How to Approach Theology

New College CloistersTheology is important. Good theology is even more important. Everyone is called to “do” theology.1 These are guiding principles for my theological work, which I seek to undertake with thoughtfulness, faithfulness, and charity. Of course, to merely say (or write) that theology holds a place of value is not the same as actually living out one’s faith while seeking understanding.2 Too many times in my own life it is at the place where the proverbial “rubber hits the road” that my abstract, intellectualized theological principles fall prey to my sinful nature and laziness. As important as it is to speak truth, it is not enough to merely say the right things. As James says in his epistle, “Show me your faith apart from works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”3

Thus, truly good theology consists not only of thinking rightly about God, but also living rightly (and righteously) in his presence. Of course, this raises that all important question of how: how do we not only think but also live faithfully? In reflecting on this task, I have developed some practice-oriented musings for how we should live as Christians in today’s world, which I now submit as theses for discussion: Continue reading

Thinking about Salvation in Early Christianity (Part II)

Byzantine JesusMost early Christians seem to have lived with a fairly basic understanding of soteriology. Beginning with Tertullian of Carthage, however, deeper investigation into specific aspects of soteriological doctrine began to circulate within the Church.[14] Philosophical language and concepts began to find more frequent use among the Fathers, and soon after the Fathers began teaching that “Christ suffered for our sins, healing our wounds and destroying death by His blood, and that we have been restored to life and our sins purged by it.”[15] In the East, theologians such as Origen and Methodius debated the effect of Adam’s fall and its impact on human freewill, death, and the new Adam of Christ.[16] This eventually coalesced into statements indicating that, “sin called for a propitiation, and Christ stepped forward as ‘a victim spotless and innocent,’ propitiating the Father to men by His generous self-oblation.”[17] The developments in thought, influx of philosophical language, and challenges of geographic distance eventually led to different Christian centers processing different (at least slightly) beliefs regarding the person and work of Christ in human salvation.[18] Continue reading

Thinking about Salvation in Early Christianity (Part I)

diamaid-macculloch-christianityBy the early fourth century, the Christianity had spread across the Roman world with surprising speed, tenacity, and relative uniformity of belief. While the early Church was by no means completely uniform in doctrine, belief, or practice, the vast majority of Christians professed what has become known as Christian Orthodoxy.[1] Heresies such as Docetism, Ebionism, Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism, while threatening the fledgling Church, were never serious threats in the way that the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries were. Chief among the divisions in the fourth century was the question of the deity of Jesus of Nazareth:[2] was the founder of the Church human? Was He divine? Was He somehow both? The answer to this question was important for historical reasons, but was even more important for its soteriological implications. Continue reading

Job Postings: Saint Louis University

SLUI wanted to alert readers to TWO tenure track positions which have recently opened up at Saint Louis University.  The first is a Hebrew Bible/Old Testament position and the second is a (somewhat more broad) Constructive Christian Theological Studies position. Knowing first hand the quality of the professors at SLU and the direction the Theological Studies department is headed in, I encourage qualified candidates to check out these opportunities.

On the Misuse of Christian Tradition: A Response

sola_scriptura_forumsThe proper relationship between the authority of Christian Scripture and authority of Christian Tradition avails itself to no easy answers. From a historical viewpoint, much of the early development of both remains hotly debated. From a theological perspective, centuries (and sometimes millennia) old debates continue to shape thinking and lead toward answers long before any explicit consideration of this relationship comes into focus.

Yet there seem to be boundaries—a “highway of orthodoxy” if you will—which suggest (or perhaps demand?) a certain perspective on the Christian understanding of the interplay between Scripture and Tradition, a stance which holds a) Scripture as inspired and authoritative (overly precise definitions aside); b) Tradition as important for properly interpreting Scripture (or, if you prefer more Protestant phrasings, “interpreting within the community” or even “Scripture interpreting Scripture”); and c) both Scripture and Tradition as necessarily in conversation with one another (i.e., neither allowed to dominate the other). Continue reading

MHT: Select Bibliography

Below is a select bibliography for the series I’ve been running for the past month on Method and Historical Theology. Any additional readings and resources that you have found useful would be appreciated.

Select Bibliography

Acton, John. “Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History.” In Essays on Freedom and Power. Edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb. New York: Meridian, 1956.

Berkofer, Robert. “The Challenge of Poetics to (Normal) Historical Practice.” Pages 139-157 in The Postmodern History Reader. Edited by Keith Jenkins. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft. New York: Vintage, 1964. Continue reading

Method and Historical Theology: Conclusions

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

Method and Historical TheologyThe perspective I have been outlining in this series does not to suggest that those who are not Christians cannot participate in historical truth, but rather the acknowledgement that wherever truth may be found is belongs to the Creator. Accordingly, all truly valuable work—be it academic scholarship, gardening, blacksmithing, or preaching—must stand in accordance with theological truth and be governed by it. The oft repeated dictum that theology involves “faith seeking understanding” is vital for this type of endeavor, for it reminds us that, although we make claims to the truth, the Truth is ultimately beyond our human capacities to fully understand. Conclusions, then, are necessarily tentative in the sense that the full Truth will only someday be revealed to us. Christians live in the tension of “already” and “not yet,” that Christ has come, but that He will come again in glory. Continue reading

MHT: Operating Assumptions

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

Jesus - History and TheologyBuilding upon the methodological principles I have been outlining, I wish to briefly offer some of the operating assumptions of my work in historical theology. Historical theological study must always engage other voices and perspectives—there is no such thing as a “stand alone” presentation of the past. Engagement with other voices is generally most fruitful when assumptions and methodologies—those structures standing behind historical constructions—are engaged. History is different than the “lived past”, although historical theology can partially, perspectivally, and humbly speak about the past. The historical past, when invoked in the present, is always influenced by the purposes of the present. This is not to say that meaningful perspectives on the past cannot be offered, only that the context of the present influences any appeal to the past. Historical theology requires an ordered and academically rigorous approach, willing to investigate and engage truth claims of all types and origins, including those undertaking study of the Christian past. Texts remain the primary basis for historical theological work, and are to be considered within their broad historical, theological, social, linguistic, and literary contexts. Finally, historical theology must be understood as the integration of history and theology, the rigorous intellectual methodology of the study of the past—complete with its problematizations of language and context—combined with the humble practice of seeking understanding of a transcendent God and His action in the world. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

MHT: Integration of History and Theology

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

types-of-theology1A final—and supremely important—methodological point for the study of historical theology engages the relationship of history and theology. Existing scholarship often takes a historical or contextual approach to the study of history. And while there is nothing wrong with this approach, it lacks something, especially in situations where assumptions of philosophical naturalism critique how history cannot transcend a single person or perspective. As was indicated above, historical consciousness first arose within the context of Christian theology and history. After the Enlightenment, however, this influence of theology on the study of the past waned. The idea that history and theology are distinct and irreconcilable fields of study is challenged by a historical theological approach that takes seriously the methods of history and the invigorating influence of a God involved in human history. In this perspective, history comprises a cooperative agent in Christian theological study, and events and changes in the course of history must be examined and accounted for by both history and theology. History and theology are co-dependent in Christian historical theology, for Christian knowledge cannot distain history, nor can history reject Christian knowledge, but must acquire the “collective experience of Christ verified and realized in us.”[55] Continue reading