Messiness in History

We may prefer our TVs in color, but we generally prefer our history in black and white. The great rivalries in sports have taught us, or at least confirmed to us, that people are happier when there is no difficulty deciding which team to cheer and which to hate. Religious history especially has been plagued with literary heroes who rise nearly to the level of Greek heroes, matched of course with slippery, vile, vicious villains who could make Cruella Deville disgusted with their tactics.

So, when I read R.P.C. Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, I was uncomfortable at several points. Athanasius, that champion of the Nicene faith, the man who perhaps more than any other contributed to the triumph of orthodoxy over Arian heresy, had a dark side. His first deposition at least had nothing to do with his doctrinal stance; rather, he was an episcopal gangster, employing violence against the Miletians and others. Often he deflected attention away from his behavior by painting himself as a theological martyr. Later in his career, he could fib to support his theological arguments. Yet, he was a courageous man with sincere religious convictions. He forged new ground in theology, providing the basis for the mature Trinitarian doctrine of the Cappadocians. Much like a gardener, he labored all day in a worthy cause and finished with filthy hands.

Hanson’s depiction of the Arians is likewise ambiguous. Earlier explanations of the Arian heresy range from unconvincing to absurd – they ignored soteriology, they were morally depraved, they were woodenly literalist, etc. In addition, many historians judge Arianism as if at the beginning of the crisis the Trinity was a well-established and uniformly understood doctrine. On the contrary, at the beginning of the fourth century, several ideas compatible with Arianism – subordination of the Son to the Father and the eternal Logos as intermediary between God and creation – were commonplace. The defintions of hypostasis and ousia were far from settled, and other words such as persona and substantia were in even worse shape. Many Arians saw themselves as defenders of tradition and Scripture against the Nicenes’ innovation. Although I fully acknowledge Arianism as a heresy, I can no longer dismiss them through convenient caricaturing.

Why, then, do we insist that historical characters wear black or white hats? The most obvious candidate is intellectual laziness, which can manifest in various ways. One person may simply wish to appear knowledgeable about a topic which he has not studied in any great detail. For such a person, vague descriptions of events and lists of uninterpreted facts such as dates and names are sufficient. Another person may take comfort in having an infallible historical authority. When faced with a difficult situation, she simply turns to the Catechism of the Catholic Church or to the Westminster Confession or to her Baptist pastor for unquestionable advice. It’s such a relief to be able to ask the person in the white hat what to do. If a skeptic asks how he came to have that hat in the first place, she can confidently answer that he got it from the last white-hat man, who got it from the one before him, back all the way to Peter (or John the Baptist).  So, the response to, “Why do you believe X is true?” is, “Because the white-hats have always taught that X is true.” To the follow-up question, “How do you know who has a white hat?” the answer comes, “They confess that X is true.”

Sometimes intellectual laziness is complicated by polemical agendas. This combination is usually terminal for a person’s sense of history. So, Terrence the Trichotomist, because he lacks sufficient Scriptural support for his position or because he just wants to raise the stakes in an argument, asserts that all the white-hats in church history were trichotomists. In fact, trichotomy constitutes the essence of white-hatness, and for that reason trichotomists have been persecuted relentlessly by the black-hats, that is, all non-trichotomists. For Terrence, history is a chain of bullets in a gatling gun. But history is not shaped for such usage, and attempts to cram it into his weapon will surely result in a backfire.

How should Christians, especially evangelical Reformed Christians, respond to ambiguity in history? The most straightforward solution is to acknowledge it. Our theology should lead us to expect it. Protestants concur with Luther that Christians are simul iustus et peccator, justified and sinful at the same time. None of us is free from the taint of sin in this life, so it is no surprise that our theological heroes should be soiled. Our theology of common grace should lead us to recognize that unbelievers may be highly advanced in their civil morality. There is no reason why a heretic should exude all the signs of depravity evidenced by Disney villains. Even prior to our confessions, Scripture itself depicts the ambiguity of biblical heroes. Apart from Jesus, what major character in Scripture escapes criticism? Abraham, the father of all who believe, exhibits cowardice. David, the great king and man after God’s own heart, is a failure in his family life. Peter, rock though he may be by grace, is as shifting as sand when he is asked about his relationship to an accused man.

Unfortunately, some churches and Christians encourage a sanitized approach to history. In my kindergarten Sunday school class, a picture of the twelve apostles displays eleven smiling disciples and one dark, shifty-eyed, sneering Judas. Why make Judas so obviously different than the others when, according to the Bible, he wasn’t? All this does is teach children that people who look nice must be good people and vice versa. When they become college students and compare their brilliant, personable agnostic professor to a perhaps somewhat distant, ordinary or bellicose Christian leader, is it any wonder they opt for the professor? (I am frustrated that I cannot find the reference right now, but this was the case at Princeton where a liberal professor was quite popular with the students, whereas Machen’s gruff demeanor and pugnacious reputation turned off many students. Their souls were much safer with Machen, however.)

I suspect that many of us are uncomfortable with messy history because we are afraid to admit that our beliefs are not obvious, that those who differ with us may have compelling arguments, and that we are not as morally superior to our opponents as we like to think we are. However, the promise of the Gospel, the trustworthiness of Scripture and the presence of the Holy Spirit ought to give us the courage to approach history as it is — not a clash of heroes and villains, but a story of God’s continuing faithfulness to his people in a world devastated by the curse.

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Published in: on May 27, 2010 at 11:59 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Johnson wrote a thought-provoking reflection of a book, pondering our desire to make all of our heroes wear white hats when they actually were […]

  2. It is an important point that Trinitarian doctrine was not well-developed at the time of the Arian heresy. This casts the whole issue into a slightly different light, although the Arian heresy is heresy nonetheless. IMHO, one of the biggest challenges of historiography is to evaluate an event in the context of its time and place.


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