Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 2

Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 1
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 2

We continue to trek through the first section of Millard Erickson's systematic book Christian Theology on issues of prolegomena. Shortly after defining systematic theology, Erickson discusses the relationship of systematic theology with biblical theology (25-26) and historical theology (27-28). It is this latter conversation worth highlighting here.

He begins by saying that There are two major ways to organize historical theology. First, a historical theologian may approach studying theology through a given time or a given theologian or school of theology with respect to several key areas of doctrine. He calls this the "synchronic approach."* Secondly, a historical theologian may trace the history of thought regarding a given doctrine (or a series of them) down through the periods of the church's life. This approach he calls the "diachronic approach." (27)**

With that said, Erickson suggests several things the systematician can learn from studying historical theology.

First, it makes us more self-conscious and self-critical, more aware of our own presuppositions. We all bring to the study of the Bible (or of any other material) a particular perspective, which is very much affected by the historical and cultural situation in which we are rooted. Without being aware of it, we screen all that we consider through the filter of our own understanding (or "preunderstanding"). an itnerpretation alrady enters at the level of perception. the question is, how can we control and channel this preunderstanding to prevent it from distorting the material being worked with? . . . [And] how do we recognize that our preunderstanding is our way of perceiving the truth, and not the way things are? One way to do this is to study the varying interpretations held and statements made at different times in teh church's life. (27)

This is an important point that anyone that does theology needs to heed. Anytime you see bad theology or heretical teaching, you will find what Erickson calls "preunderstanding." The early Gnostic and Trinitarian heresies (like docetism) were driven by Greek philosophy. Likewise, liberalism, in many ways, sees itself as a rescue mission. In an effort to save Christianity, it destroys it by accommodating the gospel and biblical theology to cultural norms, expectations, etc. Historical theology forces us to guard our interpretations and conclusions by allowing voices distant from our cultural context to speak.

On the flip side, historical theology shows us what happens when preunderstandings drive theology. So it isn't just a guard for us, but a reminder of what happens when we begin with contemporary philosophy or cultural accommodations. It is amazing how blind some of our favorite theologians are to certain things until we put them in their proper context.

Erickson goes on:

A second value of historical theology is that we can learn to do theology by studying how others have done it before us. Thomas Aquinas's adaption of Aristoleian metaphyscis to stating the Christian faith can be instructive as to how we might employ contemporary ideologies in expressing theological concepts today. The study of the theologizing of a John Calvin, a Karl Barth, or an Augustine will give us a good model and should inspire us in our own activity. (28)

I don't think Erickson is saying that we should study the philosophical presuppositions of these theologians and then adopt it. Some suggest that Aquinas' relying Aristoleian philosophy lead to some of his theology problems. Likewise, the influence of men like Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard in modern theology (he mentions Barth by name here) is deep. One cannot understand Friedrich Schleiermacher without understanding Kant.

Instead, I think he is suggesting we study how theology is "expressed." Though Martin Luther, for example, was heavily influenced by Augustine, he reads very differently then his theological mentor. Reading Erickson is very different than reading Calvin and there is something to learn there.

He then adds:

A third value of historical theology is that it may provide a means of evaluating a particular idea. It is often difficult to see the implications that a given concept involves. yet frequently the ideas that seem so novel today have actually had precursors at earlier periods in the life of the church. In attempting to evaluate the implications of the Jehovah's witnesses' view of the of Christ, one might examine the view taught by Arius in the fourth century and see where it actually led in that case. History is theology's laboratory, in which it can assess the ideas that it espouses or considers espousing. Those who do not learn from the past are, as George Santayana said, condemned to repeat it. if we closely examine some of our "new" ideas in the light of the history of the church, we will find that they are actually new forms of old conceptions. One need not be committed to a cyclical view of history to hold with the author of Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun (Eccles. 1:9). (28)

This is a great point and his reference to the Jehovah's Witnesses is a great example. Ask the average JW about Arius and you will get a blank stare. If they understood historical theology, I believe, we wouldn't have the threat of the JW church today. They are condemned to repeat history and are repeating the heresy of Arianism with a more heavy emphasis on eschatology.

These are his three points regarding historical theology and they are good ones. What other values could we gain from historical theology? Greg Allison in his Historical Theology says we should study historical theology because:

1.  It helps us distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy. (24)
2.  It provides sound biblical interpretations and theological formulations. (24-25)
3.  It presents stellar examples of faith, love, courage, hope, obedience, and mercy. (25-26)
4.  It protects the church from individualism that is rampant today. (26)
5.  It helps contemporary systematicians express theology in a contemporary form. (27-28)
6.  It helps the church focus on the essentials. (28)
7.  It gives the church the hope that Jesus is the fulfilling His promises to His people. (28-29)
8.  The church gets to enjoy a sense of belonging to the church of the past. (29)

Any more?

* Erickson refers the reader to the book The Christian Tradition by Jaroslav Pelikan, volume 1, volume 2, volume 3, volume 4, volume 5. I would also recommend countless books on Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, the Princeton School of Theology, etc.
** Erickson refers the read to the book The History of Christian Doctrines by Louis Berkhof. I would recommend here Greg Allison's book Historical Theology.

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