I am working on a book that explores historical “retrieval” as a mode of theological reasoning, and I find Rowan Williams characteristically on the mark in his brief (but excellent) little book Why Study the Past: The Quest for the Historical Church (2005). I especially like the way he turns loose his doctrine of the church as the Body of Christ on the act of appropriating from the tradition.
I would be interested to hear: do you find overtly theological/dogmatic reasoning such as this driving the engines of contemporary historical recoveries (how about The New Calvinism movement in the US or Paleo-orthodoxy)?
To engage with the church’s past is to see something of the church’s future. If we relate to the past as something that settles everything for us, something whose meaning is utterly and finally plain, it is to treat the texts of the past as closing off history, putting an end to our self-awareness as historical persons involved in unpredictable growth. If we dismiss the past as unintelligible, if we read its texts as closed off from us by their alien setting, we refuse to see how we have ourselves been formed in history; we pretend that history has not yet begun. And in the specifically theological context, we shall on either count be denying that we can only grow in company, can only develop because summoned by a word that is not ours. That word is made concrete and immediate for us in the human responses that have constituted the Church’s history; all of this has made our present believing selves possible (p. 94) …
The dangers of looking to the past for a solution of present difficulties are obvious enough; but there is another way of approaching this which is less fraught with risk. If we begin from our axiom of common membership in the Body, there will always be gifts to be received from the past; we can expect that we shall find something that we had not grasped until a contemporary crisis had brought it into focus. Hence the extraordinary regularity with which radical renewal in the Church has come about from a new appropriation of tradition of one sort or another (p. 97).