Icon (Close Menu)

Theology, Tradition, and Retrieval

Review: W. David Buschart and Kent D. Eilers (eds.), Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church (IVP Academic, 2015); and Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2015).

Review by Philip Harrold

“Theology always begins already in the middle.” It responds to the revelation of God, and it does so in particular times and places. As an exercise in retrieval, it will do so with a discerning eye to the past as it moves to the future. This “theology as retrieval” is a style and attitude of inquiry, as well as a particular mode or method, recognizing the value of the many and varied resources of the Christian tradition and recovering them as they are deemed “advantageous for the present situation.”

These are the central claims of David Buschart and Kent Eilers, who associate this mode of theology with the reception and transmission that are a central dynamic in the life of the Church. The cadence of this receiving and passing on has waxed and waned throughout history, yet the triune God in Jesus Christ is personally and persistently present in the midst of it all through the work of the Holy Spirit. And even when the receiving and passing on is busied by all sorts of urgencies, perhaps tyrannies, theology as retrieval endeavors to make Jesus contemporary.

As Rowan Williams observes, the conserving nature of Christian communities is best situated in their “bringing believers truthfully and effectively in the presence of a specific past, the incarnate reality of Jesus.” Accordingly, a robust Christology and pneumatology saves the middle from becoming a muddle, even as creativity and innovation flavor the retrievals in all their manifest varieties.

These matters of style, attitude, and mode are, for Buschart and Eilers, best demonstrated in a “relatively slender account of theological and exegetical and doctrinal underpinnings” that, nonetheless, sets the stage for an expansive view of contemporary retrievals. Six “illustrative windows” show fundamental commonalities as well as differences in the form of these retrievals. Each of the corresponding chapters offers the form in relation to a particular area of dogmatic study: Scripture (Ch. 1), theology (Ch. 2), worship (Ch. 3), spirituality (Ch. 4), mission (Ch. 5), and cosmos (Ch. 6).

This approach turns each chapter into a substantial enterprise in its own right, attentive to mode and method of retrieval as well as a broad swath of contemporary theology that underpins or directs the reception and transmission in particular ways. One reviewer (Gordon T. Smith) has referred to the scope and content of this project as a “primer”; another (Edith M. Humphrey) sees it as a “typology of contemporary Christian writers who are intent upon reception from past Christian witness for the renewal of God’s people.” Indeed, the most valuable feature of the book is the way it maps the present terrain of retrieval, attentive to resemblances, models (historiographical), and authority (rationale) with exceptional clarity and comprehensiveness. There may be no better entry point into this rapidly expanding field than the index-like tool of reference Theology as Retrieval.

The book remains introductory and exploratory in the best sense, with a wide scope that sees the Christian tradition as a singular whole: the Great Tradition. It assumes that there is sufficient coherence in this “deposit of faith” for smaller traditions or churches to “think and live faithfully in relation to this faith.” That may be too big an assumption for some readers, of course, but the resemblances identified by Buschart and Eilers in their survey of retrievals offer an indirect, or at least implicit, suggestion of resemblances across the many ecclesial divisions of the Church. There is no “unified school of thought” on how to do theology, let alone a theology of retrieval, and that may be just as well. The project of discernment set forth in this book certainly allows readers with distinct denominational or confessional commitments to draw from the same deep well, to address needs arising within their ecclesial contexts and, perhaps, beyond to the wider — dare we say? — Catholic Church.

This is where the Reformed Catholicity of Michael Allen and Scott Swain enters the arena of retrieval in complimentary ways. Buschart and Eilers appreciate this work for its “well-developed Trinitarian account of retrieval and its biblical and theological warrants (from a Reformed perspective).” Whereas the former offers readers a starting place for retrieval in the middle of the Christian tradition, the latter start in the middle of the Reformed tradition. Allen and Swain vigorously refute the all too common perception that “to be Reformed means precisely to cease being catholic,” a misnomer that is associated, sometimes unwittingly, with the famous 19th-century Reformed theologian B.B. Warfield.

The aim of Reformed Catholicity is to show the reverse: “to be Reformed means to go deeper into true catholicity, not to move away from catholicity.” Allen and Swain seek to demonstrate this only after acknowledging undercurrents of “tradition-less and individualistic” thinking and practice in Protestantism, with a propensity to break away from the “fullness” of catholicity in favor of Donatist purity or Deist partitioning over the course of modernity.

Along these lines, an extended discussion of sola Scriptura (in two of the book’s five chapters) provides in-depth engagement with critics of such nasty habits like Brad S. Gregory, A.N. Williams, and Alexis de Tocqueville. In response, a countervailing survey of the “catholic shape and context” for the reception and transmission of the Scriptures is presented, underscoring “the final source and authority for knowing God” that has persisted from the patristics through classic texts of the early Reformed movement like Martin Bucer’s On the Kingdom of Christ (De Regno Christi). Allen and Swain take the long-running criticisms of sola Scriptura seriously, perhaps even to heart, but their case for a genuinely “Reformed catholicity” is especially compelling when it comes to this central Protestant doctrine.

This book is complimentary to Buschart and Eilers’s Theology of Retrieval in a number of ways. The former are certainly attentive to the ecclesial context in which theologies of retrieval are situated, but Allen and Swain are able to explore the churchly domain of Reformed catholicity in greater depth, mindful not only of discrete doctrines and practices, but also “habits” and “sensibilities” that sustain the retrieval. Catholicity reveals its fullness only when retrieval is an “intellectual and spiritual operation” and not merely a programmatic endeavor. Both books make this abundantly clear, but Reformed Catholicity shows the richness and variety of this more comprehensive view of retrieval within a single tradition, and this yields a different set of takeaways for the reader.

Among Allen and Swain’s more provocative demonstrations is how dogmas and confessional statements can properly assume a qualified measure of authority, possibly an “irreversible status,” in a sola Scriptura context. Here they function in accordance with the rule of faith — i.e., as summaries of the Faith as it has been “delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and as a “natural sign of Holy Scripture’s regency.” Reformed confessionalism suddenly appears quite catholic from this perspective. It will be submissive to the subject matter of Scripture, “supremely, the Triune Creator, Redeemer, and Consummator,” which puts it in immediate contact with the “Spirit’s rich bounty for the church,” most especially the catholic creeds.

Allen and Swain also show in greater detail some of the dynamism inherent to a retrieval that is simultaneously “reformatory” and “adaptive” — categorical terms for two historiographical models described by Buschart and Eilers. Reformed catholicity is always a matter of reform, after all, persisting in a retrieval that recovers for the sake of “renewal.” And it will do so dialogically, even to the point of allowing the past to interrogate the present as it responds to current challenges. Aspects of stability and development, continuity and discontinuity, are held together in fruitful tension, especially in the vibrant traditioning process of the Church. All of this can rightly be described as traditional because it is, well, biblical, in accord with the 16th-century Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger’s understanding of reception and transmission “according to the sentence of the Holy Spirit and the order and rule of the Holy Scriptures.” Again, Allen and Swain illustrate the broader characterizations of faithful retrieval offered by Buschart and Eilers, but from within the corridors of their tradition. This allows more opportunity to consider the tensions, sometimes conflicts, that manifest themselves as readily inside a particular ecclesial community as without.

The casts of characters in the two books are complimentary in predictable ways. An impressive array of theologians and sources is featured in both, most evidently in the massive footnotes featured in Theology as Retrieval, and in the historical lineage of Reformed theology discussed in the main body Reformed Catholicity. The survey of retrieval movements in the introduction to Reformed Catholicity is more compact than the expansive case-studies offered in Theology as Retrieval, but just as valuable to the reader.

In case the latter didn’t impress readers enough with the diversity of this burgeoning field, the former will certainly satisfy: Nouvelle Théologie, Karl Barth and the Revival of Dogmatic Theology, Reception History (Wirkungsgeschichte) of the Bible, Donald Bloesch and Consensual Christianity, Thomas Oden’s Paleo-Orthodoxy, Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Christianity, the Modern Hymns Movement (the only one not mentioned by Buschart and Eilers), Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson’s Evangelical Catholicism, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Radical Orthodoxy, Evangelical Ressourcement, the Emerging or Emergent Church(es), and Ressourcement Thomism. Allen and Swain do not remain as conversant with these various strands throughout their book as do Buschart and Eilers, and for the perfectly acceptable reason that their “exploratory excursions” into the Reformed tradition are more historical than contemporary.

Even so, a wider readership — Anglicans in particular — will appreciate the substantial interactions with John Webster in both books, especially his frequently cited essays on ressourcement and theologies of retrieval. Alas, neither book includes any substantial references to historic Anglicanism’s masters of retrieval, Thomas Cranmer, John Jewel, and Richard Hooker. Given the renewed multidisciplinary interest in historical sources in contemporary Anglican theology, we can only hope for a volume that offers the crisp and compelling particularity of Allen and Swain, and the generous comprehension of Buschart and Eilers, starting, of course, somewhere in the middle of the Canterbury Trail.

Dr. Philip Harrold is a writer, lecturer, and retired professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pa.


Top headlines. Every Friday.



Most Recent

Renewed Freedom in Christ

The Rev. Matt Erickson reviews Traveling Light: Galatians and the Free Life in Christ.

Vermont Bishop Has Faced Dissension and Racial Conflict

Shannon MacVean-Brown was consecrated just a few months before the pandemic.

People & Places, May 29

Appointments, ordinations, and retirements across the Episcopal Church

Blessings for Pets — and Police

The blessings were an extension of the church’s participating in Faith & Blue, a national effort to “build bridges and break biases” between police and the communities they serve.