Christian History: Theology in the Background

With a few exceptions, the vast majority of you agreed with John Fea that Christian historians generally ought not to engage in providential history. For example, Omar argued that “there are certain limitations to how much we can find out about what happened to a particular individual, country, object, etc. Using Providential History is the same as saying, This is how it happened, there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it.” And while Mikalah was “not against someone thinking that an event was an act of God,” ultimately she concluded that “[t]here is no way one can prove either side of the argument and because of this it would be irresponsible to assert that God’s will is fact.”

However, several of you then turned to Fea’s argument (in ch. 5) that specific theological ideas could implicitly shape Christian work in the discipline of history. For example, Sarah was taken with Fea’s emphasis on depravity and incarnation: “The fallen nature of humanity obscures what historians are able to know, but the incarnational approach gives credence to how just studying the creation may be thinking both Christianly and historically. And Matt thought that the doctrine of providence itself shouldn’t be dismissed as irrelevant to our work: “To be a Christian Historian does NOT mean that you must approach history providentially, but it certainly means that you have to wrestle with what it means for God to be sovereign within your field of study.”

What’s an example of a belief that shapes how you ask and answer questions about the past? Do you think this is unique to Christian, or other religious, historians?

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2 thoughts on “Christian History: Theology in the Background

  1. I agree that we should not purposefully engage in providential history, but I also realize that the way I view the world has been tremendously shaped by my faith. To a certain degree I can not look at some parts of history in a non-Christian perspective, because either I do not know how to, or because my Christian identity is too tied into that event to be unbiased. This can certainly be a problem in places such as access to an academic discourse, but it can also be beneficial. Professor Gehrz mentioned on Monday how when he was teaching a class on Stalin it was heard to have a discussion on evil with people from many different beliefs. However, as Christians we can have these discussions on the nature of evil, because we recognize that there not only is such a thing as evil, but also that there is hope. Secondly, if we recognize our own biases, we can have conversation with those who are not Christians. We can learn from people of other beliefs how they view certain events and this gives us a different angle to look at events from.

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  2. I agree with Aidan that providential history may not be an appropriate approach for the greater historical conversation, and I appreciate Mikalah’s conclusion that God’s will is not necessarily something that can be proven. However I also agree with Aidan in that how we approach history can reflect a Christianly attitude in our study because of the personal nature of the impact of faith. Empathy is a huge factor in how I deal with the past, and this is affected by my religious beliefs. Fea describes the imago Dei approach to history in chapter 5, and that, combined with the reality of a fallen humanity are essential to how I interact with the past. I see every figure in history to be completely human, created in the image of God, but prone to temptations and mistakes, just like all humans throughout time, and just like me today. I seek to meet them (the subjects of study) where they are at. However, I do not think that this is unique to Christians. Perhaps the language that I as a Christian use to describe this practice is unique to my beliefs, but the ideas are not. I think that historians of other beliefs practice history very similar to this. I would be intrigued to read more non-Christian historians’ personal approaches to history and explore their reasoning.

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