On the Importance of Creatively Unoriginal Theology

This semester at Southeastern Seminary, I’m teaching an elective course on the theology of Andrew Fuller. I’ve been excited about this class for a long time. If you spend much time around me, you know that one of my burning desires is to help train a generation of pastor-theologians and theologians who are pastors. In my mind, Andrew Fuller is a great historical example of a missions-minded pastor-theologian in the Baptist tradition.

In our first class meeting last week, I attempted to make the case for the importance of studying particular theologians. In that discussion, I argued that any theologian worth his or her salt is “creatively unoriginal”; each of these words is important. Good theologians are creative, finding new ways to communicate doctrinal truth to the audience whom they are addressing, whether church or academy (or both). They recognize that passing on theological content is both an art and a science, so they try to frame theology in a way that captivates believers and contributes to spiritual maturity. They are the theological versions of poet-philosophers. As far as I’m concerned, dull theology is an epic tragedy that cheapens the significance of doctrine and can, at times, even push people away from the faith. Good theologians are creative.

But good theologians are also unoriginal. Contrary to academic trends in some circles, the task of the theologian is not to say something new, but rather to say something old—apostolic, even. Good theologians attempt to sound as much like the apostles as they can in their content, even as they try to sound as much like the culture as they can in the way they package biblical truth. I once heard a seminary president say something like this: “you’ll never hear an original idea at our seminary.” While the theologically faddish among us will dismiss a comment like that without a second thought, I think I know what that brother was saying and I’m with him all the way. The church doesn’t need theological originality; that’s the stuff of which heretics are made. The church needs theology that is creatively unoriginal.

If you are involved in a ministry of preaching or teaching God’s people, commit to being as creatively unoriginal as you can be. Fellow pastors, this is the type of theology that feeds the sheep and builds up the church. Fellow professors, this is the type of theology that equips your students to be the type of pastor-theologians who make a lasting difference in local churches.

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  1. Josh Jennings   •  

    Thanks Nathan for the reminder to be creatively unoriginal. The notion of your class also is prompting me to go grab one of Fuller’s volumes for afternoon reading this week.

  2. Rick Warren   •  

    Nathan, I have all of Fuller’s original works in the first edition including “A Statement of the Committee of the Baptist Missionary Society.” He was brilliant. My favorite Andrew Fuller work is “An Inquiry Into the Nature, Symptoms, Andeffects of Religious Declension, With the Means of Recovery: Together With the Thoughts on Christian Retirement.” Do you tape your classes Nathan?
    rick warren

  3. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Josh, I’m always glad to inspire a brother to read some Fuller.

    Rick, Fuller is my all-time favorite theologian. I’m glad you like him so much, too. I used the “Religious Declension” piece in a class on revival a couple of years ago. This particular class isn’t being recorded because it’s an elective and it’s my first time teaching it. Perhaps it will in the future, though.

    Thanks for the comments, guys.


  4. Matt Meadows   •  

    Isn’t Fuller the one who helped coin the phrase “Sufficient for all, efficient for some” regarding limited atonement?

    I’ve had this issue roll around in my mind many times. I am definitely Reformed in the vast majority of my theology but cannot reconcile the classical Dort position of limited atonement because of 1 John 2 (I cannot reconcile what appears to be a blatant contradiction, but I say this respectfully to my thoroughbred Calvinist friends who disagree with me).

    The statement above “sufficient for all, efficient for some” actually sums up what I believe very well, and I want to be able to credit the right person. Is Fuller the right guy?

  5. A. Chadwick Mauldin   •  

    Max, thanks for the plug.

    Matt, Fuller did, as you say, promote the formula that Christ’s atonement was sufficient for the whole world but efficient only for the elect. He did not develop this formula, however. Though it was not a formula used only in the 18th century, it was popularized among the New Light or Edwardsean Calvinists–and Fuller was greatly influenced by this group. Also, this formula only speaks to the sufficiency of the atonement, not to its application. In other words, Fuller believed in and defended the doctrine of limited atonement. Good stuff, Matt!

  6. Michael Haykin   •  

    Matt: Actually Fuller got that phrase from the Synod of Dordrecht (Dort).

  7. A. Chadwick Mauldin   •  

    The formula (sufficient for all, efficient for the elect) was also accepted by Calvin as well. It has been a widely held formula for the atonement throughout history. I think Booth would have not affirmed it though–do you agree, Dr Haykin?

  8. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Sorry I’m late to get back into this game. The “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” dates back to the medieval era, at least to the time of Peter Lombard. Fuller does affirm that formula, but, as Michael pointed out, so did Dort. In fact, all “four-pointers” and most “five-pointers” embrace the formula, though they parse it out differently.

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