Thinking About History as a Christian: Jay Green’s Outstanding Work

by Ron Wells.
Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions. By Jay D. Green. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2015.
Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions. By Jay D. Green. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2015.

I am a member of the founding generation of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH). It was exciting when, as a very junior scholar, I was able to be present when the CFH was launched. Back then, no one in the American Historical Association (AHA) or elsewhere was talking much about how a person might be a Christian and a historian, and how the two callings might connect. It is one of the great graces in my life to have seen the growth and development of the CFH and to have had a part in its maturation. Among the bright young people to assume leadership in recent years has been Jay Green, Professor at Covenant College.

This outstanding book by Green, president-elect of the CFH, shows how far we have come in these nearly 50 years. Green’s range of reading is immense. His analytical skills are acute. His writing is crisp and accessible. It is an enormous pleasure to look over Professor Green’s shoulder, as it were, as he thinks for us in writing Christian Historiography: Five Rival Visions. He asks, then illumines fully and deeply, the question we founders of CFH were trying to formulate: what does it mean to be a Christian with a vocation as a historian? Let’s listen in; this is going to be good.

The five versions of Christian historiography provide the outline for the book. They are: History that takes religion seriously; History seen through the lens of Christian faith commitments; History as applied ethics; History as Apologetics; History as a search for God. The author sees much from which to benefit in the first three; not so much in the latter two. Let’s take then in turn.

History that takes religion seriously. For historians in this version, being a Christian historian meant to write about religion. As is well known, the academy in the twentieth century was largely hostile or indifferent to religious subject matter as the stuff of history. While there were a few well-known scholars of religion – Dawson, Latourette and Harbison – most historians were silent about religious phenomena. But, as Green points out, the neo-Evangelical revival of the second half of the century also gave us a generation of outstanding historians, who wrote about religion and who were themselves Christians. There were many who wrote fine books, but the leading lights were, e.g., Timothy Smith, George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and later, Barry Hankins and Randall Balmer. Yet, as Green points out, while being a Christian helped the historians to write good books in religious history, it didn’t afford them insights about religion that non-believing scholars might have missed.

History through the lens of faith commitments. For historians in this version the subject matter was not necessarily religion. Rather, their writing turned on “Christian world-view thinking.” Thus, Christians would be able to see things that other, presumably secular, scholars might not see. [Fair disclosure: in the “through the eyes of faith” series published by Harper for the CCCU, I wrote History Through the Eyes of Faith]. This viewpoint came mostly from scholars in Presbyterian/Reformed colleges, in which there is an affirmation that Christ is lord of all academic work, not just religion; as Abraham Kuyper famously intoned, “there is not a square inch” of the world that does not belong to God. Therefore, there are no neutral parts of academic work. But, as Green points out, not everyone in the CFH or in CCCU colleges (especially Anabaptists) was happy with the dominance of Reformed scholars in the project. Further, friendly critics like Daryl Hart and Michael Hamilton wondered if “perspectival history” went beyond being rhetorically satisfying to make any real impact on the secular consensus in the profession. Unfriendly, indeed ungracious, critics like Christopher Shannon and Roger Schultz went further than merely doubting how much impact history from a perspective had made; they impugned the motives of such scholars, suggesting that in offering supposedly “outrageous ideas” they were feathering their own nests in the secular academy.

History as applied ethics. Jay Green makes an especially good contribution in this section, as this area is not as well-known as that in the two versions discussed above. For historians in this area, the intent of their work is to have moral impact on the reader. For historians on the Left, it means that history should incline towards social justice; to those on the Right it means to point to the right ordering of society on Christian principles, and most often a return to “Christian foundations.” Social justice scholars like Richard Hughes (the maltreatment of minorities) and James Juhnke and Carol Hunter (America’s propensity toward violence and warfare) hope, on the basis of their Christian convictions, to offer an alternate reading of American history. In the end, they hope readers will act for justice on the basis of that reading of history. Right-leaning writers like David Barton (recovering a Christian nation) and Marvin Olasky (warning about the national effects of a “decline” in morality) see their Christian convictions as also offering an alternate reading of history. They also hope, like the Left-leaning writers, that their readers will act in what they regard as the morally acceptable way. Jay Green agrees with historians David Harlan and Michael Kugler that moral inquiry is a vital and unavoidable part of a properly-conceived Christian historiography. Green is rightly cautious, though, and sounds the tocsin against going too full-bore towards moral inquiry because historians are called to value the past on its own terms, not just as providing past examples to given instruction to the present.

History as apologetics. For completeness sake, Jay Green offers this section, and once again his wide reading and keen analysis are on display. But for the scholars here, who want their work to prove Christianity correct, Green seems less than impressed (rightly, in this reviewer’s estimation). There are some familiar names in this section among the scholars – Edwin Yamauchi and John Howard Yoder. But mostly it is about non-academic writers with a religious axe to grind – e.g., Dinesh D’Sousa, Greg Singer and Francis Schaeffer. Mark Noll has referred to much of this writing as “tribal history,” that is, showing who’s in and who’s out. Green agrees: “such history often reduces Christian scholarship to a species of propaganda.”

History as a search for God. Historians in this section look to see God’s hand in history. While Green rightly points out that hardly any professionally trained historians do this sort of writing, it is a major cottage industry for non-academic writers who believe that God did not stop acting after the era of the Bible. For example, books like The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall and David Manual have garnered little if any acceptance among academic historians, but it has been powerfully instrumental in energizing parents to support Christian education, both for school-goers and home-schoolers. This book has also generated a populist anger against Christian academics, who, it is often said, are “deceiving” Christian parents who want their children to believe in the providence of God, not only for biblical times but for American history too. Jay Green, the careful and judicious scholar, seems almost exasperated with this, saying that this sort of advocacy isn’t really history at all. Rather, he says, it is “a rhetorical strategy” for “worldview maintenance.” No wonder he, almost ruefully, concludes that “there is little in providentialism worth salvaging.”

The conclusion of Christian Historiography is challenging, and the author is to be commended for not going back on his earlier point that there is no one right way, but multiple ways, to do faithful history. As we have seen, Green does not see much for us in either history as apologetics and history in the search for God. On the other hand, a majority of members of the Conference on Faith and History are practitioners of religious history. But, religious history, as such, doesn’t say much about the Christian vocation of the scholar. The other models – world view and ethics – do. But, as Green forthrightly argues, one wonders if arguments in those areas have been played out. While I doubt that is fully so, I am willing to hear what Green offers. He thinks a new and fruitful line of argument turns on the concept of vocation.

In this last section Green draws especially on the interesting work by the Lutheran scholar, Douglas Schuurman and the Reformed scholar, Cornelius Plantinga – and many other known to members of the Conference on Faith and History. His discussion it too rich and deep to be summarized quickly, but I’ll just say here that it is a rewarding way to conclude this good book, and to encourage faithful historians. It may well be the catalyst that prompts a new conversation about being a historian of faith.

Yet the two examples with which Green concludes – Tracy McKenzie and Arthur Link – seemed jarring to me in their juxtaposition. They represent the extremes on the continuum of what historians of faith might be called. McKenzie, a past president of the CFH, had been a tenured professor at a major research university (his dissertation advisor, a close friend of mine, was very proud of him). But, McKenzie experienced a major crisis of vocation. He wasn’t at all happy with being in a university setting and producing monographs. He talked and wrote about this crisis quite openly. Taking direct aim at George Marsden, McKenzie said he didn’t want to “fit nicely” (Marsden’s term) in secular academe. Rather, he wanted to do something, as he said, “sacred and redemptive.” He later moved to a tenured position at Wheaton College, where he could more openly exercise his Christian vocation as he sees it. Importantly, Jay Green does not say that this resolution of McKenzie’s personal crisis is normative.

The other example, with which the book closes, is the life and work of Arthur Link, arguably, as Green says, one of the most distinguished American historians of the twentieth century. Link was a very seriously committed Christian, who saw his vocation clearly and fully to be the best historian he could be. He was no less sure of his vocation than Tracy McKenzie is of his. But Link resides on the polar opposite end of the continuum. Green’s writing rises to a kind of crescendo in asking a series of questions about Link and his work; the last question is “Can the regenerate historian abandon the rules of conventional history to produce something better?” As Green writes, and to all the questions, and especially the last one, Link would answer a resounding “no.” In short, the vocational alternative offered by Link is essentially what George Marsden suggests and McKenzie deplores, i.e., to “fit nicely” into the university. But, the essential point for Link, and I suppose Marsden, is that they fit into the university self-consciously as Christians. That makes all the difference for Arthur Link – and, by extension, for us – because Link sees the normal rules and practices of historians, in Christian hands, as somehow netting something more than that which comes from a non-believer making use of the same practices.

While there is more to be said on all these issues, Jay Green’s offering of his rich and nuanced discussion of vocation seems likely, to this seasoned observer, to provide a new departure in the ongoing conversation we all began a half-century ago in trying of work out our Christian calling as historians. In sum, this is a very important book for all historians of faith.

This review was originally published in Fides et Historia. It is republished here with permission.

Ronald A. Wells is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Calvin College, Michigan. He is now mostly retired in Tennessee, and lives in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, where he has part-time position directing the Symposium on Faith and the Liberal Arts at Maryville College. He is a layman in the Episcopal Church, and is a member of the Church of the Ascension in Knoxville.

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