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Historical Theology: Reading Christian Theology in the Protestant Tradition

An interview with Hans Madueme, author and 2019 Theology Conference speaker

When reading, interpreting and applying the Bible, we do so in the present and in our own context and situation. And yet, we do not read the Bible without an awareness of or apart from other believers, and additionally, those who have died and yet live, the great cloud of witnesses that have preceded us in the faith, and who are now with the Lord (Heb 12:1).

Some have said that we are to read the Bible as if it has never been read before. On the one hand, I understand why that would be said. There is a freshness to the Word of God every time we read it. It is living and active (Heb. 4:12). And God having spoken (the Scriptures) now speaks—present tense—in those Scriptures as we read, as we hear God speak. As Jesus said, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matt 4:4).

And yet, on the other hand, to approach the Bible as if I am the only one who is reading, and has ever read, the Scriptures—it is simply God and I—is not quite right. God has spoken, bringing all things into being through His word (Gen 1), and He has spoken (and speaks, since it remains in the present tense) in the Scriptures to all His creation. It is a word/Word for all time. We are one of a family of believers who are reading God’s Word, and we live and learn together. The Bible is best read, and theology is best lived, in community. Furthermore, this also includes those faithful believers who are now with the Lord. Through writings and books, these are some with whom and from whom we live and learn. So, in this sense, we do not approach the Scriptures alone.

Theology and historical theology, even though they are not absolute, do play a ministerial role that cannot simply be set aside or ignored.
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In sum, the Bible alone, sola Scriptura, is the final and absolute authority. And yet, theology and historical theology, even though they are not absolute, do play a ministerial role that cannot simply be set aside or ignored. In many ways, the historical consensus of the Church becomes the first commentary we consult when we approach interpretation of the Scripture. Historical theology helps us to understand the Bible, our past and our tradition; it aids in our learning of the truth of the Scriptures and theology; and it keeps us from the errors of the past, across time. Since there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9), being aware of the past, historical theology, also enables us to understand, assess, evaluate and engage in the present day with greater awareness and application of biblical truth today.

This is one reason I am grateful for the recently published book, Reading Christian Theology in the Protestant Tradition (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018), co-edited by colleagues at Covenant College, Kelly M. Kapic and Hans Madueme. Hans serves as Associate Professor of Theological Studies at the College. An excellent sampling of historical theology in the Protestant (Evangelical) tradition is contained in this single volume, consisting of over 800 pages, and divided into five key periods of time: Part I—The Early Church Period (100-500); Part II—The Medieval Period (500-1500); Part III—The Reformation Period (1500-1600); Part IV—The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1600-1800); Part V—The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1800-2000).

I asked Hans a series of questions about this excellent book. He was kind enough to give us a brief introduction and overview of the book. After reading this interview, I encourage you to purchase the book. It is one I used as a companion to my Bible reading.

What was the origin of this book?

HM: My co-editor Kelly Kapic tells the story in the acknowledgements section of the book. In brief, one of the editors at T&T Clark, who has since moved on, first broached the idea of the book to Kelly. By the time I joined the faculty at Covenant College in 2012 the project was already underway, but Kelly invited me to join him as co-editor. Big books like this, with many moving parts, tend to throw up unexpected hurdles and challenges. Ours was no exception; and yet, I have to say that editing these chapters was also seasoned with moments of gratification and the joy of discovery. Kelly is a fantastic theologian and good friend, and we were privileged to have adept scholars contributing to the various sections of the book. I'm quite happy with how the finished product turned out—it was a long time gestating!

Protestants, especially evangelicals, have not always appreciated how indebted we are to historical theology. Coming to terms with that fact will protect us from a multitude of sins.
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Please give a brief description of the work, and what makes it unique?

HM: The book aims to guide readers into a rich conversation of theology that has been going on throughout the history of Christ's church. Protestants, especially evangelicals, have not always appreciated how indebted we are to historical theology. Coming to terms with that fact will protect us from a multitude of sins. At least, that is the wager of this book.

We divided the book into five sections: 1) the early church, 2) the medieval, 3) the Reformation, 4) the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and 5) the nineteenth and twentieth century. And for each section, we chose experts to serve as guides into the theological treasures for each time period. Readers will recognize that the eight authors represent a wide range of perspectives, including Lutheran, Wesleyan, Anglican, Baptist, and—last but not least!—Presbyterian.

Each section includes past texts for each time period, and the analysis is largely descriptive. This book isn't intended to be prescriptive or to draw theological conclusions from each text. Instead, each chapter gives a faithful analysis of a given work and its role in the development of Protestant thought and practice. And that last point is important—Roman Catholics do not have a monopoly on the history of Christian reflection; Protestants, having grown out of the Catholic tradition, share those roots. Ideally, we want our readers to come away with a lively sense of the many tributaries that flow into the deep waters of the Protestant tradition. Classic texts of the past can help us understand our tradition and thereby represent it faithfully in our day.

What did you learn through your editing?

HM: Well, I'm tempted to answer: I am a sinner in need of God's grace! But you might take that the wrong way; besides, my wife and children have taught me that lesson far more effectively.

As I hinted already, I learned that editing a book of this size is no easy task, certainly far easier in theory than in practice. The book is almost 800 pages long; not surprisingly, we had to deal with unexpected roadblocks and disappointments throughout the editorial process. All par for the course. I don't mean to sound preachy, but providence has a way of throwing curve balls and keeping us dependent on God. Perhaps the principle of "equanimity under duress" is a good editorial watchword.

One last thought: I think these kinds of projects exemplify the virtues of doing theology in community. It is true that multi-authored books sometimes falter from unevenness of the writing (which is why publishers are often leery). But when they're done well, when the different contributors are all on the same page, etc., it can produce a beautiful, synergistic effect—the whole is greater than the parts. Of course, the reader can decide where our book falls on that spectrum!

How would you like this work to be used and for whom is it intended?

HM: Needless to say, few readers are going to read it cover to cover. Though for those of you who choose to do so, you will enjoy the experience. I probably read each chapter multiple times and so I can speak with some authority—our authors have done a splendid job from start to finish.

We discuss a total of 58 primary texts (divided across the five time periods). Each chapter introduces a specific work and gives the reader its theological flavor and a sense of its contribution to Christian theology. Recommended reading is also included at the end of each chapter.

This book would work well for students at the undergraduate or seminary level who are looking to get a flavor for classic theological works. However, the book is not just limited to the classroom but would benefit anyone who wants to learn more about the Protestant theological tradition. Our book provides an entrée into a long dialogue and suggests further reading in primary and secondary sources which allows readers to press deeper into the questions.

How would you see this used in the life of a pastor in the local church?

HM: I think the main benefit is accessibility. Having these overviews in one place means that a busy pastor can quickly access material on a theologian, a theological topic, or a period of church history. Without this kind of resource, pastors will need to have a much larger personal library or they'll have to mine Google skillfully. I certainly believe that online searches have their place, but the chapters in this book are far more trustworthy and reliable. As a final note, having a single volume for continuing education is no small thing—right?

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