The Problem with Edgy, Cool, and Hip Theology

It seems that every generation has to push the envelope. What was taboo yesterday is acceptable today. Up until the 1970’s TV shows wouldn’t show the following: pregnant women, bathrooms, married couples sleeping in the same bed together, ladies’ navels. We chuckle at this. And it might make us think: why should theology be any different?

I contend that edginess in theology is different and dangerous for a number of reasons. One reason is that edgy theology is likely to be misunderstood. But the main reason why edgy theology should be avoided is due to fanaticism.

First, we should define terms. The Smalcald Articles define enthusiasm for us: “enthusiasm inheres in Adam and his children from the beginning [from the first fall] to the end of the world, [its poison] having been implanted and infused into them by the old dragon, and is the origin, power [life], and strength of all heresy, especially of that of the Papacy and Mahomet. 10] Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. 11] It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments.”[1] Edgy means “at the forefront of a trend; experimental or avant-garde.”

Now, some might think, “How can edgy be enthusiasm? Edgy theology still uses words and it still (in some cases) magnifies the Sacraments.” Even though edgy theology does not fit the category of gross enthusiasm, it does display subtle enthusiasm. Remember, Rome still preaches and still has the Sacraments, and yet they are deliberately targeted by Luther in the SA.

Edgy theology falls into enthusiasm because it ignores the pedagogy of the Bible. “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.”[2] And again, “My son, hear the instruction of your father, And do not forsake the law of your mother.”[3] And again, “And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”[4] Here, we see that pedagogical attempts to teach the Faith are not experimental, avant-garde, or unusual. On the contrary, the Faith is handed down deliberately, according to a pattern from generation to generation.

Those who quarrel over words are likewise condemned: “If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, 4 he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions.”[5] The Bible teaches us to retain wholesome patterns of teaching, not to experiment or produce novel ideas.

Edgy theology also falls into enthusiasm because, ironically, it focuses too much on the historical situation of the individual and not the vehicle of the Word. Why are we edgy? We believe that those who have been “harmed” or “broken” by congregations cannot and will not receive the Word as it has been handed down. Also, those who come from a non-Christian background cannot and will not understand our shibboleths. Another reason might be that the church going parishioner has been “numb” to our “church slogans.” Therefore, we need something else.

One such example that I’ve heard from confessional Lutherans is the carnalization of the relationship between Christ and His church. They speak of Christ and the church as if they were lust driven newlyweds. Now, this is not a new idea. The radical Pietists spoke this way. They believed that Christ was the Divine Bridegroom for females and that He was the divine Sophia for males. Radical Morivan iconography assigned both erotic and maternal qualities to the side wound of Jesus.[6] And in the 1970’s, the Children of God cult turned dating into missionary enterprises and sex into a sacrament because of this false view.

Now, it may seem as if I am committing the very edginess that I’m preaching against. I only bring up these disgusting facts to show the danger of edgy theology. It doesn’t take much to turn a beautiful biblical image into a corrupt and blasphemous parody.

But back to the issue at hand. I fear that we have grown cynical about the power of God’s Word. We don’t think that a simple pattern of sound words can give life to dead hearts. We don’t think that simple, patient teaching can stir hearts to greater faith, love, and piety.

And we would be wrong. God’s Word is powerful. The simple preaching and teaching of a Scripture text is just as good of a vehicle for the Holy Spirit as is the most beautiful, well-crafted sermon of any church father. We don’t have to be avant-garde. We don’t have to have novel ways to express the Scriptures.

Luther himself is our example. The Small Catechism is nothing but a collection of Scripture texts and short meditations upon each part. He doesn’t get edgy. He doesn’t do anything novel. He doesn’t go into detail, like in the Sixth Commandment. He lays down a sound pattern of words so that fathers might teach their children for generations to come.

Look at the church today. What remains? Does anyone remember the preaching and teaching of Carlstadt? How about the Pietists? How about the “God is dead” theology of the 1960’s? No, no one remembers these things. What remains? The Small Catechism remains. A pattern of wholesome words remain. This is the pedagogy of the Bible. This is how numb cynics are born into the kingdom of heaven. This is how those who are broken and hurt are healed.

God grant that we always retain the Catechism’s doctrine plain, as Luther taught the word of truth In simple style to tender youth.

[1] Book of Concord, SA, III, VIII, par. 9-11.

[2] 2 Timothy 1:13.

[3] Proverbs 1:8.

[4] 1 Cor. 2:4.

[5] 1 Timothy 6:3-4

[6] Jesus Is Female: Moravians and Radical Religion in Early America.


The Problem with Edgy, Cool, and Hip Theology — 10 Comments

  1. “Ask yourself three questions. 1. Is it true? 2. Is it clear? 3. Is it beautiful?”

  2. Great article. Very apropos. We avoid playing around the edgy part of the cliff because you might fall off. Fatherly, pastoral advice says “stay away.” It isn’t about being a self-promoting rockstar, but rather the theology. As pastors wear a collar or vestments in the Divine Service, our manner of teaching should engage but not become the main point, however tempting that can be. The messenger should decrease that Christ increases. Let our delivery be vested.

  3. I dunno…Rob Bell in skinny jeans sure seems to fit with “gross enthusiasm” to me. 😀

    It all boils down to whether or not the Church engages the culture by conforming to cultural norms, or standing firm in the maelstrom in spite of them.

    I happen to like heavy metal music…not merely the type that recalls the arena-rock of decades gone-by, but stuff that would quite possibly give those unfamiliar with the genres (and sub-genres) a legitimate medical episode.

    That doesn’t mean I need it from the pulpit, though. Not even a little, and saying different puts my felt needs over and above my real needs; we currently live within a society that does little to properly divide the two. Things that perish with use are *not* things eternal, and the Spirit is *not* our “wax nose.”

    Preach the Word. Administer the Sacrament. Carry the wounded. Corporately confess those “church slogans” (if by those we mean the Creeds).

  4. Thank you for the article and for the response posts as well.
    I only recentlty rejected 40 yrs of American Christianity’s theology. It’s a daily struggle.
    Returning to charismatic, mystical, pious , enthusiasm and the ‘happy optimistic christian’ who God “spoke to”,taunts my thoughts.
    My evangelical friends would like to redirect my ‘detour’ to an LCMS congregation and have me return ‘home where I belong’.
    But…I’ve heard the gospel preached in an LCMS congregation.
    I hunger for more of Gods truth.
    Struggle as it may be, I’m not
    “returning home”.

  5. Good article, though I would dare to add the following:

    The biggest issue of churches being “edgy” is that it is, essentially, unbelief. The Bible says in no uncertain terms that the Word of God is effective (see Hebrews 4:12, Romans 10:17, and Isaiah 55:11 as examples of this). There are no promises that human beings cause belief or conversion, no matter how clever or innovative they might be. At best, to be “edgy” is to say “The Word of God is not effective unless…”. But this is not what God’s Word says. Those churches employing popular fads in lieu of Law and Gospel preaching are not believing what God has to say about His Words.

  6. There wasn’t a whole lot of specific detail within the article of what one considers “edgy,” “cool,” or “hip” theology. Some of the article seemed to be pointing at actual theological subjects such as what practices constitute sin per the Bible vs. what is culturally acceptable. Certainly, any teaching that contradicts the Bible’s teaching on sin and repentance, justification, the nature and role of the trinity, etc., are off base. Our theology needs to be based on the revelation provided by scripture.

    Luther was considered to be an edgy guy in his day. He wasn’t, but that is what he was accused of doing. The faith had wandered so far from the apostolic teaching of scripture that it took being edgy to return it back to what was originally taught. I think every generation needs to be willing and able to subject the theological dialogue of the day to the authority of God’s word as revealed in scripture.

    But the article also seems to take aim at the means of how we communicate the revelation of scripture. I would only say regarding that subject that I would use whatever means proves effective to support your ministry. I think Luther also showed his “edginess” (if you want to call it that) there too. He used the cutting edge technology of his day, the printing press, to communicate to a broader audience, faster, than had ever been done before. We do that too as evidenced even here, using a Blog, which is republished on Facebook, etc. We use the means available to us to communicate the word of God. He also revamped the worship service to make the service participatory, put it into the vernacular, and created a format that he felt would be a teaching aid while maintaining those traditional elements that upheld the scriptural practices. We see many services that incorporate both traditional and contemporary elements that proclaim the word of God. He created a family centered small catechism to assist family heads to instruct their families in the basics of the faith. CPH creates materials that support in this effort as well. So I think there are a lot of “edgy” practices in how we communicate that preserves the traditional, and advances the word of God. Its easy to make sweeping statements, but really we need to evaluate things on their merits individually. While there is a lot of bad theology and practice out there, there is also a lot of great things going on as well. Stay encouraged and proclaim the word in whatever means that you have.

  7. Sean,
    Very good.

    Just because the Word of God is effective, doesn’t mean that we should be sloppy. Way back in the 50’s I knew a pastor who read his sermon without inflection. He said he did that so the word would not be influenced by his interpretation.

    God uses people and methods to present His Word.

  8. Rev. Berg,

    Thank you.

    “All theology is Christology.”
    “All theology is plagiarism.”

    I don’t know the sources, but I think all pastors should have these tattooed on the insides of each arm. Another Lutheran non-negotiable is the understanding that the Word of God IS efficacious to accomplish what it says.

    Sean, et al,

    To be fair, much of Luther’s “edginess” was simply cutting away the innovations that accrued over the previous centuries; things that had been implemented to “help” the Word along, and ended up obscuring and negating it. Much of the rest of his “edginess” was largely the result of a bad constitution. (And that is still recognizing him as (arguable) the greatest theologian of the Church.)

    If you are honestly unclear as to what Rev. Berg is referring to, the meme at the top of the article and the Rob Bell reference by Wyldeirishman above should provide some context and clarification.

    As for 1 Thess. 5:19, it is probably THE prime text to be abused out of context to justify and defend all manner of what Rev. Berg is warning against. If you want a taste of how sickening this can get, I suggest you go over to Pirate Christian Radio and give Rev. Chris Rosebrough’s “Fighting for the Faith” a listen. Edginess all over the place there.

    soli Deo gloria

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