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By Gregg R. Allison
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Gregg R. Allison
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Chapter OneINTRODUCTION TO HISTORICAL THEOLOGY
What is historical theology? What benefits does it provide? How should we study it?
Historical theology is the study of the interpretation of Scripture and the formulation of doctrine by the church of the past. Such concentration on the accumulated wisdom of the ages provides great benefit to Christians and churches today as they seek to live faithfully and obediently for Jesus Christ. This high value of historical theology, or church tradition, was underscored by Kenneth Kantzer, one of the founders of modern evangelicalism: "While it is not infallible, it must be acknowledged as God's guidance of his people in accordance with his promise to the church of all ages." At the same time, church tradition must always have reference to Scripture; hence, historical theology must be either approved or chastened by the Word of God. As J. I. Packer, another leading evangelical, articulated: "Scripture must have the last word on all human attempts to state its meaning, and tradition, viewed as a series of such human attempts, has a ministerial rather than a magisterial role." In determining doctrine and practice, the magisterial, or authoritative, role belongs to Scripture, and Scripture alone. The ministerial, or helping, role accorded to historical theology means that it serves the church in many ways.
One benefit that historical theology offers the church today is helping it distinguish orthodoxy from heresy. The term orthodoxy here refers to that which the new Testament calls "sound doctrine" (1 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1), that which rightly reflects in summary form all the teaching of Scripture and which the church is bound to believe and obey. Heresy, then, is anything that contradicts sound doctrine. It is false belief that misinterprets Scripture or that ignores some of the teaching of Scripture, or that incorrectly puts together all the teaching of Scripture. The church is to shun heresy and seek to correct its errors (e.g., Titus 1:9). Expressed another way, historical theology helps the church recognize sound doctrine and distinguish it from false doctrine because, generally speaking, "that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by everyone"—that is, what the church has historically believed and held as its doctrine—corresponds to orthodoxy, and whatever has been traditionally rejected by the church corresponds to heresy. For example, the belief that the Word of God who became incarnate as Jesus Christ (John 1:1, 14) was a created being who was not eternal but had a beginning in time was condemned as a heresy by the early church. In accordance with all the teaching of Scripture, the church has always believed that the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, was, is, and always will be fully God, equal in all respects to the father and the Holy Spirit. A study of historical theology that rehearses the development of doctrine helps churches today to identify and embrace orthodoxy and to reject and correct heresy.
A second benefit of historical theology is that it provides sound biblical interpretations and theological formulations. In some cases, the immense effort and careful study exercised by the church in the past has resulted in such excellent biblical and theological understanding that the majority of the groundwork has been laid for the church as it engages in the study of theology today. For example, the early church's work on the doctrine of the Trinity (one divine essence, three persons) and the doctrine of the incarnation (two unchanging natures, divine and human, united in one person) has set forth the essential elements that any current expression of these doctrines will (and must) reflect. Although the present context may raise specific challenges and demand interaction with different issues not faced by the early church as it hammered out these doctrines, its thoughtful work on the Trinity and the incarnation provides a solid foundation from which to face these contemporary tests. Colloquially speaking, though the church may refine and strengthen the proverbial wheel, it has no need to reinvent it. The basic contours of cardinal doctrines have been shaped by the church of the past and thus help churches do theology today.
A third benefit of historical theology is that it presents stellar examples of faith, love, courage, hope, obedience, and mercy. Early christians such as Polycarp, Perpetua, and felicitas were threatened with death if they would not renounce their faith in Jesus Christ—and they died as martyrs rather than deny the Lord who had saved them. They are examples of perseverance to the point of death for Christians facing persecution today. Athanasius, a mere twenty-nine-year-old secretary at the first ecumenical, or general, council of the church convened at Nicea in 325, understood the importance of sound doctrine. He championed the nicene confession of the deity of the Son of God and fought against devastating heresy while enduring five exiles for this doctrine of Christ. He is a model of costly commitment to the truth for the church today. A theological interpretation of Scripture enabled Augustine to produce a rich commentary on the gospel of John, which in turn reinforced and helped develop the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The Confessions of St. Augustine, an account of his early life and conversion to Christianity, stands as one of the bestsellers in the history of the world and has cheered on many to consider the gospel of Jesus christ. His grace-filled life, theological acumen, and careful study of Scripture are patterns for Christians today. Olympias, a widowed deaconess of the church in constantinople, leveraged her immense wealth to become a generous patron of the church. She donated many of her estates to the church, supported the ministries of such church leaders as John chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzus, ransomed exiled captives, sustained a community of 250 virgins, and cared for the poor. She is a model of generous giving, hospitality, and mercy. Martin Luther, though excommunicated by the pope and threatened with execution for heresy, was sequestered by his protective friends and hid in the Wartburg castle for eight months. Dressed as a knight, letting his hair and beard grow long, and going by the alias of Junker Jörg (Knight George), while suffering from loneliness, constipation, insomnia, and satanic attacks, he wrote nearly a dozen books and, as if that accomplishment were not enough, translated the entire new Testament into German. He is an example for today's churches of faith and courage and exhausting labor for the cause of Christ. Such examples from church history could be multiplied thousands of times over.
A fourth benefit that historical theology renders the church is to protect against the individualism that is rampant today among Christians. Tragically, numerous factors—a consumerist mentality, an insistence on individual rights, an emphasis on personal autonomy, a pronounced sense of entitlement—have converged to foster an atmosphere in which too many Christians pick and choose their doctrines like they pick and choose their clothes or fast-food meals. If they feel uncomfortable about the sovereignty of God or are upset by the thought of an eternal conscious punishment of the wicked, they opt to overlook or dismiss those doctrines. If their worldly lifestyle is confronted by the demands of sanctification, or if the authority of Scripture challenges their stylish doubts about truth and certainty, they choose to minimize or set aside those doctrines. Thankfully, historical theology can act as a corrective to this regrettable situation. It reminds believers that theirs is a corporate faith that has always affirmed divine sovereignty, hell, holiness, and biblical authority. This rich heritage protects against the tendency to select the doctrines one likes and to reject those one does not like, thus giving in to one's sinful propensities.
Similarly, historical theology can guard Christians and churches from the penchant for the novel, the yearning for relevancy, and the tendency to follow strong leaders who are biblically and theologically shallow. Lamenting evangelicalism's radical proneness to destabilization, Alister McGrath urged this solution: "Rediscovering the corporate and historic nature of the Christian faith reduces the danger of entire communities of faith being misled by charismatic individuals and affirms the ongoing importance of the Christian past as a stabilizing influence in potentially turbulent times." Coining bizarre new doctrines (such as the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel), tampering with traditional doctrines (such as minimizing the need for repentance from sin as part of the response to the gospel), and following dynamic leaders who boastfully minimize the importance of sound doctrines, are exposed as dangerous developments by a consideration of what the church has historically believed—or not believed. Again, McGrath offers wise council:
Tradition is like a filter, which allows us to identify suspect teachings immediately. To protest that "We have never believed this before!" is not necessarily to deny the correctness of the teaching in question. But it is to raise a fundamental question: why have Christians not believed this before? And, on further investigation, it usually turns out that there are often very good reasons for not accepting that belief. The past here acts as both a resource and a safeguard, checking unhelpful and unorthodox doctrinal developments by demanding that their supporters explain their historical and theological credentials.
A fifth benefit of historical theology is that it not only helps the church understand the historical development of its beliefs, but enables it to express those beliefs in contemporary form. As Richard Muller explained, "not only does doctrine necessarily arise in a historical context and take its basic conceptual framework and linguistic forms from that context, it also arrives at contemporary expression only by way of a meditation on, and even more importantly a meditation through, earlier stages of historical expression." For example, the early church's doctrine of human nature was formulated in a context affected by Platonic thinking. This philosophy exalted the human spirit while it denigrated the human body; the former aspect is inherently good, asserted Platonism, while the latter aspect is inherently evil. Tragically, a significant part of the early church was negatively influenced by this disregard for, and even contempt of, the body. As a result, Christians placed much of the blame for their sinfulness on the fact of human embodiment, insisted that even sexual intercourse between a husband and wife is tinged with sinful lust, and engaged in ruthless asceticism, denying themselves the good physical gifts of God, such as food, drink, and sleep. Understanding that Platonic context and its influence on the early church's theology helps Christians today reformulate the doctrine of humanity so as to avoid the negative impact of that philosophy. As Timothy George noted, "We must not simply repeat the classical doctrines of the faith with precision and clarity; we must also reflect upon these doctrines in such a way that we can expound them as our own. In this sense historical theology has both a normative and a descriptive role to play."
A sixth benefit of historical theology is that it encourages the church to focus on the essentials, that is, to major on those areas that have been emphasized repeatedly throughout the history of the church. For good reason, the church has concentrated much study of Scripture and expended significant theological effort developing doctrines such as the Trinity, the person and work of Jesus Christ, human dignity and depravity, the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, salvation, and other cardinal beliefs. These doctrines are the foundation of the gospel, the core of the Christian faith and worldview, and constitute the repeated themes of divine revelation. Fascination with "new truth" and an inordinate attachment to minor beliefs has produced churches that are not centered, not unified, and not missional—"infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming" (Eph. 4:14). Recognizing and committing themselves to what the church has traditionally emphasized spares churches today from such disasters and helps them become gospel-focused communities.
A seventh benefit of historical theology is that it gives the church hope by providing assurance that Jesus is fulfilling his promise to his people. One of the most important biblical passages throughout the history of the church has been Matthew 16:13–20. Peter, by means of divine revelation, grasped the identity of his friend Jesus and confessed, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." At this confession, Jesus promised, "On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." Throughout its nearly two-thousand-year pilgrimage, the church has advanced through periods of great faithfulness, obedience, dedication, and missional endeavors, and it has persevered through other periods of carnality, political posturing, disengagement, and heresy. If Luther's sinner-saint label is true of individual Christians, it is equally true of the church itself. Even today, as churches find themselves in the midst of perhaps the most tumultuous period of their history—external attacks by a new and virulent form of atheism, internal confusion over the gospel and worship, cultural doubts about the relevancy of the Christian faith, postmodern questioning of truth and authority, and rampant revisioning of many cardinal doctrines—they experience both victory and defeat. Historical theology provides hope by reminding them that God for Christ's sake has always been faithful to his promise to build his church. Certainly the development of doctrine is a thoroughly human process, carried out by the church. But such development has a divine origin—it is the church of Jesus Christ, and he is at work to build his church.
Finally, as beneficiaries of the heritage of doctrinal development sovereignly overseen by Jesus Christ, the church of today is privileged to enjoy a sense of belonging to the church of the past. In words reflective of a more literary past, John Stoughton affirmed concerning historical theology: "It attaches us to former generations, and inspires us with satisfaction and joy to find, that in the substance of evangelical faith and sentiment we are one with the Church of all ages. To feel this is a prelibation [celebratory foretaste] of heaven, where our present-time relations will cease, ancestry and posterity will become contemporaneous, the faith of one will confirm the faith of another, and the joy of all will be the joy of each." The church today is heir to a great legacy, a heritage that can provide a sense of rootedness, depth, certainty, and hope.
Given all of these benefits, the question arises of how one studies historical theology. Two basic approaches are commonly found: synchronic and diachronic. The synchronic approach engages in the study of the theology of a certain time period, a particular theologian, a specific theological school or tradition, and the like. Examples of this approach include the study of the doctrine of the Trinity in the third and fourth centuries, the development of Christology in the fourth and fifth centuries, the theology of John Calvin, and neoorthodox theologies of the Word of God. The diachronic approach engages in the study of the development of thought on a given doctrine throughout the periods of the church's history. Examples of this approach include the study of the doctrines of Scripture and sin as developed in the early church, the Middle Ages, the reformation and post-reformation period, and the modern period. As noted in the preface, this book follows the latter, diachronic approach.
Within this approach, two perspectives are commonly adopted. One is the relativist perspective; the other, the essentialist. According to the first, the development of doctrine over the course of the centuries exhibits such an immense diversity that it is not possible to identify a core, or essential center, of the Christian faith. The relativist perspective draws attention to "diversity, disagreement, discontinuity, loose ends, and wrong turnings" as the church developed its beliefs. In its extreme form, "unrestrained relativism ... claims that no manifestation of Christianity enjoys any logical or theological priority over any other. Therefore the smallest sect has as much doctrinal authority as the longest-lived or [most] widely dispersed world church. As such, since Christianities are so different, they are all equally right and equally wrong." Such relativism naturally leads to alarm and "the despair of finding no certainty, nothing fixed to believe." This book does not accept the relativist perspective.
Excerpted from Historical Theology by Gregg R. Allison Copyright © 2011 by Gregg R. Allison. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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