Just a few years ago, I would’ve never imagined the evangelical landscape would include relatively deep conversations revolving around classical metaphysics, theology, and even politics. But thanks to a collective evangelical itch to retrieve the old ways, along with simultaneous disenchantment with the novus ordo of the evangelical industrial complex, Western Christianity is beginning to rediscover its roots. A contemporary reformation (of sorts) is afoot.
This is a good thing.
But as with any positive development, the danger of overreaction, over-realization, and a lack of wisdom looms. In particular, the question of retrieval always seems to be, What should we retrieve?
Monasticism? The episcopacy? Christian imperialism? The college of bishops? What do we retrieve? And do we ever stop retrieving? Does theological retrieval have a goal?
These are complicated questions. But they are questions I hope to address to some extent in the series that follows. This is the first of a few parts in that series. I hope it’s helpful.
What Is Retrieval?
In some ways, “retrieval” is a biblical principle. Throughout the Old Testament, deference is paid to the “old ways” and the “multitude of counselors.” It is a proverbial dictum that we ought not “remove the ancient landmark Which [our] fathers have set.” (Prov. 22:28) The “old paths” are “where the good way” is found. (Jer. 6:16) And we find safety in listening to the many voices that are wiser and older than ourselves. (Prov. 11:14; 15:22; 24:6)
When we speak of “retrieval” within a Christian context, we speak of what is a subset of historical theology. Historical theology is the science of exploring and appropriating the theology of the church’s past to the church’s present. What did our spiritual ancestors believe, and why? More strongly, is what they believed something we ought to be believing today? Have we stepped off the “old paths”?
Some have said, “The way back is the way forward.” This sums up the project of retrieval quite nicely. The church is not a biological, chemical, or mechanical laboratory. We’re not looking for the latest developments in “Christian theology.” Our science is very old. Its purpose is not to locate the new or the most expedient. It’s not even oriented to what we take to be the most interesting or cutting-edge.
The science of Christian theology concerns itself with a God that calls Himself the “Ancient of Days,” “everlasting,” and, “without end.” We are, fundamentally, a people who derive their knowledge from an eternal God who has sustained an ancient institution for over two millennia through means of an imponderably old Book. Paradoxically, this moves us forward—not only through time but unto everlasting beatitude. This isn’t true with every science. But it is true with ours.
Retrieval is the task of locating the old ways for the nourishment of contemporary spiritual life which, in turn, helps us to persevere well in the faith.
In the next part, I will discuss the “retrieval problem.”
 I’ll credit this statement to Dr. Richard Barcellos who, if memory serves me rightly, heard it from the late Dr. Mike Renihan.