A Lonely Heresy Factory

By Paul Koch

John Calvin, the least entertaining of the Reformers, famously said, “From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols. Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God.” – Institutes, 1.11.8

Man’s heart is an idol factory. The evidence of this statement is easy to find in ready examples all around us. Our pride and arrogance don’t need outside influences to create a god for ourself. Perhaps he learned this from Martin Luther (it would’ve been nice if he gave the brother some credit), who in his Large Catechism wrote,

It is trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, is really your God.” – LC, The First Commandment

I believe this spiritual reality is severely understated these days. We are consumed by the idols lurking around “out there” on social medial and in our consumerist society in general, and we have no need of being swindled into buying them, for we readily make our own. We make them all the time.

So, we become our own enemy in this regard. Which, of course, is why we cannot save ourselves. It takes another, an outsider, to stifle our factories and clear the smoke-filled air.

But the other day I was thinking how this applies to the individual pastor, the preacher of the Word. I was at a monthly gathering of our regional pastors. There was lots of conversation, laughing and debating going on as usual. Between the well-timed insults from my friend Tim, I wondered about the preacher who doesn’t have this. The one who doesn’t have other ears to listen, other voices to speak back into his own world. What happens to the preacher that only has himself, no friends, no brothers?

I think perhaps that this lonely, friendless preacher is the engine of his own heresy factory.

To be a preacher of the Word is to be under the constant temptation to go begging. That is, to go looking for whatever might be the best way to accomplish your goals. Do you want more people in the pews, more recognition, more prestige, more money? Why, there is some program, some emphasis, some trick out there that will promise to deliver. The task of preaching easily and quickly becomes a second-tier concern, as he goes scrambling after the latest trend. All preachers face doubts, but a preacher without friendship will be a man consumed by doubts and his idol factory of a heart will lead him to find a solution in his own ambition.

A true friend will be that outside voice, the one that will direct you back to the only source and norm of the faith – the Word that he was sent to preach. The defense against the heresy factory is the encouraging, the rebuking, the comforting, the abrasive and even the insulting words of a brother.

As St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Tim. 1:6-7)