Sundoulos - Fall 2009

Dean's Column

The Unfolding Story of Doctrine - Historical Theology

by Dr. Dennis Dirks

Why historical theology?

How can something from the ancient past in any way speak to the challenges of today’s church?

Shouldn’t we focus on the church’s pressing needs today rather than spend precious time on yesterday’s dead theologians, poring over dusty treatises?

History and Biography channels aside, indifference and even hostility toward things historical are not uncommon in the evangelical community. A “that was then, this is now” attitude at times blinds the church to benefits of the unfolding story of the great doctrines of the faith. More than a whiff of arrogance is apparent. An engulfing myopic egocentricity misleads many to believe little can be learned from 2000 years of the church grappling with Scripture’s meaning. The underlying assumption often is this: the current age and context is the only one that really counts. Occasionally this notion is attended by an unspoken, equally self-absorbed conviction that ours is the only moment in time that gets it right.

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). God’s Word is inspired. But we’re not. And the meaning and full intent of God’s message are not always apparent 2000 years later in a culture different than the one in which it was inspired. But as Scripture has been carefully examined over many centuries, guided by the Spirit of God, a richer and more complete understanding of its meaning and nuances has emerged. It is often thought, incorrectly, that theology was at some point delivered as a finished body of knowledge. In actuality, theology has undergone significant development as issues and needs in the church required biblically– grounded answers. And that process of growth in understanding continues.

Periods of challenge and difficulty in the history of the church nudged and sometimes pushed the church to look more deeply and carefully at biblical teachings. During intense periods of grappling with doctrine, richer, more complete insights have developed. Their benefit becomes particularly evident during times such as those described by Paul: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4). Lessons of the past are of immeasurable assistance to the church when it grapples with bringing understanding and commitments back in alignment with the biblical text.

Historical theology likewise contributes to recognition of inevitable influences on understanding Scripture’s teachings at various times in history. Its value lies in prompting self-examination in our time. It helps sort out our own presuppositions, both helpful and potentially damaging, that we bring to the task of determining meaning and systematizing the teachings of God’s Word. As we learn from the past, we are provoked to sort out subjective and cultural perspectives that have potential for distorting Scripture’s intended message.

This is the stuff of historical theology. The payoff for the church is enriched knowledge and understanding of God’s Word, joined with growing awareness of how we are to live as communities of faith. The pressing question for the church is whether we will learn from this rich heritage, and seek increasingly to become what God intends in all fullness and faithfulness.

Dr. Dennis Dirks is Dean of Talbot School of Theology and Professor Christian Education. He has been with Talbot for more than 27 years as a faculty member and administrator after serving on the staff of two churches.

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