Whatever happened to the Calvin School of Christian Historiography?

Doug Howard

In a review back in 1997, Douglas A. Sweeney described with some admiration the “unparalleled leadership in the field of Christian historiography” provided by the Calvin College history department. Three books had just been published—Jim Bratt’s Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, a collection of essays edited by Ron Wells called History and the Christian Historian, and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, by George Marsden. Marsden, who was then at Notre Dame, had taught at Calvin for nearly twenty years, and Bratt and Wells were both still on the Calvin faculty. “More than anyone else,” Sweeney wrote, “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.” Sweeney dubbed this the “Calvin School” of Christian historiography.[1]

Nearly a quarter century has passed, and the generation of Calvin historians Sweeney wrote about has retired. As one of the last remaining on the Calvin faculty from those days, I have witnessed the diminished interest in history in higher education nation-wide. Yet as the coordinator of our research methods course, I have regularly invited our current faculty members to speak to the history majors and minors who take this required course, and I am therefore also in a good position to observe the current state of the “Calvin School.” I am here to say that though we have shrunk in numbers, the younger generation of Calvin historians has not shortened its reach.

Calvin historians today speak directly into urgent national debates about race, religion, immigration, gender, and politics. The most prominent example is Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2020), which is making a run for the New York Times Bestseller list. Du Mez is a Notre Dame student of George Marsden, and her book is drawing reactions similar to those of Marsden’s Fundamentalism in Modern America (Oxford, 1980)—countless readers have said, “This is my story.” Du Mez’s work at Calvin is not unique. Eric Washington has penned several essays on aspects of the Black experience, and the Black Christian experience, that are widely read amid the Black Lives Matter movement, including one on Juneteenth published in Christianity Today online in 2020. William Van Vugt is a leading national authority on immigration, with four books on the subject. “The history of migration is the history of the world,” he writes to begin his newest book, Portrait of an English Migration: North Yorkshire People in North America (McGill-Queen’s, 2021). “Today, migration to Europe and North America is especially significant, for its contributions as well as the backlash against it. Any understanding of our past and present requires attention to migration.” The harrowing and heart-wrenching stories he tells remind me of Syrian and Central American immigrants today.

Other Calvin historians write about issues no less important. Frans van Liere’s book, An Introduction to the Medieval Bible (Cambridge, 2014) describes standards of Biblical interpretation that give current Evangelical emphases some desperately needed context. Karin Maag’s work on worship in John Calvin’s Geneva, and her new book, Worshiping With the Reformers (InterVarsity, 2021) does something similar for liturgy. My book, A History of the Ottoman Empire (Cambridge, 2017), counters Euro-American fantasies of this great empire and indirectly addresses Islamophobia. Bert de Vries’s work at Umm el-Jimal, in Jordan, with extensive community involvement and accountability, has fearlessly defined anti-colonial archaeology over against “Biblical archaeology” and its aggressive Israeli nationalism. Bert’s sudden death earlier this year has been a most poignant marker of our generational change.

Though Sweeney’s review did not mention it, strong institutional support and leadership at the departmental level have been basic elements of the Calvin School. Kate van Liere, the latest in a long line of strong department chairs, faces our extraordinarily difficult circumstances with candor and humaneness. The department’s website, its Facebook page, and this blog are all maintained by our gifted department administrator, who is also a Calvin history grad, Jenna Hunt. As I write, the department is embracing both Classics and Art History, and is becoming the Department of Historical Studies. Organizational challenges are not insignificant, and ought not be overlooked in understanding what Christian historians do. They shape the daily context of our work.

What does the Calvin School of Christian historiography amount to? What are we saying about what history is? Well, a lot, of course, but I believe it can be boiled down to three main points.

  • That history means telling the truth. Christian historians describe reality as best as we are able, with what evidence and testimonials we have at our disposal. We try to tell the truth, sympathetically yet unflinchingly, even when it hurts.
  • That history means taking human spiritual life seriously. This has arguably been the Calvin School’s most important contribution over many decades, and it still matters. Human beings are spiritual beings, and their spiritual lives need to be integrated into the whole of their histories.
  • That Christian historians have a priestly role to play. I first heard it put this way by Robert Sweetman, the single most significant influence on my formation as a Christian historian before he left Calvin for Toronto, where he became the President of the Institute for Christian Studies. Christian historians are priests for the past. We hold out the cup of fellowship to sinners past and present, who are, after all, simply people. No person’s story is any less, or more, important than any other person’s story. We listen to them all, hear their confessions, give them a chance to explain, and offer them a place at the table.

If, as I suspect, despite the diminished numbers of college and university history majors, history is not disappearing from the national conversation but simply changing platforms, then the Calvin School of Christian historiography is still able to speak clearly. In Kristin Du Mez’s interviews and in Eric Washington’s pointed essays, Calvin historians have a steady media presence. William Katerberg, whose own substantial scholarship I have not yet mentioned, brings a contemporary vision to Heritage Hall, the archive of the university, Calvin Seminary, and the Christian Reformed Church, in digitization and particularly in the Origins Online blog. Student-faculty collaborative research continues, through the McGregor Fellows program and in the Umm el-Jimal Project, now managed by our newest faculty member, Darrell Rohl, who has succeeded Bert de Vries. Through these initiatives and others, the Calvin School of Christian historiography will continue its legacy of leadership with a strong, public voice.

Doug Howard is Professor of History at Calvin University. His field of research is the history of the Ottoman Empire, and he is the author of A History of the Ottoman Empire (Cambridge, 2017). In the book, he uses the main theme of the Ottoman worldview to write about how humans cope with calamity, suffering, and the passage of time. At Calvin, Professor Howard teaches courses on ancient history, history of the Middle East, US-Middle East relations, the history of India, and the religion of Islam. He has led off-campus interim courses in Turkey and Oman, with a focus on interfaith relations.

[1] Douglas A. Sweeney, “History Wars, I: Taking a Shot at Redemption,” Books and Culture (May-June 1997); https://www.booksandculture.com/articles/1999/mayjun/9b3043.html

One thought on “Whatever happened to the Calvin School of Christian Historiography?

  1. Herman Praamsma

    Proud to be a Calvin history major – still remember with deep affection teachers like Ed Vankley, Howard Rienstra, and George Marsden whose American Social and Intellectual History class was simply outstanding! Keep it going!

    Liked by 1 person

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