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The end of historical theology

April 7, 2011 7 comments

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.