How to Spot New Ideas in Theology—And Why it Matters

We should be alert to both the importance of fresh theological work and its danger. There is no doubt that new insights through history have taken the church into a deeper understanding of the Scriptures, often in the context of defending the truth against error. And yet much novelty has itself been error, and even true new insights can be badly handled in such a way as to cause harm in the church.

If the new needs to be handled with particular care, then it is essential that we should be trained in discerning what is and what is not new. If I am to know whether or not what I am saying is new, then I need a good grasp of what has been said before and by whom. If I am to know whether or not what you are saying is new, then the same applies. In short, I need to study historical theology. Without the ability to discern the new, we may wrongly react against what we think is new when it is in fact old, or we may miss the new that is indeed dangerous. I recall a student to whom I had taught a reading of the Chalcedonian definition as essentially Cyrillian (I agree with John McGuckin’s interpretation of it). When the student later taught the same material he was accused of—of all things—Nestorianism. Further exploration revealed that his accuser did not actually know what Nestorianism was; he was incapable of telling whether what he was hearing was catholic (as it was), or dangerously new (in the sense that most heresies are new, i.e. a digging up of the old!).

This example comes from patristic theology, but the problem becomes more acute with the history of Reformed theology. To take my own context as an example, much contemporary British conservative evangelical theology is conducted in isolation from the historic Reformed tradition of even this country, let alone Geneva or the Netherlands or America. It would be easy to draft a long list of opinions that are at least common and in some cases even dominant in historic Reformed theology that would appear like shocking novelties to many British evangelicals today. Such a list might include: a traducian doctrine of the origin of the soul, a realist doctrine of original sin, infant baptism, the idea of the Son of God appearing in the Old Testament, typological or Christological exegesis of the Old Testament, an emphasis on the intent of the divine author of Scripture, the unity of the covenant of grace, anything other than amillennial eschatology, Christ’s real spiritual presence at the Lord’s supper, an emphasis on the Christian education of children, and reliance on the state to reform the church. We may not agree with all of these positions (I don’t), but we could never accuse any of them of being novel were someone to maintain them today.

This teaches us two lessons. First, it shows that novelty is not the only problem in theology. Theological teaching can be both ancient and wrong. The view that gives the state a strong role in the life of the church was prevalent for over a thousand years. We should be watchful for the novel, but our vigilance cannot end there.

Second, it teaches us that we need to “get out more.” People talk about the “Westminster Bubble” in British politics, but it is just as easy to inhabit the bubble of our own tiny little corner of the contemporary church. Indeed, I would go further: unless we are proactive against it, it is the default position that we inhabit such a bubble, because the bubble is simply the effect of being discipled in one place among one group of people. What we have heard at our church or our conference or our camp defines the normal, and anything else—anything else—appears dangerously new. Our reaction to it sometimes arises from its being unfamiliar rather than unbiblical, or from a simple equation of the two. This kind of parochialism can end up being very spiritually dangerous because it encloses us within an astonishingly tiny theological subculture and invests an immense amount of confidence in the small group that we inhabit, as if it were the sole arbiter of theological truth; or even the single man that we look to, as if he were (when we see that in another church we are normally quite critical of it!). This can make us react in hostility and suspicion to all that is not familiar to us, leaving us with an ungodly stance toward genuine brothers and sisters who are in fact teaching the truth, simply truth of which we are ignorant. The red haze descends as we shout “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!” This applies not just to theology but also to practice: those who have been in one church for a very long time assume that the way their church does things is the way all true Christians do things, when in fact it is little more than an eccentric local tradition. So we need to get out more, not to untrammeled roaming in the fields of falsehood with our biblical guard naively down, but to walk among those of the past who have themselves sought diligently to submit their teaching to the authority of Scripture, to meet, for example, the best of the church fathers and medievals, the Puritans and the Reformed. Only then, with a good dose of historical theology under our belts, will we be better able to spot the new and to evaluate it.

Written by Garry Williams

Garry Williams is director of the Pastor’s Academy and teaches on the doctrine study days, the master’s course, and the PhD program. He also supervises pastors who work on doctrinal topics for their study projects. He is visiting professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and adjunct professor of Historical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (Michigan). He serves as an ordained elder at ChristChurch, Harpenden.

This post first appeared on the Pastors’ Academy blog under the title “Get Out More, Leave the Dogs at Home.” Used with permission.