Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (6): Who Cares About History and Tradition?

Oddly enough, early on in my Christian life, I was not remotely interested in church history. (I’ll never forget the first day of seminary when I saw the 1200 page reading list for my Church History course, including Justo Gonzales’ 2-volume tome, The Story of Christianity. I remember thinking I’d rather wake up with my head stapled to the carpet than read that many pages of history.) I think I devalued church history and historical theology and sought to escape it because I saw it as uninteresting and even stifling. Fortunately, I no longer think or feel the same way. I think church history and historical theology are profoundly helpful in more ways than I can elucidate in this brief blog post.

But before addressing church history and historical theology in particular, let’s step back for a minute to make a bigger point: the task of theology is complex and multi-faceted, bringing together several disciplines and sub-disciplines. The theologian may draw upon church history, historical theology, biblical studies, biblical theology, systematic theology, philosophical theology, apologetics, practical theology, and other disciplines. As I see it, a healthy theological method seeks to unite and integrate these disciplines into a unified and coherent whole. In other words, the task of theology is integrative in nature. For this reason, the next few installments of the present blog series will treat these disciplines under five headings, and attempt to show their fruitful integration. First, we treat the historical disciplines.

Christian theology is written, not in a vacuum, but in a particular cultural context and a specific point in time. Church history and historical theology are the disciplines that help the theologian understand the historical development of Christianity, its creeds, confessions, doctrines, and theologies. Church history helps the theologian understand the historical development of Christianity in general. “To deal with the history of the church,” McGrath writes, “is to study cultural, social, political, and institutional factors which have shaped the development of the church down the ages. It is to study the emergence of institutions . . . and movements . . . . Christianity is set within the flux of history, and church history aims to explore the particular place of Christian ideas, individuals and institutions within that flux. The influence is two-way: Christianity both influences and is influenced by culture.”[1] Building upon church history, historical theology helps the theologian understand the historical development of Christian doctrine in particular. As John Behr notes, “the theological reflection of the writers of antiquity cannot be divorced, as pure dogmatic speculation, from the ecclesial, social, and political situations and struggles in which they were immersed.”[2] Historical theology therefore seeks to show the connection between theology and cultural context, showing the factors which have been significant in shaping both the questions and the answers of Christian theology.

Church history and historical theology assist the theologian in his task in several ways. First, the historical disciplines help us to recognize the ways in which inherited theological traditions have shaped the questions we ask and the answers we give. We recognize why certain issues occupy a central place in our structure of thought, and other issues occupy only a peripheral place. We notice how certain conceptual categories and forms of thought have been bequeathed to us by theologians of a different era. We realize that we do not come to the text of Scripture with virgin eyes; we come to the text having been influenced by the past. Second, the historical disciplines help us to preserve the integrity of tradition, while at the same time not allowing tradition to control us. Third, the historical disciplines allow us, in humility, to transcend our own era and location by learning from the great theologians and church traditions of the past. Indeed, as we will see in a later section of this chapter, theologians must continually beware of how their theological formulations may be contaminated by the idolatry of their own cultural context; historical theology helps to break free from being beholden to our own era and culture.


[1] McGrath, Historical Theology, 9.

[2] Behr, Way to Nicaea, 4.

  4Comments

  1. Derwin L. Gray   •  

    Bruce,

    very insightful. I look forward to next posts.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Derwin, thanks for checking in man!

  3. Nathan Finn   •  

    Bruce,

    I’m glad you got your heart right with God. That is all.

    NAF

  4. Pingback: Is Church History Really Important? | For Christ and Culture

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