Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Practical Value of Studying Historical Theology

One of my theological intellectual goals has been to read through Richard Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. As an Anglican priest I feel that I should be able to say that I have read Hooker from beginning to end. So far I am about halfway through volume 2 (book 5) of the edition edited by Keble. As anyone who has tried knows, Hooker is hard to read. In addition to being very prolix and polemical, he writes about controversies that can seem very far removed from anything relative to the life of the Church today. But the more I plod through this venerable old classic the more I find just how contemporary and relevant it really is. Because the reality is that many of the old controversies addressed by Hooker live on in the Church.

Case in point, the other day someone told me that Anglicans spend too much time and money worrying about decorating churches. Hooker addresses this question in Book V, making the argument form scripture and tradition that God's people have always seen fit to erect and embellish houses of worship. Another example, many Christians in Hooker's day decried the typical Anglican practice of preaching short (or no) homilies, assuming that God's word had to be communicated through long sermons. Hooker dismisses this notion again in several chapters of Book V, commenting especially on the power of simply reading the word of God to bring about repentance and conversion. The same controversy can still be observed in the church today.

There are many other examples that I have found from Hooker of the continued practical value and relevance of studying historical theology. Therefore I would not dismiss it as some people are quick to do. Because the voices of the 16th century and earlier can still speak to the needs of the Church today. Maybe if the Church had truly heeded the words of these authors in their own day she would not be in the mess she is in today!


  1. An absolute YES to your words: "Because the voices of the 16th century and earlier can still speak to the needs of the Church today. Maybe if the Church had truly heeded the words of these authors in their own day she would not be in the mess she is in today!"

    Anglicans might start with Jewel's Apology? Then move onto Hooker? Like going from tea to whiskey?

    But the thought fully applies to all. Lutherans need to study their founders and sources. Same for Reformed. And Methodists. None of the heirs of the Reformation are immune. Even RCs and Council of Trent, Erasmus, etc.

    Fortunately for Anglicans and Methodists, so much of their source material was either written in English or has been translated into English. Sadly, they neglect Cranmer, Ridley, Hooper, Parker, Hooker, Laud, etc.

    Compare. English-reading Lutherans are mostly stuck with Luther; see how little of Melanchthon, Brenz, Bugenhagen, Flacius, etc. is available in English. Same for Reformed and Calvin; see how little of Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bucer, Bullinger, Beza, etc. is in English.

  2. I think that reading the older English authors such as Hooker is very difficult, though, as you suggest, probably not as difficult as translating works of German Reformation theologians! It took me a while to get used to reading Hooker, and each time I pick him up it takes a few paragraphs to get really in the "groove." There was a modern "translation" of Hooker published by Canterbury Press, I think, that I once saw, but didn't bother purchasing.

    One of my professors in seminary said that studying historical theology was an "easy way out." In his opinion theologians who specialize in historical theology avoid the difficulty faced by professors of systematic and fundamental theology of having to generate new ideas and concepts to address current problems/issues. And in his book "No Ordinary Fool" John Jay Hughes wrote that if he were studying for a doctorate in theology today it would not be historical theology but something related to theology and politics.

    But my whole point, and yours too, is that some of us still find the study of historical theology not only interesting but helpful in addressing certain issue faced by the contemporary church.

  3. I think it is absolutely imperative for anyone of a particular faith background to study the foundational documents and thinkers in detail, in their own words. The only way to truly appreciate where you come from and what you stand for.

    And I think even when we aren't of the same faith group, studying the thoughts of "giants" can be quite edifying. For example, did some studying of Romans. Found the "moderns" lacked a certain reverence and respect for the text. And they didn't really seem to fully hit on the core issues. So I read both Melanchthon's Commentary and Calvin's, both 1540. Wish I could get an English translation of Bucer's. Talk about an eye opening experience. To study scripture thru the eyes of linguistic and theological masters like these.

    Anyone wanting to appreciate the Reformation must read some of the great works of the period. Take Luther vs. Erasmus on The Will. Two of the best for Protestants, available in modern English translations, are Melanchthon's Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (1537; in the Book of Concord) and his Loci Communes (1559; CPH, 2011, 2nd ed.). Still entirely relevant for today.

    I love what the Lutheran scholar Robert Kolb wrote in his Foreward to the 2nd ed. of Melanchthon's 1540 Commentary (CPH, 2010):

    "John Thompson, a contemporary American Reformation historian, has noted the advantages of 'reading the Bible with the dead.' [He] argues that there is much to be learned for preaching and teaching from the history of exegesis that simple examination of the biblical text does not convey. We profit from the conversation that has gone on through the ages over the texts of Scripture."

    Of course, that also applies to the BCP, 39 Articles, etc.