Over the last week and a bit, I`ve been engaged in an interesting discussion on The Forbidden Gospels blog about the relationship of history and theology. The discussion has been amicable and useful, but there is a point, I recognize, when one has to come out of rebuttal mode and contribute a positive statement to the mix. So, here we are.
What I want to work out here is what do I mean by a Christian historiographical tradition in the real nitty-gritty of historical writing. I have approached this topic last September in a discussion about what I meant by tradition here. So, I'm already assuming that discussion. I openly associate myself as part of a living tradition which stretches from the patristic era to now. My self-assigned task is to figure out how to write Christian history (which, after all, emerged in the early days of the Constantinian era)in the post-Constantinian milieu in which we find ourselves.
Here are some preliminary thoughts:
1. Christian history is a particular narrative
As Christians, we already have a sense of how history has happened and how it will unfold. We begin with the idea that God created the world, has worked and is working in the world and will redeem the world and His people at the end of history. We know the shape of the narrative and we've seen the opening few acts (as N.T. Wright has said). Our job as historians is to explicate that part of the narrative we have chosen. That means the same thing as non-Christian historians: research, hypothesis and reconstruction of the past on its own terms. The techniques remain the same, even if the assumptions don't.
2. The Christian historian is part of the narrative
This will be a controversial point, largely because what I'm going to argue is counter to the accepted wisdom in historical circles over the past few centuries. We all have been taught for as long as we have been studying history (however long that is) that the historian is an independent observer of the events. I don't buy that because I don't think it is either possible or desirable to be outside of the flow of events. Even with the 'humanist' or modernist tradition, for all of their rhetoric, doesn't do this because they too have an implicit narrative. What I am doing is making explicit that I am in the Christian tradition and that I am explaining the narrative in which I find myself in. This may cause some to dismiss my comments, but I'm sure if I've already put them off already.
However, what I gain in recognizing my place in the Christian narrative is to make explicit where I am coming from. That is all very post-modern and all, but, if only out of honesty, I feel compelled to make that clear. Besides, I also affirm my committement to understanding Christian history and tradition as the coherent whole that it is. 'Humanist' historiograpy is so focused on analysis and dissection that it looses the coherence that a tradition represents. As a result, history becomes random or determined by forces outside the human dimension. We look for causes ,not coherence; for explanations, not wisdom. When we follow that procedure, we are all impoverished.
3. Christian history is methodologically rigourous
One of the criticism of the Christian historical tradition is that it is too uncritical, too credulous. Even when we filter out modernist polemical assumptions in this criticism, I think we have to concede that this has been true far too often. One of the reasons for this is that the Christian historical tradition has been every bit about apologetics as it has been about history for its own sake. This makes sense because, if we understand history in the proper sense, it can be a powerful proof for the faith. Yet, I think we have to be careful not to put scoring apologetic points over historical accuracy. In point of fact, this apologetic strategy inevitably backfires because, if our opponents are able to refute our vision of history, any benefits we had from scoring our point are instantly negated, but, worse, we are immediately put on the defensive. If we've stretch a point in one place, where else have we done it? For our own good, we need to be rigourous in our historical thinking and practice.
4. Christian history focuses on different things.
I'm still working out what this means, but, as Christian historians, we have to fundamentally shift our focus in our historical writing from the way that it has been practiced in recent centuries. History's focus in both the ancient and modern period has always been the human dimension which has led a concern with the 'big' events and people of history whose influence affects us all in real, tangible ways. It is important to know how, for instance, the Presidency of the United States has developed over the two hundred and more years of its existence, because it affects us profoundly today, whether we are American or not.
Yet, Christian history, as Eusebius alludes to in his preface to the fifth book of the Ecclesiastical History (I comment more on this passage here), cannot stop with merely the powerful and the smart. It has to consider the odd ways in which God has entered history. This means that there must be a shift in focus from an over-emphasis on the powers and principalities of this world towards attention to what appear to us to be minor events, but whose spiritual significance is vast. After all, the struggles of a Lutheran pastor in the late 1980s led to the peaceful marches which helped to bring down East Germany's communist government and, with it, the rest of the Communist bloc. That is, I concede, a rather too dramatic example, but I hope it demonstrates what I'm driving at.
This point isn't going to make sense to my non-Christian readers or even to those with sound academic training. I'm not sure it makes much sense to me, so I will have to continue to try to make sense of what I'm saying here.
5. Christian history sometimes needs to call for confession.
These next two points are linked. One of the criticisms of Christian history is its tendency towards triumphalism: a presumption that the present times are seeing or are about to see the final consummation of God's kingdom in the world. Part of that tendency is the kind of realized eschatology implicit in the kind of Constantinian dream introduced by Eusebius in those heady years after the end of the Great Persecution and the beginning of imperial preference towards Christainity. Understandably, Eusebius and others in the 320s and 330s felt that God, through Constantine, was building a Christian Empire and they were eager to show their support for it. One of the unfortunate consequences of this experience was that this excitement blinded us to the fact that, while the Kingdom of God was at hand so we must act like it is here, it was not yet here.
The simple fact of the matter is that Christians have continued to screw-up, sin and do evil over the last two thousand years. We have to be ready to own up to that. Glossing over our past mistakes and sins discredits our witness and gives us a reputation of being extremely tendentious historians. I'm not saying we have take the blame for everything that has gone wrong in the last two thousand years (as some of our opponents would allege), but we have to concede that we, the Church, have been complicit in many things because of our alliance with the State or simply out of our own pride/weakness/anger. As historians, we have to be ready to admit this because this is the first step to seeking forgiveness. If our communities don't recognize these faults, we have to remind them of the historical record for our own good.
6. Christian history is hopeful, not triumphalistic.
This is the corollary of the previous point. Since we do understand a pattern to history which includes looking towards an fulfillment of our historical experience on earth, we have to assume an eschatology in which God redeems us and his Creation. Yet, the point of this eschatology shouldn't be a "Yeah, we win", partly for the simple fact that we don't win, God does. The fulfillment of history isn't about us, but rather about God's redemptive purpose. That should lead us to bringing hope both to fellow Christians and non-Christians about what has come, what has happened and what will come. As ugly as history gets, we should remember that God is working out his purposes in it and that we will see a fulfillment of it in which God's redemption will become clear.
This is, of course, a theological statement, but it should govern us about how we Christian historians write the history before us. We cannot presume that humanity is in control of all history nor should we presume that we are mere playthings of God. Somewhere in between is the middle ground which the Christian historian has staked out.
I hope that, somehow these preliminary thoughts have made some sense. Let me know what you think.