Douglas A. Sweeney
HISTORY WARS I: Taking A Shot At Redemption
The recent publication of History and the Christian Historian, edited by Ronald A. Wells, and Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, edited by James D. Bratt, provides Christian scholars of all sorts with an ideal opportunity for an expression of gratitude to the history department at Calvin College.1 Appearing hard on the heels of George Marsden's The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford, 1997)—an outstanding work that has already received due coverage in this publication—these more recent books testify further to Calvin College's unparalleled leadership in the field of Christian historiography. More than anyone else, the historians at Calvin (along with their Dutch Reformed publishers at Eerdmans) have led the way in first-rate thinking about the relationship between faith and history. One does not need to be a Calvinist, or a historian for that matter, to appreciate this thinking and its influence on a wide variety of intellectuals.
I say this as a Lutheran who must confess in all honesty that his own American Lutheran tradition cannot hold a candle to the Calvinists in Grand Rapids—at least when it comes to careful reflection on the role of faith within the academy. A few historians in my tradition have written essays addressing—though not always maintaining—the relationship between faith and the historian's craft.2 One quasi-Lutheran quasi-historian with a Lutheran awareness of human sinfulness has left a lasting historiographical impression with his work on the irony of American history.3 And a greater number of full-fledged Lutherans have written more broadly on faith and learning.4 But the Lutheran tradition has failed to produce anything like the Calvin school's sustained analysis of Christian faith and its importance for the practice of history.
My embarrassment over this failure grew rather acute last year when I at tended a Lilly-funded conference on Christian models of higher education. Held in the Lutheran chapel of a very Lutheran institution of higher learning (Concordia University in River Forest, Ill.), this conference featured representatives from the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed theological traditions. Sitting comfortably amongst fellow Lutherans, I listened profitably as Monika Hellwig (executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities) and Nicholas Wolterstorff (of Yale Divinity School, Calvin College, and the Free University of Amsterdam) articulated well-defined visions of Catholic and Calvinist education. But when Gilbert Meilaender (of Valparaiso University) stepped forward to speak for Lutheran academics, it became quite clear that the followers of Luther have some catching up to do.
To put it briefly, Meilaender argued that the Lutheran theological tradition has virtually nothing unique to contribute to the work of Christian education. In fact, he suggested that "ringing the changes on what are thought to be some standard Lutheran themes is likely to make things worse rather than better in our colleges and universities."5 Tired of half-baked Lutheran attempts to defend the secularity of our colleges with appeals to Christian freedom or to the mysteries of "paradox" (since H. R. Niebuhr's Christ and Culture, an all-too-common tag for Lutheran thought), Meilaender challenged his fellow Lutherans to stop trying to justify their own existence and to start thinking in much more basic ways about forming Christian hearts and minds. He concluded that, before touting the alleged benefits of a uniquely Lutheran education, we have remedial work to do on the fundamentals of Christian pedagogy.
Meilaender makes a good point. Lutherans have tended to be dangerously vague in their justifications of Lutheran scholarship. And Lutheran colleges have become too secular (ironically, too non-Christian) in their quest for Christian freedom. It is important that Christian scholars across the denominational spectrum try to embody genuine Christianity before exploring confessional peculiarities. But if the scholars at Cal vin have taught us anything, it is the importance of being forthright about the place from which one's thinking takes its rise. In that light, I offer the following remarks on the "Calvin school" of historiography not as an isolated individual, nor as a universal Christian, but as a Lutheran Christian whose admittedly minor differences with the Calvinists derive from a commitment on my part to specifically Lutheran theological principles.
It is probably a bit unfair to speak of a "Calvin school" of historiography. Its members are not mere propagandists, nor do they always agree with one another. Some no longer work at Calvin College. Some never did. Indeed, a few of those who might be included in this historiographical school have never been formally affiliated in any way with Calvin. Since this "school" has become so prominent within the field of Christian history, however, and since its work is so widely respected among historians at large, I have taken the liberty to lump together the leading members of this group, confident that none of them will experience the proverbial guilt by association.
George Marsden appears to many of us to epitomize this school. For many years a professor at Calvin, Marsden has since moved on to Duke and, more recently, Notre Dame. As most readers of this journal know, he has attracted national attention for his early work on fundamentalism as well as for his writings on secularization within the academy. But there are numerous other important members of the Calvin College school. Frank Roberts and Ronald Wells, both of Calvin's history department, have labored for years on the relationship between Christian faith and history.6 James Bratt, department chair, has labored long and hard as well on the Dutch Reformed religious culture that has nurtured Calvin's scholarship.7 Less explicitly Christian scholars such as alumnus Harry Stout (now at Yale) and former professor Dale Van Kley (now at Ohio State) have modeled versions of the Calvin historiography.8 And several others, such as Calvin's provost, Joel Carpenter, and longtime associates Nathan Hatch (provost at Notre Dame) and Mark Noll (of Wheaton College), might be added to this school at least as honorary members.9 In short, the purported membership of the Calvin College school re presents a veritable who's who in the guild of American Christian historians.
If this august array of scholars can be said to share a common goal, it is to demonstrate the difference faith makes in historical interpretation. And insofar as this worthy goal can be said to be grounded theologically, it finds its strongest roots in Abraham Kuyper's theology of culture. As James Bratt's English edition of Kuyper's writings clearly shows, this Dutch statesman and intellectual had a powerful vision for the redemption of culture. As he proclaimed in 1880 at the founding of the Free University of Amsterdam (an institution Kuyper founded on this very theological principle), "Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!' " Consequently, Kuyper felt that the most pressing need of his day was for Calvinists, especially, to reclaim the culture for their Lord. By means of comprehensive Christian reflection in every sphere of human learning they were to build an "all-embracing life system," a "life- and world-view," that would serve to elevate humanity to "a higher stage."10
Kuyper also had a profound awareness of the tragedy of human sin. Thus he recognized that this task would not be easy. He knew hardened sinners would fail to see that Christ was Lord unless and until they were reborn by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. There was a basic difference, then, for Kuyper between the world-views of the regenerate and the world-views of those whose minds had not yet been renewed by the power of God. Indeed, "everything is different" to those who view the world through eyes of faith, especially the presuppositions that shape their outlook.
But Kuyper assured his fellow Calvinists that this need not lead them to despair. For common grace—available to all in the very structures of creation—was sufficient for the amelioration of culture. Indeed, while God had not elected all to eternal life in heaven, he had provided all with grace for a decent life in the here and now. At the disposal of the elect (who knew how to make good on this general provision), common grace ensured that everyday life—in its many personal, social, and cultural dimensions—could be redeemed for God's glory and the good of all creation.
It is mainly this common sort of redemption that the Calvin school is after, the kind that improves the field of history while creating more space for Christian perspectives. Its practitioners have expended their energies detailing the significance of Christians in Western history, giving their ideas a fair shake, and demonstrating (usually surreptitiously and by means of disarming self-criticism) the sagacity of Calvinist views on the nature and meaning of history. In pursuit of these objectives, its members have employed quite common tools, usually eschewing traditional appeals to supernatural revelation. As Ronald Wells affirms in the introduction to History and the Christian Historian, "we do not present our views in triumph nor do we play some sort of interpretative trump card." George Marsden explains, "as in a court of law, it does no good in the mainstream academy to try to settle an issue by an appeal to a special revelation. We must, instead, argue for our perspectives according to standards of argument and evidence accessible to people from a wide variety of other viewpoints. So in such settings Christians will not be quoting Bible verses or alleging special providences."
These historians continue to insist that their faith in Jesus Christ makes a world of difference in the way they do their scholarship. "Knowing the 'author of truth' gives us an advantage in knowing truth over our secular neighbors," claims Wells.11 But they are no longer as confident as Kuyper that it changes "everything." Nor do they seem as cocksure that confessional Calvinism will save the day. Two world wars, not to mention rampant academic secularization, have served to chasten the cultural optimism of the Kuyperians. And as evidenced in the institutional range of the contributors to History and the Christian Historian, the Calvin school is increasingly interested in opening up their conversation.
Truth be told, however, these historians would love to see their non-Christian colleagues turn to Jesus, becoming people of Christian faith who share their basic presuppositions. Kuyper taught that the redemption of culture involved much more than the improvement of mundane cultural forms. He believed that God was at work in these forms, reconciling the world to himself through Christ. Thus to bifurcate common and saving grace was to commit an egregious theological error. Common grace provided a platform for the operation of saving grace; and saving grace helped Christians make their world a better place in which to live by encouraging the best use of God's general provision. "All separation of the two must be vigorously opposed," declared Kuyper. "Temporal and eternal life, our life in the world and our life in the church, religion and civil life, church and state, and so much more must go hand in hand."
For understandable reasons, this goal is usually understated (if made explicit at all). But the Calvin historians do have an interest in what Mark Noll has called "the evangelization of the mind."12 And the extreme subtlety with which these scholars pursue this evangelistic end betrays a tension in their ranks concerning the Christian historian's vocation. Suspended between what Calvinists call their "cultural mandate" and the Great Commission (Matt. 28:1820), Kuyperian historians struggle to remain faithful in an increasingly post-Christian profession. Unsure as to how forthright they can be concerning their Christian convictions without making secular colleagues nervous and being shunned at (or even from) public gatherings, they often muffle these convictions with postmodern claims to perspectival rights and even evade questions about their agenda by insisting they just want to do good (indeed, trendy) history.
One might characterize the tension felt among the Calvin scholars by saying they have been stretched (sometimes torn) between the poles of presuppositionalism and common grace.13 Encouraged by the points of convergence between Reformed epistemology and postmodern perspectivism, they lay claims to a place at the table with liberationist appeals to social construction theory. But when sitting at the table, based on their trust in common grace, they mount arguments based on objective evidence that is (presumably) universally verifiable in an effort to advance Christian views and convert secular minds.
A version of this tension can be found in the thought of Kuyper himself. As an ardent presuppositionalist, he had a difficult time delineating the persuasive power of common grace. But this strain has only been heightened in recent years within the profession. Christian historians now pursue their vocations within an academic culture that, at least in prominent pockets, has become more aggressively hostile to Christian faith.
Lutherans have not been immune to this kind of historiographical tension, though at times we have proceeded with our work blithely ignorant of these issues. Lutherans, furthermore, have a lot more to learn from our colleagues at Calvin than the Calvinists have to learn from us when it comes to the practice of Christian history. But it seems to me that the Lutheran tradition offers several important insights that, while not unknown to Calvinists or even unavailable within their tradition, may help to resolve some of the tensions found within the Calvin school and get Christian historians talking in a usefully ecumenical way.
Let me enumerate just three of them here, and do so all too briefly—again, not in an attempt to provide a radical alternative to Kuyperian principles, but as a way to contribute to the project so ably led by Calvinist scholars:
Deus absconditus. The first of these principles pertains to the utter transcendence of God and to the inability of finite, sinful humans to nail down firmly God's work in history. Though God has revealed himself in Christ, and the purpose of history in the Bible, he remains largely hidden, even under the forms of revelation. As Luther proclaimed boldly during the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), "that person does not deserve to be called a theologian [we might say, a scholar] who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened."
Now certainly Calvinists such as Marsden have bent over backward in recent years to assure us that they do not claim agnostic access to the hidden God. But for Lutherans, this principle demands an even more radical sort of humility than the kind that has been displayed in such disclaimers. For while we affirm as a matter of faith that God is provident over history—indeed, that God is involved in history reconciling the world to himself in Christ—we tend to resist the common assumption that a full-orbed Christian world-and-life-view (if such a thing even exists) entails much definitive information upon which to formulate positive interpretations of selected, mundane historical materials. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:89).
Verbum domini manet in aeternum. This bit of old-fashioned biblical prooftexting leads to a second Lutheran principle, the famous Reformation slogan "the word of the Lord endures forever" (1 Peter 1:25). Though a Lutheran theology of the Cross requires that we flee the common temptation to pin down the invisible God, it does so because we believe that God has graciously entered into history, making a part of himself visible and enabling us to relate to him in the flesh. The postmodernists are right: we cannot escape our social locations and attain a "God's-eye-view" of history. But God has become incarnate and spoken his Word in human language. And if Christians have anything unique to offer by way of historiographical principle, surely it must be based on this supernatural revelation.
Ironically, just as the Calvin school has gained a hearing for Christian scholarship, it has denied the importance of Scripture—or better, the explicit use of Scripture—in fleshing out Christian perspectives. In an otherwise admirable effort to allay the fears of secular colleagues regarding the allegedly insidious agenda now being laundered by university presses, it seems the Calvin school has decided to minimize the importance of the only thing that makes Chris tian scholarship singular at all. Clearly we live in a secular culture and need to play fairly in the academy. But fair play is only enhanced when scholars come clean about their perspectives—a maxim that Calvinists have championed as much as anyone in our time. Insofar as the Bible outlines the basic beliefs that animate our perspective, then, protestations to the contrary are misleading.
Zweireichslehre. Luther's theology of the two kingdoms constitutes our third and final principle, one that distinguishes Lutheran scholarship most clearly from that of the Calvin school. According to Luther, Christians inhabit two different realms of historical life: the heavenly realm, or kingdom of God, wherein we receive our justification; and the earthly realm, or kingdom of humanity, wherein we work out our sanctification. God superintends the history of both, taking care of all his creation. But God redeems us in the former, creating faith by Word and sacrament. To work as a historian is a very noble, divine calling, one every bit as sacred as those of bishops, priests, and monks. But to confuse our work in the secular academy with that which is done within the church is to misconstrue the way that God redeems. For most Lutherans, there is still a difference between the sacred and the secular. And while all vocations are sacred, they are not all equally redemptive. Christian historians are called by God to be salt and light within their guild, doing their work as unto the Lord and serving (in Luther's words) as little Christs unto their neighbors. But while it is true that God uses our academic labors as means of common grace, this is not the way he redeems us, either individually or as a culture.
At the risk of oversimplifying the issues, let me say by way of conclusion that redemption, for Lutherans, comes only by supernatural grace. For this Lutheran, then, the Calvin school says both too much and too little when it comes to the matter of Christian historiography. By suggesting that our scholarship can serve to redeem the secular culture, the Kuyperians sound triumphalistic and ill at ease with their worldly callings. And by denying that revelation need play a formative role in Christian history, they sound, ironically, as though their methodology has been co-opted by worldly values.
Perhaps my admittedly minor problems with the Calvin College school stem from our common concern for transformation, our mutual longing for the full realization of God's dominion here on earth. While Kuyperian Calvinists work toward this end by taking the gospel into the world, hoping to reorder every inch by means of Calvinistic principles, Lutherans tend to prefer to bring the world into the church, exposing as many people as possible to Word and sacrament. In any case, the most important thing is the gospel of Christ itself, and the willingness of Christian people to make it tangible to those in need. Perhaps if the Calvin school is successful in opening up their conversation to an even broader range of Christians from a wide variety of confessional traditions, our efforts to serve God within the academy, and in the earthly kingdom generally, will bear the kind of fruit that only hangs on trees with many, deep roots.
Douglas A. Sweeney is assistant professor of church history and history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
1. Here I would also like to thank Jared Burkholder, Mickey Mattox, Mark Noll, and Ron Wells for helpful comments on a draft of this essay.
2. See especially Lewis W. Spitz, "History: Sacred and Secular," Church History, Vol. 47 (March 1978), pp. 522; and Martin E. Marty, "The Difference in Being a Christian and the Difference It Makes—for History," in C. T. McIntire and Ronald Wells, eds., History and Historical Understanding (Eerdmans, 1984).
3. I am speaking, of course, of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose most important work in this regard was The Irony of American History (Scribner's, 1952).
4. Among the more important recent writings are David W. Lotz, "Education for Citizenship in the Two Kingdoms: Reflections on the Theological Foundations of Lutheran Higher Education," in Papers and Proceedings of the 65th Annual Convention (Lutheran Educational Conference of North America, 1979); Mark R. Schwehn, Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America (Oxford, 1993); Richard W. Solberg, "What Can the Lutheran Tradition Contribute to Christian Higher Education?," in Richard T. Hughes and William B. Adrian, eds., Models for Christian Higher Education: Strategies for Survival and Success in the Twenty-First Century (Eerdmans, 1997); and Ernest L. Simmons, Lutheran Higher Education: An Introduction for Faculty (Augsburg Fortress, 1998). Robert Benne, The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-First Century (Fortress, 1995), while not focused directly on faith and learning, offers theological principles that should prove useful to a broad range of Christian educators.
5. The remarks of all three presenters are forthcoming in Lutheran Education.
6. See especially Frank Roberts and George Marsden, eds., A Christian View of History? (Eerdmans, 1976); McIntire and Wells, History and Historical Understanding; Ronald A. Wells, History Through the Eyes of Faith: Western Civilization and the Kingdom of God (Harper & Row, 1989); and Ronald A. Wells, History and the Christian Historian (Eerdmans, 1998). Roberts and Wells are also well known for coediting (until very recently) Fides et Historia, the journal of the Conference on Faith and History.
7. See especially Bratt's Dutch Calvinism in Modern America (Eerdmans, 1984), and his Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Eerdmans, 1998).
8. See especially Stout's The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (Oxford, 1986); and Van Kley's The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791 (Oxford, 1996). But note the more historiographical work of Stout and Van Kley as well: Harry S. Stout, "Theological Commitment and American Religious History," Theological Education, Vol. 25 (Spring 1989), pp. 4459; Harry S. Stout, "Biography As Battleground," BOOKS & CULTURE, Vol. 2, No. 4 (July/August 1996), pp. 910; and Susan Rosa and Dale Van Kley, "Religion and the Historical Discipline: A Reply to Mack Holt and Henry Heller," French Historical Studies, Vol. 21 (Fall 1998), pp. 61129.
9. Carpenter's most recent book is Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (Oxford, 1997); Hatch's is The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale, 1989); and Noll, while extremely prolific, is probably best known for The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994).
10. The best source of such phrases is Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism (Eerdmans, 1931), originally delivered at Princeton University in 1898.
11. Wells, History through the Eyes of Faith, p. 3.
12. Mark A. Noll, "Christian World Views and Some Lessons of History," in Arthur Holmes, ed., The Making of a Christian Mind: A Christian World View & the Academic Enterprise (InterVarsity, 1985), pp. 30, 33.
13. A fine example of this tension and the historiographical fruit that it can yield is found in Marsden's "Common Sense and the Spiritual Vision of History," in McIntire and Wells, History and Historical Understanding, pp. 5568.
14. Translation from the American edition of Luther's Works, vol. 31.
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