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.

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