Friday, 8 June 2007

What is historical theology?

A little thought-experiment: here are four proposed theoretical points for understanding “historical theology.”

1. What is the history of theology?
The history of Christian theology is a history of conflicts and negotiations over the identity of God.

2. What is historical theology?
Historical theology is a disciplined analysis of the conditions of these conflicts and negotiations, resulting in the construction of narratives about the dispute over the identity of God.

3. What is the relationship between historical theology and dogmatic theology?
By constructing histories of theology, the discipline of historical theology makes available the conditions of theological dispute for contemporary reflection, and in that way it participates in contemporary disputes over the identity of God.

4. Does historical theology have a history?
Very little work has yet been done on the history of historical theology – but such work would aim to analyse the specific conditions under which the historicising of theology becomes possible, and the manner in which such historicising participates in theological conflicts over the identity of God. It would thus demonstrate the way in which the discipline of historical theology participates in dogmatic theology, and, conversely, the way in which dogmatic theology passes over into histories of theology.

Update: This post has also been translated into Chinese.

30 Comments:

::aaron g:: said...

I like how Schleiermacher included biblical theology in historical theology in his Basic Outline.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I think historical theology couldn't pre-date the Enlightenment. Why? Because it takes historical consciousness, the realization that "the past is another country; they do things differently there," in order to do historical theology.

Excellent post; raising important questions.

Kerry said...

I think Michael's point is intriguing. I'd think that the Enlightenment is a necessary condition for historical theology, and post-Enlightenment the context for its coming into its own.

WTM said...

Is this a prelude to Ben's writing a history of historical theology?

Travis said...

Point #4 would be a fascinating study - requiring a close examination of Schleiermacher, Troeltsch, and other luminaries of the C19. While I agree that historical theology as we know it requires the Enlightenment as its condition of possibility, it's arguable that the flipside is true as well - that the Enlightenment, at least the Aufklarueng of Germany, arose partly as a response to historical criticism as a species of historical theology (which is why it would be natural to include biblical theology within historical theology). This would take one back to Reimarus, Lessing, the neologians, etc. Sounds like an excellent book idea, btw.

Travis said...

Oops. "Aufklarueng" s/b "Aufklaerung"

Benjamin Wu said...

Hello Ben, this is also 'Ben', a PhD student in systematic theology in Edinburgh with my interest in Barth's concept of history. I just want to ask for your permission for me to translate this entry into Chinese and to put it on my blog), so that my readers in Chinese would have access to your brilliant ideas. Thank you.

Shane said...

We've discussed:

1. the history of theology,
2. historical theology, &
3. the history of historical theology.

But what about,

4. the theology of history?


***Warning, after this are fulminations and suggestions for further research. Caveat Lector***

I think historical theology couldn't pre-date the Enlightenment. Why? Because it takes historical consciousness, the realization that "the past is another country; they do things differently there," in order to do historical theology.

"Historical consciousness" -- a phrase than which none more modernist can be conceived -- sets my teeth on edge. Now, its not really the case nobody in the past realized that he himself occupied one particular location in history which different from the epochs that preceded him. For instance, the tragedies of Athens' golden age are all set in the Heroic age of Hercules and the Trojan War, hundreds of years before. The laws, customs, mores and even language of the dramatic world of these plays is markedly different from what obtained in the audience, which is part of the point of at least some of these plays. For instance, in Aeschylus' Eumenides Athena persuades the Furies (who symbolize the heroic virtues of retribution) to submit to the impersonal judicial system of the "modern" Athenian state. The play is symbolically exploring the transition (presumably still in its final throes in Aeschylus's time) before the Heroic age and the "modern" one.

And of course there were historians in the ancient world (historia being a Greek word). Herodotus and Caesar and all that. But it is also clear that there is a difference between Herodotus and Gibbon. The difference seems to be that modern historians understand themselves to be doing a kind of social science and ancient historians did not. Ancient histories were written for a variety of reasons: some like Plutarch's lives were meant as a way of stimulating the reader to imitate the virtues of the subject of the biography. Others perhaps were written to tell founding myths or provide etiological explanations of natural phenomena. However, there did exist a sort of history-writing that was concerned with offering a true account of things that really happened. Tacitus is a prominent example of this kind of ancient historian. And there is (apparently) evidence that Tacitus was following many of the same sorts of procedures that a modern historian would like critically evaluating sources and so forth.

Now it may well be the case that there wasn't any such thing as "historical theology" in the sense of a scientific exploration of the development of doctrine against the horizon of culture, philosophy, science, politics, etc. before the enlightenment. (One could also ask whether history actually became a science after the Enlightenment too--i.e. whether "scientific history" is just another positivist pipe-dream?) But, this does not necessarily mean that there couldn't have been people doing their level best to present an account of the church's pilgrimage on earth. Eusebius and Bede, for instance.

I'm not asserting that Eusebius or Bede were historical theologians though I would call them historians--positivist social scientists be damned. But it might be a fruitful undertaking for anyone endeavoring to write a history of historical theology (meta-history!) to examine people like Eusebius. Or, alternatively, go digging around in the 14th and 15th century and look for monks who are trying to write histories of the councils or something. I don't know if there are any, but it wouldn't surprise me to find that there were. Another place to look would be italian renaissance humanism in the 16th century. See if there is anybody reading Tacitus' histories who decides to write his own history of the Popes, say. Maybe this guy could count as a sort of proto-historical theologian--maybe there's a renaissance tradition of history writing that influences the development of history writing in the 17th and 18th centuries. who knows?

Somebody should write a book about this. I call "Not it!"

erin said...

the history of the historicizing of theology? That ought to put the "purpose driven life" on the run...

Can historical theology be extended back to Paul and the first few centuries of church fathers? The historicity of theology seemed very central -they were just more honest about their agendas in analyzing and retelling it.

Anonymous said...

Well would you lookie there! Is that another piece of dust? I thought I just cleaned my navel yesterday! Gotta go....

Ben Myers said...

Hi Benjamin -- yes, you're certainly welcome to translate the post. Thanks for your interest!

These various comments on "Enlightenment" are very interesting. On the one hand, Shane is right to point out that it's rather imperialistic to speak of the emergence of "historical consciousness" (as though this were an essential moment in the development of the human spirit).

But on the other hand, it's also true that "history" in the proper sense becomes possible only relatively recently. I don't think this is because of any monolithic event of "Enlightenment" -- instead, there were different conflicting forms of modernity that emerged in different regions as a result of specific religious and political struggles (see Ian Hunter, Rival Enlightenments, 2001). Only under these conditions does theology begin to be understood as a temporal activity that is subject to historical contingencies and is open to empirical observation.

Of course, as Shane and Erin point out, it's true that people were still writing "histories" before this -- but the historiography involved was premised on a metaphysical understanding of theology as the unconditioned attainment of a-temporal truth, not as something subject to historical contingency and open to empirical observation.

Anyway, I think the really interesting thing is that modern forms of historiography emerge precisely in situations of theological conflict, so that practices of "historical theology" participate (right from the start) in regional theological disputes.

Anonymous said...

Pink lint....how did that get there? Fascinating! Just goes to show....you never know.

j. k. said...

Harnack's great History of Dogma would be a clear example of this relation between theology and theological history.

mutabilitie said...

Herodotus, I should think, also thought evidence was important to explain why such and such happened or was thought to have happened. This is why he traveled around gathering data from statues, engravings, etc. [The greek 'historia' just meant 'stories'; which can mean an account for why such and such happened.] But Thucydides, who was influenced by the Sophists, gave a history primarily of politics (which makes decisions for military action) and reports of speeches (persuasive speeches) b/c the important events are political and military events and these are caused by great speeches. So no, I think Herodotus should be thought to precede Tacitus as 'first historian' (that we know of) who looked for evidence to explain various events and beliefs about events.

Of course, I'm sure all the above is quite contestable on various grounds.

Ben Myers said...

Yes, Harnack is certainly a good example.

Harnack famously remarked that Barth could have been a great historian of dogma if he had not become a dogmatician -- and there's some truth in that. But it would be equally true to say that Harnack was a great historian of dogma precisely because he was, at heart, also a dogmatician.

Anonymous said...

A book that I think is relevant to this discussion is Peter C. Hodgson, The Formation of Historical Theology: A Study of Ferdinand Christian Baur (1966).

Anonymous said...

Point 4 on the history of history: The word "historiography", rightly understood, refers to the history of the interpretation of a particular problem, the history of historians writing of history in other words. So yeah: what you call for in point 4 is not only legitimate; it is standard fare in the kind of historical theology done by the Germans since Baur. Baur, by the way, was the very first to seek to periodize the history of the writing of the history of doctrine. That is when historical science as applied to the discipline of theology first got off the ground.

To periodize, you have to see the interplay of science, philosophy and culture on the changing fortunes of theological ideas. You need to be able to stand at the end of a development, look back over it, identify the forces influencing the writers of history so as to be able to write a history of the historians. Until that step is taken, one is not doing history of doctrine as a specialist, but only as a systematic theologian who ventures into history of doctrine for the sake of finding in it resources for his/her own theological reflection.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Not to sound defensive, but I never meant to imply that people prior to Modernity never wrote histories. I still think that historical theology as we know it could not have come about prior to the descriptive vs. normative categorization that Modernity infuses us with (and which does not disappear in post-modern thoughtforms)--a distinction that seems to me to have been far more fluid in pre-Modern cultures.

History of doctrine/dogma is almost purely descriptive, but, I think, historical theology starts a conversation between previous thinkers and us--it bleeds over into dogmatics, but the historical task isn't completely swallowed up by dogmatic concerns. It's an interesting two-step.

Anonymous said...

Euan Cameron's "Interpreting Christian History" (2005) offers a broad outline of the development of both the study of Christian History as well as the study of Historical Theology. His last chapter 'Some Theologians Reflect on Historical Problem' covers Feuerbach, Strauss, F.C. Baur, A. Ritschl, Harnack, Troeltsch, Barth, Bultmann, the Niebuhrs, Pannenberg, MacIntyre, von Balthasar, Kung, Lindbeck, Milbank, and other notables.

In addition worth reading is Rowan William's little book "Why Study the Past".

PhD Aberdeen

Ben Myers said...

Yes, Rowan Williams' book on studying the past is excellent -- and I think somewhere in that book he offers the prediction that the "history of church history" will become the next major trend within the field of church history: I hope he's right!

Thanks for your added point as well, Michael. I think you're right -- and I must admit, I myself still occasionally use the term "historical consciousness", as (ill-advised) shorthand for "modes and practices of thought that privilege temporal conditions rather than metaphysics".

Thanks also to the earlier commenter for that extremely lucid and perceptive point about the emergence of historical theology in Germany.

Ben Myers said...

Oh, and thanks also for these additional reading suggestions: I've just ordered copies of both Peter Hodgson and Euan Cameron -- they both look excellent.

Shane said...

@BMyers

"-- but the historiography involved was premised on a metaphysical understanding of theology as the unconditioned attainment of a-temporal truth, not as something subject to historical contingency and open to empirical observation."

and

"I myself still occasionally use the term "historical consciousness", as (ill-advised) shorthand for "modes and practices of thought that privilege temporal conditions rather than metaphysics"."

On the basis of these two claims, I would extract the following two propositions:

1. All reality is socially constructed.
2. Realizing that all reality is socially constructed is the condition of the possibility of the emergence of 'historical consciousness'.

You haven't actuallly used the words "socially constructed" yet, but I cannot see what else you could mean. Your first quote makes it sounds like any and all "a-temporal truth" is bad, therefore the scope of the social construction of reality must be absolutely universal. (If it isn't universal, then there might exist some 'truths' which are not historically conditioned and you seem to reject even the possible existence of such truths.) The bit about empiricism in the first quote is also a throwaway--Aristotle was an empiricist of a sort and there were many famous scholastic experimental scientists (Albert the Great, the Oxford Calculators). So, there is no conflict between being a metaphysician and being an empiricist. But there might be a conflict between being a metaphysician and thinking that all of reality is just social construction.

There's a good reason that nobody used to think that all of reality is a social construction: it isn't true. Some things might be socially constructed, but not all. This sort of temporal idealism strikes me as being in fact inimical to Christianity. This isn't the place or time to press my attack on this issue though and I want to make sure that I'm actually picking out the right target. Perhaps I've misunderstood you Ben, so I'll stop now and give you the space to disavow the version of historical constructivism I've outlined before I set about demolishing it.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Shane -- thanks for your thoughts. But let me reassure you: this discussion has nothing to do with the question whether "all reality" is socially constructed. The point is simply that the object of historical study is temporal and is subject to contingent conditions. Metaphysicians have every right to discuss the possibility or impossibility of a-temporal things: but such a discussion (this is the point) would not be a discussion of history and could not take place within the discipline of history.

For what it's worth, I assume it wouldn't make sense to say that "all reality" is socially constructed (I doubt, for instance, that a quark or a supernova depends for its "reality" on social conventions!). But I equally assume that theology (or physics, or astronomy, or any body of knowledge) is always socially constructed -- where else would it come from?

And of course, the fact that an idea is "constructed" (i.e. the fact that it has a history) doesn't mean it's untrue!

Shane said...

For what it's worth, I assume it wouldn't make sense to say that "all reality" is socially constructed (I doubt, for instance, that a quark or a supernova depends for its "reality" on social conventions!). But I equally assume that theology (or physics, or astronomy, or any body of knowledge) is always socially constructed -- where else would it come from?

Ah, I see. I still think your giving too much ground to the constructivist, however. The strident constructivist ought to respond to you in this way:

You say that a quark isn't constructed, but physics is--but how on earth do you know a quark except through physics? If all knowing is historically conditioned, then all so-called objective reality is likewise conditioned, since we have no access to it except by means of our historically-conditioned thinking.

For my part, I'm suspicious of this sort of middle ground you are trying to occupy because the whole point of the historical-construction business is to point out that there is nothing stable, necessary, immutable, etc. only contingent, historical, relative to some frame of reference. On the other hand, I think Christianity commits one to the position that there are some propositions that are true regardless of who says them or when they are said or in what cultural framework they are said, "God exists," "Christ has two natures," etc.

Insofar as one is committed to the "truth" of these propositions in the sense of affirming that they correspond to some reality, one is a metaphysician. And so what's so wrong with being a metaphysician?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Shane. Thanks for your reply. There are clearly some basic differences in outlook between us here. For example, you say:

"I think Christianity commits one to the position that there are some propositions that are true regardless of who says them or when they are said or in what cultural framework they are said."

But I would simply disagree with that. You suggest two examples of timeless propositions -- "God exists", "Christ has two natures" -- but it seems to me that both these statements would be false in certain contexts. (In fact, I myself tend to avoid using both these statements, since I'm by no means convinced of their timeless truth!)

Anyway, I'm not trying to prolong this particular discussion; but I thought it was worth pointing out a basic difference in outlook here -- I simply don't believe that any propositions are unconditioned or timelessly true, nor do I believe that there is any vantage-point outside language itself from which we can view the world. On the other hand, I can see where you're coming from -- and so I understand why you would find my own outlook unattractive!

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

The very statement "Christ has two natures" depends on a Greek substance ontology. Say that to someone without that metaphysical background and the statement is meaningless. If the statement was made to someone who had never heard of Plotinus or Philo, but was well-versed in modern psychology, and they might think you were claiming that Christ had multiple personality disorder!

I have no trouble affirming the Chalcedonian formulae if one specifies the ontology that informed it. I do not know what formulae we would use to express the same truth, however, within very different metaphysics.

Does believing the gospel commit me to a Hellenistic metaphysic? I think not.

Shane said...

Take the following two propositions:

(1) "Water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius at normal atmospheric pressure."

and

(2) "God exists."

The propositions have an identical truth-value, as far as I can tell. God's existence and the freezing point of water at normal pressure are both necessary features of the world, so both are always true.

Now your position Ben, as I understand it, is that such propositions are sometimes true and sometimes false, depending on who says them, when and where. But when or where it would be false for someone to say (1) or (2).

(Negative theology is a dodge--denying God's existence via affirmativa is just a hidden reassertion of a higher kind of existence). The only way you could the universal character of necessary truths is to make "truth" an entirely subjective notion (Heidegger or James). If you take on the subjective truth, you're back to the silly form of constructivism you wanted to avoid earlier. If you admit that there are propositions which are necessarily true by themselves, independent of anybody's knowledge of them--welcome to the metaphysical fold, brother. I don't see any room for a middle ground betwixt the two positions:

transcendental/linguistic/constructivist idealism or realism.

So, insofar as Christianity implies a belief in the existence of God, it is not metaphysically neutral, but implies particular metaphysical claims. This is not to say that there is any one particular "Christian Metaphysic" or that you can read Aristotle's 10 categories out of Genesis or somesuch.

Put it this way, Heidegger has this famous canard that if he were ever to write a theology, the word 'being' would never appear in it. Just to that extent, Heidegger's theology would be a bad theology, since he couldn't even confess the creed.

shane

Ben Myers said...

Hi Shane -- yes, the Heidegger anecdote sums up our differences very nicely: I think Heidegger's "theology without being" may well have turned out to be a very good theology!

And, as I said before, I myself am very sceptical about whether it's true or useful to say (without immense qualifications) that "God exists". But that's another metaphysical story for another time....

Shane said...

"I simply don't believe that any propositions are unconditioned or timelessly true, nor do I believe that there is any vantage-point outside language itself from which we can view the world."

Is this just a basic article of faith of yours? Or is there some positive argument you could adduce for it? The position you are taking implies that there are no necessary truths. ('Timeless' is a bad way to say it, because there are such things as temporal propositions and some of those could be necessary. For instance, it would seem that all propositions about past events are either necessarily true or necessarily false.


"I myself am very sceptical about whether it's true or useful to say (without immense qualifications) that "God exists"."

Isn't the word for that position 'agnosticism'?

. . . "God exists" and "Christ has two natures" -- but it seems to me that both these statements would be false in certain contexts. (In fact, I myself tend to avoid using both these statements, since I'm by no means convinced of their timeless truth!)"

So when will those statements be false? When was Nestorius right? I just cannot see why this particular heterodoxy would be so appealing to you.

If you want to continue the discuss elsewhere, I'd be happy to do so, but you'll have to lay out for me exactly why you think what you do, clearly and precisely.

s

erin said...

please do continue this discussion!
my initial thoughts were that perhaps it is a privileged 21st century view that would deny historical theology to Paul, but I honestly know little of history and its methodology.

How about a series on ontotheology?

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