Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why Academia, Part III: Why Historical Theology?

Thanks to everyone who commented on and/or shared my last post; it has been very encouraging. :-)

I am so tired today that I'm having trouble completing a thought, am valiantly resisting a nap, and unsure whether coffee would help alleviate or only worsen the situation. But I'd like to follow up on my Yale posts by getting back to some of what inspired the "Why Academia?" series in the first place: why historical theology?

I think the previous posts (four? five? I've lost track) have done a decent job of explaining how I came to love theology, as well as the steps I've taken toward building an academic career on that love. The third part of this series was going to focus on why I picked historical theology in particular. Actually, I think I've fairly well touched on that in the course of describing my various studies. But I'll offer a few additional thoughts here, for the heck of it:

  • Whether accurately or not, I've tended to think of myself as a historian of theology more than as a theologian per se. In other words, I'm more likely to write a book titled What Various Dead Guys Taught About the Trinity than one called The Doctrine of the Trinity Explained and Defended. Obviously, I think what the dead guys taught was entirely relevant to us today, and it shapes how we reason theologically about today's issues. So, there is overlap between the two. Still, the vocation of "theologian" strikes me as something a little different, perhaps loftier, than what I am really after.
  • What excites me is teaching college students -- and laypeople of all ages, really -- to dig into the ideas and writings of past thinkers. Maybe it sounds paradoxical, but I think that the Christian faith comes to life in a unique way when you realize you are a part of a much bigger, older story than you ever suspected. (My husband has written about this, too -- see this blog post.)
  • Early on, I had a special focus on wanting to help evangelicals to recover the riches of the Early Church. I still want this, since I do think Protestants often have minimal exposure to church history before Luther. But as I've become an increasingly committed Protestant myself, I hope my approach has become less arrogant -- I think I was guilty of some grandiose assumptions before, such as that I could single-handedly swoop in and rescue my peers from their historical ignorance. Yuck...not the way to go.
  • For one thing, although my primary focus remains the Early Church, my perspective has shifted in the past few years to a renewed appreciation for the historical depth of my own Protestant tradition. I have read numerous accounts of evangelicals converting to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, in part because they thought they had no choice if they wanted to be part of a historically rooted tradition. But Protestantism not only has its own historical heroes, it is deeply rooted in the Nicene faith of the early church, and the Reformers absolutely understood it as such. I don't think arguing this fact will stop people from leaving, necessarily. It's trickier than that. But I do think it can give Protestants a deeper love and broader perspective for where they already are.
  • For another thing, if there is reluctance among Protestants to examine parts of church history, then I understand it. History, like all of us broken, sinful human beings, is messy. It isn't easy to explain, for example, how Protestants should think about aspects of the early and medieval churches' teachings on salvation. (Ligon Duncan took a respectable stab at this recently, in a talk titled Did the Fathers Know the Gospel? That title would make my classmates' hair stand on end, but if you're a traditional-ish evangelical or confessional Protestant, it kind of needs to be asked.) Anyway, in short, this stuff's complicated, and digging deep can be painful, toilsome work. But God is sovereign over all history, including that of his Church. And all the more reason to train people -- not just seminary professors and pastors, but laypeople like myself -- to pass along the necessary digging tools.
  • Finally, I think there's a matter of basic charity at stake. I know that at various times in my life, I heard names and labels like "Saint Augustine" and "the Middle Ages" and "the Puritans" and interpreted them as shorthand for things like "legalism" and "backwardness." But learning about past figures on their own terms has made it harder to dismiss them -- or to say that they are not part of my (messy) heritage.
One of my favorite Yale profs put it like this: "It's better to dislike [the early church fathers] for what they are than to love them for what they're not." To put it differently, it's better to reject a theological figure on the basis of what he actually taught than to revile him on the basis of a caricature. Ultimately, I hope that the discipline of history helps Christians go about that task with more charity than not.

1 comment:

  1. I wanted to thank you very much for writing this, particularly your last few bullet points. It mirrors a lot of the thoughts I'm currently working through right now, regarding what it means to be Protestant and to still be able to appreciate the early church (and also even more contemporary Catholic theologians). It's nice to know I'm not alone!