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.
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