Your Historical Theology Should Have Warts
As I prepare to begin studying Origen at the University of Aberdeen, I have been trying to think through what it means to be a historian.
As one who is particularly interested in the history of theological interpretation, I have been asking myself a host of questions: “What is ‘historical theology?’” “What is the relationship between history and theological retrieval?” and “How do we read earlier theologians with integrity and honesty?”
I am in no position to tell others how to conduct their historical research—I am a mere Masters student. But I have found this advice helpful, and I hope you can, too: your historical theology should have warts.
During my short time as an on-campus student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I spent many hours in the Spurgeon Library helping research The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon. Increasingly curious about the man’s life, I read his autobiography and, in turn, began asking questions to my supervisor about what I perceived to be shortcomings or imperfections. I can still remember the moment he said to me, “If we want to embrace Spurgeon, we have to embrace him warts and all.”
This was reinforced to me when I found myself in a recent Google Meet class with one of the world’s foremost Augustine scholars. We were discussing De Trinitate. With reluctance, I let down my guard and admitted I get squeamish when I begin to trace certain strands of Augustine’s thought. (The example at hand was the way Augustine articulates the Holy Spirit as the love between the Father and the Son.)
Having listened to a respected professor discuss Augustine’s understanding of the Spirit at length, I told him that I felt uncomfortable with the way Augustine built his case and that I didn’t really love the conclusions reached in the section we discussed. I was prepared for a verbal cat o’ nine tails, but his response surprised me. After making sure I understood the exegetical moves Augustine was making, he said, “You can say you don’t like it. You just can’t call it heretical.”
I was a bit taken aback: an expert on Augustine had just given me permission to dislike something Augustine taught about the Trinity! Of course, I never implied it was heretical—I was only uncomfortable with the logic. But still, my professor assured me it was okay. I didn’t have to agree with every bit of Augustine.
I was allowed to let Augustine’s warts to be seen.
I have to accept that the theologians I have grown to love so deeply might have their own warts that will soon uncover themselves. Nazianzen wasn’t perfect. Origen may not have been totally pro-Nicene. Many of the church fathers seem to have had attitude problems, and I am certain I would have been annoyed at many of them were we to grab a coffee together.
To modernize it, the Puritans genuinely do have a poor track record on slavery. Spurgeon might have had an unhealthy preaching style. Bonhoeffer wasn’t what most of us would call an evangelical, most likely. (Side note: is it adult acne if you don’t find these blemishes until you’ve been studying them for several years?)
It reminds me of something I heard Fr. John Behr say on a podcast: we ought not seek to read an historical figure for the purpose of placing them within our own tribes—rather, we should seek to have an accurate reading of history. It is anachronistic to cram modern theological categories onto earlier figures, as if they anticipated the conclusions that we would one day come to. So, why misrepresent them? We can glean the good without neglecting the bad.
Instead, let’s all agree on a better path forward: embrace the warts. There is no single historical figure who has been perfect except Christ, through Whom all of us are given grace (and some metaphorical makeup to cover up our warts).