Navigating Theological Retrieval

Much has been written on theological retrieval in recent years. I have written a little on it before as well (here). This subject is really broad and includes many intertwined issues. Because I find it helpful to work through the various issues at play on any subject and unwind them, I am going to attempt to put in writing some of this unwinding I’ve done mentally over the years. This is longer than a normal blog post, but I’ve found this a helpful exercise and I hope you will too. If you haven’t explored this discussion, you might be surprised to find so many different issues at play and you might be surprised to see how large the theological retrieval umbrella is. To help make sense of the terrain, I will lay out some of the background, definitions, motivations, and major issues at play. This won’t be exhaustive, but it gives an entry point.

motivational quote

Background

Theological retrieval is a close relative to the general practice of church history — or better yet, historical theology — so it has been around a while. However, in recent years there has been a significant increase in the use of the language of retrieval. Enough so that it is clearly not equal to historical theology. Understanding the background helps show this.

At this point it might be helpful to list several instantiations of theological retrieval. You will notice that they come from a lot of different starting points and have a lot of different goals. But it is what they have in common that we want to notice. Here are a few: Roman Catholic ressourcement, la nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac and Maurice Blondel, the paleo-orthodoxy of Thomas Oden, the ancient-future Christianity of Robert Webber, the Radical Orthodoxy of John Milbank and Graham Ward, the many varieties of theological interpretation of Scripture, the Evangelical ressourcement of D. H. Williams, and even the post liberalism of Hans Frei and George Lindbeck. Again, this is just a representative list.

If you are familiar with these groups, or if you are just looking at their names, you might notice that these are spread over a good amount of time, reflect a wide range of theological viewpoints, and do not do retrieval the same way. This variety is important to note. If you come out and say you accept or reject theological retrieval you are not necessarily identifying with any or all of these theologians and theological projects.

As I see it, the core idea is a pushback against the way that many have done theology and historical theology, particularly in modernity, which might sound like an odd place to find agreement. It pushes against the epistemology of pride that argues that individuals are most successful when self-reliant (individualism). It also pushes against the chronological snobbery (to use C. S. Lewis’s term) that insists what is newer is inherently better than what is older. This shows itself in those theologies and histories that neglect or outright reject much of historical Christianity. Within a lot of contemporary Christian thinking, chronological snobbery would not normally snub its nose at the apostolic era, but it would at much of the patristics, medievals, and perhaps even the Reformers.

Recognizing the variety of retrieval and their shared foil helps construct an understanding of the idea as a whole and move toward a definition.

Definition

John Webster has written about some of the common resemblances and differences. He argues that they are all diverse enough over both chronological time and theological confession that they do not really constitute a school or even a movement. More to the point, Webster sees theologies of retrieval as a “mode of theology, an attitude of mind and a way of approaching theological tasks.” The attitude of mind that Webster talks about is what brings them together. They see a problem, a need, and a solution. The problem is the way things have been done in much of modern theology as I mentioned above. The need is to better equip modern theology to be better rooted and thus more robust. The solution is retrieval of the sources, methods, and content of classic Christianity.

I find one more definitional aspect important. W. David Buschart and Kent Eilers highlight the fact that retrieval is not a simple turn to the past so that one can read a little here, put in a footnote of an old source there, or appreciate a quote on social media. Retrieval is an intensification of one’s attitude toward the past. This means that one will read the past responsibly, which means understanding context and spending time learning by letting them explain what they mean. Intensification points to the responsibility to receive the deposit of the past and transmit it on the future. It’s avoiding shallowness and intentionally drawing deep from the old wells. This is nothing new, and that is part of the point, but it is something that has been missing from much modern historical theology.

So for an attempt at a definition: Retrieval is an intensified attitude of mind toward the past with the hope of benefitting the present. Theological retrieval is applying this to the study of theology past and present. It points to a certain disposition of mind toward the past. The problems theological retrieval are combatting are not completely foreign to traditional Christianity. I would argue that much of our contemporary Christian culture could be described by individualism, relativism, and a thin understanding of history at best. Retrieval wants to help remedy this. Thus, I find this posture quite helpful and necessary.

Motivations

Lest you think this is much ado about nothing. Let’s not forget why this is important.

We’ve talked about this some, so let me sum up where we’ve been and add some more meat to the bones: despite the varieties of retrieval, three broad ideas are held in common. First, one must be careful to understand the history of the church on its own terms rather than through any preconceived notion of what someone ought to be saying (which is a real danger, succumbed to quite often). Second, this understanding of historiography is normally pursued based on certain biblical and theological convictions, particularly (1) the inadequacy of modern options, (2) the assumption of the reality and epistemic priority of a God who has revealed himself, (3) confidence and appreciation for classical conceptions of theology, their sources, and their language, as well as (4) the conviction that doctrine is meant for the church and is to be embodied there. Which naturally leads to the third commonality: retrieval must be done in order to bolster exegesis, theology, and practice today (for more on these commonalities, see the works by Webster and Buschart and Eilers).

Retrieval is worried about historical shallowness, distortion, and artificiality. It seeks to bolster self-awareness and rootedness for the sake of our current situation. Gavin Ortlund helpfully suggests that retrieval can function as schoolmaster, foreign guide, and outside eyes.

In an essay I wrote elsewhere (here) I mentioned another important motivation.

Not overlooking these qualifications, proponents of retrieval generally maintain that this use of history better handles our own limitations (sinfulness and finitude) and our responsibilities to the communion of saints. Further, as Fred Sanders contends in his book, The Deep Things of God, much that is “latent” in our own Protestant, evangelical, and conservative theology (Sanders looks specifically at Trinitarianism) received initial and extensive explanation in the earlier eras of the church. To retrieve these explanations is not just to be reminded of what we have forgotten or overlooked, but to enrich what we have tacitly accepted (such as Chalcedonian Christology or the classic explanations of the divine attributes). Oliver Crisp is correct that we have “a far poorer grasp” of the glorious realities that we already accept in our theologies than do our “dead friends.” Indeed, the rewards for having a more robust understanding of Trinitarianism, atonement theology, and worship (to name a few more loci) are great and ultimately lead to more and better doxology.

The history of the church is an embarrassment of riches that we neglect at our own peril. The Apostle’s Creed names the communion of saints and the holy catholic church as essential things we believe in.  I hope you see the historiographical posture of retrieval as a good thing. God has revealed himself in his Word. Our sin and finitude limit our ability and leave us in need of help. Yet God has continued to work in his church, despite its blemishes.

At this point, I’ve tried to shine a little light on what theological retrieval is trying to do. The point of spending this time is to then throw the door open to address the many issues that exist in this discussion.

Major Issues at Play

Retrieval operates in the areas of hermeneutics, metaphysics, individual doctrines, and various practices, plus it provides a general self-awareness of how we think and do theology and practice (epistemology and method).

One major issue is how we understand history itself and how we should practice history. This is called historiography. How one understands historiography will determine both if and how someone will participate in theological retrieval. Historically speaking, how do we balance the notions of change and continuity? Do we accept a doctrine of the preservation of the church or do we at least counter the charges of novelty? What does it mean to study church history on its own terms? Likewise, how we diagnose the contemporary situation has an effect on the shape of our retrieval.

It’s not hard to see that our ecclesiology, particularly how we understand the universal church and God’s preservation of it through time is important in this discussion. Our relationship to tradition, traditions, and the Great Tradition and the question of where the locus of theological authority lies is likewise an essential discussion. And, a person’s theological confession affects their historical retrieval.

It also results in some pressing questions. Will this posture toward church history lead one inevitably to the “deep springs” of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy? In other words, can we remain Protestant and evangelical and be deep in history? I believe we can. And, along with the Reformers, I would argue that proper retrieval becomes an apologetic for our very existence as Protestants and evangelicals. Kenneth Stewart is correct that efforts to find historical roots will need to think through a variety of theological issues (none of which are necessary new) and find guiding principles to help evangelical Protestants. Which is part of yet another pressing question, how do we be small “c” catholic in terms of the “holy, catholic church”?

The historical retrieving of theology is a good thing, in my opinion. Though, it comes with a host of important questions and issues to address. How you answer these questions can place you all over the spectrum of Christendom.  In future posts, I’d like to work through many of the major issues in this discussion that I’ve only been able to briefly mention here.

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