MHT: Applying Historical Theology

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

Apostolic FathersWhat does a methodology invested in both history and theology look like? First, this perspective suggests an examination of the past for the sake of the future. This means conceiving of historical theology as a tool box for investigating, understanding, and applying the points of connection between history, Biblical exegesis, and the traditions of the Church. Christian dogma cannot be justified by tradition, history, exegesis, or experience alone; instead, all these forces should converge to support the great mission of the Great Church.[58] Second, this method suggests that historical theology must become engaged with ecumenical concerns, not disregarding the boundaries of historic and current theological differences, but transcending those discussions for the sake of common causes. In particular, historical theology which affirms a dialectical interpretation of change may help differentiate between theological difference and theological error, allowing for divergences between Christian bodies to be understood as complimentary rather than contradictory.[59] Similarly, a historical theology rooted in history and theology has value for interreligious dialogue. For example, the theological similarities between Augustine and the Advaita Vedanta philosopher Ramanuja[60] offers rich opportunities for Hindu-Christian dialogue on conceptions of God and reality.

Third, a methodology of historical theology founded in both history and theology is tasked with describing Christian history to secular minds. This general explanation of the thinking of other ages is especially ripe with opportunities to uncover previously undiscovered insights into dimensions of theology and history. This widening of the scope of historical theology will require more comprehensive definitions and a reevaluation of existing conclusions of the field. Finally, this method of historical theology affirms a confessional approach. The conscious identification of a scholar with a particular tradition does not seek to absolutize that specific perspective, but instead uses that particular context as a starting point for the work of theology.[61] As with the epistemological perspectivism noted above, a confessional approach recognizes the peculiarities of a certain viewpoint and utilizes those particulars for the study of the past while remaining open to other perspectives and changes.

On a personal note, my ongoing wrestling with questions of denominational affiliation has impacted the fullness with which I feel I can undertake any project specifically because of my “lack” of confessionalism. That is, because of my inability to take a clearly defined confessional approach at the moment, I feel that any constructive methodological project undertaken at this point contains a necessary caveat that I am working through an important part of what I understand to be a fully formed methodology for historical theological work.


[58] Blondel, 279.

[59] Pelikan, 26-7.

[60] The topic of my paper in the Journal of Comparative Religion (see the “Publications” tab above).


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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