MHT: Principle of Awareness

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

Medieval UniversityWith a metanarrative of developmentalism in a hand, I must now turn to some explicit methodological principles for undertaking the project of historical theology. First, methodological awareness forms the foundation for all solid historical theological work. As Terrence Tilley suggests, irresponsible historians fail not because they have-value laden presuppositions, but because they allow their assumptions to warrant unwarrantable historical claims and reconstructions.[37] Heightened methodological awareness helps alleviate irresponsible history by providing those studying the past with an understanding of existing conversations and conventions concerning the field. Increased understanding of methodological concerns also underlines that methodologies serve metanarrative purposes as well. Acquisition of this awareness incorporates what was attempted in the first section of this paper and stands behind numerous methodology books and sources. Truly valuable methodological awareness demonstrates the need for a broad understanding of methodological and historical approaches. Awareness does not constitute indoctrination into a single school of thought but involves exposure to a diversity of perspectives through reading widely, taking a variety of courses, putting the time and energy into the engagement of methodological considerations, and enlisting numerous viewpoints presented in different institutional settings. Only once this type of awareness has been marshaled can any sort of constructive project be fruitfully undertaken.

Within the current context of historical theology, the recognition of paradigms is an important issue which must be addressed. Paradigms—which are sets of presuppositions, boundaries, assumptions, questions, and practices—govern intellectual processes. Thomas Kuhn notes that paradigms, while relatively easy to locate, must be compared with other paradigms in order that their isolatable elements may be abstracted and deployed elsewhere.[38] Recognition of operational paradigms remains especially difficult, for educational processes are designed to reinforce and propagate accepted paradigms. It is only when exposed to external forces—evidence, questions, or standards—that the limits of a paradigm are observable. Furthermore, paradigms carry epistemological weight by functioning as internally consistent and problematizing other perspectives which rest outside the realms of that consistency. Awareness of methodological assumptions and paradigms stands as the first step in formulating a stable basis for historical theological work.


[37] Terence Tilley, “Introduction: Practicing History, Practicing Theology,” in Theology and the New Histories, ed. Gary Macy, (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1999), 6.

[38] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Third Edition; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 43-4.


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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