July 11, 2001
-- Catherine A. Brekus
Whatever happened to Christian history?
This is the title of a recent article by Tim Stafford in Christianity Today. Intrigued by the increasing visibility of evangelical scholars in leading history departments, Stafford decided to interview them about what makes their work distinctly "Christian." Do they offer a uniquely Christian explanation of the past? Do they treat God as more than an "abstraction"?
With disappointment, Stafford concludes that evangelical historians have been reluctant to write about God's role in shaping human history. On one hand, all of the historians whom he interviewed -- including Mark Noll, George Marsden, Grant Wacker, and Harry Stout -- see themselves as Christian scholars who write for both the academy and the church. In the words of Harry Stout, who teaches American religious history at Yale University, "We play a unique role in the church as its collective memory." Yet on the other hand, few of these historians feel comfortable explaining historical change in supernatural language. For example, they tend to explain religious revivals as the result of cultural change, not divine intervention. Rather than speculating about providence, they remain silent about God's ultimate intentions.
Their silence, as they explain, is the result not of skepticism but of Christian humility. Despite their faith that God guides history, they are fearful of projecting their own desires or biases onto God. There are far too many tragic examples of scholars who have invoked God's name to justify their own prejudices. Think, for example, of the nineteenth-century historians who confidently proclaimed that God intended Africans to be slaves. Or the twentieth-century historians who saw Adolf Hitler as the champion of Christian values.
While Stafford acknowledges that "in the end only God is wise enough to write Christian history," he obviously wants evangelical historians to be more bold. He asks plaintively, "if Christians can't tell the story of the world in a way that's distinctive, how Christian are they?" What he longs for is a providential history, a history that explains how God has directed human affairs. He wants Christian colleges to "offer a truly Christian historical education, if that means anything more than offering a larger-than-usual dose of church history."
What would a "truly Christian historical education" entail? Stafford approvingly quotes N. T. Wright, a New Testament scholar who suggests that historians can make judgments about God's role in history as long as they are cautious. As Wright explains, "when Christians try to read off what God is doing even in their own situations, such claims always have to carry the word perhaps about with them as a mark of humility and of the necessary reticence of faith."
In practice, however, it is easy to imagine how Stafford's vision of a "Christian historical education" could lead to distortion and arrogance. Even if Christian historians qualify their assertions with the word "perhaps," how should they decide which events should be perceived as God's will? As Darryl G. Hart asks, "What does it mean to say that God was in control of the 1992 United States presidential election? When you go from the sublime of the kingdom of God to the ridiculous of U. S. politics, you encounter the difficulty of trying to make a direct connection between the two. . . . In fact, the doctrine of providence teaches that God is at work in everything, both good and not so good. But to determine what God intended by a particular event is another matter altogether."
Instead of criticizing evangelical historians for their reluctance to make sweeping claims about God, we should be grateful for their restraint. As both believers and historians, they understand the dangers of making definitive judgments about God's will. If Stafford is in search of a "truly Christian historical education," perhaps he should listen more carefully to the scholars who have chosen to remain faithfully silent about divine providence.
Catherine A. Brekus is associate professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is currently participating in a two-year Consultation on Teaching the History of Christianity sponsored by Wabash College.