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What is Historical Theology?

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 whole of life and thought in the church from its inception on the day of Pentecost. This will include institutional developments, the church's interaction with the state and society at large, numerical growth and expansion, missionary endeavors, as well as the development of both its doctrines and practices (worship, ethics, architecture, etc.).

Christian Thought is a somewhat more narrow concept within the discipline of church history that focuses on topics beyond those normally associated with mere theology or doctrine. For example, philosophical issues that impinge on the life of the church would be included here. Other topics such as spirituality, piety, and the relationship of the church to the rise of modern science are included here. Bradley and Muller use the designation "Christian Thought" for "the larger context of intellectual history in which the history of dogma and the history of doctrine must be understood" (9). On their view, "the history of Christian thought would also include thinkers who were only marginally related to the church, and subsequently may have actually been disenfranchised by the church, such as Faustus Socinus" (3).

History of Christian Doctrine is something of a subset of Christian Thought insofar as it focuses more narrowly on the history of particular issues that we typically associate with theology. Any and all of those biblical concepts that we call "doctrines" are covered here.

History of Dogma "is the history of those particular doctrinal themes that have received normative definition from the church" (ibid., 7). Some would limit this to the dogmas of the Trinity (addressed at the Councils of Nicea [325] and Constantinople [381]) and Christology (addressed at Chalcedon [451]), whereas other would expand it to include the doctrine of sin and grace (although this latter concept never achieved the formal status and widespread agreement seen in the previous two).

It is possible to view these in terms of four concentric circles, moving from the broader and somewhat all-inclusive discipline of Church History to the most narrowly defined History of Dogma. For our purposes in this course, we will focus primarily on the two inner disciplines and refer to them aggregately as Historical Theology. However, it is impossible to do justice to the various Christian dogmas/doctrines apart from an understanding of where they fit and how they emerged and in what ways they relate to the broader scope of Christian Thought in general and their context within the overall flow of Church History.

As for the method of our study, several options are available.

· Some approach historical theology in a diachronic fashion. That is to say, they isolate a particular biblical truth or doctrine and trace its development down through history in a strictly chronological way. This approach is not overly concerned with the broader historical and intellectual context of a doctrine's "life". For example, one might take the doctrine of Christology and begin with its history in the early fathers of the church, through the councils of the 4th and 5th centuries, taking note of the contributions and insights of Anselm, then Luther, then post-reformation thinkers, and so on up through the present day. This same process is then repeated for each other doctrine of interest.

· Others prefer to focus on selected individuals in the course of church history and their unique contribution to any particular doctrine. For example, if one were to study historical theology in this fashion he/she might begin with one or several of the early church apologists, then move on to Athanasius, jump to Augustine, then to Anselm, to Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Schleiermacher, on to Barth, and so on. As helpful and interesting as this may be, the so-called "great thinker" model "loses track of the interrelationships of ideas and, indeed, of the host of ‘lesser' minds whose work may have been far more important to their contemporaries than the ‘great thinkers' identified by later generations" (Bradley and Muller, 31).

· Our approach will certainly take advantage of the strengths of the preceding two. But we will take a more synchronic approach in which the student examines a theological issue within the broader context of the history in which it appears. For example, we will devote considerable time to Christology within the patristic age, looking at the church's progressive understanding and formulation of that doctrine in light of the concurrent social, political, and philosophical issues. We would then examine the church's struggle with the concepts of sin and grace in the same period of history, perhaps even taking note of how Christology and Soteriology interrelate in the life of the church at that time.

Why does it Warrant our Study?

1. We read in Acts 1:1 that the Gospel of Luke was an account of "all that Jesus began to do and to teach." The book of Acts is the account of what Jesus continued to do and teach through his church. Although Acts concludes on a triumphant note (28:31), Jesus has not ceased to act. The history of the church and the development of its understanding of doctrine is nothing less than the final chapter of the book of Acts. Jesus is no less alive today, working through and on behalf of his people, than he was in the days of Peter and Paul. Although we do not have an inspired record of this activity, we can and should learn much from the ongoing manifestation of Jesus in his body, the church.

2. The importance of historical theology is also due to the fact that it is, in a manner of speaking, a study of the interpretation of Holy Scripture. Abraham Kuyper, in speaking of Scripture, makes this point:

"It [Scripture] works also as a living seed that is sown, and which, according to the nature of the soil, germinates and brings forth fruit. Hence the task of the theologian is by no means ended when he has formulated, assimilated and reproduced the content of the Word in its state of rest; it is his duty, also, to trace the working of this principium, when the fountain is flowing. After it was finished, the Holy Scripture was not hidden in some sacred grotto, to wait for the theologian to read and to make scientific exhibition of its content; no, it was carried into the world, by reading and recitation, by teaching and by preaching, in apologetic and in polemic writings. And once brought into the world, it has exerted an influence upon the consciousness-form of the circle which it entered. Both its authority, and the consequent activity which it created, are no mean factors in the rise of an ecclesiastical confession and in the institution of an ecclesiastical communion. The Holy Scripture and the Church, therefore, are no foreign phenomena to each other, but the former should be looked upon as the mother of the latter" (Principles of Sacred Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968], pp. 571-72).

Thus when we speak of the development of doctrine we have in mind the interpretation and re-interpretation of Scripture by individuals. The truths of the Word never change. They do, however, undergo formulation, attack, re-formulation, and so on through time. We must always distinguish between divine truth as it is in itself (the Bible), and the gradual apprehension of that truth in the course of human experience.

3. Doctrinal statements and creedal affirmations have played an essential role in the life of both individual believers and the corporate church. By them we assert what we believe and how our beliefs distinguish us from those who we regard as being in error. Yet no one ever produced a doctrinal statement or confession of faith in isolation. So much of what we bring to the Bible (be it conscious or not) has come to us from past generations. Walgrave thus concludes:

"One cannot thoroughly understand the present state and convictions of another if one is ignorant about the influences and circumstances of his individual history and the way he reacted to them. In the same way there is no serious chance that the present state of a doctrine shall be understood if one refuses to follow patiently the historical path that leads to it" (Unfolding Revelation [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972], 4).

4. Historical Theology is also the study of the manifold work of the Holy Spirit. There are two primary ways in which this is true:

· To deny the validity and value of historical theology is to deny the ongoing process of divine illumination. Canonical revelation ceased with the writing of the book of Revelation. But the Spirit continues to illumine the hearts and minds of those for whom he is Teacher. To deny the importance of studying this process is to refuse to acknowledge in the past what we so jealously claim for ourselves in the present. Who would dare suggest that the Holy Spirit ceased his teaching ministry in a.d. 95 only to have resumed it in this present age?

· Related to the above is the truth relating to spiritual gifts. As Christians we should strive to profit from all the gifts graciously bestowed on the entire body of Christ. The Holy Spirit has ministered and edified the church in the past through the charismata no less than he does in the present. The fruit of these gifts is available to us through the diligent study of the lives and literature of such great saints as Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Spurgeon, and others. We are diligent to heed the instruction and exhortation of contemporary teachers and leaders. Why, then, do we arrogantly ignore those who have taught and led with equal insight in centuries past?

5. The history of the church and its theology is the record of divine providence. The Bible loudly asserts that God is sovereign and Lord over all of history. He is actively and effectively and for his own glory directing the course of human experience such that all things will be consummated in Christ Jesus (see Eph. 1:9-12; cf. also Dan. 2:19-23; Heb. 1:3). To study historical theology is to study God at work! History is, in point of fact, the redemptive strategy of God. Consider the words of the psalmist (Ps. 77:11-13): "I shall remember the deeds of the Lord; surely I will remember Your wonders of old. I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds. Your way, O God, is holy; what god is great like our God?" In that light, John Piper writes:

"The aim of providence in the history of the world is the worship of the people of God. Ten thousand stories of grace and truth are meant to be remembered for the refinement of faith and the sustaining of hope and the guidance of love. . . . Those who nurture their hope in the history of grace will live their lives to the glory of God" (The Legacy of Sovereign Joy [Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000], 18).

6. Through the careful and diligent study of historical theology we are alerted to the destructive heresies and pernicious tactics of Satan in his never-ending effort to destroy what God is building. Satan is ever-active, sowing the seeds of false doctrine and distortion of the truth of Scripture. We must acknowledge that "there have been periods in the history of the church and its theology when seeing the hand of God maintaining it in truth is a sheer act of faith. There are other periods or chapters of the story when it takes little faith to see God at work restoring truth" (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 22). The study of historical theology will protect the student from dangerous theological paths, for no doctrine of the Word has come down to us untouched. Virtually all interpretations have been tried and tested and have emerged in the form of confessional standards. Again, Kuyper is helpful:

"These utterances of his [the student's] Church do not consist of the interpretation of one or another theologian, but of the ripest fruit of a spiritual and dogmatic strife, battled through by a whole circle of confessors in violent combat, which enlightened their spiritual sense, sharpened their judgment, and stimulated their perception of the truth" (576).

Thus, by being attentive to the theological wars that have been waged in ages past, and by being sensitive to the doctrinal and creedal formulations that emerged from these struggles, we shall be protected from those errors into which Satan would love to lead us.

7. Historical Theology is also the study of people. Three considerations are important here:

· First, the study of historical theology reveals to us both faith and failure from which we can learn much. As the exploits of those listed in Hebrews 11 provide an example of faith and the rewards of obedience, so too the lives of Christian men and women during the past 1900 years serve to set an example for us of godliness and greatness.

· But, secondly, we must also be careful in how we appropriate the insights of great individuals of the past. We should never challenge someone's evangelical credentials simply because he/she fails to agree completely with an Augustine or Luther or Edwards or Wesley. We who are evangelicals must always view historical tradition as our servant, not our master. Our consciences are ultimately bound only to Scripture.

· Finally, while historical tradition is not an infallible guide to biblical orthodoxy, it helps us meet the challenge of radical individualism. In other words, it alerts us to be cautious, even suspicious, of the novel interpretation, of the theological innovator who espouses a view or a call to action utterly disconnected from anything taught in or believed by the church in centuries preceding his/her own. We are thereby safeguarded, notes McGrath, "from the shallow individualism of theologians for whom innovation and ‘creativity' - to use a word that has often come to mean little more than a determination to abandon traditional viewpoints - are of prime importance. If an evangelical theologian confronts us with a demand to ‘believe me!' when offering us a radical new teaching, we can respond with an obvious challenge: Why has no one believed this before? Why, throughout two thousand years of faithful Christian reflection, has this doctrine never been taken seriously? Such a critical approach is liberating, as it frees us from the authoritarianism of maverick preachers and writers" (157).

8. Historical Theology is crucial because of what it shows us concerning the emergence, development, refinement, and ultimate impact of Christian belief. Why is this crucial? Because of three truths.

· First, belief matters. What people believe affects how they live. "Bad theology," said J. I. Packer, "hurts people." We simply must devote ourselves to understanding what people in the church have come to believe, why, and how it affected them then and how it affects us now.

· Second, some beliefs matter more than others. Some doctrines, such as that of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the nature of salvation are worthy of debate and precise thinking. Heresy is not always a bad word, for it identifies what is false that we might see and embrace what is true.

· But third, sometimes some beliefs matter too much. The disturbing thing about historical theology is the revelation of how Christians have done un-Christian things to each other in defense of doctrines that, in the ultimate scheme of things, don't matter all that much. Olson gives one example:

"Without in any way denigrating the Protestant Reformers and their great reforming work of the sixteenth century, I would argue that their failure to unite due largely to disagreements about interpretations of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper is a scandal and a blot on the history of Protestant theology. Of course Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and other Reformers disagreed about other things as well, but that doctrinal issue seems to have been the all-consuming point of division that prevented Protestant unity" (17).

That isn't to say that the nature of the Lord's Supper isn't important. It is only to say that it isn't as important as the unity that is often sacrificed to maintain one's distinctive view. Historical Theology alerts us to the comparative value of Christian doctrines and warns us against the excessive dogmatism on secondary issues that so often wreaks havoc in the body of Christ.

9. The study of historical theology also "demonstrates how the interpretation of the Bible was governed, often to an uncomfortable extent, by cultural and philosophical assumptions" (McGrath, 149). In taking note of this we can avoid the danger of thinking that "evangelicals can read Scripture and reflect on it in a detached, objective, and culture-free manner" (149).