My son always likes a ride in a “new” car. Whenever we’re away at either of set of grandparents’ homes, he is particularly keen to get to wherever we’re going in their car. We changed our car earlier this year and had a few helpful months in which he was excited to take a ride in the “new” car. Not long ago, we had to change his car seat and he was quite excited about going for journeys in his “new seat” for a time. Both the new car and new seat have now, sadly, just become his seat and our car. The novelty has worn off.
Everybody knows that children like novelty. It often doesn’t matter what the new toy is or what new place they are going to, it simply matters that it is new. For children, novelty is the spice of life. In many ways, it is this penchant for novelty that makes them relatively easy to please (at least for a time). All we have to do is provide them with something, somewhere or someone new and they are usually quite excited. It doesn’t really matter whether the thing we present them with is total tat or not, the novelty of a new thing is what really gets them excited.
It is interestingly the same in the church. Children like novelty. The spiritually immature will always be more excited about novel interpretations and new insights than they will be about old gospel truth. As CH Spurgeon put it:
Be assured, there is nothing new in theology except that which is false.
Just like children, it matters not one jot whether the message they are hearing is utter pap. If the interpretation is novel and interesting, offering a new spiritual insight they had never seen before (despite no commentator having the insight because it doesn’t exist in the text), they get excited because it is new. Novelty excites the spiritually immature.
Unlike children, most adults do not find their excitement in novelty for novelty’s sake but find more joy in the beneficial. Few children are delighted by a maturing pension but many adults see the benefits of building up an income for the future. Likewise, the spiritually mature do not tend to get excited by novelty. Instead, they take much more pleasure in the beneficial. They are not always looking for the latest insight or interesting interpretation but are looking to the old, old story presented afresh.
The spiritually immature want newness. They are after new interpretations, new experiences and new insights. The spiritually mature are excited by Christ. They want to feed on the same gospel, the same truth and the ordinary means of grace. The spiritually immature want innovation in doctrine and unique experiences; the spiritually mature want the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints and the same old experience of being in lasting relationship with God in Jesus.
Paul put the point this way in Ephesians 4:
11And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
The goal of the Christian life is to grow up to maturity in Christ. Paul refers to those who are carried around by novel interpretations and new doctrines as ‘children’. Children are excited by novelty, pulled away from the faith by crafty and cunning people offering exciting new insights that do not lead us to Jesus. Maturity is found when we focus on Christ and are built up by the godly pastors and teachers the Lord has given to us who will keep us from being over-excited and enticed by novelty.
Don’t be children swayed by novelty and newness. Be those who look the same Christ and the old, old gospel story. That way maturity lies.
I don’t think I disagree with anything you’ve written here – the Bible certainly hasn’t changed, and so it would follow that our theology shouldn’t, either.
However, I do wonder if we might be experiencing a bit of an overreaction to the recent “Christian Counterculture” movement, and perhaps even to some of the liberal interpretations of scripture. Your article is one of several I’ve read recently warning of similar dangers.
I’d be curious as to your thoughts on this: while I certainly agree that erring on the side of conservatism (the kind your article describes) is wise, it seems to me that going too far in that direction can also lead to some serious issues.
I’m wondering that if we train ourselves to be too wary of things that sound new, we risk missing out on revival. We potentially make ourselves the Roman Catholic Church to a modern Luther. Now, Luther wasn’t truly preaching anything new – he was going back in time to old truths that had been forgotten. But to the Church at the time, it SOUNDED new. A similar argument could perhaps be made for interdenominational/interracial marriage, or slavery. In each of those cases, the church as a whole (or large parts of it) had lost sight of the gospel, and it took someone preaching something that would have sounded “radical” to shake them out of it.
So, my question then: who do we protect ourselves against being swayed by new doctrines, while at the same time avoiding the hubris that prevents us from seeing old doctrines preached in a new context?
First, let me thank you for such a great (and thoughtful) question. I think you raise a very real danger of over-compensation.
As an aside, for what it’s worth, I’ve not read anything about this lately. There was nothing that specifically prompted the post (beyond my son pressing hard to ‘go in Nana and Grampa’s car’). Speaking only for this particular post, it isn’t a reaction (or over reaction) to anything in particular.
I do think there is a tendency to do reactive theology at times i.e. X is wrong. Y is as far from X as possible. Therefore, I hold to Y. It’s not a terribly strong way to do theology or read the Bible. You see it in respect to the gifts all the time. Without stating which position I think correct, I’ve seen people subscribe to Charismata lock stock simply because some Cessationists are so stuffy in their worship that it doesn’t seem heartfelt. Likewise, I’ve seen Cessationists adopt their position because they see the very worst abuses of Charismata then throw out anything that even smells vaguely of Charismata (as far as they perceive it). Both are terrible ways to determine right doctrine and praxis (and good people abound with credible theology on either side of that debate).
The key, however, is not about adopting that which ‘sounds new’. It is adopting that which IS new. You will note that I mentioned those positions which no commentator had landed on before. These are the views of which we ought to be wary. It’s not those things that sound new to us but those things which appear new to us and seemingly everybody else as well.
Let me offer a personal example. I faced some issues in my church because I dared to formalise the link baptism and membership together (that is, you can’t have one without the other). There were quite a few who felt this was wrong simply because ‘we have never done this before’. They were falling into the very trap you describe – they had never heard the teaching before and thus automatically deemed it suspect. I spent time going through the scriptures and showing where it is taught, pointing out that this has historically been the position of just about every mainline denomination throughout church history and the phenomena of separating baptism and membership is a relatively modern one unique to certain churches within independency. The teaching wasn’t new; it just sounded new to them.
What I am cautioning against is an adoption of novel interpretations of scripture that are not supported by any commentators, mainline churches or longstanding traditions. Whilst I am not saying these things are superior to scripture, we must take them in their proper place. An interpretation is bound to be novel if you can’t find m/any commentators or churches offering anything close to your view.
In the specific examples you offer, there have always been people who were OK with interracial marriage. That is a very specifically American (dare I say, particularly Deep South) issue. Here in the UK, without wishing to claim race has never been an issue, it has certainly never been a major one and interracial marriage just isn’t a big issue (notwithstanding some who are notable by their scarcity). Slavery, likewise, has always had its detractors. You would be hard pressed in either case – even during the height of the periods where these views were advocated – to say no commentators or mainline churches hadn’t expressed an interpretation to say these things were wrong.
So, just to be clear, we are talking about novelty qua novelty. If you suspect something to be novel, then go and read some commentaries and speak to other church leaders (or read denominational statements on the issue). If you can’t find anybody advocating what you’re hearing, it’s likely that it’s novel and ought to be rejected. If there are some advocating the position, it may be credible and ought to be weighed as any other interpretative decision in respect to scripture.
I hope that is some help.
Thanks for the reply. The examples you provide are helpful, and I think your last paragraph is pretty key to the issue I’m mulling over. If something sounds new, that ought to be a red flag – and if it turns out it is completely new, than it is almost certainly not true.
The example you gave from your church is encouraging, and that’s what I think the process ought to look like – people willing to raise concerns over an issue, and then (hopefully) willing to work through it scripturally to verify if it’s sound.
Anyway, I appreciate the dialogue. Here’s a couple links to pieces I’ve seen recently that fall into similar ground – in my own mind at least – of urging caution against things that sound new (or things from people who lack experience). Again, I don’t really disagree with the authors of these pieces, I’m just wary of carrying things to far.
For clarity, I wasn’t trying to imply that your piece wasn’t original 🙂 It was and I appreciated reading and thinking about it. The other pieces I’ve read just seem to be mulling over a set of issues that fall, in my mind at least, into an interesting Venn diagram with each other.
Yes, that’s about right.
To bring it back to the specific focus on the post, I would encourage introspection too. Are we more excited when we hear that which sounds new or by the old truths that focus our minds on Christ?
If we are always more excited by novelty chances are we will seek out novel views. The caution here is that you can usually find a commentator somewhere saying something similar. If not a commentator, easy to find supporters on the internet. If our penchant is for novelty we are likely to seek out those who support novelty because we want it to be true.
We must be careful of this too and thus need to be thoughtful and aware of our own motives/desires/tendencies.
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