One of the ways to define “theological retrieval” is to simply draw from the theological resources of the past and apply them to the theological needs of the present. That can be kind of a trendy in some circles now, and it seems to resonate with people. There’s always a danger of doing something just because it’s trendy, but I think there’s also a danger of rejecting something because it’s trendy. It’s good to ask, Why is this resonating with people right now? Why are people finding a lot of value in going back to the past and retrieving it today?
Part of the answer to that is our culture—where we are right now in the modern West. Part of the ethos of modernity is a sense of emancipation from the past. I’ve found that going back to the great theologians of the past could almost function like food does to hunger for the theological needs of the moment. There’s so much that’s just back there that is well-suited to help us navigate some of the challenges that we face today. There are three benefits of theological retrieval and like to think of them through the metaphors of going to school, traveling, and seeing a counselor.
Going to school is just a metaphor for learning. One of the benefits of theological retrieval is just educational. If you’re reading through Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, you just are introduced to certain conversations. Reading it helps you form categories, and there’s just a lot you can learn.
But the more interesting benefits are the second two. When you travel, and especially if you live abroad for a season of time, it changes the way that you look at the world, it shapes your values. It gives you a little bit more perspective on your own culture, and sometimes it draws attention to assumptions that you have that you didn’t even know you have. Theological retrieval can be like that. It’s a way to draw attention to things that you were assuming that you didn’t even know that you assumed.
There’s so much that’s just back there that is well-suited to help us navigate some of the challenges that we face today.
Take Saint Anselm for example. The great question that he addresses in one book is “How can a just God forgive sin?” And that’s a question that he’s really exercised by. For a lot of modern people, we have the exact opposite question: “How could God not forgive sin? How could God ever judge? How could a loving God ever judge someone?”
Whatever you might make of Anselm, it’s helpful to know that the questions we have aren’t necessarily the questions that other people have had. It humbles you a little bit to realize that functioning in the modern West, we have some assumptions that we tend to take for granted. Theological retrieval is one way just to broaden our thinking and help us to question some of the starting points that we have.
Lastly, theological retrieval is like going to a counselor. When you go to a counselor when you’re having conflict with a friend, you’re able to get an outside and objective perspective. Theological retrieval can function a little bit like that. It would be like if before the modern era, you really didn’t have a conservative-versus-moderate spectrum with all the sociological pressures that go with that depending on where you live and who you interact with.
When you go back to the early church, you might find someone who doesn’t really fit in anywhere today. And it’s a great way to get perspective on some of the conflicts we have. Sometimes, that can help open up avenues of rapprochement where we can have a both-and mentality to an issue where previously we had an either-or mentality. Sometimes it can help to say, Actually these two things are more, at least in some ways, complementary. There’s incredible value in doing theological retrieval today.
Gavin Ortlund is the author of Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future.
- The Importance of Books in Christian History (Greg Forster)
- Herman Bavinck for the 21st Century (Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, James Eglinton, Cory C. Brock)
- Podcast: Why Church History Matters (Justin Taylor)