New Thing Theology
by Todd Wilken
One of the strongest feelings you can get in life, one of the most rewarding feelings is the feeling of an “Aha! I finally understand.” —Penn Jillette
I have listened to my pastor preach for over seven years. I can count on one hand the times he has given me one of those “aha!” moments. He is a great, faithful preacher. But he is mostly unoriginal. And, that’s just fine. He seldom delivers that new insight, that fresh understanding, that “aha!” moment. And, that’s just the way it should be.
There are few things more dangerous in the Church than a bored theologian. I call them New Thing Theologians. Be it a pastor, Bible teacher, seminary professor, author —bored theologians have the potential to do as much damage as bad theologians. I know. I have been one for the better part of 25 years.
My pastor’s preaching has cured me. For most of my pastoral career, I have lived for that “aha!” moment. The old, run-of-the-mill theology was fine, but it didn’t give me the theological buzz that I craved. I lived on the edge of boredom, always looking for something to stave it off. I tended toward the pastors, professors and authors who I thought could help me do so.
As a New Thing Theologian, I read the Bible always on the lookout for something I had never seen before. I preached, always trying to find the new spin on the old text. I taught Bible class, always exploring some new angle on an old passage.
Now, not every new thing I came up with was a bad idea. Some of them were good ideas. None of them were truly original. I eventually realized that most my new ideas were really the old ideas of better theologians than me. Some of these new insights and ideas were just interesting for the sake of being interesting, and new for the sake of being new. Looking back, I realize that I was aiming for freshness, not faithfulness.
Then, I started listening to my pastor preach. It was great preaching. It was consistently textual, consistently clear Law and Gospel, consistently centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus for sinners. I wasn’t bored with his preaching, but I was a little conflicted. Where were my precious “aha!” moments? One, maybe two times a year, he would give me one. But most of the time, there were no surprises to speak of.
What are the dangers of New Thing Theology? Where does boredom with old theology, old doctrines, old theological categories and expressions lead?
"I always wanted to become famous. And, then it occurred to me that to become famous in theology means to present something new and different. But, if I present something new and different, after 2,000 years of Christian theology, it is bound to be heresy. And therefore, I have decided not to become famous." —T. A. Kantonen
The most obvious form of New Thing Theology is, of course, heresy. “New and different” may be good thing when it comes to technology, business and advertising, but “new and different” can be a very bad thing when it comes to Christian teaching and practice. The heretic is all about the new and the different.
But, the heretic rarely presents his false teachings as new or different. The heretic almost always presents his new and different teachings straight from the Bible. “All heretics quote the Bible” is the old saying. And, that is usually true. But, already in the second century, the church father Irenaeus observed the heretic’s trick: The heretic presents his teaching “under a pretense of superior knowledge, … as if, forsooth, they had something more excellent and sublime to reveal than God.”
Of course, some heretics don’t even bother to cite the Bible, claiming new revelation altogether. Islam started this way, even though we consider it an old religion. Muhammed may have lived 1,400 years ago, but at the time his revelations were new, fresh and different. Islam, Mormonism, The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society —these heresies are easy to spot today, but in their day, they were the newest thing around. And, the claim to new revelation continues today.
God Is Doing a New Thing
Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I
am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? —Isaiah 43:19-19
“God is doing a new thing” has become the Creed of many New Thing Theologians, from the charismatic televangelist to the liberal mainline protestant. This is another form of New Thing Theology. You name it, God is doing it. On the one hand God is bringing about new revivals, signs, miracles, anointings, moves-of-the-spirit. On the other hand, God is affirming new alternative lifestyles, sexual orientations, genders, and definitions of marriage. Depending on whom you ask, God is doing all these new things.
These New Thing Theologians have a “Bible plus” theology. The Bible is great, as far as it goes, but now God is doing something new. This is a very convenient claim. If God is doing something new, something not found in the Bible, something even contrary to what is in the Bible, then anything goes. Who is to say what God can do? Who is to say what God will do next? The New Thing Theologian, that’s who.
This kind of New Thing Theology, like heresy, is the enemy of Christian theology. But in a way, this version of New Thing Theology is even more dangerous than heresy. The heretic introduces a new teaching and usually stops there. The “God is doing a new thing” theologian doesn’t. He can’t, really. God’s ongoing revelation is never the final word on any doctrine or subject. It is always a rough draft, never the final version. It is always open to future changes and revisions. The most this kind of theologian can say is, “This is what God is saying to us today; this is what God is doing today; tomorrow it may change.” The heretic misinterprets the Bible; the “God is doing a new thing” theologian is rewriting it.
Steven Kozar started The Messed Up Church; he is an artist, musician, blogger and stuff.