Two Kinds of Creativity in Theology

I see a war going on right now between two different views of creativity in theology. Quite a bit is at stake in this battle. In fact, nothing less than the confessions are at stake.

The first view is that creativity should not be limited by the confession. Creativity spills over the boundaries of the confession. Thus the confession becomes more and more obsolete as time progresses. It is not merely small points that become clarified. Rather, it is fundamental points of doctrine that must constantly be recreated, maybe in a very different way from the way they have been formulated before. The appeal is obvious. To the person who can “successfully” recreate theology in this manner, an entire school might be named after him. Or, he might be remembered for being edgy, suave, sophisticated, and, worst of all, that tired and stupid cliche, “thinking outside the box.” I’ve always wondered about what people mean by “the box” when they say something like that. It is supposed to be a virtue to “think outside the box.” I have found such people more often than not to be plain and simply confusing.

To be quite frank, this approach does not match church history. The church did not keep on revisiting Christology after the early heresies had been refuted and carefully excluded by the wording of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the formula of Chalcedon. Neither did they keep on revisiting the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather, they progressed in “increasing limitation” (a wonderfully evocative phrase originating with Warfield) to nail down the doctrine of man in the Pelagian heresy controversy, the doctrine of justification in the Reformation, the doctrine of Scripture in the modernist controversy, and so on. This does not mean that fundamental doctrines are never questioned by heretics, and that we may have to clarify further some fundamental doctrine (witness the recent attacks on justification, for instance). However, neither do we have to reinvent the wheel every time. This leads us to the second view of creativity in theology.

The second view of creativity in theology is in a progressive rigidity within the confessional boundaries. Noe one likes the sound of the word “rigid.” However, it is a necessary word to describe this second view. As the church progressively nails down doctrines that are further and further away from the core salvific doctrines, more creativity in relating these nailed-down doctrines is possible. Forever looking at a particular doctrine from the standpoint of unsettled provisionality is debilitating to the theologian. If, however, the church has received a doctrine as what Scripture says, the theologian can then relate doctrines to other doctrines in an ever fresh, illuminating fashion.

I have used this illustration before, but it is certainly appropriate to bring it up again. My music composition teacher in college taught me the most useful lesson about creativity ever. Boundaries are essential to creativity, even tight boundaries. Severe limitations are the greatest spur to creativity that exist. If I set out to write a piece of music, and have no idea what limitations this piece of music will have, I cannot write anything. If, however (as I did in college), I chose to write a piece of music that is solely for organ pedals, the severe limitations of the feet on organ pedals was a tremendous stimulus to creativity. Then I rubbed up against those comfortable boundaries, seeing what I could do with such severe limitations, and the creative sparks flew incessantly. I wrote that piece in a hurry, as fast as I have ever written any piece of music. I would argue that the confessions function like such severe limitations. Within these boundaries creative theologizing has a chance. Stray outside, and you have heresy, not creativity.

Out a bit early (and I don’t mind one bit!)

This book was supposed to come out in October. It is now available, and it is a very timely tome.

Fabulous Timing

Just in time for a celebration of the birth of Christ. I don’t want to get into a debate about whether Christmas is a service that we can celebrate or not! I just remark that for those who do celebrate advent season, this book is very timely. Something tells me that this fabulous timing was not accidental…

Shall We Lament?

There are not very many good commentaries on Lamentations. This promises to be a good step in remedying that gap.

The Information Age According to Christians

This book looks very interesting. In an age where information is king, it is encouraging to see that some Christians are willing cautiously to explore how we might use this technology, just as we have used the printing press, radio, and television (though the last has been least helpful, in my mind). One of the authors has a blog here, which looks to be an excellent blog (and I have added it to my links).

Denominational Renewal – Theology Part 2

Posted by Bob Mattes

Dr. Frame graciously agreed to write a sympathetic post to TE Jeremy Jones’ remarks on Renewing Theologly. As I said in this post, the remarks run 40+ minutes. In his response, Dr. Frame asked some interesting questions. I provided my answers to one set of them, and I will copy and perhaps expand on them here. The gist of the Dr. Frame’s post concerned the value of being a confessional body and the relevance and use of the Westminster Standards.

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Denominational Renewal – Theology Part 1

Posted by Bob Mattes

In this ongoing discussion, PCA TE Jeremy Jones is in the dock this week. His topic is Renewing Theology, and you can download his 40+ minute talk here. I listened to the whole thing, taking some notes because it was so long. I must admit to being disturbed by much of what I heard on two levels. First, the favorable appeal to Reformed Catholicism (in the capitalized sense) as a base for Reformed theology. That blows my mind every time that I think about it. My second issue is that TE Jones sets up a lot of strawmen to knock down, but offers no evidence for their existence in real life. And honestly, with two weeks into this thing I’ve seen a lot of hand-waving and not a lot of specific substance as to their assumptions that the PCA needs renewal in the sense that they’ve presented it. If you don’t believe me, listen to the talks.

I anticipate that this will be a series of two posts: one addressing the bulk of TE Jones’ talk and his use of Reformed Catholicism, and one addressing Dr. Frame’s response. I’ve already posted comments on these two topics under Dr. Frames post, though I will expand them a bit here. The comment system at Typepad isn’t very good and really limits what you can do there.

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Two Parables About Growth

Matthew 13:31-33

9/21/2008

The story is told of a man attending a missions conference in England who made a startling claim. He claimed that he had started a mission in India. The reason it was startling was that everyone present knew that the man had never left England. How in the world could he have started a mission in India? Well, as it turned out, when he was a boy, he had asked his pastor how to send a package to India. He wanted to send a Bible over there. So, he wrote a message in the inside of the Bible, and, with the pastor’s help, sent it to India. Much later missionaries went to India to start a mission center. However, the place where they had decided to start it was already Christian. They were quite astonished when they found out about that. They asked the Christians there how in the world they had become Christians. The group pointed to a worn-out Bible that had a message in it from a boy, who was now a man. Zechariah 4:10 tells us not to despise the day of small things. It may be a small thing, but the kingdom of God, while starting small, can grow into something amazingly large.

What we have here in our passage is really two parables that are twins. Their point is the same. As good teachers do, Jesus gets His point across in more than one way, so that if one person didn’t get it the first time, they would understand the second time around. Both parables talk about something so small that you hardly notice it. Indeed, it starts in a very hidden way. The seed is sown in the ground, and the yeast is “hidden” in the dough. Both start small, and both start hidden. Of course, this is the very opposite of how anyone of the world would start a business. Instead of hiding themselves, they would advertise like crazy in order to get their name out as soon as possible, and call as much attention to themselves as possible, so as to get business going. But the kingdom of God is not like that at all. It starts in people’s hearts, a very hidden place indeed. The seed, as we saw in the parable of the Sower and the parable of the wheat and the weeds, is the Word of God. It is sown in people’s hearts, which is very unobtrusive, very hidden. You cannot see it at first. Only later do you see the results. This is why these two parables are sandwiched in between the telling of the parable of wheat and the weeds, on the one hand, and its interpretation, on the other hand. In the parable we looked at last week, we saw wheat and weeds growing up together. In the parable of the mustard seed, we see how the good seed grows. It is not ostentatious or showy. It doesn’t call attention to itself. Instead, it is like a tiny mustard seed.

Mustard seeds are very small. They are about 1 millimeter in length. They are easily overlooked, just as the Word of God is easily overlooked. The Gospel in a person’s life is overlooked. Twelve disciples are easily overlooked. An infant in a manger is easily overlooked. A man dying on the cross is easily overlooked. Pentecost is easily overlooked. A word spoken at just the right time and just the right place is easily overlooked. And yet, what small things God can use to bring about His purposes! That’s what the kingdom of God is like. The mustard seed is 1 millimeter in length, and yet it can grow up to twelve feet tall. That is certainly large enough for birds to nest in the branches of what is really a tree. You might remember the language of Daniel 4 in which Nebuchadnezzar was described as a large tree in which birds came and made their nests. Well, here is a mustard tree that will last quite a bit longer than Nebuchadnezzar did. Jesus describes the whole kingdom of heaven this way. Twelve disciples is a small mustard seed indeed. But look at the kingdom of God now, which spans every continent, every major people group and most of the minor people groups as well. The Bible has been translated into well over a thousand different languages. And the kingdom of God is much larger even than that, since it includes all the angels, as well as all the Christians who have died, and it includes all the elect infants who died in infancy.

The second parable, as we have noted, is very much like the first parable. A woman takes some yeast, which is almost certainly a bit of the old dough, and she mixes it into the new batch of flour. Three measures of flour, which is what the text literally says, is a very large amount of flour. Various estimates place the amount at one entire bushel of flour, which is enough for 40 large loaves of bread. So, this is not your frail little woman making one or two loaves for herself and her frail husband. This is a strong woman making enough bread for her entire extended family, which would have lived with her. And she only needs a very small amount of yeast to work it through the entire amount of flour. You cannot see the yeast once it is worked into the dough, but you can certainly see the effect of the yeast, as the entire batch of dough begins to rise. Now, yeast is normally used as a figure of speech in the Bible for sin. The Israelites were instructed to get rid of all yeast in the house during the week of Passover. Paul tells us to get rid of the yeast of sin. So prevalent is this negative imagery for yeast that many interpreters have thought that the parable is about sin in the kingdom. However, this is not likely. As we have pointed out, this parable is a twin of the first parable, and certainly the first parable is to be interpreted of the kingdom itself, not sin in the kingdom. Therefore, it is far more likely that the second parable is really making the same point as the first parable.

The main application I wish to make from this parable has to do with our two churches here in rural North Dakota. If you look at them now, they are very small churches. And they have shrunk rather than grown, over the past forty years. So, it would be very easy to discount these parables and think that they have nothing to do with us. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. The very thing that has made us smaller over the past years is the very thing of which this parable speaks. Think of how many young people our churches have sent out into the world to bring the yeastiness of the kingdom of God to wherever they are. Think of how many young people have grown up in our churches with the Gospel firmly in their hearts and minds. Think of how many people our young people have been able to influence for the cause of Christ. I would be willing to wager that the effect of our two churches has been far larger in the world than we might think. We may be small, but the effect that we have had on the church and on the world is almost certainly larger than we could possibly imagine. That’s how God works. So it doesn’t really matter if our churches eventually fold from lack of people. That does not mean failure. It means rather that the original lump of yeast has completely expended itself in working its way through the rest of the dough. I say this because I don’t want us to focus so much on the numbers in our churches. That is what the world does. The world loves big numbers. That is success according to the world. That is not success according to God and according to His Word. Success is whether we are yeasty or not, salty or not, having light or not. In short, success according to Scripture is being faithful. So, when we consider whether or not we have been successful as churches or not, we need to consider not primarily the number of people in our pews (although God does often bless churches this way), but rather whether we are growing in our faith. That is the more important kind of growth. For it is spiritual growth that will enable us as Christians to pursue evangelism and numerical growth. But the good quality of a Christian must come before that Christian is able to multiply numerically. And the multiplication may never come in our church. But maybe it will come in another church. Should we give up on the idea of bringing people into our church? Of course not. We should always be evangelizing. However, we need to make sure that we are not discouraged at our shrinking numbers. And believe you me, I am certainly preaching to myself when I say this. It is very easy to become discouraged as a pastor when there are fewer people in the congregation. I start to wonder if I am doing something wrong, or not doing enough of other things. But I have to remember that it doesn’t matter how conscientious I am about my duties, growth may not happen even then. Jeremiah was certainly faithful, and yet no one believed his message. The Lord told him to preach, and also told him that no one would believe him. Of course, such thinking is certainly no excuse for me to shirk my duties. Nevertheless, the growth comes from God, not from what I am able to do. Nor does my failure inhibit God’s plan, if He decides He is going to give us more members. Our call is simply to be faithful. That’s true of me, and it’s true of you. Once we get rid of our feelings of panic and discouragement and despair over the church, and realize that God is using us, even if it may be in ways that we cannot see, like the growth of a mustard seed in the soil, or the working of yeast in the dough, then we can be in a position to serve God cheerfully, no matter what the result. Do not despise the day of small things. Even if your small thing is not sending a Bible to India, never think that your small acts and sharings of the Gospel are to be despised. For they may grow into something great by God’s grace.

Having Trouble With All the Markings in BHS?

This book is in a new edition, and looks to be a very helpful addition to the library of the student of the OT. I am often amazed at how helpful the Massoretic markings are for the purposes of exegesis, even noting where the athnach falls, etc.

I’m Really Excited About This Book

The author has done it again. He has translated quite a few Reformed confessions into English for the first time. We are forever in his debt simply from his editing the Giger translation of Turretin. But now this first volume of a projected three-volume series will certainly become the definitive place to go for the historic Reformed Confessions. As much as anything, it will be a one place stop to know what Reformed theology said in the 16-17th centuries. This is a must have resource for all Reformed pastors.

There are 33 confessions of faith in this first volume, including such noteworthy contributions as Zwingli’s 67 Articles, Farel’s Summary, the First Helvetic Confession, all of Calvin’s Catechisms, the Consensus Tigurinus, and many, many others. They are arranged in chronological order, also a wonderful help to historians. Furthermore, there is a brief introduction with necessary historical and background information on each confession. This treasure-trove will also be a wonderful devotional resource. Therefore, all Christians should purchase these volumes.

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