Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The Need for Historians of Theology

"Where are the Historians of Theology?"

I remember on one occasion David telling me that a friend of his, when asked if he was a historical theologian, replied no. If I recall correctly, this response came as a surprise to the people interviewing him for the position of a historical theologian at a prestigious evangelical institution. The candidate responded instead that he was a theological historian. He subsequently went on to demonstrate that he was a capable person for this post.

The previous story highlights what I see as a negative trend, particularly among evangelicals: there seem to be few theological historians in the academy. In my estimation, there are countless historians and theologians, but relatively few historians of theology. Alister McGrath and Tony Lane have written excellent books on historical theology, but they are writing primarily as theologians and tend to downplay the rich cultural and social contexts in which theological ideas were birthed. What I want to suggest is that theology is influenced by its social and culture context. Thus greater attention needs to be given to these contexts in order for us to gain a better understanding of theology.

The opposite problem is apparent among many historians. At the history conferences that I have attended, the dominant topics there relate to politics, social and cultural issues, even if they are religious in nature. I remember attending the Eighteenth-Century Scottish Studies Society conference at Halifax last July. Two eminent Scottish historians commented to me about the lack of theological knowledge among the members of the society. One of the two provided the honest assessment that he and others simply did not understand the relevant theological issues of the day.

My thesis therefore is that we need more historians of theology. I submit that there is a need for systematic theologians and social and political historians. However, surely there is also a need for historians to examine theology. We need able historians to describe lucidly the context of theological ideas. We need more David Bebbingtons, Mark Nolls, Bruce Hindmarshs, John Stackhouses (perhaps he would not want to be known as a historian), Timothy Larsens, Jaroslav Pelikans, and Roger Olsons. In my historical theology class that I teach at Taylor University, I chose to lecture from Roger Olson’s The Story of Christianity. Why? – because in my opinion, the best way to relate doctrine to students is to explain it within the context of narrative. Not only are Augustine’s ideas interesting, so is his personal life. His lustful struggle as a youth and the freedom that he found in God’s grace informed his thought on predestination (being irresistible called by God). Origen is another interesting thinker. He took Matthew 19:12 as encouraging words for becoming a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven. Despite the wide variance in grades on my first exam, not one of my students missed the following question:

Name the controversial early Church Father known for his allegorical interpretations of scripture who castrated himself in order to become a “eunuch for the kingdom of heaven”

  1. Justin Martyr
  2. Origen
  3. Cyprian
  4. Julius Caesar

Perhaps it is time for institutions of higher learning to consider advertizing for theological historian faculty positions.

Jon Yeager


David Ceri Jones said...

Dear Jon,
This is a great post. i like the idea of a theological historian very much - and am trying my utmost to be one!

David Bebbington told me about your PhD thesis on John Erskine at a conference on Jonathan Edwards in Glasgow last week; I've written about him a little in some of my work on the Welsh evangelical revival. I'll put a link to your article on my own blog:[http://davidceri.blogspot.com]

Anonymous said...

Thanks David,

I enjoyed reading your essay in the Advent/Emergence of Evangelicalism. I wish I could have gone to the Glasgow Edwards conference last week and presented.


John Stackhouse said...

I've been a historian and I am honoured to be numbered in that group. I agree with your concern and may your tribe increase!

Exploring the Study of Religious History said...

Hey John,

Thanks for stopping by--and even more, thanks for agreeing with us!



Anonymous said...

Hi Jon,

Great post! I think you've done a great job articulating what many have felt for a long time. I hope you are doing well.

All the best,


Jon Yeager said...

Hey Cullen,

We need to have you post something, or at least get an update from you on what you are reading and researching.