Guidelines for Interpreting History

In From Dawn to Decadence (654-56), Jacques Barzun discusses the nature of historical writing. History suffers an identity crisis: “Not a science and not a philosophy, history is bereft in an age like ours, which wants at least theory when science is not attainable.” What does history do, then? “It shows patterns that recur with a difference, dramas in which one follows exposition, complication, and denouement, while continuity in aims suggests THEMES. In all these ways knowledge of man is enhanced. History moreover includes energetics lives, no two alike, that show creatures as characters.”

After contending against approaches to history that rely heavily on single causes, all-embracing theories, and simplistic “laws,” Barzun gives some fruitful reflections gleaned from his work interpreting the modern era:

An age (a shorter span within an era) is unified by one or two pressing needs, not by the proposed remedies, which are many and thus divide.

A movement in thought or art produces its best work during the uphill fight to oust the enemy; that is, the previous thought or art. Victory brings on imitation and ultimately Boredom.

“An Age of —” (fill in: Reason, Faith, Science, Absolutism, Democracy, Anxiety, Communication) is always a misnomer because insufficient, except perhaps “An Age of Troubles,” which fits every age in varying degrees.

All historical labels are nicknames—Puritan, Gothic, Rationalist, Romantic, Symbolist, Expressionist, Modernist—and therefore falsify. But “renaming more accurately” would be effort wasted. Coming from diverse minds, it would re-introduce confusion. All names given by history must be accepted and opened up, not defined in one sentence or divided into subspecies.

The historian does not isolate causes, which defy sorting out even in the natural world; he describes conditions that he judges relevant, adding occasionally an estimate of their relative strength.

Neither of these propositions is true by itself: “Ideas are the product of society.” “Social change is the product of ideas.”

The denial just stated applies also to heredity and environment; great men and the masses of mankind; economic forces and conscious purpose; and any other pair of commonly invoked coordinate factors. The exact course of their respective action cannot be understood and consequently cannot be stated.

A class is not a homogeneous group of people marching in step but a sort of labeled platform populated by a continuous stream of individuals coming from above and below. Once settled, they acquire the common traits.

The potent writings that helped to reshape minds and institutions in the West have done so through a formula or two, not always consistent with the text. Partisans and scholars start to read the book with care after it has done its work.

In art, influence does take place and when strongest is least literal. When it is literal it must be called plagiarism and the fact should not be concealed by the eminence of the thief.

In biography, systematic explanation by unconscious motives defeats the purpose of portraying an individual character. It turns him or her into a case, which then belongs to one of the types in the literature of psychology.

Progress does occur form point to point along a given line for a given time. It does not occur along the whole cultural front, though it may appear to by throwing into shadow the resistant portion. The sciences are no exception.

Published in: on December 27, 2010 at 10:44 am  Comments (1)  
Tags: ,

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.

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