Historical Theology

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Historical theology as a scholarly discipline is difficult to define. An acceptable working definition might be "the genetic study of Christian faith and doctrine" (Pelikan xiii). But such study has been differently designated in recent centuries, with varying content and consequent confusion. The time-honored term for the genetic history of faith and doctrine is history of dogma, where "dogma" is sometimes restricted to basic orthodox affirmations of the Christian Church (e.g., Trinity), sometimes used more loosely to include less central doctrines. In the latter sense, history of theology is a term consecrated by long usage. History of Christian thought adds to dogmas and doctrines what we call ethics, as well as Christian reflection on other problems both of thought and of society (e.g., politics or such philosophical issues as the problem of universals). Historical theology itself has been used not only for the genetic study of faith and doctrine, but for the entire study of the history of the Church, and occasionally for all those theological and paratheological disciplines whose method is historical. One understanding of positive theology has been the study of Scripture and church history. Some see history of Christian doctrine as the clearest term; for it distinguishes the field from general church history and from other branches of church history, e.g., history of liturgy or of Canon Law.

Development of the Discipline. The development of the discipline has been influenced from two quarters:(1) the movement of theology, especially its stances toward doctrinal continuity and change; (2) the evolution of the historical method. If the definitive Word God spoke in Christ has been deposited with the Church, then, as early orthodoxy saw it, doctrinal change could only be distortion. In consequence, historical theology in the patristic period is largely a matter of documenting the apostolic succession of dioceses and dogmas, and the cataloguing of sects and heresies, rather than the genetic study of the mainstream of Christian doctrine (cf., e.g., the works of Irenaeus, Eusebius, Epiphanius). In this context the prevailing theological attitude came to be enshrined in the classic axiom of vincent of lÉrins: "one must take the greatest possible care to believe what has been believed everywhere, ever, by everyone (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est )" (Commonitoria 2). Tradition was the touchstone, innovation the automatic enemy. "Let nothing be innovated," Stephen I wrote to Cyprian, "beyond what has been handed down" (Cyprian, Ep. 74).

In the Middle Ages the Sic et non theological method (e.g., in abelard and in its refinement by Aquinas) uncovered apparent contradictions in what had been accepted as patristic consensus. But the method is more important for the questions it raised than for the answers it proposed. It did not make use of historical criteria to account for the theological variations it was attempting to explain.

The reformation controversies, while confronting the crucial allegation of a cleavage between primitive Christianity and the Catholic tradition, still pursued history polemically and evaluated change dogmatically. The task of historical scholarship was to prove that the adversary was guilty of innovation, had broken from authoritative Scripture or unvarying tradition, and therefore was doctrinally in error. In this sense the Reformation and counter-reformation outlook was closer to patristic and medieval than to modern historiography. On the other hand, a new temper and method were beginning to show: a more profound probing of the past and a growing sense of the pluralism of the past. In addition, the more objective methodology of Renaissance humanism, especially in the area of secular history, could not but affect, if only gradually, the confessional search for the Church's historical and doctrinal roots.

In the enlightenment climate of the 18th century, both on the Continent and in Great Britain, the scholarly study of church history increasingly emancipated itself from ecclesiastical sponsorship and began to define itself as an academic discipline. But the golden age of historical theology was the 19th century. This for two reasons. First, research in Christian theology came to be dominated by the modern historical method, particularly by the historical investigation of the New Testament and of the development of dogma. Here some of the more influential figures, for all their recognized inadequacies, are Ferdinand Christian baur, Johann Adam mÖhler, John Henry newman, and the most erudite and eloquent spokesman for historical theology, Adolf von harnack, with his utter commitment to the historical method as the primary means for analyzing Christian doctrine. Each faced frankly and knowledgeably the inevitable tension between history and tradition or faith commitment. Second, critical editions of the source material, e.g., patristic texts, built more extensively and profoundly upon the remarkable editions produced in the previous three centuries, stimulated in part by many discoveries of lost works, particularly from the earliest period and in Oriental languages (e.g., Syriac, Georgian, Coptic). Such editions and discoveries have increased at a remarkable rate in the 20th century and historical research has been intensified through comprehensive study of individual writers and the history of individual words and ideas.

Vatican II. The Council did not explicitly espouse any particular philosophy or theology which attempts to expose a design for the course of history. Nonetheless, the official documents of the Council take more notice of history than those of any previous council, and, hence, they at least implicitly deal with the process of the story of mankind. The Constitution on the Church, though it never loses sight of the transcendent nature of the Church, insists that the Church truly enters human history (Lumen gentium 8, 9). The introductory paragraphs of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World even attempt an assessment of the current historical situation and venture the judgment that the human race has entered "a new age of history" (Gaudium et spes 4). This judgment concurs with, and probably reflects, the conviction Pope john xxiii expressed in Humanae salutis, his apostolic constitution, Dec. 25, 1961, convoking the Council, which stated that human society was "on the edge of a new era." Other documents of the Council, especially when they deal with real or seeming changes in doctrine and discipline, evince a similar awareness of historical context and process. The desire to bring the Church up to date and to make it more effective in the contemporary world was the pervasive theme of the Council, as the term aggiornamento suggests. Such a desire in itself indicated an awareness of historical and cultural change and made possible the Council's adoption of "accommodation to the times" as its theme. Previous councils tended to assess change negatively and, in principle, to resist it in the Church.

Vatican II's attention to history was a response to the more general application of historical methods and categories to the kind of study of religion that had gained great momentum in the 19th century, especially in Protestant circles, and that in the 20th century characterized biblical, patristic, and liturgical scholarship also among Catholics. The impetus for the Council's attention to history was, in fact, derived from such scholarship rather than from systematic theology, where a rather ahistorical neo-thomism prevailed for the most part. Simply by taking account of history, the Council virtually assumed the obligation to make some statements about its course or design. The pastoral nature of the Council and the fact that its decrees were documents formulated in committee precluded the possibility that any single point of view would prevail to the exclusion of others. Nonetheless, certain features of the Council's appreciation of history can be singled out as more typical than others.

First of all, the Council assesses the course of history and the current "age" with considerable optimism, speaking of its social, scientific, technological "progress" (cf. Gravissimum educationis Introd. and 1; Apostolicam actuositatem 1; Gaudium et spes 57. For qualification of this optimism cf. Apostolicam actuositatem 7; Presbyterorum ordinis 17 and 22; Gaudium et spes 10, 15, and 37). Although it recognizes the ambiguities and ambivalence of the human condition, it gives relatively little support to those philosophies or theologies of history that view the story of mankind as a decline from an earlier and better condition. Secondly, the Council consistently maintains that the course of history is under providential guidance (Lumen gentium 23) and it occasionally employs the Eusebian description of the historical process as a "preparation for the Gospel" (Lumen gentium 16), as an unfolding of a divine plan, which presumably has a beginning, middle, and end (Dei Verbum 23, 11, 14). The Council asserts, for instance, that Christ is the key, the center, and the purpose of the whole of human history (Gaudium et spes 10). Eschatological expectations for history are expressed in that same document (ibid. 39, 45). Thirdly, Vatican II evidences a strong sense of continuity with the past and a desire to remain faithful to it. Continuity of faith, of spiritual gift, and of evangelical tradition from the primitive Church to the present is often asserted, despite recognition that considerable change has taken place through the centuries (Lumen gentium 9, 21, 23, 33, 39, 50, 51; Perfectae caritatis 1, 9; Apostolicam actuositatem 8; Ad gentes 5). Fourthly, the Council often makes use of forward-looking terms like progress, evolution, and maturation to describe how continuity has been maintained while change has occurred (Gaudium et spes 6, 54; cf. above on optimism). When these terms are applied to doctrine, (Lumen gentium 12; 55; Unitatis redintegratio 24; Optatam totius 11; Dei Verbum 7; Apostolicam actuositatem 3; Dignitatis humanae 1, 9, 12; Gaudium et spes 63) they quite inevitably suggest the viewpoint of scholars influenced by Newman's essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and by the renewed interest in the doctrine of the mystical body of christ, which was widespread in Catholic circles for several decades before the convocation of the Council. In both instances, an organic model of change is implied. The evolutionary model for the development of the cosmos expounded by teilhard de chardin was probably also an influence (cf. Gaudium et spes 39, 45).

Thus there is considerable effort in the documents of the Council to break away from a style of historical thinking which would see the Church as immune to process or change, as if it moved through history unaffected by history. This effort in some instances even intimates a breakdown of the traditional dichotomy in ecclesiastical documents between the Church and the Christian people, which allowed the Church to be without fault and untouched by history while the Christian people sinned and were subject to the "injuries of time." The use of terms like "the People of God" to designate the Church, especially in Lumen gentium, is seen by some scholars as indicating this change in mentality.

Present Views: Content and Method. The present task of historical theology is not easily expressed. The basic issues are content and method. For some, the subject matter is what the Church has believed, taught, and confessed on the basis of the Word of God. Besides admitted ambiguities ("Church," "Word of God"), such a definition restricts the discipline unduly to what the various confessions regard as dogmas or their equivalent. It is hard to see how historical theology can disregard the genetic study of theologoumena (e.g., speculations on the human knowledge or ignorance of Christ, on religious freedom, on the human person as image of God) and moral issues (e.g., abortion, social justice). Historical theology's subject matter should be broad enough to embrace whatever in thought, belief, and life can properly be termed Christian and has a history.

Equally controversial is the discipline's methodology. For some scholars, the one legitimate demand on historical theology is that it be sound history, that it follow the canons of acceptable historical method, presumably determined nontheologically. Others would accept this for a history of theology, but are persuaded that a discipline which calls itself historical theology cannot disregard theological presuppositions that make for a ceaseless dialectical interaction between faith and history and in fact affect one's interpretation of the past.

The issue so put involves the relationship between historical and systematic or dogmatic theology. Contemporary reflection sees them as inseparable, yet distinct. For Gerhard Ebeling, these are two aspects of the same hermeneutic task of theology: their common concern is the concrete event of the Word of God; their common task to foster effective contemporary proclamation. Historical theology is primarily concerned to determine the traditum : what was handed down and how. dogmatic theology focuses on the contemporary observance of the tradition, participates in the actus tradendi, the tradition of a present and continuous event. As essentially systematic, it must show how all genuine theological statements are necessarily related to one another and to the reality they bring to understanding. Historical theology exercises a "disturbing" function: it upsets established prejudices, forces the dogmatic theologian to face uncomfortable facts and forgotten truths.

Wolfhart Pannenberg argues that, since Christianity is essentially a process, a history, the tasks involved in describing the essence and truth of Christianity can only be performed within a historical theology, provided that, while remaining historical, it adopt a systematic approach. Such a historical theology, he believes, would end "the opposition between historical and systematic theology." In the present theological situation, however, a "special" systematic theology is necessary in addition to the historical disciplines.

Bibliography: g. ebeling, Theology and Proclamation: Dialogue with Bultmann (Philadelphia 1966) 2231. w. pannenberg, Theology and the Philosophy of Science (Philadelphia 1976) 371381, 418420. j. pelikan, Historical Theology: Continuity and Change in Christian Doctrine (New York 1971). j. ratzinger, Das Problem der Dogmengeschichte in der Sicht der katholischen Theologie (Cologne 1966). g. h. williams, "Church History: From Historical Theology to the Theology of History," in a.s. nash, ed., Protestant Thought in the Twentieth Century: Whence and Whither? (New York 1951) 145178. l. j. o'donovan, "Was Vatican II Evolutionary?" Theological Studies 36 (Woodstock, Md. 1975) 493502. j. w. o'malley, "Reform, Historical Consciousness, and Vatican II's Aggiornamento," Theological Studies 32 (Woodstock, Md. 1971) 573601.

[w. j. burghardt/

j. w. o'malley]

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Historical Theology

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Historical Theology