Rethinking the Resources of the Christian Theological Tradition
Retrieval, Renewal, Reunion?
The University of St. Thomas recently hosted an international ecumenical conference titled “Rethinking the Resources of the Christian Theological Tradition: Retrieval, Renewal, Reunion?”, which took place on July 11-14, 2017. In attendance were internationally renowned theologians and philosophers such as William Abraham, Hans Boersma, Sarah Coakley, Richard Cross, Matthew Levering, and Cyril O’Regan. A number of junior and mid-career scholars also participated in the conference proceedings.
Below, conference organizer Paul Gavrilyuk describes the gathering, and Mark McInroy interviews St. Thomas faculty who were present. Photographs are by Christopher Humphrey Photography.
Paul Gavrilyuk: This conference is a fruit of collaboration between three different constituents of our University, and of partnership with the three other institutions of higher learning. At St. Thomas, the Theology Department collaborated with the Institute for Theological Formation at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity and the Center for Catholic Studies. I would like to thank my UST colleagues Erika Kidd, Michael Hollerich, John Martens, Mark McInroy, Michael Naughton, Paul Niskanen, Philip Rolnick, Barbara Sain, and Christopher Thompson for their strong contributions to conference deliberations and help with matters of organization. A special debt of gratitude is also owed to the external sponsors: the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and its former director Nicholas Denysenko; the Pappas Patristics Institute at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts and its director Bruce Beck; and the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University in New York, co-directed by George Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou. It is a testimony to the quality of the papers presented at the conference that two scholarly journals, International Journal of Systematic Theology and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Quarterly are presently considering selected conference papers for potential publication in two thematic issues, one on the hermeneutic of scripture and the other on the hermeneutic of tradition.
The conference was titled “Rethinking the Resources of the Christian Theological Tradition: Retrieval, Renewal, Reunion?”, and it examined the theme of “retrieval” from a number of different perspectives. Another theme was hermeneutics of scripture and tradition. What do you find valuable about the way these topics were treated? What insights from the conference on these themes (or others) stand out to you?
Paul Niskanen: I found the variety of denominational perspectives quite enlightening. It was interesting to witness a certain ecumenical air about the current retrieval of the Christian tradition. Instead of a narrow focus on one’s “own” tradition, there was a rather refreshing discussion of the hybridity of traditions and such topics as Lutheran readings of Scholastics, Protestant receptions of Aquinas, and Orthodox reception of the doctrine of justification. These were topics about which I knew next to nothing.
John Martens: I think what I found most valuable was the seriousness in which past methods of interpreting scripture were treated, including the Patristic and medieval interpreters. There was also a lively sense that the past did indeed have to be brought into the present through its own careful hermeneutics of retrieval. Biblical interpretation must remain a living enterprise that takes account of all modern methods and the concerns of interpreters and the church today. This means that attention to past biblical interpretation must carry a sense of ancient authors’ own rootedness in place and time as well as our own rootedness in place and time, and to let scripture speak anew to people and to be attentive to new voices and ancient voices. This sense of a dialogue over time with scripture truly stood out to me.
Erika Kidd: The format of the conference promoted serious and fruitful conversation in several ways. First, because the participants had read the papers ahead of time, there was ample time for discussion and the questions raised were thoughtful and on point. Second, participants enjoyed several opportunities for informal conversation in the evenings and over meals. Third, the conference included a variety of voices: junior and senior scholars and folks from many strands of the Christian tradition. […] It was helpful to take up the themes of the retrieval of the Christian tradition and the hermeneutics of Scripture and tradition in such a robustly ecumenical context. That context helped reveal implicit assumptions, common ground, and serious differences that can be overlooked when more homogeneous groups join in conversation.
Mike Hollerich: The contributors were interested in different ways in how facts of change and development should be interpreted today, and what contemporary conditions should say about how we looked back on our tradition’s past. In general, though, I sensed that they underestimated the degree of difference between “then” and now. I did like the paper of Darren Sarisky on this central subject—I thought he was admirably creative and flexible. About the relation between scripture and tradition: in the background of much of the discussion were doubts about the limits of what the historical-critical study of the Bible can contribute to theology. Over the past generation or so, there has been a backlash against, and a retreat from, such exegesis that often involves a naïve and rather romanticized conception of patristic reading of the Bible. I have reservations about what patristic exegesis can do to renew theology. The contributions of my colleagues Paul Niskanen (Old Testament) and John Martens (New Testament) seemed sound and valuable defenses of what good historical scholarship can and must do to illuminate scripture.
Mark McInroy: What did you present at the conference, and what kind of response did your paper receive?
Paul Niskanen: I presented on Catholic Hermeneutics of the Old Testament. I felt a bit like the odd man out as the only Old Testament scholar in attendance, but was pleased with the lively response and conversation from the more historically and systematically oriented participants. I thought the paper fit in well as it focused on the need for a greater retrieval of the Old Testament in the Catholic Church today. I think sometimes when Christians talk of retrieving the Tradition, we don’t go back far enough. The paper also highlighted what the Catholic tradition can learn from other Christian churches, such as the Church of the East, in its reception of the Old Testament.
John Martens: I presented on “Catholic Hermeneutics of the New Testament” and I think the paper was warmly received. The issue that arose in discussion was how to balance ancient spiritual methods for reading scripture, such as allegorical methods, with modern methods, that focus more on the historical context of the texts and which some people feel do not pay enough attention to the spiritual meaning of the biblical texts. I argue for a synthesis of historical readings with spiritual readings, but I am not convinced that allegory, especially as practiced in the past, is the way forward. I do not think allegory, as an example, can simply be retrieved as is, but that a new spiritual synthesis must speak to people and the needs of people today. For me, this means a way of using historical critical readings that also allow for a hermeneutic that hears the needs of people today. I am not certain that everyone agreed with my proposed synthesis, which I labelled a kind of “midrashic” technique, and I think my proposal still demands more work!
Michael Hollerich: I gave a paper summarizing my work on the reception of Eusebius’ church history. I presented it as an “ecumenical” document—the context for the conference was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation—and showed the many ways in which his book has played a role in what “ecumenical” can and has meant, both for the Church and for doctrine. Overall, one does not get a reassuring sense of how theology in the past has used a book like Eusebius’. My paper […] was different in approach from most of the other papers, being much longer on history than they were. I was pleased that people were strongly supportive of my project, even if they weren’t ready to make substantive suggestions about where to go with it.
Mark McInroy: How did you find the other papers that were presented? Were any of them particularly noteworthy to you?
Michael Hollerich: This was by and large a well prepared set of papers! […] I liked very much Adam de Ville’s opening paper on the possible need to forget aspects of the past, which provoked a lively conversation on what we do need to remember—and what might in fact well be forgotten. It was also impressively interdisciplinary. I also enjoyed George Demacopoulos’ paper on “hybridity” in Orthodoxy, which was, I thought, wise in its comments on the necessity of historical study. I also liked Nick Denysenko’s long paper on liturgical reform. Written from an Orthodox perspective, it was well informed about the Catholic experience as well. It provoked passionate discussion—everyone has strong views on liturgy and on liturgical change, and that was evident. Anne McGowan’s response was really excellent, contrasting what the experts have thought about worship with the experience of a fictional “Mrs. Murphy” and her experience in the pews.
Paul Niskanen: The most interesting to me personally (given that I am a Scripture scholar) was the paper by my colleague John Martens on Catholic Hermeneutics of the New Testament. John has a gift for clarity and insight such that I frequently find myself saying whenever I read his work: “I wish I had said that.”
John Martens: I truly enjoyed all of the papers I heard, though I appreciated George Demacopoulos’s “Every Tradition is Hybrid.” I also really enjoyed the panel discussion at the end of the conference with Jenny Martin, Darren Sarisky, and Will Cohen.
Erika Kidd: One particularly noteworthy paper was given by Boyd Coolman of Boston College titled “Ongoing Re-Narration: A Catholic Practice of Historical Theology.” In that paper, he proposed the metaphor of a narrative spiral as an image for the practice of Catholic theology. He argued that Catholic theologians should again and again seek to re-narrate the whole of the Christian story, rather than leapfrogging across time and history to a few favored thinkers. The metaphor of a spiral—which connotes both progress and continuity—was a powerful and fresh way of thinking about how one might read the Christian tradition. Mark McInroy’s paper on deification language in Newman was another standout for its careful attention to the question of whether Newman’s use of that language brought him into substantial contact with Orthodox writings about theosis.
Mark McInroy: In addition to the formal giving of papers, this conference had a number of opportunities for informal mingling at dinners and other social events. How would you characterize that portion of the conference? What did it add to the gathering?
Paul Niskanen: It was a great opportunity not only to continue the conversations in a comfortable setting, but also to get to know some of the other participants better. […] I found the dinners and social events a welcome way to enter a broader discussion that I might otherwise avoid.
John Martens: The social portions of the conference are in many ways the highlight of conferences because one is able to speak with so many great minds, people who do not necessarily work in one’s own area of study. I especially appreciated learning from the older (those near the end of their careers) and younger scholars (those at the beginning of their careers), who both bring necessary perspectives of what was and what is to come in theology and philosophy. It was especially nice to have an ecumenical conference, with Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic scholars mingling and bringing a variety of viewpoints to bear.
Michael Hollerich: The sociability was outstanding, helped by excellent food and drink. […] The evening get-togethers were enjoyable and valuable, as was the boat outing.
Mark McInroy: What kinds of things did the participants say about the conference? How was the conference as a whole discussed by those who took part?
John Martens: People loved the conference. I know that I felt it was one of the most fruitful conferences I have ever attended, since it was small, but also diverse and large enough to have many different viewpoints. This was shared by all of the participants with whom I spoke.
Erika Kidd: People were extremely complimentary about the conference. I overheard one participant say it was clear the participating scholars had really brought their “A-Game” (i.e., their very best work).
Paul Niskanen: I heard nothing but good things. Circulating the papers ahead of time and having a designated respondent start the discussion was mentioned as an efficient modus operandi. I would agree. Usually at conferences, I am worn out after sitting through just a few papers. Here I never hit the wall, in spite of the large number of papers discussed.
Mark McInroy: Among the most interesting themes the conference explored concerns the relationship between retrieval and tradition. Although retrieving the past is often viewed as an inherently “conservative” enterprise, conference speakers demonstrated that retrieval frequently functions to overturn established theologies. In particular, retrieving the distant past often exposes the fact that supposedly “traditional” ways of thinking are in fact relatively recent developments. What we might call “deeply traditional” theologies often stand in considerable tension with those outlooks that would preserve the theology of only the previous generation or two. In this regard, the exercise of retrieving the past not only allows one to develop a more comprehensive, authentic view of tradition; it also offers resources for renewing and revitalizing contemporary theology.