Between the Normal and the Novel


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Theology is meant to be the bridge that connects God’s Revelation with Man’s Condition (or Context). As such, theology is meant to be a living activity… but one tied to historical continuity. As such good theology exists somewhere between the Normal and the Novel.

The Normal

The Normal describes theology that reiterates the interpretations of the past. As such, theological education is the repeating of doctrinal statements from some point in history (on one hand) or the official dogma of the moment. An example of the Normal is in this quote by Charles Hodge written to a reviewer:

“If your review shall have the effect of commending the views which they advocate to the favorable regard of our younger theologians, I shall rejoice. I have but one object in my professional career and as a writer, and that is to state and to vindicate the doctrines of the Reformed Church. I have never advanced a new idea, and have never aimed to improve on the doctrines of our father. Having become satisfied that the system of doctrines taught in the symbols of the Reformed Churches is taught in the Bible, I have endeavored to sustain it, and am willing to believe even where I cannot understand. … I feel this the more because may of our brethren in this country have expressed great dissatisfaction with those articles. I am persuaded, however, that they contain nothing more than the common Protestant doctrine on the subject.”

-Quoting Charles Hodge in “The Life of Charles Hodge” by Archibald Alexander Hodge (published 1881) https://archive.org/details/lifecharleshodg00hodggoog . Note that this passage is quoted in part by Edward William Fudge in “Hell: A Final Word”)

Essentially, he is saying that the Reformed Church, at some point of time in the past codified its theological understanding of God’s revelation to such a level of perfection that he would never challenge or add to it, even if some of it doesn’t make sense to him.

There are several problems with this.

1. It can lead to confusion between revelation and theology. The theology can become the hermeneutic for understanding Scripture. Hodge seems to suggest this when he says that he is willing to believe his denomination’s theology even when he doesn’t understand it. Presumably that means that when Scripture passages do not seem to support this theological view, he would interpret the passage based on the denominational view. (I hope it is not necessary to suggest that such a view turns the early reformers’ view of Scripture on its head.)

2. A historical/denominational theological position describes a set of beliefs that a majority can agree to— it does not, however, suggest the range of recognized orthodoxy. That’s what makes it a “Normal” (meaning average, common, or typical) view. Any creed has a range of beliefs even in those who sign on to the creed, and are likely to have as many nuanced positions as to the interpretation of the creed as there are signers. (I am Southern Baptist, and our “Baptist Faith and Message” definitely has the awkward feel of a document developed by a committee. Look at Article 16 if you want to see vague words seeking to hide big disagreements.) As such, simply repeating what was said before is actually allowing oneself less flexibility and possibility for diversity than, presumably, the original formulators allowed themselves. A theologian should not simply repeat the dogma of denominational stances. At the very least he or she should explore the range of its own “orthodoxy.”

3. If, as I personally believe is pretty obvious, all theology is contextual, all theology can and should change over time, place, and cultural context. To lock it in and regurgitate it decade after decade is to gradually make a theology irrelevant. That is part of the reason I don’t describe myself as a “Reformed Theologian” though I have friends who do call themselves that. Perhaps I could say that I am a theologican in the “Reformed tradition,” suggesting that its roots are seen as connected to the thoughts and ideas of some of the major early Reformers. I was a member of a different tradition— perhaps “Pentecostalism,” I certainly wouldn’t call myself a Pentecostal theologian for the same reason. It locks one into an out-of-date theology. We don’t need First Century Theology. We don’t need 16th Century Theology. We don’t need 20th Century Theology. We need theology here and now. Curiously, accepting the fluidity of theology can help it remain orthodox since it forces one to return to the standard (“canon”) of Scripture, rather than a council or some other point in history.

The Novel

Perhaps worse than the extreme of the Normal is the extreme of the Novel. This is the focus on theology that is new or original.

1. Articles are more appealing if they say something new rather than reiterate accepted truth. The same can be said for dissertations.

2. Some seeking adherents are likely to get a hearing by appealing to those who have been turned off by the Normal. Although a prophet is one who states God’s message in a specific circumstance, folk Christianity tends to think that a prophet is one who says new things that diverge from previous revelation— the Novel.

3. Others seek publicity and publicity comes from being controversial.

4. The Novel is often a reaction to the Normal. I come from the “Burnt Out District” of Western New York where decades of “normal” revivalism led to “burn out” which in turn led to the creation of numerous groups of novel ahistorical doctrines (the most well known of this is Mormonism). In the Philippines, ahistorical responses to unchallenged Normal theology such as Iglesia Ni Cristo and Ang Dating Daan, have sprung up as well.

For Christians, even if a novel teaching originally comes from a single individual, eventually, there will be an attempt to justify the belief Biblically. The problem is that those embracing the Novel, have commonly rejected the normalizing role of history. While Protestants commonly say they embrace “sola scriptura,” ideally this is not strictly true. Without understanding of its historical context, one tends to interpret passages based on nothing more than the “sound” of the passage.

Solution

The Normal can drive people to the Novel (heterodoxy), and the Novel can drive people to the Normal (a fundamental or traditionalist response). However, rather than allowing one to drive the other, each should challenge the other in (pulling the David Bosch phrase) “creative tension.”

I mentioned earlier that I am reading a book by Edward Fudge. He supports the belief that eternal punishment of unbelievers does not involve eternal conscious torment. Rather, he believes it involves annihilation or being “consumed by fire.” This goes against the “traditional view” Good people can disagree on their view of Hell… but I do appreciate the basic methodology Fudge uses. It could be argued that his view is Novel. As such he could have simply pulled Bible verses as an attempt to show that his view is “Biblical.” I wouldn’t say that he “proves” his case, but he at least shows that his view is a potentially viable alternative interpretation of Scripture. But Fudge goes one better. The Traditionalist (Normal) view draws on Augustine, Catholic doctrine, and the early Protestant reformers. Fudge draws on the writings of early Rabbinical and Church sources to demonstrate that there were at least three major historical views regarding Hell— eternal fire as destruction, as torment, and as purification. So both history as revelation and the Bible as revelation are taken seriously— not to prove what is true, but to demonstrate what is potentially within the range of orthodoxy.

In missions, theology must be adapted to new contexts. As such, slavish reliance on denominational creeds is unhelpful. But an ahistorical Biblicism also has its problems. We need to recognize our historical roots and our standard (canon) of Divine scripture.

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