Systematic Theology as Retrieval: finding the church’s future in her past

Here is a brief excerpt from the paper I gave with David Buschart last week in New Orleans, “Looking Back, Moving Forward: Retrieval as Theological Method.” (I also heard some great jazz at The Preservation Hall) 

Our interest in the paper was to suggest that “retrieval” is a particular mode of theological reasoning in which its practitioners believe the future of the church hangs in some sense not on our ability to innovate but in our capacity to retrieve something from her past.

Those who pursue retrieval recognize and embrace the fact that the history of Christianity, of the church, and of theology consists of both change and continuity. This may seem obvious, not in need of stating, but recognition of this “both-and” is fundamental to retrieval.

Change is a universal and patently obvious characteristic of historical existence. Thus, the modern era and our own time – whether one regards it as modern, post-modern or hyper-modern – is not alone in seeing an inextricable connection between “history” and “change.” It is one of the necessary parts of this “both-and” – both continuity and change. The modern era can, however, be challenged for its almost myopic preoccupation with change and newness – indeed, dis-continuity? – to the virtual exclusion of continuity. And, this is a challenge posed by the method of retrieval.
Retrieval does not deny the fact of change. It does, however, challenge the modern tendency to presume that change is (always) good, as well as the accompanying tendency to emphasize change to the virtual neglect of continuity…

Paths of retrieval embrace this connection between “what has gone before” – that is, that which is retrieved – and “what comes after” – that is, retrieval is undertaken in order to contribute to Christian thought and life today and tomorrow. In so doing, those who employ retrieval acknowledge continuity, whether or not this specific term is employed. Thus, for example, writing about contemporary liturgical retrieval, Paul Gavrilyuk observes, “Repetition is at the very core of liturgical action. It is healthier for liturgical life to develop by gradual evolution, not by revolution.” Pursuing evolution, rather than revolution, is but one example of the ways in which retrieval can give continuity its due.


5 thoughts on “Systematic Theology as Retrieval: finding the church’s future in her past

  1. Oliver O’Donovan often says that one cannot be an innovator without first becoming a traditionalist. By my lights I think he is absolutely right. Perhaps that captures some of the spirit of the paper being presented here. Modernity tends to want innovation on the cheap without doing the hard work of mining the past. O’Donovan, for my money, is one of the best innovator/traditionalists out there. Whether you agree or not with his conclusions, he is attentive to history and works his way forward by keeping his gaze fixed firmly backward. It sounds kind of strange but I think that is what David Buschart’s paper seems to be proposing here as well.

    • Yes, that is part of what David and I are trying to argue – though I am sure O’Donavan does it with greater acumen. I have not read much O’Donavan so thanks for the heads up. Is there a particular place in his work to see this “working his way forward by keeping his gaze fixed firmly backward”?

  2. Its a fair question, and we are (hopefully) arguing for something more interesting than “theology that is informed by tradition” (and we interact some with Webster’s six “resemblances”). I will send you a copy, and I would be grateful for your feedback.

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