Tuesday, September 15, 2009

When is Theological Innovation Acceptable?

By "theological innovation" I'd include any form of revisions to what's traditionally practised and/or believed i.e. it could be doctrinal, ecclesial, whatever. Without intending at all to do justice to this (god)-mother of all Christian questions, here's an outline of the conditions under which such innovation might be justified:
  1. When human needs are at stake - e.g. Jesus healing (and picking crops) on the Sabbath (read the Gospels)

  2. When new communities need to be included into the people of God - e.g. Paul and his relaxation of Jewish ethnic laws so Gentiles can be included into the Body of Christ (read Acts, Galatians, Romans, etc.)

  3. When institutional structures have become a burden or source of oppression - Luther proclaming 'justification by faith alone' in direct contrast to the teachings of the Church at the time (join a Lutheran church, *grin*)

  4. When times have changed and a fresh air and/or direction is required for rejuvenation and social realignment purposes - e.g. the Pentecostal movement in the early 20th century and the Emerging church network in the late 20th century (err...surf the Web?)
It's not about encouraging conflict with Scripture; it's about championing God's purposes in specific (and often fresh) contexts which may conflict with the church's established way of doing things.

It's not about the ends justifying the means; it's about godly ends putting aside unhelpful means.

If theology is at heart the Church's answer to a set of questions, then theological innovation is what the Church does in the face of new questions. And in the shadow of an out-reaching missional God, shouldn't His people expect unfamiliar terrain?

Needs, new communities, bad structures and new worlds. God only said that His love never changes - for everything else, there's His Spirit, whose origins and paths no one knows.

Finally, look at the Cross - the single most incredibly innovative event in history (in every great sense of the words 'innovative' and 'history', not to mention 'incredible'). The God-Man dying as Man and God so reconciliation/redemption/salvation/glory can take place.

'Innovation'? We haven't even started.


AJ7 said...

Good points there. Innovation is needed in today's fast changing world. Agree in totality God's love and promises don't change. But sometimes, in these innovations, we may compromise a little more to the 'unacceptable'. It's something that I've been thinking quite a bit for a while... the gray area so called. And how do we 'define' those gray areas?

alwyn said...

Thanks for the comment, AJ.

Personally, I think 'grey areas' are *by definition* not 100% definable (if they were, they wouldn't be grey). Innovators are path-breakers, they almost literally create new paths and that which is new (by definition, again) cannot be ENTIRELY evaluated using 'old' categories. Because if everything 'new' MUST fit into old boundaries, then this is just another way of saying that we shouldn't have innovation at all.

And if business were to think like this, your profile pic would be much less famous :)

AJ7 said...

Not everything must fit into old boundaries, that's for sure for old boundaries are sometimes wrong too. We only need to look into the history of the Crusades to see how the old boundaries were wrong. But it seemed so right then.
In being innovators, breaking new paths - sometimes the tremendous successes make us compromise; that's the danger.

Sherman said...

I have two questions that remain unanswered by theological innovators:

1. Who should be given the right to theologically innovate - the individual or the Church?

2. When is innovation considered to have gone too far? And how can we know if our innovation has gone too far - who has the right to tell us?

alwyn said...

Sherman ~ I can attempt the second q with a *little* bit more confidence than the first. 'Too far' can be judged by Jesus' words, "By their fruit/love, shall u show u r my disciples". No fruit or rotten fruit = too far.

As for the first, the Church/community obviously has to judge the innovations yet, paradoxically, once institutionalism sets in it becomes... Read More *very difficult* to accept anything but the tamest form of innovation (cf. see church history). Also, the very nature of innovation (esp in a religious community) would demand that an individual (almost by necessity) takes the lead, unless the community *itself* values innovation (which is rare, esp. among Christians).