Ancient and medieval historical theology: Ur doin it wrong?


The subhead above should have read: “A group dedicated to doing it right.” But then I couldn’t have used this lolcat picture. And I have a weakness for lolcats.

Once in a while a bright seminary student will come to me and tell me that they want to “go on” and study historical theology, in the service of the church. What theology doctoral program should they enter?

I think of Duke and UVA, and then I’m flummoxed. Now, I know there are other good programs out there. I’m not the best-connected academic. So I suggest that the student email their question to one of the prominent senior historical theologians–UVA’s Robert Wilken is one–who are in fact pursuing their field in the explicit service of the church (may Jaroslav Pelikan rest in peace).

But it has seemed to me that the field has never quite recovered from the mid-twentieth-century assimilation of theology to the “religious studies departments” of the major universities, nor from the academy’s quite proper dismissiveness of the squabbling “my dogma is better than your dogma” confessionalism that marked the field in the decades leading up to that assimilation. Certainly, as theology still languishes far from her erstwhile status as “queen of the sciences,” historical theology as the queen’s handmaiden has also fallen on hard times.

Now I discover that a group of historical theologians at Boston College have, for the past few years, been dedicating themselves to leading their field of historical theology back to the pursuit of (this will shock you) the history of theology–instead of defense of dogma, study of philosophy, or other things only tangentially related to the health of the church. They put it like this:

The scholarly and academic study of the history of Christian theology, especially that focused on the early and medieval periods, is at a critical juncture. After decades of being, in turns, dominated by confessional Dogmengeschichte agendas, assimilated within the history of philosophy, and eclipsed by social and material history, recent developments signal a revival of interest in the explicitly theological traditions of ancient and medieval Christianity.

The founders of the Boston Colloquy in Historical Theology are Khaled Anatolios, Stephen F. Brown, and Boyd Taylor Coolman, all in the theology department of Boston College. In their statement of rationale, they worry that although “there are senior scholars of patristic or medieval theology whose work over the past three or four decades is widely recognized and respected,” these scholars have not worked within a “larger sense of professional identity or guild association within the academy.” More gravely (and this is delicately put): “their active presence in the academy will not likely extend beyond the current decade.”

More than this, most of the conferences that scholars in this field would most naturally attend “are not at present especially welcoming to explicitly theological material.” Nor do those conferences present many opportunities to promote “scholarly work leading to substantive, field-advancing publication.” In other words, historical theologians are finding themselves working in the absence of (1) critical mass, (2) guild identity, and (3) the support structures of conferences geared to help them grow and contribute in their chosen field.

As if all of that weren’t bad enough, questions of method remain chronically unanswered, the relationship of this field to those of history and systematic theology is unclear, and challenges posed by postmodern theoretical perspectives remain unanswered.

Other problems bedevil the guild-consciousness, healthy growth, and usefulness to the church of the enterprise of early and medieval historical theology. One whose mere statement gets me excited: “Attending to the question of how doctrine was (and is) related to expressions of Christian life (ecclesial practices, liturgy, devotional traditions, spirituality, etc.)” OK, yes. I excite easily.

Now for the part that really gets my juices flowing: the call for ressourcement:

There is, moreover, a growing sense among many, both within and outside the academy, that these ancient theological traditions, perhaps more than others, continue to nourish and shape contemporary expressions of Christian faith across the ecclesial spectrum. Clearly, patristic and medieval theological traditions have important trajectories, which extend well beyond the arc of historical periodization. The question of how in the 21st-century Christian theology might strive to be or remain C/catholic, or of how these older traditions might be both constructively and critically engaged, is of particular moment in relation to these periods. Thus, while the immediate focus here is with pre-modern theology, the value of a vigorous exchange about forms of theological discourse that are rooted in, but not confined to these periods is patent. This is an area of enormous importance, in part because it clarifies how historical theology is not finally something separated from the living traditions of Christian life.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a venue in which historical theologians can exhibit their on-going scholarly work in an environment that is both critical and charitable, that is constructively engaging, that goes beyond questions of method and delves deeply into the content of patristic and medieval theology is sorely needed. In short, a place for this kind of substantive conversation of these various issues does not at present exist, and the current guilds are neither disposed toward nor structured for such work. For all these reasons, the creation of a new and different scholarly venue for promoting early and medieval historical theology is both desired and warranted

If you are interested, you can read the colloquy’s full rationale.

So what has this group done to remedy these stated ills? In 2006, it began an annual end-of-July/beginning-of-August mini-conference. Presenters of a line-up of fascinating papers have included Bernard McGinn, Grover Zinn, Lewis Ayres, Marcia Colish, William Harmless, Joseph Lienhard, and the aforementioned Robert Wilken (to include just those so well-known that even I have heard of and read them).

I can only say . . . “Next year in Boston!”

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4 responses to “Ancient and medieval historical theology: Ur doin it wrong?

  1. This sort of question has been rattling around in my mind for a few days. Specifically, I had some issues to explore re: the first Anglican prayer books, and while I obtained a copy of the 1549/1552 books of Edward VI, the commentaries and critical notes were much slanted to the old Puseyite arguments (which is so two centuries ago.) Now, I don’t much care except for general interest what vestments are correct at the eucharist according to the “time of Edward VI” but I do care why we did what we did when we did it, and where this all came from. The scholarship is still heavily slanted to a mid-nineteenth debate that refuses to give up and go away. I certainly would like to see the history of theology move away from its dogmatic stance into a more pure scholarship.

  2. But my dogma is better than your dogma!

    Still, thanks for the heads up. You give a wandering soul much to think about.

  3. Pingback: On the Current Status and Nature of Historical Theology | A Word About Words

  4. Pingback: Flotsam and jetsam (9/27) « scientia et sapientia

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