W. David Buschart and Kent D. Eilers. Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015. See here to buy the book.
“Retrieval” occurs when Christians draw from the thoughts and practices of Christians from the past. It includes reading church fathers’ interpretations of the Bible, reciting the Nicene Creed in church services, evangelicals forming monastic communities and drawing on the wisdom of past (non-evangelical) monastic communities in so doing, and other phenomena. According to W. David Buschart and Kent D. Eilers, a growing number of evangelicals are drawing from the past in search of a deeper historical connection, and also because they do not consider what the present offers to be adequate for their spiritual growth and needs.
There are challenges when today’s Christians attempt to retrieve aspects of the past and to employ them in the present. People in the past were different. The Christians whose thoughts are being retrieved lived in a different historical context from the context of those retrieving their thoughts today, and, in a number of cases, their version of Christianity was different. This is especially the case when evangelicals draw from Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Would today’s evangelicals truly honor and respect those Christians of the past were the evangelicals to cherry-pick what they like from church history and use it for their own ends?
On some level, Buschart and Eilers navigate this issue the way that one would expect sophisticated Christian academics to do so. They endorse a humble approach to the past. They suggest that Christians remember the difference in context between themselves and those whose thoughts and practices they are retrieving. They do not think that Christians should blindly accept the past but should evaluate what thoughts and practices fell by the wayside in history and why, and yet they maintain that Christians today should be challenged by the past. Essentially, they are for dialogue with the past, and they are for retrieval, as long as those retrieving reflect on what they are doing and why. Not too many surprises there. What Buschart and Eilers say about retrieval is similar to how a number of liberal Christians approach inter-religious dialogue: remember the different contexts, allow the other to challenge oneself and to highlight the peculiarities of one’s own beliefs, etc. What basis do Buschart and Eilers offer for retrieval? Why should I retrieve, say, what the church fathers had to say, or what the Puritans had to say? For Buschart and Eilers, God has been at work in history, and the past can be a source of wisdom about how people have interacted with God. We do not have all the answers, so why close ourselves off from the past?
Not many surprises, and it largely makes sense to me. I suppose that one could come back and ask what the boundaries should be in retrieval. Should I accept, for example, the church fathers’ allegorical interpretation of the Bible, even though that interpretation violates what the biblical texts originally meant? Does such an approach open the door to eisegesis? Should I adopt the mysticism of Christians of the past, even if that appears to be foreign to the Bible? And is the past authoritative? People can probably draw different conclusions about whether Buschart and Eilers tackle these questions head on and sufficiently. I will admit that they did try, but I did not finish the book entirely satisfied. I will say, though, that the book does teach me to respect the spiritual walks of Christians in the past, as they sought to have a deeper relationship with God and to live a virtuous life, whether or not I always agree with what those Christians said and did. In addition, the book did inspire some thoughts. Personally, I thought that its chapter on Scripture was wishful thinking—-that it was trying to see the Bible as a Christian document, even though the historical-critical method raises the possibility that the Bible has diverse theologies (many of them pre-Christian). Still, Buschart and Eilers do say that God has been at work in the past, and perhaps that insight can lead me to appreciate that those diverse theologies reflect, in some way, God’s interactions with people throughout history, even if I am hesitant to put them through a Christian grid.
The book is an excellent catalog of how Christian thinkers and authors have addressed the topic of retrieval. That would make it useful for scholars and laypeople who are interested in this topic.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an honest review.