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A Proposal for Approaching Theology Historically

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to present a paper at a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. There is nothing quite like the amassed scholarship of these conferences, the gathering of minds eager to pursue knowledge and discuss the finer points of theology, biblical interpretation, and Christian praxis. Of course, it would not truly be a meeting of evangelicals (evangelicals gathered at a Southern Baptist seminary, to wit) without some disagreement over the role that history plays in the tasks of theology.

In this article, I wish to make a proposal for approaching theological projects historically. But first, an important caveat. By this proposal I do not mean to indicate that non-historically-oriented theology is necessarily problematic or useless. To the contrary, systematics and practical theology (missiology) remain definitive requirements for the life of the Church. Ideally, all theological projects build from and incorporate aspects of the historical, systematic, and practical.1 The point of this article, however, is to focus on one aspect of the theological triumvirate: the historical.

This in mind, this article will undertake three movements: First, I offer a brief introduction to four models of the historiography of Christianity (How do Christians look at history?). Second, I propose series of steps necessary for moving from historical study and context to theological projects (How do history and theology interact?). Finally, I conclude with a brief application of this approach as applied to the topic of women in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers (How might this approach work in practice?).

Four Historiographic Models

When approaching theological concepts from a historical angle, the issue of historiography must be addressed as a matter of primary important.2 That is, before we make appeals to, for example, what Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistles say about bishops or Thomas Aquinas’s articulation of the beatific vision, we must first answer the question of how to best examine and understand the history of Christianity. Particularly helpful on this topic are the four historiographical models outlined by Kenneth Parker: successionism, supercessionism, developmentalism, and appercessionism.3

Successionism posits that Christian truth was received by the apostles and has been preserved unadulterated by time and circumstance. Next, supercessionism argues that ancient Christianity was normative, became corrupted over time (the rate of decay is oft debated), but may be rediscovered and restored by returning to the faith and practice of the primitive Church. Developmentalism finds that early Christianity contained nascent expressions of teaching which have organically grown into deeper understandings of truth over the centuries. Finally, appercessionism does not privilege ancient Christianity, but uses heightened consciousness of the present age to critique previous Christian teaching and practice. Before engaging in discussions of historical theology, we must first come to terms with which of these views we hold, as well as which perspective any interlocutors inhabit.

For example, if I am discussing the appropriate model for church government with a member of the local church I attend, it will be helpful to know how influential appeals to church history will be. In this instance, the supercessive narrative holds sway over many of my fellow congregants. Thus, making appeals to what Augustine or Martin Luther say about bishops probably will not prove helpful, whereas an examination of New Testament evidence and (perhaps) what the earliest non-canonical Christians say about the matter will move our conversation forward. Awareness of our historiographical standing helps clarify how useful historical appeals will be (if at all) and allows us to better understand our conversation partners from the start.

History then Theology

Once our historiographical assumptions are clarified, we may then turn to the task of integrating historical insight and context into theology. I suggest three steps for this process. First, discern what Christian X says about topic Y, on their own terms and considering their own context. This is the chief purpose of history: to discover what a person (or movement) in the past did and thought, why they did or thought those things, and (in the history of the Church) how they interpreted and lived out the Scriptures and Great Tradition of the faith.

Second, come to terms with contemporary expressions of topic Y. This is primarily the task of systematics and practical theology: how do contemporary forms of Christianity talk about and live out their understanding of topic Y? Of course, at work here will be the insights of numerous scriptures and/or theologians which have influenced the shape of your tradition. Third, engage in conversations about how influential or normative what Christian X says about topic Y is for contemporary conversations about topic Y. In almost every circumstance, contemporary expressions differ from historical articulations, although that does not necessarily require that historical articulations be cast aside.

Whether this process proves a problem for your theological commitments, depends on your view of history and the role that tradition should play in the life of the Church. For instance, a Roman Catholic who finds contemporary Catholicism vastly different from a Catholic theological position in the Middle Ages will probably be more concerned by that reality than would a Lutheran. The point I wish to emphasize, however, is this process: the need to undertake genuine historical work alongside authentic theological work and then to graft these projects together and work out the ramifications of those findings.

Women in the Apostolic Fathers

As an application of this approach, I want to quickly examine conceptions of women which appear in the early Christian writings known as the Apostolic Fathers. To keep this example as brief as possible, consider one instance where a female character appears in the apocalyptic account known as the Shepherd of Hermas (c. 100-150 CE).4 In Vision 2.4.3, Hermas records being told by an angel the following: “And so, you will write two little books, sending one to Clement and the other to Grapte. Clement will send his to the foreign cities, for that is his commission. But Grapte will admonish the widows and orphans. And you will read yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the church.”

The first step in reading this passage historically to inform our theology involves looking at what this meant for the initial audiences of the Shepherd of Hermas. In wider context, this passage reveals that Grapte stood in a position of authority: she was tasked with instructing the women and orphans of the Roman church, in much the same way that Hermas himself was tasked with teaching the presbyters of the church. For Hermas’s community, then, it seems as if a woman could rightly hold some form of teaching office in the church.

The second step is to reflect on what contemporary Christianity says about women teaching in the church. This is, of course, a hotly debated topic, one which transcends denominational and cultural lines. To summarize the situation, readers of the Bible must wrestle with the tension between what women do and say in the narratives of the Old and New Testaments (e.g., Rom. 16:1-5 and Acts 2:16-18) and passages that demand that women keep silent in the church (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15). Churches committed to the traditions of the church or the supernatural gifting of the Holy Spirit add further layers of complexity to this situation.

When the Rubber Meets the Road

The final step of this process brings the historical insights of what the Shepherd of Hermas indicates about the teaching authority of woman into conversation with contemporary conversations about women in the church. Here, several factors play out. First, we must recognize that the Shepherd is not canonical, but it was extremely popular for large swaths of early Christians. That is, this was not some one-off work of a heretic that stands merely as something for Christians to reject; many Christians have found this work insightful and (in some sense) useful for their own lives. Second, the Shepherd comes from Rome, where we know Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were well known, indicating that Hermas’s community (at least) held the call for Grapte to teach and Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in conjunction.

Lastly, if nothing else, the relationship between the Shepherd and calls to keep women silent indicates our need to read (and re-read) early Christian statements about women teaching in the church carefully and contextually. On the one hand, it may be that Hermas reveals an anti-Pauline stance that scripture-focused Christians ought to reject. On the other hand, however, it could also be the case that contemporary readers of Paul miss some nuance in the “women keep silent” passages which may be illuminated by the historical record that the Shepherd preserves.5

Whichever side of this argument we fall on, undertaking a historical approach to a theological project helps us better understand not only the history of Christianity, but also allows us to reflect and (hopefully) speak about real theological questions today. But the process is vital and, as I contend, helps us better communicate and understand where conversation might otherwise be one-sided or full of talking-past those with whom we disagree. Therefore, let us approach the task of faith seeking understanding (theology) with the history of Christianity in mind, with all the learning and (sometimes, at least) discomfort that this pursuit of the truth may reveal.

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Jacob Prahlow

Jacob Prahlow

Christian. Husband of Hayley. Father of Bree and Judah. Lead Pastor at Arise Church in Fenton, MO. Alumnus of various institutions. Cubs Fan. Co-Founder of Conciliar Post.

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