Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt from Jason Duesing’s recently released work, Historical Theology for the Church. The volume was co-edited with Nathan A. Finn and is available now from B&H Academic online and wherever Christian academic titles are sold.
When David Levin set out to describe the early years of the life of Cotton Mather (1663–1703), he dubbed him “the Lord’s Remembrancer.” This title is, no doubt, taken from the oldest functioning judicial position in England, the King’s Remembrancer. Established in the twelfth century, this clerk serves the monarchy by reminding of previous business recorded. Yet, bestowing Mather with this honorific comes with some controversy given his role in the Salem witch trials. That chapter in Mather’s life often overshadows his prodigious work as historian, biographer, and biblical commentator.
Mather’s magnum opus, the Magnalia Christi Americana, is an example of his careful work and is the primary reason why Levin gives Mather the title of the Lord’s Remembrancer. Written to provide an ecclesiastical history of New England, Levin praises Mather for his faithful historical work stating that his “strength as a historian grows out of the range and number of his examples, and the persistence of his theme – the piety, the faith, the struggle, the perplexity, and the resignation in dozens of actual lives.”
Such is a fitting description of the task of the historical theologian—a servant of the church who reminds present and future readers of previous actions and theological developments from earlier eras in the history of Christianity. As the Lord’s Remembrancers, faithful historical theologians have the opportunity of serving the church present and future, but what does that entail? How is this work done?
What is Historical Theology?
Historical theology is the study of the doctrinal development of Christians through the ages and how they have transferred their tradition to the next generation. In this, the study of historical theology allows Christians and churches to make sense of what they have inherited as well as to receive instruction from those who have lived in other times and who persevered through other trials.
To illustrate this function, consider what happens when a person walks up to observe two other people playing the game of Chess. The two opponents started the game some time previous and thus the onlooker is forced to survey the Chess board, make an assessment of what has happened, who is winning, whose turn is next, and who has the advantage. The onlooker observes a game in progress and, depending upon her knowledge of the game, is forced to put the pieces together in order to appreciate what is happening. The more one knows the game, the more one can adapt to this quickly, but anyone would prefer to have observed the game from the beginning to appreciate the match in full. Second to that, the onlooker would find help if the opponents paused their game to explain to her how many moves had occurred, what mistakes had been made, and what each player was thinking at the time. A third level of intrigue and complexity could occur should one of the players leave his game and ask the onlooker to take over and play for him. At this point, for the onlooker to have a chance, she would have to have knowledge, experience, and a sense of not only what she has inherited, but also what she should do next.
Such it is with the study of historical theology. Christians of the present and future, once they start their journey in the Christian life, either as individuals or in local churches, are put in the position of the onlooker. Christians before them are playing or have played many Chess games with the Christian tradition, each developing their skills with the doctrines of the Bible as well as contributing new understanding to how the Christian life is lived in each era and under unique circumstances. The onlooker is helped if she has the opportunity not only to study and learn in community the rules of the game, that comes through the study of the Bible, but also to learn from and observe other Christians, nearby and in previous ages, how they have done the same. Further, often in local churches or in families, the onlooker is asked to take over a game when she is brought into a church tradition, or move to a new community, or join a new Christian family. The discipleship that comes through the study of historical theology can aid the onlooker in understanding her new surroundings, what has taken place before, and how to know what should take place next.
Historical Theology for the Church
In light of these definitions for this new book, the editors and contributors asked, “What would it look like to develop a historical theology for the church?” The result was the start of a list of characteristics that is, by no means, final or comprehensive. Yet, this list provides a tangible blueprint to give an outline for future and ongoing construction of historical theology for the church.
- Historical Theology for the church upholds the primacy of the Bible over tradition and history but recognizes the value of tradition and history.
Historical theology for the church should lean upon and listen to these contemporary guides who are seeking to uphold the primacy of the Bible as the sole authority while recognizing the value of the Christian tradition for reading and interpreting the Bible.
- Historical Theology for the church follows the two Greatest Commandments as it is for the Church catholic and church local.
Historical theology for the church is done well when the church loves God and loves neighbor by valuing and learning from other expressions and traditions of the church catholic in history.
- Historical Theology for the church is done as a means to the end of fulfilling the Great Commission and glorifying God.
Historical theology for the church functions as a tool to equip churches to learn and take their history of doctrinal development to those who do not yet even have a historical theology.
- Historical Theology for the church is both academic and edifying as it functions as friend to the work of systematic theology, biblical theology, and applied theology.
When these disciplines stick closer than brothers (Prov 18:24) for the church, they are modeling what the Lord Jesus modeled and provides for his disciples. He is the one who, when his church was separated and far from him due to sin, brought her near at the price of his own blood (Eph 2:12-13). He loved the church, laid down his life, and called the church friends (John 15:13-15).
- Historical Theology for the church as an academic endeavor is done as a servant of the church, not as a master.
Historical theology for the church, functioning as a donkey carrying the Master (Mark 11:3), serves his church well when it strives to provide correction of contemporary misapplications of the past for present and future churches.
The pursuit of scholarship for the church is not without cost. Nevertheless, historical theologians doing historical theology for the church have, on the one hand, the privilege of doing the humble work of a donkey for the Master carefully guiding the church to the good, the true and the beautiful in history, while on the other hand, simultaneously pointing out the lack of theological clothes worn by many Emperor’s of the academy.
The Lord’s Remembrancers
Benjamin Colman, preaching after Cotton Mather’s funeral, noted that in his written work Mather,
shone; being exceeding communicative, and bringing out of his Treasury things new and old, without measure. Here it was seen how his Wit, and Fancy, his Invention, his Quickness of thought, and ready Apprehension were all consecrated to God, as well as his Heart, Will, and Affections; and out of his Abundance within his lips overlow’d, dropt as the honeycomb, fed all that came near him, and were as the choice silver, for richness and brightness, pleasure and profit.
Jesus instructed that “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matt 13:52).
Historical theology can be done for the church when historical theologians bring out the treasures from the doctrines of history and serve them as the Lord’s Remembrancers.
 David Levin, Cotton Mather: The Young Life of the Lord’s Remembrancer, 1663-1703 (Harvard, 1978).
 Ibid., 262.
 Levin, Cotton Mather, ii.