Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Innovation, Context and History in Christianity

I was away on a youth service trip last week and upon my return had the opportunity to listen to the Barry Taylor podcast from the previous week’s live show. It sounded great and I was sorry to have missed it.

About 23 minutes in to The Theology of Rock, Barry Taylor talks about the play between the universal nature of music and the highly contextual nature of styles and genres. He points out that while music is said to be universal, actual songs and individual expression are very particular and specifically located. They come from a place and in a time and that lyrics – while they may get the lion’s share of attention – are nearly inconsequential in some respects to understanding what is going on in the music.

Lyrics are often an afterthought and may even be antagonistic to what is going on in the music itself. This was a fascinating point and it sent my brain on wild series of connections and contrasts in theology.

My background is in contextual theology and as I stated two weeks ago in my post about the Creeds as contextual documents (or time/place snapshots) they are neither universal nor timeless. Christian expressions – even the early Creeds – are both radically located and time-bound. Now, the objection is always that ‘they were not intended to be so – the authors surely believed them to be universal and for all times’.  While it may be true that writers of the creeds, or the Reformers or systematic theologians in general may be under that impression, we see the historical flaw in that line of thinking.

 We see now that all theology and thus theological expression are contextual expression that are uniquely located and particularly time specific. It’s not just the language (Greek or Latin or German) that needs to be translated but the ideas, concepts and content itself needs to be translated and renovated.

I would like to put forward a proposition to help us unravel the tangled web of theological history and frame – in a positive way – a path forward. I am suggesting that we acknowledge that we are always braiding or weaving a fabric from at least 3 strands:

  •  History and Tradition: Theology and other Christian expressions don’t happen in a vacuum. We never start with a blank slate. We never get back to zero – and we are not supposed to! We are part of long history with much tradition and we are to honor that even while continuing out along the trajectory provided.
  •  Context and Location: All truth is both received and expressed in cultural containers that come with inherent lenses through which we interpret what we see, experience and receive. Our job is to acknowledge and incorporate this understand as we engage our culture, place, and time in a meaningful way that is faithful to the tradition, based on the historic precedent, and aware of our modern realities.
  •  Innovation and Expression: Nothing stays the same. We are fooling ourselves if we pretend otherwise. Language – even about God, technology, and society are fluid realities that call for us to adjust, revisit, and renovate our understandings and activities. Christianity is uniquely designed to adapt and evolve. We are not only called to it but are empowered with a unique set of tools embedded within the Gospels and Acts of the early Church.

The trick is to stop reducing down things down to simply one element in our thinking. That reductive move is death to both understanding and applying the very message that we are talking about!  [read Lamin Sanneh’s Whose Religion is Christianity?: the Gospel beyond the West  for more]

 It is not simply history or tradition. People who extract content without accounting for historical context or timely innovation are in grave danger of importing and imposing collateral damage every time and in every place they do so. If we do not acknowledge the particular time and unique context from which any expression emerged, then we are willfully blind to the cultural constraints and societal containers that framed the content.

 It is not merely context. We are not free to disregard the precedent of the past. The entire project of theological reflection and Christian expression is in dialogue with the historic tradition. If one wants to do something else, that is fine – I get that – but to do theology is to submit to some level of constraint within the forms and disciplines employed.

 It is not only innovation. We do need to, in fact we must, engage our time and world as it is. We can no longer afford to  retreat into a romanticized imagined past (like the radical orthodox). But neither can we simply disregard the tradition and act as if we ourselves are not cultural creatures and products of socialization and cultural-religious conditioning. We are not free to do whatever we want. The entire enterprise is to be in dialogue with the tradition, to acknowledge the contextual nature of all truth and to engage our time and place appropriately based on that.

Theology is not simply history or tradition. It is not merely context. It is not only innovation. Christian theology is a dynamic interplay between these three elements (not to mention issues of power that effected formation of things like the early Creeds). We are foolish to ignore them historically and our work is impotent if we don’t acknowledge them and joyfully incorporate them in our work today.

We do well when we incorporate the long tradition into our context and allow for an appropriate level of innovation that honors the trajectory of the tradition and provides a continuity with the precedent of the past.

-Bo Sanders 

Lean-Tos and Creeds: temporary structures for the journey

I am a big fan of the early churches’ creeds. I appreciate them for their historical significance, for the trajectory that they provide, and for their value as snapshots in the formation of the tradition.

In fact, as a contextual theologian, I adore them as amazing time-capsules of expressions from a very particular time and a definite location. They tell us so much about what was going on, what was a stake, what was being combated and what was already established and settled.

I actually have no problem with the creeds. My problem comes from what certain folks want to do with ‘the Creeds’ and what they try to make them into. Let’s be clear about what they are not:

  • They are not timeless and universal expressions. They are very timely and remarkably located.
  • They are not litmus tests for modern orthodoxy. There is no sense in retreating into ecclesiastic silos, playing pre-modern word games, or burying our head in the historical sand. Too much has happened, too much has changed and there is too much on the line.
  • They are not houses to live in. They are lean-tos (temporary shelters) that were erected along the way. We are still to continue our journey and travel on in our day – in the world that is – and not set up camp in the imagined past.

This is my word picture. The Creeds are lean-tos. They are not museums designed to preserve nor are the cathedrals to be maintained. They are temporary shelters – built with the best materials that were available at the time and in that place. They aren’t blueprints of how every shelter needs to be constructed nor are they houses to be reinforced and guarded. They fulfilled their purpose and provided shelter on the journey.

Christian who get protective of or defensive about the creeds are like people who are hiking with their family, build lean-to out of love for the family and then get mad at the family when it is time to leave the lean-to and continue hiking.

Or like people who love watching birds so they knock out a wall in their house to install a whole side of windows and sky-lights for bird watching. But then they become so fixated on cleaning the glass then they stopped watching the birds and actually get annoyed at the birds for dropping what birds are prone to drop.

The creeds are great. I am so thankful them as historic documents, as developmental snapshots and as contextual expressions.
What I am not so thrilled about is people who get nasty about them, defensive or aggressive. I think it is so odd that they are about things like God’s love and divine relationship… but that they can make someone behave so unloving and take them out of relationship!

I like the creeds. I just don’t like what they do to people who take them too seriously. Like lean-tos, they served their purpose. They were great. Time to move on. We are still on a journey.
p.s.  I meant to include this in the post but forgot. I have since said it 3 comments – so I decided to add it.

“Like the book of Revelation and the Creeds –  we should attempt to do for our culture and day what they were attempting to do for their culture and day.”

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