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Theology and History

We are launching a series under the heading “Rethinking” which is dedicated to the history of theology. In this first contribution, Pierre-Olivier Léchot reconsiders the current challenges of the history of theology.

Pierre-Olivier Léchot

We often hear that Protestant theology should not be about heritage but on the contrary, offer something new. This is indisputable. But it doesn’t have to mean that, because we are Protestants, we must disregard history and even less the history of theology. Firstly because, since the 16th century, Protestant theologians have posed questions about the theological meaning of history. This was due to a situation of confessional controversy with the Catholic camp. For authors loyal to Rome, convinced that they were part of the perfect tradition of the Church as it had been transmitted from the days of the apostles, the Reformers were innovators. However, in a time which respected the old much more than the new, being accused of innovation amounted to hearing yourself asked, « Where were you before Luther? And if everything was wrong until him, why did you wait so long to tell us? » That is what explains the drawing up of genuine historical surveys, like the famous Centuries of Magdeburg supervised by Matthias Flacius Illyricus (1520-1575), a disciple of Luther, who attempted to show how the truth had gradually been corrupted in the history of the Church. Flacius offered a story structured by century (hence the title of his work) with, for each of them, a list of the errors that had entered the doctrine and practices of the Church. Flacius wrote also a Catalogue of Witnesses to the Truth, in which he attempted to show that voices had very quickly been raised in the Church to denounce error and abuses. The very Protestant inclination to look for « precursors » of the Reformers: Peter Waldo of Lyon, Jan Hus, et al., dates back to this era.

An important point in the debate between Catholics and Protestants then was that of the doctrine of the Fathers of the Church, these authors from Christian antiquity, whether Greek or Latin, whose word, although it did not equal that of Scripture, was taken very seriously in the theological discussions of the time. Having Augustine or Jerome on one’s side was indeed a proof of truth! As they were used in all directions, people soon began to think about how to interpret them. Some Protestant authors went further, like Jean Daillé (1594-1670), the pastor of Charenton (the Protestant Church in Paris under the edict of Nantes). In his Treatise on the Use of the Holy Fathers, published in 1632, he showed that it was not possible to use the Fathers in order to decide the questions of the present: their questions were not ours, the people being addressed were not clearly identified, the quality of the sources available to them was not the best, etc. So, Daillé won his bet: the Catholics could no longer call on the Fathers to criticize the Protestants. But it was also a Pyrrhic victory. Soon, the heterodox of all stripes did the same with the Bible: Scripture was not there to answer our questions but those of the contemporaries of the biblical authors. In particular, it was soon understood that the history of Christianity written by the « orthodox” was a history that was incomplete if not one-sided. A good example is given to us by the Irish philosopher John Toland (1670-1722). In his Nazarenus: or Jewish, Gentile and Mahometan Christianity (1718), he tried to show that Islam was not a Christian heresy (as was then thought), but a movement to reform Christianity which had to be taken seriously—an idea which is already found in the writings of Michael Servetus.

Whatever may be the case for Toland’s thesis, Christianity appeared then to be constituted of an infinite diversity, and had been since its origins: almost all opinions had been defended throughout its history. Of course, some authors like the Lutheran philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) saw in that a strength: for them, Christianity drew its power from its ability to be embodied in diverse cultures and to express itself through ideas adapted to their time and their cultural context. But this raised the question about the essence of Christianity. If Christianity was everywhere different, if, over time, it had evolved, transformed in its dogmas, its practices and its institutions, could we still speak of a Christian identity? Some, like the theologian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), wanted to find this essence in the preaching of the historical Jesus as they thought they could reconstitute it. Others, like Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), concluded, on the contrary, that Christianity did not exist, at least not in the singular: there are Christianities, but they are never distinct from their historical and cultural environment. This raises another question and one which in my opinion remains relevant: how are we to think of what Christianity is or ought to be if we are not in a position to say what it really is, across centuries and cultures? What commonality, indeed, can we find between a liberal Parisian pastor from the 19th century and a Syriac monk from the Middle Ages or between a 21st century American televangelist and a third century anchorite? Not much…

Of course, it is always possible to stop at this realisation and fall into a swoon over the diversity of Christianity and use it as an argument to build « one’s own » Christianity, being careful not to confront it with that of others. Our era is enlightening, in that it sees the triumph of individualized adaptations of Christianity according to each person’s fads. And, it must be admitted, the Protestants are the champions in all categories of such an approach: you have only to go from one parish to one other to see how much, ultimately, this principle prevails according to the bias of the incumbent pastor.

If, to my mind, this solution is not satisfactory, it is that the question ultimately posed by the historical observation that I have just made, is that of the community: how to form community with those who are so very distinct from me yet still wear the same label as me—that of « Christian »? And how are we to talk to one another if, apart from this name, we do not in the end share much in common? Of course once again, we can be satisfied with an individualistic approach—and individualism is also good. But then we are hard-pressed to think in community and therefore to talk to each other on the basis of what is « common ».

I think part of the answer to the question is in history. Not that we can find a common denominator or a way of thinking about God which would be acceptable to all. I think, on the contrary, that history often forces us to take a position and move forward in our thinking. To study a period in the history of theology, to understand its challenges, to try to grasp how the authors who expressed themselves in that way thought and why they thought like that, is often to wonder if I can agree and why I would answer yes or no to that question. So sometimes it is also to be able to let oneself be moved by such or such point of view that one did not expect to find in the writings of this or that author. It is to be able, therefore, to enter into a community of view, even into communion, with the author.

Now, from the point of view of the community about which I was talking above, it seems to me that this is a crucial factor. To do history is in the last instance to be able to meet another person whom you thought you were unable to understand and finally find yourself in a situation to understand them, in the strongest sense of the term—as when we say to someone, face to face, looking them in the eye: « I understand”. It is this understanding that is at the centre of the work of historians when they are interested in someone other than themselves, from a historical point of view. And it is also this understanding which should, it seems to me, be at the heart of our way of living the community and, If I dare use this word that we don’t necessarily like, the way we do Church.

P.-O. L.


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a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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