Creative Theology: Introduction (Part 4)

creative theologyCreative theology can rescue churches and theologians from some serious, if subtle, theological errors. Several weeks back I began to look at the ways in which creative theology serves us. I examined the general attitudes of some who are reticent to admit that creativity in theological methodology is a good thing. To further the conversation I want to point to two specific ways in which creativity can keep us from falling into error. Creative theology can protect us from (1) blind acceptance, and (2) theological reductionism.

We have seen the reality of blind acceptance already. There are those who accept wholesale the features of their theological tradition without any consideration or evaluation. If it is in the WCF then it is true. If their heroes said it then it must be right. There is no room for questioning or considering the legitimacy of historical confessions and presentations of truth. There is no room for evaluating whether our heroes got their doctrine or ethics right. There is only blind acceptance and conformity. If some theologians abuse the idea of “asking questions,” using it as a cover for promoting aberrant theological ideas, the reality of actually critically evaluating and thinking about doctrine should not itself be completely disregarded. Without this kind of thinking and evaluating the Protestant Reformation would have never happened. Blindly accepting traditions and theological formulations does not lead us deeper into the experience of truth. Conformity is not itself Christianity.

Theological reductionism is also a possibility. That is to say, without creativity we may fail to clarify and nuance doctrines appropriately. We may reduce doctrines down to their most simple formulations. Popular level theology is full such simplistic statements, but examples may be found as well among the more academic discussions. Take, for example, discussions of God’s impassibility. Historic articulations of the doctrine leave us with a sterile God who feels nothing and is in no manner affected by relationship with His creation, the sort of classical formulation of perfect being theology. Kevin Vanhoozer has done a tremendous job of critiquing and refining this doctrine. He articulates the same historical truth, that God is unchanging, yet formulates the doctrine in a way that is consistent with the Biblical picture of God’s care, compassion, and responsiveness to His people. By examining the doctrine of the “love of God,” particularly through the lens of the Jesus-narrative, he helps us reconsider the doctrine of impassibility in fresh ways. He writes:

If, however, the Word of God is the final criterion and control for God-talk, then Christian theology must attend to the biblical witness. Scripture consistently directs our attention to a God who pours himself out – in creation, in Jesus Christ, on the cross, through the Holy Spirit – on behalf of those who do not merit such attention. If this gospel, this tory of salvation – a story of God’s costly love for creation and above all for the covenant creature – is the control story for Christian life and thought, then we have a precious touchstone for what divine reality is like. Christian theologians must therefore be prepared to put their preconceived notions of perfect being – whether stemming from antiquity, modernity or postmodernity – to the critical test of the biblical text. Not just any model or metaphor will do. (First Theology, 94)

Vanhoozer is a model of an evangelical creative theologian. Whether theologians ultimately agree with his refinement is not the point. He has raised, along with many others, an important critique of classical theism and offered a helpful resolution to a common problem. Others may offer a different resolution, but the creative work Vanhoozer has done here helps to set the stage for other considerations. The key point is that without this kind of creative theological work we will wind up with reductionist and simplistic theology. Classical theism reduces God to the “stone column” of Aquinas’ theology, hardly an appealing description nor one very consistent with the Biblical witness. A more nuanced articulation of the impassibility of God helps to refine our understanding and reorient us towards this truth within the context of the gospel-narrative. Without creative theology we wind up with a theology that is less than biblical.

There is a danger within Evangelicalism as it relates to our theological methodology. Evangelicals are right to be on their guard against liberalism. There are those theologians who seek to surgically remove any doctrines which do not conform to the age in which we live. They want to remove the Bible’s sexual ethic, its exclusivity, and its bloody soteriology (among many other things). They want a Christianity that they believe will fit with the spirit of the age. This is sinful creativity, which departs from the normative role of the Scriptures. But in defending against this there is a danger that Conservatives will uphold a theology that is no less culturally bound. It may be a theology bound to the culture of 17th century England, or 20th century America, but it is no less culturally bound. Theology that is truly Biblical, however, seeks always to look at the Scriptures, to see them in fresh light and evaluate our contemporary doctrinal expressions. It seeks to live out the reformation slogan of “semper reformanda”: always being reformed.

Creative theology is not about innovation for the sake of innovation. It is about looking at old truths in new light to make sure that they are consistent with the actual testimony of Scripture. As infallible human beings we must never assume that we’ve got all our theology right. We must always be willing to reevaluate what we believe according to the testimony of Scripture. That means not only are all our doctrines bound to the Word of God, but our creativity too is bound to the authoritative and Holy inspired Word. We ought to consider, then, the normative role of the Scriptures in our creative theological work.

Trackbacks

  1. […] specific doctrine itself may not be tradition; the means of its communication, however, may be. So, we saw this with the example of God’s impassibility. The doctrine is considered orthodox, while the […]

  2. […] helps us to correct the errors of past work. Kevin Vanhoozer has done this quite exquisitely in my opinion as it relates to the doctrine of God’s impassibility.  In previous generations the doctrine had […]

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