What is Historical Theology?

A Primer

What is Historical Theology?

Church history is filled with great thinkers—great thinkers that make the “intellectuals” of our day seem rather insignificant. Thinkers like Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Augustine are known for their reason and philosophical brilliance. Others like C.S. Lewis, Anne Bradstreet, and John Milton are known for their ability to explain reality through literary works of art. 

Historical theology is the study of biblical interpretation throughout the history of the church—asking the big question, “how has this been understood in the past?” It is a discipline that desires to learn from great thinkers of the ages. We read the from these great thinkers to see how they thought about big questions that we still face today. Although historical theology is concerned with individuals in history, it also looks back to the collective thought of the church in history—primarily looking at creeds and councils—for wisdom and clarification.

Church History Enriches Historical Theology, but Historical Theology is not Church History

Historical theology and church history have an interesting relationship. They are different, yet careful historical theology demands some understanding of church history.

Church history is the study of specific events, time periods, and actions in history that have shaped the church. Historical theology is concerned with the interpretation of the Bible in these time periods, while church history focuses more on the historical events themselves. 

With that said, the two areas of study are dependent upon each other. Imagine reading Martin Luther like he is an ordinary modern writer. He would probably seem like a brash, yet generally orthodox thinker. You would probably also wonder why he was so concerned with certain issues that we give little attention to today. His thoughts were shaped by the real life circumstances he was experiencing. Reading Luther—and anyone for that matter—outside of their historical context will lead to a misunderstanding of what they have to say or an under-appreciation for how ground-breaking their thought was.

Theology does not operate in a vacuum. It must be read in light of history. For that reason, church history and historical theology are dependent on each other, but it is important to remember that they are distinct areas of study. They work alongside other disciplines to help us read, understand, and apply the Bible in our lives.

Historical Theology and Other Disciplines

How does historical theology relate to these other disciplines of Bible interpretation? Here’s a brief description of three primary disciplines that work in conjunction with historical theology:

Exegetical theology appropriately starts by trying to understand the biblical text in its immediate context—a necessary first step!

Biblical theology seeks to understand the progression or development of a topic as God reveals it in biblical history.

Systematic theology attempts to take the Bible as a whole and understand how it speaks specifically to different topics and questions of our day.

Those three disciplines are essential, and they are dealing with the Bible in a more intimate way than historical theology generally does. Historical theology is so beneficial, because it looks back in time to see how the church has understood these major questions that the other disciplines are asking. In a sense, historical theology is like a young child sitting on the lap of his wise grandfather asking, ‘what should I think about this?’. This child can try to answer that question through life experience, but there is a value in being led and helped by a grandfather who already has experience and wisdom.

Benefits of Historical Theology

Here are three major benefits of historical theology:

1. Historical theology provides a fence to protect us from error and heresy.
As Christians, we seek sound doctrine. We want to be properly informed by the teaching of the Bible. Throughout history, the church has deemed some doctrine  heretical (going against sound doctrine) and others orthodox (in line with sound doctrine). The Bible, not church creeds, serves as our final authority, but church creeds help to shape our understanding. If the church has always believed something to be true, then we should be slow to be innovative in our understanding on that topic. Major cults today neglect history and, in turn, are riddled with heresies. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses have views about Jesus that were deemed heretical in early Christian writings and early creeds.

2. Historical theology presents formulated doctrine that has been molded and shaped over time.
There are situations where the Bible teaches very clear doctrine, but it does not offer precise terminology for understanding or discussing that doctrine. Historical theology not only protects us from misunderstanding that doctrine, but it also gives us common language that has been formulated over time. For example, the term Trinity is not used in the Bible, but it was first used by Tertullian (155–240 A.D.) as a way to synthesize and define biblical truths about God.

3. Historical theology helps us think beyond ourselves.
Many of the questions we ask today are shaped entirely by our environment. The question, ‘How should Christians responsibly use social media?’ would have been a foreign question to a fourth-century leader trying to understand the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. Similarly, the question, 'What should we do with the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation (private confession)?" was an important question for reformers like Martin Luther, but it is a topic that most evangelicals hardly consider today. Historical theology helps modern Christians see major questions and struggles throughout the ages, and it invites us to wrestle with questions that we may have never asked. In that way, historical theology helps us think beyond ourselves and our circumstances.

The benefits of historical theology are massive! Historical theology protects us from error, it gives us common language, and it gets us to thinking beyond ourselves. We would all do well to seek the wisdom of the past more often!