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Saturday, 10 October 2009

Polkinghorne Quotes #11: Orthodoxy – Neither Inflexible Nor Disconnected from the Past

This is the 11th post in a series on the writings of John Polkinghorne.

Orthodox theology is one of the hallmarks of Evangelicalism; the basic beliefs of the Christian faith as articulated by the inspired New Testament writers, the Apostles and the Church Fathers, and as documented in the early church creeds, are non-negotiable. We are followers of Christ that value “right belief”.

But that doesn’t mean we are locked into an ancient mindset, one that is no longer tenable in the age of modern science. As Polkinghorne states:

The Nicene Creed provides us with the outline of a rationally defensible theology which can be embraced with integrity as much today as when it was first formulated in the fourth century.

Science and the Trinity, page 29
The reason for this, as Polkinghorne astutely comments, is that the creeds themselves are, “condensed in character” and do not “[prescribe] all the details” of how Christian theological discourse must be conducted. “Orthodoxy is not inflexibility”. [Evangelical theologians: Please take a deep breath and repeat this short, beautiful phrase ten times].

This allows for a “developmental approach” to the dialogue between science and theology. Polkinghorne states that he seeks a:
“… basis for Christian belief that is certainly revised in the light of our twentieth-century insights but which is recognizably constrained within the envelope of understanding in continuity with the developing doctrine of the Church throughout the centuries.”

From Science and the Trinity, page 28
It is this developmental approach that can lead to fruitful insights in our thinking about the Creator and his creation. But many theologians, it seems, want to abandon the wisdom of the past. This can lead to conclusions that fall well outside the boundaries of orthodoxy. Polkinghorne recognizes this danger and warns that theologians, like scientists, must stand on the shoulders of giants.
The essential issue is whether substantial new thinking in theology can satisfactorily be achieved largely in disconnection with past understanding. There is always the danger that the gusting of Zeitgeist might wrongly be mistaken for the Wind of the Holy Spirit.

From Science and the Trinity, page 26
This warning should be taken very seriously. New scientific insights present not only new theological opportunities, but also new theological challenges. We must wrestle with the difficulties, and not sweep them under the table. We trace our faith lineage a long way, from the patriarchs, through the prophets, the apostles, the Church fathers, and the reformers. They wrestled with the faith issues of their day, and we can learn from their wrestling as we wrestle with our own. And when we are wrestling, we must pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit, the source of true wisdom.

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