Let me start with the term theologian in historical theologian. Evagrios, though not a saint of the Church, did correctly note that a theologian is “he who prays rightly.” Theologians pray. They become spiritual fathers and leaders. They defend the faith. They build up the Body of Christ. Sometimes, they even heal people, feed people through miracles, and raise the dead. That is what theologians do when they “do theology.”
When combined with a contemporary, Western understanding of “theology,” which tends to mean treatises and reflections about God and Christianity, theology serves to articulate a vision of God, to uplift the faithful, to defend the faith, to express discernment, and to further a life of prayerful contemplation. This sort of theology does so making use of systematic, philosophical methods with contemporary concerns in mind (e.g., how does the Christian faith affect women and minorities?). Therefore, Orthodox theology in our current context is a movement from active prayer and contemplation and asceticism to intellectual apprehension and articulation of one’s spiritual experience(s).
What makes the historical theologian unique is that he or she does not concentrate only on the systematic and philosophical, but descends into the murkiness of the historical, for all that it implies, including overlap with anthropology, archaeology, and sociology. This assumes, of course, that the “historical theologian” brings his or her own experience and questions to historical studies. For this reason, an ascetic rigor of dispassionate openness to the historical evidence becomes paramount. Indeed, the historical theologian can only be faithful to the historical witness if he or she is able to maintain a healthy balance and dispassion in the face of his or her own theological experience and questions. Dispassion is a key factor here, but not in the sense of not caring, but in the sense of fighting the passions. The historical theologian must never allow an agenda to have a passionate hold on his or her own soul.
The basis for this understanding lies not so much in the historical distance between the Orthodox historical theologian and the people and events under study, but in the deifying or sanctifying distance that lies between the historical theologian and people and events in question. For God is the God of the living, and a cloud of witnesses surrounds and uplifts the historical theologian as he or she engages in prayer within an essentially structured community. In this experience, the difference in sanctification between a saint, or the witness of the fathers, and the historical theologian becomes all too obvious. Therefore, as a matter of humility, the Orthodox historical theologian seeks to learn from God’s presence in his saints throughout all the ages, and so remains open to the historical context rather than simply and anachronistically applying a contemporary and personal agenda.
The results of the historical investigation are then brought to bear upon the theological expressions at the systematic and philosophical level. In turn, these re-investigated expressions and understandings are applied to the realm of theology proper (prayer, discernment, and Christian action within the community).
“Historical theology,” therefore, denotes a circular process. It does not exist as an end in itself, but constantly evokes reflection and investigation on the part of the religious scholar. This process begins with an ascetic prayer life, expresses that experience through academic intellectual means, embraces and investigates history, and applies the results of historical inquiry to the academic intellectual expressions, which together shape prayer. As such, this circle is not a continual repeating of the same things, but the same process experienced anew each time. When done properly, historical theology becomes one small means by which we can circle the mind back up that downward spiral we have created since the first moment of Adam and Eve’s existence.