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Dusting for God's Fingerprints
On Theology pt.III - Looking for God in Biography & History
Dusting for God’s Fingerprints
Tom Holland recently paraphrased Stephen Jay Gould on his podcast ‘The Rest is History’ saying that “the magisterium of science and the magisterium of religion don’t overlap and are rivals” going on to hypothesise that history, likewise, has its own domain—or magisterium—that sits in direct contradiction to religious readings of history. Historians “don’t adduce supernatural explanations” with regards to historical events, Holland explained, but rather explain events as they have occurred, assuming natural causes. Statements like this aren’t uncommon, and to a large extent, I agree. There is a benefit to simply reporting events as they are. In a world of “fake news” and mass rewriting of history, it is important that we stand alongside classical historians (CH) in their mission to uncover and recount the historical record as accurately and accessibly as possible. In fact, it’s for this very reason that many Christians have promoted Holland’s book “Dominion” even given Holland’s own lack of faith. The fact that—all supernatural explanations aside—a CH can come to the conclusion that the Church has had such a profound and irrevocable effect on the world is a miracle in itself.
With that said, it would be untrue to say that CHs only recount historical events, because though they might not “adduce supernatural explanations,” they do indeed make educated assumptions and interpretations with regard to:
A. The veracity of historical accounts
B. The likely causes and effects of events
C. The connections between different events either through form (i.e. Wars, Alliances, Revolutions) or relationship, (i.e. Bismarck and Hitler; or King Henry V and Prince Harry, the present Duke of Sussex.)
With that in mind, coming to the historical record as Christians, or Theological Historians (TH), being indwelled by the Spirit and educated in the ways of the word, it would be impossible to perform these same interpretations without at times cautiously suggesting a supernatural explanation. Radical personal and spiritual transformation of key Christian figures throughout Church History, for instance, is something THs should attribute to the God-given gift of faith, and the work of the Spirit1.
How does this relate to a series on Theology though? Well, in order to read Historical Theology well, we need to read it as both History and Theology; looking at events and experiences that happened to and through men and women of God, as well as the writings penned by those men and women. Historical documents are neither “inspired” nor “infallible” like Scripture, but we should nonetheless, as stated before, seek out God’s presence throughout. Whilst God is present in every page, chapter, and verse of Scripture, with historical theology—as well as literature written today—we take up a more investigative role, looking for traces of God’s work, dusting for God’s fingerprints if you will. This takes a few forms, so let’s take a look at how we can make sure to do this well.
Discovering the Riches of the Past
As we’ve mentioned before, Historical Theology fits into a rough system of three theological studies, also including Biblical and Systematic Theology. I have defined these as follows:
In the introduction to this series, I stated that “we must always weigh history on the scales of Scripture, not vice versa” treating both Systematic and Historical Theology—and indeed any other form of Theology including that of other religions—against the Bible. Good and Bad Theological work has been undertaken since the garden and will continue to be until Christ comes again.
Whilst we must be wary of the aforementioned bad theology, let’s not forget that we’re not the first members of the Church to pursue God through his word and learn more about him, about how to live, and encourage the life and work of the church. The disciplines of biblical, systematic, and historical theology didn’t start in the 20th century, but have existed since the dawning of the Church. If I told you that you could sit down with the hundred greatest theologians, evangelists, pastors, preachers, mothers, and fathers since Jesus ascended into heaven, would you take that oppurtunity? What would you ask? Which Biblical questions might you have, and would you weigh or even accept difficult answers?
This is the offer and the challenge we’re faced with when thinking about Historical Theology. This “field,” so to speak, is neither about learning dates nor is it impersonal or irrelevant. God has drawn close to Christians throughout history, and through their legacies, we are invited to reap the rewards.
The Manifold Expedition of The Great Commission
First of all, I would like to make a plea for the reading of biographies. More than anything, biographies help to remind us that the Church and its theology didn’t simply appear out of nowhere. Whilst none of us would ever say this out loud, the truth is that many of us act as though our church or the church at large simply is and that it will just, presumably, continue on in much the fashion that it has so far. This flies in the face of the historical record, which is full not only of men and women committed to sharing the gospel with unreached people groups, both at home and abroad, but also those who have gone on to defend the faith, even unto death.
We must continually look for those who share our passion for the great commission, for making disciples of all nations, wherever they might be. This goes for great theologians and farmhands, pastors, and laypeople.
These men and women have done much for the sake of the Church and her bridegroom; serving the Lord, and serving his people. Part of that has been through writing. When my wife and I ran a podcast we said the following in our intro, “the main way that discipleship has been bolstered throughout Church History has been through literature,” and I stand by that. From the epistles of Paul, Peter, John, Clement, Polycarp, and others, to great tomes like Calvin’s Institutes or Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, the Church has been blessed by the love and care which has been taken by saints throughout history who sought both to learn and to share, to uphold and defend the faith.
On the other hand, literature, as well as preaching, has also been used by those who have sought to tear down the church—whether they knew they were doing it or not. Heresy has on various occasions infected the church, and in response, our theological immune system has kicked in. Councils, brave men and women, as well as multitudes of sponsors and supporters have surrounded and suppressed the virus, defending the true bride of Christ from its effects. Unfortunately, as with all viruses, these heresies have hibernated, mutated, and assimilated other worldviews, rearing their heads again, only for our immune system to kick in once more. We’d be unwise not to regularly review, and renew our knowledge about these heresies, as well as the creeds and other writings which the Church has used to fight them. They will come around again, in fact, they already have—en masse.
Ultimately, more important than learning from the example of others, more important even than fighting heresy is our need to be reminded to return to scripture. I have been immensely blessed by reading the expositions of Scripture preached by and written by men like Chrysostom, Augustine, and Spurgeon, as well as the “Systematic” works which, through a firm understanding of Scripture, have responded biblically to the needs of the church of the writer’s time.
This necessity to return to Scripture is well laid out in this quote from Matthew Barrett:
"Century after century, sola scriptura has been the [grounding obsession] of the Protestant mind, its foundational premise on which all its doctrines are built and established. Where it has not, Protestants have misaligned themselves with their own heritage, their own tradition. Where it has, the gospel can be heard with clarity and authority, with sufficiency and life-giving power."
Matthew Barrett, Historical Theology for the Church, 2021, 204.
Our learning from Church History is not in order to add to scripture, but to return to it, not to manipulate the text, but to learn to exegete the text well. By learning from the mistakes and successes of the past, we can be better equipped to fulfil our part in the manifold expedition of the great commission; to make disciples of all nations and defend the faith in our own time.
Part of the struggle of writing articles and series like this is the amount I have to leave unwritten. I could easily write for a whole year on any of these subjects and still not scratch the surface. My encouragement to you is to find out for yourself what I’ve missed and what I’ve left out. This isn’t an invitation to simply know what Biblical, Systematic, and Historical Theologies are, but to dive in and learn about them yourself.
This isn’t merely an academic exercise but is more akin to tracing one’s family tree. I’m blessed to have access to my great-great grandfather’s journal, he was a minister and a military chaplain and he documented the blessings and struggles of that life. Reading his journal left me with a sense of legacy, of missional familial continuity. The same is true when I look at the life of my younger brother, a man dedicated to the Lord and to seeing young men and women discipled well. I’m not academically fascinated by my brother, I’m spiritually spurred on. The same is true of my ancestors in the faith, their words and examples are a reminder to me of what has come before, but also of what’s ahead and I can’t wait for you to find out what that is like too.
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
Or, at the very least, we must charitably assume the best of said figures, not judging them to be unsaved without proper due cause, lest we bring our own faith into question.