I’ve been reading a bit of historical theology recently. And it’s made me ponder the problem of the past. Does it still speak? What’s its contemporary relevance? Is a legitimate appropriation of the past possible?
I suspect Richard Muller (The Unaccommodated Calvin) would shy away from answering such questions positively. He sees too clearly the danger of contemporary appropriations becoming accommodations — forcing figures from the past to answer our questions (which they may not have recognised) or failing to give due weight to those awkward elements of their thought which are nevertheless deeply entrenched or even structural (like theosis in most of the early church fathers).
Muller offers 14 premises for the future study of Calvin’s thought, concluding (p 188):
These strictures do not stand in the way of theological studies of Calvin’s work — but they do stand in opposition to the use of contemporary theological grids — whether Barthian, Schleiermacherian, or “rhetorical” — as indices or heuristic guides to Calvin’s world of thought. The strictures point, instead, to the necessary [sic] of discerning the textual and contextual framework in and through which Calvin’s work can be rightly understood. A clever theologian can accommodate Calvin to nearly any agenda; a faithful theologian — and a good historian — will seek to listen to Calvin, not to use him.
It’s an obviously polemical point. But if this doesn’t quite lock the past away in a hermetically sealed vault (Muller sees continuities with post-reformation Reformed theology), it comes pretty close.
In contrast, the theological postscript to Rowan Williams’s Arius: Heresy and Tradition probes how studying the past can be more than an ‘archaeological exercise’ (p 244):
‘The perils of modernizing Nicaea’ are not to be minimized, and I hope to have avoided too much grossly anachronistic misreading; but we are dealing here with developments that determined the future course of Christian theology and that still haunt contemporary discussion. Even those who believe, as I do not, that Nicaea represented a damaging or mistaken shift in the history of doctrine are bound to consider how it has shaped and continues to shape Christian speech and prayer. As for those content to affirm the faith of Nicaea, they too have questions to answer as to the nature of doctrinal continuities, questions which the very fact of a doctrinal crisis in the fourth century presses upon us.
The past can still surprise, unsettle and disrupt. It doesn’t answer to our agendas. But it still speaks today — it’s our past after all!