The Link: Christian History Today
C.S. Lewis wrote, “History is a story written by the finger of God.” But can we spot God’s fingerprints?
Christian historians who answer “yes” fit broadly under the heading “providentialist.” Those who aren’t so sure frequently wear the label “ordinary.” This is far from the only issue being debated in Christian historical circles, but it is a flashpoint. Christian History wanted to see what light the sparks from this debate might shed on the church’s historical tradition—from Eusebius to the present.
First, we spoke with George Marsden, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He works primarily as an ordinary historian, playing by the rules prescribed by the mainstream academy.
Next, we spoke with John Woodbridge, research professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and a corresponding editor of Christianity Today. A providentialist, he believes that Christian historians should question scholarly conventions and at least try to identify God’s work in history. Welcome to the discussion.
Christian History: How does a Christian scholar approach history differently than a non-Christian? Will a Christian historian’s convictions be apparent to the reader?
George Marsden: You can be either explicit or implicit about it. The topics you choose, the questions you ask about them, interpretive theories that you adopt, your evaluative standards, and so forth may all be shaped by your Christianity, but you might or might not say that in any explicit way.
When Herbert Butterfield wrote about the scientific revolution, to my knowledge he didn’t say, “I'm doing this as a Christian historian.” The kinds of questions he asks, however, are informed by, among other things, his Christian perspective.
Your faith isn’t the only thing that shapes your work. You’re trying to uncover the facts of what happened, and many of your perspectives will be shared by other observers. As I am shaped by being a Christian, I am also shaped by being a white American male of a certain era and social class and certain political opinions. Those sorts of things shape my approach to history and make my history, in many respects, like history written by other people who share those traits and moral standards.
When you’re dealing with matters of fact, your interpretive perspective might not show through. But in other respects, it can make a big difference.
For instance, when I wrote about the history of religion in American universities, I was asking the question, Why did religion, which once had such a prominent place in American universities, lose that place? That question wasn’t asked in that way very often before, because most historians just saw the shift as an inevitable part of progress—they assumed, “of course religious sectarianism would wither away as more professional sensibilities prevailed.” But as a Christian, I thought it was a problem.
When you’re applying specifically Christian sensibilities to a topic, and you know some people might not share those sensibilities, what do you do?
It depends on the audience. If I'm writing primarily for the church, or Christian History, then I can take certain points of view for granted. But if I'm writing for a university press and trying to address a wide audience, then I'm constantly thinking, Here are my several audiences. What do they need to know? What do they care about? How can I present what I'm doing so they’ll understand it?
To the secularist I'm trying to say, “Take the religious side seriously.” To religious people, I'm often trying to say, “Even great religious thinkers have their flaws.”
I typically try to identify my own perspective. I've written in most of my books, “This is my perspective and you should know about it, and you can discount it if you care to. But I'm not pretending to write as a neutral observer.”
One way to address several audiences is to be critical as well as sympathetic of one’s own tradition. I see the calling of a Christian historian, with respect to serving the church, as trying to help Christians see how the culture has shaped their understanding of the Christian heritage. And that inevitably involves some criticism of things that Christians may have taken for granted, or things that they take to be eternal truths but that the historian may expose as cultural creations.
If you do that honestly, I think it opens what you do to a more secular audience as well, because they appreciate that you’re investigating a religious heritage and not just celebrating it.
Partisan history often turns people off because the writer is seen as completely uncritical of whatever group he represents and critical of everybody else. Christian historians, particularly, should be willing to see the flaws in their tradition.
We can overdo that, of course, and can write history in a way that undermines the beliefs of ordinary Christians. We have to balance criticism with the positive.
Are miracles a big sticking point for Christian historians who write for a broad audience?
Miracle stories raise some hard questions. You want to acknowledge that miracles can happen, but then, in particular cases, what if you think they didn’t happen? What if you’re writing about Jim and Tammy Bakker?
You ought to make some distinction between how you treat miracle stories that you find credible and those about which you find some evidence of deception. So I think it is appropriate to be critical of certain religious claims to miracles.
I can’t articulate exactly what the rule should be, because it depends on whether you’re writing about your own tradition or about somebody else’s tradition. You might be respectful of another person’s tradition because it would be indiscreet not to be. The general rule in the academy is not to criticize anyone’s story. You talk about their experience and leave it at that.
Many of the historians discussed in this issue also were uncritical of miracle stories, though for completely different reasons. What does a modern historian make of figures like Eusebius and Bede?
We still can learn from that kind of history. It’s a source concerning the faith of the church—the only source we have on some subjects.
If you have modern historical sensibilities, you might be suspicious of some of the claims made in the stories or realize that the stories are not complete records of what actually happened. Nonetheless, these are the best sources we have, and some of the material, such as martyr stories, can be very inspiring.
That said, there’s a big difference between writing church history as a cleric, in the era before there were professional historians, and being a professional historian today who is a Christian.
If you’re a professional historian, you’re trying to analyze historical development in relationship to other observable things that happen in the culture. And that’s not at all the enterprise of the traditional church historian.
When Jonathan Edwards was writing history, he presented it from the perspective of how God is acting in history. He was doing theological history, not professional history as we currently define it. Those are really different enterprises, but they’re both good. Both could be done today.
At what point did “professional history” begin to affect the telling of Christian History?
I think maybe with Philip Schaff in the mid-1800s. At that point you’re dealing with someone who has some critical sensibilities and is going to the sources, and who also believes that God is working through the history of the church. But he’s not laying out a history in which God is the principal actor.
That’s where you get the break from those who, when writing history, are talking about how God is acting. In the Bible, history is written from that perspective.Here are God’s many works with the people of Israel, or Here’s what God was doing in the church. Christian writers continued that approach up through Jonathan Edwards, in the eighteenth century.
But by the nineteenth century, you’re getting historians who are looking at how people shape the church. They don’t specify exactly how God may be acting in history, even though they allow that God does. Instead they’re concentrating on how the church developed and what church leaders did.
So can a Christian scholar today responsibly say anything about God’s hand in history?
In the epilogue of my book on the history of fundamentalism, I raise the question of recognizing God’s actions. I quote Richard Lovelace, who said that writing Christian History is like talking about a football game in which half of the players are invisible. You know God is acting, but what you can write about is the human side of the story.
It seems to me that’s a helpful sensibility to have. Modern historians have the tools to do some interesting things, identifying how the human actors behaved and what forces were shaping them, but we have to be more reticent about naming God’s specific purposes.
Christian History: What does it mean to write Christian History?
John Woodbridge: non-Christians often write about the history of Christians. But if you mean by “Christian History” work that is shaped by Christian perspectives, that is a different kind of enterprise.
Those of us who are historians and also Christians must face questions like this: Will we have different presuppositions and do our work differently than secular scholars? If theological beliefs are not appreciated in the larger academic community, do we play by all of its rules? Does our Christianity inform what we research and write in a significant way?
Some very fine Christian historians function well in the secular community by doing “ordinary” history—giving explanations that are essentially horizontal. These historians would say, at the same time, that by the choice of their subject matter they are bringing their theological views to bear, and that by being scholars of integrity and by telling the truth, they’re also being Christian.
I can see legitimacy in that sort of work, as long as their ordinary history is “open.” “Closed” ordinary history denies the work of God in history and leads to naturalism, but “open” ordinary history leaves room for the work of God in people’s hearts. That’s perfectly appropriate.
We face a dilemma. Around 1860, when the professionalization of the historical discipline began to take place in Europe and the United States, issues of God’s providence, and the Incarnation as the center point of history, dropped out of most scholarly discourse.
If you were going to retain your status within the community of historians, you had to keep religious judgments out of your work. And so Christian historians have had to decide how to relate their deep, personal convictions to the present discussions.
What do secular historians, or Christian historians who choose to play by their rules, lack when it comes to writing about the church?
In molecular biology, Michael Behe talks about the “irreducible complexity” of nature-some cell functions require complex interactions that can’t be explained by evolutionary, step—by-step development.
I believe there’s an irreducible complexity of human experience. Many secular theories of explaining what you and I would think of as a work of God don’t have enough power to explain human experience. Are economic theories sufficient to explain why people are willing to become martyrs? Can a study of socio—economic factors account for the First Great Awakening?
If we, as Christian historians, are unwilling to talk about God at work in history, it’s very difficult for me to see in what way we are significantly different from secular historians. I think we need to question the prevailing naturalism of secular historians—the assumption that all things can be explained horizontally. If we accept that premise, then we’re going to have real difficulty explaining the Incarnation. And we’re not going to be especially helpful to Christian lay people listening in.
In the past, when historians have tried to move beyond the horizontal, they often have arrived at dubious conclusions. Eusebius is an example. How can finite humans write about the works of God?
Yes, the track record for this type of history is troubling. Biases of all kinds have entered in. But the bad illustrations are not a sufficient argument to suggest that Christian historians shouldn’t enter into discussion once again, to try to work together with biblical scholars and with other Christian historians to reconsider the issue of identifying God’s work in history.
Christian historians must know that the church’s tradition has been to see God at work in history. We’re biblically instructed to do so, and historians up to around 1860 did so! This new type of historiography, which limits everything to horizontal explanations, is a radical departure.
While appreciating advances in historical methodology, we can learn much from figures like Jonathan Edwards. In History of the Work of Redemption, Edwards says explicitly that God doesn’t leave us without some sense of what he’s doing in the world—we have criteria in Scripture for identifying God’s work in history.
We, as evangelical historians, need to reconsider how we do business. If we end up in a historical agnosticism, in which we can never talk about God at work, then we’re in a different world than the world of John Calvin or Martin Luther or John Wesley, who speak about God’s providence as something that can be discerned, at least in some circumstances.
Calvin says something like this: ignorance of providence is the greatest of all miseries, and the knowledge of it is the highest happiness. Well, if we’re Christian historians and we don’t want to talk about God’s providence, or we’re not allowed to, and we leave people in ignorance about it, we’re not being very helpful.
Can Christian historians in the mainstream academy be so bold in talking about providence?
I don’t embrace the radical distinction that some of my colleagues make between public and private views. Christianity happens to be a public religion. You can’t privatize it.
If I'm in a classroom at the University of Chicago, and someone asks, “What do you think history is?” I can’t say, “Well, I don’t know. Beats me.” Christian historians throughout the centuries have said that Jesus Christ is at the center of history, and that history is going somewhere. Now, do I say that publicly? I think I have to, if asked.
In order to have the best witness possible, we want to be winsome and irenic, but we need to be forthright about what we believe. We need to offer careful documentation and sound reasoning, especially if we make the claim that God was specifically involved in a historical event. All kinds of irresponsible claims have been put forth in the past, and it’s understandable that people are concerned about that. But that is not sufficient grounds to exclude talking about God in history.
We need careful reflection here. Like Bill Murray in What About Bob?—we’re taking baby steps toward addressing these matters.
What is at stake for Christian scholarship in this area?
If young, Christian professors accept the premise that bringing the divine to bear on a discipline will destroy their credibility as scholars, then that becomes the end game for their working out of a Christian world view.
Christian colleges and other Christian academic ventures need to get Bible scholars, theologians, historians, psychologists, and others working together. If we don’t start doing this, we could see the day when any work that references God will be disqualified as sectarian. The next generations will have a heavy burden because we did not question the naturalistic premises that undergird much contemporary scholarship.
Some historians are already beginning to ponder this. For too long, we have not been as explicit as we should have been about our Christian beliefs. And what would more explicitly Christian scholarship look like? I think it could be some of the finest scholarship around, because it could explain human experience better than purely materialist arguments can. CH
By the Editors
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #72 in 2001]
How accounting, Aristotle, and the first teachers’ unions transformed higher education.Matt Donnelly
Benedictines, Franciscans, and Dominicans all sought to live by high ideals, but only one order matched Thomas’s love for both spirituality and intellect.Steven Gertz
Theology on the Edge
When competing ideologies had fragmented Christian thought, Thomas forged a solution.J. David Lawrence
Thomas Aquinas: A Gallery of Scholastic Superstars
The white heat produced by these great minds lit up the High Middle Ages.Stephen E. Lahey
Subscribe to magazine
Subscription to Christian History magazine is on a donation basisSubscribe
Christian History Institute (CHI) is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation founded in 1982. Your donations support the continuation of this ministryDonate