To contribute nothing new

C.S. Lewis, in his book Christian Apologetics, had little sympathy for, nor patience with, members of the clergy who, bound by their vows of ordination, failed to stay within the bounds of the faith they were bound to defend.

It is your duty to fix the lines (of doctrine) clearly in your minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession. This is your duty not specially as Christians or as priests but as honest men. There is a danger here of the clergy developing a special professional conscience which obscures the very plain moral issue. Men who have passed beyond these boundary lines in either direction are apt to protest that they have come by their unorthodox opinions honestly. In defense of those opinions they are prepared to suffer obloquy and to forfeit professional advancement. They thus come to feel like martyrs. But this simply misses the point which so gravely scandalizes the layman. We never doubted that the unorthodox opinions were honestly held: what we complain of is your continuing in your ministry after you have come to hold them. We always knew that a man who makes his living as a paid agent of the Conservative Party may honestly change his views and honestly become a Communist. What we deny is that he can honestly continue to be a Conservative agent and to receive money from one party while he supports the policy of the other.

The late Thomas Oden, who experienced an awakening to the orthodox faith after immersing himself in the writings of the Church Fathers, wrote of a curious dream that gave him reason to hope that his life’s work would not be in vain.

I once had a curious dream. The scene was in the New Haven cemetery, where I accidentally stumbled upon my own tombstone, only to be confronted by this bemusing epitaph: “He made no new contribution to theology.”

I woke up feeling reassured, for I have been trying in my own way to follow the strict mandate of Irenaeus “not to invent new doctrine.” No concept was more deplored by the early ecumenical councils than the notion that theology’s task was to “innovate.” That implied some imagined creative addition to the apostolic teaching and thus something “other than” the received doctrine, “the baptism into which we have been baptized.”

What the ancient church teachers least wished for a theology was that it would be “fresh” or “self-expressive” or an embellishment of purely private inspirations, as if these might stand as some “decisive improvement” on the apostolic teaching.

I share with Oden the dream that I will be remembered for having “made no new contribution to theology.” As a priest, it is not my task to be an “innovator.” And if, someday, I did come to the conclusion, however “honestly,” that my opinions were some “decisive improvement” on the teaching of the Apostles, the only “honest” thing for me to do, as Lewis suggests, would be to find another line of work.

No one should, and no one can, take seriously a person who draws his livelihood from the Gospel while tearing down that Gospel with his every word, all the while bedecked in all the splendor of priestly garb.

Perhaps the most comic, yet tragic, figure in recent church history has been John Shelby Spong, the now (thankfully) retired bishop who has spent the better part of his adult life wearing a purple shirt with a gleaming gold cross while saying the Bible is little more than cute fairy tale.

The “good deposit” entrusted to us, as it was entrusted to Timothy—the faith that dwelt first in his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice, and that Paul, who was getting ready to give his life for that faith, was confident now dwelt in his young protégé (2 Timothy 1:5)—is not something that can be treated so carelessly. It is not something to be taken and bent to our own preferences and desires.

This “good deposit,” this Gospel of salvation, is a powerful thing. It is powerful, however, not in the way the world understands power. The power of God is not to be used to validate one’s own power. As Paul so adeptly explains in writing to Timothy, the power of God is understood best under circumstances of utter weakness, such as the uniquely powerless surroundings of the Roman prison from which he is writing—a most unpleasant reminder that the Gospel never promises you “your best life now.”

From the darkness of that prison, Paul issues a clarion call to Timothy, reminding him “to fan into flame the gift of God, which is yours through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:6-7)

Do not be timid, Paul says, in exercising the gift God has given you because God delights in exercising his power through the weak vessels of his faithful servants.

“Increase our faith!” was the cry of the apostles while they were still learning at the feet of Jesus (Luke 17:5)

Jesus told them, “What you need is not great faith. What you need is simply faith in a great God.”

God did not choose you because you had the most faith. He did not choose you because he thought you had more potential than anyone else.

God “saved us and called us to a holy calling,” Paul says, “not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9).

That is nothing new. That is nothing innovative. That is not an improvement on an old and antiquated teaching.

It is, simply, the Gospel—and it is always, and forever, true.

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