A Review of “Theology as Retrieval” by Buschart and Eilers

Eilers-Book-FeatureThere is always a temptation in theological development to either revile or relive the past. Both approaches will give us a very deficient theology for the present. There is a continuity and discontinuity between the past and present church. We need the past even while we can’t simply replicate the past. In their new book Theology as Retrieval W. David Buschart and Kent Eilers give readers a primer on utilizing the past for development of doctrine and practice today. It serves as a reminder that the past can help us discern faithful answers for today.

Theology as Retrieval is an introduction to an important mode of “theological discernment that looks back in order to move forward” (12).  As a model, retrieval allows us to receive and transmit the gospel once for all delivered to the saints in a way that is both historically faithful and contextually relevant. The authors are careful not to promote some sanctification of the past, as if all lessons from history are valuable simply because they are historical. Neither are they dismissive of all contemporary developments, as if something is wrong simply because it’s modern. Retrieval is about “discernment,” they insist. It requires thoughtful engagement, then, with both the aspects of reception and transmission.

The book unpacks the “logic of retrieval in six areas of contemporary theological reflection in order to cultivate discernment about the use of tradition in Christian theology today” (13-14). The categories they focus on are Scripture, theology, worship, spirituality, mission, and cosmos. The book surveys a wide array of retrieval approaches and retrieval literature. Readers will be introduced to Theological Interpretation of Scripture, New Monasticism, Radical Orthodoxy, and liturgical worship. They will read detailed interactions with Fred Sanders’ The Deep Things of God, The Drama of Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer, Theology and Social Theory by John Milbank, and more. The book as a whole works as a kind of map for a broader theological discussion. Theology nerds will love it for that reason.

The book is largely descriptive, but not merely descriptive. The authors do give us a point-by-point description of various uses of retrieval for Scripture, theology, worship, spirituality, and mission. But they do more in that they help us find that right kind of theological discernment. The conclusion picks up where the introduction left off, discussing the six resemblances that help us understand the value of retrieval. Buschart and Eilers discuss how theologies of retrieval see the inadequacy of contemporary sources alone for the development of theology, and they understand that history is a “field of divine action.” God has involved himself throughout the history of the church. Further, retrieval has “confidence in Christianity’s own language and conceptual resources” (260). “They practice theology as a ‘churchly’ endeavor” (262), and affirm that our faith is “socially embodied” (264). Finally, they “navigate continuity and discontinuity between present and past” (266). Ultimately the authors want readers to see the past as a resource for moving forward. Buschart and Eilers write:

Retrieval can be done in such a way that one responsibly looks back and faithfully moves forward. The Christian tradition is engaged in such a way that it resources the church’s life and receives the deposit of faith. (274-275)

The goal is always that in receiving this deposit we are better equipped to transmit it in our present context. Retrieval is about reception and transmission in a way that is historically faithful and contextually relevant.

This is a good book. At one level it synthesizes some incredible insights for the church in specific areas of corporate life: hermeneutics, worship, mission, etc. But by keeping the larger goal of understanding retrieval before us it does more than just synthesis. It actually helps us understand a broad approach to theology that has a wealth of insight to offer to the church across the board. We could limit its usefulness to the six categories in the book, but the authors are only giving us those categories to help us see how broadly useful this approach to theology is. This won’t be a book for everyone, but for practitioners in theology, for church leaders, for pastors and teachers, it will be helpful. It will help us learn, once again, from the past for the solutions to today’s theological problems.

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