The Christian As Historian

According to many historians of a secular bent, a Christian’s religious convictions should play little to no role in their work as a historian. In his book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden notes that the academy sees the “Christian historian” in much the same way they see the historian who happens to be a bridge player. It is just fine to be a Christian or a bridge player, but these “extracurricular” activities ought to have no role in your work as a historian.[1] Furthermore, historian Jay Green notes that within the academy there is a profound bent towards thoroughgoing “methodological naturalism” which tends to view religious phenomena skeptically, even dismissively.[2] Within such a thoroughly secularized milieu is there any “room” for the Christian historian to bring their faith convictions and their work together in a positive way? It is my contention that there is a way to accomplish this and I will attempt to sketch out very briefly what this might look like.

If we are to have an intellectually robust understanding of what it means to be both a Christian and a historian, a logical place to begin would be discussing the concept of historical study as a “vocation.” In his book, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions Jay Green notes that the term “vocation” comes from the Latin verb “vocare” which means “to call.”[3] Green suggests that the Christian historian can view their work in a spiritually richer way by realizing their work is not simply a means of providing for oneself, but rather a genuine, holy, and vital calling from God. Green further develops this line of thinking and suggests that perhaps one of the greatest blessings of the Reformation was the expansion of the concept of “vocation.” In the Medieval Catholic tradition, the concept of “vocation” or “calling” was closely tied to pursuing church related work while ordinary labor was often seen as morally neutral. The Reformers and their descendants eschewed this strong bifurcation between “holy” and merely “secular” work. To them, all work had “eternal and divinely appointed worth.”[4]

So, if all work (including historical work) has “worth” as 1 Corinthians 7:20 would seem to teach, what does it look like for a Christian historian to “live out” their “calling” in a way that brings God glory. Historian Douglas A. Sweeney sees the historian’s calling as essentially one of service to both their academic peers as well as their students.[5] Seeing their work in this light, the Christian historian should strive to be the best historian they can be. They should seek to serve their respective guilds by making healthy contributions to the field. They should do careful, balanced research that strives for objectivity, even if this is ultimately only an unattainable ideal.[6] The Christian historian must actively look for ways to serve their students, the church, and even the voices of the past. Christian historians should apply the golden rule to the historical sources they survey by interpreting them in the way we would want our words to be interpreted: In context and on their own terms.

Armed with a robust theology of vocation, the Christian historian can view their work in a more enriching and motivating light. They realize they there is a call on their lives to work for the betterment of society and to the glory of God. The Christian historian is uniquely motivated to search for the beautiful and true.[7] Can the historian working out of purely naturalistic and secular motivations boast of such an enriching and rewarding view of their work?

Now that we have established how the Christian historian’s motivations may differ from that of his more secularly inclined counterpart, we must explore whether the methodologies they espouse will look any different. On many points the Christian historian and their secularly inclined counterpart will probably espouse very similar methodologies. Both will display an appreciation for objectivity, careful and rigorous analysis of primary and relevant secondary sources, and (hopefully) modesty about their conclusions.[8]

However, the conclusion cannot be avoided that large swathes of the academy remain enamored with reductionist views of history that tend to rest on a deeply flawed “empiricist” epistemology.[9] This methodology insists that only things proven by observation can be considered factual. Historians of a Marxist bent have embraced such a method and have tended to boil down all religious phenomena to underlying issues of economics, class, and race.[10] Religion’s role in history has often been trivialized in modern historiography.

Within such a milieu, the Christian historian can offer a perspective that seeks to correct this “flattening” of the human experience. Fortunately, historians working in the recent past such as Kenneth Scott Latourette, Timothy L. Smith, George Marsden, and Mark Noll have offered such correctives in the largely secularized academy. These scholars, and many more, have sought to show that religion should be seen as the defining and vital force in people’s lives that it truly is. Quoting Catholic historian Philip Gleason, Jay Green suggests that religion has shaped history just as much and perhaps even more than “ethnicity, race, class, gender, or power.”[11] Thus, it could be argued that the Christian historian can take a broader, fuller, richer view of history that truly does justice to the complexity of the human experience. To ignore the effect religion has had on humanity in the past is to write truncated history.

Now, taking religion seriously in historical investigation is one thing, but can the Christian historian expand their method even further? Can the Christian historian posit divine causation or influence behind the events of history? Perhaps before we can answer such a question it would be wise to mark off what is almost certainly “out of bounds” methodologically for the serious Christian historian.

In his book Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, John Fea documents well the problems associated with writing so called “providential history.” This kind of history seeks to show definitively God’s “mind” and “will” behind history. This method has flourished amongst those who wish to prove that the United States was founded as a uniquely and explicitly Christian nation. Unfortunately, this methodology tends to distort the historical record in favor of its’ predetermined interpretive paradigm and presumes to know too much about the mind and will of God. Fea suggests that the Christian historian must practice restraint in their craft. When positing the divine will behind history they must season their conclusions with words such as “perhaps,” “maybe” or “might.”[12]

Nevertheless, many notable Christian academics believe that there is a responsible way to posit God’s “breaking into history” whilst avoiding the egregious errors of providential history. Historian Mark Noll has suggested enlisting the “missiologists” to help decipher God’s activity in the past.[13] Furthermore, C. Stephen Evans has convincingly argued that historical texts replete with miracle accounts should not a priori be dismissed as unreliable and without historical value.[14]

Christianity is fundamentally a historical religion; Thus, it is unsurprising that many Christian scholars have stepped up to defend its’ most central historical claims with the Resurrection of Jesus receiving focus.[15] Can the Christian historian legitimately seek to demonstrate the historical veracity of miracles? I believe they can if they are willing to jump into metaphysical discussions and demonstrate that belief in the possibility of miracles is at least as, if not more reasonable than saying that miracles demonstrably cannot occur as naturalism would have us believe. The Christian historian will need to be cautious when investigating the veracity of supernatural phenomena in history. Nevertheless, I believe that the Christian historian can investigate miracle claims responsibly. Furthermore, I believe we can affirm with Wolfhart Pannenberg that the Resurrection of Jesus, Christianity’s central miracle, has “good historical foundation.”[16]

In conclusion, the Christian historian can bring their faith convictions and their work together in a positive way. They may recognize that their work as historians is a “holy calling” imbued with eternal worth. Furthermore, they are uniquely positioned to take the phenomenon of religion in history seriously and thus achieve a broader and fuller understanding of the human experience. Finally, The Christian historian may be able to “glimpse” God’s working in history. However, exercising thoroughgoing caution in such investigations cannot be overstated.

Footnotes

[1] George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 20.

[2] Jay D. Green, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2015), 12-13.

[3] Ibid, 150.

[4] Ibid, 151-154.

[5] Douglas A. Sweeney, “On The Vocation Of Historians To The Priesthood of Believers: A Plea to Christians in the Academy,” in Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation, ed. John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 300.

[6] James E. Bradley and Richard A. Muller, Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016) 46-50.

[7] D.H. Williams, “Protestantism and the Vocation of Higher Education,” in Revisiting the Idea of Vocation: Theological Explorations, ed. John C. Haughey, S.J. (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 162.

[8] Bradley and Muller, Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources, 146-148.

[9] Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, 29-31.

[10] Green, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions, 12-17.

[11] Ibid, 33.

[12] John Fea, Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 64-84.

[13] Mark A. Noll, “The Potential of Missiology for the Crises of History,” in History and the Christian Historian, ed. Ronald A. Wells (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1998), 120-123.

[14] C. Stephen Evans, “Critical Historical Judgement and Biblical Faith,” in History and the Christian Historian, ed. Ronald A. Wells (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1998), 41-68.

[15] See Michael R. Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach

[16] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus-God and Man (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), 91.

Bibliography

Bradley, James E., and Richard A. Muller. Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016.

Fea, John., Jay Green, and Eric Miller. Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historians Vocation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010.

Fea, John. Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

Green, Jay D. Christian Historiography – Five Rival Versions. Baylor University Press, 2015.

Haughey, John C. Revisiting the Idea of Vocation Theological Explorations. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2012.

Marsden, George M. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977.

Wells, Ronald. History and the Christian Historian. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1998.