The Pastor as Historical Theologian: Some Initial Thoughts

historical theology

Recently I attended a Christian academic conference were Christian scholars from around the world presented papers on various topics. One paper I had the privilege to listen to was from Dr. J. G. Duesing, provost and professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Duesing’s paper presented a proposal for how professors might do historical theology for the church (read an excerpt here).

His paper prompted me to spend a bit of time reflecting on historical theology and the local church. Though I am currently formulating more of these thoughts elsewhere, I wanted to post some of what I’ve considered here. The aim, simply put, is to encourage pastors to incorporate historical theology into their life and ministry.

Admittedly, the pastor is pulled in several different directions when it comes to shepherding the church. Sermon prep is a joy, but the time it takes to faithfully interpret, explain, and apply a text on Sunday means Monday through Friday is filled with study. Beyond the pulpit, pastors must give time to prayer, visiting the sick, taking care of administrative issues, leading the staff, answering correspondence, and a host of unforeseen things on a weekly basis. The pastor is busy, indeed.

Given the busy life of a pastor, why do I think he should spend time reading church history or thinking through the historical development of a particular doctrine? Is it not enough to hold to a sound trinitarian theology without trying to trace trinitarian theological formulation over the history of Christianity? Should we not simply read our Bibles, develop a sound biblical theology of salvation without worrying about the debates between Augustine and Pelagius, Calvinists and Arminians? Are we not better off to simply hold firm to a biblical ecclesiology without diving into the debates between Rome and Protestants?

This post assumes that pastors should not (cannot?) disregard the history of Trinitarian theological inquiry, or the debates over the nature of salvation, or the doctrinal development of things like ecclesiology. Instead, we should pay attention to the development of these theological ideas. In fact, I wonder whether or not you can develop a robust trinitarian theology, a sound biblical theology of salvation, or a biblical ecclesiology if you completely disregard historical theology.

However, assertions need arguments if they will persuade. So let me provide some brief thoughts from a respected historical theologian on the benefits of historical theology.

Gregg Allison, professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes, “historical theology…serves the church in many ways.”* He then outlines several benefits that historical theology offers. According to Allison, historical theology benefits the church in eight specific ways.

  1. “A study of historical theology that rehearses the development of doctrine helps churches today to identify and embrace orthodoxy and to reject and correct heresy.”
  2. “[Historical theology] provides sound biblical interpretations and theological formulations.”
  3. “Historical theology…presents stellar examples of faith, love, courage, hope, obedience, and mercy.”
  4. “Historical theology [protects] against the individualism that is rampant today among Christians.”
  5. “Historically theology…not only helps the church understand the historical development of its beliefs, but enables it to express those beliefs in contemporary form.”
  6. “Historical theology…encourages the church to focus on the essentials, that is, to major on those areas that have been emphasized repeatedly throughout the history of the church.”
  7. “Historical theology…gives the church hope by providing assurance that Jesus is fulfilling his promise to his people.”
  8. “Finally, as beneficiaries of the heritage of doctrinal development sovereignly overseen by Jesus Christ, the church today is privileged to enjoy a sense of belonging to the church of the past.”

These points are easily applied to the local church pastor. The study of doctrinal development will aid the pastor as he guards his people from false teaching and seeks to formulate faithful exegetical conclusions and theological applications. There is nothing new under the sun. Historical theology introduces the pastor to past heresies that arise from time to time in our present world, though in modern forms. In addition, by studying the history of theological development, the pastor places himself in a long line of Christian witness, guarding himself from novelty and an individualistic approach to ministry.  The pastor does not have to reinvent the wheel. He stands in a long line of faithful men and women who have wrestled with the Bible. Paying attention to church history and historical theology reminds the pastor he is not alone and does not need to be a lone ranger.

Furthermore, studying historical theology helps the pastor take historic Christian doctrines and put them in terms his people would understand. When the pastor is made aware of the terms Christians have used in the past to define doctrines or communicate ideas, he is then able to give thought to how those same doctrines and ideas might be communicated today. Finally, historical theology encourages the pastor as he witnesses the providence of God in guarding doctrine and helping his people come to a better understanding of his person and his ways as history unfolds.

More could be said, but an example might help press this home. When the pastor is aware of the various debates concerning the atonement, he is able to identify vocabulary and ideas that have been helpful (or unhelpful) in explaining the work of Christ on behalf of the church. Furthermore, the pastor comes to see that various godly men and women have agreed and disagreed over certain aspects of atonement theology, and yet are still on the same team. This allows him to point his people towards the most central concerns, identifying the matters that are on the periphery, and thus helping maintain unity in the body of Christ. Finally, through his study of historical theology, particularly in reference to the atonement, he comes to better understand the work of Jesus in dying for sinners. In short, the pastor is helped, the church is served, and God gets the glory.

Finally, and in addition to the points stated by Allison, historical theology can help fight pride. Pride is perilous and a danger for every human being and thus every pastor. The study of theology generally and historical theology specifically introduces the pastor to complex discussions and debates that are not easily grasped with a passing glance. Any pastor who sits down and truly wrestles with the historical development of Christology, or how theologians like Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli understood the body of Christ to be present in the Lord’s Supper, will find their intellectual abilities stretched and tested. Thus, historical theology can bring a wrecking ball to pride and lay the foundation for humble preaching and teaching.

The above reasons are not all that can be said about the benefit of incorporating historical theology into the pastor’s life. More needs to be said. And someone should articulate how a pastor might include historical theology in his busy schedule. For now, I’m persuaded that pastors should engage in historical inquiry. Their ministries are well-served as they pay attention to not only the unfolding of church history, but to the development of ideas in the history of the church

 

*Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine: A Companion to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 24–30.

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