Thinking Sensibly about Unicorns

horse chest piece on chess board

Nearly everyone agrees that history is necessary subject in school. We all agree that it is helpful to know history. But the truth is that we do not always agree on what it means to “know history.” Maybe a better way to say it is that we do not always agree on what it means to think historically. Books, books, and more books have been written on this subject. I want to mention just one piece of this puzzle, and also unicorns.

One famous article by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke distill historical thinking to five basic sensitivities. These “five C’s of historical thinking” are change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity. If someone can weave these sensibilities into their thinking process, they are well on their way to good historical thinking. The categories are not too hard to understand. The problem is that they are unnatural and thus hard to learn.

When trying to understand anything we take our frame of reference (our knowledge, experiences, and habits of mind) and apply it to what we are confronted with in order to make sense of it. When someone travels to a new place they can make sense of a lot of what is happening, but definitely not all of it. This understanding can be complicated if they do not know the language. It can be complicated if the dominant religion is different. It can be complicated if we know nothing of the history of this location. It can be complicated for many reasons. If you live in Minnesota (which I have for about 16 months as of writing this) it takes some time to learn in what ways “Minnesota nice” is different than other kinds of “nice.”

61q8hSE8AhL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_We begin to overcome these potential misunderstandings by assuming we do not know what all these things mean (I’m still working on the Minnesota nice one). This is where we can apply the five C’s. The fact is that good historians are almost never satisfied with quick solutions when a new problem arises. They have the developed sensibility to think patiently and “cultivate puzzlement,” as Sam Wineburg mentioned in his widely referenced book: Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. The main point is that when we approach something new and different we have to realize that our frames of references are pretty limited in comparison to the vastness of human history. Epistemic humility is a basic assumption. We have to keep asking questions so that we can build a thick understanding of something. Hard questions almost never have easy answers. We cannot begin to truly know something until we first agree that we do not know everything about that thing. When criticized, many in our day like to retort that “you don’t know me!” And, based on the five C’s of historical thinking, they are probably right. Here Wineburg is pure gold: “Paradoxically, what allows us to come to know others is our distrust in our capacity to know them, a skepticism about the extraordinary sense-making abilities that allow us to construct the world around us” (24).

That brings me to unicorns. Wineburg relates a story from the travels of Marco Polo where he was confronted with a new animal. He did what we all do, he tried to make sense of it through his frame of reference. He was confused by this new type of animal, “which are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo…[and] a single large, black horn in the middle of the forehead. They do not attack with their horns, but only with their tongues and their knees; for their tongues are furnished with long sharp spines.” Polo concluded he had seen a unicorn. The problem was that “they are very ugly brutes to look at…not at all such as we describe them when…they let themselves be captured by virgins” (quoted in Wineburg, 24). Polo’s problem was his frame of reference had to be expanded. To actually understand what he was seeing required he not assume he had a wide enough frame of reference to understand. Again, Wineburg is right: “Our encounter with history presents us with a choice: to learn about rhinoceroses or to learn about unicorns. We naturally incline toward unicorns—they are prettier and more tame. But it is the rhinoceros that can teach us far more than we could ever imagine” (24). We ought to cultivate the historical sensibilities that help us see the things of the past that are unusual to us. Without them we see unicorns instead of rhinos. This is what it means to understanding history on its own terms.

You may notice that throughout this article I explored rules of historical thinking and applied them to thinking in general. That is because these ways of thinking are really helpful in our general life. A little humility, a little sensibility about the unusual, and a little more patient, deliberate thinking would go a long way. That is the heart of why history as a subject has long been considered necessary to nearly every level of education. It is more than just the events and people of history that is important, it is the ability to think well about history that we are after. Good historical thinking is a necessary skill, but it has to be cultivated.

Old Christian Histories

IMG_4156Part of my stay-at-home reading has been some old church histories. These have included Athanasius’s Life of Antony, Eusebius’s The Church History, and Bede’s A History of the English Church and People (normally titled Ecclesiastical History of the English People). In their own ways, each of these books have significantly shaped subsequent church history.

Eusebius is called the Father of church history based on his works, and The Church History is his most significant. Written in the early fourth century, this work chronicles the early church from the time of Christ through the time of Constantine’s consolidation of the Eastern and Western Empires. As you read through this book, a few things stand out: (1) The church survived truly terrible political leaders. (2) Those “who confessed unto death” were geographically widespread, were well-represented by all age groups, and were truly massive in numbers. These stories are not for the squeamish, but they are for all Christians. As Tertullian said, their blood was the seed of the church. (3) Devastating famines and plagues were regular. (4) The faithful were always ready to combat the heresies that were always close at hand. And (5) Eusebius is a careful historian who understood and utilized proper sources. These themes, his careful work, combined with his “triumphalist” attitude have made this an enduring work.

The Life of Antony is a very different read. Athanasius’s book is the archetypical Christian hagiography. This late-fourth century work was the first Christian work to lay out what a faithful life looks like from beginning to end. Antony was raised a Christian but looked for a deeper spiritual life. This book walks through his journey to find this deeper relationship with God. For Antony, the answer was living as a hermit and withstanding the incessant onslaught of demons by learning complete and total dependance on Christ and his resources. He sold all he had, denied all comforts and most food, recited Scripture (perhaps memorized all of it), knocked out Satan by the sign of the cross, and prayed constantly. He not only succeeded through these trials but he also helped others in their growth. The Life of Antony inspired countless Christians to take up the monastic life, which has proved to be one of the most important institutions in world history.

Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede is yet another kind of history. This fast-paced, eighth-century book is not only the earliest church history of England, it is the earliest history of England that exists. It chronicles the growth and development of Christianity in England from the first century up to the eighth as the local Celtic Christianity clashed with Celtic Paganism and with the Catholic Church. Names such as Alban, Aidan, Sigbert, Caedmon, and Cuthbert are all introduced here. As you read about the early inhabitants of “Albion,” the coming of the Romans and the Angles, the founding of churches, monasteries, cities, and kingships, recurrent plagues, and the struggle for Christianity as it fought paganism and syncretistic heresy it is easy to be drawn into the forests, mountains, and islands of a disunited Britain.

All three of these works are worth reading on their own merit, but together perhaps a few helpful thoughts can be drawn out. This brings me to a more recent book, Retrieving History, by Stefana Dan Laing. These older Christian histories, and others after them, were much more than simple presentation of facts and timelines, though they did that in highly accurate ways. According to Laing, these histories served two primary purposes. There was “a pedagogical intent to instruct the audience through the narrative by providing examples, and a providential purpose, as writers attempted to answer questions about what drives the action in historical events” (20). Laing then argues this was “accomplished via four characteristic features: narrative (narratio or historia), remembrance (memoria or anamnesis), imitation (imitatio or mimesis), and causation (aitia).” These old histories were written to help Christians in a tangible way. They were written in a lively manner (narration) meant to create a culture of remembrance leading to imitation of the good and learning from the bad. They were not afraid to explain what caused what, which could be natural or supernatural. God was not only in control, but also actively bringing about his purposes in the world.

Two things from these old Christian histories stand out: (1) the presence of the communion of saints that came before us and (2) the sovereignty of the God we worship. We don’t study history just so that we can claim that we know our history. These types of history are meant as examples to train us for future circumstances, be that everyday discipleship, plague, heresy, or even martyrdom. And, the God that proved himself faithful and made his church great through the ages is the same God we follow and worship. All things do work providentially toward his prescribed telos. Christian history is an essential. We must preserve this collective memory so that it will continue to carry forward our Christian identity. “As we remember our forebears, we ought always to look to their God, the God of history, of whom they bore witness, our great God who accomplished his work through women and men in every era to build up the church” (199). Amen.

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


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.


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.


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.

On the Limits of Theological Knowledge

book shelves in a room close up photographyOne of the more important aspects of theology, in my opinion, is a healthy understanding of the limits of theological knowledge. There is a tendency for many to approach theology as something that can be mastered. This would be the feeling that once you get all your theological ducks in a row you will be set, or that you can approach theological controversy with an expectation that one side has all the answers. I find this problematic for at least two reasons: it is arrogant and it misses the entire point of theology.

I just finished reading an incredible book by Steven Duby, God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology. I’m not going to review Duby’s book. I’ll leave that to someone else. But, his chapter on the knowledge of God helpfully situates our knowledge within a greater superstructure.

From a human perspective, we understand that our understanding was marred by the fall (the noetic effects of sin). But it can be helped to understand the things of God by the Spirit through regeneration, illumination, and ultimately glorification. Also from this human perspective, we normally use the “crutch” of tradition (church history and the communion of saints) to help.

While it is helpful to think about human understanding within the large timeline of creation, fall, redemption, and glorification, this is not the only perspective from which to view human understanding. This is where Duby is helpful. His first chapter discusses knowledge of God within an even larger theological superstructure. These are the layers he provides, each of which builds on the previous:

  1. Theological knowledge has the divine purpose of communion with God. The divine purpose of theological knowledge is communion with God, which recognizes that God is complete in himself but yet wills that created beings can know something of him, which is primarily made known in Scripture;
  2. God is known in self-revelation through wisdom. The object of theological knowledge is God himself and is dependent on God’s initiative in revelation. Importantly, this revelation is not just to give bare information but to bring glory to God and restored fellowship between God and his creation. The way this looks in the life of the Christian is wisdom.
  3. The limitations of finitude. The limitations and incompleteness of theological knowledge are important to realize. Where one sits on the timeline of the history of revelation will affect theological knowledge (we sit between what the OT saints knew and what the blessed in heaven know). Likewise, where one sits in regard to redemption will affect theological knowledge (unregenerate, regenerate, or glorified).
  4. Not hidden but a pilgrim understanding. Despite limitations in knowledge, God is not a hidden and unknowable God (Deus absconditus). Rather, a recognition of the pilgrim nature of our understanding can lead to a healthy understanding of the knowledge of God.

In other words, Duby’s work locates theological reasoning within a divine framework, not just the human perspective (which is encompassed in Duby’s third point). The greater superstructure Duby points to is God’s being (the divine ontology). Duby is not the first to do this, others such as John Webster, Kevin Vanhoozer, Matthew Barrett, and Scott Swain have done similar work recently. And this really points to the much older “basic theological principles” of principium essendi (principle of being), principium cognoscendi externum (the external principle of knowing), and principium cognoscendi internum (the internal principle of knowing).

In a blog post I can only drop this bit of theology. To comment and explicate how these all fit together would take a seminary-level theology course. But I hope you can see at least the skeleton of what is being said: The Triune God in himself gives the base meaning to all reality, which is ultimately found in God alone. Thus, God has a purpose within himself for humans knowing him. To accomplish this purpose God has revealed himself through various means, and scripture is our primary access point at this time. It is at this juncture that the limitations of human understanding enter. Yet, we are not left alone because the Spirit works through regeneration, illumination, and the communion of saints to help us have theological understanding. All of which, of course, is so we can have a relationship with the Triune God.

When we understand theological knowledge within this greater framework, at least a few observations can be made.

First, we should lay aside the prideful notion that we can build an impregnable theology. This is not to say that we cannot be firm in our convictions, but we must realize that there are serious limitations to our theology. Which is nothing less than what many wise theologians will say. The three most comforting words in a theologian’s arsenal that they can give in response to tough theological questions are: “I don’t know.” And that is a good thing because we worship a God who is altogether different than we are. Yet he has made himself known, and for a reason.

Second, God makes himself known for us. As Duby pointed out, the purpose of theological knowledge is communion with God. The point is not merely to get your theological ducks in a row. The point is to grow in communion with the object of theology, which is God himself. Theology is no less than head knowledge, but it is so much more.

Third, from our human perspective, an understanding of historical theology helps here, both to give a robust theology and to guard from painful wandering. The categories put in place by those who came before us are not simply dry, scholastic bones. They are careful reflections on the way we can understand God. We do not have to constantly reinvent the wheel. And we neglect these carefully constructed safeguards at our own peril. The character of historical theology as memory is essential.

Fourth, the theological disciplines should all be done within this framework. Systematic and historical theology along with biblical studies are all encompassed by this overarching reality. That has often given me much food for thought, especially as I consider what a theology of historical theology looks like.

All that to say: Duby’s book really got me thinking. That is what the best books do. And these are only a few meditations on one chapter. Yet hardly anything is more important in theological reflection than remembering our own limitations and that the point of these reflections is to bring us to closer communion with God.

Review: A Little Book for New Historians by Tracy McKenzie


Robert Tracy McKenzie, A Little Book for New Historians: Why and How to Study History (IVP Academic, 2019), 115 pages.

In this little book, Tracy McKenzie contributes to IVP’s “Little Book” series by giving a helpful introduction to the study of history from a Christian perspective. On the one hand, this short work can be read as a classroom textbook in the sense that its readers will be challenged to do history and do it well. In part one, McKenzie walks the reader through a basic definition and understanding of history before discussing the need and the benefits of historical training. In part two, McKenzie walks through the best practices that accompany history done well.

On the other hand, this book can be read as an invitation for transformation. In a sense this is the well-discussed difference between getting training and getting an education. I’ve completed a lot of school and one thing that has helped is my test-taking ability. True and false questions, multiple-choice, short answer, and fill in the blank can all “be beaten” in my thinking (which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them). I learned at an early age that being good at taking tests will translate quickly into getting good grades. But that doesn’t always mean that I’ve learned as much as my grade shows. It’s also why essay assignments were more difficult, they force you to think and show that you are thinking. In history class, it is easier to discuss dates and names than it is to discuss what we think went on, how we can defend our understanding of the past, and what wisdom can be gleaned from our endeavor.

This difference between training and education is the key to good history. McKenzie calls this historical consciousness. “Historical consciousness isn’t information we possess or a skill that we practice, It’s a mindset that changes how we see both ourselves and the world” (39). If we do history well we better ourselves by learning to loose ourselves from the tyranny of the present and listen well to the wisdom of the past. The personal takeaway is that the skills learned in this sort of education easily transfers to nearly every other endeavor we can imagine. “The academic study of history is less a gateway to a particular occupation than a stepping stone to lifelong learning” (35).

This leads me to think about of how this impacts Christians, which McKenzie discusses in a couple chapters. Studying church history means that we will learn dates and names from the Christian past, but it is more important that we learn to think better and learn to learn from the deceased among the communion of saints. They will seem odd and hard to understand because of our distance from them. We need to learn patience, humility, and the need to suspend judgment until we can weigh the various pieces of data within the suggested interpretive scheme. One simply cannot do history well without the famous “five C’s of historical thinking” of change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity (88). These critical thinking skills prove helpful in many arenas. They make one a better and more conscious thinker in general. It is no surprise that history majors in college go on to a great variety of successful careers. And for the Christian-would-be-historian, McKenzie says the one who employs these skills well “should expect to increase in historical knowledge, thinking skill, and consciousness, but you should also hope to grow in humility, charity, and wisdom” (105-106).

Sound thinking about the past means that “hot takes” or the “gotcha” quote tweet are not what we are after. Patient thinking, humble wrestling with people and ideas very different than our own, and cautious conclusions are just a few of the traits we are after. For someone interested in learning what history is all about, this book is as good a place to start as any. Its wit, brevity, and smooth prose make it easy to read through. And for the more experienced historian, the same qualities make this truly a refreshing refresher course. I will return to this book again for sure.