The Importance of Historical Theology (A very boring post!)

What is Old is Often New, and What is New is Often Old

The Battle had been joined, one of England’s new “evangelical” preachers was on trial for heresy. The Bishop demanded to know from where he derived “these novel” teachings of the gospel?

“From the New Testament” the prisoner said, holding forth the book. With the twinkle of victory in his eye, the Bishop proclaimed, “The new testament? The new? Well, the old is all we want, away with the new!” The preacher was condemned to torture and death. The New Testament by which he gave testimony was placed into his open abdomen, and his body hung. Today this heirloom is among the rare books known as the “Martyr’s Bibles”. To the modern reader, this seems incredulous. Not only is the trial a sham, but the conclusion!

But in the late middle ages, it was not uncommon for even senior churchman to be functionally illiterate, and to know next to nothing about the bible. The idea of this prosecuting Churchman, that the New Testament was not needed, does not in fact represent the official view of the mediaeval Church. But it does suggest a popular bias amongst people to fear new things, not after careful consideration, but without any consideration, on the grounds that they are new.

On the other hand, some people are so into novelty, that they don’t realize that the “so called” novel idea they are following, is actually a resurrection of an old heresy, or a new refutation of an established biblical truth. Careful study of Historical Theology is necessary, if the believer is going to obey Jude: 3 and “content for the faith that was once for all handed down to the saints”.

The History of Theology

Historical Theology is the study of the progress of Christian beliefs and their contextual developments through time. A History of Christianity will likely talk about theology through the study the sociological movement, people and institutions of Christianity develop some of the doctrinal issues being developed or disputed. In the same way, Historical Theology likewise touches on some of the peoples and institutions and events to contextualize its narrative, but focuses the main story, on the development of particular doctrines.

Perhaps the greatest service that Historical Theology can provide, is that it clarifies for the student, which doctrines compose “the Faith, once for all delivered”. Certain doctrines must be defended to the death (2 Tim 1:8), while others would engage the debater in “foolish controversies” which are to be avoided (Titus 3:9).

The Faith is Theological 

Often when Scriptures speak of “the faith” such as they do in Jude 3, it is speaking of the “body of doctrine” which is essential to Christianity. Paul speaks of salvation as becoming, “obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Romans 6:17). The a-theological impulses of early 20th century liberals “deeds over creeds” and of the current emergent church: “orthopraxy over orthodoxy”, present false dichotomies, which the study of Historical Theology would clearly demonstrate. Our good works are intended to “adorn the doctrine of God” (Titus 2:10) and to preserve the reputation of his word (Titus 2:5 cf. Psalm 138:2).

Timothy was commanded: “pay close attention to yourself and to your doctrine” (1 Ti. 4:16), “guard what has been entrusted to you” (1 Ti. 6:20), “retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me” (2 Ti. 1:13) and “entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Ti. 2:2).

Titus was likewise instructed to appoint elders, “holding fast to the faithful word which is in accordance with the doctrine that he will be able to… exhort with sound doctrine” (1:9).

Good doctrine of course is doctrine “that accords with godliness” (1 Timothy 6:3). Immoral living is living which “is contrary to sound doctrine” or “the law” of God, but moral living is living that is “in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:8-11).

Could you personally identify the Faith once for all delivered to the saints?

The best question to ask, is the one the founders of the Evangelical Free Church asked, “where stands it written?’. In other words, “show me in the Bible”. But their question was not produced in a vacuum. Many years earlier, the Reformers had argued for the principle known as Sola Scriptura, that Scripture Alone ought to be the authority upon which we base our faith. Why did they come to this conclusion? Are we sure that it is biblical?

The Roman Church maintains till today, that Divine Revelation is indeed the only foundation for faith and practice, but that there is both an oral and written tradition of Holy Revelation: “both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 2, Section II esp. para 82). In contrast to this, Article VI of the First Chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith argues: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” Which is correct? How would you know?

Resources

A budding student of Historical Theology should begin with an overview book such as McGrath’s Survey (amazon). But the most important place to go is to original documents and book that introduce you to those historic documents. For example Arnold’s excellent anthology (amazon). Two online resources are Phil Johnson’s Hall of Church History, and anything Nate Busenitz (lookup the history archive at www.thecripplegate.com).

 

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2 thoughts on “The Importance of Historical Theology (A very boring post!)

  1. Dear Chad Graham, your post isn’t boring at all… The problem with the Roman-Catholic Church in my mind is that she has deviated from Holy Tradition elevating the pope above the church contrary to apostolic and conciliar tradition. We must distinguish between divine tradition and human tradition, surely. The principal of tradition is The principal of divine tradition is confirmed by the Bible itself. You quoted Jude 1:3. If you read it in the original Greek: “…parakalôn epagonízesthai tê hápax p a r a d o th e í s e toîs hagíois pístei …” and here you have the principle of tradition/parádosis (there are other passages). The Holy Bible makes a part of it. Britain was orthodox catholic during the first millennium not protestant…

  2. Hello “AOCC”. I appreciate your comment. I included a simple dichotomy in my post in order to give an illustration, but you raise another possible solution to the situation listed above.

    I suspect that we will disagree about the “definition and extent” of tradition. However, like you I believe that it is critical that we hold to the apostolic traditions and that we respect the development of Church history.

    From your post I was not completely clear on what you meant to apply from the principle of “the faith once for all delivered (paradotheise) to the saints”. Do you believer that this includes something other than the “Apostolic doctrines laid out in Sacred Scripture”?

    I like to think of the New Testament as analogous to a “constitution” laid down at the founding of the Church. I believe that the Holy Spirit continues to guide his church in clarifying and articulating the applications and implications of this constitution, so that our theology may mature in articulation (but always be rooted in the scripture and derived by plain reason under the guidance of the Spirit).

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