Don’t Call it “Retro”: Retrieval Theologians are Looking Back to Move Forward

by Kevin J. Vanhoozer  | Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

There’s a word for describing the latest cultural fad of bringing back styles, fashions, or designs from the recent past: “retro.” Vinyl records are popular once again despite the superior digital technology. Retro restaurants stake their business on the appeal to a new generation of, say, self-consciously identifying with everything 1980s. As sociocultural commentators point out, however, such retro homage is “half-longing, half-ironic.”1

It is the nature of historical theology to be focused on the past (no surprise there). More noteworthy is systematic theologians returning to the past for inspiration. This comes as something of a surprise in a discipline that had for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries hitched its wagon to one or another modern philosophy or ism, be it existentialism, Marxism, feminism, process thought, or something else.

Modernity is anything but retro. Indeed, its basic posture toward the past is not irony but criticism. Modern theologians repudiated church-based theologies that preserved the received orthodoxies of the past and instead spent their energy restating and, if necessary, revising Christian doctrines in order to bring them into line with modern learning. Modern theology is all about being à la mode—current, up to date, and always dressed according to the latest conceptual fashion (“modernity” comes from the Latin modo—“just now”).2

To be “modern” in theology, then, is less a matter of dates or chronology than it is outlook. Modern theologians typically feel as if they have to do something to establish their epistemological bona fides before speaking of God. It is not enough to appeal to authority or tradition: Historically conscious modern theologians typically adopt new theories or conceptual schemes that enable them either to translate past doctrinal formulations into a contemporary idiom, or consign them to the ash heap of outmoded ideas.

Instead of revising traditional formulas, many systematic theologians are today retrieving them. How can we understand this astonishing about-face, and what does it mean to do theology in the mode of retrieval?

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Retrieval theologians treat pre-modern theology not as a problem to be solved (i.e., by modern methods) but as a resource to be gratefully received. If modern theologians look at past theology and say “out of date,” retrieval theologians look at modern theology and say “out of touch.” Modern thinkers claimed to have a superior mode of thinking about things, including God, thanks to critical methods that stay within the limits of reason alone. We now see that modernity itself has a history. It did not emerge, full-grown, from out of Kant’s head. There are other ways of telling the story of modernity than as a liberation from unwarranted speculation. Modernity’s vaunted ideals of universal rationality and individual autonomy had its own blind spots and dead ends.

John Webster, 1955-2016

The late John Webster, himself a retrieval theologian, put it this way: “[T]he insecurity of theology in modern intellectual culture has much to do with theology’s alienation from its own subject matter.”3 What scandalized many modern theologians was not simply the particularity of Jesus’ cross, but the priority pre-modern theologians accorded God’s self-revelation, as if human reason alone were not omnicompetent.

Theological retrieval is not simply “retro” theology. “Retrieval” names a way of doing theology “that looks back in order to move forward.”4 What motivates this return is not nostalgia (retrieval has more in common with reformation than repristination) but rather the conviction that past resources—especially those tried and true doctrinal insights that make up the Great Tradition or, like the solas, were the backbone of the Reformation—are precisely what we need in the present situation. This conviction (that classic sources outweigh contemporary norms) ultimately derives not from a pining for the past but rather from a biblically inspired confidence that the Spirit, not newfangled methods or ideologies, has indeed been leading the church into truth.

Retrieval theology is an example of what John Webster calls “theological” theology—namely, the conviction that Christian theology will be most vigorous and will flourish as a discipline insofar as it simply is itself, displaying sufficient confidence to deploy its own resources, rather than feeling as though it were obliged constantly to borrow materials from other disciplines and to conform to the standards that apply in cognate fields of study.5

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The best place to see retrieval theology at work is biblical interpretation. The modern methods of biblical criticism that had dominated the academic study of the Bible needed a shot in the arm in order to be edifying to the church. Roman Catholics at Vatican II, led by Henri de Lubac, championed ­ressourcement, a return to the way in which the church fathers read the Bible for the sake of revitalizing the present. More recently, Protestants too have been busy retrieving not only the church fathers, but the Reformers and their successors.6

Retrieval may seem like old hat, but in truth it is headline news: After two centuries and more, theology has cast off the shackles of modernity and recovered its orthodox nerve. No longer bowing the knee to some other disciplines’ requirements for intelligibility (not Mother but “Modern may we?”), theologies of retrieval are once again proclaiming the indicatives of the faith. Retrieval theology is not retro. There is nothing ironic about reclaiming the rich Trinitarian treasury, much less the gospel, that is the heritage of the Fathers and Reformers respectively. Retrieval theology is serious work and serious joy.


Kevin J. Vanhoozer (PhD, Cambridge University) is research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He previously taught at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of the award-winning Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. His current project is a book on interpreting Scripture theologically, provisionally titled Mere Hermeneutics.


*This article first appeared in Didaktikos, the Journal of Theological Education. Didaktikos is a professor-to-professor journal that covers important advances in theological education in a user-friendly format. Subscriptions to Didaktikos are free for educators in theological education, who will also receive a 20% discount on Logos Bible Software.


  1. See Elizabeth E. Guffey, Retro: The Culture of Revival (London: Reaktion Books, 2006).
  2. See Bruce L. McCormack, “On ‘Modernity’ as a Theological Concept,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 1–19.
  3. John B. Webster, “Theologies of Retrieval,” in John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 586.
  4. W. David Buschart and Kent D. Eilers, Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015), 12.
  5. Darren Sarisky, “Theological Theology,” in R. David Nelson, Darren Sarisky, and Justin Stratis, eds., Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster (London and New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 1.
  6. See, in particular, Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015) and my own Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016).
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Didaktikos is a vocational journal for professors who teach in biblical studies, theology, and related disciplines—particularly at the graduate level and in service to the church. Didaktikos is published four times a year.

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