What is religion? This is surely a heavily debated question. But, by and large, I would suspect most people today see religion as a personal and subjective matter. It is a personal pursuit of the divine, or of truth, or of ultimate reality. Meanwhile, the nature of this pursuit, what it means, and how it is to be done are all matters of private opinion.
There is no doubt that there is a grain of truth in this view of religion. There is, indeed, a subjective and personal element in religion. Religion is a way of living. It is personal, and each person is on their own spiritual pilgrimage. As Martin Luther (somewhat notoriously) said, “Everyone must do his own believing.” And yet this subjective approach to religion overstates the point. Reformed Christians see another aspect to religion besides the subjective. In fact, if this other aspect of religion is neglected, rejected, or unknown, one’s religious lifestyle will be displeasing to God.
The Bible does not define the ‘essence’ of religion; none of its writers were interested in playing the part of the philosopher. However, the Bible does consistently recognize certain formal characteristics of religion: namely, an objective side and subjective side.
Objective religion is “that which determines the nature of man’s religion, its regulative norm, namely, the knowledge of God and of man’s relation to Him, as prescribed in his word.” Subjective religion is “the life so regulated or determined by the Word of God, and that expresses itself in worship, fellowship, and service.” So, there is not only a personal ‘pursuit’ of the divine, and communion with God (subjective religion), there is also a revelation of where God can be found and how we are to serve him once we have ‘found’ him (objective religion).
In the Old Testament, objective religion is defined by God’s covenant with Israel. Berkhof and Bavinck rightly see the commandments and ordinances that God gave to Israel as having a normative role on Israel’s religious life. But it should also be added that God’s revelatory deeds also normed Israel’s religious life. Her festivals and convocations were to be enacted on the basis of God’s mighty deeds (cf. Passover); the Decalogue begins with these words, “I am the Lord thy God which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Thus, Israel’s religion was not some moralistic enterprise, but was at its most basic level normed by God’s covenantal words and deeds.
The proper subjective response to these covenantal words and deeds was “the fear of the LORD” (Prov. 1:6). This fear, of course, was not some servile attitude or dread. Rather, it was a disposition that was entirely consistent with hope, love, worship, and trust in God. This religious (and covenantal) response was owed to YHWH.
The New Testament, perfectly consistent with this covenantal structure to religion, regards the person, work, and proclamation of Christ as the norm of New Testament religion, and so frequently refers to this objective religion by terms like “the Gospel,” “the Faith,” or “kerugma.” Though, the NT uses many words to describe the subjective religion, the definitive one is “faith.” Faith brings us into saving fellowship with Christ, who norms our religion. Faith works in love.
In both the Old and New Testaments, the subjective side of religion is normed by something outside of man; religion comes to us from God through his revelatory Word. The subjective side of religion, important as it is and real as it is, must be normed by objective religion. When subjective religion is cut loose from the strictures of God’s revelatory word, then it descends into idolatry. The objective is as important as the subjective.
Because of these considerations, the Reformed tradition has often defined religion as, “the right way of knowing and honoring God.”