Guard against These 4 Dangers When Doing Historical Theology

Beware of Distortion and Artificiality

Theological retrieval can be very beneficial, but it can also go wrong. In the first place, we must be wary of the danger of distortion, in which we move too quickly to the present issue without sufficiently “doing our homework,” such that the historical resource being retrieved is somewhat caricatured or misconstrued. To the extent that our retrieval of the past is motivated to confirm a present opinion or advance a polemical purpose, we may be especially in the way of this danger. Theological retrieval is not a piecemeal ransacking and deploying of whatever quotes or concepts from church history we happen to find useful. Rather, at its best it will involve a deep respect for the original context and concerns of the resources being retrieved, a sensitivity to how easily they can be warped by too quick an application, and a judicious employment of all the rigors of historical scholarship in engaging them.

Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals

Gavin Ortlund

This book aims to set forth a vision for theological retrieval, demonstrating through specific doctrines how engaging historical theology can enrich and strengthen the church today—without abandoning a Protestant identity.

A second danger is artificiality, in which past resources are pressed into the service of present needs in a way that is forced or inauthentic. If systematic theologians are more likely to fall into the previous error, this one may be especially tempting to historians. Thoughtful retrieval should show restraint, even a kind of modesty, in working from the historical source to the constructive usage. There is, of course, no obvious set of guidelines for how the past best touches the present. But (as I have mentioned elsewhere) if we start getting books on how Basil of Caesarea’s sacramentology can solve all of Greece’s financial problems, or how Kierkegaard’s notion of the self redefines our ecological situation, or how Zacharias Ursinus’s doctrine of predestination is the answer to urban overcrowding, then we may be justified to suspect that the procedure has outpaced the purpose.1

This danger is all the more lively because retrieval seems to be becoming, in some circles, something of a fad in theology. We must always check and reorient our motives toward substance and truth, away from style and trend. Douglas Sweeney is right to lament, “It is sad that evangelicals often look to the tradition only because its smells and bells render our services more chic and intensify our spiritual subjectivism.”2

Theological retrieval is not a piecemeal ransacking and deploying of whatever quotes or concepts from church history we happen to find useful.

Guard against Repristination and Minimalism

A third danger is repristination, in which retrieval becomes merely an exercise in restating the past, under the impression that classical sources represent some kind of grand, immovable, final verdict on all matters they address. Among other problems, this kind of retrieval tends to leapfrog over the problems associated with modernity, as though premodernity offered us a way out of these challenges simply by preexisting them. In relation to this concern, Buschart and Eilers wisely warn against the dangers of retrieval resulting in mere retrenchment.3 As they note, such postures of retrieval “fail to appreciate the holy strangeness of the past and thereby the opportunity to be constructively decentered by it.”4 If in our efforts at retrieval we never or rarely find ourselves in disagreement with the resources we engage, we must be especially on the alert as to whether we have fallen into this danger.

A final danger is minimalism, in which all the difficult or cacophonous elements of the past resources are flattened out in the search for a common denominator of unity. This danger is particularly lively when we approach the past with an ecumenical concern (itself, of course, a laudable goal). We must remember that cause of genuine unity is better served by respectfully engaging our differences within the body of Christ than by ignoring or suppressing them. In this regard, theological retrieval would do well to bear in mind the powerful observation of Father Richard John Neuhaus, itself made in the context of ecumenical effort, that “our unity in the truth is more evident in our quarreling about the truth than in our settling for something less than the truth.”5

These dangers must be taken to heart. However, none of them, so far as I can see, are intrinsic to retrieval. They urge caution in the task but not its avoidance.

1. I have articulated this concern previously in connection to my review of Buschart and Eilers, Theology as Retrieval, at The Gospel Coalition, July 21, 2015, /reviews/theology-as-retrieval-receiving-the-past-renewing-the-church.
2. Douglas A. Sweeney, “Mercursburg Theology as a Double-Edged Sword: A Response to Darryl G. Hart,” in Evangelicals and the Early Church: Recovery, Reform, Renewal, ed. George Kalantzis and Andrew Tooley (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012), 107.
3. David Buschart and Kent Eilers, Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 272.
4. Buschart and Eilers, Theology as Retrieval, 270.
5. Quoted in James S. Cutsinger, “Introduction,” in Reclaiming the Great Tradition: Evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox in Dialogue, ed. James S. Cutsinger (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 8.

This article is adapted from Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future by Gavin Ortlund.

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