It’s always a little sad when you run across someone who is excited about some theological concept they just came across, thinking that it will revolutionize the way people think about God or themselves, and you have to point out that it’s actually an ancient heresy that the church considered and rejected long ago.
That’s the gist of this cartoon: “new” theological ideas are almost always simple repetitions of older heresies. There’s nothing new under the sun, right?
Not quite. At first, I thought this comic was just funny. Then I thought again. Scroll down to see what I mean.
When I saw this comic, I chuckled for a few seconds, and then I realized that I both agreed and disagreed with it. First, much of what passes for “new” in theology really does sound like a simple rehash of older heresies. We do need to be familiar with the history of theology so we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel every few decades, especially when we’ve already figured out that certain wheels inevitably produce fatal accidents.
At the same time, though, we need to be careful about dismissing something that sounds “new” simply because of its novelty. Every generation of Christians faces the task of saying again what they believe. And each must do so in a new context, before new challenges, and in view of the ever-expanding field of human knowledge. So, although every generation should strive to speak faithfully in light of what prior generations have said, each generation also needs to be mindful of its own theological situation, a situation that will sometimes require it to say things that sound “new.”
Theological faithfulness isn’t about simply repeating what others have said in their context. It’s about speaking faithfully in ours.
To this comic, then, I have two responses. “Yes” to its intuition that we should be wary of novelty, looking closely to see how it relates to the conversations that God’s people have already had. But “no” to the implication that novelty is always wrong. As long as God’s people strive to engage the world around them with the truth of the gospel, they will always be called on to risk saying something “new.”
This is particularly important in our increasingly global world where God continues to expand his kingdom in new places shaped by their own unique circumstances, where his gospel is heard by ears that understand his truth in new ways, and where God’s Word gets articulated with mouths formed by unexpected experiences. In such a world we should anticipate theological novelty — not the kind of novelty that rejects earlier conclusions, but the kind that recognizes the challenges of the contemporary situation, the diversity of God’s people, and the faithfulness of God.
Theological discernment means assessing everything the church says in light of what it has said before, but without dismissing something just because it is unfamiliar.
That is our task.