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. Continue reading

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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] Continue reading

MHT: Assessing Historical Metanarratives (Part I)

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

HistoryAt long last, I turn to the second part of this series, which itself will contain two sections: first, a general discussion of which historical metanarratives seem best suited to the work of contemporary historical theology; and second, an overview of the principles which seem methodologically necessary for my historical theological project. Again, the argument of this series is that historical theology requires the insights of both critically informed history and faithful theology in order to make valuable meaning out of the past. Continue reading

MHT: Historiography and Christian History

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

SLUAt this juncture, I must reiterate that the application of categories such as pre-Modern, Modern, Postmodern, and developmental are neither strictly chronological nor are they entirely encompassing. There are contemporary examples of historiographical perspective representing each of these viewpoints, just as there are works which embody different insights from each of these movements. While the “history of history” has broadly developed along the lines summarized above,[32] a sometimes more useful way to delineate perspectives on the use of history are the metanarrative perspectives outlined by Kenneth Parker. In “Re-Visioning the Past and Re-Sourcing the Future: The Unresolved Historiographical Struggle in Roman Catholic Scholarship and Authoritative Teaching,” Parker outlines four ways in which the history of Christianity has been understood, terming these views Successionism, Supercessionism, Developmentalism, and Appercessionism. Continue reading

MHT: Developmental Perspectives on History

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

John Henry Cardinal Newman

John Henry Cardinal Newman

Postmodernism has not been the only reaction to the rise of Modern historiography: well documented is the rise of various “fundamental” forms of religion, which often retreat into pre-Modern conceptions of history and reality without taking seriously the insights or methods of Modern (or Postmodern) thought. Generally less discussed, however, are “developmental” perspectives on history, such as those of John Henry Newman and Philip Schaff. Such a viewpoint takes seriously the apparent variations between past and present, especially with regard to Church teaching. The developmental position argues that truth claims can function like “seeds” or “kernels” of veracity, existing early within a tradition as immature (yet still true) and growing over time into a mature understanding of reality. Whereas the pre-Modern and Modern conceptions of history posit that changes in Christian teaching would appear to be corruptions of the truth, the developmental option indicates that change is not always the decay of the truth into falsehood. For example, in Newman’s application of this theory, he was simultaneously able to admit changes in the teachings of the Christian Church throughout history and still argue from his historical sources and the scriptures that “Christian doctrine admits of formal, legitimate, and true developments” conceived by the Divine Author.[28] Continue reading

MHT: Theological Critiques of Modern History

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

Gustavo Guitierrez

Gustavo Guitierrez

A number of theologically active Postmodern critiques have arisen in recent decades as well, most notably Liberation, Feminist, and Postcolonial Theologies. Founded by Gustavo Gutierrez, Liberation Theology places an emphasis on salvation, God’s work in history, and concern for the poor. Feminist models of historical reconstruction employ familiar categories—such as family structures—in order to problematize patriarchal categories and demonstrate the possibility of egalitarian historical interaction.[26] For some, however, common Postmodern critiques do not go far enough in removing themselves from the parameters and assumptions of Modernism. Such is the perspective of Justo Gonzalez, who advocates “extramodernity,” the perspective of the “many voices and perspectives that modernity either ignored or patronized and that postmodernity still patronizes and ignores.”[27] Continue reading

MHT: Postmodern Critiques of Modern History

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

PostmodernismPostmodernism, while notoriously difficult to define and existing in a variety of forms, essentially involves an attempt to move beyond Modernism and the questioning of metanarratives and truth claims due to the constructed nature of human language and reality. With regard to historical methodology, Postmodernism typically functions as a problematization of the Modern and a call to hear the previously unheard “ancient voices that have long been suppressed.”[21] For Postmodern thinkers, narrative is never neutral, but is always ideologically freighted. New intellectual history, therefore, explores the “material embeddedness of ideas and their relation to power” while acknowledging the historian’s situation and interests.[22] Accordingly, “history” becomes understood as distinctly different than “the actual past,” for the practices and structures of historians are always influencing conceptions of the past and synthesizing the past with the present. Berkofer argues that recognition of this way in which poetics impacts historical practice must be understood in order for history to move forward.[23] Continue reading

MHT: Modern Critiques of Modern History

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

HTThe Modernist perspective on history is not without its critics. Herbert Butterfield noted the importance of engaging the complexities of the past on their own terms and of not presuming the assumptions of the present where the underpinnings of the past.[17] Instead, history must problematize the perceptions of the present by recognizing the conditional nature of the past. The Annalist school was especially sensitive to the way in which the questions being asked and evidence available for reconstruction influences the shape of historical conversations.[18] In order to curb ignorance and inaccuracy in the study of the past, the Annalists advocated awareness of how history was conceived and approached by those studying it. Similarly, the Structuralist school drew upon linguistics in order to argue that all knowledge depends on language, discursive construction, and intra-linguistic difference.[19] Claude Levi-Strauss, to provide an example, indicated that anthropologically discovered discontinuities—not historical consciousness—provided the best access to human knowledge.[20] Eventually, such criticisms of Modernism tried to rend themselves from that perspective and establish a movement of their own.


 

[17] Herbert Butterfield, Whig Interpretation of History (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1965), 19-24.

[18] Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (New York: Vintage, 1964), 61-75.

[19] Elizabeth Clark, History, Theory, and Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 44-7.

[20] Ibid., 47-53.

MHT: The Rise of Modern History

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

Lord Acton

Lord Acton

This was first great Modern shift in historical thinking, coming to recognize that human existence exists within changing space and time.[11] While this fact was first the product of Biblical and Humanistic scholarship, Enlightenment thinking soon became the “intellectual movement under whose aegis this recognition of the fact of change came to be widely, if not universally shared.”[12] This growing preoccupation with history engaged the changes and developments in certain Christian dogmas throughout the ages. Studies which demonstrated problems with the Church’s claims to timeless continuity eventually helped foster secularization, where Christian religion lost authority over social institutions and the sciences—including history—began to reign supreme. Continue reading

MHT: Medieval and Reformation History

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

Erasmus

Erasmus

In the medieval period, conceptions of the changelessness of the Church solidified through the works of Bernard of Clairvaux, the Venerable Bede, Dante, and Otto of Freising.[6] Rome—which was generally not thought of as “fallen” until Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—was increasingly identified as the seat of the elect of history. Such a view was radically challenged by the Protestant Reformers and their heirs, who increasingly advocated a narrative in which, far from being changeless, Roman Christianity had fallen into corruption and was in serious need of restoration to the pristine faith of the ancient Church. This perspective is especially evident in a work like Edward Johnson’s The Wonderworking Providence of Sion’s Savior in New England (1654), wherein the Church of New England was called to recapitulate the true and atemporal nature of ancient Christianity by encouraging a return to the separation of Church and State.[7] In the post-Reformation years, Catholics and Protestants alike proclaimed a form of Semper Eadem, best summarized in the words of fifth century Father Vincent of Lerins, that the truth of the Church is “what all men have at all times and everywhere believed must be regarded as true.”[8] Continue reading