Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future

Written by Gavin Ortlund Reviewed By Joseph T. Cochran

Evangelicals in America have been reflective on two accounts in recent times. The first is intellectual and experimental in origin and involves the practice of historical and theological retrieval. Some call this ressourcement and others Reformed catholicity. One might call this a wave of sacred humanism, which leads ad fontes. The other account of reflectiveness is less structured and more difficult to trace, but it involves the praxis of the first. There is a trend towards liturgical retrieval in the church. People have been transferring from the low church to higher liturgical traditions, and low churches are evolving and ascending into higher ecclesiastical practices. This latter trend is one of the many reasons why resources such as Chan’s Liturgical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), Buschart and Eiler’s Theology as Retrieval (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), Allen and Swain’s Reformed Catholicity (Grand Rapids: Baker Acaedmic, 2015), and Stewart’s In Search of Ancient Roots (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017)—among others—have been timely studies. Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals is a much need addition to this arsenal of historical and theological retrieval. Pastor Gavin Ortlund, who received a doctoral degree from Fuller Seminary in theological studies, provides a manifesto for evangelicals to engage in the retrieval of patristic and medieval sources in the first part of this study. Part 2 demonstrates the practice of theological retrieval with a series of case studies.

Recently, evangelicals have swum the Tiber, the Thames, or dipped into other liturgical currents to swim the Great Tradition’s seas. Ortlund explains how retrieval could remedy this phenomenon. He says, “One of the church’s greatest resources for navigating her present challenges is her very past” (p. 20). Chapter 1 explains that retrieval is consistent with the whole Protestant Reformation project. Reformers “not only regularly retrieved the theology of the early church but in large measure cast their entire reform effort as its retrieval” (p. 31, emphasis original). Ortlund provides evidence from Calvin, Turretin, Owen, and others to demonstrate retrieval as a garden variety practice. In chapter 2, Ortlund resolves that “contemporary evangelical theology can be enriched and strengthened in her current task” by retrieval (p. 45). Young evangelicals seek historical rootedness to respond to cultural pressures in their modern context and are turning to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. Ortlund denies the need to do this. Whereas Leithart argues for the end of Protestantism, Ortlund advocates to keep Protestantism and “claim the full heritage of the church” (p. 59). This heritage is a bulwark against disenchantment, religious skepticism, and secularization. He offers three benefits of retrieval. First, it is a beneficial means to educate people theologically. Second, retrieval draws people into a world wholly other than their own. Third, retrieval reframes modern debates with a premodern perspective.

After presenting a manifesto for evangelical theological retrieval, Ortlund presents four case studies of his engagement in this practice. Chapter four examines the Creator/creation distinction through the eyes of Boethius, Calvin, and Torrance. Chapter 5 rehabilitates the doctrine of divine simplicity from the vantage point of a patristic and medieval understanding. Chapter 6 resolves the conflict on atonement doctrine by retrieving Irenaeus, Anselm, and Athanasius to support penal-substitutionary atonement and to add recapitulation and satisfaction with no expense to substitution. Finally, chapter 7 explores Gregory the Great’s understanding of the pastoral office. Gregory, an early pastor-theologian, made doctrines of the church accessible and practical to serve the church, which strengthened the value of the pastoral office.

Ortlund’s manifesto and show-and-tell methodology are welcome contributions to the growing body of historical and theological retrieval. His writing is lucid, and though the content is quite scholarly, he manages to make it accessible to pastors and serious lays-persons. His facility with medieval thought is admirable. Rather than monopolizing his study with the problem of Protestant exodus or characterizing defined enemies of Protestantism, like Catholicism or Orthodoxy, Ortlund provides fruitful practices for the solution.

Perhaps a challenge for retrieval that Ortlund leaves unaddressed is how to assuage fundamentalists’ and anti-intellectuals’ fears of the project. I am not quite sure he substantively redresses the friction these challenges pose for retrieval. Evangelicals tend to be anxious about retrieving the past and pragmatic about exploiting the present. They tend to be caught in the echo-chambers of their traditions. For some traditions, retrieval could potentially affect doctrinal distinctives. This would be troublesome for the stability of more recent, yet entrenched, traditions. Likewise, some doctrinal matters have historically and sociologically bound contexts. Historical and sociological developments tend to apply pressure and force doctrinal development. One might say new conditions require the reconditioning of doctrine. When is it essential for a doctrine to develop? When must it stay static? Readers need a toolkit for understanding what can be lent to the present and what is best left to the past.

The place of private judgment in retrieval is also a matter that has to be negotiated as well. Martin Luther’s value of private judgment upon Scripture posed a significant threat to the stability of the church according to Cardinal Newman. The plethora of traditions today illustrates the outcome of this value. Who is to say this is also not the case for retrievers who exercise private judgment on the doctrinal tradition? Protestant retrievers are not constrained by the authority and heritage of the Roman Catholic tradition. Thus, Protestant historians and theologians can craft their own tailor-made traditions. After all, every retriever exercises selectivity and private judgment on what ought to be retrieved and the fallout of this, whether incidental or intentional, could be significant. As Timothy George has put it so well, no one should be ransacking (or cherry-picking) the past to meet present programs. Unfortunately, Ortlund’s project does not anticipate these common barriers and objections to retrieval.

Nonetheless, Ortlund’s risky alternative to tradition hopping is accompanied with much reward. For those serious about retrieval work, Ortlund connects the dots with his case studies so others might mimic the practice. A forthcoming how-to retrieval resource might be a fitting project for pastor-theologians and scholars to develop in collaboration.

Joseph T. Cochran

Joseph T. Cochran
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Deerfield, Illinois, USA

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