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Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions

Jay D. Green
Published by Baylor University Press in 2015

Reviewed by Paul E. Michelson, History, Huntington University

This important and timely new book was written with the purpose of describing and evaluating the evolution of recent Christian historiography, that is, “history done by self- consciously Christian historians (often in self-consciously Christian ways)” (165). Jay D. Green, professor of history at Covenant College and president-elect of the Conference on Faith and History, does this through the elaboration of a typology for Christian history which he uses to discuss the nature and shape of contemporary Christian historiography.

The book begins with an introduction that frankly recognizes that “No stable meaning has ever attached itself to the idea of ‘Christian history’’’ (1). Indeed, Green is “convinced that there really can be no such thing as a single or definitive Christian understanding of history” (1, italics in original). Why? Because “Christianity can never be reduced to just one of its many dimensions” (1). Secondly, he stresses that his endeavor “is not an attempt to produce a Christian philosophy (or theology) of history,” thus avoiding an unfortunate error made by so many in the past (2). Thirdly, Green makes it clear that his typology is not one of competing schools or philosophies, but rather of versions or “dominant pathways,” that is, “the varied ways that faith is exercised, reflected, or demonstrated amid efforts to reconstruct the past” (2). In fact, he emphasizes, the frontiers between these versions are not absolute, but “regularly and inevitably permeable” (3).

The first chapter deals with “Historical Study That Takes Religion Seriously,” currently the predominant pathway, according to the author, since Christian historians are most numerous in scholarship dealing with specifically religious topics, possibly for understandably autobiographical reasons. The advantages of such empathy, however, do not give Christian historians “special powers or grant them access to secret methods unavailable to nonbelievers, nor does it make them better (or worse) historians” (35).

Christian historians have had heavy sledding since the dawn of the modern historical profession in the eighteenth century because of the predominance of dogmatic historical naturalism, methodological skepticism, and secular reductionism which treat religion as psychological or socio-economic epiphenomena. The wake-up call of World War II and a “splintering” of the secular historical consensus allowed faith-informed people to enter the scholarly dialogue. When, in 1967, the Conference on Faith and History was founded with its journal Fides et Historia, the stage was set for a good deal of subsequent academic historical work taking religion seriously.

The second version of Christian history, “Historical Study through the Lens of Christian Faith Commitments,” is the integrationist or worldview approach which “sees the Christian faith as a unique interpretive framework through which believing historians see reality and make sense of the past” (37). This is, of course, a staple of Christian colleges and universities under the banner of integrating faith and learning. Key to this initiative were historians largely associated with the Conference on Faith and History, such as C. T. McIntire, Ron Wells, George Marsden, and Mark Noll, who developed a Reformed epistemology, translated their ideas into first-rate scholarship, and called for what Marsden identified as The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.

Marsden is a model for many, maintaining “a judicious balance between the demands of traditional Christian conviction and those of traditional scholarship” (55). In the end, for Marsden and the integrationists, Christian and non-Christian historians see the same things, but do not see the same patterns or meanings, because they have different background or control beliefs. Thus, the Christian historian can play by the rules of the game while not caving in to secular presuppositions. This sparked responses from all sides, and some of the most interesting parts of Green’s study carefully delineate the debate over the “Marsden settlement.”

The question remains why the work of Christian historians is not as evidently Christian in the same way in which the work of Marxist historians is observably Marxist. Green believes that the polemic directed against the integrationist approach demonstrates the importance of its “very sophisticated thinking about faith-oriented historiography,” and concludes that Marsden’s “contributions will continue to serve as a starting point for at least another generation of Christian historians” thanks to his skill in dealing with “the perilous challenges presented by two often combative worlds, and doing so with an admirable degree of grace and diplomacy” (65).

The three remaining chapters focus on more traditional pathways, what Green calls, respectively, “Historical Study as Applied Christian Ethics,” “Historical Study as Christian Apologetics,” and “Historical Study as Search for God.” The first goes back practically to the beginning and treats “the past as a kind of moral tutor brimming with both good and bad archetypes of how to govern, make war, conduct business, and lead a life of honor” (67). Such works were part history and part sermon, and the Rankean Revolution generally brought an end to that with its emphasis on objectivity. The “noble dream” of objectivity was, in turn, rather short lived as progressive historiography, the search for a useable past, and the linguistic turn all but obliterated the idea of objectivity. Value-laden Christian history thrived both on the left (Dick Pierard, long-time secretary-treasurer of the Conference on Faith and History; Don Dayton; and the work of those demythologizing American history are examples) and on the right (David Barton is the most prominent).

More recently, this vision has moved into “history as moral inquiry.” Christian Historiography discusses the work of social justice Catholics (such as Eugene McCarraher), adherents of “Lived Theology” (such as Charles Marsh), and open advocates of moral history (such as Harry S. Stout), all of whom shift the emphasis away from questions of epistemology and judging the past to concern for the present. Green thinks there may be an unavoidable place for “careful and nuanced moral inquiry” and moral discernment, but that Christian historians must be “vigilant in understanding the challenges and potential pitfalls” (96-97).

Chapter 4 deals with history that primarily aspires “to demonstrate the truth claims of the faith in its presentation of the past” through proving the historicity of Christianity or showing the efficacious impact of Christianity in the past (99, italics in original). The problems with this approach are manifold, according to Green. Its instrumentalism and presuppositionalism usually promote a source mining methodology that does violence to history as it happened, and its special pleading simplifies the inevitable complexities of history to defend a thesis. In addition, where this becomes Christian exceptionalism, it contributes a good deal to calling into question Christian history generally.

The final version of Christian history is providential history, the search for God’s hand in history. Paradoxically, this is both “the default setting for Christian thinking about the past among ordinary believers” and “the least commonly employed version of Christian historiography among believing historians who are professionally trained” (125, italics in original). Green passes in review some of the most-widely circulated contemporary versions of the applied search for God’s plan in history, such as Peter Marshall and David Manuel, whose agenda is part of a conservative insurgency in an apocalyptic culture war; Phillip G. Kayser, who stresses that providential history and traditional, academic history are completely incompatible; and Stephen Keillor, who “explicitly rejects all worldview-oriented approaches to historical study—because Christianity is an interpretation of history,” and a providential one to boot (136).

The author concludes with a thorough discussion of the defects of providentialism as a historical method. Though providential history is common in the Bible, the obvious question, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, is whether this can be done apart from divine revelation. In the final analysis, “providentialism is arguably not a method of doing history at all” (146).

The book concludes with a brief, but compelling essay dealing with “Historical Study as Christian Vocation.” This takes advantage of recent work (most fruitfully that of Mark Schwehn) done on the concept of vocation as a way of viewing how Christians could conceptualize their work that does not force them into the quasi-Reformed integration of faith and learning paradigm. Green summarizes the relevant ideas and cogently discusses their application to Christian historiography. He forcefully concludes that the Christian historian is not limited, biased, or handicapped by a Christian commitment, but, rather, has “the freedom to practice history unreservedly, fully at rest with God and herself” (163). This chapter should be priority reading for historian and non-historian Christian scholars alike.

This is an essential book, well done. The work is sensibly organized, well written, and accessible—erudite without being oppressive. Anyone who is even slightly interested in Christian history will profit from reading this book, ranging from beginning students of history to the history buff to the professional historian to the general reader interested in ideas and/or theology.

Christian Historiography is also well edited, though a little too much of its substance is relegated to the endnotes. This does not impact the arguments, but does run the risk of valuable commentary being lost on readers who think notes are principally for documentation. In addition, the author’s interest in “history done self-consciously by Christian historians” (170) might have led him to say more about the work of Christian historians who are not doing religious history or who are working outside of Anglo-American-Canadian circles (such as the late Ogbu Kalu).

Professor Green’s book appears at exactly the right moment for Christian historiography. His nuanced and comprehensive historical account of how faith has mattered in the work of contemporary Christian historians, as well as his useful typology for examining and furthering that work, will play a role in helping Christian history move forward into the future.

Cite this article
Paul E. Michelson, “Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:3 , 294-297

Paul E. Michelson

Huntington University
Paul E. Michaelson is a Distinguished Professor of History at Huntington University and President of the Society of Romanian Studies.