MHT: Principle of Context

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

Context is KingThe fourth important factor in the study of historical theology involves a wide investigation of contexts. While Berkofer somewhat problematizes a context furnished by “thick description,”[50] the type of context sought here does not involve the assimilation of historical contexts to recognizable patterns, but the engagement of the past—as much as possible—on its own terms, using its own language and grammar. This need for context applies not only to historical events, but also judgments and evaluations of history; in the words of Acton, historians themselves should be “guilty until proven innocent.”[51]

There can, of course, be too much emphasis or fixation on superfluous context—losing a single, solitary tree in view of a forest, as it were. However the historical method works best when historical events and persons are put into relation with their contexts. As Ernst Troeltsch writes, effective history “relativizes everything, not in the sense that it eliminates every standard of judgment and necessarily ends in a nihilistic skepticism, but rather in the sense that every historical structure and moment can be understood only in relation to others and ultimately to the total context, and that standards of values cannot be derived from isolated events but only from an overview of the historical totality.”[52]

Context is EverythingThus, of first importance is the engagement of source materials and of second rank is treating those sources on the author’s and text’s own terms.[53] Such factors include social context, literary and book practices, language, geography, religious context, political context, genre, conceptions of time, cosmological assumptions, and much more. This is where much of current historical theology excels, especially in the works of those who are particularly interested in painting a detailed picture of the past. The insights of “New Theologies” must also be consulted. These include concerns with gender, class, culture, race, sex, conceptions of women and slaves, and family structures.[54]

Before proceeding, I should note that a consideration of total context does away with any type of division between “sacred” and “secular” histories. In this view, all factors are relevant. This does not mean that all history must be “sacred history” in the traditional sense of the term, that is, as the history of the Church. Rather, this means that all history is sacred, insofar as all history is part of God’s unfolding drama. Of the methodological factors outlined thus far, this one seems to come easiest to many scholars, no doubt because considerations of context are impressed upon us through the paradigm of scientific education. Consideration of broad context, however, remains no less important for the work of those doing historical theology.


[50] See Berkofer, 142-3.

[51] Acton, 40.

[52] Troeltsch, 18.

[53] See Stuart Hall, “Introduction” and “The Work of Representation” in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. Stuart Hall (London: Sage, 1997), 1-76 on the relationship of authors and texts.

[54] Gonzalez, 150. Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1983), 80-4.


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