Guard the Good Deposit: Understanding Retrieval

by Shawn J. Wilhite

What is “Retrieval” and the Resourcement movement?

 From the outset, the concept of retrieval for some, Resourcement for others, or aspects of Nouvelle Théologie require a careful and nuanced definition. For those not privy to these paradigms or neglecting to move towards these markers, not to consider the ancient, medieval, reformation or historic Baptist heritage may cause a bit of amnesia as we move forward.

My specialties already reside in the study of the New Testament, early Christian origins, and the Patristic heritage. As a committed Baptist, our theological heritage, spiritual mothers and fathers, and exemplars of the Christian faith can inform our current expression. We mustn’t think that the early Christian mothers and fathers have little or nothing to do with modern ecclesiological and theological expressions. It was Henri De Lubac, an influential French Jesuit in the twentieth century, who said, “Every time, in the West, that Christian renewal has flourished, in the order of thought and that of life . . . it has flourished under the sign of the Fathers.”[1]

Timothy George, a theologian and church historian, has brilliantly referred to this retrieval movement as a “retrieval for the sake of renewal.” According to George, he reflects upon the following:

What is retrieval? It is not just refurbishment. It is not just going back and finding something or someone famous four or five hundred years ago and dusting them off and letting them shine again in all of their glory. There is nothing wrong with that, but more is involved in retrieval. Retrieval is more of a rescue operation. It recognizes that there a great deal of our Christian past that has become obscure, that we just don’t know about anymore. Retrieval looks at these figures as our fellow sojourners in the life of faith. We are one with them in Jesus Christ. They are guiding lights for the people of God throughout the ages. That sometimes means we have to ask new and different questions of them, different from what they were asking in their own day. We have the right, and even the responsibility, to do just that.[2]

So retrieval, then, has a posture that transcends our modern sensibilities, lacks a particular cynicism for the past, and willingly reaches to ancient sisters and brothers for theological, spiritual, and moral guidance. Michael Allen presses these metaphors with an image of archeology – might we dig and dig deep in the tradition of our heritage to discover the well and repository of the satisfying riches in Christ and His Bride.[3] Rowan Williams, in fact, calls theological retrieval “creative archaeology.”[4]

I appreciate how D. H. Williams identifies quite keenly a problem in modern Evangelical postures:

Few who would identify themselves as evangelicals have chosen academic careers in patristics, partly because there is little or no exposure to the field in the teaching curriculum of most Protestant seminaries, and partly because the post-apostolic period has been marginalized by the very life and practice of most churches evangelicals attend. This legacy has functioned in such a way as to leave a huge gap in the historical consciousness of the Free church.[5]

So, what is retrieval and what does it generally assume? To do theology is an act of judgments about texts, history, philosophical constructs, and sociological lenses. Our theological progress is still not complete, hopefully arriving at greater and greater clarity, especially as the Church engages more deeply the Scriptures, the culture it lives in, and the tradition it has received.

To do retrieval and ressourcement is a mode of theology that works critically[6] and diligently to mine the ecumenical tradition, to recover the needed and useful features of the tradition, and truly to resource our previous riches of the Spirit in the Church.[7] Theological retrieval, for our purposes, is a rescue operation to recover, to reuse, to resource, and to re-integrate our Christian heritage into the modern enterprise of the theological task.

John Webster regards the following, “The major achievements of theology in the mode of retrieval have been to commend a more celebratory style of theological portrayal and to rehabilitate classical sources of Christian teaching and draw attention to their potential in furthering the theological task.”[8]

I want to suggest that one need not abandon one’s commitment to a Baptist Protestant tradition in order to recover, to use, and to benefit from the practices and theology of the Ancient Church. This is our heritage too. I want us to drink and to drink deeply from the wells of Patristic wisdom without feeling compelled to jettison a baptistic or Baptist heritage. The following quite simply and cursorily pursues why we should retrieve the ancient Churches heritage, what we should retrieve, and how might we make steps towards retrieving our heritage.

How can the Modern Church retrieve the practices and theology of the ancient Church?

 The following list merely suggests ways to incorporate and slowly introduce the modern local gathering to the Great Tradition. Because doing theology is already a difficult task in and of itself, to do retrieval does require additional thought and purposeful application.

1. Weekly Confess and Recite the Church’s Confessions

 I am beginning to hear more and more from my friends and colleagues in local church ministries that their church has begun to confess an ecumenical creed. Weekly confessions and weekly liturgies help shape the people of God towards a narrative and towards a Christian story.

Part of a weekly confession may include a corporate recitation of the Apostle’s Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Nicene or \Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, or other creeds having been confessed throughout the scope of the Church. In my local assembly, we do or have recited the following in our weekly gatherings: the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Ligonier Statement on Christology.

2. Incorporate the Tradition into Preaching Material

I’ve already written on this concept (see “Retrieval Exegesis for the Pulpit and the Local Church” Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3; “How to Integrate Patristic Voices in the Local Church”). Put quite simply, utilize a Patristic Series that focus upon exposition or commentaries of biblical books. As pastors, ministry leaders, or teachers teach, exchange one modern tertiary book for an ancient voice. For every non-specialist, I highly recommend you to pick up Reading the Bible with the Dead purely to mine the appendix. John Thompson provides a guide to English translations of pre-1600 commentary literature.

3. Know and critically assess the history of the Great Tradition for the local church’s doctrinal statement

Ministry leaders may begin to incorporate Ecumenical Creeds as the base of the local church’s theological identity.

 4. Collectively recite and/or read the Nicene Creed at Easter and Baptismal settings

This practice appears as early as Athanasius. He links a pro-Nicene confession with an expose on baptism (Discourses against the Arians 2.18.41). Additionally, Theodore of Mopsuestia’s Catechetical Homilies provides an exposition on the Nicene Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, on Baptism, the Eucharist, and the church’s liturgies. The Ordo of Constantinople in 790 (possibly going back to Proclus) presents the candidates for baptism and they say, “I adhere to Christ, and I believe in one God the Father Almighty [continue the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed].” Between 500 and 550, a candidate for Baptism would confess the Apostle’s Creed and then later the Nicene Creed.[9]

5. Require readings for ministry leaders and clergy in ancient figures

 Thomas Oden previously recommended eight total figures from the patristic era as part of his theological method. These Doctors of the Church comprised of four figures from the Eastern Church (Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom) and four figures from the Western Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great).[10] I just finished reading and have read the following works with church interns, future ministry leaders, and the laity: Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit; Gregory of Nazianzus, Theological Orations; Gregory the Great, Book of Pastoral Rule; Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ; idem., Christological Treatises; Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church.

Gregory the Great balances the pursuit of the pastoral office upon the concepts of contemplatio and consideratio in the Double Love, and provides psychological profiles for people under one’s care. Gregory’s book regularly brings to mind the following quote from Eugene Peterson in The Contemplative Pastor,

But if I vainly crowd my day with conspicuous activity or let others fill my day with imperious demands, I don’t have time to do my proper work, the work to which I have been called. How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion? How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?[11]

6. Suggest a catechism process for new and mature Christians

7. Recite and/or memorize one of the rules of faith (by Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, Patrick of Ireland, or others) or the Ecumenical Creeds as part of personal discipleship

To recite these creeds need not compete with Scripture’s primacy, or with other counseling, but will accent and support Christian discipleship.

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[1] Henri de Lubac, At the Service of the Church: Henri de Lubac Reflects on the Circumstances That Occasioned His Writings (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1992), 317–18.

[2] Timothy George Kistemaker Lecture 2017. See here pg. 73: https://journal.rts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Vol-2.2-.pdf.

[3] Michael Allen, “Reformed Retrieval,” In Theology of Retrieval: An Exploration and Appraisal, edited by Darren Sarisky (London: Bloomsbury, ), 67–68.

[4] Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2005), 100.

[5] D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 5.

[6] In my final years at Southern Seminary, I had one encounter with Michael Haykin that is forever imprinted on my mind. I am a bit tall than him and I remember shaking his hand and he didn’t let go. He said, rather sternly, “Shawn, as good as the Fathers are, do not forget the Gospel which has shaped you more.” Still to this day, that encounter still reverberates deeply within my memory. As I continue to the study the New Testament, early Christianity, and Patristics, I have Haykin’s admonitions ringing in my ears. He suggests the following, “One final word about the Fathers before we plunge into their world of long ago. The Fathers are not Scripture. They are senior conversation partners about Scripture and its meaning. We listen to them respectfully, but we are not afraid to disagree when they err.” Michael A. G. Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 29

[7] John Webster regards the following, “‘Retrieval’, then, is a mode of theology, an attitude of mind and a way of approaching theological tasks which is present with greater or lesser prominence in a range of different thinkers, not all of them self-consciously ‘conservative’ or ‘orthodox.’” John Webster, “Theologies of Retrieval,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Ian Torrance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 584.

[8] Webster, “Theologies of Retrieval,”596.

[9] Willis, A History of the Early Roman Liturgy, 123.

[10] See the preface to Thomas C. Oden, The Word of Life (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1992).

[11] Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 19.