Something Lewis Ayres said about historiography came through clearly for me yesterday. I was having a discussion about Justin Martyr and someone mentioned the Logos Christology. I’m not an expert and don’t know too much about that. But I know something about Justin, and I don’t think his real contribution is the Logos Christology, though perhaps it is. The situation did make clear to me what Ayres had said.
When we study these figures we tend to ask what their contribution was, and implied in that question is a standard against which to measure the contribution. But what supplies the implied standard? We are studying figures in church history so we reach for our systematic theology. We evaluate them in terms of our developed systematic theology, is what Ayers pointed out. There is nothing wrong with asking what someone contributes, but Ayres objects to using systematic theology to measure them. That is not to say that systematic theology doesn’t have its place, nor that I am against it. But this is not its proper use.
This is how one can see why Ayres objects: let us take up the measure, let us pick Calvin’s Institutes—I hear it is wholesome, good doctrine and I accept that. I then go to Justin and ask him what exactly he brings toward the finished product of Calvin’s Institutes. You see the absurdity of the question for Justin. There is a lot of terminology, lots of assumptions, many arguments that Justin cannot possibly take into consideration. Even to deal with Justin in terms of the Trinitarian controversy of the fourth century, 150 years away, is to ask too much of him. He cannot possibly anticipate it, let alone consciously contribute toward it. It is the wrong way to evaluate what he was doing: a standard that sets can even set aside conscious personal agency.
But that’s what we often do. We evaluate figures in Church History in terms of a standard that is ours, as pieces on the way to us of theology as it develops through historical forces. Whig theory of history. So, what’s the alternative? You can ask what the person contributes, but first you have to do what John Lukacs says: (1) what is his situation, (2) what did he perceive his situation to be, and (3) what was he therefore doing? On those terms you can answer the question, what did he accomplish.