What’s New in Theology? (Some Musings about Novelty—Or Not)
One of the curses of getting older and having been in a discipline or profession for many years is having “seen it all before.” Sometimes, after about forty years studying and teaching theology, I feel the truth of that saying “Been there; done that; got the tee-shirt!”
I’ll never forget the day a few years ago when one of my favorite and brightest seminary students came to my office to give me a book. It was the newest and latest “thing” making the rounds among reflective Christian young people discovering theology. He proudly gave me a copy he purchased especially for me and said I needed to “read this” because it’s so innovative. (A lot of people were saying that about the book and its author.) As this was one of my favorite students, I took the book home and read it that night. At the end I said to myself “There’s nothing new here; I learned all this in seminary.”
The thing is, that student and his peers were emerging from their fundamentalist, cocoon-like conservative evangelical upbringings in which everything was either “Bible-based” (in their context meaning “fundamentalist”) or “liberal” (meaning “not what we’ve always believed”). So this book, that purported to forge a new path in thinking about God and salvation, etc., seemed new to him and them. To me, however, it was “old hat.”
More recently there was the hubbub and hoopla over Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. When I got around to reading it I expected to encounter something fresh and new—in terms of ideas about hell. Instead, about halfway through it, I said to myself “This is C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce warmed over.” Sure enough, at the very end Bell gives Lewis credit for influencing what he wrote.
In most scholarly disciplines taught in universities there is the expectation that researchers will discover and present to the world something new. A strong bias in what we call “modernity” is that “New is better.” The other day I was telling a theological friend that if I were to teach a course in systematic theology (I teach historical theology) I would use as my main text Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics. He responded that surely something newer than that would be more appropriate!
On the other hand, at the opposite pole from the “new is better” view, stand fundamentalism and “paleo-orthodox” traditionalism. Some years ago a conservative evangelical theological friend “informed” me that postconservative evangelicals such as I are “worshiping at the feet of the goddess of novelty.” He was especially reacting to the appearance of “open theism” among evangelicals.
At the celebration of his fiftieth year of teaching at Princeton Seminary theologian Charles Hodge, who had also served as the school’s president, proudly declared that no new thought had been taught there during his tenure. Conservatives in theology tend to applaud that claim while progressives ridicule it.
Approaching the end of my career (in a few years) I increasingly have the feeling that there really are no totally new thoughts in theology. Every time someone points in the direction of some new and innovative discovery or proposal and I look into it (which I’m increasingly less likely to do!) I find it is simply a warmed over and slightly altered version of something I encountered years before.
One reason I studied theology under Wolfhart Pannenberg (and wrote my doctoral dissertation about his theology) was that I thought he was providing a new alternative to some (in my opinion) dead ends in modern theology. The more I studied his thought, however, the more disillusioned I became. While the recipe may have been new, the ingredients were all old. One of his more startling claims that won him fame was that truth is eschatological in nature. Then I ran across the same idea while reading Ernst Troeltsch who said it about fifty years before Pannenberg. (I’m not at all implying that Pannenberg directly borrowed the idea from Troeltsch but only that it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, after two millennia of Christian theology to think a thought nobody has though before.)
I remember the disillusionment I felt when, many years ago, I took Pannenberg to a large theological bookstore. He was visiting the city where I was teaching theology and I drove him around and served as his host during his stay. He asked me to show him some recent theological books that he might not be aware of (because he lived in Germany and did not have direct access to a large English-language trove of new theological books there). I took him around the store and pointed out several recent publications by noted theologians. Each time he took the book I pointed to off the shelf and leafed through it, skimming the table of contents and reading passages. Every time he put the book back on the shelf and said (in German) the idiomatic equivalent of “Been there; done that.”
Now, many years later, I know the feeling. I went through a period of grief over it, but now I’ve settled into an attitude of wise resignation. It’s not that I ever really wanted to worship at the feet of a “goddess of novelty.” It’s that I hoped for some really new theological breakthroughs that would cut the Gordian knots of old theological problems and provide a path around the pitfalls and past the dead ends.
One temptation of people who come to this conclusion is to look back to some “Golden Age” when theology was progressing and arriving at its grand ending when all truth was reached. For them, typically, the only “job” of theology now is to either repeat what was discovered and said then, hopefully in contemporary idiom, or to deconstruct what was alleged to have been discovered and said then. Consciously or unconsciously, it seems to me, most of what we call “constructive theology” is simply the first temptation succumbed to and what is called “deconstructive theology” is simply the second one succumbed to.
For me, anyway, the vast majority of highly touted constructive theologians become famous for saying old things in new ways. Often the newness is only in the recipe of which all the ingredients are old and familiar (to historical theologians, anyway). And the old problems are simply ignored or addressed in old ways disguised as new.
I’m not at all interested in the “goddess of novelty,” but I do keep an eye out for new solutions to the old problems theology has faced: God’s and creatures’ agencies and how they interact, God’s transcendence and immanence (how they can be held together), the nature of the Bible as God’s written Word, the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the roles of grace and human decision and action in salvation, etc., etc. It seems to me that all the avenues have been explored and “new” ones are simply old ones recycled. What makes them seem new is simply the new clothes they wear—their contemporary expressions.
Increasingly I have come to believe that these old problems facing theology, although very interesting and worthy of deep thought, will never be solved—before we “know as we are known.” We just have to learn to live with them and do our best to minimize them insofar as they are real problems—stumbling blocks to faith seeking understanding. Usually, if not always, that means choosing one of several options from past constructions in theology—the one with the least problems—and learning to live in wise resignation and acceptance with the fact that some problems will never be definitely solved due to our finitude and fallenness, God’s transcendence, and the fact that the Bible is not as clear as we would like it to be about many things.