Six Questions from Jon Swartz

Posted: December 1, 2007 in Theology


1. “If in theology, new = bad, how do you ever tell what is good short of looking back several centuries?”

I think you’re saying, “If new is bad then all our theology will be bad until it gets old – so Tim’s thesis must be false.” Is that right? Because I’m really saying that the path to biblical faithfulness for us is greatly clarified and enlightened primarily by heeding the extensive wisdom of the Christian tradition with AT LEAST as much attention as we heed contemporary thought.

2. “Weren’t Luther, Calvin, Wesley, etc. all writing and talking about “new” theology?”

Uhh. Well. They would have been really put off by that assessment. Wesley was the guy that I got the idea that new = bad. Luther was just trying to recover the apostolic tradition underneath all of the overgrowth of church bylaws. Calvin’s encyclopedic Institutes of the Christian Religion are actually just a point by point doctrinal treatise based upon the Apostle’s Creed, with biblical support and explanation. That creed of course being probably the earliest baptismal affirmation of apostolic Christian faith distilled.

3. “Were their ideas good at the time or should they be considered bad until some unknown distant time when others look back and say “hey they really knew what they were talking about!””

The unchanging story must always be told in a way that “speaks today.” But the challenge is to be faithful to old truth in changing situations. The fact that the Gideons still often place the King James translation of the Bible (from 1611) in hotel rooms honestly baffles my mind. Talk about being unfaithful to the ancient truth. The Greek and Hebrew weren’t “high brow” language like the Shakespearian English of the KJV; no, they were written entirely in the gas-station or farmer vocabulary! I think our task is never to come up with new theology for a new world, but to so understand the ancient faith – which is greatly helped by watching it’s communication throughout a variety of historical contexts – that we may aptly and clearly see what specific ways best communicate in whatever “story we find ourselves in,” to borrow your McLaren-esque phrase.

4. “Further, if all theology is contextual theology shouldn’t there be at least bits of new theology when we enter new contexts?”

You could view it that way, but I think I’m more comfortable saying that the light strikes the prism from a different angle and other colors are seen that were always there, just not quite so visibly. The particular forms of the Trinitarian and Christological affirmations of the third and fourth centuries are framed in explicitly Hellenistic philosophical categories – though their affirmations are, in my opinion, solidly biblical. The exact expressions are new, but they are simply trying to explain and express old truth in terms comprehendible to the astute early medieval mind.

If you push what I’m saying in the wrong direction, you could make it sound like I’m saying no new paintings should be done, since the old ones are so good. That’s really not what I’m saying. I’m saying we should look at the old paintings and let them inspire and educate and inform our unique contributions. And we should view our additions as in basic continuity with what has gone before.

And I’m reminded of the guy who looked at the Mona Lisa and said, “I don’t like it.” The guard standing near by then wisely interjected, “Sir, these paintings are no longer being judged. The viewers are.”

5. “Or is there such a thing as new contexts?”

On many levels I think there are, but what I’m suggesting is that the answers will come easier if we pay attention to our rich broad tradition instead of only our little narrow one, or even worse, just a fundamentalist “Just me and my Bible” methodology. Christians have never faced the bioethical questions of stem cell research or cloning before. But we do have the Christian anthropology to face it in our heritage so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel – in comparative concrete ethical contexts from the past.

Christians have never faced a world where nuclear proliferation ominously looms – and that in combination with fundamentalist Islam and an age of global terror…and a potentially conflict-escalating foreign policy by the west. Here’s where I cut and paste your comment on our tradition’s strengths: “I strongly believe that [Anabaptist/Mennonite] beliefs matter an incredible amount, right now…” Amen.

So I do think there are new contexts, but in a way if you keep pushing down to the core there is something transcultural. Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation. The human existential situation is transcultural. The love of God in Christ is eternal. Good Friday and the Lord’s Day are transcultural. The particulars can be new though.

In a way, what I really want to say is this: I went to college and took a “History of the Early Church” class, and then a whole series of classes on church history, and for me, it was like it must be for adopted kids to go as adults to their birth parents house and meet the extended family and hear great stories of how you come from a line of geniuses and artists and drunks and pedophiles and winners and brick-layers and all-star quarterbacks.

In other words, it was like finding out why we are as diverse as we are, how the various weird differences of the cousins took their shape, and falling in love with much of it, wanting to cry at some of it, but always knowing that it was telling you more deeply who you are than you could ever know just by looking at your own 70 year blip. I wished I could take every new Christian in the world and send them through Dr. Rightmire’s History of the Early Church class. I still do.

Or another picture of how I feel: Imagine wandering into an antique shop in something like 1985 and lazily entering a dark dusty back room, where boxes are covered in cobwebs. You curiously open some of them up and find a voice directing GPS in one, a crazy state of today’s art laptop in another, iPhones in others, and whatever else ridiculously advanced technology that we don’t even yet have. You don’t quite know who decided to throw all this stuff away so you buy the whole box for a dollar and spend the rest of your life trying to reverse engineer the stuff as “new.”

I’m stretching here, but I feel that historical theology is like stumbling upon advanced technology, the usefulness of which we still don’t know, so instead we’re at home with a rotary phone and using a phonograph player – our silly Tim LaHaye escapist fly away from the earth to heaven nonsense – because we got no clue how to use Irenaeus’ iPhone theology of the whole cosmos’ glorious recapitulation in and through the risen Christ.

What I’m saying is that in our ignorance, we’ve actually lost a lot. (That includes me.)

6. “So will we use our theology to engage the problems of the world or will we retreat into our comfortable communities of faith?”

That sounds like a sermon for you to preach, Jon, and I’d love to hear it.

  1. J says:

    Yeah, Jon. Let me know when you preach it, and I’ll watch it live on Skype. J

  2. Sam says:

    Love the discussion. But I’d rather have an iPhone, thank you very much.

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