of lackadaisical study, haphazard words, and the use of careless illustrations, we run the risk of pointing those who sit under our preaching to a God of our imagination. Sobering, to say the least. We do well to heed the serious instruction of Paul to the young pastor Timothy to "watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers" (1 Timothy 4:16, NIV).
The Antidote to Superstitious Christianity
The goal then for all pastors, and all Christians really, is the pursuit of knowing and worshiping God as He really is and not as we have merely imagined Him to be.
But how do we do that? Can we really know and understand God? As Paul said, "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 'For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?'" (Romans 11:33-34). Packer helps us again, "We cannot know Him unless He speaks and tells us about Himself. But in fact He has spoken. He has spoken to and through His prophets and apostles, and He has spoken in the words and deeds of His own Son. Through this revelation, which is made available to us in Holy Scripture, we may form a true notion of God; without it we never can.” (43)
What, then, guards us from becoming superstitious Christians who drift off into speculative theology? How do we as pastors help our people move beyond mere speculation about the God they claim to love and move into well-informed worship? By grounding ourselves and our ministries in God's revelation of Himself in Scripture. The tighter we cling to Scripture, the clearer our sight of God and the truer our worship.
Pastors, let’s aspire to biblical literacy among our people by encouraging them to resist apathy or naivety and let’s relentlessly push back against superstitious Christianity with the antidote of God’s revealed Word.