Historical theology refers to the discipline of narrating the development of Christian theology.
Historical theology is closely related to but distinct from the discipline of Church History, which is more interested in the institutional history of the church and its place in social history. We might also distinguish historical theology from the history of Christian thought and the history of dogma but there is considerable overlap between these disciplines. Historical theology traces the development of Christian theology through the Patristic (AD 100–500), Medieval (AD 500–1500), Reformation (1500–1600), Post-Reformation (1600–1700), and Modern (1700–present) periods.
Definitions and Problems
In 1971 Jaroslav Pelikin characterized historical theology as “the genetic study of Christian faith and doctrine,” but this way of speaking carries with it inherent ambiguity. Were we to ask the great theologians of the second and third centuries, they would have agreed that doctrine is something that has been revealed by God in Christ and faithfully and infallibly transmitted to the church by the Apostles in the canonical Scriptures. As they saw the world, the “rule of faith” is a fixed series of affirmations that is not subject to the vagaries of time.
The history of theology, however, is the study of change. Thus, the persistent challenge of historical theologians is how to account for that which unifies doctrine across history and that which distinguishes the theology of one place or time from another.
In our time, perhaps the greatest challenge historical theology faces is the question of whether history is possible or whether it is lost in a sea of subjectivity and reception. Are there as many histories as historians? In response we should say that the job of the historian is to tell the truth about the past as best he can. This program implies that the past existed objectively and, despite the difficulties, we can know it sufficiently well to tell the truth about it. If there is no truth about the past then we are engaged in nothing more than a cynical, political enterprise. The qualifier, “as best we can,” however, cautions us that no historian ever gets the whole story correct. The theological past has not changed but our understanding of it grows as we learn more about the past and thus our story about what happened is continually being revised.
The fundamental job of the historical theologian is to help the church and other interested parties to remember the theology, piety, and practice of the past and thus to provide a context for contemporary theological reflections, doxology, and praxis. In our late-modern period we are particularly tempted to amnesia and in greater need of older readings of Scripture, theological reflection, and pastoral wisdom than ever before. Thus we need historical theology more than ever before. Though historical theology is vitally interested in the history and development of doctrine, in the history of Christian experience and practice of the faith, it is not the historian’s job to prescribe what should be believed theologically or done practically today. If it is to be of use, historical theology must be descriptive rather than prescriptive.
Steven Ozment writes of two types of historians: nomads and settlers. The former are intellectual historians and the latter are social-institutional historians. To the degree that historical theology has been the child of the history of ideas movement, there has been a tendency, which one sees in some surveys of historical theology, to focus on doctrine in the abstract, in isolation from its context. We might call this the “talking heads” approach, wherein theologians are considered one after another as a series of disembodied talking heads. It is might also be described as the “heroes and heretics” approach to history. As much as philosophers and theologians find such surveys useful, they are not always very accurate.
The settlers in this analogy are social historians, who serve a valuable function for historical theology inasmuch as a theologian in a given time or place is as much a child of his time as we are. He lived in an economic system, a political system, a culture, a web of assumptions about the nature of things, and in a language group. To genuinely understand what a theologian said the historian must understand where he said and why. Writers inevitably respond to the questions of their age. The more we understand where and when a writer lived, the more completely we are able to understand what a writer intended to say, to whom, and why. Of course we accept the necessity of this sort of rich contextual background for understanding Scripture but it is no less necessary for understanding the history of theology.
Over against the history of ideas approach, the tendency of most fields of historical inquiry since World War II, under the influence of varieties of Marxism, has been to marginalize ideas (doctrines) in favor of context so that ideas are regarded as insincere or mere expressions of religious experience or symbolic of attempts of the bourgeoisie to control the working classes through the use of religious dogma. The best reply to such reductionism is to pay attention to what actually happened and what was said by a given writer in a particular place and time. Attention to facts, original sources, and texts has a way of marginalizing grand theories.
The opposite mistake is sometimes referred to as the golden age approach in which a particular era is set up as a model for our time. The great problem with this approach to history is that it is not history at all but theology masquerading as history. The judgment as to which era or theologian got things right is essentially a theological rather than a historical judgment. A good historical theologian tries to keep himself out of the story by giving as clear, sympathetic, and compelling an account as possible. It is up to the reader to decide what he will do with that story. A second great fault with the golden age approach is that it is a poor account of the past. Since the fall there has been no golden age on the earth. Every era, place, and theologian in the history of the church will, upon close inspection, be found to have great sins and failings.
One of the questions much discussed by Christian historians, including historical theologians, over the past forty years has been the question of whether there is a distinctly Christian approach to history. George Marsden, among others has argued in the affirmative, and D. G. Hart has argued in the negative. It seems clear that there is a Christian theology summarized by the churches in, for example, the ancient ecumenical creeds and the Reformed confessions; that theology yields a Christian interpretation of the significance of historical events and persons and a theological grid through which the work of theologian may be evaluated, but it is less clear that this Christian interpretation of the meaning of reality (a worldview) yields a distinctly Christian method for doing history.
Pelikan is right. Historical theology is a genetic study of the development of doctrine. The early church confessed “the rule of faith,” which was the core of what became the Apostles’ Creed by the mid-second century, but it required the Arian controversy for the church to work out a more complete doctrine of the Trinity by the early fourth century. Theology develops organically, in specific contexts, over time, sometimes because of the internal logic of a position, sometimes because of the continued study of Scripture, and sometimes because of external stimuli such as heresy (e.g., Arianism, Nestorianism and Eutychianism, and Pelagianism).
The History of Historical Theology
Prior to the Renaissance, from the early post-apostolic church through the medieval epochs of church history, there was only a vague sense that the church was in a different time and place than the church of the apostles. In the Carolingian Renaissance, beginning with the work of the Venerable Bede (c. AD 673–735), especially in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, we begin to see the development of a historical sensibility, that the Bede and his contemporaries lived in a different time and place than the early church. Beginning in the fourteenth century, the Renaissance marked the beginning of a more acute historical awareness.
That awareness enable the Reformation movement to critique medieval and Roman claims to continuity with the early post-apostolic church and to argue their own case for continuity. Thus, in the Reformation, a contest began over the meaning of the past. The Protestants responded to the Roman Catholic question, “where was your church before Luther?” in the Magdeburg Centuries (1559–74), telling the history of the church through the thirteenth century. This was a highly polemical work, as much a theology as a history, but it witnesses to the growing realization that an understanding of the past, including doctrine, is significant for understanding the present.
In the eighteenth century Enlightenment movements historians began work in the way that recognize today as history, but they did so in a context that was increasingly hostile to orthodox, historic Christianity and under the influence of competing explanations of God, the world, and the self (e.g., rationalism, empiricism, alchemy, and mysticism).
In the nineteenth century, Ferdinand Christian Bauer (1792–1860) began applying the philosophy of history of G. F. W. Hegel (1770–1831) first to the Pauline epistles and then to the doctrines of the atonement, the Trinity, and the incarnation. Hegel’s theory of history is that it is the outworking of a dialectic, one principle (e.g., Jewish Christianity) coming into conflict with another (e.g., Gentile Christianity) that must be resolved and then the process begins again. Under Hegel’s massive influence the idea of development became synonymous with progress toward some eschatological end. In this period Alexander Schweizer (1808–88) argued that there were in Lutheranism and in Reformed theology “central dogmas” around which each system was organized. Lutheran theology was said to be organized around the doctrine of justification and Reformed theology around the doctrine of predestination. This analysis has been rightly subject to withering criticism since the since the late nineteenth century, but it has been quite influential.
In his Essay on the Development of Doctrine, John Henry Newman (1801–90) capitalized on the Hegelian moment by arguing that whatever the Roman communion teaches now is what she has always held, if only in seed form. The genius in Newman’s developmental approach was to recognize the organic development of doctrine. Its flaw was its debt to Hegel such that the outcome of any inquiry was essentially decided a priori on the basis of Newman’s theological and ecclesiastical commitments.
In his monumental History Of Dogma (1886–89) Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) argued that the early church begin as a spontaneous, “kerygmatic” movement organized around a dynamic message about Jesus the Messiah, but that kergyma became an institutional dogma over time. This paradigm has been quite influential since (e.g., Calvin versus the Calvinists) even though it has been fairly criticized as artificial and thus failing to account adequately for all the facts.
In the post-Enlightenment period Michael Polayni (1891–1976) has reminded us that texts, facts, and events must be received by readers and interpreted by those who are themselves located in their own time and place. Richard J. Evans (b. 1947), however, has ably defended the validity of history as telling the truth about the past without falling into the abyss of subjectivism.
The pioneering work Heiko A. Oberman (1930–2001) in accounting for the connections between strands in late medieval theology and the Reformation, demonstrated the power of doing history developmentally without collapsing into a dialectic. His student David Steinmetz (1936–2015) applied his method to the Reformation and Steinmetz’ student, Richard A. Muller (b. 1948) has applied that method to the study of Protestant Scholasticism since 1978, demonstrating the power of a historically grounded, holistic, developmental approach.
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