Many evangelicals are interested in the rich resources of the broader Christian tradition. Projects that convey this interest often receive the monikers ‘retrieval theologies’ or ‘projects in catholicity.’ In his published works, the eighth-century minister John Gill exhibited a surprising degree of theological retrieval. Gill engaged with numerous patristic texts first-hand, from Apostolic Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch to later eastern theologians such as Maximus the Confessor. Gill used this engagement to enrich both his Scriptural interpretation and theological construction. As his commentaries reveal, Gill intentionally interpreted the Scripture according to an early regula fidei, a rule of faith, developed by Irenaeus, Origen, and Augustine. When he constructed his systematic theology, Gill drew from doctrinal statements codified in early creeds and creatively appropriated those statements to his historical context. His work evidences a rich engagement with the Christian tradition—much richer than that found in many contemporary Protestant works—whilst simultaneously maintaining a commitment to Scripture’s unique authority. In this way, Gill serves as an exemplar for Protestants who wish to engage with the tradition meaningfully.
This presentation will survey Gill’s use of tradition in his Biblical interpretation and theological construction, attending to his use of the rule of faith in his published commentaries and creative engagement with creedal statements in his theology tracts. It will then place Gill’s work in conversation with recent Protestant calls for retrieval theology, contending that Gill serves as both a model and a word of caution. Gill’s writings provide an example of what a mature project of theological retrieval might look like, from commentary writing to systematic theology. His writings also provide a gentle corrective to some excesses present in contemporary conversations. In particular, Gill’s concern to appropriate the tradition carefully and in contextually relevant ways is one that modern advocates of retrieval theology have not always sufficiently considered.