Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions

Written by Jay D. Green Reviewed By Ian Clary

As the title indicates, Jay Green’s latest offering evaluates “five rival versions” of Christian history, with a chapter for each, an introduction, and a helpful conclusion. Each chapter surveys one of the five outlined versions, points to its usefulness, and offers substantive criticism. Green indicates that the book is not about a “Christian philosophy (or theology) of history,” nor is he trying to determine its “theological meaning.” Rather, Green provides readers with a survey of “various ways that formal and informal Christian historiography might be considered Christian” (p. 2). 

In his opening chapter Green deals with historical study that “takes religion seriously.” With the growth of 20th century secularism, religion had become a focus of study, dissected at the hands of biblical criticism and comparative religion, but religion didn’t permeate other disciplines. In history, studies of the past disregarded religious factors, looking to social forces like economics or politics as clues for meaning. Eventually, due to totalitarianism in the 20th century, many turned to religion for its “humanizing and civilizing power.” Whether believer or not, scholars started to empathize with the religion of their subjects (p. 18). This, coupled with the frustration of many Christian historians who felt that their faith was not taken seriously, contributed to the founding of the Conference on Faith and History in 1959 (or 1967, depending on how you read its past). 

Chapter two, on historical study “through the lens of faith commitments,” is related to the first. The difference is that whereas non-believers can take religion seriously, they cannot interpret the past according to a religious worldview. This “integrationist” approach—standard at many Christian educational institutions—“sees Christian faith as a unique interpretive framework through which believing historians see reality and make sense of the past” (p. 37). Debates along these lines were concerned with the possibility of “objectivity.” 

Here, Green focuses on the legacies of two significant church historians: Mark Noll and George Marsden (p. 50). Noll urges Christian historians to “speak in and to the profession” while “speaking in and to the church” (p. 51, emphasis his). Marsden provides a systematic body of work on the integration of faith and history, including numerous essays, and his book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Marsden balances the worldview thinking he learned at Westminster Seminary with the Common Sense of the philosopher Thomas Reid. In response, Green surveys criticisms of the integrationist approach by historians like Bruce Kuklick who argue that there is no “Christian” approach to anything. 

Chapter three looks at Christian history as a branch of moral philosophy, where lessons from great leaders of the past develop into a Christian ethic. Though history as moral philosophy was resisted by the historicism of scholars like Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), it was revived when this scientific approach underwent a crisis with the “return of value-laden history” (p. 71). Progressives sought a usable past based on identity politics, whereas conservatives cast moral judgments on the past in order to uphold and preserve treasured traditions. For instance, Howard Zinn, a historian of the Left, used history to “speak truth to power” (p. 73). On the Right, David Barton advances the notion that American Founders like Jefferson were Christians (p. 83).

A common historical approach is dealt with in the fourth chapter on historical study as “Christian apologetic”—an evidentialist use of history that validates the claims of faith. Because Christianity is historical, it is possible to confirm the historicity of the Bible and its teaching, such as the resurrection. Evangelical historians attempt to “reintegrate the ‘Jesus of history’ with the ‘Christ of faith,’” which stands in contrast to the “demythologization” of the historical Jesus in the writings of Rudolf Bultmann (p. 100). This method is used in ways broader than just proving the truthfulness of Christian Scripture; other historians have used history to prove Christianity’s triumph in terms of the development of Western civilization. Notable historians-as-apologists include Edwin Yamauchi and John Warwick Montgomery. Another good example is Stephen Keillor, whose work in American history from a Christian perspective defies categorization, and whose balance between good scholarship and faith commitments Green appreciates, even if he doesn’t wholly agree. Green advises that others, like Francis Schaeffer, should be studied with more care. While not a trained historian, Schaeffer’s sweeping judgments about the past often didn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s curious that N. T. Wright, the leading scholar of the modern quest for the historical Jesus, isn’t considered.

The final version of Christian historiography deals with what Green calls “historical study as search for God,” sometimes called “providentialism.” While all Christian historians believe in God’s general providence, providentialist historians canvas the past looking for the hand of God in particular events. After describing providence, which as a Christian Green believes, he traces various providentialist approaches, beginning with Augustine through to more obscure American historians, including a group who host a yearly “Providential History Festival.” The text of Scripture is often a battle ground between providentialist and professional historians, where it is argued that if the objectivity of the professional historian rules out God’s particular providence as an historiographical tool, then what do we do with the authors of Scripture? Green responds that historians don’t have access to the hidden purposes of God, and that the providentialist “ironically weakens and distorts classic theological beliefs about God,” particularly his hidden and revealed will (p. 143). 

In the conclusion Green gives his own proposal for studying the past, advocating reflection on vocation. Using William Perkins’s Treatise of the Vocations or Callings of Men (1603), he argues that “calling” is distinctly Protestant, imbued with religious significance, and directed by God for the common good (p. 153). Of the many parts in the conclusion worth meditating on, this stands out: “There is deep, God-ordained legitimacy in the tasks of selecting and reading primary sources, asking thoughtful historical questions, consulting the work of other historians, developing interpretive theories, and reconstructing past events using story and critical analysis” (p. 155). The purpose in such historiography is not to detect providence in past events, but to see the hand of God in the historian’s vocation. As such, we see that history is suffused with meaning, is under God’s reign, and that studying history is as much a part of God’s call as pastoral ministry. 

One drawback, though not one that detracts from Green’s overall argument, is that the historians who get attention are largely from the United States. While Herbert Butterfield is mentioned briefly, it’s surprising that David Bebbington doesn’t receive detailed study. This is especially surprising as Bebbington teaches at Baylor University, the publisher of Green’s book. Other historians who could have been mentioned, at least at the level of taxonomy, are the Canadian George Rawlyk, or Edinburgh’s Brian Stanley. While not every historian can be surveyed, when considering the breadth of historians dealt with, it would be reasonable to expect some international treatment. 

With this noted, Christian Historiography is nevertheless an important contribution to evangelical reflection on writing history. Green provides us a fair and ranging survey that will be useful in historiography courses and should be included on syllabi alongside Ernst Breisach’s Historiography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), or David Bebbington’s Patterns in History (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991). Historians should especially think through how their calling shapes their scholarship, and how it’s integral to understanding their role in the kingdom. 

Ian Clary

Ian Clary
West Toronto Baptist Church
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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