Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Learning from Historical Theology

A few years ago I took a short course on Early Church History.
I am now re-engaging with this topic because in the theology reading group we are reading through Historical Theology by Alister McGrath.

McGrath emphasises the distinction between church history and historical theology.
The latter is concerned solely with ideas and intellectual issues.
Theology is basically the study of God. How does one understand God and talk about
In contrast, church history has a broader concern with events, personalities, and institutions. It considers how the ideas were influenced by these and visa versa.

Why do church history and historical theology matter?

Much of what Christians believe today has been shaped by this early period.
The canon of scripture was defined and the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds were formulated then. This shaped ideas about the divinity of Christ, sin, the Trinity, grace, methods of interpretation of scripture, church structure, sacraments …

McGrath quotes Karl Barth
"With regard to theology, we cannot be in the church without taking responsibility as much for the theology of the past as for the theology of the present day. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher and all the others are not dead but living. They still speak and demand a hearing as living voices, as surely as we know that they and we belong together in the church." 
We can learn much from the past. Some of the early theologians were brilliant minds and some lived exemplary lives. Augustine has had a significant influence on philosophy as well as theology.

Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.
This is a painful and tragic truth that happens in the church, politics, science, and personal life again and again.

Theology always occurs in a context: social, cultural, political, economic, intellectual, .. We cannot deny that the context has an influence on the issues discussed, controversies,
emphasis and neglect, language, method, …
However, that does not mean that the context is determinative or that the ideas or statements produced are or are not relevant in other contexts.
Somehow we have to discern what is and what is not relevant in our own contexts.
Christianity is global and historical. Consider these very different contexts:
1. the persecuted church in the third century of the Greco-Roman world
2. upper middle-class Australia today
3. slum dwellers in Latin America in the 1970s under military dictatorships
4. Dalit Christians in India today.

Finally, at least for some of us, the topic is fascinating and stimulating.

Last week we covered the Patristic period (approx. 100-451 AD). Here is the chapter and a short introduction to the corresponding chapter in another McGrath text.

Later I will review some of what struck me from the reading and from the Early Church history course.

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