One thing that really helped me in learning to be a more “critical” theological thinker was to be immersed into the world of historical theology, in particular Reformational and Patristic theology, in my seminary days. Prior to this kind of immersion I felt somewhat aloof, kind of wandering around in a theological smorgasbord wherein I as the informed (because I had earned, at that point, a BA degree with a double major in Bible and Theology and a minor in NT Greek) agent, and ‘Free’ thinking Free church member had all the regal resources of something like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral at my fingertips; I had a kind of relative omniscient capacity to philosophically, and in a suspended kind of disposition, analyze the theological and exegetical options, and by my own voluntary act insert myself into whatever theological trajectory or narrative that I so desired. Okay, I am overstating this a little. My point is to highlight the kind of voluntary nature of my position prior to being introduced to the problematization of that provided by gaining a historical and critical perspective of things.
What I realized as I began reading and studying the developments of the early Christian church (the Patristic era), is that things were so much more dynamic, so much less cut and dry than things seemed to me prior to this engagement. I began to realize that I was part of a continuous move of God in Christ in His church that wasn’t something that was voluntary, but something that was highly intentional and given ongoing eschatological force by the continuous in-breaking of God’s life upon His people; and that by my participation in this move of God in Christ, I had entered into something that was not of my own making, nor of my own decision. I had entered into something that was of God’s making, and of his work, and by entering into this work of His (in His church), I have become attached to a body of humanity that is not our own. In other words, for good or for ill, I have become part of a reality that transcends me, but decisively includes me, in personal ways, in this particular transcendence, in Christ. An implication of this is that in some ways I don’t have a say in what has come before (just as children don’t have a say in who their parents are); I don’t have a say in whether or not I like the fact that part of God’s movement in Christ in His people the church has included decisions, arguments, and subsequent development of grammar that has become known as the Tradition of the church or the Apostolic Doctrine. But for good or for ill, this is the reality; I can kick and scream against this reality, OR, I can engage in dialogue with this reality with hopes of building upon and growing through the nourishment available through this work of God in His church. This does not mean I cannot critically engage with my inheritance, as part of this great continuum and move of God in Christ, but it does mean that I have to recognize that I am not the Master (even if I have a Master’s degree), and I don’t get to say who my ‘parents’ are; they simply are.
I think the thrust of my points here are twofold: 1) We cannot just look over the past and history of the Church as one monolithic blob that has no real import for me today, we have to engage with this blob, and in so doing our own posture will be problematized sufficiently in such a way that we will realize that the past is our present, as we are in continuous dialogue with God through His people, both past and present; 2) More simply, we will gain a proper orientation toward our own and personal theological development, as we realize that the past often critiques our present held beliefs, and at the same time provides new critical and thus fruitful ground upon which to constructively build and engage with contemporary churchly concerns that have real life consequent for our fellowship one with the other.