Theology and "The Promise of Hope," with Christine Helmer

Long-time readers will know that those of us here at DET have a tendency post on the subject of theology. You know, from time to time.

And sometimes those posts take a step back and reflect on what exactly theology is, how to best explain it, and so on. It’s sort of like that scene in the movie, Office Space: “What would you say…you do here?”

So, for instance, a quick perusal of the blog yielded these relevant results:

Now I’m circling back to one name that’s already on that list – Christine Helmer. In her new book, How Luther Became the Reformer (2019), she pauses to reflect on the discipline of theology in the midst of some rather fascinating historiographical analysis. She pauses for these reflections in order to connect the dots between the different modes of analysis that she employs in the book – the historiographical, which I mentioned, and the theological. And, more specifically, she wants to clarify what it is that theological analysis adds to the equation, what it’s good at and – therefore – what it’s good for.

So I’d like to quote her at some length along with the very firm recommendation that you go out and get yourself a copy of her book. Her analysis of contemporary modernity on the basis of how Luther’s biography was shaped by the German Luther Renaissance in the early 20th century is not only fascinating but helpful. At least in my humble opinion. But now, on to the text. As usual, any italics are from the author and bold is mine.

Theology is a discipline that investigates the underlying structure of stories. A theologian analyzes linguistic expressions in a number of directions: how linguistic expressions are related to reality, whether historically or semantically construed, is one area of interest. Another concerns the kind of logic that informs idiosyncratic expressions and the philosophical commitments presupposed. Theological analysis further involves considering historical aspects of a person’s work, such as the historical occasion within which someone expresses an idea in language. Theology is also the study of doctrinal claims in historical relation to preceding claims and in logical relations among doctrines. (p. 96)



Theological terms are particularly suited to naming realities that are denied, superseded, and marginalized by complacent narrative alternatives, but that in the long run do indeed exist. The reality of evil and God, the human condition, and God’s creation of intersubjectivity of all kinds—these are the truths with which the theologian is preoccupied. These are the realities challenging, threatening, encouraging, supporting, and undermining human life. As such their identification and analysis is important work and holds the promise of hope, rather than the shallow comforts of optimism and reassurances, when there might not be any. While theology is admitted a discipline rife with debate and controversy, it possesses tools tested through centuries of philosophical rigor and historical change to orient contemporary discussions of truth and reality. Theology’s tools have been honed through a tradition of explication, definition, and conceptualization, so that they can more accurately point to the realities that make us who we are and who we may yet be. They are still capable of identifying evil and injustice, God and hope, in the ways demanded by the contemporary world. (p. 124)

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