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Against “Historical Theology”

In the recent polemical engagement between John Frame, James Dolezal, and various other commentators, the role of history in theology has been a major talking point. Should we stick to the historic tradition or should be free to be unapologetically “biblical”? To what extent can we criticize past theologians? Should we view constructive theology with suspicion or appreciation?

John Frame himself raises some of these very points in his response to Dolezal, especially with this line:

Like Muller, then, he tries to make systematic theology totally subordinate to historical theology. But this is to put the cart before the horse. We can learn much from the theologians who have preceded us in history, but sola Scriptura requires us to test everything they say by the direct study of Scripture.

Notice the categories– “systematic theology” and “historical theology.” These are presented as self-contained disciplines, and they are presumed to be different enough to be able to stand in opposition to one another. There are some powerful assumptions at work in this kind of argument, and I’d like to poke a few holes in them.

In fact, I’ll just come out and say it. I don’t think we should grant the concept of “historical theology” in this way. “History” is indeed a valid category– the study of people, places, and things over time– and so “church history” and “historical theology” make sense as species of this discipline. But that’s for the historians. For theologians, no matter their inclination, the interest is not simply to study the development of ideas as such. They certainly shouldn’t treat these ideas as intellectual constructs or artifacts that stand at some distance from the simpler concept of “theology” itself. If that’s what “historical theology” means, then we should want nothing to do with it.

Let’s take homoousious. While we now know that the development of pro-Nicene theology was more complicated than this one term, it is still the term that captures the larger debate. It is not a biblical term, and, indeed, it presupposes a certain ontology– that there is such a thing as an “essence” and that it can be shared by divine persons in ways that it cannot be shared by creatures. Nowhere in the Bible will you find this theoretical background directly examined or argued one way or another. Athanasius’ point was that the Bible also assumed this sort of concept and that the Biblical teaching could not be understood without such a concept, but that is why he had to argue as he did. It was not always universally acknowledged.

Now, a “historical theologian” would set about to tell the story of how this theological concept began, underwent development, and finally gained wide acceptance. You can find examples of this in RPC Hanson’s Search For the Christian Doctrine of God and Lewis Ayres’ Nicaea and Its Legacy. Neither of these books necessarily takes on the burden of proving the pro-Nicene method to be true. They do not argue that it had the best exegesis or withstands extreme philosophical scrutiny. Both authors, of course, may believe that it does, but that is not the primary goal of their books. Instead, they are telling what happened. They are writing history books.

These books are very good too. They are useful for both historians and theologians. I happen to believe that they are useful for pastors and educated laymen. But I don’t think that theologians, pastors, and other Christians are simply reading these books to understand how ideas and concepts evolved. No, they are reading them to understand the Nicene doctrine of God. Indeed, it’s not too much to say that they are simply reading these books to understand the Trinity.

At this point the more “constructive” theologians (or are they creative?) will protest. Is not talking this way in effect elevating past expressions of theology to the level of absolute truth? Are we making history infallible and therefore committing a species of idolatry? No. We are not saying that everything in Nicene history was absolutely correct, nor would we bind anyone’s conscience to every particular expression of the various 4th century theologians. Not even Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox do that, by the way. Instead, what we are saying is that Nicaea and its subsequent refinement was basically correct. We believe that the pro-Nicene theologians engaged in critical argument with their opponents and, for the most part, got it right. This is why we confess the Nicene Creed and identify with that tradition instead of challenging it and joining one of the many restorationist movements available to us today.

We believe that truth is cumulative and that progress can and has been made. We believe that it is our duty to learn that and to work consistent with it. In the event that we believe we have located a substantial error, we understand that this will be a significant discovery and one that will occasion much controversy and therefore must be handled with the utmost care. Our theology, even our systematic theology, is therefore always taking its cues from previous systematic theologies, since those are the places we have learned our grammar and basic “ground rules.” When we argue for pro-Nicene theology, as Christian ministers especially, we are not arguing for “historical theology” but are instead simply doing “theology” as Christians who are heirs to a legacy of learning and accomplishment.

I also don’t think it’s true that most of the 20th cent constructive theologians knew their historical theology all that well. They didn’t carefully weight it and find it wanting. Instead, they appear to have a very limited acquaintance with it. They have presumed that it was rather thin and could be easily affirmed and then relativized, while somehow at the same time not contradicted, by their own exegetical discoveries and additional philosophical argumentation. They could argue that God is “unchangeable,” because they felt that this was a given of all Christian doctrine, but then turn around and argue that God changes, because that’s what they saw in the Scriptures. Various earlier attempts at harmonization may have occurred, but clearly they were insufficient. After all, that situation is precisely what the new proposal is seeking to correct.

But really, what this means, is that certain contemporary thinkers think that these aspects of earlier theology are in error. They think various aspects of what is now called “classical theism” were mistaken. They may have been “on the right track,” but they are presently incomplete enough to require substantial modification. Let’s be honest, whether God’s essence admits of one existence or multiple existences is a foundational question. It is not the kind of thing that can be easily “added” to a theology without rather dramatic ramifications. The same goes for simplicity itself, immutability, and certainly the relationship between God’s operations and the various persons of the Trinity.

I remember, in my own seminary experience, a systematic theology professor teaching the class that there were three wills in the godhead. I’m not sure he knew that this was outside the bounds. Rather, it just seemed natural, given the way that we commonly talk about “persons” and all of the assumptions that go into something like the covenant of redemption. For Nicene theology, however, this is totally unacceptable. There is only one divine will, and to suggest that there are three is akin to polytheism.

Now, when confronted with this problem, there are a few options. One can make use of 17th cent. scholastic distinctions. You might argue for particular hypostatic inflections of the one will, perceived especially distinctly from the ad extra works of God. Theologians could tinker here and there and make their arguments for which articulations are most consistent. This would be faithful to the earlier Nicene theology.

Another option is to say that you don’t know how to harmonize things, and so you are going to leave it well alone. This is a particularly good option for the younger thinker or one new to Trinitarian logic. It won’t make for a good book, nor should it, but it’s an appropriate humble and cautious approach.

A third option is to say that you think the tradition of confessing “one will” in the Godhead is simply wrong. You believe the Bible is plain enough, and so there you stand. Taking this option will, of course, require you to lay criticism to the Nicene logic, and it will, I believe, require you to separate yourself from that tradition– indeed that theology. But if you believe it with conviction, this is what you should do. The consequences will be significant, but you have to do what you have to do.

What you may not do, however, is say that the older Nicene logic is “historical theology” which is good in its place, but that you are going to look for some alternative “biblical” or “systematic” theology which will offer a different answer. This is not a legitimate option. This is using adjectives not to modify but to conceal the noun.

After all, none of us is free from history, and that means that none of us is free from “historical theology.” We are all working with terms and constructs that have baggage, and we might be surprised to learn just how many intellectual concepts have already been tried out. To argue that you are not working with “historical theology” but rather constructive biblical or systematic theology seems to be founded upon a rather atomistic assumption about learning. It also appears to be wed to the modern belief in the separation of academic disciplines.

Instead, all of our systematic theology ought to be historical theology because we are living 2,000 years in to the history of Christian theology. We cannot stand outside this realty in order to obtain some truly ahistorical vantage point, nor should we wish to. For this reason, I believe that it is high time to take another step forward in our intellectual progress and relegate the nomenclature of “historical theology” to the book marketers and graduate school registrars. Professional historians can keep the taxonomy if they must.

But for the rest of us, let’s just talk theology.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

One reply on “Against “Historical Theology””

A very good article, and good for pointing out the reasons why many of us do (or should) read historical theology – to help better understand the very “systematic” and “biblical” theology aimed at by those who criticize the historical deposit.

This quote is pregnant:

“What you may not do, however, is say that the older Nicene logic is ‘historical theology’ **which is good in its place**, but that you are going to look for some alternative ‘biblical’ or ‘systematic’ theology which will offer a different answer.” (emphasis mine)

I do believe this summation of yours adequately represents the attitude, if not exact verbiage, of Frame in the course of this current exchange. Might it be that here is a case where Frame’s “tri-perspectivalism” is showing its subjectivist/relativistic colors? Perhaps what motivates this attitude of Frame’s is the rather plastic nature of his triadic instrumentum? What was “normative” or “situational” for those at the time of Nicaea is no longer so for the “constructive” theologians of Frame’s stripe in the modern era; time to move on. How does one guard a “back to the Bible” approach from masking a desire simply to reinterpret, or reject, good truth provided by believers past?

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