When I first contacted the WIT bloggers about joining the blog, I noted that one of the things that I could bring to the blog was the perspective of an historical theologian. They had ethicists, biblical scholars, and systematic theologians, but nobody who focused in particular on an historical perspective.

Of course, a question that has plagued me since the beginning of my program in historical theology is: What does it really mean to do historical theology? How does it relate to history? Or, how does it relate to the discipline of theology as a whole? Is the historical theologian merely an historian of theology? Or, is there some sort of theological motivation that drives their scholarship? The blog post that follows represents my attempt to think through some of these questions.

I’ve been thinking about this question again recently because as part of my teaching assistant duties, I read sections of Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction and was intrigued by his distinctions between the different types of theology. After a brief paragraph on systematic theology, where he doesn’t really give a definition, but notes that it is related to biblical theology and philosophical theology, he examines historical theology at length, giving a very specific definition: “Historical theology is the branch of theology which aims to explore the historical situations within which ideas developed or were specifically formulated. It aims to lay bare the connection between context and theology” (121). As a starting point, this definition makes perfect sense for what I’ve been trained to do. I examine theological ideas within the historical contexts in which they arose, with specific reference to how those contexts may have shaped the formulation of one’s theology. My dissertation, for example, looks at the sacramental theology of Angélique Arnauld, contextualizing her thought in the reforms of religious life enacted by the Council of Trent (which were only being implemented in France in the seventeenth century) and the rise of the prétendue1 heresy of Jansenism. But I ultimately find this definition of historical theology lacking. Why consider yourself an historical theologian if what you’re doing is no more than the history of theology? Why not just say that you’re an intellectual historian who focuses in particular on theology?

Aiden Nichols in The Shape of Catholic Theology doesn’t offer a much more precise definition for historical theology. He describes it as addressing “questions about the historical origin and development of the faith,” and includes biblical studies within that category (24). Again, one can argue that an intellectual historian focusing on theology can also address questions “about the historical origin and development of the faith.”

So where do these definitions leave us? Each seems to imply that the historical theologian is, in terms of methodology at least, merely an intellectual historian, one who studies theological ideas in their historical contexts. Of course, the Anselmian fides quaerens intellectum is implied in the concept of historical theology, but is that really a way to distinguish it from history? I know many historians who work on religious history and are faithful Christians. So is that all I am? An historian of theology?

Ultimately, I find this concept unsatisfactory. There must be something that distinguishes the historical theologian from the historian of theology in the way that they approach the material. The argument that I’ve made in the past is that the broader training of the historical theologian in theology in general (almost all PhD programs in historical theology either require that the student take or have already taken courses in biblical, systematic, and moral theology) gives them an advantage in understanding the theological texts of the past, but I ultimately find this unsatisfactory as well. There are many historians of religion who received master’s degrees in theology, whether a M.A. or a M.Div, and then went on to get a PhD in history.2 So, again, there must be something more than just training that separates the historical theologian from the historian.

The best description of historical theology that I’ve come across is that of Patrick Carey in the journal U.S. Catholic Historian.3 He states, “Historical theologians, as I perceive their task, seek to understand (with the tools of history) the faith communicated to the saints through the theological traditions that have arisen in the course of history” (12). Earlier, he provides a more detailed description that I find immensely helpful and so will quote at length:

The primary focus of historical theology, as I understand it, is the investigation and understanding of the theological tradition, not as a representative of a dead past, but as a living reality. Past theological ideas are not merely past but are part of the tradition that lives on in liturgies, prayer, conciliar decisions, current theological discussions, and official ecclesial pronouncements. No doubt there is much in the theological systems and conceptualizations of the past (and the present) that is conditioned by social, intellectual (especially philosophical), political, ecclesiastical, economic, and psychological forces. Historical theology tries to shed light on the ideas and the tradition that transcend the multiple historical incarnations, and on the ideas and systems of theological thinking that have either been captured by the times in which they emerged or were so conditioned by the languages and conceptions of their day that they have outlived their usefulness and are alien to the contemporary world for which historical theologians write.

Historical theologians, like other theologians and like historians in general, cannot legitimately claim to operate within the context of an objective discipline. Within the Catholic tradition at least, historical theologians, like systematic theologians, work within the Anselmian context of faith seeking understanding. The historical theologian is not, as John Henry Newman once noted with respect to theology in general, “external to the system.” (11, emphasis is my own)

Carey recognizes that the primarily methodological tools used by the historical theologian are precisely historical, which may be why the descriptions of McGrath and Nichols can so easily also be applied to intellectual historians who focus on theology. But, the historical theologian approaches these methodological tools with the eyes and the motivation of faith. Just like systematic theologians, historical theologians are ultimately driven by deeper theological questions, often which have contemporary resonance, which they seek to answer by contextualizing certain theological ideas in wider historical contexts. My deeper theological questions for my dissertation, for example, involve how to explain theology or what makes someone a theologian (see the post A New Era for WIT! for more information).

Ultimately, historical theologians are, or should be, important dialogue partners for systematic theologians (as biblical scholars should also be). The systematic theologian who ignores historical context in trying to explain a theologian’s ideas often leaves the reader (especially the historically trained reader) with a sense of superficiality and inaccuracy. In general, this is found more in studies about theology that was produced after the Council of Trent. This is because theology departments often have scholars of historical theology who cover the early and medieval eras, leaving everything post-Trent to be studied only by systematic theologians–as if once we reach the modern era, historical context no longer matters! This type of thinking is a major error and can create distortions in our understanding of theology.4

  1. In French, the verb prétendre means “to claim,” not “to pretend.” Thus, when the group surrounding Port-Royal said that Jansenism was une hérésie prétendue, they’re saying “a so-called heresy,” alleging in particular that it was made up by the Jesuits. 
  2. I should probably note that I do think that training in theology is important for the religious historian and the best work on religious history that I’ve read has consistently been done by those who do have a master’s degree in theology in addition to a PhD in history, but that question could be a whole separate blog post. I could also possibly do a whole separate ranting blog post about the way most theology departments approach historical theology, as if history ended in 1500 and everything that follows is systematic, but that’s also for another place and another time. 
  3. Patrick Carey, “History and Theology: A Personal Confession,” U.S. Catholic Historian 23, no. 2 (2005): 9-20. 
  4. Like, my personal favorite, when I see people claim online that the extraordinary form of the Mass has been good enough for the Catholic Church for “thousands” of years, ignoring, of course, all the developments throughout history as well as the liturgical diversity prior to Trent. 

4 thoughts

  1. Excellent post, Elissa. I think you’ve captured both the similarity with ideological history and the need to distinguish the disciplines. You definitely push me to hone my understanding of this discipline. I found Dr. Carey’s discussion helpful, and it makes us ask what aspects of our theology and traditions “transcend their historical incarnations” and which one have “outlived their usefulness.” One could argue that all explicit theology is historically conditioned and beyond this you have theological mysticism.

    My own evolving view of our discipline is that Historical Theology approaches theological questions with the insight that theology is intrinsically a historically conditioned pursuit. The first reason is because theology is a human activity, and humans exist in community over time, that is, in history. The second reason is that the subject of our inquiry, God, entered history and took up our way of existing, and it is only because of this that we can think about him in a meaningful way at all.

  2. Two points.
    Of course all “official” his-story, especially in this case, that of institutional Christainity, follows the golden rule.
    Namely those that have and control most of the gold get to write the “official” versions of his-story. They also get to define the “official” institutionalized version of Christianity via the process of fabricating the Bible to justify their patriarchal power and privileges.
    They thus simultaneously attempt to make off-scene all other interpretations of presumed historical events – “heretics” are thus given short shrift via the business end of a sword or by burning at the stake as in the European “witch”-burnings. All “official” his-stories are thus first and foremost ideologies, the purpose of which is to justify and consolidate worldly power.

    His-story is also a dream – the dream of left-brained reason. As long as man believes in this dream and seeks to acquire an historical identity, he/she remains unconscious of the fact that he/she is a bridge between the cosmic realms of “heaven” and of earth. Within the dream man’s hopes will always focus on a future utopia which tragically and inevitably is manifested as a kakatopia or a psycho-technological intensification of HELL on earth. His/her only escape from this fatal circle is to wake up from the dream/nightmare and to thus Realize a cosmic, and fundamentally timeless identity – his/her Real Identity.

    Time, distinguished from space, sequentialied into his-story, intellectualized into units of hours, minutes, and seconds, and further abstracted into money, loses its psycho-biological significance. The source of this misunderstanding is to be found in the orthodox Christian doctrine of the presumed uniqueness of the “event” of Christ, which alone gives meaning to ALL other events.
    From the presumed Christ – “event” to the hoped for Second Coming. in the Christian view, all human activity takes place in unrepeatable units, “redemption” being possible only by relation to the presumed uniqueness of the Christ – “event”.
    This doctrine is absolutist and terrifyingly single-minded. It breaks from the traditional view, common to most world cultures, that time is cyclic and that the meaning of human existence is related to certain recurring cosmic patterns.

    This Christian perspective is also deeply anti-ecological via its assertion of a significance for human beings separate from that of nature altogether. Man alone is “redeemable”, and nature by implication is corrupt, lacking either soul or feeling-intelligence. It also unwittingly leads to the denigration of the flesh-body via the war of “spirit” against “flesh”.

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