Traditioned innovation: A biblical way of thinking
By being both innovative and faithful to tradition, we follow the pattern of the creating and redeeming God of Scripture, writes C. Kavin Rowe.
March 17, 2009 | Churches, schools, businesses, families -- all areas of human life -- face the question of how to live toward the future in light of the past. Leaders will live out their answer to this question by the way they conceive of the world. Inevitably some will say “everything must change” and others, that “things ought to be done as they always have been.” But neither is a real or even desirable option, for the world in which these pronouncements make sense does not exist.
Considered theologically, the future and the past belong together, tradition and innovation hand in hand. Traditioned innovation is a way of thinking and living that points toward the future in light of the past, a habit of being that requires both a deep fidelity to the tradition that has borne us to the present and a radical openness to the innovations that will carry us forward. Traditioned innovation names an inner-biblical way of thinking theologically about the texture of human life in the context of God’s gracious and redemptive self-disclosure.
The Bible is a vast, sprawling book replete with countless winding trails. Navigating its story is best done with a compass whose points are creation, fall, election, redemption and consummation -- the theological framework in which traditioned innovation gets its meaning.
Creation: Creation is the original innovation. God begins the world’s life out of nothing. Creation is thus the moment of givenness, that which provides the “tradition” upon which all human innovation is founded and dependent -- the giving of life by God. We cannot make ourselves. In the face of modern claims to self-autonomy, self-made people, radical freedom from limits and the like, the book of Genesis lays bare the fact that we are always preceded. All human endeavors enter the world in a context of a fundamentally prior reality. In this sense, failure to attend to the traditions that come before us and shape us is a failure to acknowledge the depth of our dependency as created beings.
The flight from givenness inevitably involves wreckage because it wipes away an essential feature of what it means to be human. The attempt at “pure innovation,” the doing away with all tradition, is ultimately an inhuman and impossible endeavor, one that shapes its practitioners and victims alike into something far less than human beings were created to be. Pure innovation simultaneously negates the givenness that underwrites human existence as such -- the fact that we are here at all, rather than not -- and the ethical demand of this givenness: the need to recognize our historically and materially deep ties to all created life. From first to last, human beings are tradition-dependent.
Fall: The narrative in Genesis of the fall powerfully illustrates that the givenness of creation is no longer simply good. It has become fractured by our refusal to acknowledge our ultimate dependency on the world God made and our attempt to become self-made creatures -- as the Bible puts it, “to know as God knows.” Recognizing the destruction that occurs when we deny our embeddedness in created life should cause us to be wary of attempts to dispense with everything in the past (regardless of the particular shape or kind of institution). “Everything” cannot change. We cannot rid ourselves of the world.
And yet, the fall also points directly to the necessity of innovation. Tradition is no longer sufficiently sustaining in itself. We cannot simply declare, in imitation of God’s view of original creation, “this is good.” And, therefore, we cannot fully rest. We must toil and move on. The character of fallen creation forces us to improvise, to try to move again within the goodness of God’s originating purpose. Innovation thus becomes a necessary way of life in a world of sin and shortcoming, of brokenness and the need for new life. Adam and Eve must make their way outside the garden.
Election: The election of Abraham illustrates paradigmatically how God responds to the way we have marred the goodness of the gift. Instead of destroying his creation, we can see God’s overarching response in the Old Testament in the calling of a people whose vocation is at once to embody the enduring goodness of the gift and to testify to the universal need for redemption. God does not, that is, simply scrap the world and make it all over again. Rather, God innovates. He responds to the brokenness of the world with a creative, new act -- indeed, one that could not, at least on the face of it, have been anticipated from the primeval history in Genesis.
This divine pattern of innovation on the basis of tradition is repeated throughout the Old Testament, perhaps most apparently in the giving of the Torah (Law). The Torah is the defining feature of Israel’s life. Israel would be indistinguishable from the nations without it. But this does not mean that the Law was seen as a static deposit of rules -- a kind of inflexible, unworkable and ultimately unlivable way of life. To the contrary, the mere existence of the book of Deuteronomy -- the name literally means the “second law” -- presses the point that to know the Law rightly is to grasp its fecundity for new situations. The Torah is living tradition. As even the author of Lamentations might have put it, the Law is not only tradition from of old. It is also new every morning.