This post is part of a proposal for approaching theology from the perspective of history.
Four Historiographic Models
When approaching theological concepts from a historical angle, the issue of historiography must be addressed as a matter of primary important.2 That is, before we make appeals to, for example, what Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistles say about bishops or Thomas Aquinas’s articulation of the beatific vision, we must first answer the question of how to best examine and understand the history of Christianity. Particularly helpful on this topic are the four historiographical models outlined by Kenneth Parker: successionism, supercessionism, developmentalism, and appercessionism.3
Successionism posits that Christian truth was received by the apostles and has been preserved unadulterated by time and circumstance. Next, supercessionism argues that ancient Christianity was normative, became corrupted over time (the rate of decay is oft debated), but may be rediscovered and restored by returning to the faith and practice of the primitive Church. Developmentalism finds that early Christianity contained nascent expressions of teaching which have organically grown into deeper understandings of truth over the centuries. Finally, appercessionism does not privilege ancient Christianity, but uses heightened consciousness of the present age to critique previous Christian teaching and practice. Before engaging in discussions of historical theology, we must first come to terms with which of these views we hold, as well as which perspective any interlocutors inhabit.
For example, if I am discussing the appropriate model for church government with a member of the local church I attend, it will be helpful to know how influential appeals to church history will be. In this instance, the supercessive narrative holds sway over many of my fellow congregants. Thus, making appeals to what Augustine or Martin Luther say about bishops probably will not prove helpful, whereas an examination of New Testament evidence and (perhaps) what the earliest non-canonical Christians say about the matter will move our conversation forward. Awareness of our historiographical standing helps clarify how useful historical appeals will be (if at all) and allows us to better understand our conversation partners from the start.
2 Merriam-Webster defines historiography as “the writing of history; the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources; [and] the principles, theory, and history of historical writing.”
3 Kenneth Parker, “Re-Visioning the Past and Re-Sourcing the Future: The Unresolved Historiographical Struggle in Roman Catholic Scholarship and Authoritative Teaching,” in The Church On Its Past (Studies in Church History, vol. 49), edited by Peter D. Clarke and Charlotte Methuen (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Ecclesiastical History Society and Boydell, 2013), 389-416.