Historical Theology as Fundamental for the Theologian’s Task

Something that drastically changed my theological development and life was and is historical theology; I first engaged with it in my seminary Reformation and Patristic theology classes. For the first time (at that point), pieces really began to fall into place for me (including my undergrad Bible College experience which didn’t get into, so much, actual historical detail [just generalities]), and it enabled distanciation for me in a way that allowed for critical space wherein I was finally able to identify the conceptual and historical forces that had brought me to where I was at peanutstheologythat seminal point (i.e. my first exposure to historical theology). What good historical theology does is primarily engage in descriptive detail; in other words good historical theology carefully and slowly attends to reconstructing as accurately as possible how theological ideas formed in various periods and strata of the Christian tradition. Once this step is taken, then we are able to resource the categories and emphases present in whatever period we are looking at, and bring all of those threads into a constructive framework that helps serves the present purposes of the advancement and articulation of the Gospel. What engaging in historical theology also has the capacity for (as I already alluded) is to provide a kind of third party perspective on my (our) own theological approach. In a sense, historical theology can marginalize a theological notion or trajectory that I might think is novel; and it can marginalize in a  way that helpfully keeps me from going down a path that might in the end be fruitless, and ultimately a real waste of the time I am supposed to be redeeming. So historical theology can serve as a regulative control on how and what I research, and more prominently it can give me insight into whether or not I am on a fruitful or dilapidated trajectory.

So historical theology is a very important discipline that I think any serious Christian theologian and exegete must attend to. But one danger of historical theology is that we forget that God still speaks. We can get so caught up into listening to the past that we can forget that there is a present.  So good historical theology will, in my view, always give way to Constructive Christian Dogmatic Theology. Which means that we will not only soberly engage with the past, but in this sober engagement we will be doing so with a purpose; the purpose is to listen to the living voice of God as it provides continuous communication from the past into the present. And it is this coming into the present by incorporating the voice of God from the past (so theological remembrance, a very biblical motif) into the present that we are able to constructively join in to the diaologic of the voices present in the people of God. In other words, good historical theology, while providing necessary perspective and fruitful lines of thought, should never be seen as an end in itself; and that is because good Historical Theology is framed by a doctrine of God that is understood as Triune and lively. And God Himself, in Christ, ought to be the One who sets the stage for how we go about engaging in the conversation of His people the Church.

And so in the end, obviously, my view of historical theology is that if it is going to be a fruitful endeavor must be understood from a genuinely Christian frame of reference. Good historical theology provides perspective because it is an act of humbling ourselves, and accepting the fact that God has meaningfully (and is) spoken to our brothers and sisters in the past. And since God has meaningfully spoken in the past, this guarantees the integrity of what has been communicated in the past since it is not ultimately contingent upon whatever period God’s voice was spoken in and through; but truly, it is contingent upon the integrity of God’s voice. This is not to deny the various modes, expressions, and periods of history in which this voice was given; but it is to recognize that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and we need to listen whenever He speaks.

*This is a post I originally wrote a few years ago. 

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5 comments

  1. I’m sad that I am only reading this post now! This is absolutely crucial. Especially this part:

    “So historical theology is a very important discipline that I think any serious Christian theologian and exegete must attend to. But one danger of historical theology is that we forget that God still speaks. We can get so caught up into listening to the past that we can forget that there is a present. So good historical theology will, in my view, always give way to Constructive Christian Dogmatic Theology. ”

    I am a historian by trade, and I have many times gone back looking for “heroes”, kind of bright-lights along the way. Nothing in this is bad, per se. But of course, I’ve tried to find that perfect historic personage to disciple myself under, usually ending in frustration. However, when the past is drawn upon to open up new paths into the future, historical theology is doing its work. God is does not dabble in pristine ideologies, God is always speaking!

    Once I’ve abandoned my vain quest, I have felt my mind open up. Sadly, many peoples are not sensitive to this reality. It seems in this country, we have people who despise the Past and only flit about with absurd novelties (which is the general thrust of America), and then the conservative (theologically and, at times, politically) who only know how to look back forlorn to some age. I see this with many Reformed people who think the Westminster Catechism operates as the Bible abridged. I see it also with zealous converts to the more liturgical traditions. It’s all a kind of fruitless endeavor.

    Personally, an eye to the past with a foot towards the future is extremely liberating.

    Thanks for sharing this Bobby,
    cal

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  2. Rein Zeilstra · ·

    Hi Bobby et al.
    Totally agree with comments on the primacy of hearing and listening. At least as to the posture and focus of both. However to gain resonance with (i.e. not ‘from’) ancient texts; some cogent critical immersion is also essential. All with the object to live closer to God’s Shekinah presence rather than under the cloud of suspicion and to doubt/denial from any outset that God Is. Surmise then can morph into trust and hope for coming futures; simply because the Subject deigns/ delights to stay within proximity.

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  3. Cal,

    Glad this encouraged you!

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  4. Rein,

    Not sure I totally understand your comment. Maybe you’re just affirming what I had written.

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  5. Rein Zeilstra · ·

    It was. RZ

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