Let’s start off with a basic axiom that should be obvious to most anyone with a basic sense of church history: theology evolves. By theology, I am not referring to change with God as the Truth-maker of all that is true; this is not an ontological statement about God akin to process theology. Nor, am I even specifically referring to the basic sense of faith that comes from the whole person in relation. Rather, I am referring to the body of beliefs that attempt to explicitly describe this faith that contains certain beliefs we have about truth and the Truth-maker. I am talking about the attempt to make explicit what is largely unconscious and what was largely formed in us in an unconscious manner. Theology as our attempt to generate and express an understanding of our faith in this Truth-making God does evolve and adapt over the course of time. This truth of theological change is present throughout the history of the Church.
However, the question is this: should theology change? This is to move from a more descriptive recognition that theology does change to ask the more prescriptive question: should it change? If so, how should this change occur? In what ways should theology change?
I would firstly contend that if we take the Biblical canon as normative for faith and theology, then the answer is, yes, it should change, because there are clear shifts, irruptions, and transformations throughout the history of God’s People. Israel’s most ancient confessions believed God had spoken and made promises to the patricarchs shifted to then a period of monarachy where people believed God had set aside the Davidic monarchy; they did not forget the promises to Abraham, but Israel’s theology progressed. Then, the prophets uttered many critiques against the powers that ruled over the people of Israel, including the monarchical regimes. Move forward to the coming of Christ, and the whole of theology dramatically shifts in light of the two fundamental data points: the death and resurrection of Christ, showing His Lordship, and the global outpouring of the Holy Spirit, manifesting the love of God for the people. Rather than a tradition of rising hostility among many Jews towards Roman overlords, Paul expresses in Romans that following the suffering Messiah entailed honoring the imperial powers while subtly expressing limitations to the nature of this honoring; but then this view shifts within Revelation, where is a coded but distinct call to resistance to Roman power.
If we were to define theology as an explicit explication of an otherwise implicit faith, and not import any assumptions on the form and genre this expression must take (i.e. doesn’t have to be systematic, analytic, literal, metaphorical, coded, etc.), then clearly the theology of God’s People from Abraham to Revelation experienced adaptations and transformations over the course of time. However, there are many who have certain a priori views of how theology must express itself, that truth itself is timeless, so any sense of change and discontinuity is an inconsistency that entails something is false and wrong. So allow me to tease out what I deem to be the fundamental problem against this objection to theology’s progress.
At the core of the view that truth is unchanging and timeless are two interrelated but different ideas. More explicit is the idea that truth is timeless because God is unchanging. But more implicit and more descriptive of what is happening to the person in a cognitive manner is a rejection of any change to the cognitive structures of their belief. That is to say that the belief that truth is unchanging functions to serve both as belief about God AND a unusually unconscious belief about our own beliefs. In other words, truth is eternal and unchanging is often a statement about one’s meta-cognitive belief that wants to assure a fixity as it is about the nature of faith in God and His nature. This form of theological statement frequently veils also hidden anthropological/psychological commitment. More than seeking to affirm and solidify faith in God, it also solidifies oneself.
So allow me to make a theological argument that I think is much more consistent with the whole Biblical narrative, although if it is consistent with the Biblical narrative, it expresses it in a way that is different from the whole Bible does. God is not simply truth, in the sense that we are talking about fundamental facts about the nature of existence, etc. but is the Truth-Maker. God makes true what would otherwise not even be. This is getting into metaphysics, but I want to clarify what I mean by this.
To clarify, I am not making a statement on what the specific relationship is between the categories of the Truth-maker and truth as it relates to God and our perceptions and knowledge; I am not engaging in defining a specific ontology that provides a strict outline of how things really are. Rather, I am providing ontological categories that can help to give us a lens in how to make sense of everything that allows there to be a uniting coherence between various truths, that allows both unity and diversity. In other words, I am proposing something that I think makes the best sense of all of the sources of faith knowledge we as Christians have, while still be sensitive to the concrete, particular, specifics of each of those sources and their specific discourse.
If God is Creator and what we know about God is mediated through our embodied life in creation, then God’s status as Creator means He is not simply Truth, but that He has a higher status of that as Truth-maker. It is by God and His actions that what we find to be true
For a brief excursus: At first glance, this might sound similar to Tillich’s “God as the ground of existence.” Indeed, there are similarities as both the ground/existence and Truth-maker/truth conceptual schemas entail a causal connection from one (ground/Truth-maker) to the other (existence-truth) that is applied to God in such a unique way that can not be applied in the same way to others.1 However, there is a difference. Whereas Tillich’s distinction between existence and the ground is used in a mutual exclusive way to say that God is only one, that is the ground, but the other is not true, that is to say that God does not exist, I would reject this mutual exclusivity of these categories. To describe God as Truth-maker does not mean I can not at the same time say that God is a truth; in fact, it would be almost senseless to say that God is simply a Truth-maker but is not himself a object of our understanding of truth, as it would tear asunder the causal connection that the concepts of Truth-maker and truth have towards each other. It is certainly possible that the truth of a Truth-maker may not be known to us, but then we would not be able to speak anything of this Truth-maker as true, including the truth of someone’s or something’s status as a Truth-maker. To say someone or something is a Truth-maker entails a cognitive sense of truth from our own end. So, this is not a Tillichian expression in the end, even if there seems to be a similarity on the
So, return to the question of the unchanging nature of truth, if God is the Truth-maker, then that means truth remains the same insofar as a) God’s Truth-making is consistent over the course of time and b) to the extent that God’s Truth-making status is unchallenged by other, lesser truth-makers. I would connect these two conditions then to two prominent themes about God throughout the Scriptures: God’s faithful love and God’s overwhelming power. God’s faithfulness entails God’s consistency, meaning God’s Truth-making status keeps truth the same. Secondly, to the extent that God’s Truth-making power places limits and renders other truth-makers powerless, truth will remain the same. Put differently, the consistency of true perceptions across time is a function of God’s love and power, and is not itself a statement that must be true for truth to be truth. Truth is not true because it is timeless, but rather truth is timeless insofar as God in His faithful love and power make truth remain true. But, if the shape of God’s faithfulness and demonstration of power changes, as it does from Torah and Monarchy to Christ even as God’s work in Christ retains continuity with Torah and Monarchy, then so to does truth change.
So, should theology change? From my analysis, there are two specific conditions it should progress and adapt. Firstly, if the specific way God demonstrates and acts upon faithful love and power adapts, then yes, so too should theology change. When God does this though, it doesn’t occur with some random religious teacher presenting a discourse and instruction that we should change and progress. Rather, God makes it clear in a dramatic way that this new thing is from God and not anyone or anything else. The resurrection of Christ is the fundamental datum that motivates a shift in theological understanding; this fundamental datum doesn’t reject all the data points of God’s self-disclosure and action from the past, but they themselves are assimilated into an understanding about God known in this most fundamental datum point. There is something that can only be understood as God’s works that necessitates a transformation of faith and theology to adequately express, response, and be in attunement to God’s Truth-making power.
There is a second condition, that was implied in my earlier discourse: when what is true changes based upon the impact that other, lesser truth-makers, then our theology should change also. But the rationale here is very different than what happens when God demonstratively makes Himself known in a new way. Here, the question isn’t so much what our faith in God is ultimately expressing in terms of the purpose that God’s power and love are working towards, but rather how this purpose is concretely realized itself in relationship to other truth-makers. If political powers are resisting what God’s ultimate will is, then our theological understand will and should adapt to this different circumstance; our fundamental hope in our hearts remains the same, but the way we understand and express this within the context of the struggle between truth-making powers will need to adapt. This can explain how Paul’s expression of a limited accommodation to Roman political power can be brought together with the later call to resist Empire in Revelation; the nature of the truth-making power of Roman Empire and its political discourse and actions, including as it is specifically directed towards the Body of Christ, entails a shifting understanding of theology. There is a deeper continuity between Romans and Revelation, but at the same time, but the continuity is not to be found by interpreting the surface level discourse between the two but in reconstructing and discovering the common core of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that comes to expression.
In this condition for progressing in theology, adapting
But this type of theological shift does not alter what we fundamentally trust to be true about God as Truth-maker, but only how the conflict between God’s will and the flesh is concretely realized. Insofar as God’s power surpasses other powers that other powers can not molest or touch or
So, I reject the notion ontological notion that truth is timeless, but rather I trust in the faithful love and power of God the Creator and
So, when people argue that the Church should progress, are they making claims about God’s will and purposes? Then they should be able to point us to the manifestation of God’s dramatic and clear power that clearly outlines this new shift and change. But if, rather, this change is argued from a discourses that are more prophetic or rational in nature, then it is only legitimate to suggest this change is due to change in the way God’s redemption is being realized and not due to a change in God’s ultimate will and purposes. But to claim a change in God’s expression of faithfulness in love and power without this is to trying to legitimate our own interests through our own discourse, and to illegitimately project human interests as God’s purposes.
- Tillich’s ontology would, I presume, reject any sense of assigning to other entities the ground of existence, whereas I would suggest that other entities can be truth-makers, but it is of an entirely different degree such that to entails dramatically different understandings of what it means for God to be a Truth-maker and for someone or something else to be a truth-maker.