Theology is a matter of emphasis. Though from the surface this may appear rather abstract, the history of theology seems to authenticate this claim. For every significant theological position has shared this element of emphasis. From the various creedal formulations within Christianity, to the more modern articulations of the 20th century, i.e., Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity, Lindbeck’s cultural/linguistic approach, Panneberg’s theology of hope, Ruether’s feminist liberation theology and Tillich’s method of correlation, all have emphasized certain aspects of theology over others.
However, the hypothesis begs the question – why did these individuals choose to create and promote such an emphasis? It is on this premise that I argue for a collective cause; a cause rooted in what I call a theology of need. In each case, these individuals emphasized an aspect of theology that had its foundation in and subsequent formulation from what they saw as a definitive need in their ecclesiastical institutions and/or societies. What was this need? It was the need to react. In each situation, there was a definitive need to react to something that was occurring in the Church and/or culture. And, it was their reaction to this need that spawned the theological positions subsequently taken. In essence, their response found expression in a reformation of theological thought and practice that gave rise to a theology of emphasis and created a viable alternative to the situation that prompted the reaction.
With these things in mind, I argue that the constructive task of theology will always remain unfinished. While I believe that theology should seek to find some transcendence, the history of theology leads us to the idea that it has always been contextualized and open to revision, depending on the sitz im leben, as the above examples illustrate.
However, on the topic of theological development, a number of scholars clearly reflect the paleo-orthodoxy of Thomas Oden, D.H. Williams, and Robert Webber. They are often referred to as Evangelical Traditionalists, who identify an ancient doctrinal consensus as a ‘governing authority’ for evangelical theology, which then becomes the ultimate interpretive lens through which all Christians should read and interpret scripture.
In terms of doctrinal reflection and development, they maintain that theology should be conducted only in light of what the church has already decided about crucial doctrinal matters. This leads to a deep suspicion of any constructive aspect within theology. As a result, those who espouse this kind of traditionalist orientation have created theological boundaries and spend a great deal of time patrolling them. In such a scenario, theology’s constructive task is finished, which seems to go against the very nature and history of all doctrinal development.
However, doctrinal development will at times mean the introduction of changes (at least the possibility of change), and not just a response to how the historic creedal formulations can be rediscovered for the present. To place ‘fences’ on development is to render any legitimate development an impossibility. The creeds when developed were in fact changes to what had come before. They were far more than re-articulations or rediscoveries of existing formulations, but were theological responses to needs in their day. These reactions didn’t attempt to answer every question, but only to provide a suitable and necessary statement to a variety of contemporary theological concerns. Creeds help to guide us, but they do not spell the end to all future theological development and innovation.
For additional reading, reference Roger Olson’s book Reformed and Always Reforming. N.T. Wright also begins his latest book, How God Became King, by describing the need to include, but also transcend, creedal formulations, in our theologizing. Both treat the above topic from different perspectives, but will provide a more informed understanding of my brief thoughts above. You may also be interested in a post I wrote in March entitled, Living Theology, where I argue that all theology is contextual and all of our contextualization is theological (LeRon Shults).