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Rules for (Theological) Retrieval

February 15th, 2023 | 4 min read

By Matthew Arbo

I’ve always been intrigued by archaeology. The expectant digging, the gentle sweeping away of silt and debris, unearthing bones and artifacts hidden for millennia; it’s all endlessly fascinating. A thing lost and long forgotten to humankind suddenly reappears enclosed in its own moment. Only when a site is fully uncovered does a story of how and perhaps why it came to be in the first place begin to cohere.

The tasks of theological retrieval resemble those of archaeology. It requires plotting a plan of approach, excavation of unfamiliar terrain, thorough identification and collection of artifacts, judicious interpretation of their relevance, and of course final presentation of a whole picture comprised by its many parts. A single shard of broken pottery reveals little unless it can be linked to similar shards; that is, unless it can be made whole. Sources of the Christian theological tradition are not so much lost, we might say, as they are neglected. So neglected, in fact, that retrieval is akin to an archeological undertaking. A revealing, if imperfect, metaphor.

My purpose here is to lay down a few provisional ground rules for theological retrieval. It is entirely understandable why theological retrieval has garnered renewed energy and interest. The modern church often finds itself in want of theological resources. This is due in part to the inability of modernism to solve its own problems. The challenges confronting the modern church are often fraught and complex and nowhere is this more true than in politics. If modern political ideals and practices cannot resolve themselves — and there is little reason to believe they can — then pre-modern sources assume new luster.

I have a personal stake in theological retrieval. I chose to pursue postgraduate study with Oliver O’Donovan many years ago because I wanted to learn the pre-modern Christian theological tradition from someone who had faithfully devoted their scholarship to it. It resources my ongoing scholarship and, when possible, remains a pedagogical emphasis. It is a tradition learned by careful reading (and re-reading!) of primary texts. The story of this tradition is one of many plots and subplots, characters and settings, climaxes and anti-climaxes; but it is nevertheless a whole tradition. It is not an easy story to follow, admittedly, but it is as rich a story as can be found.

Methods of retrieval are as important as the aim itself. There are better and worse ways of going about retrieval. Without proper care, the noblest aspirations easily veer into misadventure. I therefore propose the following provisional ground rules for theological retrieval:

  1. Plan of approach: Theological retrieval isn’t a smash-and-grab operation. You can’t just break in, ransack the place, and escape with the jewels. Retrieval takes planning. We must determine where to dig — Geneva, London, Wittenberg, Amsterdam, etc. — as well as when to dig — early sixteenth-century, late seventeenth century, mid twentieth. That planning can have simple beginnings, like slowly reading one particular text. Or it can be more ambitious, like tackling the corpus of an especially prolific theologian. Whatever the case, retrieval takes planning, since its express aim is not only to consult theological sources but to bring relevant ideas into the present discourse.
  2. Excavation: Once a plan is set down for where and when to dig, excavation can begin. In excavation we press beneath the surface to discover what lies hidden beneath. Reading is therefore a first-order task of theological retrieval. We read to discover the wisdom of an author. As such we seek to understand a book on its own terms. Just as we ‘dig’ for the book, we likewise ‘dig’ into the book itself. There is no substitute for slow, judicious reading.
  3. Interpretation: Interpretation is vital for theological retrieval. But it cannot take place until sources and figures are set in their proper context. What is the backdrop, for example? How does this figure or text fit within the wider historical story? Who were his or her principal interlocutors? What were their criticisms and affirmations? How are the central questions similar or dissimilar to those coming before or after? And so on. Interpretation is a quest for coherence.
  4. Whole from parts: An aim of interpretation is to (re)assemble relevant parts into a meaningful whole. As such, theological retrieval cannot be suitably accomplished unless those relevant parts — figures, texts, and events — are assembled into a coherent whole. This does not mean that retrieval must take every possible part into account, an impossible standard, but does require adequate knowledge of the tradition being excavated and efforts to avoid bias and selectivity.
  5. Because the aim of theological retrieval is to bring resources of tradition(s) back to our own modern moment, it matters very much that the retriever know what to look for and how to convey the relevance of a source for the contemporary church. These are inordinately harder tasks than they appear on the surface. It requires a breadth and depth of knowledge long in acquisition. There is no direct line from any past moment to our present. History is mediated. Thus mining a theological tradition demands that one have already developed a rather sophisticated philosophy of history.

Inadequacy of knowledge or interpretive diligence can easily result in misjudgment. Invoking the wrong ‘authority,’ reaching the wrong conclusion, or drawing mistaken points of application don’t simply run the risk of exposing an author to legitimate criticism, but misrepresenting the Christian faith itself. Forcing theological voices from the past to make uniquely modern claims isn’t retrieval, strictly speaking, but co-option. Whatever the case, we would do well to bear always in mind that the first word of any vital theological tradition is the Word of God eternally begotten of the Father. In the (approximate) words of the late John Webster, let’s make theological retrieval theological!

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