What is Historical Theology?

Perhaps one of the most neglected and misunderstood areas of theological study is historical theology, especially in light of the popularity of systematic theology and the renewal of biblical theology. The neglect may come from fear of reading primary sources because they are perceived as archaic, thus difficult to understand. For those who explore historical theology, their definition tends to be insufficient by not considering its telos for Christians today or skewing it in a polemical fashion. Christians today need a thorough definition of historical theology that accounts for the church’s history and her current context. In this paper, I will distinguish historical theology from other approaches, explore a robust definition of historical theology, and identify implications for theological inquiry based on this definition.

Defining Approaches

As the church seeks to translate its exegesis into relevancy, there are three main options she can choose from to “do” theology. It is important to note that these options do not mutually exclude each other. In fact, they complement each other. The first option is systematic theology. A contemporary definition of systematic theology is the idea of synthesizing biblical teaching into a unified system that incorporates the past into the present moment.1 The second option is biblical theology. Grant R. Osborne defines it as choosing a theme and tracing it through both testaments.2 The final option is historical theology. Everett Ferguson defines it as “the study of the history of God’s people in Christ, a theological claim, or, speaking more neutrally, of those who wanted to be God’s people in Christ.”3 This definition is accurate in that it rightly understands the historical aspect of theology. That is, the church has a long history of fathers and mothers who have thought seriously about God.

However, this definition misses a critical aspect of historical theology. While it is important to know the history of a doctrine and how it developed, historic Christians did not do theology for future Christians to admire. They did theology because they believed it contained immediate relevance to their cultural moment. So, dismissing historical theology misses a crucial element to growing in faith. If their theology had relevance to them then, then how much more can their theological understanding improve the church’s thoughts about theology and the questions she asks?

Defining Historical Theology

Walter H. Principe argues that there are two steps in historical theology. The first step is to “investigate[] past theology and its contexts.”4 In Timothy LeCroy’s lecture on “The Method and Mindset of Historical Theology,” he proposed that Christians can know historical theology through primary texts, art/architecture, archaeology, ecology, and many other forms.5 Basically, anyone can know what a particular people believed or thought through their preserved cultural artifacts.

Only after Christians have “investigated past theology and its contexts”6 can they begin to do step two of historical theology. Principe argued that historical theology is “a method of doing contemporary theology by reflecting on past theology and its historical contexts.”7 On the one hand, historical theology is just that—studying “past theology and its historical contexts” in order to learn what Christians believed. On the other hand, there is a contemporary demand on historical theology.

Principe, after proposing his holistic definition of historical theology, teases out two metaphors that highlights the distinction between the insufficient definitions and his definition. The first metaphor he proposes is the fortress.8 One of the primary uses of a fortress is to protect. Christians who appeal to church history in doctrinal arguments are, in a sense, appealing to a fortress. This appeal can offer solidarity, especially when one is refuting heresies. However, a fortress can also insulate. One may appeal to church history as their argument rather than thinking critically about how to further develop a doctrine.

The second metaphor Principe offers—and holds to—is the launching pad.9 Launching pads are meant to hurl objects forward at unprecedented rates. Principe argues that historical theology can “serve today to stimulate, to open new horizons, [and] to raise questions form the past that lead to insights about the present and even the future[.]” Launching pads can be used maliciously, as he contends (that is, innovating a doctrine beyond its bounds). However, historical theology can keep theological pioneers within orthodox bounds.

Implications

For those who pursue advanced theological training, the juxtaposition of these metaphors may be helpful for teaching others. On the one hand, there is a faith tradition—ecumenically and denominationally—that should be preserved and passed on to others. Teachers need to equip their students to understand the history of the faith and how to preserve it. On the other hand, one’s faith tradition should continue to explore new questions that meets today’s challenges with hopes that the answer may one day, too, be passed down to the next generation. Students should be encouraged to ask new and difficult questions that advance the faith.

In conclusion, a proper definition of historical theology accounts for understanding doctrine in its historical context. Only after this context is established can a theologian reflect on contemporary application. Church history should be preserved and studied. However, it should not be seen as the last light of orthodoxy. Instead, today’s believers should use the work of their fathers and mothers as a launching pad. As new questions and topics arise, believers must rise to the occasion and address them in a relevant way without neglecting the rich work already accomplished.


Works Cited

  • Barry, John, ed. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.
  • Ferguson, Everett. Church History Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
  • LeCroy, Timothy. The Method and Mindset of Historical Theology. Lecture. St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2021.
  • Osborne, Grant. “Biblical Theology.” In Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, edited by Walter Elwell and Barry Beitzel, 339–46. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988.
  • Principe, Walter. “The Sources of Theology.” In The Sources of Theology: Essays on the Theme with an Introduction by John P. Boyle, Vol. 3. Current Issues in Theology. The Catholic Theological Society of America, 1988.

Endnotes

  1. John Barry, ed., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
  2. Grant Osborne, “Biblical Theology,” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Walter Elwell and Barry Beitzel (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 339.
  3. Everett Ferguson, Church History Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 25. Emphasis added.
  4. Walter Principe, “The Sources of Theology,” in The Sources of Theology: Essays on the Theme with an Introduction by John P. Boyle, vol. 3, Current Issues in Theology (The Catholic Theological Society of America, 1988), 21.
  5. Timothy LeCroy, The Method and Mindset of Historical Theology, Lecture (St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2021).
  6. Principe, “The Sources of Theology,” 21.
  7. Principe, 21.
  8. Principe, 24.
  9. Principe, 24.

This post was originally an academic paper submitted to Dr. Timothy LeCroy in Ancient & Medieval Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version.