On the Integration of Faith and History: Introduction

by Dan Miller.

History is the way people situate themselves in time and place and community.[1] Hence, to ask what history means for me as a Christian, is to ask: how do I situate myself in time and place and community? Asked that way, the question has a simple answer: by placing the tools of the historical craft in the service of, and under the critical scrutiny of, my Christian mind and heart so that, as far as humanly possible, I understand my place in the world as God himself wants me to understand it—truthfully and humbly.

To place the doing of history at the service of my Christian mind and heart means in the first instance that my mind and heart must be true to Christ. Doing so involves paying attention to the Bible as I read it for myself and as it is taught by the Church. Without a good understanding of what the Bible says about our place in the world and our obligations to God and to each other, we cannot pretend to do history in a “Christian” way. Having a Christian heart and mind also comes from practice: by gathering with believers regularly to worship God in Christ, hear the Word proclaimed, and participate in the sacraments that identify me as one of his people; and by pursuing a life of prayer and obedient living under the influence of God’s spirit. Every Christian will understand me when I say that the intellectual and practical sides of developing a Christian mind and heart are the work of a lifetime and are characterized by periods when I am confident that I am on the right track and by periods of uncertainty or even obvious failure. As a consequence, I confess that even my best insights and most generous actions are subject to “revision;” not only the corrective advice of my professional and spiritual peers, but the final judgment of God. Hence, at the very start of the business of doing history, I must admit that my version of the past is an inevitably partial one.

That said, it is also true that Christ did not give the task of sharing the gospel, his peculiar contribution to history, to angels. He gave it to people, knowing that doing so was like placing an invaluable treasure in fragile clay pots. I think that this precedent applies to all of the work that I do including the work of seeking to find and to speak historical truth. I cannot simply dodge my obligation to tell the truth by pleading that I am too fallen and finite for the task. God knew that when he chose me. He expects me to do the best I can with the gifts and resources he has bestowed on me. So, while I remain mindful of my limitations, I nevertheless strive to tell the truth as fully as I can, taking comfort from the promise that nothing done “as unto the Lord” is ever done in vain.

(This post is the first in a six-part series based on a statement essay entitled “What Does History Mean to Me as a Christian? On the Integration of Faith and History in the Classroom” by Daniel Miller. This essay was originally written as a faith and teaching statement, which is required of all Calvin faculty but is rarely seen outside the boardroom. On Historical Horizons, we would like to share excerpts from some of our statements as a way of connecting with folks off campus who would like to get to know us better or are thinking about these issues as well.

Over the next few weeks, additional posts will explore Professor Miller’s approach as a Christian historian, including the use of evidence, the role of the Bible and Christians in history, thoughts on a “secular” approach to history, and what our common humanity means to us as historians and Christians.)

[1] According to Allen R. Hilton, “Narratives form persons and narratives form communities.” See page 150 in “Being Christian in an Age of Americanism,” in Anxious about Empire, ed. Wes Avram, 147-158, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004).

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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