Five Rival Versions: Jay Green on Christian Historiography

So how do Christians engage in the discipline of history? In a recent book, Covenant College professor Jay Green suggests “five rival versions” of Christian historiography.

Two you’ve encountered already: Historical Study as Search for God is Green’s version of what John Fea means by “providential history,” and Fea’s discussion of integrating Christian belief in incarnation, Imago Dei, and sin is an example of Green’s Historical Study through the Lens of Christian Faith Commitments.

But Green suggests three other models:

Historical Study that Takes Religion Seriously doesn’t require or preclude Christian belief among its practitioners: an atheist can write a serious history of, say, the Puritans (he mentions Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan), just as much as a Christian could write a history of Buddhism, even if they didn’t consciously try to see that religion’s history through the lens of her own faith commitments. (Talk to Prof. Poppinga about how she studies the history of Islam.) But it does view religion as a significant category of the human experience that can be studied via historical questions, research, evidence, and analysis. One open question here: do historians who are themselves religious have any personal insight into the religion they are studying (or religion in general) that might elude their non-religious counterparts? Or does their own religiosity produce blind spots?

Historical Study as Applied Christian Ethics sees “the past through the lens of value-laden commitments informed by Christian faith” and suggests that Christian historians can and should render “specifically Christian moral judgments on the past.” While this was and is frowned on by other historians who view “moralistic” as a negative term, it shows up in a wide array of histories written by Christians, from both the left (Dick Pierard, Randall Balmer, Richard Hughes) and right (Roger Schultz, David Barton, Larry Schweikart) of the political spectrum. Others argue that the study of the past is at least a means of moral reflection and moral formation.

Finally, Historical Study as Christian Apologetic attempts to use disciplined study of the past to make the case for Christianity: e.g., defending the historicity of biblical accounts or crediting Christianity with the flourishing of civilizations and nations (e.g., Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success).

Do any of these other models seem more promising to you than providential history, or the “integration of faith and learning” modeled in Fea’s fifth chapter? What problems do you see with them?

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4 thoughts on “Five Rival Versions: Jay Green on Christian Historiography

  1. I find Green’s argument that people who are not religious can study religion seriously to be very intriguing. Being religious could help a historian gain additional insight in the study of the other religion. But, having been in a few of of Professor Poppinga’s classes, I am aware of the dangers of studying other religions or the history of a religious culture through the eyes of one’s own religion and in making comparisons. It is difficult for a historian to manage biases that may come from his or her religions or personal views with advantages that this enhanced understanding may actually confer to the analysis of history involving religion. So, there does seem to be some merit in Green’s assertion that a historian could make a proper reconstruction just based on empirical answers. So it again becomes a question the extent to which one’s personal experience should be relied upon when attempting to present a neutral, yet interpretive reanimation of the past.

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    • I agree with your thoughts Sarah. I think religious views could help historians as well when looking at certain aspects of the past, however people should be careful when considering crossing paths with other cultures. Providential history could help give insight other people may have not seen before, but Green’s consideration of moral views should be looked into too when doing so.

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      • Can you elaborate, Braeden? *Why* should we “be careful when considering crossing paths with other cultures”? (or) *What* about Green’s “consideration of moral views should be looked into”?

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  2. I agree with the points that Sarah and Braeden made in their posts. I do not think it would be possible to fully understand a religion that you do not believe in. For example, if you are not a Christian, I believe that it would be really difficult to truly understand how much God loves you. So when it comes to studying a religion that you do not believe in, there will always be holes. I also think that the concept of Historical Study as a Christian Apologetic attempt poses an interesting concept. The idea that you can use historical events to defend Christianity is an intriguing one. That being said, it is hard to definitively acknowledge events as being directly ordained from God, or a reason for his existence. For example, some would argue that 9/11 was a punishment from God on America, because it’s values were out of line. There is no way to definitively prove that is true or false. For this reason, although it is an interesting concept, I do not feel as if it is possible to use Historical Study as a Christian Apologetic attempt.

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