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The Nature of Historical Theology

In his book, Historical Theology, Geoffrey Bromiley notes that historical theology is neither simply church history, nor the history of theology.  Rather, it is, itself theology.  Historical theology, if it is to bear that name must be intelligible as being in and of itself a theological task.  In other words, historical theology is itself actually a form of doing Christian dogmatics.  It is not merely potential subject matter for dogmatics, historical theology, if it is indeed theology, is an act of dogmatics. 

What might this mean for how we understand the nature of historical theology?  I have one tenative suggestion.  At the very least viewing historical theology as theology means is that the persons, movements, and realities considered in historical theology must cease be viewed merely as subject matter or bits of data to by considered from the standpoint of history.  Rather, historical theology is theologizing historically about historical realities.  Thus, to write a theology of Martin Luther, for example, I must not simply recount what Marting Luther thought about theological topics, rather I must write about the theological reality that Martin Luther was and is.  In other words, I am not writing a description of Luther’s theological beliefs, but I am in fact writing a theology of Luther.  I am making normative theological statements about his reality as a theological person within the drama of the Triune God’s redemption of the world in Christ.  For me to write a theology of Martin Luther in a true sense I have to make sense of his existence, work, and impact within the framework of the historical economy of salvation actualized in the death and resurrection of Christ.

For historical theology to be true to its character as theology it must, minimally, not be simply the recounting of the theological beliefs of past thinkers, but rather as theologizing in a historical mode, situating historical realities, persons, movements, and events within the theo-dramatic narrative of Triune God.  This, of course makes historical theology a far less safe endeavor.  It is inherently risky to speak about the theological reality and signficance of historical persons as persons within God’s economy rather than simply as thinkers with which to agree or disagree.  The task of historical theology is bigger than that, it is to narrate history in a doxological and theological mode that is neither hagiography nor an exercise of a hermeneutic of suspicion.  Historical theology dares to bring theology to bear on the church’s own history, subjecting its members to the judgment of theology just as the historical theologian seeks to place himself under the judgments of history.  As such historical theology may be second only to biblical theology in its ability to be dangerous, to oneself and others and should only be entered into with much trepidation.

6 Comments

  1. WTM wrote:

    Halden, you comments here seem to be moving along the same lines as discussions of Barth’s historical method from the 2007 Barth Blog conference (the 2008 conference is on the way!) by Ben Myers and myself.

    Monday, April 28, 2008 at 7:39 pm | Permalink
  2. I’m hesitant. There’s something unique to historical theology that I want to avoid subsuming into dogmatics. Not that I disagree that historical theology is an act of theology, but I think that historical theology (and biblical theology) is distinct insofar as it does not aim to be my theology, like dogmatics does. Even the ecclesial dogmatics that I might write, I think, are quite properly mine in a special way; they contain what I have to say from, on behalf of, and for the church. Historical theology is different here: historical theology is not mine, but someone else’s; it is my attempt to think with and under someone else in their depth. It’s a discipline–and I think this distinction, despite its subtlety, is very important–of listening aloud rather than speaking attentively. The point of doing a theology of Luther, in this understanding, would not be to situate him in the theo-dramatic narrative, but to let him situate us in that narrative as he understood it. It would be to enter into his understanding of that narrative to such an extent that we lose ourselves in it and see the world through his eyes. Maybe you were implying that, but I do think it important that we find somewhere for historical theology between the history of thought and dogmatics as such.

    Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    I like those points, Brian. I think I was trying to get at something like that in my statement, “Historical theology dares to bring theology to bear on the church’s own history, subjecting its members to the judgment of theology just as the historical theologian seeks to place himself under the judgments of history.”

    I suppose I sort of assume that in all my doings of theology I am trying to situate myself within the narrative of God as it is mediated to us through the witnesses of the Bible, history, and tradition. Historical theology would seem then to imply a sort of double movement, a simultanaeity of judging and being judged, of situating and being situated as we engage with historical interlocutors in the theological task.

    Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden,

    Great thoughts. I referenced this in a post on my blog, just thought you’d like to know. here is the url:

    http://www.peaceablezealot.com/peaceablezealot/2008/05/you-mean-there.html

    Friday, May 2, 2008 at 6:34 am | Permalink
  5. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    For me to write a theology of Martin Luther in a true sense I have to make sense of his existence, work, and impact within the framework of the historical economy of salvation actualized in the death and resurrection of Christ.

    This statement is so helpful to me as I try to work out a theological hermeneutic. For me, this is the key to Childs’ canonical approach. Thanks for a great post (as always).

    Monday, May 5, 2008 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  6. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    I am about to get hold of Hägglund’s History of Theology. I may be reading to much into this, but based on a article he wrote on the regula fidei this book may be going in this direction …

    Wednesday, June 11, 2008 at 5:34 am | Permalink

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  1. [...] 2, 2008 by Stephen Okay, so I read Halden’s posts over at Inhabitatio Dei on historical theology and biblical theology. I have thought that I would propose a few working definitions of different [...]

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