Normally I am years behind on reading new books, but I purchased Gavin Ortlund’s book, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals the moment Amazon would allow. I did so because of my own personal theological journey. A few years ago I came to realize that even as a Bible College and Seminary graduate I lacked an adequate appreciation for my own Christian tradition. In school I read a lot about church history, but not a lot of the Christian writings that are a part of that history.
So I made it a goal to read many of the theologians I only read about in school. My ignorance is not the fault of my alma maters. I went to wonderful schools and had wonderful teachers. I didn’t deserve their time and kindness. I am simply noting that curriculum restraints and my own shortsighted priorities kept me from first hand knowledge of my own Christian Tradition.
This survey of church history made me aware there was a rich treasure of theological reflection in my family, but that I was largely ignorant of it. This combined with my own experience in non-liturgical congregations left me yearning for “rootedness.” Ortlund describes this feeling well when he writes,
“Particularly among the younger generation of evangelicals today, there seems to be a profound sense of emptiness and dislocatedness and consequent malaise. We are aching for the ancient and the august, for transcendence and tradition, for that which has stability and solidarity and substance. And many of us simply aren’t finding that in our evangelical churches and institutions.” (52)
My interest in theological retrieval grew as I began collecting and reading some of the popular patristic volumes and following the content from sites like Center of Baptist Renewal and the Center for Ancient Christian Studies. But it is one thing to be interested in retrieval. It is another to know how to rightly pursue it. This is why I am so grateful for Ortlund’s book.
Pastors who grow in their understanding of biblical, historical, and systematic theology often want to share that knowledge with others. There is nothing wrong with this. It is ok to be excited about theological retrieval. It is ok to be passionate about giving your flock a firmer grasp on their own Christian history. It is natural to want to share what we are excited about with the ones we love.
The problem is that most pastors are not specialists. I understand that there some who’ve specialized and have earned a PhD, but generally speaking most pastors are not trained historians or biblical scholars. Most pastors are generalists who are striving to be faithful shepherds. Pastors interested in retrieval can become passionate and zealous to teach the church that, “one of the greatest resources for navigating her present challenges is her very past–indeed, her entire past.” (20) Yet zeal and passion not checked with diligent attention to detail can lead to misrepresentation.
This is why I am so thankful that Dr. Ortlund provided the “perils of retrieval” section in his new book. Although these perils are addressed to all who will read his book, I am especially grateful for how this section offers warnings to me as a non-specialist.
The Perils of Retrieval
Here are direct quotes from Ortlund:
1.) “…we must be weary of the danger of distortion, in which we move too quickly to the present issue without sufficiently “doing our homework,” such that the historical resource being retrieved is somewhat caricatured or misconstrued . To the extent that our retrieval of the past is motivated to confirm present opinion or advance a polemical purpose, we may be especially in the way of this danger.” (73)
2.) “A second danger is artificiality, in which past resources are pressed into the service of present needs in a way that is forced or inauthentic.” (73)
3.) “…repristination, in which retrieval becomes merely a way of exercise in restating the past, under the impression that classical sources represent some kind of grand, immovable, final verdict on all matters they address.” Ortlund also says, “If in our efforts at retrieval we never or rarely find ourselves in disagreement with the resources we engage, we must be especially on the alert to whether we have fallen into this danger.” (74)
4.) “A final danger is minimalism, in which all the difficult or cacophonous elements of the past resources are flattened out in the search for a common denominator of unity.” (75)
There are many reasons why you should buy and read Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals, but this brief section speaks to the care and thoughtfulness with which Ortlund wrote. More than encouraging his readers to engage with patristic and medieval theology, Ortlund shows us how to do so. You may not need those warnings, but I do and I’m grateful for them.
Although I think he misses his audience here and there (some chapters were previously published in peer review theological journals) I enjoyed it from beginning to end. It is especially helpful that Ortlund teaches us both theory and practice. Chapters 4-7 are test cases where he models theological retrieval. The chapter interacting with Irenaeus, Anselm, and Athanasius on the atonement is worth the price of the book.
In his preface Ortlund writes, “I have written this with pastors, theology students, and interested lay Christians in mind. This is a sort of lay level book that engages the scholarly machinery but ultimately hope to influence a broader readership.” (14)
I can only hope it does.