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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.

Redemption: To think about redemption in the biblical sense is to see that this divine pattern of “newness without completely throwing away the old” culminates in Jesus Christ. According to the New Testament, God recreates the world in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Those who live in the pattern of life made possible by this death and resurrection participate most fully in the newness of the world. Whoever is in Christ, says Paul, is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). In Christ, that is, the innovation of God is at its peak. In Christ, he remakes the foundations of human life in the very midst of the ongoing, long-running and everyday traditions of the world.

Yet the discontinuity -- the creation of a new world -- includes, rather than excludes, a continuity with what preceded Jesus. The Law and the Prophets testify to the coming of the Christ, even as that coming itself provides a new foundation on which the life promised by the Law and Prophets ultimately depends. Christ is not the “end (telos) of the Law” (Romans 10:4) in the sense of terminating it or displacing its reality, but is instead the deepest purpose or goal (telos) of the Law, that toward which it points or strives. In short, new creation does not abrogate the old but takes it up inside the new and in so doing remakes it. Tradition literally is made new on the basis of God’s innovation.

Focusing on redemption thus discloses a productive tension that marks all life until the end. To remain in what is already known of the tradition is to refuse the priority of new creation; and yet, that which is new includes the old. Radical innovation? Yes. Radical continuity with tradition? Yes.

Consummation: Consummation points to the hope that creation and redemption will finally coincide, that the world’s traditions will, as it were, catch up with the reality of a cosmos remade -- that God’s founding innovation and tradition will be one with his most radical innovation in Jesus Christ.

Thinking about traditioned innovation in light of the hope of consummation shows that tradition and innovation are not finally two different ways of being in the world. They are instead a helpful way to speak about the fundamental manner in which the Triune God graciously relates to the world he made and to which, in the face of its profound brokenness, he remains everlastingly committed -- anew. We cannot think, therefore, that tradition and innovation are opposites. In the Bible, tradition and innovation are realities of our common human life, inseparable aspects of participating in the world God made and is redeeming. Tradition and innovation go together in the divine purpose that leads toward the final restoration of God’s good creation.

To the extent that we both remain faithful to tradition and innovate -- even radically -- we will follow the pattern of the creating and redeeming God of Scripture, and will, therefore, flourish. This is not to say that the flourishing of human life will be apparent immediately to us in the present. After all, flourishing in the biblical sense is frequently counterintuitive. Israel wandered for 40 years in the desert, Moses never made it to the promised land and Jesus was killed -- to take only a few striking examples. But it is to say that the underlying and ultimate purpose to which our lives will be oriented will be in harmony with the work of the God of the Bible.