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] Continue reading

MHT: Principle of Order

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

OxfordThe third methodological foundation for historical theology incorporates aspects of an ordered approach to the study of the past. This is the great legacy of the Modern era on the study of history: a scientific approach to history should be consistently, broadly, and objectively (as possible) applied. History is not apologetics, though it may be employed for apologetic purposes. One should not fail to subject one’s own religious beliefs or practices to the consequences of historical methodology,[43] although, as Schaff notes, this is not quite the same thing as assuming that all viewpoints are equally problematized by historical study.[44] Especially important is nomenclature, which must be appropriately descriptive, adequately precise, and sufficiently flexible to address that which is being studied. Marc Bloch found that history often received its vocabulary from its object of study and that this phenomenon must be critically evaluated as another form of historical evidence to be weighed.[45] He points to the term “Middle Ages” as a prime example of this: the term clearly implies a form of judgment on the period between the wisdom of the ancients and the return to learning in Renaissance. Metanarrative tools should also be used in the study of history, not as universally informing worldviews, but as tools for observing and understanding history. Continue reading

MHT: Perspectivism

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

Bernard Lonergan

Bernard Lonergan

To satisfy both the postmodern critique and need for epistemological clarity, I suggest epistemological and methodological perspectivism. Perspectivism acknowledges the limits of the historian and their information, the selectivity of historical presentations, and the variability of the context and selections which historians are able to employ. In the words of Bernard Lonergan, perspectivism admits that different standpoints exist and are “(1) not contradictory, (2) not complete information and not complete explanation, but (3) incomplete and approximate portrayals of an enormously complex reality.”[40] Continue reading

MHT: Principle of Clarity

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

The Thinker Auguste RodinEpistemological clarity constitutes the second vital component for historical theological work. This necessity arises out of awareness of the postmodern critique of knowledge. As noted above, the postmodern challenge argues that historians can only engage the past from their own necessarily limited and linguistically constructed perspectives, thereby limiting the applicability of any claims to assertions of relative perspective. The work of Foucault, Lyotard, and Berkofer rightly critiques assumptions of narrative meaning at work in historical reconstructions, that all perspectives are necessarily limited. However, less persuasive is the critique of narrative that accompanies the postmodern metanarrative. Recognition that everyone relies on worldviews which contain certain epistemological assumptions does not necessitate that those worldviews (and epistemologies) are invalid. Rather such recognition requires awareness of those assumptions and how they operate. Continue reading

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

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