I once did a genogram of my biological family. I went back and studied my family’s history. I spoke with my mother about my family, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and many more beyond them. While I was not able to glean information about every single person in the history of my family, I was able to learn invaluable information about many of them, which in turn changed the way I thought about myself. Through reflecting on my family in the past, I was better able to avoid their mistakes and launch myself as a Christian into this dark world.
Similarly, such is the case with historical theology.
What is Historical Theology?
It’s been said that history is a construction of the past using available sources. Theology is the study of God or one’s personal reflection on divine self-disclosure. So what is historical theology? It is “a method of doing contemporary theology by reflecting on past theology and its historical contexts.” 1
Historical theology serves as both a fortress and a launching pad. 2 As a fortress, historical theology is there to protect the church from error. We study the past theologians and church history to ensure that heresies of the past do not influence the church today. This is especially true with non-negotiable theological topics like the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Christ, original sin, and substitutionary atonement.
Likewise, historical theology also serves as a launching pad. As a launching pad, historical theology serves to promote our present theology and new theological ideas. We study the theologians of the past as a fresh way to do theology in our present context. Historical theology is both a fortress and a launching pad.
In his excellent book, Everett Ferguson says, “The study of church history may help one to pass judgment on what is perceived to be unfaithfulness in any area with sympathy and humility and a resolution to learn from the mistakes of the past . . .” So one reason to study historical theology is to learn from the mistakes of our spiritual heroes.
But another reason to study historical theology is to learn about what was done right and to try to do the same. Ferguson continues, “and it [the study of church history] may teach one to rejoice in expressions of faithfulness with gratitude and a desire to imitate.” We want to avoid the mistakes of our brothers and sisters from the past, but we also want to emulate them when their character proved to be godly.
Many resources can help. We’ve got books like Institutes of the Christian Religion or Augustine’s famous work, City of God . We can also read sermons from the great saints of the past, read biblical commentaries, and cannons and procedures of councils. Other sources included are the Bible, philosophy, tradition, certain ancient writers, and more. These all serve as functions to better comprehend historical theology.
Do You Care About Your Family?
I’ve taken two classes now on church history and I feel convicted and encouraged. I feel convicted because outside of reading a few biographies on Spurgeon and Calvin, I haven’t read much church history. But that’s changed. And as a result of studying my spiritual family in the past, I feel better equipped to follow Jesus in the present.
What about you? Do you care about your church family?
Church history is the story of the church, but it’s also your story because you are apart of the church. I commend you to study church history. There are many reasons why. But one is so that you will become a better historical theologian.
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