Have you ever heard of theology of retrieval? If not, it is a rather popular move among certain confessional Protestant Christian theologians; I am a fan of it myself. At its most basic level it is simply an approach or an attempt to recover, primarily, pre-modern theological doctrinal developments, and resource those in a way that the doctrine retrieved can be translated and used to edify the 21st century church. One big motivation for theology of retrieval is driven by the perception that modern theology has infiltrated the church in such a way that it has actually damaged the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the church catholic. Understood in this way, theology of retrieval is often an attempt to right the ship of doctrinal drift in the church and return it to a stable buoyancy; to an anchor that is closer to the ancient or paleo developments of the early ecumenical church councils—and for Protestants this often also means a return to what is called Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy, or the doctrine that developed post-magisterial reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. In a way, theology of retrieval is itself driven by what might be considered the original theology of retrieval movement like we find taking place in the middle and late medieval theologies driven by Christian Humanism and the ad fontes (‘back to the sources’) trajectory.
John Webster offers a good description of what theology of retrieval entails, but one thing I want to underscore prior to getting to that is something that I think can start to plague theologies of retrieval. Often what I have observed among practitioners of theology of retrieval is a certain attendant mood; i.e. not only do many who are engaged in this discipline seek to recover the doctrinal riches from the dead, but along with that there seems to be a desire to retrieve the culture of say Reformation Western Europe—with the beards (for men), pipe and cigar smoking, and the consumption of craft beers (these accouterments among other things). What I have noticed is an almost unhealthy elevation of a retrieval of a perceived culture to the point that the point of retrieval is lost. For my money the point of retrieval is not to create holy Reformed huddles, but instead it is to retrieve doctrinal reality that points people to Jesus Christ. What I have noticed, particularly among the so called Young, Restless, and Reformed might be something akin to Messianic Christians, with more of an engrossment with trying to somehow reenact what they perceive of the past culture (in which the theology they are retrieving is situated), to the point that the broader point of retrieval is lost. In other words, and this is the broader point, if Jesus Christ is not the reason for theology of retrieval, or if he gets lost in our enamorization with our perception of past Christian cultures, then the point of theology of retrieval means nothing.
We still haven’t pressed into what theology of retrieval actually is, other than my brief introduction to it above. John Webster describes it this way:
‘Retrieval’, then, is a mode of theology, an attitude of mind and a way of approaching theological tasks which is present with greater or lesser prominence in a range of different thinkers, not all of them self-consciously ‘conservative’ or ‘orthodox’. Although here we concentrate upon strong versions of this approach, it can be found in less stringent forms and in combination with other styles of theological work. A rough set of resemblances between different examples of this kind of theology would include the following: these theologies are ‘objectivist’ or ‘realist’ insofar as they consider Christian faith and theology to be a response to a self-bestowing divine reality which precedes and overcomes the limited reach of rational intention; their material accounts of this divine reality are heavily indebted to the trinitarian, incarnational, and soteriological teaching of the classical Christianity of the ecumenical councils; they consider that the governing norms of theological inquiry are established by the object by which theology is brought into being (the source of theology is thus its norm); accordingly, they do not accord final weight to external criteria or to the methods and procedures which enjoy prestige outside theology; their accounts of the location, audience, and ends of Christian doctrine are generally governed by the relation of theology to the community of faith as its primary sphere; and in their judgements about the historical setting of systematic theology they tend to deploy a theological (rather than socio-cultural) understanding of tradition which outbids the view that modernity has imposed a new and inescapable set of conditions on theological work. For such theologies, immersion in the texts and habits of thought of earlier (especially pre-modern) theology opens up a wide view of the object of Christian theological reflection, setting before its contemporary practitioners descriptions of the faith unharnessed by current anxieties, and enabling a certain liberty in relation to the present. With this in mind, we begin by considering the study of history as a diagnostic to identify what are taken to be misdirections in modern theology, and then the deployment of history as a resource to overcome them.
From Webster’s description we can see that he primarily understands theology of retrieval to provide a corrective for the impact that modern impulses and doctrinal trajectories have often supplied the 21st century church with; and from Webster’s perspective that has often been much more negative rather than positive.
We have covered two points in this post: 1) We have sought to introduce people to what in fact theology of retrieval actually is, and 2) we have noticed, usually at more popular levels, that there sometimes, attendant with looking to the past, comes an unhealthy focus on the various cultures we are retrieving said doctrine from. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with big beards, beer, or cigars (except the latter two have terrible health consequences associated with them); but the point I am driving at instead is that those, among other things, can become symbols that, at a deeper level, an unhealthy fixation on the past culture[s] might have crept in to the point that the real reason for retrieval, Jesus, gets swallowed up by more horizontal things.
More positively, I think Webster is right, that theology of retrieval can offer the type of critical perspective we moderns need in the 21st century to speak of God well. While Webster gives the impression that modern theology, in the main, is mostly bad, I will have to demur a bit from him at this point. I think there are some good theologians and theologies to learn from, and retrieve, from the modern period as well (obviously I am referring to Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, et al.). Webster himself, of course, has drunk deeply (more deeply than me even, as far as breadth and depth) from the wells of Barth, Torrance, Jüngel, et al; but of course in the latter years of his life he started to turn back to a more broadly received Christianity with particular reference to Thomas Aquinas, and of course some of the Post Reformed reformers, and then all the way back to the patristic Pro-Nicene theology.
I would like to encourage anyone who reads here to start the process of theology of retrieval. If you haven’t taken any steps in that direction the first thing you might consider is picking up a good church history book, and or an introduction to historical theology.
 John Webster, “Theologies of Retrieval,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 584-85.