When is theological innovation (not) 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 proclaiming ‘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.

But what about limits to theological creativity? When shouldn’t we be creative when it comes to thinking about God, the Bible, Church, etc.?

  1. When it’s about sin and evil — sadly there were times when the Church endorsed evil like slavery, racism, sexism and genocide. May we never revert to these eras. Yet, I reckon our problem is that we often stop at the labeling of sin and don’t think hard enough about what to do next (apart from condemnation)
  2. When it’s about historical events — I’m fine being creative with a question like, “What did Jesus believe about Himself?” but I’m not sure I’ve got patience for a statement like, “Jesus didn’t exist.” I also feel it’d be somewhat unhealthy for the Church to be overly creative with the facts and reality of Jesus’ resurrection, though the work of historiography (and especially the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus) must go on, IMO

But what would you add? What would you consider a non-negotiable of the faith?

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.