Dr. Millard Erickson – Can Theology Learn From History?

C. Edwin Gheens Lecture Series 2008:  Theology Needs Help – Lecture One

Through the generosity of the family of the late C. Edwin Gheens, a series of special lectures is given each year in the several fields of theological studies and related areas.

This year, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has invited Dr. Millard Erickson, Distinguished Professor of Theology at Western Seminary (Portland and San Jose), received the Bachelor of Arts from the University of Minnesota, the Bachelor of Divinity from Northern Baptist Seminary, the Master of Arts from the University of Chicago, and the Doctor of Philosophy from Northwestern University. Dr. Erickson is perhaps best known for his systematic theology work, Christian Theology. Other recent books include:
Does It Matter How I Live?; The Evangelical Mind and Heart: Perspectives on Theological and Practical Issues; God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Understanding of the Trinity; and Where Is Theology Going? Issues and Perspectives on the Future of Theology.

Dr. Erickson’s message today was entitled, “Can Theology Learn From History?” and can be downloaded here. What follows is my attempt at live blogging his lecture.

Can Theology Learn From History?

First, it must be stated that this is not going to be an expositional series. Rather, I would like to discuss how theology can learn from other disciplines over the next few days. Second, I would like to plant a quotation in our minds to think about during today’s lecture. “The wain of denominationalism calls for a renaming of churches where the sectarian names our fathers loved are now abhorred by the children. The denominational name has become more of a nuisance than anything and churches are looking to paste labels over the denominational names so as to be more appealing to today’s Christian. (This my best attempt at a paraphrase of his quote).

The Bible is our authority for all things regarding faith and practice. Without the lenses through which we view the world (our worldview) we are unable to access the content of Scripture. Our glasses do not contribute to the content, they simply allow us to access the truths found within the pages of the Bible.

The Bible is our substantive authority while all other disciplines are our elucidative authority. This elucidative authority is displayed in three areas of the other disciplines. First, they have an extensional authority that enables us to interpret and understand the teachings found within the Bible. This authority helps us to see the practical application of the Scriptures. Second, they have an elaborative authority that helps to shape our models of understanding and explaining Scripture. Third, they have an evaluative authority that helps us to determine whether or not our conclusions are correct. These three elucidative authorities help us to “clear our throats” as we attempt to understand theology as presented in the Bible. Today, I would like to specifically discuss the role of history as it applies to theology.

First, there is the perspectival element to history as it applies to our understanding of theology. This is the insight we have into where we are right now. Just as we can see the landscape from a plane above than on the ground below, the farther we are from a particular event in history, the better we can see it in its proper perspective.

There are two types of errors made when we are too close to an event to have a proper perspective. The first is that we have never experienced this before and therefore have no idea how to handle the situation. This is a pure learning experience and will hopefully be used in the future as a learning tool. The second error is the thought that we can’t change because we have always done it that way. The advantage we have with history is that we are better able to see both fallacies.

For example, form the modernist-fundamental controversy of the early 1900′s, there was this idea that “your perspective is wrong but mine is immune from the same charge.” This way of thinking suppresses any form of discussion on the matter. Political campaigns are like this today. History should teach us not to be intimidated by this way of thinking.

Another matter of importance we can learn from history is that we should seek to correctly characterize the issues under discussion. We can see from history that the way the issue is set up predisposes the outcome. A great example of the importance of defining the issues correctly is found in the statement, “He was flexing finger.” If that is all he was doing, then there is no problem. However, if we were to find out later that he was holding a loaded gun pointed at someone’s head, our understanding of what was said changes dramatically.

There is a struggle for position in rhetoric. There is a real battle over language used in discussing important matters. Perhaps one of the greatest examples is the argument over abortion. Who is not for life? Who is not for choice? In this instance, both sides won the battle for defining their terms.

Second, there is a role of evaluation in history that helps us understand theology. The shorter the period of time from an event, the more difficult it is to determine its shortcomings. Something that appears to be insignificant in the short run becomes of much greater importance in the long run when viewed properly through the lens of history.

For instance, if you were to use a compass and grid coordinates to locate a specific destination on a map and your compass was a degree off, you would not be in to bad shape if you were only a half mile away. However, the further you travel with that degree off, the further you get from your destination. What began as only a few feet away is now miles and miles away.

If you look at all the lost battles (conservatives losing seminaries, Scopes-monkey trial, etc.) in the short term, you would think conservative Christianity was dying. However, history tells us this is not the case. From 1956-1988, liberal missionaries declined by 67% while conservative missionaries increased by 185%. In the same time span, liberal church membership declined 29% while conservative, evangelical membership climbed 34%. In 2003, several of the liberal divinity schools combined for a total of 2,195 students while at least 3 of the conservative, evangelical seminaries had more than the 2,195 students enrolled in their respective programs.

Third, history has a sort of calibrational function to it. This gives us a way to measure our progress. There must be something objective by which we can determine who has moved and in which direction they have moved theologically. It is possible to err both to the left and to the right when dealing with our understanding of the scriptures. Having something set in stone (like a paper, book, lecture, sermon, etc.) will help us to look back and recalibrate our theology.

This is very important when it comes to our historical understanding of Christianity. We should look to our church historians to help us see where our denomination has come from and down which path it is traveling. By keeping records, we can see who has changed.

A fourth way in which history helps is theology is more personal than objective. Looking back on our own history as believers, we are able to see what God has done in our lives. Even more, we can see how God has worked in the lives of many of his children through biographies and personal diaries. This underscores the importance of keeping a journal or diary. History gives us tangible content to God’s providence. How important is it to see how God moved in the lives of our ancestors, both physical and spiritual?

In conclusion, history gives us a perspective by which to judge our current issues and theologies. History enables us to evaluate what God has done for His people down through the ages. History gives us a base in which to evaluate where we are on the theological spectrum as well as from where we have come.

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