Posted by: dacalu | 12 August 2014

History of Theology

In a recent post, I set forth a three part history of knowledge, drawing on, but not identical to, Michel Foucault’s archaeology of human sciences in The Order of Things.  It goes something like this:


Period                                            Knowledge is

1300-1600 The Renaissance         hidden in the world

1600-1800 The Enlightenment      best way of comprehending the world

1800-1950 The Modern Period      historical state of belief about the world


Foucault goes on to label the categorization of knowledge in these periods as Similitude (recognizing the hidden correspondences), Taxonomy (applying the right framework within which everything fits), and History (understanding the progression of ideas and events in time). My next post looked the history of biological knowledge. Those posts, and one on the history of cosmology, appear in my work blog.

Only recently, have I come to appreciate that the typology applies to Christian theology as well. Because this is more speculative and controversial, I’ve placed it here on my personal blog.

Renaissance Theology

In the Renaissance, theology was believed to reveal the underlying patterns of the universe. Indeed, the line between the Natural Law revealed the physical world and the Divine Law revealed in scripture was a thin one. Both were ways of understanding the way the world works, like different windows into the same room.

When medieval and renaissance theologians called sacraments “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace” they meant that the sacraments conferred the good gifts in which they participated. When they spoke of the Church, they meant that small fraction of the family of God visible in society. And when they spoke of Scripture, they meant the present active work of the Holy Spirit, alive in the reading and interpretation of the written words. The truth was in all things from the beginning and the things of Christianity were those things that made it most visible (Romans 1:20).

Enlightenment Theology

The Protestant Reformation (Europe c. 1500-1650) shifted our perspective on the truth. For the new theologians, dogma had to do with that order which was given by God and stood in judgment of the world. Our job was not to participate in the Logos of creation, but to comprehend God’s purpose for the world, and comprehending place ourselves in the correct camp.

When Reform (and Lutheran) theologians spoke of sacraments, they wanted to insure we understood them as making sense of grace, but not participating in it. (Luther, I think straddled this divide, but his followers completed the transition.) When they spoke of the Church, it was the category of the blessed within the taxonomy of salvation. This is one reason that purgatory was so offensive; it blurred the line between the saved and the damned. And when they thought of Scripture, it was something wholly outside the corruption of nature, God interceding through the Word.

Modern Theology

The Third Great Awakening (US c. 1850-1900) includes the rise of Pentecostalism, the Holiness movement, and the roots of what we now call Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity. For this group, divine truth began to take on a historical character. (I believe this was when talk of “salvation history” became popular, but I’d love to hear from you if you know more.) Faith was characteristic of an individual, at a specific point in time, someone who had been lost and was now saved.

The Fundamentalists have no concept of sacraments in the medieval sense, believing that the symbol is fundamentally apart from the thing it points to. “Sign” has a completely different meaning. Instead, they prefer to talk about the fullness of God’s will concretely present in a particular time and place. Likewise, the Church is a concrete collection of believers, not an abstract eternal construct. Finally, Scripture takes on the burden of guaranteed truth no longer afforded to sacraments and institutions. It is a record of God acting in the world and an opportunity in time for your personal redemption.

Getting It Right

For me, this makes sense of how alien the three theologies appear to one another.

Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican Christians lean toward medieval and Renaissance theology. For the first, truth is communal – mediated by the magisterium of the church. If you do not conform to the community, you are a heretic, literally one who thinks alone. For the latter two, truth is interactive. The liturgies and works of faith are participation in the truth. There is no way to hold it apart from acting it out.

Most Mainline Protestants (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quakers, UCC, etc.) hold to an Enlightenment theology. They are confessional because the heart of Christianity (for them) lies in holding the correct picture of the universe, in accord with God’s picture. If you do not comprehend that truth, you cannot be saved. Christian doctrine has become an intellectual exercise. Evangelism (spreading the Good News) has become apologetics (the defense of doctrine). Those who don’t get it (the belief system) don’t get it (salvation).

Fundamentalists (including most non-denominational churches) hold to a modern theology. Doctrine is important, but rather than debate the truth of the doctrine, they want to know if you’ve accepted it. Where are you in your spiritual journey? Have you been saved? No amount of action or belief can take the place of that life-changing moment.

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