Learning From the Past in Theology

Theology as a discipline is rather different than, say, the natural sciences, in that, by and large, the older an idea is, the more true it is. In theology, one simply has to take what has been said in the past seriously and in some ways authoritatively, and in other cases definitively. I see this as a fairly common-sense sort of idea. Consider the post-apostolic fathers (the ante-Nicene fathers). It makes a good amount of sense to take what they say as an authoritative and definitive interpretation of the teachings of the Apostles, since, you know, they were the disciples of the Apostles.

Another way it makes sense to take seriously the voices of the past also seems to be a common sense idea: a lot (a lot!) of people have thought about theology and theological things. Lots of these people were very, very smart and very devout Christians – so it makes a lot of sense to take seriously what they had to say. Chances are, somebody has had something very good to say on whatever theological idea your thinking about. Examples would be the medieval period – lots of very important and interesting thinkers there. It would be kind of not smart to simply ignore a thousand years worth of theological reflection.

Now, the opposite of what I’m saying is, unfortunately, seen more often in theology than it should be, and its basically taking the voices of the past less seriously simply because of who/where/when there did their thinking. Easy example: the medievals. It’s pretty easy, in theological circles, to make blanket-statements about the atonement because some guy’s theory of the atonement reflected an aspect of his feudal society (I wonder who that guy is). It then becomes even easier to write off the entire medieval period as theologically illegitimate because of an influential model of the atonement. I seen it with my own eyes.

The problem with that should be fairly easy to see (I actually see two problems): it’s pretty stupid to write off whole periods of church history on account of when/who they were, and it’s equally as stupid to write off whatever theological idea because it (in this case) is a model of the atonement obsessed with feudal concepts of justice and retribution (disputable, but moving on). I see the latter as worse, actually, because at the heart of nearly every theological idea, no matter how weird or offensive it may be to us, there is a legitimate theological concern. Stupid medievals, with their individualistic retributive penal ideas of satisfaction! Out with them. Never mind that behind such theories of the atonement lie some pretty deep theological reflection on the nature of the Incarnation, justice, etc. And there’s the rub: by dismissing an idea on account of what’s on its surface, we miss the deep and often edifying aspects of the idea floating below.

A kind-of case study of what I’m getting at can be seen in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s ‘Justice in Love’. Towards the end of the book, he engages in a exegetical study of the concept of God’s justice, drawing on the book of Romans. He states at the beginning of the chapter that he sees his project as concerned with the medieval concept of God’s justice, iustia dei. He then wonders why there seems to be a lack of Protestant engagement with this idea of justice – he cites N.T. Wright as an example. According to Wolterstorff, Wright has never discussed iustia dei  in any of his work on the topic of justification.

Wright has a habit of broadbrushing and oversimplifying ideas – the Enlightenment being a very prominent example. I suspect, though can’t of course be one hundred percent sure, that he would likely point to various examples of medieval theology gone wrong (purgatory, doing penance) as a reason why medieval theology was all muddleheaded, and then go about his day. He has of course engaged medieval theology (‘Scripture and the Authority of God’ had a lot of good work on medieval exegesis), but based on his slogan-like dismissal of various dynamic movements like the Enlightenment, I don’t see him as terribly concerned with medieval understandings of justice and what they have to say to us today.

This is a criticism that could probably be made of Protestantism as a whole – the medieval period is often trotted out as a whipping-boy along with the Enlightenment. The point of this, though, isn’t to pimp medieval theology but to highlight the perils of writing off the underlying concerns of any idea we disagree with for relatively shallow reasons, using Wright and iustia dei as a working example.

The point of all this rambling? Don’t write off an idea just because of what it says on the surface, but look to engage the underlying concerns of any idea.

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4 thoughts on “Learning From the Past in Theology

  1. Rod September 26, 2014 / 7:06 pm

    I like the overall point here Joshua. Appearances are no match for substance. The other point I liked was that responsible ecumenism opens doors for dialogue. The best advice I have ever had in this area was from a lecturer who’d said to me “don’t reject an idea until you know why it is rejected and needs to be rejected”. I also appreciate that the college I had the privilege of studying my degree in theology and ministry through, had a big emphasis on the diverse unity in orthodoxy.

    Like

  2. whitefrozen September 26, 2014 / 9:37 pm

    Reblogged this on Theologians, Inc. and commented:

    This post didn’t show up in my feed, so in case of a WordPress glitch, I’m reblogging it.

    Like

  3. Chris Falter September 29, 2014 / 10:14 am

    In most of the churches I have attended, scarcely anyone knows who Irenaeus, Athanasius, or even Augustine were, much less what they taught, or how they lived. To me that is greatest tragedy; we have been, to some extent, cut off from our roots.

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    • whitefrozen October 3, 2014 / 3:01 pm

      It’s sad state of affairs, as well as one that seems to just go against common sense. Why on earth would any discipline or community effectively cut itself off from its past? Makes no sense.

      Like

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