What is Historical Theology?
What is historical theology?
Historical theology is the discipline that studies the interpretation of Scripture and the theological formulation of the church in the past.
In other words, it asks: how has the church in the past interpreted the Bible? How has the church formulated and expressed its theology?
So, think of historical theology as wisdom from the past. It is wisdom about what constitutes the valid interpretation of the Bible and what constitutes sound theology. It’s the theological tradition that guides us.
This is fairly straightforward definition. But it raises some important questions, such as:
- What is tradition? How does wisdom from the past relate to the authority of Scripture? If Scripture is primary, then how does tradition guide and shape our beliefs?
- What is the difference between historical theology, biblical theology, and systematic theology?
- Why does any of this matter in the first place?
Let’s take a closer look.
What is tradition?
We’ll start by clarifying what we mean by tradition.
It’s helpful to think of tradition in two ways: tradition with an uppercase T (Tradition) and tradition with a lowercase t (tradition).
Tradition with a capital T
Tradition with a capital T is the form of divine revelation often associated with the Roman Catholic Church. It consists of the oral communication Jesus gave to his apostles, who orally taught their successors, who were the bishops of the early church. It’s a kind of literal passing of Jesus’ words from successive generations of church leaders.
Let’s unpack what this means with two examples.
- The first example comes from 1854. In that year, Pope Pius IX declared the immaculate conception of Mary. He stated that when Mary was conceived in the womb, she bore no guilt from Adam and had no corruption in her nature. She was born without sin and lived her entire life without sin.
- The second example comes from 1950, when Pope Pius XII proclaimed the bodily assumption of Mary. If Mary was conceived without sin, bore no sin, and lived her entire life without sin, then there was no need for her to undergo decay in the grave. Her body didn’t need to die. Instead, she was taken up into heaven and remains embodied there.
Tradition with a lower-case T
When we, as Protestant Christians, think of tradition, we’re instead talking about something different.
Tradition with a lowercase T is informed by wisdom that belongs to us from the past, but this kind of tradition doesn’t consider the past as binding.
The role of tradition is to clarify and discern Scripture. Scripture still remains the ultimate authority. (Tweet this.)
What is the difference between biblical theology, systematic theology, and historical theology?
Before we look at historical theology, let’s examine how it differs from biblical theology and systematic theology.
Biblical theology looks at Scripture broadly, and reminds us that God does not give us the Bible all at once. Instead, God progressively reveals himself and his ways to his people over the course of time.
Think, for example, of how the people of God worshipped God:
- In the Pentateuch, we read of the patriarchs constructing alters.
- That kind of worship gave way to worship of God in the tabernacle.
- Next, we find God’s people worshipping him in the temple—first the original temple, and the second temple.
- In the New Testament, we learn that Jesus Christ became incarnate and dwelled among us like the temple of God.
- Jesus places less emphasis on the specific location of worship and more emphasis on the need to worship God in spirit and truth.
In this example, we see a development in God’s revelation of himself. In this way, biblical theology informs our theology of worship by reminding us that God has revealed his truth over time.
Biblical theology also helps us understand that the center of God’s revelation has always been about his Son, Jesus Christ. The Old Testament anticipates the coming of Christ. The New Testament looks back at the Christ who has come. Biblical theology helps emphasize the Christological center of all of Scripture.
By contrast, systematic theology, raises and answers the question: What are we to believe and do today in accordance with all that the Bible affirms on any particular topic?
Systematic theology means answering the question: “What does the whole Bible say to us today about any given topic?”
In other words, it means searching through the Bible to find all the verses we can find that pertain to each topic we study. Then, we put them together to gain an understanding of what God wants us to believe.
I understand the word “systematic” to mean “carefully organized by topics.” That means it’s different from random theology or disorganized theology.”
With this in mind, how does historical theology fit in?
Historical theology lies behind both biblical theology and systematic theology.
Unlike biblical theology and systematic theology, historical theology doesn’t deal directly with Scripture. Instead, it plays a supporting role. It’s an aid. It provides context and synthesis.
6 benefits of historical theology
Now that we’ve taken a look at what historical theology is, let’s examine how it can help us.
Here are six benefits of studying historical theology.
1. Historical theology helps us distinguish orthodoxy from heresy.
Those are loaded terms, so let’s define them.
Orthodoxy is sound doctrine. It’s the doctrine the church is bound to believe, because this doctrine represents the teachings of all of Scripture.
Heresy is anything that contradicts sound doctrine. It either mis-represents Scripture, ignores Scripture, or incorrectly puts Scripture together.
Historical theology looks to the past in order to understand how previous generations have defined some doctrines as orthodox and others as heretical.
2. Historical theology provides examples from the past to guide us today.
In the fourth century, Athanasius argued for the full deity of Jesus Christ. He stood against other Christians who insisted that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was not fully God.
Today, this belief sounds obvious to us. We risk little by defending it. But in Athanasius’ time, that wasn’t the case—he was exiled five times for standing firmly for the deity of Christ.
The theology he expressed and the risk he took to express it constitutes only one of many examples of courage and perseverance that historical theology provides for us today.
3. Historical theology protects us from individualism.
We live in an age that desires to try to find new and novel things.
Historical theology reminds us that we are part of a community that holds the faith once and for all, delivered to the saints. Historical theology tells us that we as individuals can’t pick and choose what we want to believe and what we don’t want to believe.
It protects us from a lone-ranger version of Christianity.
4. Historical theology helps us to focus on the essentials of the faith.
Historical theology reminds us that churches have always believed certain key, cardinal doctrines. This means we, as the church today, should also focus on these most important matters—and studying historical theology helps us discern what these matters are:
- Scripture is the inspired, authoritative, true Word of God
- God is eternally existing, as Father, Son, and holy Spirit
- Jesus Christ, the Son, is fully God and fully human
- The Holy Spirit is fully God, and operates in our sanctification
- The church is the people of God, the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit
- We have hope in Christ for life after our death, Christ’s return, and our resurrection
The study of historical theology grounds us further in these core matters of the faith.
5. Historical theology provides assurance that Jesus Christ is building his church
Historical theology reminds us that Jesus Christ is fulfilling his promise in Matthew 16: “On this rock I will build my church.”
Jesus continues to build his church in many ways. Historical theology assures us that Jesus Christ, as he did in the past, continues to build his church by helping us to understand the Bible correctly and formulate our doctrine soundly.
6. Historical theology connects the church of today with the church of all ages.
Historical theology gives us a sense of rootedness.
It helps us discern what it means to be the church today. If Athanasius, Augustine, or Luther were to be transported through time to the church today, they would recognize great continuity between the church of their time and the church in ours. Studying historical theology reminds us that we are rooted in a long-standing tradition.
How to deepen your understanding of historical theology
The best way to begin your study of historical theology is to sign up for the new Historical Theology online course, taught by Gregg Allison.
In this course, you’ll learn about seven key areas of doctrine, and how the church has developed these doctrines over the course of its history:
- Doctrine of Scripture
- Doctrine of God
- Doctrine of Humanity and Sin
- Doctrine of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit
- Doctrine of Salvation
- Doctrine of the Church
- Doctrine of the Future—what the hope of the church is.
You will not only learn more about what you believe, but about why and how you believe it—using the history of the church as your guide.
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This post is adapted from material found in unit on of the Historical Theology online course, taught by Gregg Allison.
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