Don’t Invent the Notes: A Sagacious Exhortation for Young, Armchair Theologians

EHS_Bible-and-CouchIn a discussion about books that have influenced him, Father Stephen, my priest, made a comment about Stanley Hauerwas’ theology saying that he was not really a seminal theologian, but operated more like a derivative theologian whose genius still shone brightly.

I found his comments on Hauerwas very interesting. This is something I wonder about. Aren’t we all derivative theologians? Or should be anyways? I mean, in a world where ‘nothing new under the sun’ exists it is hard to be seminal. Being Orthodox is hard to be seminal I find because it is all already in place and what has been said has been said. So that means there are a lot of folks that are derivative. Sometimes I doubt my process as a student, thinker, and armchair theologian; I often fear I’m not doing well at synthesizing theological concepts, ideas, and doctines to place them in my own words and understanding. Often I feel I’m regurgitating something, but in some ways that is all there is to do. Of course, of course, we must learn to think, to synthesize, and to apply these things, but often there isn’t anything, for the theologian, to be seminal about. So maybe I’m just regurgitating. Or perhaps I really can synthesize and think through these things. But the point is made, regardless of all that, in what Father Stephen said in response, which I find great advice for young theologians (or in my case a wanna-be theologian; I use the noun for myself here very, very loosely):

As an Orthodox Christian, I don’t want to be seminal. ‘Originality is not a virtue,’ according to CS Lewis…
Of course, Bach never invented a single note. Worked with the same 12 note scale that’s on my piano. But what he did with the notes! Same is true of good theology. Don’t invent the notes.”

That made me feel better because like I said there’s nothing new under the sun. I’d rather work on being better read, learning to further synthesize concepts and ideas, and repackage them for people who aren’t trained in such matters like theology.

One of my biggest issues while I was Protestant was that the theology was ever changing or seeking to reinvent the wheel. The next big fad! The new great idea! The growing cool movement! All of it relies on coming up with the next big thing! The beauty in Orthodox theology is that it is about receiving what had already been given and handed down, traditioned, through the generations. Thus being seminal in theology is not needy.

Of course what one can be seminal in, perhaps, is the orthopraxy of orthodoxy. The theology never changes or needs to change! The Faith has been given to the Saints as is (Jude 3). Of course as good theologians we must be aware of new ways of engaging the ever-changing contexts wherein the theology (orthodoxy) finds itself. However, the orthodoxy (as well as Orthodoxy) doesn’t change, but it finds new ways of orthopraxy within its cultural settings. Nonetheless, I digress.

This is good advice for any theologian, especially the young armchair theologian such as myself. It takes a lot of pressure off one’s self! We don’t need to be innovators, but faithful guardians and presenters of the gift traditioned to us. Anyone seeking refuge from the continual cycle of innovative theology or “faith” you are welcome to engage the Orthodox and see how one need not be a part of the ceaseless push to reinvent the wheel.

As Father said, and how Bach did, we don’t need to invent the notes of theology, we simply need to join our voices and instruments with the beautiful music being played by the Fathers, Saints, Apostles, and Christ. It’s not about inventing the notes, but playing them beautifully.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Invent the Notes: A Sagacious Exhortation for Young, Armchair Theologians

  1. This is such good advice. With all my theological rovings, and the ever-changing Protestant theology, made me look back to what the early church taught. I was looking for solid ground. Once someone starts asking, What does the Church say about….? one is not far from Orthodoxy, that’s what happened to me. I had to learn that there’s only three men that the Church bestowed the title Theologian (and there’s many great theologians) and I’m not one of them haha. And there’s comfort in that.


  2. As far as inventing something “new,” as an Orthodox you’re right: what’s needed to be said has already been said many times over. However, I think there is plenty of work to do for Orthodox theologians that requires “innovation” of sorts. Just look at the challenge of helping those in Western culture, particularly America, come to an understanding of how the Church relates to them. Every generation needs contemporary theologians who are able to meet the unique challenges of their era. And really that’s all the Church Fathers did. They met the challenges that came, they didn’t invent “notes” out of the blue.


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