Historical theology informs and educates present-day Bible readers

By December 30, 2019

Lebanon (MNN) – Historical theology. It is a topic that seeps into every theology class an undergraduate Bible major or seminary student takes. It is the long list of questions various believers and non-believers have posed over the centuries, which led to multiple creeds for the Church to collectively understand and explain the Scriptures. Historical theology is the study of what people have said about God and God’s works through history. For Christian theology, historical theology is closely tied to the study of how Christians have understood the Word of God over the centuries.

(Read more on good theology from The Gospel Coalition here.)

The “What” of Historical Theology

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Caleb Hutcherson, faculty development lead and lecturer in historical theology at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, is passionate about teaching historical theology to Arab evangelical students. This love for historical theology started during his studies at Dallas Theological Seminary when his class on historical theology opened up his understanding of the rich diversity of thought and practice in the history of Christianity. The course gave Hutcherson a new perspective and fresh insight into his faith.

“Historical theology [demonstrates how theology] is always contextual. Part of the beauty of studying historical theology is that it really exposes how contextual and perspectival doing theology is. So, when we look at history and listen to others who have done theology in history, context is there, and their experiences are there. The use of reason is there in all kinds of different ways. [You see the] different ways of weighing reason alongside tradition in relationship to the Bible,” Hutcherson says.

Finding a Path Through History

As students of historical theology take a step back and look at the topic from a wide-angle, a traceable continuity of the beliefs and practices of Christian believers spanning the history of the Church reveals itself. At the same time, the discontinuity of beliefs and practices through history introduces students to the diversity within the Christian tradition.

“We often have a tendency to think [favorably] of our own [personal] sufficiency [when reading the Bible]. So, me and my Bible, and the Holy Spirit is all that I need in order to know what to do and how to believe. That sort of rugged individualism, this…hyper-individualistic belief, that really all I need is me and the Bible, and because I’m indwelled by the Holy Spirit, then I’m set to go,” Hutcherson explains.

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This mindset feeds the mentality in ourselves that we do not need to listen to what other people have to say about God’s Word. A belief in self means the mistakes of Christians from the past are easier to repeat. This mentality can also create a divide in the Church and isolate people from the body of Christ. Studying historical theology helps believers avoid clinging too tightly to traditions for the sake of tradition or distorting the past to hold onto concepts or practices that are unbiblical. The study of historical theology “provides us wisdom for the present and for the future.”

Studying historical theology also helps believers experiment with new ideas and think carefully about new questions. One of the new ideas Hutcherson provides as an example is the Bible app. The innovation of the app offers a new way to access scripture through a new medium.

This same app also raises questions of how people relate to the physical scriptures. Reading God’s Word through an app impacts how readers consume scripture as a collection of individual verses instead of a linked narrative. In this scenario, historical perspectives help the present-day Church recognize how past innovations produced both positive and negative impacts.

Historical Theology and You

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Studying historical theology exposes an essential distinction between theology and revelation. Revelation is what God has said and done, while theology is what people say about God’s Word. Hutcherson explains historical theology helps the Church grapple with this tension. It helps untangle knots of “confusing revelation (what God says) with theology (which is what we say).” Theology is our commentary, and each person has their unique lens through which he or she views the world, God, and the Bible.

“Historical theology informs our understanding of God in that it helps us recognize who’s doing theology,” Hutcherson says.

Historical theology aids in distinguishing what we say God says from actual revelation.

“Recognizing those subjectivities all throughout history, I think, exposes our own subjectivities towards the text and towards God’s revelation,” Hutcherson notes.

But, if theology is what “we” say about what God says, then how can anyone trust any theology? Excellent question. The answer is a previously mentioned ten letter word beginning with the letter “c”— continuity.

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Historical theology brings the researcher to a place of confronting his or her biases towards the text. These biases are a result of someone’s education, family, the context of their childhood, personal sin nature, cultural background, economic background, nationality, sex, race, and much more.

“We’re all reading…[the] Bible, this text that’s authoritative in our lives, from these contextual perspectives…historical theology provides us is a sense of [where our reading and understanding is in] continuity with the past. It offers us a resource to compare what we’ve understood with not just those who are different from us in the present, and that’s incredibly important…but it offers us a chance to think about the continuity with those who have different perspectives or come from different perspectives in the past,” Hutcherson says.

“We can never escape from our bias to the present unless we go back and pay attention to what other people said in the past. Historical theology offers us perspective outside of ourselves from the past about how to understand what God has said in scripture.”

Authority of Scripture

Historical theology exposes believers to the “presence of different perspectives.” This exposure has the potential to guide Christians away from beliefs thought essential to the Christian faith, but are dogmatic and not biblically supported.

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“Through the process of studying theology historically, we come to recognize what is essential to Christian faith, as well as what is not. This challenges us to walk in humility, with a healthy sense of openness and willingness to grow and learn,” Hutcherson notes in an email.

Historical theology helps broaden the Church’s understanding of God’s Word and remove blinders, which would otherwise inhibit our ability to understand the Bible.

“The diversity that makes up the body of Christ is an incredible resource for us. It’s the testimony of the Holy Spirit through the diverse community of the Spirit. We desperately need to gain humility in order to learn from others within the body of Christ. Historical theology contributes that perspective from a historical perspective,” Hutcherson says.

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“The authority of scripture is not something that we deny. We acknowledge that, and all are subject to and submit to the text of scripture. That’s a part of what constitutes this community of the Holy Spirit that interprets that scripture.

“The other side of that…is that that the presence of the Holy Spirit in all of us actually challenges us to humility towards each other to recognize our own subjectivities. So, in some way, the authority of the text is held up and maintained, [while] our authority as interpreters becomes something that we [can] question, that we wrestle with, that we certainly take seriously but that we’re very cautious and careful about.”

Historical Theology on the Personal Level

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Since Hutcherson is an American teaching in Lebanon, he has the opportunity to dialogue with Arabic-speaking followers of Christ daily about theology. These relationships provide a unique opportunity to listen to theology in the context of interfaith dialogue in a country where Christians are a minority. Historical theology is not just a topic taught in a classroom, but a way of engaging with the global body of Christ and remaining true to God’s Word.

“Being in this context and wanting to do historical theology that is particularly meaningful to students in my classroom has meant pushing further into Arab Christian history and trying to understand [their engagement] with Islam [and] with Muslims,” Hutcherson says.

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Hutcherson comments the body of Christ has a lot to learn from the history of Arabic-speaking followers of Christ, “from both the points [of] vitality and the points of weakness and mistakes”. Learning from the diverse body of Christ helps believers “recognize attitudes and approaches that continue to shape our engagement with each other today”.

Want to dig deeper into historical theology for yourself? Seminaries are always a great place to learn. A quick search through podcasts will also turn up valuable resources. However, these podcasts are ultimately based on texts, books. Hutcherson recommends the book “On The Incarnation” by Athanasius of Alexandria (d. 373). Or for a quick reference to read on a train commute, check out this list of Arab theologians for a different theological perspective.

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Header photo by Jonny Swales on Unsplash.

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