A Novel Idea?

From the opening chapter of Tom Oden’s book, After Modernity…What? Agenda for Theology:
What the ancient church teachers least wished for a theology was that it would be “fresh” or “self-expressive” or an embellishment of purely private inspirations, as if these might stand as some decisive improvement” on the apostolic teaching.”
Yet from the first day I ever thought of becoming a theologian I have been earnestly taught and admonished to “think creatively” so as to make “some new contribution” to theology. Nothing at Yale was drummed into my head more firmly than that the theology I would seek would be my own, and my uniqueness would imprint it. So you can imagine that it took no small effort on my part to resist the repeated reinforcements of my best education in order to overcome the constant temptation to novelty. And you can understand how relieved I was to see such an intriguing epitaph prefigured in a dream, one that at last seems to be coming true on these pages – “to make no new contribution to theology” – Laus Deo (22).
It would seem, according to Oden, that the thing most needed by present-day theological studies is a revival of interest in the ancient and historic teaching of the Christian faith. Oden is certainly right that the task of passing on what has been handed down goes against the grain of contemporary theological studies where every graduate student is charged with making an “original contribution to knowledge” in his or her specialized discipline. My question is this: is there any wisdom for the practice of ministry in this statement from Oden? Where is the balance between finding new and effective ways to reach new people and ensuring the preservation of what we have received?

4 thoughts on “A Novel Idea?

  1. My experience has been that, whether it is an Eastern Orthodox Church doing things like its still AD 768, a non-denom/charismatic church using all the latest audio-visual stuff and slick marketing, or a Buddhist Temple just setting up shop in town, the groups that seem to be most effective in spreading their message and recruiting new members are those that really believe in what they are doing. They are excited about their faith, they think it matters, and they are eager to share not simply out of duty, but because they really love what they have discovered and want to share it.


  2. Maybe another way into this is by taking something from your question and applying it to Oden's remarks. (And you'll have to forgive any strangeness of this comment as I am speaking with headache meds having their way with my brain). The something I'm thinking of is the idea of 'wisdom' and how Oden's comments parallel ancient forms of instruction in wisdom.

    In ancient wisdom instruction, general truths, concepts and beliefs were taught to young children via repetition, thus making such things foundational not only for the child's own beliefs but also newer, better and possibly more relevant applications of them as the child matures.

    To change metaphors: ancient wisdom, repetitiously taught, served as an established framework–like a house–within which students of wisdom could live, move and create. Because they knew the details of this framework and what it could endure (or, uphold), the students were free to adapt the interior to suit their own ideas or likes and dislikes. However, the adaptations could not jeopardise the integrity of the framework, lest the whole thing collapse.

    Thus, the theologian's task (or, the student of theology) is at least to be knowledgable of the essentials or the foundational ideas–i.e. the framework. One sure way of accomplishing this task is by repetitious learning. However it must not become merely learning by rote; there needs to be an awareness of what is learned and how it relates to other features of what is taught. And it will be from this established framework that the theologian will be able to adapt–using his/her unique and personal ideas–the interior to meet developments of time, all the while maintaining the integrity of the original framework.


  3. Maybe this is obvious, but since theology is the study of who God is and what He is like, and since He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, then shouldn't it follow that theologians are tasked with clarifying what God has made known about himself rather than making some “original contribution to knowledge”?

    To your specific question, I think there is a ministerial wisdom here in that the the theologian's (be he pastor, professor, or brick-layer) task is to know God well and to help others to know Him well. Theology for the mere sake of academic advancement, selling books, or passing the time is worthless. Novel ideas about who God is and what He is like usually turn out to be old heresies restated.

    I think your second question is it's own answer. Theology is practical only when it preserves “what we have received” (in the Jude 3 sense) while clarifying for a contemporary audience what we believe and why. The point should never be to come up with new truth about God, but to come up with new ways to communicate what has always been true about Him to a new generation.


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