In this post, I’d like to discuss the main problem that arises in the project of theological retrieval.

While it’s easy to define theological retrieval, trying to understand its object is much more difficult. 

Remember, retrieval finds a place within the sub-discipline of historical theology, but it’s not mere history. It’s also the appropriation of the past to within the present. There are many things we observe in history that we wouldn’t necessarily want to appropriate into the present. For example, Christian persecution at the hands of a Christian state, military conflicts fought over religious relics, the papacy, or transubstantiation are historical doctrines and practices most of us wouldn’t want to drag into the present.

More specifically, as a Particular Baptist, I wouldn’t want to appropriate infant baptism, Presbyterianism, or the bishopric of the Church of England. So, a more specific—if not more difficult—question arises: What keeps us theologically accountable as we engage in the task of theological retrieval? 

Further, How do we prevent ourselves from using retrieval as a means of subjectively reacting against the culture? We might be tempted to retrieve only those beliefs and actions of the historical church that seem most opposite to our present culture. This would be wrong-headed and dangerous. It would be reflexive and ungrounded.

The problem of retrieval is as simple as it is difficult. Theological retrieval, by itself, doesn’t really have any guidelines or parameters. Without context, anyone can retrieve anything they’d like. The work of retrieval would become an arbitrary and consumeristic exercise in picking one’s favorite theological candy from the historical bucket.

A person engaged in theological retrieval may one day prefer Richard Hooker’s hypothetical universalism or John Gill’s eschatology. By next week, they’re trying to find a place for Aquinas before flirting with Duns Scotus after boredom with Thomism sets it. A month later, they’ve decided both those guys are wrong and now they’re looking to John Henry Newman or Gregory Palamas. This is not a fruitful way to engage in the work of theological retrieval. And it can even become spiritually destructive.

How, then, should we think of retrieval soberly and contextually?

In the next part, we’ll look at a proposed solution to the retrieval problem, i.e. the “confessional imperative.”