Sunday, June 28, 2009

Book Review: Euan Cameron, Interpreting Christian History. The Challenge of the Churches' Past


I ran into this book rather by chance, as I was scanning the shelves at my theological library of choice. I think that there are, at least, two things that have just marked me as a historical geek in that statement, I know, but I am a sucker for historiographical discussions. I am even more of a sucker for attempts to figure out what it means to be a Christian historian. I have, of course, written on the subject and it is never very far in my writing. I am, in my heart, a historian, but one who is trying to figure out how to write history from a Christian worldview. There have been people on this blog who have argued that it is impossible to do (either you are a theologian or a historian, not both), but I strongly suspect that that is a unnecessary narrowness of vision. Euan Cameron's book is an attempt to confront these same issues and this is what interested me in it.


Dr. Cameron's book, after a short introduction in which he outlines his project, breaks into four sections. First, he gives a very quick outline of church history. He follows this section with a discussion of key approaches to church history, especially on the issue of change and diversity, over the ages from Eusebius to post-modern approaches. All this is followed by a section which review attempts at a theology of history by many theologians, ending with some final thoughts by Dr. Cameron on the issue. Dr. Cameron, of course, covers a lot of ground in these sections and, particularly, his focus on developing a theology of history are important because it is done far too little by Christian historians. I suspect that this is the Christian historian's equivalent to the aversion felt by most historians to theoretical approaches and the philosophy of history. Yet, it is a problem which begs for attention because, if anything is going to make us Christian historians, it is these kinds of theological considerations. How does one write as a Christian historian, if we don't reflect on just who God is and how He appears in history? Many try to do without this reflection, but the result is to fade into the more generalized background of academic history in general. What make us a peculiar people with a particular history, if I can get all Hauerwasian for a moment?


Central to this book is Dr. Cameron's historical vision. Dr. Cameron' historical approach centres on his consideration of diversity and change in history. That is, he attempts to steer between an absolutist, 'fundamentalist' approach which argues for only one 'true' Christianity in Church history (church history being the history of that one 'true' Christianity) and unrestrained relativism in which the no church, sect or denomination has any logical or theological priority. Instead, Dr. Cameron argues that every visible manifestation of Christianity is only a partial revelation of what the church is- the final manifestation of the Church being reserved for an eschatological time in the undetermined future. As a theology of history, this position is relentlessly Protestant, so I expect to see my Catholic and Orthodox readers rolling their eyes and muttering 'Not again....". Mind you, given my own hesitations about the whole Protestant visible vs. invisible churches, I find myself slightly uncomfortable. I say only slightly because I am a Protestant and I'm not sure that Luther wasn't expressing something useful when he coined these terms, even if I think the vulgar interpretation that this somehow lets us off trying to act like the Church in the here and now (rather than a hypothetical time in the remote future) has caused more harm than good.


The other striking element of Dr. Cameron's approach is the emphasis on change and discontinuity. In historical scholarship, there are two poles in how we approach historical data. One pole looks for continuity and attempts to chart change in light of a line of organic development. The other pole looks for discontinuity- the breaks and inconsistencies which characterize historical developments. Few historians are so extreme so as to stick to one of these poles solely, but they do tend to lean towards one or the other. My own tendency is to lean towards the former approach. Dr. Cameron leans towards the latter. That is, in order to avoid the 'fundamentalist' danger, he emphasizes the discontinuities of Christian history to the point that he tends to dismiss attempts to get at the 'essence' of Christianity as a misconceived approach. Thus, he criticizes such people (who I mostly like) such as Karl Barth, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Millbank and C.S. Lewis for presuming that there is an 'essence' that we can talk about. He is much more sympathetic to the heroes of the 'liberal' Christian- the Niebuhrs, Bultman because, at the end of the day, he shares a variety of historicism with them which breeds a mild form of cultural relativism in which a given cultural expression is not really in continuity with any other expression. I might be over-stating this a little bit, but it is where his thinking is leading. Now, that said, this is also the direction that most historians, both Church and secular, approach their subjects, so this is very much an expression of our times.


This is ultimately what I have found disappointing about this book. I confess that the reason I find this disappointing is because I tend to look for continuity, for essence. That means I'm swimming upstream historiographically. I okay with that, but I wonder how this book might have looked using continuity as a guiding principle.


That said, this is still a very worthwhile book. It opens up the issue of how Christian historians should develop a theology of history and it is worthwhile working with Dr. Cameron's ideas as a backboard to develop one's own. Its theology is liberal Protestant, but it is an erudite book which raises important historical, historiographical and theological questions. It is well worth the read.


Peace,
Phil

5 comments:

Jim said...

This is as you know, an area of my own interest. I am distressed that you found the book first. ;-) I am more distressed that my local inter-library system does not have it. ;;sigh;; Another hit on the Amazon budget looms.

"As a theology of history, this position is relentlessly Protestant, so I expect to see my Catholic and Orthodox readers rolling their eyes and muttering 'Not again....". " Pretty much. But, like you, I am not quite prepared to dismiss the thesis be it Cameron's or Luther's. The idea of an invisible church awaiting final revelation is in some ways more palatable the at least some of the Roman alternatives. (I have in mind for instance the current bishop of Rome's explanation for change and discontinuity.)

That said, I think one cannot deal with the history of Christianity nor can one develop a theology of that history or a theory of historical interpretaion unless one begins well before Christianity. John, Jesus, James, John Mark, Luke and Paul arose in the context of a Hebrew history that has to be taken into account. Half the problems (at minimum) that trouble contemporary Christianity arise from misreadings on all sides of that history.

FWIW
jimB

Phil Snider said...

I figured that you'd be interested in this one. Theologically, I think that you'll find Cameron a little more congenial than I do, although I don't dismiss him.

I really do hesistate on the visible-invisible church thing. I do think that Luther's original formulation was understandible and makes sense as a development out of Augustinian theology, but I sometimes think it has caused more confused theology than the insight was worth.

I agree with you on looking for antecedants. I keep looking for good material on Hebrew history, but I haven't found much. I might have to actually do a catalogue search (I normally just trawl across the shelves). I have to put a bid for Greek/Roman historiography because you can see the influence of it on Luke, at least (see the preface- Luke picks up many of the historiographical themes characteristics of Greek/Roman historical writers).

Peace,
Phil

Jim said...

I completely agree on Luke's Greek background.

I think the available material on first and second century BCE Hebrew history is extremely limited. What I think we need to understand a lot better is what Judaism and Palestine looked like in the pre-Christian world. One often hears fundamentalists dismiss that world, but they do not understand it.

John Dominic Crossan has written about that world but I don't find his work all that helpful because when I read it I do not come away understanding what the faith communities of the time taught.

Jesus, John, James, John Mark, Peter and Paul were formed in that faith or perhaps it is closer to say 'those faiths.' I think it is important.

Happy Canada Day by the bye.

FWIW
jimB

Phil Snider said...

You know who is pretty good with the Jewish/pagan background: Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd edition). I hate to add more books to your list, but this is a good one, even if it spends most of its time on the Gentile side. You should be able to get that on inter-library loan becaues it is a well established textbook.

Peace,
phil

Jim said...

I will look for it.

Thanks! More reading. ;-)

FWIW
jimB