In my Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals I give a number of reasons why I think retrieving the theology of the historic church is valuable in our culture right now. One that I don’t discuss, but have been thinking more about lately, is its role in apologetics and cultural dialogue. People tend to think of theological retrieval as primarily an academic interest, but I think it is useful in a wide variety of practical contexts, including apologetics. Here are two great examples of retrieval “at work.”
First, in his 2009 debate with Christopher Hitchens, which I have enjoyed watching many times, William Lane Craig argues that modern “creation science” is not necessary to affirm in order to receive the gospel. To make this point, he references the views of Augustine of Hippo, which he points out are useful because they precede scientific discovery of age by many centuries. In his words (from 55:45-56:20):
“Nor is this a retreat caused by modern science. St. Augustine in the A.D. 300’s in his commentary on Genesis pointed out that the days don’t need to be taken literally, nor need the creation be a few thousand years ago. Indeed, he suggested that God made the world with special potencies that would gradually unfold over time and develop. This interpretation came fifteen hundred years before Darwin, so that it is not a forced retreat in the face of modern science.”
Second, in his interaction with Bill Maher, Ross Douthat makes the same point, referencing early Christian views of the rapture as well as Genesis 1. In his words (from 2:30-3:13):
“The truth is, the idea that you take Genesis literally—as six literal days of creation—is pretty much a modern invention. Fundamentalism starts in the late 19th century. The idea of the rapture, where everybody is lifted our of their shoes, that’s an early 20th century innovation…. If you actually look at the first few books of Genesis, whoever wrote the Bible clearly didn’t mean to say, ‘this is a scientific account of creation,’ and actually serious Christians have known that all the way back the first century A.D.”
This is one of the benefits of theological retrieval—it can help us clarify to our non-Christian friends neighbors what the gospel does and does not require of them. Some of the difficulties our non-Christian neighbors have with accepting the gospel are more concerned with contemporary evangelical views than with historic Christianity. Bringing the historic witness of the church into visibility can thus help us foreground the gospel. Even if we personally affirm a recent creation and a secret rapture, it is helpful to not require such beliefs among those considering the claims of Christ.
By the way, for anyone interested, my book on Augustine’s doctrine of creation is releasing in June 2020. It engages Augustine’s views on creation days and a wide variety of other topics with similar interests to what Craig and Douthat are doing here.