"Theology as Retrieval" by W. David Buschart and Kent D. Eilers. A Review

Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the ChurchTheology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church by W David Buschart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Much of the early Reformation theologians and pastors followed a trail that had been cut out before their day; ad fontes (to the sources). It wasn’t just a hip renaissance slogan, but had been pursued by earlier generations, with sometimes more and sometimes less reliability. The sources that were returned to were the church’s pastors and theologians from bygone eras. The goal was to look back for the sake of the church’s present and the direction of the church’s future. This procedure now has a name: retrieval. W. David Buschart, associate dean and professor of theology and historical studies at Denver Seminary, and Kent D. Eilers, associate professor of theology at Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, have pulled together a fine work to help guide in this process, “Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church.” Their 319 page paperback is a book written by theologians that will be enjoyed by theologians and the theologically trained. The authors repeatedly remind their readers that retrieval “entails the church of yesterday helping the church of today to think, speak and act rightly” (32), and those who pursue it are “attending to the past as they respond to the needs of the present. In one way or the other, each looks back to move forward” (257).

“Theology as Retrieval” examines three broad areas where the method of retrieval is being worked out: “formal matters—Scripture and the task of theology; the inner life—worship and spirituality; and the outreach of the church—mission and presence in the world” (39). In each of the subcategories the authors engage with those who are focused on practicing retrieval in a given topic. The purpose is not to create a rigid template for doing retrieval, but to “uncover 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” (14). With regard to Scripture, Buschart and Eilers look into John Webster, Kevin Vanhoozer, Matthew Levering, Darren Sarisky, in addition to R.R. Reno and J. Todd Billings as they practice various versions of Theological Interpretation of Scripture. Likewise, when addressing theology for the Christian life and life in the Trinity, the authors examine Ellen Charry, Matthew Boulton, Hans Boersma, Fred Sanders and Douglas Fairbairn. Then they move on to consider worship, and worship architecture, with Robert Webber, Shane Clairborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Enuma Okora and others, while reviewing four case studies of retrieval in worship. Next, the subject of spirituality brings the reader to hear from a host of authors, including Bruce Demarest, Glen Scorgie, Richard Foster and Gayle Beebe, and to explore Tom Schwanda’s “Soul Recreation” and Gary Neal Hansen’s “Kneeling with Giants.” Next comes mission, and specifically, five expressions of the new monasticism, listening to Scott Bessenecker, Michel Casey, Dennis Okholm, Benet Tveldten, Aaron Milavec, Andy Freeman, Peter Grieg, Jonathan Wilson-Hardgrove and Etienne Wenger. Lastly, Buschart and Eilers tackle the cosmos – “the entire created realm in its relation to God and all the varied  instances of meaning-making that spring from embodied human life” (222) – with a concentrated gaze on the way Radical Orthodoxy, and especially John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock play tradition like a jazz improvisation.

After scrutinizing the numerous authors who are employing retrieval in specific theological loci, “Theology as Retrieval” concludes with some lessons learned. First, retrieval is motivated because of the corrosive effects of modernity on genuine Christian faith and practice and the perceived inadequacies in current resources (258-9). Next, history is viewed as an arena of divine action, which means that there are resources in our Christian past that can be recruited to aid the Christian present (259-60). This leads to the confident conclusion that the specific language and “conceptual resources” that the church formulated throughout the millennia deserve, at the very least, respectful and thoughtful regard (260-2). Subsequently, those who inhabit retrieval seek to perform theology by being shaped, coached, guided and sustained from the life, liturgy and multigenerational and ecumenical intercommunity of the church (262-6). Finally, practitioners of retrieval recognize the continuity and discontinuity between the Christian past, present and into the future (266-9)

“Theology as Retrieval” works from the premise that “theology always begins in the middle” (278). Wherever we are in the timeline of God’s story, we need the aid of the past to reinforce our confidence in the Faith, release us from our modern captivities, and re-center us on the liberating Gospel of Christ in the present, so that we can profitably pilot a course through the prospective future. Though this is a seminary level resource, the material will benefit most thoughtful readers. It is a book worth purchasing and reading!

My thanks to IVP Academic and InterVarsity Press for the free copy of “Theology as Retrieval’ used for this review.

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