A lot of times, evangelicals neglect the doctrine of God because we tend to focus on the things where we’ve had to fight battles. Sometimes the doctrine of God is just assumed and we haven’t had to fight about it—so it gets neglected. As a result of that, there are parts of the doctrine of God that we’re often unfamiliar with. Sometimes evangelicals can even reject a doctrine that was pretty standard for most Christians throughout church history without even realizing that we’re going against the grain because we’re kind of having a “me-and-my-Bible” approach to theology.
It’s one thing if there’s a doctrine that you recognize was sort of standard fare for most Christians throughout space and time, but you feel strongly that you need to go in a different direction. That may be necessary sometimes. But, it’s another thing when you go a different direction from what most Christians have believed, and you’re not even aware that you’re going in a different direction.
Wrestle with Church History
The doctrine of God—with things like that God is simple or that God is impassible—would be where evangelicals sometimes come to a conclusion where we haven’t really wrestled with the sort of historical backlog that can help us see the significance of that doctrine.
Another example is the doctrine of the atonement. My intuition is that our approach to the atonement is more polarized. We tend to have more either/or categories where many of the theologians in the early church and in the medieval church can have more both/and categories. They can help us reframe issues and see actually some of these differences are complementary.
Theological retrieval can help broaden us and can help us see the broader narrative context of what Jesus has accomplished.
One of the ways I’ve seen that is the focus that early and medieval theologians have on the entire narrative arc of Christ’s saving work—not just on the cross. As evangelicals, we tend to go right to the cross and to Jesus dying to save us, and sometimes we forget that’s not the only thing that he did to save us. There’s a broader narrative context to the saving work of Christ, The early church and the medieval church understood that in certain ways. Even if we don’t agree with every nuance of what we might encounter in history, we can be stretched by engaging that.
The virgin birth was really significant in medieval liturgy and it was a point of worship for the medieval church. We can reflect upon that. What is it about the virgin birth that is significant that would make it that for so many Christians?
Theological retrieval can help broaden us and can help us see the broader narrative context of what Jesus has accomplished. We don’t want to take away from the cross as a climactic moment in Christ’s saving work, but we want to situate it in relation to the larger picture of Christ’s birth, his life, his resurrection, his ascension to heaven, his ascended work now on our behalf, his intercession for us, and then ultimately his second coming—which in Hebrews 9:28 is spoken of as a saving event. All of that, Jesus has done to save us.
Gavin Ortlund is the author of Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future.
When Bavinck lived in the early twentieth century, he believed there was “a disharmony between our thinking and feeling, between our willing and acting” and “a discord between religion and culture, between science and life.”
Theological retrieval is a way to draw attention to things that you were assuming that you didn’t even know that you assumed.
Sometimes evangelicals view church history as though our main tradition is the last 500 years, but there's much more to our history.