Creative Theology: The Role of Tradition

creative theologyTradition and creativity are not enemies, though we often treat them that way. Within the church we either elevate tradition to such a place of authority that it stifles creativity, or we completely dismiss tradition as irrelevant. Theology, however, has a place for both creativity and tradition – in fact they are highly compatible. Tradition, when contextually appropriated, can greatly inform our creative theological work.

It’s important to establish what precisely we mean by the term “tradition.” Avery Dulles defines it succinctly as “the process by which a specific set of ideas or customs is perpetuated, continuing to influence new developments.” A 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 classical articulation of this doctrine is tradition. Vanhoozer’s creative developments with regard to this doctrine maintain orthodoxy while navigating its articulation in a way different from tradition. That is to say, then, that conformity and orthodoxy are not the same thing. As we wrestle with the pages of Scripture we must not be overly confident in tradition, we must let the pages speak for themselves with freshness each time. As Dulles says, “The tradition must be continually renewed by reference to its sources.” Scripture is authoritative, tradition is subject to alteration. We ought to keep these distinctions before us as we consider the value of tradition itself.

One of the great problems of modern man is his temporal myopia. We often convince ourselves that all that is, all that matters, and all that is true is what we discover in our own time. We judge the past and the future based on the present. In many ways modern man is imprisoned in his own cultural arrogance. In this context tradition brings a liberating light. Avery Dulles clarifies:

Tradition has liberative power. It expands our horizons and thereby prevents us from becoming imprisoned in our own personal limitations and the transitory fashions of our day. It provides us with a platform from which we can look critically at the present and judge it differently than it judges itself. In Christian theology tradition liberates insofar as it binds its adherence to the vital sources of their life, the revealed truth that makes us free. (“Tradition and Creativity in Theology,” in First Things. Nov. 1992)

Theology done apart from tradition is bound to and limited by its own time. It cannot escape from its cultural limitations. Tradition allows us the opportunity to look up from our context and see the truths of God from their transcendent standpoint. In other words, we need tradition to do good theology.

Theology is never done in isolation and simply by individuals. John Frame gives a great caution to those who would attempt to do theology apart from tradition. He writes:

It would be foolish for us to try to build our theology from the ground up, as it were, seeking to ignore all tradition. Descartes tried that in philosophy, but his successors have recognized that we can never begin to think without some preconceptions. Although those preconceptions can be critically purified, we cannot do without them altogether. Therefore when we seek to escape the bonds of tradition, we merely substitute one set of preconceptions for another. Indeed, what we do then is to substitute our own half-baked, ill-conceived preconceptions for the mature thought of godly teachers. To try to start totally afresh (“just me and my Bible”), as some cultists have tried to do, is an act of disobedience and pride. The work of theology is not the work of one individual seeking to gain a complete knowledge of God on his own but the corporate work of the church in which Christians together seek a common mind on the things of God. (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 304)

We need tradition to help us think critically and carefully about the great truths of God. In fact the most creative theologians have often been those most deeply connected and familiar with the traditions of the church. There are those who seek to be creative by abandoning tradition altogether. Often, however, they simply recycle the same tired liberal concepts of doctrines and practice. They offer nothing new to the conversation, just fresh hype for old heresies. The theologian who submits himself to tradition, who studies it and learns it, who applies it contextually is more apt to make original advances in theological problems. The reason being he has more resources to draw from to solve problems. Dulles writes:

The more deeply the discoverer is rooted in the tradition, the more resources will he or she be able to bring to unsolved problems. Lively appreciation of the great achievements of the past fires the mind with confidence and zeal, and provides hints for the solution of new problems. By drawing analogies from earlier discoveries the creative imagination becomes better qualified to discern intelligible patterns in puzzling or confusing data.

Tradition that is contextually appropriated lends itself to the formation of truly creative, and orthodox, work. This is contextual appropriation. It is the extending of tradition in ways that are sensitive to our contemporary setting.

Tradition and creativity are not enemies. Tradition enables us to better communicate truth in ways sensitive to our context. It gives us voices that our contemporary setting often lacks and which can help us think with more nuance and insight, adding further value to our theological development. “Paradoxically,” Dulles says, “the most innovative artists and scientists have often been the most deeply traditional.” To be creative, then, we need tradition.

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