Blogs > Cliopatria > Christian Historians

Apr 30, 2004 3:58 pm

Christian Historians

Debate here and elsewhere on the intersection of faith and historical method led me to this fine article from 2001 in Christianity Today. It featured this terrific quotation from Mark Noll, who says what I have been trying to say in all of these debates for some time (but without much success):

Asked about the anti-supernaturalism of history, Noll made a distinction between what he called"ordinary" and"providential" history. Ordinary history, he said, limits itself to"evidence and causes and effects that almost everyone can be convinced might have taken place." While ordinary history might look quite secular, Noll sees it as fundamentally Christian in its presuppositions and worldview. He compared it to science. Christian scientists do their work with confidence because they believe that the world will make sense, and that God has made it possible for the human mind to understand the world. So with the historian."If I want to study the history of the American Revolution, I'm presupposing that something real took place, that the evidence left corresponds in some way to what really took place, that I'm intelligent enough to understand that evidence, that I'm able to put together a plausible explanation of cause and effect that might get us close to the truth," Noll said."All those enterprises I see as implicitly dependent on a Christian view of God."

Noll seemed to imply that ordinary history, while it depended on God, would never have much to say about God. For as soon as someone contended that God had acted in a particular way, the subject would be too contentious to hope for general agreement.

Noll and George Marsden are perhaps the best known evangelical historians; Marsden wrote the marvelous 1997 work The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. In 2000, he wrote about Christian history for the Atlantic Monthly. After asking why Christians are not afforded the same level of intellectual respectability as Marxist or feminist historians, Marsden argues:

...persons of religious faith should be free to express that faith in responsible ways within mainstream academic institutions that are public in the sense of serving a wide spectrum of the culture. At Harvard, for instance, there ought to be room for professors who are Orthodox Jews, traditionalist Christians, Muslims, etc., to relate their religious faiths to their teaching and scholarship, so long as they do not violate any essential rules of academia or of public life. The case is similar to that of scholars who are feminists, Marxists, etc. They should be free to openly relate their faiths to their scholarship, but they must do so in a way that respects the diversity of the community and especially of the student body. My point is that if such schools were more consistent in their affirmations of the value of diversity and of open truth-seeking, they would give religious scholars the same consideration as they give scholars from the other perspectives mentioned.

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Hugo Schwyzer - 5/1/2004

Notre Dame has been a splendid refuge for evangelicals (the great Anabaptist John Howard Yoder wrote and taught there).

You are right that these are huge issues -- and I will work, slowly, on developing a narrower post on the both Christian historiography, and perhaps another one on Christians and pluralism. I do disagree with the notion that there is no active discrimination against Christians in the academy; that's perhaps still another post altogether.

But not on a gorgeous Saturday.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/1/2004

No, not that kind of Christian Science, though we could open up an interesting discussion there, too.

I mean the idea that scientists rely on God as a source of order in the universe. If the various scriptures of the world tell us anything, they tell us that God likes to meddle and interfere, and physical reality is one of her favorite playthings. So any physical science that relies on God as a source of order must include the caveat "as long as God doesn't change anything." Physical scientists who rely on God as the source of their intelligence could well have their faith shaken when they turn out to be wrong (God wouldn't allow that, would she?).

Deists have an advantage over Christians, as they posit a God who created an ordered universe and left it untouched. Jews have a similar tradition, starting with rejecting the performance of miracles as proof of prophetic truth, and, in one famous rabbinic tale, rejecting God's intervention in a Torah study debate.

Ralph is also correct when he credits the Jewish chronicles with creating in the West the linear historical tradition (though I do wonder how much Zoroastrian eschatology played a role). We're used to Christians claiming our tradition as theirs, but usually they dress it up with "Judeo-Christian" (it's "Abrahamic", if they want to include Islam, though lots of times they don't) so we can all feel better.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/1/2004

In history, at least, the teleological view of history, the idea that time has an endpoint whose character is known in advance, is clearly unhelpful. Eschatology has no place in any field that I know of, frankly.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/30/2004

Hugo's post appears to discuss two different things: a) the claim that the doing of history is based on Christian assumptions (with which I have disagreed in part above; and b) an argument for a pluralism that willingly embraces varieties of religious commitments, as well as varieties of secular ideologies or identities. I'm not sure that it is helpful to attempt to deal with both issues in one post because both are pretty big issues. Having said that, it would be a difficult undertaking to convince the rest of society that Christian academics have been discriminated against to any significant degree. Perhaps they are at some time and in some places, but we are not so far removed from an assumption of a vaguely Protestant hegemony in American society that the evidence is overwhelmingly persuasive. It is interesting, however, that the two leading lights of the evangelical mafia quoted by Hugo are both at Notre Dame.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/30/2004

One of the "essential rules of academia" is certainly the careful distinction between falsifiable and non-falsifiable evidence, distinction between knowledge and faith, and the identification and application and refinement of heuristic systems of knowledge.

Christianity is not a system of knowledge, it is a system of faith, and it can't be properly applied to academic "truth-seeking" unless the evidence gathered in pursuit of that truth might, in some way, lead to heuristic modifications in Christian understanding.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/30/2004

You and I disagree about this, I think. I cannot see that there is anything in being either a Jew or a Christian which necessarily conditions how one does history differently -- even differently from how a thoroughly secular historian does. I can see how it _might_ differently condition a choice of subject, but not of method. I don't think that a Jewish, Christian or Muslim historian, operating within the canons of contemporary historical practice, will write _heilgeschicte_, which is I take it what Noll meant by "providential history."

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/30/2004

Well, when it comes to Providence, I'm not sure what the Islamic view of God's work in human affairs IS. It might in involve a very different understanding of history.

As for the Jewish and Christian views of history, of course there will be overlap in that both acknowledge a God who works through history to establish his relationship with his people. But who those people are is something about which Christians and Jews might differ- and thus their scholarship differ as well.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/30/2004

Given his own identity and the audience to which he spoke, it is understandable that Noll spoke of normal historical inquiry depending on "a Christian view of God." And, yet, it seems to me that what he says is needlessly provincial. How would it change his meaning if one said that normal historical inquiry depended on "a Jewish view of God"? In fact, I think that Noll's point would be more accurate if he had said the latter because it gives due credit to origins. What he does actually say might as accurately be put: normal historical inquiry depends on "a Muslim view of God."