Monday, March 05, 2007

Does Theology Evolve?

That's it. It's a question with many implications. I'm asking in part because of my participation in a class that covers the "distinctive" doctrine of my denomination. I'm asking because I am wondering if our "distinctive doctrine" following John Wesley is a part of the evolution of theology. And if it is, are we called to stick to what Wesley said or to carry on what he continued, the evolution of theology?


Nate Youngblood said...

Good question... I want to say yes, that theology should evolve, but then I have this gut reaction of fear. If theology evolves then it's possible that we'll get it wrong and screw things up. Is good theology ever really evolving, or just being re-discovered and re-defined? Isn't there something in Ecclesiasties about there not being anything new under the sun? How does ones alligance to the denomination compare to alliegance to Christ? No answers here, just more questions.

Jonathan Mills said...

Josh -

Great question. A few years ago I heard Brian McLaren define theology as a human enterprise which makes models of the universe based on beliefs about God.

He went on to say that theology is (a) never finished, (b) self-correcting, and (c) conversational.

I don't know if that helps, but it seems to suggest to me that theology does, as a human construct, evolve.

Just a thought.

Josh said...

thanks for piping in guys.

Nate, I would say that theology is just being redefined within the changing context. God isn't changing. We are.

Jonathan, I had heard MClaren say the same thing and thought it very inviting, but have been struggling where that fits when we're working within an established organization with a set of doctrines.

I especially want to pick up on Nate's question on allegiances. But let's take it farther. Is it possible to change the direction of doctrine/theology within an institutionalized church?

brad said...


your last question... i think may be getting to the heart of why i find this post itriguing. my theology has evolved. this cannot be denied. i think it would be arrogant of any institution/denomination/christian tradition to think that they have it completely figured out.

a simple scan of church history reflects to us the evolvement of theology. even as early as the councils and forming creeds of our faith. i don't believe we can deny that the institution of the church has evolved in theology over the years.

but that evolvement never seems gracious to me. history shows how much we hate change...even if it is a change of evolving to something better...


Jordan said...

I would have to say that Theology is constantly evolving. We first see it in Scripture. The Israelites understanding of God in the OT is far from uniform. In Gen 1 we have a transcendent God who creates with a word, in Gen 2-3 we have a God who gets his hands dirty. In Deutoronomy we have do A and you get B, in Job we have I did A and I got sh-t. We have some who want an earthly king and an earthly kingdom but we also have Jeremiah who encourages Israelites to live like foreigners and pray for the peace of the land. Then we have Jesus who turns everything upside down, and then Paul begins to work out the social implications (Jew and Gentile relations). A few hundred years later we have a canon, the outworking of the Trinity. Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, the monastic movement, the reformation, revivalism, fundamentalism, liberalism, pentecostalism, post-modernism, liberation and feminist theology. So yes I would say theology is constantly evolving. Hopefully, our theology will continue to correct the flaws of our past (i.e. patriarchy, and other forms of oppression).

In terms of John Wesley, it seems like the moment we read him, interpret him, and apply him we are already involved in the evolutionary process.

Brian said...

YES! That's it. That's your answer.

If theology is "the study of God", then you bet it evolves, changes, flows, shifts, corrects, invites, challenges, and even from time to time gives a little smack down.

To get a little larger, can we afford for theology NOT to change within its context and remain true to what it is striving for?

Josh said...

Brad, Jordan and Brian, thanks for piping in.

Brad and Jordan, you both addressed what caused my question, the fact that it does seem to evolve and adjust.

Brad, you pointed out that change within an organization is often not clean or filled with generosity. This is also what lies at the root of my question.

Jordan, I'm not sure if you're thinking of staying "non-denominational", but you have experienced a situation where a church did not adjust their theology for the times. Do you think there is any hope there?

It seems that when we disagree we tend to separate rather than draw closer. Which is what might be scary about the whole evolution process.

So, how do we offer change without disrespect, but in a way that brings out the best of what's been given to us, but takes it farther?

Kipper said...

To approach this from another standpoint, it would seem to me that the response to your question depends on how you view the purpose of theology.

If theology is to solve the mysteries of God, then I suppose that there would come a point when it would cease to evolve, the theologian having reached their conclusions and established them as solid and unwavering.

If however, the purpose of theology is to explore the vast questions regarding the mysteries of God - that is, to discover the right questions as opposed to the right answers - then theology would have to grow/evolve.

To use the illustration of the marriage relationship, the man who believes that he has his wife figured out (or vice versa) is in deep shit. Or as my ex-father-in-law said, never further from the truth. But the man who delights in discovering new quirks, or marveling at established traits that he still cannot define or fully understand is the one who is delighted every day at the little bits of beauty that make up his spouse and shape his own life bit by bit.

Tim Miller said...

I sure hope theology evolves when the constructs of the past are no longer capable of responding biblically to the present. Of course there is the occasional shark or sea turtle (Greek Orthodoxy?) that manages to have arrived at some level of existence that renders it impervious to nearly any radical climate change for several millennia at a time.

The thing that I keep coming back to is in Jeremiah where God says, “Ask for the ancient paths…” I, like Wesley, view “new” as ill-fitted to the theological enterprise. If Wesley really wanted to say an idea was bad, he’d say, “That’s a new idea.”

Most progress in theology is really regression, that is, in being reclaimed by the Biblical witness, hence the church should be always reforming as she hears God afresh in the Scriptures.

A little off-issue but the way some of us at seminary congratulate and herald next thing—that gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’m about as excited about the label “emergent” as I am the label “fundamentalist.”

Josh said...

Kipper and Tim!

Kipper, I thought your explanation of the purpose of theology helps this conversation along.

Tim, could you clarify what gives you the heebies? Are you suggesting that sometimes people welcome new ideas just because they're new ideas, without processing them? Like they're trading baseball cards or something?

In all of this, I wonder if there should be any sense of fear and awe through the process of theologizing. After all, we are dealing with how we experience and explain the ultimate creator and greatest love.

I'm trying to get my dad to add to this string, b/c I'd like to hear how his thoughts have adjusted/evolved as he has been involved in missionary work in Asia. Let's see if he does.

Tim Miller said...

I remember reading some posts a couple of years back from some students at Yale, and they were getting into a tirade about whether a particular pastor rightfully could claim the name "emergent." It became clear to me that they meant a particular cultural ethos = their own cultural ethos. Starbucks. Crocs. Gap. Ipod. Volkswagon. Blackberry. Media. Relevance. Postmodern. “Emergent” had become for them a foil by which to endorse their own views without a cumbersome recourse to Scripture and the larger Christian tradition. It became a label under which to “start over” based on what we want to build.

But it appears clear to me that I have a mandate from God, not to construct a faith, but to yield to faith. Theology is about orthodoxy, which is really another way of saying, “worshiping God in accordance with truth.” So for me, while of course theology is constructed (we do have to make sense of the world), it isn’t constructed out of preference or choice, but by surrender to God. These particular Yale students, God bless them, seemed to me to be building their own little ideological kingdom to fit their best idea of themselves. They were preaching “cool,” and “trendy.” I’m not saying that they were preaching what they thought would be popular, just that they were constructing a faith they wanted to believe in, rather than a faith they were convinced was true. (Please don’t hear me knocking McLaren or Bell—I love both of them, and I don’t think either of them are guilty of what I’m talking about. If I had more money I’d have Nooma just send me the latest video and do an automatic bill pay, because I think the content is that good.)

Like I said, this is a bit off-issue, and I wouldn’t post a rant like this if you hadn’t asked for further clarification. I guess it’s like (from something in my other field of interest) how guitarists are so brand driven that it is no longer about whether an instrument is of excellent build quality or well-fitted to the player’s sonic needs. Guitar players basically want to have a fender or a Gibson—specifically a Strat, Tele, SG, or a Les Paul. When it comes to an amp, it ought to be a Fender or a Marshall or a Mesa. Like back in high school—Nike or Reebok. And now in theology, postmodern and emergent are the new seeker friendly. Just like “quiet” is the new “loud” and “coffee shop” is the new “tent meeting.”

That’s why I read dead Russian Orthodox dudes instead. That’s my “cool.” God help me.

Jordan said...

Josh, to speak to your question. As much as I wish seperation didn't have to take place, it seems like it is inherent (spl?) in the evolutionary process of theology.

I tried to address this issue somewhat in my post a little while back, on community. Because so often more than just difference is at play. Power is always involved. I think it would be easier for everyone to stay at the table if power was more evenly distributed. How that could happen I have no idea?

I have also thought alot about what it might mean for those who don't have power to stay at the table. Can they do it without loosing themselves? To use Kate and I as example: for us to stay at the church, hold to our beliefs, but still submit to the elders. There were many reasons that we left, but one was that, we felt to stay meant legitimizing their stance. Basically the question is do we hold on to unity and delay justice, or do we break unity and inact justice. (and of course justice and unity are never very clear cut).

As the people of God can (should)we submit to authorities (doctrines/churches/traditions) that we feel are wrong/unhelpful/unjust/irrelevant for the sake of unity? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, would probably be my guess.

Dan Josh's Uncle said...

Theology as a whole must evolve because it is our , man's, ideas and focused study of God and His doings in His and with His creation. He does not change but our interpretation of Him changes as we develop ideologies about him through the lenses of our being. Do we not seek to understand and interpret Him through other people and enthnae. How do we understand Him and how do others interpret Him is the question that is relevant. How do I explain Grace to a abised child in Vietnam who has no concept of a loving Father, vs. explain His mercy and Grace to a drunk and homeless man in a American city. Both see God but through different lenses. Interesting question and as I have studied theology I see evolution of the concepts of God interpreted by the social setting of the time that it is being interpreted.

Sam said...

wow, this thread is packin' some heat! I like it.

I'd like to add to Tim's so called rant just a little bit. I in no way mean to imply that the whole of Orthodoxy is without blame or is not consistently in need of reform in numerous ways, but it's a frustrating thing to see people like Tim's people from Yale or other churches or so-called "gatherings" try to run from their history and their past. If we really are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and if we really do stand on the shoulders of others (truly the only way in which progress is made), then how can we reject that which is fundamental to our being in Christ and in the Spirit? It is a highly dangerous thing to say "We just need to start new and fresh" because you then could possibly deny the authority that Christ gave the Church a couple thousand years ago i.e. *the things you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and the things you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.*

I do think we should re-think all of the things that our forebears have put forth if for no other reason than to take ownership of where we come from; But the things and people that came before are only supposed to help us better and more humbly serve as members of a different kind of kingdom. I think this discussion on theology is somewhat analagous to NT Wright's article on the authoritativeness (can you add a "ness" to authoritative?) of Scripture. I would imagine most here have read it as you're all more schooled in Theology than I am, but just in case: (sorry I couldn't get it to link in the comment thing, I tried a couple times)

Sam said...

Struggling with some links...

Sarita! said...

Josh! So wonderful to hear from you (like a month ago, sorry!). I can't believe I've been in Uganda for 2 months now. It's so different, as I'm sure your friends have told you. Where did they go?

And how is Aubrey? I think about her once in awhile ... let her know that she has been such a blessing when we've gotten together. Last time I saw you guys was such a rough time for me, and it was amazing to have you guys just show up and have her there to comfort me. :) Things got better, don't worry....

I'm doing summer min for ENC this summer...I'm hoping they'll send us to your church somehow. Wouldn't that be great? (you should request us or something ... i don't know if you can do that or not!)

God bless :)

Ross said...

This is a great discussion.

The moment we stop re-examining ourselves (whether it is our Faith, actions, prnciples or whatever) is when we risk loosing our way on the path. I love hiking, and when I was learning to hike I constantly liked to walk ahead. And many times I would start looking down or around at random things. Many times I would walk right off the path and loose the trail. Not only I would loose it, but the people following me would loose the trail as well.

I say this because if we ever stop asking why the church does this or that and finding the reason or finding a better way then we risk loosing the path and getting too comfortable. The Isrealites constantly did this. They would get comfortable in their ways and then loose track of God and His love for them. Then they would get so far off God would be so far from them that He would send a messenger to guide them back. And the cycle went on for a while.

I just think that we need to continue to search God out in His Scripture, in our experiences with Him, in our community of faith and in our world He created. This constant searching helps our faith grow and evolve and it continually reveals more about the mystery that we have with God.

With the new idea discussion, we need to take these ideas and examine them. It is true that many embrace these new ideas with out asking why they are better.

It is all out under the sun...we just need to work to find it.

Just some thoughts.

Scott said...

So this conversation is probably mostly over, but I wanted to add my two pennies worth.

I suppose something with the word "evolve" bothers me (no, I'm not a 7-day creationist) at least technically speaking. It doesn't become an entirely different order of being altogether (i.e., from fish to human).
But I am totally in agreement that it DOES need to be rearticulated, reowned, restated, rethought in every time, generation and setting.
To parody a commercial (from Ford??), this isn't your father's theology...
I wonder what GK Chesterton would say to this (Orthodoxy is one of my favorite books--especially the part about truth being odd in all the right places).

Josh said...

Not sure that the conversation is ever over, Scotto!

Perhaps the formation of theology is more in response to incorrect perspectives on God. Going with what Uncle Dan said, the presentation of theology is different to different people.

Tim was helpful in pointing out that the call is to be faithful to God. Ross's comment of always re-examining our faith and actions continues his thought and goes back to what Kipper suggested when he compared the pursuit of theology as relationship. We must practice theology and adjust our lives to the calling that God reveals to us through it.

It seems that whenever we hear "new ideas" or "rediscovered theology" it comes on the heels of a theology that is misleading or unhealthy.

Sam, you are right that we should recognize the rich history that we have. But I'd like to see how that plays in with what Jordan suggested. His scenario is the type of scenario that has caused me to pursue this question. Brian Hull is good at asking this question. If we are examining ourselves and find our present theological distinctives faulty as an organization, what must we do? It is easy to cut and run (this is not a comment on Jordan. there were plenty of other things happening there, and I support him and Kate.), and that's often the case.

Generosity, love, goodness, purity of heart...these need to be at the heart of this "evolution". If it is not, we are marketing something "cool", and not pursuing faithfulness to God's calling.

Jordan said...

The coming evolutions in theology: things that I am hopeful about concerning our theological future.

1. Feminist theology: Thank God, women are more and more entering into theological discussion. Interesting questions that feminist theology bring to the discussion. Is God gendered? Can a male Jesus redeem female humanity?

2. Liberation theology: theology from the margins. Jesus seemed to think that the poor and the oppressed had the keys to the kingdom. Will we have ears to ear what they are saying?

3. Post-Christendom: as the church enters into a post-christian, post-colonial, post-modern, multi-ethinic, multi-religous context how will our theology change? What kind of theology do we need to develop to live peacefully and co-creatively with Muslims, Hindus, Buhdists and secuarlists?

4. Globalization: What kind of theology do we need to have to live christianly under the empire of global capitalism?

5. Post just-war theory(?): Did 9/11 and the Bush presidency end our notion that "good" can triumph over "evil" with the use of the sword? Has the Bush presidency and Haggard scandal dealt a lethal blow to the religous right? How will evangelicalism define itself in the coming days?

Anyway, I will stop myself. Sorry to hijack your blog Josh, but as you said the discussion is never over. Thank God, that means I might have some job security after all.

Tim Miller said...

Right-on, Jordan. You raised some interesting "developments," but really I wanna say again, it's in the Scriptures! Women, justice, the Roman Empire or the Shephela are parallels for globalization, and how 'bout both just-war and post-just war theory, one in each testament. We aren't doing new--we're hearing the old Words afresh. God help us be faithful. Great post all!

I remember reading Walter Rauschenbusch's "Theology for the Social Gospel" and basically I was hearing the prophet Amos, but in New York during the industrial revolution. I like Rauschy.

Also, been thinking about Jonathan Mills' McLaren defenition of theology as "models of the world based on beliefs about God." That's really well said. I feel like I owe yall some kind of tuition.

Jessica said...

i'm certainly not in any sort of pastoral position, but I'm taking Christian Tradition right seems that by looking at the readings Severson's gotten for us about "the least of these", theology in that aspect has certainly changed, for the better in some aspects...looking back at the Church's tradition and testing it pragmatically (this only works in some areas, as in NOT about the Trinity and other things of that unknowable nature)
i guess theology evolves--changes--in the sense that even though we can't understand God, we can understand how to go about studying....
just some thoughts...

Josh said...


Thanks for weighing in. I think you are going in the right direction when you are talking about how we are practicing our faith. I would definitely say that the practice of our faith is constantly evolving. And if it isn't, then we're not living with our eyes open.