Historical Theology for the Church: A Q&A with Jason Duesing and Nathan Finn

by Jason G. Duesing, Nathan Finn February 15, 2021

We recently interviewed Dr. Jason Duesing and Dr. Nathan Finn, editors of Historical Theology for the Church, a new volume from B&H Academic. The volume surveys key doctrinal developments throughout church history and seeks to make practical applications from church history for the local church today. Historical Theology for the Church is available now from B&H Academic online or wherever Christian academic titles are sold.

What was the impetus or motivation for compiling and editing Historical Theology for the Church?

In his meditation on Romans 8:28 and how God can work good out of sinful situations, the Puritan Thomas Watson thought of the Bible’s Samson, saying, “It is a matter of wonder that any honey should come out of this lion.” When one reviews the work of historical theology in history, with all the flaws and faults that humans bring to bear in every era, it is a marvel that any honey has been found. 

Not without surprise then, there is a good deal of debate among scholars over how to correctly review the development of doctrine in history. While we are very interested in that debate, our purpose with this book is to establish a broad orientation or disposition of doing historical theology for the church that is rooted in the Bible and consistent with the heart of the Christian tradition recovered by the Reformers. Further discussion of the role of providence in history, the implications of historical approaches for ethics and apologetics, and the like, will have to receive further treatment at another time. In other words, our aim is to establish simply that honey can come from the lion. Historical theology can be done for the church.

How would you describe the role of Historical Theology in relation to the other theological disciplines (BT, ST, etc.)?

Historical theology for the church is helpful when it functions as a friend and not a rival to its companion disciplines. The idea of friendship is both a metaphor and a necessary reality for academic work. As a metaphor, historical theology functions as a friend to other disciplines by filling the gap between history and biblical and theological analysis. Whereas some systematic and biblical theologians might be tempted to construct theology without regard to history, the historical theologian serves a helpful function of ensuring his friends do not veer too far from the Christian tradition or the work of the church in history. 

Likewise, for those engaged in applied or pastoral theology who are prone to jettison tradition for the honorable sake of contemporary applicability or rhetorical eloquence, the historical theologian helpfully reminds us of the relevance of knowing there is “nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9). In this way, to use an analogy from chess, historical theology for the church functions as a friend to other disciplines. It does this by regularly seeking to hold their work “in check,” triangulating around them, seeking to understand their movements, and keeping them tied to the work of other systematic, biblical, and practical theologians of other eras. That is, historical theologians, as friends, are helping theologians of the church present continue to do their work in connection to the church past and for the church future.

Historical theology for the church also functions as friend to these disciplines for mutual edification. As C. S. Lewis observed, significant friendship among believers doesn’t come by chance. “Christ, who said to the disciples, ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,’ can truly say to every group of Christian friends, ‘You have not chosen one another, but I have chosen you for one another.’” Such it is also with the various theologian disciplines within the Christian tradition. Historical theology for the church is strengthened when challenged and sharpened by 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 provided 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).

How is the volume structured and what content does it cover?

Some historical theology surveys are largely chronological, like a church history textbook, and trace the development of doctrines-in-general over time. Other surveys are mostly topical, like a systematic theology, and focus more on the development of each doctrine-in-particular. We appreciate both of these approaches and believe they have value, but we aimed for something in between.

This volume covers four main historical units: the Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, and Modern eras and examines the development of key doctrines within each era.  Each chapter is written by an expert on that topic and follows a similar format of providing historical overview, case study examinations of key doctrines, and concluding with a “for the church” section.

The list of contributors is extensive. Any general thoughts on the contributors chosen for the work? 

As this work is for the church in our context. The authors selected for this work all affirm the Baptist Faith and Message (2000), which guides well the churches to whom we are primarily called to serve. Additionally, the authors selected have the appropriate academic credentials to teach the content they were assigned. We hope the combined works demonstrate excellence in service to our churches. The original slate of authors included a few more voices, representing diverse ethnic minority perspectives, but for various personal or professional reasons other matters prevented some from continued participation. We trust that God has directed the voices needed for this project to remain faithful to his Word and serve the churches with excellence.

Part of the aim of the volume is the application of its content within local churches. What is the value of the project for pastors and local congregations? Are there specific ways the volume can be used in local church contexts?

Historical Theology for the Church is designed as a textbook to be used in graduate or undergraduate courses, but it is a unique textbook in that it is also accessible and readable for anyone who has an interest in how doctrines developed in history. To put it another way, this book is both academic and edifying. And each chapter’s “for the church” section shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provides a resource for contemporary congregations. Our prayer is that pastors and other ministry leaders will benefit from the work and find it a useful resource in their preaching and teaching.