Should theology be innovative?

I was doing some research this week on the Trinity and the quote below stood out to me. It isn’t relevant to my research, but I thought I might share it here. Samuel Miller was professor of theology at Princeton Seminary in the early 1800s, and he’s writing in response to a unitarian theologian on this question: Should theology be innovative?


“Without stopping to inquire, whether, as you seem to anticipate, great discoveres and improvements are hereafter to be expected in the science of theology, and in the elucidation of the sacred Scriptures;—a. question which, indeed, from the nature of the case, we must be but ill qualified to decide—one thing is certain, that, neither as Protestants, nor as Christians, ought we to allow ourselves to shut our eyes against the light, or to be blindly governed by the authority of our fathers. I accede fully to the truth of your remark, that you and I, situated as we are, ought to consider ourselves as under double obligations, to inquire diligently, and to weigh well, what we teach.

And, allow me to add, that, as we evidently ought. to teach our Pupils, not to rely on the decisions of Councils or Synods, or on human authority in any shape, but to examine with solemn care the only infallible Rule of faith and practice; so, in my opinion, we are equally bound to guard them against that spirit of rash and hasty innovation, either in faith or practice, which has so often proved the bane of the church of Christ. I have long thought it my duty to inculcate on those theological students whose principles I have had any part in forming, that, while free inquiry is commendable, and a christian duty; a rage for novelty, an ardent love of originality, as such, is one of the most unhappy symptoms, in its bearing on the prospect of future usefulness in the church, that a candidate for the ministry can well exhibit. I would not, for my right hand, exhort a young man always to adhere, whatever new light he may receive, to the old theological landmarks which our fathers have set up; but I would certainly and most earnestly exhort him, if he saw good reason to depart from them, to do it slowly, cautiously, respectifully, and with the most solemn and prayerful deliberation.”

Miller, Samuel. Letters on the Eternal Sonship of Christ: Addressed to the Rev. Professor Stuart, of Andover. Philadelphia: W.W. Woodward., 1823. Read here.


I appreciated the subversive line or argumentation that Miller takes. His logic is this:

  1. We should not blindly follow those who came before us.
  2. We should teach our students to thoroughly examine the Scripture (here he calls it the Rule of Faith) to seek the truth.
  3. Free inquiry, which idealizes innovation and novelty, is of little lasting value. But instead we should freely inquire into the Scripture.

    Therefore, while we should not always follow those who came before, we better have a darn good reason if we do not. That reason comes from inquiry into the Rule of Faith, not philosophical novelty.

Should theology be innovate? No. Refined by the Scriptures? Yes.

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