I have an article in the new volume of the journal American Theological Inquiry. The essay is titled, “‘An Overtaking of Depth’: Theology as Retrieval.” If you’re interested in checking out my recent book, Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church, this article is a great place to start. Parts of the essay are adapted from it and, I hope, it will whet your appetite to read the book!
The essay has three parts. In the first, my coauthor and I ground retrieval in the basic Christian pattern of receiving and transmitting the deposit of faith. Retrieval in this sense is not unique to our time, but basic and fundamental to Christian theology.
The second part introduces six contemporary theologies of retrieval and locates them within the widespread skepticism about the fruits of modernity that characterized much of late twentieth-century theology.
The final section presents a range of possible outcomes of retrieval. We suggest that one outcome best characterizes theology as retrieval: ressourcement. This outcome demonstrates the effective negotiation of the inherent tensions of retrieval: continuity and discontinuity, stability and change, and constraint and freedom. The term “ressourcement” is well-known for its origin in early twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology, but it has broader applicability. The outcome of ressourcement is possible within any Christian community when theological retrieval seeks to receive and transmit the deposit of faith.
Here are the first few paragraphs (read the entire article here):
Like every facet of the church’s life, theology always begins already in the middle. It is caught in the middle of God’s reconciling activity, drawn along by its current, part of its history. In this sense, Christian theology is a normed practice. Its cadence and grammar are given by the revelation of God in Christ received by the apostles and witnessed in Holy Scripture. What was true for the apostles is thus true for the church today: the initial movement of theological reflection is the astonished response of encountering God’s grace. Indeed, theology springs out from worship and, when healthy, turns us back toward it.
There is a second sense in which theology begins already in the middle. The church’s work of sanctified reason takes shape in the middle of particular cultures, times, and communities. The truth of the Gospel is timeless, but it is always known and expressed within an actual place, time, and people. Such particularity includes, perhaps most importantly, the church. In the church, theological reflection is carried out within the fellowship of Christ’s body, located within a tradition characterized by unique emphases and traits, and simultaneously draws on and contributes to the church’s worship. There, in worship, theology is reminded that the risen and exalted Christ is gloriously present in the church through the transforming work of his Spirit. Thus the church, and by extension the theologian, does not merely act but is acted upon. The kinds of theologians who seek to be faithful both to the givenness of Christianity and the present moment require the skill best described as discernment.
Theology as a task or craft requires discernment—a form of discernment that is as much art as science. That theology requires discernment is true for every sort of theologian: a Christian confronted with a perplexing cultural challenge, a pastor exegeting a difficult text in the lectionary, or a professional theologian teaching university students or training ministers in the seminary. In each case, theological discernment operates in various modes and with a range of overlapping practices. Some Christians manage primarily in a biblical mode, relying heavily on passages committed to memory or the embedded theology of their church. A pastor may interpret a text in an historical mode, inviting congregants into the world “behind” the text. A university professor may adopt a conceptual mode, challenging students to consider unexamined mental frameworks. For each, methodological modes and preferences are in play. One such mode of theological discernment is retrieval.