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Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals [a review]

A fantastic case for the benefit of theological retrieval paired with four demonstrations of what it looks like. Recommended.

I’ll say it right up front: I am a huge fan of this book and of the movement toward theological retrieval as a whole. I do not exaggerate when I say that this is perhaps the single most important thing evangelicals as a whole could devote their attention to in our current cultural moment. In a day when evangelicals try to outdo each other with the hipness of their services and the quality of the coffee in the urn, when they view their mission statements as branding and church plants as startup ventures, there’s something exceedingly healthy in recognizing that our charter today is not to innovate or reinvent the wheel, but to carry the faith that has been delivered to us. Our vision of unity in the church is non-denominationalism, where anyone can belong, but also any church can believe whatever it wants and is accountable to no higher authority (even something as lowkey as a baptist convention). Church members believe pretty much whatever, and it feels very difficult to correct them because, "Well, there are many valid interpretations."

The ironic problem is that evangelicals are almost too biblical: we’ve taken Sola Scriptura to mean a faith that is entirely ahistorical, so we must simply read the Bible and do what it says. Hopefully nobody yanks my evangelical card for saying this, but the reason there are "many interpretations" of scripture is because it can be difficult to read scripture and its intended meaning is not always as self-evident as we might want to present it as. Another ironic problem is that evangelicals tend to be allergic to hearing voices from the Christian tradition because we don’t want a human being telling us what to believe, we want to hear directly from God’s Word, gee dangit! Yet reading the KJV or the ESV or even the NIV is too hard, so we reach for The Message or Our Daily Bread or a Beth Moore study or a pastor on a podcast. None of those things are wrong in the slightest, but we must acknowledge that in our zeal to hear directly from the Lord we have traded "the words of man" for… the words of a different man.

In Gavin Ortlund’s new book, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future, he presents a solid case for not only being familiar with the church’s history, but also with the theological work the historical church has already done. This isn’t to say that all the theological work is done and all we have to do is go retrieve it and, "Hey, here’s the stuff we have to believe." Rather, theological work must still be done but we would be wise to do it in conversation with the finest theological minds of all time.

If you are an evangelical and you have reservations about the idea of reading "one of them catholics" before the Reformation, know that Ortlund addresses your concerns in Part 1. He ably demonstrates that not only is it okay for evangelicals to go back past the Reformation to the patristic and medieval periods, but that there is actually heaps of treasure there for us to find. I also appreciated his chapter on the benefits and perils of theological retrieval, because it is worth noting that there are pitfalls in historical theological reading and you can fall into them.

Is "theological retrieval" just a hip rebranding of historical theology or church history, similar to how millennials have "side hustles" instead of "a second job" or how we say "lit" instead of "cool" now? No. Whereas church history is mostly concerned with the story of how the church got to where she is now, and whereas historical theology is mostly concerned with accurately representing what the church has believed about systematic categories throughout the various stages of its life, theological retrieval is more about bringing to bear all that historical theological work upon the present theological work being done. Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas don’t have to be relegated to the history books just because they’re dead; they still have salient arguments to make in our discourse today.

One of the fantastic things about this book is that he speeds pretty quickly through the argument for retrieval into 4 simple demonstrations of how to do retrieval: how to think about the creator/creation distinction, historical voices on the doctrine of divine simplicity, theories of the atonement, and the art of pastoring with Gregory the Great. I was especially floored that he wrote a chapter on pastoring, because often the perception is that if we’re reaching back to historical Christian figures for their theological work, we’re only doing that for high-minded academic concerns rather than something as down-to-earth as, "How do I even shepherd all these vastly different people in my congregation?"

Ortlund writes specifically to "pastors, theology students, and interested lay Christians" and that’s basically right; I think it would still be a bit much for the average Christian, but I love his intentional positioning for this book: "This is a sort of mid-level book that engages the scholarly machinery but ultimately hopes to influence a broader readership."1 He doesn’t "put the cookies on the bottom shelf" as it were, but he is trying to guide you to deeper wells (…of cookies, I suppose, if I want to stay true to my metaphor).

I heartily, heartily recommend this book if you think you’re the persona Ortlund is writing to, but you’re not too familiar with the church historical or her resources, or if you are but you’re not convinced about the idea of retrieving that theological work for today. Let Ortlund at least make the case for you. If you’re a pastor, I beg you to at the very least read the final chapter of the book on pastoring: it will be a gift to your soul.

Pick up a copy from Westminster Books for $16 or about the same price from the publisher if you’re a Crossway+ member.

Notes

  1. Ortlund, Gavin, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019). Kindle Electronic Edition, loc. 139.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.