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Can Good Theology Be Innovative?

For many in conservative Christian circles innovation in theology and biblical interpretation is viewed as suspect, if not sinful. To this I would simply respond by pointing out that the attitude that would dismiss hermeneutical or theological proposals (like those offered in The Crucifixion of the Warrior God) simply on the grounds that they include novelty is itself a very non-traditional perspective. While the Church has always affirmed that the core doctrines of the orthodox faith have been “entrusted to us…once for all” (Jude 3), and while theologians have always understood that new proposals must be critically scrutinized in the light of Scripture, tradition and experience, the Church has never closed the door to novel ways of interpreting Scripture or resolving theological or interpretive conundrums.

Church interpreters from the start took their interpretive cues from the creative practices of the NT, but they regarded this only as their starting point from which they generated further readings that would themselves become standard components of Christian imagination, vocabulary and liturgy. The traditional openness to Spirit-inspired innovation received its clearest formal expression in the Reformation maxim, “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” (the reformed church must always be reformed). This maxim presumes not only that the Spirit continues to work in and through the Church in new and creative ways but that the Church needs the Spirit to so work and that the Church needs to retain a humble, open posture.

In this light, I would argue that, not only should we not immediately dismiss proposed interpretive strategies simply because they’re novel, but we ought to be concerned with any individual or group that adopts a knee-jerk anti-innovation attitude. The authority of tradition must of course always be given its due weight, and it is formidable. But the conservative resistance to novelty in hermeneutics or theology reflects an unorthodox if not idolatrous presumption that one’s group is already in possession of all truth and is thus no longer in need of the Spirit to reform them.

The conservative resistance to novelty is especially inappropriate, I believe, with respect to proposals that attempt to help us better discern how Scripture bears witness to Christ. After all, it was only because the earliest disciples and post-apostolic Fathers were open to the Spirit giving them new insights and inspiring highly creative interpretive strategies that they were able to find Christ in surprising ways and “in unexpected places” in the OT. Indeed, it was only because of this that the early church was able to continue to affirm that the Hebrew Bible was also their Bible. On the other hand, it was largely because Marcion refused to embrace creative interpretive strategies that he was led to the conclusion that the OT is incompatible with the Christian faith. And it was precisely because the modern historical-critical approach to Scripture methodologically ruled out hermeneutical innovation that it undermined the OT as a witness to Christ and sabotaged its use in the church.

Hence, while I argue that theological interpretations should, as a matter of principle, stick as close as possible to the original meaning of Biblical passages—a conviction I label as “the conservative hermeneutical principle” in my book— and while I believe that interpretive strategies that go beyond or against traditional hermeneutical practices certainly shoulder the burden of proof, I also contend that, when it comes to discerning how OT passages that portray God as being violent actually bear witness to Christ, there is no justifiable reason to rule out any particular proposed interpretive strategy simply because it is innovative.

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