Creative Theology: Introduction (Part 1)

abstract_background_for_macChristianity and creativity don’t seem like natural bed fellows. A two-thousand year old faith does not itself speak of progressivism, and those who have most readily aligned themselves with progressivism have in-turn abandoned essential doctrines of the faith. They have left off those very things that make Christianity, well, Christian. So, again I say, Christianity and creativity do not seem naturally to coexist.

It is my contention, however, that within the boundaries of orthodoxy there is a kind of theological creativity that is essential to Christianity. It is not a kind of creativity which attempts to re-assign the boundaries of truth, to overrule the authority of Scripture, or to trump the narrative of the gospel. It is rather a kind of creativity which attempts to communicate these truths in ways that make sense to contemporary audiences. There is a kind of creativity that offers fresh perspective and insight into old doctrines. There is a kind of creativity that keeps us consistently in awe of the beauty and glory of God. It is with this kind of creativity that I am concerned. It is this kind of creativity that is essential to Biblical orthodoxy. In particular, theological creativity allows us to better understand and better apply doctrine.

Creative theological work can give us a fresh perspective on doctrines. By looking at truth from a different angle we are able to see its totality more clearly. There is some sense in which familiarity, tradition even, can conceal the truth from us. I will address in latter posts the value of tradition and its relationship to creativity, but at present it is worthwhile to point out the potential danger of acquaintance. We can become so familiar with ideas, concepts, even truths that the weightiness of them is lost on us. We can become prone to the repetition of doctrinal statements without personal conviction. In such seasons we let “tradition” become “traditionalism,” where what we express is nothing more than the “dead faith of the living,” as opposed to the “living faith of the dead.” Such conformity to the past, then, loses its very heart. Ralph Waldo Emmerson, for his many theological faults, recognized this potential in his own time. He wrote:

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we through their eyes. (“Nature”)

The poet reminds us of the possibility to know truth only through the words of others, not through personal experience. To know doctrine in only a mediated fashion, not directly and for ourselves is not enough. T.S. Eliot said similar things:

If the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”)

Without personal experience, personal conviction, and individual delight doctrine is not really understood, really appreciated, nor really believed. Creativity may help us to better grasp the truths of any given doctrine.

Think, for example, of the ways in which Nathan used creativity to help David grasp the ethical truths that surely the king already knew. Consider the story of Nathan’s rebuke found in 2 Samuel 12:1-7. The king seems particularly spiritually blind. David has had an affair with Bathsheba, and covered that up by having her husband killed. As king over the whole nation of Israel he knew the law. He knew what God expected of him. He knew the truth. Yet that truth was lost on him. Nathan surely could have come right out and rebuked him, attempted the direct approach. Instead he used his imagination and set a scene for David that would connect him with the truth in a different way. Of this passage theologian John Frame points out:

What happened to David? In one sense, he knew Scripture perfectly well; he meditated on God’s law day and night. And he was not ignorant about the facts of the case. Yet he was not convicted of sin. But Nathan the prophet came to him and spoke God’s Word. He did not immediately rebuke David directly; he told a parable – a story that made David angry at someone else. Then Nathan told David, “You are the man.” At that point, David repented of his sin. (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 156)

There was power in the artistry, story-telling, and theological creativity of Nathan. He communicated the same truths of God – he had not altered God’s message to the king – yet he communicated those truths in a fresh and compelling way to David. In that new light David saw himself exposed and responded as God would have him. This is a compelling reason to seek theological creativity. Communicating truth in fresh ways helps us to see it more clearly. As Frame concludes:

Therefore, artistry and nuance play particular roles here. Nathan did not simply repeat the law; he told a story. That story had the effect of shaking David out of his rationalization, of helping him to make different patterns out of the facts, to call things by their right names. We need to be more sensitive to those circumstances and occasions when such methods are appropriate in theology. (158)

Without creativity we might miss the truth for all our familiarity with it.

The value of this creativity may be more clearly seen when we consider the definition of theology. Frame very helpfully reminds us that theology is not the same things as Scripture. In his Systematic Theology he writes:

In seeking a definition of theology, we need to emphasize not only its continuity with Scripture, but its discontinuity, too. The former is not difficult for orthodox Protestants: theology must be in accord with Scripture. But the latter is more difficult to formulate. Obviously, theology is something different from Scripture. It doesn’t just repeat the words of Scripture. So the main question about theology is this: what is the difference between theology and Scripture, and how can that difference be justified? (6)

He answers the question and offers a definition then, saying:

In my view, the only possible answer is this: the theologian states the facts and truths of Scripture for the purpose of edification. Those truths are stated not for their own sake, but to build up people in Christian faith. (6)

Theology is the application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life. (8)

Similarly Kevin Vanhoozer defines theology as “a matter of performance knowledge, a matter of doing the Word, of living, as well as looking, along the text” (First Theology, 39). These clarifications and subsequent definitions help to further highlight the value of creativity. The role of theology is to help readers apply the Scriptures to their lives. Theology does not merely repeat the words of Scripture, it teaches Christians how to live by these words. This is, in part, why John Stott speaks of preaching as “building a bridge” between the text of Scripture and present day hearers (Between Two Worlds). In light of this, then, we might say that theology is by its very definition a form of creative work.


  1. […] the rewards to the church will be increased clarity in doctrinal teaching. Creative work within the area of theology seeks to help us understand more fully the depths of doctrinal and […]

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