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The Danger of Theological Novelty

Not long ago, I met with an old friend of mine who is a “swinger.” For those of you who don’t know, swinging is when both partners in a committed relationship agree to have a sexually open relationship. This guy was married and came in to talk to me about – you guessed it – marital problems. The idea behind “swinging” is that things never become mundane. Sexual monogamy, according to swingers, is nothing more than confining yourself to sexual boredom. Being with the same partner becomes cliché and uneventful. Swinging keeps things fresh and novel at all times so the high produced by provocation is always maintained.

As problematic and destructive as marital swinging is, that is not what I am writing about. I want to talk about what I call theological swinging. This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest problems in theology today (and probably of any day). Let me explain.

Before going to seminary, I was given a set of books by my pastor. At the time he was, to me, the smartest person living on planet Earth. I salivated to get a peek of his notes each week. I wanted to record everything he said. And just to get to see his library – the source of the very sun! – was just about too much excitement for me to handle. That is why I was speechless the day he gave me two books, one blue and one red. I knew these were precious books to him due to the amount of notes and stickies that covered the dog-eared pages. What were they? Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Volumes 1 and 2 by Josh McDowell. Upon receipt of these books I read them over and over. The wisdom and knowledge that filled the pages was almost too much excitement for this 20-year-old wannabe apologist to take. It was so provocative to me. The provocation came not from learning the Gospel for the first time, but from seeing with my own eyes, for the first time, an attempt to defend Christianity. “Are you kidding me?!” I said each time I read about a new topic. This guy, Josh McDowell, must be a giant of the faith, demanding respect from everyone. He was my new hero.

It was not until I hit seminary that I found out the “truth.” You see, at seminary, among all the students “in the know,” I came to find out very quickly that these kinds of works are frowned upon. I came to find out that McDowell’s apologetics were called “pop” apologetics. In essence, pop apologetics is cliché defense of the faith performed by cliché apologists. Translation: it was naive. It was not kosher. If and when I quoted someone like McDowell in a conversation with fellow students, there would be some snickering. The idea conveyed was that there were certain works, written by certain authors, that were “little league” and not respectable. Whether is was Lewis Sperry Chafer, Josh McDowell, Wayne Grudem, or R.C. Sproul (all of whom were my self-proclaimed mentors until that point), they were, at best, milk from the breast of my mother; at worst, they were naive teachers who simply parroted the simple and sheltered faith of evangelicalism. If you wanted to run with the “big boys” you had to read yourself some Barth, Multmonn, Hauerwas, or one of the liberation theologians such as Boff or Gutierrez. Why? Because, quite frankly, they did not fit the “stupid” evangelical mold. These were the “cool” people to read. They were the trump cards that, when played, left other students feeling inadequate and inferior. I thought I could read Dwight Pentecost’s Things to Come and be prepared for any discussion on eschatology. Who knew that quoting Theology of Hope by Jürgen Moltmann at Dallas Theological Seminary would be more prestigious than Pentecost? Who knew that saying that you had been reading A Theology of Liberation would score you more points than reading Basic Theology by Charles Ryrie? Who knew that the greatest danger for any Christian leader was to be labeled cliché?

Let me try to illustrate this another way before I get back to the swinger thing: I remember in fourth grade, there was a girl who held the near-unanimous vote for being the prettiest gal in school. Everyone was in love with her. Everyone wanted to sit by her at lunch or go across the monkey bars with her at recess. If you gained either of these honors you were, by extension, the most popular guy in school. She held that much power. However, things changed. By the time our same group of friends entered high school, she was no longer held in such high esteem. In fact, thinking she was pretty was somewhat passé. Suddenly, it was the random loner gal (who everyone previously thought was weird). Suddenly it was the one who hung around with the skinheads and listened to Violent Femmes who everyone liked. On paper, she was not as pretty as our former love, but she was exotic. She was outside the box. She was different. If she were to lose her exotic “off-limits” appeal by joining our crowd (which some did), she was no longer the one. The primary qualification for appeal became novelty. Fresh appeal that comes from being obscure and mysterious went further than the meat and potatoes of good looks and charm.

Theology is a lot like this. If it is exotic, out of the norm, and less known, it does not matter how “pretty” it really is, it is what is “cool.” You see, in theology, for many people “in the know,” once something becomes mainstream, it becomes disqualified. Once it becomes too popular or normal, it becomes naive. Once everyone thinks it is correct, it is no longer qualified to be  anything but a foil for the correct. We become theological swingers whose end is not to find the truth, but simply to swing to the next partner.

For theological swingers, referencing the unknown, obscure, rejected, Violent Femmes-loving theologian becomes a heavy-handed power play. It has power because most people don’t know how to respond. A statement like, “I used to be premillenial like you until I read Moltmann” leaves people speechless. They don’t know who Moltmann is, much less have they read him, so they are left feeling inadequate to stay in the conversation. Mystery, intrigue, and novelty become placeholders for truth. Pastoral ideals of theological stability are replaced with looking smarter than the next person. Truth is not the goal, but rather self-image. And theological swingers just don’t want to be bored, liking the same gal that everyone else likes.

I have been a theological swinger. In fact, I am only now beginning to graduate from this way of thinking. I am only now beginning to see that this method is itself naive. For a time, I would not read anyone who fit the mold of my conservative evangelical theological culture. I felt that was my duty. I loved to quote those who were less known and exotic. I still have the tendency to belittle (at least in the back of my mind) people who reference and quote theologians, biblical exegetes, and philosophers who are too popular within the evangelical sub-culture. I am ashamed to say that many of my heroes, who inspired me so much before, became to me an embarrassing distant relative who only discredits my “scholarship” and reputation with others whose respect has fueled my swinging habit.

However, I am recovering. The first thing we all have realized lately is that one person’s cliché is the next person’s provocation. Dealing with people who come out of other traditions has taught me this. Those whose culture is accustomed to learning from liberal theologians find conservatives provocative. Those who are accustomed to Eastern Orthodoxy find evangelical writings out of the box. Those who are fundamentalists rebel and swing with those who take a more progressive stand.

Theologies and theologians come and go. Provocation is a great thing, but if we are committed to provocation and swinging more than truth, the journey will be unending and ungodly. We will never be satisfied, as our compass will be broken. Divorce, adultery, and eternal convictionless theological swinging is all we can expect. Remember, there was a time when all the “pop” theologies and apologetics that you might look down upon now were not mainstream. They were the mysterious, obscure ideas. They were the novelties. However, their value does not come in their newness, but in their substance.

I do want to say that all of those thinkers I referenced before have been very much worth my time and attention. Whether with popular theologians or the less popular ones, we all need to broaden our horizons. And we should read and learn outside the norm of our culture. We don’t need to accept mainstream because it is mainstream and we don’t need to reject it because of this either.  The exotic, novel, and provocative are worth our attention so long as truth, not novelty, is our goal. However, sometimes there is a reason why the gal who hangs out with the skinhead is obscure and unknown . . . and it is not because she is prettier than the others!

I write this for myself. These are confessions of a theological swinger. However, I know so many theologians and young “emerging” thinkers out there today who are completely unstable, swinging away and trying to get everyone else to swing with them. Swinging is not theologically “cool,” much less does it evidence any intelligence. It has no profundity and is the furthest thing from a pastoral approach to stabilizing people’s faith. Once we realize that one person’s cliché is the next person’s provocation, we will disengage in this endless search for something new. “Novel” is not synonymous with “profound.” Realize this: that which is new today will be passé tomorrow. All one has to do is look into much of the Emerging movement and see this swinging mentality displayed. Ironically, authors in this movement who were thought to be the most profound ten years ago are now thought of as simple.

And, to put this into perspective: Theological swinging is nothing new itself! There were a bunch of these boys in Athens.

Acts 17:21 “Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.”

31 Responses to “The Danger of Theological Novelty”

  1. I read negative comments about John MacArthur and they seem unfounded. He spent 42 years preaching through the NT and is a great resource for the young and the old Christian. I think it is because he is not “new” and he is definitely popular.

  2. I listen to John MacArthur and I find that he does not know how to distinguish law from gospel and his messages create a schizophrenic type Christianity that sends the believer inward for any assurance.It’s all about what you do, say, feel, or think.

    We believe that this is rampant in Christianity and the source of so many problems.

    We adhere to the external Word and sacraments. It keeps us away from ‘the self’ and anchored in the finished work of Christ for sinners.

  3. Theological novelties sell books and add to one’s resume. As far as helping to spread the Gospel goes, they probably don’t sell well or add much.

  4. This is a good post. I remember earlier on, a few years after my conversion, being introduced to studying doctrine and having discussions on internet forums. After years of doing that there were lots of times I would see people switch from one theology to a theology they used to debate against. There had been plenty of times I would sit back and think to myself “Why is it that I have basically held the same beliefs throughout my Christian life? I see these people making drastic changes yet I never seem to do that.” I came to the conclusion that isn’t always a bad thing. I most definitely have changed my perspectives on some things over the years but I have learned to do it SLLLLOOOOWLLLY. Take time to mull it over in your mind and let the themes come out on their own- this usually doesn’t happen over night. I’ve always hated to see, for example, someone who debated against Calvinists with lots of energy and then a week later be a Calvinist and fighting Arminians. I’ve always thought people who have a history of switching theologies and (this is key) be a big debater of whichever theology they are holding at the time, are just simply unstable and hard to trust.

  5. The problem with McDowell’s “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” is not that it’s old hat but that many of the arguments contained in that book don’t hold up to objective scrutiny. On the other hand, if one looks down on McDowell’s books simply because they are popular in the evangelical subculture then I would say that’s the kind of rank prejudice we all need to avoid.

  6. Yet there are real problems in only reading those authors with whom you already agree. There’s an old saying “He knows just enough to be dangerous.” This is as true in theology as in anything else. If I am exposed to only one thread of theological thought, I can easily become smug in my position on some point of doctrine, when in reality, I speak out of great ignorance.

    But you’re right that some read not for the sake of understanding, but for the sake of being cool; as you said, of being “in the know” and hanging with the right crowd. It’s a form of peer pressure (“All the cool kids are reading Boff”), which is just one more way of seeking ‘the praise of men” and we know how that ends up.

  7. Indeed I was, years back now, within the so-called theological academy, but thank God I left that and chose the more pastoral ministry, and I thank God too for the depth of that Anglican Evangelical place, that is historically so well-known, but sadly today is little known! Indeed it is the so-called “emergents” that are in reality the “swingers” theologically! And btw, one cannot really swing with a Barth, nor a Brunner! I read these great thinkers, and they have their place (though certainly problematic at times, and not infallible), and too some use them to “swing” theologically, but really neither of these men (to use them in this discussion) are to be used in these manner. Just as per se the likes of a John Calvin! But sadly today, Calvin’s name is used as a moniker, more than a theological and biblical historic person! And so not everything that passes in his name is truth, and certainly “Calvinism”! Just making a point from the so-called conservative end. Not everything that is painted “conservative” is really such. We must in reality always have a historic sort of “Biblicism”!

    As to Luther and so-called Lutheranism, indeed sadly the latter, has fallen at best into a form of antinomianism, in many places! For Word & Sacrament must always be living, and not alone or just so-called the letter of the confessional and creed. It is here that Calvin can help us, even within his biblical desire, for example, to see and understand the Trinity of God, etc.! Indeed he would not fall into a mere creedal definition here! Sadly today, many High Church, and even some Evangelicals, think that making creedal definition, will somehow make and give orthodoxy. Again, looking at some of our so-called moderns, like John Frame will really help us here! But again, there is certainly no infallibility in the Pilgrim Church and Body!

  8. Btw, ugh with reading the later Moltmann! There are so many better and faithful men! My opinion of course. Oh to rediscover the historical John Calvin! Here is Bruce Gordon’s: Calvin! (2009, Yale University Press, 2011, in paperback).

    “But if there be no certain knowledge for the present, and no constant and unhesitant persuasion for the future, who dare glory? – John Calvin on Romans 5: 2.

    See too btw, the 2000 in English book, by the French Bernard Cottret’s: Calvin, A Biography. These are both simply must reads, if we would rediscover John Calvin!

  9. So many fall off of one side of the horse, or the other. True, many, many Lutherans have done that, also. And when I listen to and read Calvinists, they almost always turn the believer back into themselves for any assurance. Not good.

    Luther had it right. The external Word and the sacraments. True assurance, outside of ourselves. Not faith in faith, but faith in God.

    A few of us Lutherans still believe that.

  10. As with all extremes (i.e. pursuing the coolest and most current theological author or trend) the other danger is to avoid reading and exposing yourself to those who are labelled as “dangerous” due to their perceived “newness” or “novelty” in ideology.

    As a recovering FORMER Reformed Baptist/ Sovereign Grace Baptist Brider (IFB) I had to expose myself to free grace and dispensational writing and thinking.

    Both of which are anathema in Reformed and Baptist circles.

    The former group (Free Grace) is labelled as heretical easy believism and the latter group (Dispensationalists) are equally heretical and johnny come lately (circa 19th century).

    However, had I stuck with reading only Gerstner, Sproul, Spurgeon, Boettner, John Gill, Ray Stedman, MacArthur, Hodge (Charles and A.A.) etc. I would have never left the theological quagmire of no assurance, constant introspection (to “make my calling and election sure”) and essentially fall into a works salvation (lordship salvation of forsake and commit to get save… and then once saved, work to prove you are saved…which is ironically, Arminian at its core)

    READ those with whom you disagree; not for stature within your christian group, but for exposure to the POSSIBILITY you are in bondage to your own opinions, thoughts, beliefs and traditions handed down to you by those who have taught you.

  11. As with all extremes (i.e. pursuing the coolest and most current theological author or trend) the other danger is to avoid reading and exposing yourself to those who are labelled as “dangerous” due to their perceived “newness” or “novelty” in ideology.
    As a recovering FORMER Reformed Baptist/ Sovereign Grace Baptist Brider (IFB) I had to expose myself to free grace and dispensational writing and thinking.
    Both of which are anathema in Reformed and Baptist circles.
    The former group (Free Grace) is labelled as heretical easy believism and the latter group (Dispensationalists) are equally heretical and johnny come lately (circa 19th century).
    However, had I stuck with reading only Gerstner, Sproul, Spurgeon, Boettner, John Gill, Ray Stedman, MacArthur, Hodge (Charles and A.A.) etc. I would have never left the theological quagmire of no assurance, constant introspection (to “make my calling and election sure”) and essentially fall into a works salvation (lordship salvation of forsake and commit to get save… and then once saved, work to prove you are saved…which is ironically, Arminian at its core)
    READ those with whom you disagree; not for stature within your christian group, but for exposure to the POSSIBILITY you are in bondage to your own opinions, thoughts, beliefs and traditions handed down to you by those who have taught you.

  12. Good post. Being cool is vastly different than seeking truth.

    I think being well-read with theologians and points of view that one may not agree with is generally a healthy approach to developing good thinking and good theology. That is why I enjoy the “multiple views” books that seem popular.

    Reading other views can help expose areas in one’s own thinking/views that need correction. It can also get one to better understand their own views because they are forced to think them through and understand them in light of more information.

    And for some (which may be part of the point/warning i the OP) the danger of being well read is it may lead to not reading enough of those you do agree with.

  13. Good post. Thanks. I think that the risk of reading widely as is also partly due to the pride of life where people who are stronger, smarter, richer, holier (etc) than others get some sort of self assurance from this relative position. We like to feel self important, even if it is from the position of having something to ‘give’ to help others.
    On the counterbalance- the great benefit from reading widely is that we can gain some humility in realising that there there are many interpretations, and lenses through which scripture is organised and understood, and we should cultivate the attitude of being open learners – willing to receive the truth wherever it lies.
    Perhaps a personal paradigm of continual growth is a better model to adopt than ‘swinging’ or ‘stability’, as one could be an indicator of instability under the winds of different doctrine, while the other could be a sign of stagnation.
    Whatever course we choose the challenge is to be doers not hearers only… and that is a serious failing we probably all struggle with.

  14. @theoldadam: You make it seem like the Scriptures do not allow us to look within, which as I quoted from Romans 8: 5-13, with 14-15-16, etc., we are surely to do, with our position of the forensic ‘In Christ’, by faith. See too, 2 Cor. 13: 5 (as I worked on that verse before also). Justification & Sanctification are always connected, the latter is always connected with the former! (1 Cor. 6:11)

  15. Great post! I too get excited about novel ideas, and that of course is part of their appeal. I will say that often part of the problem with established ideas is that people forget why they were good ones. Eventually, people come along who think outside the box and question these ideas, and there needs to be people in the church who can answer them. Many novel ideas will probably seem a lot less appealing then, or at least not for the simple fact that they are novel.

  16. I am with you 100%. I am weary of the snobbery, buzz words, and “anything but the Bible” thinking out there. If I stated a personal blog, I would be tempted to call it, “Old, Grouchy, and Not Reformed.”

  17. Indeed chatting with my Lutheran friend, we must also always see that Luther taught that faith produced something of obedience, this is the aspect of the Pauline Law & Gospel, which both Luther as Calvin taught (as the best Reformers). Surely the true Christian life can be seen, both within by the believer and without. Surely by faith Word & Sacrament are seen believed and sought in obedience. And our “assurance” is always this faith, in the living Christ, Who Himself authenticates His Word, as He himself said, “in spirit and truth”! As Christians we simply must test our faith, and see if Christ is living within… “Test yourselves if you are in the faith, prove yourselves, or do you not realize yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you? Unless you are unapproved (fail to meet the test). Indeed “Christ Jesus Himself” is that TEST, living within! Herein is our Sanctification: the Living Christ Himself, and in us thru faith!

  18. The great ill of the “antinomian” so-called gospel, is the lack of faith that produces moral law within, and Christ Jesus is always that truth & goodness! Here is the book of James! That “royal law of liberty”, (James 1: 22-25 ; 2: 12-13). Indeed the whole Canon and Word of God! :)

  19. You started out talking about reading THE BIBLE!

    Where do you stand on the inclusive Bible? I tend to use the King James Version being brought up Southern Baptist.

    However, I also had Bible History, Ancient History, World History, along with basic required high school courses and AP US History in high school. I clepped out of pre-civil war and post civil war history.

    Bottom line I like to read about history. Theories about history and such.I have read the Gospel of Thomas, Mary
    and a couple of others. I would love to read a copy of the Pilgrims and Bishop’s Bible. I haven’t read the extra books in the Catholic Bible but want to soon one day.

    Going to this site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible, you get into the history a little more but it doesn’t list the Pilgrim or Bishop’s Bible.

    My final question is if you were to assemble a Bible would you include any of these other non recognized Gospels, Books from the Catholic Bible or others?

    I personally wasn’t that impressed the Gospel of Mary. The Gospel of Thomas was a bit more history worthy but still didn’t seem Biblical to me. That might just be the way i was raised.

    I would like to hear your opinion though.

    Thanks. Sandra

  20. Good analogy with “swinging”, makes me also think of serial marriage or concubinage. My challenge as a pastor and friend to other Christians is the pervasiveness of “novelty” in culture – including church culture. Folks are chasing after the hottest teaching, author, retreat program – regardless of its Biblical content and whether the Christ of the Cross is central; when I ask questions about the “latest and greatest” I’m often perceived as throwing cold water on the fire. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be excited about discovering new “friends and mentors”, it is to say that when novelty is the weather vane that we lack a Biblical compass. Thanks for your reflection.

  21. Sounds like something that could have also been said by the 16th century Roman Catholics: “these people aren’t content with the faith once delivered to the saints, they are coming up with new theologies against the traditions of the church.”

    I don’t know how you can avoid changes in theology when you hold to scripture alone as your only source of authority. Seems like we’re with happy with sola scriptura as long as everyone agrees with our interpretation of it.

  22. Regardless of who we read— Lewis Sperry Chafer, Josh McDowell, Wayne Grudem, or R.C. Sproul or Barth, Multmonn, Hauerwas—they must all be sifted through the grid of the Bible, the Word of God. We should all be well read but we should read the Word first and foremost.

  23. Best you re-read “The City of God” by St. Augustine. It will

    provide the needed reboot.

  24. How about the Bible?

    I am personally guilty of having preferred theological books over the Bible because the Bible isn’t as novel (“been there, done that” etc).

  25. From the article, it sounds like being a philosophical or theological hipster has been done already…and is still being done.

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