How Christians (Should) Learn from the Past


It was George Santayana (1863 – 1952), the Spanish born philosopher, poet, and novelist, who famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I have yet to meet someone who disagrees with Santayana’s dictum. But, we might ask, what is required of one who desires to learn from the past? This is a different question.

For Christians, it is not simply learning from the past; it is doing so in light of God’s unfolding salvation, for this is the highest and noblest of inquiries. As Timothy George is fond of saying: “The Holy Spirit has a history [of working in the world], and this history matters.”

It is from the new book, Learning from the Past: Essays on Reception, Catholicity, and Dialogue in Honour of Anthony N.S. Lane, that we find insight into the question of how to do historical theology. As the title states, this enterprise requires reception of thought from earlier generations of biblical interpreters and theologians, catholicity in the sense of lifting our heads above our near horizon to observe how God’s truth is applied by different communities, and dialogue among such people to understand opposing views in a way that sharpens our own.

We begin with a brief word about the scholar in whose honor this book is written: A. N. S. Lane (or “Tony,” as friends know him), Professor of Historical Theology at London School of Theology where he has taught since 1973. After earning undergrad and graduate degrees at Oxford University, Tony was awarded their Doctor of Divinity degree in 2004. He is most known for his work on the doctrines of Justification, Sacraments, Scripture and Tradition, and the theologies of John Calvin and Bernard of Clairvaux. It was these specializations that led me to conduct research under Tony’s supervision for nearly four years. From this experience, I offer you the following three lessons from Tony’s legacy about how to do historical theology vis-à-vis reception, catholicity, and dialogue.

With regard to reception, I will share an interesting fact about Tony. It is the reason why he decided to turn his attention toward historical theology (from mathematics) in the first place. During his early years of college study, Tony read the following quote by John Henry Newman: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” Given Tony’s curious nature, these words sounded like a personal challenge. What followed were years of painstaking research on the Protestant Reformers’ use of the Church Fathers, out of which came several monographs, including John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers and Calvin and Bernard of Clairvaux.

So what lesson does Tony teach us about reception? Simply put, we must look carefully at the centuries surrounding our subject, if we are to properly understand our subject. Thus, Tony never tired of pressing me to investigate the intellectual, social, and religious forces that exerted influence upon John Henry Newman. And then it was necessary to read the same sources that Newman himself had read (ideally, in the same order). Because there is no such thing as a view from nowhere, we must go deep into the historical context of the figures whom we are studying in order to see through their eyes.

The second lesson I learned from Tony is the importance of recognizing the catholicity of Christian thought. It is noteworthy, for example, that the first chapter of Learning from the Past is written by Fr. Dennis E. Tamburello, O.F.M., a Franciscan Friar. Here is what Fr. Tamburello has to say about Tony’s legacy:

What I have always admired about Tony’s work is its meticulously careful historical scholarship, and, in particular, his ability to make connections between theologians of different time periods, while respecting the integrity of each author in his or her own context. This aspect of Tony’s scholarship has always been a model for my own modest efforts to contribute to the field (p. 1).

I concur, and might add to Dennis’s statement that in addition to analyzing theologians of different periods, Tony has also done so across the ecclesial lines, particularly in the Roman Catholic tradition. In addition to scholarly work on Catholics such as Bernard and Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, Tony has showcased Catholic voices in more popular volumes such as A Concise History of Christian Thought and his recently published Exploring Christian Doctrines. In short, historical theology that speaks to the whole church must be derived from the whole church.

The third major lesson that Tony has taught us about historical theology concerns the need for dialogue. If we desire to understand the history of Christian thought, let us not simply read Christians who differ from our position; let’s engage them in conversation. For scholars, this is generally accomplished in two ways: ecumenical dialogue and research that puts Christian voices in conversation with one another. Perhaps the most visible place where Tony has done the latter of these is in his book Justification by Faith in Catholic Protestant Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment, a volume in which he compares and contrasts the doctrine of John Calvin, the Council of Trent, and a host of contemporary ecumenical statements.

The fact that some ecumenical discussions have laid claim to more consensus than actually exists should be a healthy caution, but it should not undermine the value of dialogue, for such occasions provide the opportunity to convey biblical truth and to recognize the implicit concerns of our Catholic friends. The doctrine of justification is an outstanding example of how this works. Evangelical Protestants are keen to emphasize the redemptive grace and assurance that is accounted to everyone who believes in Christ. We do this to safeguard the gracious character of justification. Roman Catholics, concerned that a purely external righteousness will fail to promote actual holiness, stress the process of transformation in which the Holy Spirit renews the soul. Recognizing such concerns is crucial to the study of historical theology.

In a lecture delivered to a gathering of European scholars, Tony highlighted two chief benefits that we receive as a result of ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholics: “First, it can give one greater understanding of Catholic teaching and the realization that statements that one considers objectionable may nonetheless have been motivated by a concern that is legitimate, albeit misapplied. Secondly, an awareness of Catholic concerns can help Evangelicals to be more critical of their own teaching.”[1] Simply put, good historical theology requires honest dialogue.

As creatures who live in time and space, our theology will always be historical. It is therefore not a matter of whether we do historical theology; it is a question of how. Earnest and sincere as we may be, myopic approaches that focus upon an individual or event without wrestling with a subject’s reception, catholicity and dialogue will not suffice. Rather, we need an approach that “goes deep” in history, analyzing the background, the universal reach, and the ecclesial interchange of such ideas. These are the values of which Professor Tony Lane’s academic legacy consists. On behalf of his many students, friends, and readers of his books, I wish to express heartfelt thanks to Tony for teaching us how to learn from the past.

[1] Tony Lane, Relating to the Institution of the Roman Catholic Church: Suggestions for the EEA: A Northern Perspective. Unpublished lecture, delivered June 15, 2007.


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