By Harry S. Stout
Biography as Battleground
If we look at Scripture we can see virtually every type of history-writing. There is political and military history, the history of religions, and social history. As well there is the history of populations and migration. Legal and economic history abounds. But most of all, there is biography. At its most basic, Scripture is a massive stringing together of the lives of faithful (and faithless) human beings from Adam and Eve through Jesus Christ, Judas Iscariot, and the founding generation of the Christian church.
This biographical focus is not surprising. While it is true that history is about great impersonal forces and movements, institutions and events, short-term "triggers" and long-term evolutions, it is first and foremost about human beings responding to the world they inherit in irreducibly personal and idiosyncratic ways. History is most authentic and personal at the individual level. What better way for Scripture to communicate the personal dimensions of saving faith than through biography? And what better way for subsequent generations of Christian historians communicating the progress of faith over time to serve their readers than through biography?
Yet precisely because religious biography is so personal it is also the most contested form of history-writing. Biographers claim their subjects as their own--and so do readers. When different groups with different agendas claim the same subject--as has happened, for example, with a number of recent books and films about Malcolm X--there is inevitably a contest to control memories in ways that reinforce one constituency or another.
Such tensions can also reside within the soul of the individual historian. It is, I think, one of the more striking facts about Christians writing history that until this generation the vast majority of Christian historians wrote biographies of the faithful. But this generation of professional Christian historians has not been drawn to biography. I'm not sure of all the reasons for this, but one possibility is that biography, far more than other forms of history, raises the issue of contested legacies, or better, competing loyalties. Is it possible that, for the same reason that Christian historians entered history instead of theology or biblical criticism, where tensions between the academy and church run strongest, they also avoid biography, where tensions between providential and temporal history are especially keen?
I did not fully realize the personal and contested nature of religious biography until I wrote one myself on the celebrated eighteenth-century revivalist George Whitefield ("The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism," Eerdmans, 1991). Before writing that biography I managed to exist fairly comfortably in two worlds. I was both a "professional" historian and a "Christian" historian. My territory was the Puritans, a time-honored subject in the profession and in the church. And my methodology was chiefly that of intellectual history, largely divorced from personal lives and psychosocial experience. The first book I wrote, "The New England Soul," dealt largely with the "meaning of America" as it came to be defined by the Puritans and retained in the secularized form of an "American civil religion" for generations thereafter. I could describe Puritan theology and doctrine empathetically, which all historians have to do, and feel good about it. In disinterested terms, I described Puritan belief, leaving it up to the reader whether he wanted to share these beliefs or simply study them in order to understand America a little better. Reformed Christian readers praised the book because it described ideas they held dear without any personal consideration of the men who espoused them. The book did not dwell on any single individual for more than a couple of pages. Puritan giants such as John Cotton, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards were noted for their ideas, not their personalities. There was never a need to go into any biographical detail beyond the beliefs that collectively constituted "the New England soul."
As a scholar writing intellectual history, my vantage point was that of "objectivity," subject to the canons of "scientific evidence" shared by most professional historians. Observing the rules of objectivity does not imply that historians have no faith, nor does it imply neutrality to all subjects. It refers rather to a methodology and a tone. The methodology stresses rigorous recovery of all relevant facts, no matter where they lead. "Truth," in proximate terms, is the goal of most professional historians. Such truth makes no claims to complete objectivity or divine inspiration. It rests on the level of secondary causes that all reasonable scholars would see and understand. Of course, there would be differences among historians, but differing opinions would always be rooted in "facts" that described the past "as it really happened." In his classic presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1950, Samuel Eliot Morison expressed the ideal in the following way:
Truth about the past is the essence of history and historical biography, the thing that distinguishes them from every other branch of literature. . . . In other words, the historian must be intellectually honest. Sublimating his own views of what ought to have been or should be, he must apply himself to ascertaining what really happened. Of course his own sense of values will enter into his selection and arrangement of facts. It goes without saying that complete, "scientific" objectivity is unattainable by the historian. His "choice of facts to be recorded, his distribution of emphasis among them, his sense of their significance and relative proportion, must be governed by his philosophy of life." Certain mid-nineteenth century historians fancied that they could be as objectively scientific about the multitudinous, unrefractory materials of human history as a physiologist should be (but seldom is) in describing muscular reactions. But none of these, from Ranke down, if pressed, would have denied that their philosophy of life influenced if it did not dictate, their selection, emphasis, and arrangement.
Notice in Morison's description of the historian's task the absence of any reference to God or providence. Morison, like most other professional historians, is restricting his professional search for truth less to the sublime and eternal than to the proximate and probable. He is concerned with secondary causes and the pursuit of those causes in every direction, regardless of what it does to the image or reputation of his sources. That was the model I had in mind with "The New England Soul," and it worked to fairly good effect. In fact, I made no personal claims of faith in "The New England Soul." I simply told the story of Puritan preaching as it fit the facts, in a tone indistinguishable from that of confessed atheist historians like Perry Miller or Edmund Morgan. But because my subject matter was intellectual history--ideas, values, faith, and doctrine--the book could stand up both to the professional community of scholars demanding objectivity and to the Christian community, particularly the Calvinist Christian community.
My biography of George Whitefield embodied the same objective perspective as "The New England Soul," but it aroused a quite different and far more hostile response on the part of many Christian readers and reviewers. How did this happen?
Recognizing that no biography is ever "definitive," I set out to fill the gaps in earlier Whitefield biographies in ways that would locate Whitefield in his age. I wanted him to be a respectable--and respected--part of the academy's legacy as well as the church's. Virtually all earlier biographies of Whitefield tilted toward intellectual and providential history. They summarized and endorsed Whitefield's Calvinist beliefs, attributing his success to providence and uncritically adopting Whitefield's perspective on himself (often stated in Pauline terminology) as their own. In this perspective, Whitefield's friends were God's friends, and Whitefield's enemies were God's enemies. There was a certain finality to these hagiographies reminiscent of biblical history. Such works pleased the (Calvinistic) faithful, especially the Calvinistic faithful untrained in history, but failed to appeal to professional historians, who knew that as an intellectual, Whitefield was no great shakes. He disliked books, and he disliked systematic thought and scholarly disputation. He left little of interest for the intellectual historian. When faced with filiopietistic biographies, the scholarly community simply dismissed Whitefield as a second-rate intellect at best, a charlatan at worst.
As a professional biographer, I sought to bridge the gap between the Whitefield that the Christian faithful saw and the Whitefield the profession saw. I wanted, in other words, to expand Whitefield's legacy to two constituencies who had quite different--and competing--loyalties. Recognizing that Whitefield's historical significance was not in intellectual or theological history, I couched the biography in social and cultural history.
I was quite clear in my introduction to note that Whitefield's social history, that is, the social history of his age, was not of paramount interest to him (and his followers). And it was not of paramount interest to me as a Christian. But it was an untold story. And so, without claiming definitive status or rejecting the Calvinist theologian emphasized in other biographies, I told the story of Whitefield and his times as a social history.
This time I would not emerge unscathed. It is one thing to talk in disinterested terms about the clash of ideas, and quite another to use the tool of cultural biography and talk about personalities in ways that are not always salutary, though--to the best of one's knowledge--honest to the facts. Whitefield was a great man of faith, but he was no timeless saint, always abused and never illegitimately offensive. Like all Christians, he had full measures of the saint and the sinner vying for control of his soul. And this balanced Whitefield, simultaneously saint and sinner, was the man I sought to portray in my biography. Apparently I broke some cardinal rules in writing religious history that had to do with not demeaning (i.e., humanizing) Christian mythic figures. I learned that Protestants and Roman Catholics are not so far apart in the matter of saints as their theologies proclaim. Protestants want their saints as badly as Catholics and bridle against efforts that present them as human beings, albeit Christians.
In reflecting later on the different readings my books elicited, I can understand why some Christian readers had such negative responses to the Whitefield biography. They did not understand the different levels of history-writing the Christian scholar is free to pursue. Perhaps I was not sufficiently clear in my own mind then. So, for the record, let me be more precise. When I as a Christian historian write social history and cultural biography, I have to keep in mind at least three different levels of analysis, which I would label temporal or mundane, providential, and divine or inspired. Each of these levels of analysis, I would argue, is proper in its own sphere, but wrong when applied outside that sphere.
Let me say just a bit about these three levels. By temporal or mundane history I mean the history of natural or secondary causes; the social, political, economic, and intellectual history that all historians, whatever their personal beliefs, practice by observing the rules of evidence and adhering to a common pursuit of truth that all can agree upon.
By the providential level I mean the level of history seen through the lens of supernatural faith. This level separates Christian from non-Christian historian and asserts that the ultimate force in history, lying behind and above all secondary causes, is the God of Scripture. Unlike non-Christian historians, who might ascribe finality to this mundane force or that, Christian historians discern the sovereign hand of providence in Scripture and in the subsequent history of the church. They cannot write history only on the mundane level, as if it were determinative and sovereign. But even as Christian historians confess the underlying level of providential history they should also confess that they are fallible human beings whose perception and understanding of that grand providential design allows them to affirm its reality, not to interpret it with definitive finality.
In fact, there is only One who can discern the finger of God with finality, and that is God. This is the third level of interpretation, which I label divine or inspired. It is small company indeed, limited to God and to those ancient biblical chroniclers who wrote through direct, divine inspiration. This divine level of history has only one text, Scripture, and it must be read and received as sui generis. If a mere Christian historian were to declare with finality based on his or her professional opinion that David was indeed a man after God's own heart, I would quibble. Mary, yes; Samuel, yes; Joseph, yes. But not David. He had far too much blood on his hands for such a lofty designation. Yet because God tells me in Scripture that David is such a person, I confess that, however mysterious, it must be true. I have to believe it because this is not only sacred history; it is divine history. As a Protestant, I cannot say that about any other text.
Protestant Christians do not always make the necessary distinctions between providential history and divine history, and that is what gets them in trouble. Some approach their subjects not only with a deep faith but with a conviction bordering on biblical certainty. They will affirm the uniqueness of Scripture and be the first to proclaim themselves "biblical Christians," but their writing reads like another chapter added onto the Scriptures.
The Puritans did this. Through tools like typology, they believed they could know with biblical certainty the meaning of events swirling around them. They knew with finality who were God's friends and who were God's enemies. Most important, they knew that they were the "New Israel" entrusted with a messianic national destiny. Other, more recent Christians evidence a similar certainty about America that manifests itself in two contrary directions. Some are as certain as the Puritans that America is God's chosen nation, while others are equally certain that America is not God's chosen nation. Both err by taking on a pretentious air of divinity and inspiration that is properly limited to God and to the Scriptures. They confuse the second and third levels of interpretation as inappropriately as non-Christian historians confuse the first and second levels of interpretation.
So, too, with Whitefield. In my biography, some wanted me to see Whitefield's friends as unambiguously good and his enemies as unambiguously bad. In his early career, Whitefield did not hesitate to pronounce "Arminians" (by which he meant everything from Free Will Methodists to deists) outside the fold or, at best, roadblocks to the faith.
I could not share this judgment. While I personally espouse a Reformed, Calvinistic perspective on Christian faith, I claim no exclusive truth for that if it means denigrating or, worse, warring with Christians of other theological persuasions. In the case of Whitefield, the greatest irony is that, in America anyway, his "Old Light" critics were even more Old World Calvinistic than he was.
The recognition of multiple levels of interpretation is necessary if Christian historians are to be a voice in the secular academy and in the mundane world. But these interpretive layers can also constitute a problem of massive proportions--of horribly distorted legacies--if they are not kept within their proper spheres. If I were to introduce class, culture, gender, or childhood experience as the sole determinant of Whitefield's ministry, if I were to reduce Whitefield's activities to psychological needs, I would have crossed a line the Christian cannot cross--the line of misplaced providence. I would be attributing sovereignty to class or psychology or gender when, in fact, there is only one sovereign determiner of people and events. By the same token, were I to proclaim with finality that Whitefield's Calvinistic friends were God's friends, and that his more Arminian antagonists were enemies to the gospel, there, too, I would be guilty of assuming a divine vantage point on the past. Christ has risen to glory, and the apostles have long since died. There is no other inspired history anytime, anywhere. So, following Paul's maxim to be all things to all people, I am both a professional historian and a Christian historian, a dual practitioner sometimes emphasizing one or the other without ever wholly neglecting either.
If these levels of interpretation have any legitimacy, they should give us comfort as Christian historians. They give us a path to participate in the common learning of the academy in ways that, I hope, will make our world a better place (and history without hope is simply nihilism). And they give us a way to assert our faith free of the crushing burden of pretensions to divine certainty. Competing legacies, in other words, can coexist--at least in the life of the church--and, when properly situated, can be a light of insight both to the church and the world.
Copyright (c) 1996 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE
July/August 1996, Vol. 2, No. 4, Page 9