To make no new contribution to theology

I have written before about the role a monograph by Father John Whiteford (then a Deacon, not a Priest) had in my becoming Orthodox. Now, he has published the story of how he moved from Nazarene to Orthodox, which was a route different than I took and different that I would have surmised from his monograph.

One of his milestones was deep academic encounter with Protestant theologian Thomas Oden, who “wanted the epitaph on his tombstone to say: ‘He added nothing new to theology.'”

If you find that jarring and inexplicable as an academic aspiration, you’re very much part of the mainstream. But consider:

There was one chapter of “The Word of Life” (chapter 7, which dealt with the question of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus”) that was such a thorough critique of Protestant liberalism that I put Batman comic sound effects in the margin: “Boom!”, “Pow!”, “Smack!”, etc.

“We violate a primary ethical demand upon historical study if we impose upon a set of documents presuppositions congenial to us and then borrow from the canonical prestige of the documents by claiming that it corresponds with our favored predisposition. That lacks honesty. The modern attempt to study Christ has done this repeatedly. The text has often become a mirror of ideological interest: Kant’s Christ becomes a strained exposition of the categorical imperativeHegel’s Christ looks like a shadow-image of theHegelian dialecticSchleiermacher’s Christ is a reflection of the awkward mating of pietism and romanticismStrauss’s Christ is neatly weeded of all supernatural referents.Harnack’s portrait of Christ looks exactly like that of a late nineteenth-century German liberal idealist; and Tillich’s Christ is a dehistorical existential idea of being that participates in estrangement without being estranged…. The historical biblical critic was “not nearly so interested in being changed by his reading of the Bible, as in changing the way that the Bible was read in order to confirm it to the modern spirit”” (The Word of Life: Systematic Theology Volume Two, (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 224f).
“The hermeneutic of suspicion has been safely applied to the history of Jesus but not to the history of the historians. It is now time for the tables to turn. The hermeneutic of suspicion must be fairly and prudently applied to the critical movement itself. This is the most certain next phase of biblical scholarship – the criticism of criticism” (Ibid., p. 226).
“One obvious neglected arena is the social location of the quasi-Marxist critics of the social location of classic Christianity, who hold comfortable chairs in rutted, tenured tracks. These writers have focused upon the analysis of the social location of the writers and interpreters of Scripture. Yet that principle awaits now to be turned upon the social prejudices of the “knowledge elite” – a guild of scholars asserting their interest in the privileged setting of the modern university…. The motivation to discover unprecedented critical findings increases as professional advancement is held out as a reward for original research. This perennial habit of the German academic tradition has led biblical criticism to new ecstasies of faddism, where the actual history of Jesus vanishes in a pile of theories and speculations as to the redactive transmission of the tradition of testimony about him…. It is hardly probable that Holy Writ has been inspired, provided, traditioned at high cost, and defended for twenty centuries for no better purpose than to keep historians busy or advance academic careers… Jesus had harsh words for such obstructionists: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52)” (Ibid., pp. 226-228).

The third volume of his “Systematic Theology” was not published until 1992 …

In the second paragraph of his preface, he wrote:

“At the end of this journey I reaffirm solemn commitments made at its beginning:•    To make no new contribution to theology
•    To resist the temptation to quote modern writers less schooled in the whole counsel of God than the best ancient classic exegetes
•    To seek quite simply to express the one mind of the believing church that has been ever attentive to the apostolic teaching to which consent has been given by Christian believers everywhere, always, and by all – this what I mean by the Vincentian method (Vincent of Lerins, comm., LCC [Library of Christian Classics] VII, pp. 37-39,65-74; for an accounting of this method see LG [The Living God (volume 1 of his systematic theology)], pp. 322-25,341-51)I am dedicated to unoriginality. I am pledged to irrelevance if relevance means indebtedness to corrupt modernity. What is deemed relevant in theology is likely to be moldy in a few days. I take to heart Paul’s admonition: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we [from the earliest apostolic kerygma] had already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted [par o parelabete, other than what you received from the apostles], let him be eternally condemned [anathema esto]!” (Gal. 1:8, 9, NIV, italics added) (Life in the Spirit, Systematic Theology Volume Three, (New York: Harper & Row, 1992) p vii).

I mention this because, however alien it may be to the academic spirit, which has infused our schools of theology with the same “you must come up with something novel to earn a doctorate,” the urge to innovate is an open invitation to invention of new heresies (if any there be). It is contrary to the Orthodox commitment to preserve and transmit the faith once delivered to the saints, and I pray that our seminaries will never become so respectable academically that they invite innovation rather than deep insight into the tradition that’s already there.

I still (as here, here, here, here, here, here and here) positively revel in the backhanded compliment that Orthodoxy is “stagnant.” Nothing is so turgid and worthless as innnovation. Nothing so surely marks one as a lightweight as a desire for spiritual novelty. All that is not eternal is eternally irrelevant.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.