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.