First, Christians figured out the Trinity. Then, they figured out Christology. This developmental narrative of Christian theology exists virtually everywhere. More commonly, the Protestant re-telling of this narrative goes like this. During the Medieval era, all was lost. But the Reformers rediscovered the New Testament and justification. And since then, we have grown in our theological understanding century by century.
But this developmental theory wrongly characterizes history. It is a myth, not reality. It corresponds to our era’s scientific achievements and current evolutionary thought. When medicine and science constantly progress and when the primary meta-framework for the world requires the advancement and change of living creatures, then it seems obvious to us that theology must have progressed.
But this is not accurate. Here’s why.
First, theologians worked out of historical contexts
Athanasius did not set to work out Trinitarian theology in his leisure. Instead, he wrote to defend the catholic understanding of Jesus. For example, he penned On the Incarnation to explain why Jesus ascended to the cross.
Christians had worshipped Jesus, using various language to describe his divinity and humanity. Certainly, the Nicene Symbol of Faith provided uniform language for already existing worship of Jesus. But it was not as if each Ante-Nicene author worked to formulate some sub-division of theology.
Each author, whether Ireneaus or Maximos, needs to be read according to their own context and historical moment. They witness to the truth as they seek the living God in their lives. We can enjoy and read them even with their divergent terminology.
Origen speaks of the Holy Spirit as being created. What does he mean? Why does he say that? The answer is not: he has not evolved enough in his theology. The answer involves his pursuit of understanding through Scripture and Spirit. And imputing later theological discussions into Origen will result not only in misunderstanding him but also doing violence to his intent.
Second, often earlier theology is more fitting than our current theology
Besides reading authors as authors in their context, another reason why the theory of theological development needs to stop is that theology does not progress in a linear line. Often older theology bests what we have today. Or maybe “bests” wrongly characterize things. It may be better to say earlier theology often more coherently, or beneficially, and fittingly describes our worship.
Sometimes it does not. Sometimes it does. Thirteenth-century reflections on God’s nature and relation to the world more fittingly describe our God and our worship of him than do many today. But Luther gets at justification better than many did in the thirteenth century.
Later Reformed writers defined justification a bit differently than Martin Luther. They described it in forensic terms which fits better into a schema of theology (with sanctification the progressive bit). Luther emphasized that justification gives us Christ and so emphasizes more fittingly what we get in justification.
But Luther and the Reformed are not in opposition. They emphasize two sides of a coin. It is not as if one group of theologians evolved over the others as a fish is said to evolve into a land-roaming animal; or as a scientist (or engineer) improves the physics of a speed-rail train.
Every theologian and every era has unique emphases that may or may not find fitting, coherence into Christian thought. But no linear progression through time occurs.
Third, the world, not Christ, wants us to see knowledge as a history of progress
We have come to expect theological progress to advance according to the standards of science or evolutionary biology. We have framed our theological mindset according to these norms. But most Christians of most centuries prior to us often valued what came before as better. They viewed novelty or newness with suspicion; the more ancient something was, the more authority it held. This may also have its problems.
But the difference between our futurism and their pastism illustrates that our impulse for a developmental theory comes not from some neutral dispassionate place. It comes from the pressure of our age as pastism may have come from the pressure of earlier ages.
Neither now nor then is better per se. God works. Sometimes places decline and at other times incline. Probably fittingness and coherence and worship need to be the categories we use to evaluate theology rather than “better” or “worse” which seem to follow the myth of development.
God promises to do new and wonderful things. He does them often through his Spirit. So Christians have hope. We look forward and expect the best. Sometimes a Reformation happens. Sometimes a slow decline in North America happens. At other times, South America and countries in Asia thrive. And all the while, Europe may lose its original hold on truth.
These shifts do not correspond to theological growth or decline per se. Canadians may have more coherent theology than, say, Norwegians. But Norway could have revival while Canada does not. And Norway may have a revival of theological acuity while we in North America decline in decadence.
We need to attend to these differences without following the impulse to assume the development and evolution of theology.
Fourth, rejecting the theory of development frees us from self-confidence
This freedom then releases the burden of overconfidence in our ability and draws to seek out the Spirit as we see how he has worked through history to point us back to Jesus. That is what the Spirit does. He did it through Athanasius, he did it through Thomas Aquinas, and he did it through Martin Luther.
But the developmental model relegates the Spirit’s work an earlier increment in theological progress. Gregory of Nyssa may be fascinating but he really only precedes the next development. We need to focus on the here and now, where the real theology happens.
John Calvin was good, but the Reformed Scholastics really got it right—we might think. But then, it was Bavinck who perfected certain theological topics. Finally, Van Til got apologetics right. And so on. This narrative roots itself in self-confidence, historical positivism, and a worldly understanding of developmental progress.
But we want to walk the old paths since they remain the same. Explanations of these paths may differ as in the idiom of Gregory of Nyssa or Maximos or Luther. But the path remains the same. Diversity exists. And sometimes we find fitting, beneficial, worshipful theology of Christ in bygone eras that aid our worship; at other times, they may not.
Still, we need to see the past not as rungs on a ladder up to the present. But as individual experiences of theologians walking on the path to knowing God in Christ Jesus through worship. This will free us from the self-confidence of our own times that weighs down with a burden that could eventually crush us.