History, according to one cynic, is nothing but the succession of one d___ thing after another. Unfortunately, most Christians would agree, although one hopes they wouldn't use precisely the same terminology! The fact is, people wonder why the history of Christian theology is worthy of our time and energy. Facts, dates, and dead people do not inspire much excitement, and many doubt the practical value of spending time on something that cannot be changed. Alister McGrath has pointed out that "history is often the refuge of people who cannot cope with the present and find consolation in turning over the pages of the past in a wistful manner." They are more comfortable discussing Augustine's doctrine of God than their own. "Those who find theological self-disclosure embarrassing," notes McGrath, "or who have no concern with the issue of truth, can thus retreat into the relative safety of reporting what others have said. A concern for history thus ultimately degenerates into a contempt for truth. But it need; indeed, it should not" ("Engaging the Great Tradition," in Evangelical Futures [Baker, 2000], 146-47).
So why should we study the history of what the church has believed? What value does it have for us today? The question deserves an answer. I want to identify eight reasons for the importance of our study. But first, what exactly is Historical Theology?
What is Historical Theology?
Often students will tend to differentiate between what has been called institutional church history, on the one hand, and historical theology or history of doctrine, on the other. But as Bradley and Muller point out, "institutional church history and the history of doctrine now demand a more holistic approach that takes full cognizance of the subtle social, political, and philosophical influences on theology" (Church History, 3). Perhaps some basic definitions will help.
Church History is being used here in a somewhat comprehensive way to include the wh