Theology in the Medieval Era: William M. Marsh on Scripture and Tradition

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

William M. Marsh serves as assistant professor of theology and as Director of the MDiv programs at Cedarville University.

Introduction

Even if the later medieval period gave occasion for the Reformers to recapture what has come to be regarded as Protestantism’s Scripture principle (i.e., sola Scriptura), the 1,000-year span that constitutes the Middle Ages should not be superficially reduced to a monolithic position on the relationship between biblical and ecclesiastical authority. The medieval period’s significant contribution to fields such as the history of the Bible, the doctrine of Scripture, biblical interpretation, and the role of tradition within the church witnesses to its lasting value and contemporary relevance while also offering a cautionary tale not to be quickly forgotten. This chapter will draw attention to the major developments representative of the three divisions of the medieval period (early, high, and late Middle Ages) pertinent to the church’s understanding of Scripture and tradition.

Historical Overview

1. Early Middle Ages (500-1000)

2. High Middle Ages (1000-1300)

3. Late Middle Ages (1300-1500)

Case Studies

1. The Literal Sense of Scripture, Authorial Intention, and Authority

2. The Literal Sense and Papal Infallibility

For the Church

It is the authors’ hope that this introduction to Scripture and tradition in the Middle Ages will persuade you that the medieval period should not remain darkened in our evangelical mind. This survey has only scratched the surface of the rich soil during this 1,000-year stretch of Christian history, ready to be plowed and resourced for the church’s ongoing faithful devotion to the Holy Scriptures.

In the meantime, evangelicals would do well to continue thinking carefully about how central commitments to scriptural sufficiency and authority properly relate to theological method, especially as it pertains to how one might answer the enduring question of what makes any given doctrine or position “biblical.”

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021

Theology in the Medieval Era: W. Madison Grace II on Salvation

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

W. Madison Grace II serves as associate professor of Baptist heritage and as Director of the Oxford Study Program.

Introduction

As a Protestant I am used to engaging works on the Reformation and the modern period, and I have been encouraged by the recent renaissance of patristic historical theology. All of these periods provide a great deal of insight and thought into theology and, especially, salvation. Nevertheless, for many Protestants, the medieval period is often untouched or dealt with only as a foil against what should not be. The medieval era becomes either a place of darkness (e.g., the Dark Ages) or it becomes the locus of evil that has infiltrated the church that Martin Luther and company rightly rectified. This is not only a deficient approach to medieval historical theology but also one that is quite wrong.

In what follows, we investigate the period and especially look at the development and contributions to the doctrine of salvation. We will look solely at the European medieval tradition and will not take up the developments elsewhere, such as Byzantine Christianity. Particularly, we will present a brief engagement, with a variety of soteriological thoughts in the era ranging from predestination to the Christian life with a special emphasis on the doctrine of the atonement.

Historical Overview

This brief overview of the concepts of salvation in the medieval era is only an introduction to the variety of thoughts that existed on the doctrine of salvation. Whereas the patristic era was concerned with the nature of Christ, the theologians in the medieval era asked how God through the God-man brought about salvation to his people. Central to many medieval minds was the providence of God over creation and his work in determining for whom and how salvation would be enacted. The concepts of grace and merit were greatly important as well, especially when seen through the doctrine of purgatory as well as later developments of the means through which grace and forgiveness can be given to believers, initially through the sacraments as well as in special times and ways, such as in the Crusades and indulgences. The most enduring aspect of the doctrine of salvation is the development of the atonement and willingness to critique traditional understandings of what was actually accomplished in Christ’s passion. These beliefs in salvation set the stage for the debate over justification that would ensue in the Reformation era.

Case Studies

1. Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory

2. Peter Abelard’s Moral Influence Theory

3. Thomas Aquinas and Salvation

For the Church

Finally, we should see the medieval period not as a time of divergence from the truth but as an important period of theological development. Admittedly, we as Protestants will find teachings in this era with which we greatly disagree, but we do not let that keep us from engaging this period, for if we did we would be missing out on the works of theological grace given. In short, we as evangelicals need to have a retrieval of medieval theology for the betterment and progress of our own.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021

Theology in the Medieval Era: Zachary M. Bowden on the Church

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

Zachary M .Bowden serves as assistant professor of theological studies and as Executive Assistant to the President at Cedarville University.

Introduction

The church was a pervasive presence in the world of the Middle Ages, expansive in its reach. Today when we think of the doctrine of the church, we tend to focus on her people and practices: preaching, the sacraments, as well as her officers and members. To be sure, the church of the Middle Ages saw robust development in each of those areas. Nevertheless, it never saw itself as restricted to the walls of a given cathedral, nor even one’s respective city. The church itself was apolitical and culture-shaping enterprise. Failing to see how entangled the church was throughout society is a failure to understand the church during the Middle Ages.

Historical Overview

1. Early Middle Ages (500-1000)

Going into the Middle Ages, the church knew who she was. “One holy, catholic, apostolic church” had been the creedal mantra of Christians as they prepared for the baptismal waters for some time. Enduring persecution at the hands of Nero, Decius, and Diocletian, the church grew. Under Constantine, her fortunes changed dramatically. Now with imperial support, the church was lavished with beautiful buildings. Her bishops were elevated to positions of civic authority. And the emperor himself had a vested interest in ecclesiastical affairs. After Constantine, the church and the empire would be wed. One could not think of one without the other.

2. High Middle Ages (1000-1300)

Turning to the eleventh century, one turns to a time of reckoning. In prior centuries, the church experienced no shortage of struggle. Out of that struggle, the church made concessions to surrounding conquerors to ensure they had military protection from impending foes. To some degree, the concessions were a type of quid pro quo. Military aid would be provided in exchange for papal legitimization for the emperor’s rule. Although this arrangement ensured the church’s survival, it also resulted in unintended consequences, not least of which was the blurring of the lines between the authority of emperors, kings, and the pope.

3. Late Middle Ages (1300-1500)

If the high Middle Ages were a period of reform and theological development, so were the next 200 years. Yet reform is in the eye of the reformer. The prior age was one of freeing the church from the “captivity” of lay leaders and reinvesting power in the church, supremely in the pope. Nevertheless, what was freedom from the pope was bondage to others, at least when the pope was not living in a manner consistent with his high calling.

Case Studies

1. A Tale of Two Gregorys

2. Transubstantiation

For the Church

The great medievalist C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) once warned against “chronological snobbery,” or the tendency to look down on the past in favor of the apparent progress of the present. Along with that warning, when thinking about the Middle Ages, especially as a Protestant, one must also beware the danger of ecclesiastical tribalism. Imagining the history of the church as a school playground, it is all too easy to approach it like picking a team for a game of pickup basketball. Surveying the players available, Luther, of course, is picked first. Calvin, possibly second. But Gregory, Lombard, or Aquinas? They are left to the last few, anxiously looking around, hoping they are not picked last. After all, who wants a papist on their team?

Altogether then, it is imperative to approach the church of the Middle Ages not as a blight on the church’s story. Rather, simply, it is our story. Are there significant, serious points of disagreement? Absolutely. But that by no means discounts the reality that men and women of this time between the times are as much a part of the church’s story as the Reformation is. In fact, as the next portion of this book will show, the Reformation cannot be understood apart from the Middle Ages. Nor, for that matter, can the church or the world today.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021

Theology in the Patristic Era: Coleman M. Ford on Salvation

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

Coleman M. Ford serves as assistant professor of Christian Formation and as Director of Professional Doctoral Studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Introduction

In the early centuries of the church, the unique message of Jesus’s person and work continued to spread through the known world around the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Asia. Whether in persecution or in triumph, the Christian declaration “Jesus is Lord” reached the ears of both the common and the elite. Throughout the period, early Christian writers dedicated much time and energy to explicating the good news through treatises, letters, sermons, and songs. Indeed, many early Christian thinkers were pastors who preached and taught with the purpose of encouraging the faithful and helping them understand and live in light of the salvation that Jesus Christ had accomplished.

The doctrine of salvation in the early church was forged in the fires of controversy and molded on the anvil of Scripture. Christians from the beginning declared the message of salvation found in Christ alone, yet errant views forced early theologians to clarify the unique nature and role of Jesus Christ in salvation. In fact, the driving force of Christian responses to heretical teaching was maintaining the biblical message of salvation found in Christ alone. To misunderstand the person and work of Christ was to miss the richness of salvation promised in him. Error had eternal consequences. This chapter will focus on developments related to the doctrine of salvation, specifically the understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ in the first centuries of the church.

Historical Overview

For early Christian thinkers, controversy arose out of conviction. The Christological battles of the early centuries demonstrated that the church was serious about maintaining the biblical account of Jesus’s person and work. Truly no salvation is possible if Jesus is not both God and man. Such false renderings also disrupted the triune nature of God and the harmonious activity of redemption within the Godhead. Church fathers recognized these errors and reasoned from Scripture, affirmed doctrine through conciliar gatherings, and faithfully preached orthodox theology to “contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all” (Jude 3). Another important facet of soteriology in early Christianity was the place of the atonement and the remarkable work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

The atonement should not be minimized, yet it is a part of the larger fabric of salvation represented in patristic thinking. There was no singular way of understanding what took place on the cross. According to patristic thinkers, the atonement of Christ on the cross rendered a myriad of cosmological effects as part of the history of redemption.

The ways salvation was understood by early thinkers was deeply spiritual and experiential. The early church focused on baptism and the Eucharist(the Lord’s Supper) as the means of entrance to the faith and spiritual growth. Baptism identified one with the salvation of Christ, while the Eucharist was part of the ongoing participation and remembrance of the work of Christ for our salvation. Although debates remain as to how and to what degree early Christians perceived the presence of Christ within the Eucharist, nevertheless a sacramental spirituality can be discerned in much of early Christian thinking.

Case Studies

1. Irenaeus and Gnosticism

2. Athanasius and Arianism

3. Augustine and Pelagianism

4. Cyril and Nestorianism

For the Church

The centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation. The person and work of Jesus Christ is the key to unlocking the treasures of salvation. The early church defended the doctrine of Christ so vigorously because the gospel and salvation itself was at stake. Only a Savior who is truly God and truly man can secure man’s salvation. From the earliest post–New Testament writers, the centrality of Jesus as both God and man was nonnegotiable.

The necessity for clear doctrinal formulation. This chapter has included numerous thinkers and their doctrinal positions, as well as discussions on councils that met to solidify orthodox doctrine. The pursuit of clear doctrinal formulation is necessary not only to combat error but to bolster our faith. Ambiguity disrupts faith; clarity fortifies it.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021

Theology in the Patristic Era: Stephen O. Presley on Scripture and Tradition

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

Stephen O. Presley serves as associate professor of Church History and Director of Research Doctoral Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Introduction

One of the most fundamental question in the history of Christian thought concerns the proper interpretation and ordering of authoritative sources. In various areas of life, we all follow authorities that help guide and shape the patterns of our daily routines: children obey their parents, employees fulfill the requests of their employers, and students follow the directions of their teachers. In a similar way, theological reflection is dependent on various sources that guide and shape the church’s faith, and from the earliest days, theologians have naturally appealed to two main sources: Scripture and tradition. Unlike later periods of Christian history, these two sources in the early church were intertwined and converged like two streams flowing together through the river of theological discourse.

Historical Overview

In the years following the apostles, the church continued to thrive despite living as a marginalized community and suffering through many internal and external pressures. The prevailing philosophical and theological assumptions of Greco-Roman culture competed with Christianity. What the early church demanded above all was an entire revision of the first principles that challenged the foundations of classical culture. Amid their Greco-Roman world, the early church claimed to possess a new identity in Christ superior to any religious ideology or spirituality the culture had to offer. It was on this basis that they worshipped and served, worked and played, lived and died.

The church also relied on pastors to ensure the proper dedication, preservation, and interpretation of the inspired books of Scripture. These clergy were responsible for providing regular instruction on the church’s teachings, as well as evangelizing and catechizing new converts to the faith. The decisions about preaching and worship, as well as discipleship or catechetical curriculum, necessitated that pastors play an active role in transmission of Scripture and development of doctrine. Early catechetical manuals, such as the Didache, Irenaeus’s On Apostolic Preaching, and Augustine’s On Catechizing the Uninstructed, show that new converts to the faith were thoroughly immersed in the Scriptures. Together these texts and figures show how Scripture and tradition work in harmony to prepare the church to face the challenges of every new generation.

Case Studies

1. The Muratorian Fragment

2. Athanasius Letter 39 (c.367)

3. Irenaeus on the Rule of Faith

4. Hippolytus, On the Apostolic Tradition

For the Church

From the earliest days of the church, Scripture and tradition are the two sources that inform Christian faith and practice. Although the rest of the tradition would continue to debate the relationship of these sources, they were closely intertwined in the early church. It seems clear that Scripture holds the primary place of authority, but the Fathers would not think that tradition is entirely separate and distinct. As the church gathered the inspired Scriptures, they also studied them regularly and continued to clarify the basic apostolic teaching expressed in them.

The early church assumed the inspiration of Scripture.

The proper ordering of Scripture and tradition. Given that Scripture is inspired, the early church also assumed a close relationship between Scripture and tradition.

The church should not neglect tradition. Although all Christian faith and practice is rooted in the Scriptures, the church must recognize the abiding value of the history of creeds and confessions.

The discussion of Scripture and tradition in the early church situations a conversation that will continue throughout the church history. Though there will be times that tradition attempts to subvert Scripture, in the early church the sources were much more intertwined. The Scriptures are given for the life and ministry of the church, and the faithful will dedicate themselves to the study of the church, and the faithful will dedicate themselves to the study of those inspired texts within the context of the apostolic tradition.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021

Theology in the Patristic Era: R. Lucas Stamps on The Trinity

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

R. Lucas Stamps serves as associate professor of Christian studies at Anderson University.

Introduction

Is the doctrine of the Trinity biblical? There is a sense in which this is the central question of Christian identity and of the emerging theological culture that shaped the church over the first several centuries of Christian history. This question raises the further problem of what it even means for a doctrine to be biblical. In other words, it is a question of exegesis and theological method – issues that were hotly disputed throughout the patristic era. Through many fits and starts, and many complicated layers of controversy and development, the church eventually found its way to affirming what has become the standard, orthodox definition of the doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Historical Overview (172)

1. Pre-Nicene Developments

In the century after the New Testament, the basic building blocks of the doctrine of the Trinity were already being laid in the works of key thinkers in the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking West. In the Greek-speaking East, the works of figures such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus were especially important in laying this groundwork, though it must be noted that none of the second- and third-century authors were saying precisely the same thing as the fourth century Nicene doctrine. The theologian must avoid anachronism and the notion that orthodoxy was a settled and unchanging norm.

2. The Council of Nicaea

It is commonplace to view the Council of Nicaea (325) as the watershed moment in the doctrine of the Trinity, to view Arius (d. 336) as the sole figure around whom heretical opinions of the Trinity coalesced, and to view the main theological debate under consideration of the deity of the Son of God. But each of these assumptions ignores certain complexities that attend what would only later become known as the First Ecumenical Council. The council, convened by the recently converted emperor Constantine, most certainly concerned the controversy sparked in Alexandria by the Egyptian presbyter Arius, who understood the Son of God as the first and greatest of God the Father’s creations. Arius had taught that “there was once when he was not” – there was a time when the Son of God did not exist. The Father alone is the true God, with the Sona s his highest creation, through whom he created everything else that exists. But in the Arian scheme, there is still a place to consider the Son in some sense “God.” But several theological trajectories of the late third and early fourth centuries, including the one represented by Arius, were willing to admit certain gradations within the divine life.

3. Pro-Nicene Theology

Throughout the middle of the fourth century, several alternatives to Nicaea’s homoousios were entertained by various theological trajectories. The so-called Homoians, especially Acacius of Caesarea (d. 366) and Eudoxius of Antioch (d. 370), suggested that the Son was merely ‘like’ the Father. The Heteroousians Eunomius (335-393) and Aetius (d. 367) doubled down on the ‘Arian’ position and suggested that the Son is of a ‘different’ nature than the Father. Homoiousians like Basil of Ancyra (d. 362) were willing to concede that the Son’s relationship to the Father was ‘like according to essence,’ but stopped short of Nicaea’s homoousios. The confusion and contestation continued until a more coherent “pro-Nicene” consensus emerged and was eventually canonized at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

4. Trinitarian Consolidation: The Contribution of Augustine

“Unlike Nicaea, which settled only a few debates and sparked several more, Constantinople should be considered the true turning point in the development of trinitarian doctrine from the first four centuries. Orthodox reflection on the Trinity thereafter operated within the parameters of the Constantinopolitan settlement. Although many important theologians of the late-fourth and fifth centuries are worthy of consideration, including Ambrose (c. 340-397), Jerome (c. 347-420), and Cyril of Alexandria (378-444), no other theologian exerted the kind of influence that Augustine of Hippo (354-430) did on the church’s trinitarian thought. His monumental De Trinitate is perhaps most well-known for the psychological analogies he employs as a way of understanding how three divine persons can be one God. But the work as a whole is much more concerned with the kind of biblical exegesis that undergirds the doctrine of the Trinity.

Case Studies (-)

1. Prosopological Exegesis

2. Partitive Exegesis

For the Church

The Trinity is for Christian biblical interpretation. Scriptural exegesis led the early church fathers to faith in the Trinity. Theologians such as Origen and Augustine were first and foremost biblical exegetes. Before and underneath their theological speculations stood a serious engagement with the biblical text.

The Trinity is for the Christian life. As Irenaeus reminds us, the Trinity is not some abstract datum of theological speculation, reserved only for advanced Christians, but constitutes the very beginning of Christian experience.

The Trinity is for Christian preaching. It might seem unfathomable to modern Christians, but the theologically dense orations of Gregory of Nazianzus were not academic tomes written for experts but sermons addressed to the faithful….contemporary Christian ministers should not be timid in proclaiming the doctrine of the Trinity in our preaching, teaching, and catechesis.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021

Theology in the Patristic Era: Steven A. McKinion on Jesus Christ

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

Steven A. McKinion serves as professor of theology and patristic studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Introduction

The question looming over Christianity from its inception was “Who is Jesus Christ?” When Jesus posed the question to his disciples, Peter answered correctly: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16 KJV). This confession identifying Jesus of Nazareth with the Old Testament Son of God was fundamental to Christian identity. Christians in antiquity understood this profession to be the essence of saving faith but nonetheless had to make sense of it. What did it mean for Jesus to be the “Son” of God? Christians in antiquity needed language that made sense of their liturgy, their proclamation of the gospel, and their ecclesial practices. The search for that language, and the formulations Christians agreed to, is Christology.

Historical Overview

Emerging from the second century, the question of the worship of Jesus was settled. It was also settled that Jesus was the same one who created the universe and became incarnate for the salvation of humanity. Fundamental language, even if not fully developed, already existed for Christians to proclaim Jesus as both God and a human being without diminishing or destroying either type of being.

The fourth century was the period of firm commitment to the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus Christ. It was also a strong affirmation of the true divinity and true humanity of Jesus. Going forward, any Christology that diminished either of those constituent elements would be out of bounds.

What the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) had been for the doctrine of the Trinity, the fifth-century Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) were for the doctrine of Christ. Christians refined the language that helped them articulate how Jesus could be fully divine and fully human. Theologians spoke of one person and two natures.

Case Studies

  1. Gnostics and Gnosticism
  2. The Schools of Alexandria and Antioch
  3. Cyril of Alexandria
  4. The Council of Chalcedon

For the Church

Contemporary challenges to Christianity are many. Those modern challenges, like those in antiquity, often concern inaccurate answers to the question “Who is Jesus Christ?” When modern heresies seek to diminish the deity of Christ, Christians must preach a gospel of God’s true incarnation. God does not send a messenger to do his work; he becomes human himself to save his people. When modern heresies deny the humanity of Christ, making him something of a superman, Christians must recognize the humiliation of the incarnation, in which God lived a genuine human life. Jesus is of the same nature as all other human beings, but he is without sin. It is essential that Jesus be fully God and fully human, with both natures belonging to the one person of the eternal Son of God, for him to save. This is the one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whom we preach.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021

Historical Theology for the Church?

This week I am in Denver, Colorado for the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society where I presented a paper reviewing the past and present of historical theology while considering what it would mean to do historical theology for the church. What follows is an excerpt from the first half of that paper. The entire paper will function as an introduction to a new volume, Historical Theology for the Church, from B&H Academic, of which I am serving as co-editor with Nathan A. Finn and Thomas White.

The Lord’s Remembrancer

When David Levin set out to describe the early years of the life of Cotton Mather (1663-1703), he dubbed him “the Lord’s Remembrancer.”[1] This title is, no doubt, taken from the oldest functioning judicial position in England, the King’s Remembrancer. Established in the twelfth century, this clerk serves the monarchy by reminding of previous business recorded. Yet, bestowing Mather with this honorific comes with some controversy given his role in the Salem witch trials. That chapter in Mather’s life often overshadows his prodigious work as historian, biographer, and biblical commentator.

Mather’s magnum opus, the Magnalia Christi Americana, is an example of his careful work and is the primary reason why Levin gives Mather the title of the Lord’s Remembrancer. Written to provide an ecclesiastical history of New England, Levin praises Mather for his faithful historical work stating that his “strength as a historian grows out of the range and number of his examples, and the persistence of his theme – the piety, the faith, the struggle, the perplexity, and the resignation in dozens of actual lives.”[2]

Such is a fitting description of the task of the historical theologian—a servant of the church who reminds present and future readers of previous actions and theological developments from earlier eras in the history of Christianity. As the Lord’s Remembrancers, faithful historical theologians have the opportunity of serving the church present and future, but what does that entail? How is this work done? This paper will present a retrospective survey of the history of historical theologies with a view toward articulating the prospects of the pursuit of the task of crafting historical theology for the church.

What is Historical Theology?

Before examining the past or considering the future, one needs first to ask whether it is possible even to arrive at an evaluation of theology in history? C. S. Lewis, as one answering this question, remarked that most history cannot be known, and asserted that “A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded.”[3] Lewis was not saying nothing from history can be known for he recognized that “important parts of the past survive.”[4] Therefore, what is recorded is worth knowing and analyzing, and from that one can discern truths about the past to the degree that comparisons to other eras can be made, and one can track the way the authors understood various doctrines in their own time and context.

If studying the past has value, and truth from the past can be ascertained to formulate a field of study called history, what then is historical theology? The next section will examine the history of historical theology, how long historians have been studying the development of theology in history, and who are the primary figures, but for now this section aims to arrive at a common definition. Essentially, historical theology is a process of historical inquiry that serves and supports other distinct but compatible disciplines.  On the way to arriving at a definition of historical theology, a helpful approach is to set historical theology in relief against these other disciplines.

First, historical theology complements systematic and biblical theology by providing a historical context for classical doctrines whether they find their organization by a collection of biblical references across the Bible (systematic) or through each book and from the cannon as a facet of the story of the Bible (biblical).

Second, historical theology complements church history by providing a repository for the historical development of doctrines alongside the development of the people, places, events, and social factors that comprise the story of the history of Christianity. Church history reviews the history of the theologians while historical theology investigates the theologians’ ideas.

Alister McGrath notes that this teaching function of historical theology as a pedagogical tool is unique to the field.[5] The study of historical theology allows Christians and churches to make sense of what they have inherited as well as to receive instruction from those who have lived in other times and who persevered through other trials. McGrath explains, “It is virtually impossible to do theology as if it had never been done before. There is always an element of looking over one’s shoulder, to see how things were done in the past, and what answers were then given. Part of the notion of ‘tradition’ is a willingness to take seriously the theological heritage of the past.”[6]

To illustrate this function, consider what happens when a person walks up to observe two other people playing the game of Chess. The two opponents started the game some time previous and thus the onlooker is forced to survey the Chess board, make an assessment of what has happened, who is winning, whose turn is next, and who has the advantage. The onlooker observes a game in progress and, depending upon her knowledge of the game, is forced to put the pieces together in order to appreciate what is happening. The more one knows the game, the more one can adapt to this quickly, but anyone would prefer to have observed the game from the beginning to appreciate the match in full.

Second to that, the onlooker would find help if the opponents paused their game to explain to her how many moves had occurred, what mistakes had been made, and what each player was thinking at the time. A third level of intrigue and complexity could occur should one of the players leave his game and ask the onlooker to take over and play for him. At this point, for the onlooker to have a chance, she would have to have knowledge, experience, and a sense of not only what she has inherited, but also what she should do next.

Such it is with the study of historical theology. Christians of the present and future, once they start their journey in the Christian life, either as individuals or in local churches, are put in the position of the onlooker. Christians before them are playing or have played many Chess games with the Christian tradition, each developing their skills with the doctrines of the Bible as well as contributing new understanding to how the Christian life is lived in each era and under unique circumstances. The onlooker is helped if she has the opportunity not only to study and learn in community the rules of the game, that comes through the study of the Bible, but also to learn from and observe other Christians, nearby and in previous ages, how they have done the same.

Further, often in local churches or in families, the onlooker is asked to take over a game when they are brought into a church tradition, or move to a new community, or join a new Christian family. The discipleship that comes through the study of historical theology can aid the onlooker in understanding her new surroundings, what has taken place before, and how to know what should take place next. Historical theology is the pedagogical tool to aid Christians with these situations they will encounter.

In terms of formal definitions of historical theology as a discipline, this paper presents three of the most common to show a mutual understanding before concluding with an original definition.

Timothy George (1986) defined historical theology as “the study of what the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the Word of God.” [7]

Alister McGrath (1998) defined historical theology as “the branch of theological inquiry which aims to explore the historical development of Christian doctrines, and identify the factors which were influential in their formulation.”[8]

Gregg Allison (2011) defined historical theology as “the study of the interpretation of Scripture and the formulation of doctrine by the church of the past.”[9]

This section concludes with the following working definition: historical theology is the study of the development of Christian doctrine and tradition from the Bible, by the church, and for the church.

[1] David Levin, Cotton Mather: The Young Life of the Lord’s Remembrancer, 1663-1703 (Harvard, 1978).

[2] Ibid., 262.

[3] C. S. Lewis, “Historicism,” in Christian Reflections ([Eerdmans, 1967] Harper Collins, 2014), 132.

[4] Ibid., 134.

[5] Alister McGrath, Historical Theology (Wiley-Blackwell, [1998] 2012), 12.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Timothy George, “Dogma Beyond Anathema: Historical Theology in the Service of the Church,” in Review & Expositor 4 (Fall 1987), 703.

[8] Alister McGrath, Historical Theology, 9.

[9] Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology (Zondervan, 2011), 23.