MHT: Assessing Historical Metanarratives (Part II)

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Church-HistoryThe metanarrative that seems most appropriate as the general approach to the history of Christianity is that of development. An approach seeking authentic developments—those which retain the first principles of a tradition throughout their entire development—appears to find that delicate balance between the errors of the changeless and the ever-changing. The willingness to locate the movements of history through the dialectic of opposites, the alternations back and forth between extremes in order to locate the truth of the middle ground, also seems sagacious given the example of the past. The developmental possibility for the assimilation of new ideas and contexts is also of great importance, especially given the advances of technology and geography in recent centuries. The principle that developments should build upon and not replace earlier doctrines especially illuminates the possibilities for both continuity and improvement, that the present is neither supremely dictated by the past nor lived in isolation from its effects. As Newman rightly indicated, true growth is that which “illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds.”[35]

Taking as primary a perspective of developmentalism also allows for integration of the insights and concerns of other historical metanarratives. From Successionism the developmental approach allows for certain beliefs and practices to have been sufficiently mature at the time of their arrival that they remain strikingly similar today, while not requiring that all (or even most) of Christian faith fall into this category. Meaningful continuity between past and present can exist. From Supercessionism the developmental view accounts for the possibility of inauthentic developments, erroneous claims which sprang from the life of the church. Not everything done or said by Christians in the past was holy and in accordance with the will of God. Corruption is possible, though true corruptions eventually die out. Finally, from Appercession the developmental option remains open to adopting the best insights of raised social awareness and integrating them into the life of the church, without being bound to adopt popular opinion.[36] The Church can learn—not in the sense of replacing a concept already explained, but in the sense of acquiring new awareness about issues previously unrecognized. Therefore, the type of metanarrative approach which offers the best route forward in the study of history involves a generally developmental perspective which remains open to instances of continuity, change, and contemporary insight.


[35] Newman, 200.

[36] Sensus Fidei In the Life of the Church. International Theological Commission (Vatican City, 2014), §87.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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