How Can Christian Historians Do History for Both the Academy and the Church?

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In an earlier post I summarized the perspective of six Christian historians who offered their take on the place of providence in historical interpretations.

In this post I want to look at what this means for the actual writing of history by Christians who want their works to be read in a largely secular academy.

David Bebbington asks a practical question that confronts a Christian historian: “If he makes plain his religious commitment in his writing, will he not be excluding it from general notice and certainly from academic attention?” Bebbington states the situation frankly: “Historiography that draws attention to traces of providence is unacceptable to the world at large.”

Bebbington responds by reminding us of the rhetorical function of historiography. The historian writes not for himself but for a specific audience, and therefore, “His arguments have to be framed so as to persuade his audience of the validity of his case.” If what the historian writes is likely to be ignored outside of the community of faith, then perhaps “a providential framework should be more explicit in some pieces of writing than in others.”

Even when a piece of history has been shorn of specific Christian allusions, the Christian vision of history can still have shaped its composition. The task can be conceived from the beginning as an investigation of the historical process under God’s control although no reference is eventually made to his activity. The final version will still be entirely consistent with the Christian view of history. What is written will be a distinctively Christian product, but the Christian content will be implicit rather than explicit. If the same piece of history is needed for a Christian audience or to vindicate a Christian position, reference to providence can readily be restored. The Christian historian can discern God at work in the past without necessarily writing of him there. . . . [T]he Christian historian is not obliged to tell the whole truth as he sees it in every piece of historical writing.

Ian Clary, whose dissertation is on the historiography of pastor-historian Arnold Dallimore, cites a provocative biblical precedent along these lines:

If the author of Esther can write a history with only a veiled reference to YHWH, why should naturalist Christian historians be castigated for not mentioning the direct intervention of God in their historical narratives? Not only should Esther be seen as a biblical justification for professional historians writing for the academy, but it can also provide helpful tools for historians who do wish to subtly insert their theological convictions in their work. Just as the author to Esther directs his or her story along certain ironic lines leaving readers with the distinct implication that YHWH was working behind the scenes, so too can Christian historians write in such a way as to imply the presence of divine intervention. . . .

Bebbington himself takes a both-and approach to this issue, keeping his audiences in view: “There is sometimes a need for the providential framework of history to be portrayed without reserve. For the church, it provides the encouragement of knowing that hitherto the Lord has helped his people.”

Harry Stout’s approach is similar. He wants to follow Paul’s maxim to be “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22): “I am both a professional historian and a Christian historian, a dual practitioner sometimes emphasizing one or the other without ever wholly neglecting either.”

Andrew Atherstone reaches a similar conclusion: pastors and scholars can learn from one another, recognizing that their primary vocations are not the same:

The one is called to expound biblical truth; the other to examine historical evidence. Both are important. Both are to be valued. . . .

Let us not then dismiss either the ‘confessional’ or the ‘professional’ historian as lacking in critical rigour or spiritual vigour. The church needs both because they serve different functions in edification and witness to a watching world.

Both styles of writing history have their strengths and weaknesses as they address different audiences for different purposes:

We need providentialist history which explicitly sets out to encourage the Christian believer, to teach, exhort and challenge. . . . It is often the calling of pastors to write them. But we also need naturalist history which speaks to a wider audience, taking careful note of culture and context as well as doctrine and devotion.

In a final post next week I’ll suggest some qualifications and takeaways from this discussion for the task of responsible Christian historiography.

Sources

Andrew Atherstone, “Hagiography and History,” in Truth at Any Cost: Papers Read at the 2012 Westminster Conference (Stoke-on-Trent, England: Tentmaker Publications, 2013), 40-60.

David Bebbington, Patterns in History: A Christian Perspective on Historical Thought, reprint ed. (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Press, 1990), 172-186.

Harry S. Stout, “Biography as Battleground: The Competing Legacies of the Religious Historian,”Books & Culture 2 (July/August 1996): 9-10.

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