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. http://bookofconcord.org/smalcald.php

[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.

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