Wednesday, August 24, 2011

More on Historical Theology: Why I Love It

A quote from Robert Louis Wilken, who is among the giants of my academic field:

The path to theological maturity leads necessarily through the study of the Christian past, and this requires a kind of spiritual and intellectual apprenticeship. Before we become masters we must become disciples. From the great thinkers of Christian history, we learn how to use the language of faith, to understand the inner logic of theological ideas, to discern the relation between seemingly disparate concepts, to discover what is central and what peripheral, and to love God above all things. Before we learn to speak on our own we must allow others to form our words and guide our thoughts. Historical theology is an exercise in humility, for we discover that theology is as much a matter of receiving as it is of constructing, that it has to do with the heart as well as with the intellect, with character as well as with doctrines, with love as well as with understanding.

This is excerpted from a longer article by Wilken which was assigned to me in my first history class at Yale. Upon reading that article, I promptly copied this quotation and have referred to it often to remind me why I do what I do.

There is so much I could say about it, but for now, two thoughts.

Humility. "Before we learn to speak on our own we must allow others to form our words and guide our thoughts." Could there be many more counter-cultural ideas than this one? Thinking and speaking for oneself are -- at least nominally -- among our most cherished cultural values. And I think they are good. But it is difficult to acknowledge, even to oneself, when we don't know how to think, when we lack the words to speak. No matter what era or culture you're from, I doubt being teachable comes very easily. Especially when you'd prefer to think that you've progressed way beyond what those from an essentially foreign culture or context could possibly tell you.

That's one reason I think the study of historical theology is so crucial to the health of the church. It can be an important guard against spiritual and intellectual arrogance. But I hasten to add that I don't think any period of the church was infallible. Every age has its blind spots. There are things I believe the early church got more right than we do, or at least saw more clearly. But I don't think it was a pristine golden age. Yet it has much to say to us, if we can be quiet enough to hear.

Love. Speaking of the prejudices of a given era, I think ours tends to drive a wedge between faith and practice, doctrine and behavior. People will start looking at you funny if you assert that a right understanding of the Trinity or of the doctrine of justification are vital to the pursuit of godliness. (i.e., Who needs theology if it's all about just loving Jesus? Or, why get worked up over outmoded doctrine when what's really important is Social Issue X?) I could spend a lot of time unpacking why this is the case and why I believe it's wrong; but, suffice it to say, I think it's devastating to theological learning in churches across the spectrum, and hence to people's souls.

The big reason I love studying the Church Fathers and the Puritans, in particular, is because, by and large, they more readily understood the links between heart and intellect, character and doctrine, love and understanding. We can look at, for instance, the Arian controversy in the fourth century and wonder how those guys could get into such fervent debates over a few syllables. We could take the attitude that we're much more enlightened now. And I'm not denying that there are things we know that fourth century folks didn't. But I think we should also be prompted to ask, "What did they understand about all this -- the importance of all this -- that we're not getting?"

No comments:

Post a Comment