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The end of historical theology

To what end?  This is a question not heard often enough.  The ultimate aim of theology, I take it, must have something to do with the end as such, with the eschaton, with the reign of God.  Not that theology has the power to bring this about.  But theology, nevertheless, despite its somewhat astounding ineffectiveness, has to be oriented by this end, moved by it and toward it, if it is really going to live up to the name “theology.”  “Knowledge for its own sake” therefore does not suffice as a maxim.  Theology is not, in the end, about establishing a kingdom of knowledge but rather about seeking, through knowledge, to enter into, prepare for, remember, increase, participate in, or in some other way affirm the final victory of divine justice and love.  Have I, have you, forgotten this?–perhaps not, but I raise this question as a prompt for self-examination.   

However, the particular issue which I want to discuss at the moment is this: What difference should this end make to the labors of historical theology?  I should clarify that I believe that all theology is historical, at least insofar as it presupposes a careful analysis of texts–and, through them, events–that have come before.  But I am thinking in particular here of those areas of theology that are more self-consciously content with the study of (biblical or ecclesial) history–even though I by no means want to exclude, for instance, that field of more recent historical theology which often understands itself as “systematics.”  A few points come to mind:

1.) In addition to demonstrating knowledge of something in history (e.g., a document, a theologian, a movement, etc.), it seems necessary, at some point, to make the case that this work is relevant to the end of theology, the coming of the reign of God. 

2.) To make such a case, the blanket claim that scripture and tradition are normative, though certainly valid, does not suffice: more specific reflection is needed regarding the substance of the research in question and how it pertains to the end.  It has to be clear, in other words, why this particular matter warrants thorough retrieval. 

3.) A successful case will not be able to abstract itself from the present context of theology, whether this is understood as modernity, postmodernity, the underside of modernity, or some other contemporary situation.  The more adequately one makes sense of the difficulties, complexities, and possibilities of the present moment, the stronger the case will be that theology, and not merely history, is at work.

4.) To be sure, something like a division of labor seems inevitable; there will always be an unsynthesizable plurality of voices in the theological conversation; and every small contribution is to be welcomed.  At the same time, however, it seems important to assess the limits and the scope of  any such contribution–and perhaps consider, at times, whether more attention is needed elsewhere, for the sake of the end of theology.       

In sum: a study which interprets faithfully something of the past is a good thing.  But its significance as a work of theology, defined by the end of theology, will depend a great deal on the extent to which one is also able to clarify its value for the task of affirming the reign of God in the midst of the contemporary situation.  Theology is defined by history only while at the same time being defined by the end of history.  I, therefore, declare a moratorium on all so-called “theology” which operates (whether explicitly or not) under the assumption that history suffices as theology. 

Too bold?  Perhaps not.

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  1. April 7, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Is there any real historical understanding without horizons opening to the future? E.g., Gadamer would suggest that any “history [which] suffices as theology” is no more history than a therapy session is a conversation.

    • Andrew
      April 7, 2011 at 9:41 pm

      John,

      Thanks for writing. I think I would agree with Gadamer on this point. What I would want to add, here, though, is that we could stand to be more explicit about this opening to the future and consider carefully how it ought to effect the research we do and the arguments that we make.

  2. April 7, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    I’m wondering about how you’re tying together the “end” and the “contemporary”… it seems this relationship is important to clarify for an understanding of the theological significance of the historical study of the “past”. The “end” is the actual end… the eschaton… but as such you point out that this is the reign of God, by which theology will be oriented and toward which it will aim, etc. Also, the end doesn’t just wait at the end of the road for us, there is a “reign of God in the midst of the contemporary situation”. So the “end” and the “contemporary” aren’t necessarily separate… can’t be separate, in fact, sub specie theologiae.

    But is there a reason why one couldn’t tie the eschatological reign of God to the past situation in the same way that you do to the contemporary situation? If theology is properly theological because of its orientation toward the end, then the criterion of “contemporary” significance seems sufficient but unnecessary. We scholars will work in light of the reign of God where ever it’s to be found… in the past or in the present. I agree with you that not every historical work should be considered theological, but that historical work which is properly theological will, I take it, be so because it is likewise oriented toward the “end”, not because it speaks to the “contemporary”. In other words, when you say the following:

    “[history’s theological significance] will depend a great deal on the extent to which one is also able to clarify its value for the task of affirming the reign of God in the midst of the contemporary situation.”

    …I would ditch everything I’ve bolded, after “reign of God”. The significant point seems to be the reign of God, full stop.

    But maybe I’m misunderstanding your point here. I do like what you’re saying, I’m just trying to sort out how such judgments would be made. Maybe, if you’re willing, it would help to share some more specific cases that you take to be inappropriate assumptions of historical work sufficing as theology. What itch is this proposed moratorium responding to?

    • Andrew
      April 7, 2011 at 9:38 pm

      Evan,

      Thanks for your comment. Would I agree that the eschaton has already been mediated inchoately in the past? Yes. Do I believe that it suffices for us now to consider only the past, and abstract ourselves from the contemporary situation of the world in which alone we can authentically draw closer to the reign of God? No.

      I don’t want to give examples in part because any one I might give would be contestable. I hardly expect that there are “pure” cases of what I’m trying to get at. At the same time, however, I think I have become fatigued by what seems to be a widespread practice of analyzing the doctrines of historical figures and letting the conversation end there, as though a knowledge of the past sufficed as theology.

      This knowledge is no doubt important, and of considerable eschatological significance, but it’s not enough.

      • April 7, 2011 at 10:01 pm

        That’s fine… I recognize there are difficulties involved in getting too specific. If I may, I’ll take a stab at a more general scenario.

        Say one has a tome analyzing the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas. I get why ending the conversation at an analysis of Thomas’s doctrine and calling it theology doesn’t suffice. For it to suffice, though, what of the following would you take to be necessary (or are they both adequate? Both necessary? Neither adequate?)

        1) in addition to the historical analysis of doctrine, one would have to discuss some of what Thomas got right or wrong about God and God’s doings. This way, Thomas’s right teachings could be appropriated for present affirmation and his wrong teachings could be avoided or addressed.

        2) in addition to the historical analysis of doctrine, one who have to discuss Thomas’s thought in light of present concerns. That is, one would have to present Thomas as a contemporary of sorts, to interact with the contemporary situation and be relevant to at least some of its concerns.

        It seems that if I were to write a book on a contemporary theologian, say on the work of Kathryn Tanner, #2 is already taken care of because she already is contemporary and acting within the contemporary situation. Is a book on Kathryn Tanner’s doctrine a theological book simply on account of this, though? Or is it theological because I’ve offered judgments about what she gets right or wrong with regard to God or God’s doings (#1)? #1 seems necessary as well… to speak of theological “value”, it seems that the work should be prescriptive rather than simply descriptive. But if what’s really important is the contemporary import of theology, then perhaps something can be adequately lodged in the present context (#2) yet remain only descriptive (lacking #1). Or perhaps they’re both needed.

  3. Andrew
    April 7, 2011 at 10:08 pm

    That’s helpful. I would say, ideally, one would have both #1 and #2. That’s one of the reasons why I also mention “systematics” here, which I think often becomes content with #2 alone.

  4. April 7, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    Another thing worth considering (and then I promise I’ll stop hogging your comment box!)… sometimes I wonder whether analyses that hold back a bit from doing theology to quite the robust extent that you’re asking for here do so because of institutional constraints. There are lots of theologians working out of religion departments in state or private schools where the department does not at all take its mission to include properly theological work. A theologian may under such circumstances stick more or less to intellectual histories of theology, or to theology construed more as a sort of exercise in theory. By doing this, they could be guilty of a certain amount of timidity and may not technically be doing “theology”. But perhaps what’s going on is an attempt to contribute as much raw material to theological discourse as possible without straying too far from the expectations of their current institutional home. I imagine there are many people who wanted to be theologians but ended up needing to be teachers of comparative religion and the one Intro to Christian Thought course that’s offered every other semester.

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