Will we allow history to critique us?

When reading historical figures, do we allow ourselves to be critiqued by them? Or, do we stand over them from the vantage point of some ‘far superior’ late modern position?

There has been an interesting interaction between Ben Myers (Faith and Theology) and George Marsden in response to Marsden’s Stone Lectures at Princeton. Myers’ big worry about Marsden’s methodology for reading Edwards, and any historical figure for that matter, is that in distinguishing between Edwards’ great “‘perennial ideas’ (e.g. his doctrine of the Trinity) and his outdated nonessential ideas (e.g. his biblical literalism, his millennialism, and so on)” we isolate ourselves from being critiqued by him:

I realise that Marsden was only sketching some brief remarks on historical method, but I think this represents a deeply flawed approach to the question of how we can learn from the Christian past. If we learn from the past by distinguishing the timeless “perennial core” from the nonessential (i.e. flawed) elements, then we’re acting as though our own commitments are the final arbiter of history – we’re assuming that history has found its goal in us. And one of the unfortunate side-effects of this approach is that we’re no longer in a position to be critiqued by history. This would explain the strange fact that Marsden didn’t find any contemporary critical significance in Edwards’ millennialism, his doctrine of progress, or his theology of the election of nations. (Seriously, isn’t all this just a little relevant to American identity and to US foreign policy?).

…Once we perceive that a thinker like Jonathan Edwards was “ultimately concerned with the Christian faith,” it becomes impossible to distinguish between any timeless “core” and the mere “husk” of culturally-bound ineptitudes. Instead, by encountering the strangeness and offensiveness of Edwards’ ideas, we are encountering something new and unexpected about the nature of Christian identity itself. And this means that our own assumptions about Christian identity have also become less certain and less secure. Edwards is now not merely a curiosity or the source of a few timeless verities; now, he becomes a question to us. (Read the rest of Myers remarks here).

Toward clarifying his intent in the Princeton lectures, George Marsden recently responded to Myers by posting some relevant sections from the lectures. According to the text of the lecture itself (exerpted below) Marsden is actually in agreement with Myers’ worry about our ability to learn from historical figures:

I want to argue that we can also gains some valuable insights and challenges to our culture and or cultural assumptions from the likes of Edwards. In order to do so we need to be alert to be able to sort out the lasting insights of the great minds of the past from the non-essential assumptions of another era with which those perennial truths may be intertwined. Learning to do that is, it seems to me, one of the great values of studying history. We try to understand another era not to simply dismiss it as curiously different and inferior to our own, but to be able to takes its peculiarities into account so that we can learn from its greatest thinkers.

In fact sometimes we can gain some great insights from the profound thinkers of the past about our own times just because they lived in times so different from our own. Listening to them in their own contexts may have an effect similar to refreshing insights that we might gain from living for a time in a foreign country.

Reading the interaction makes you realize that Myers and Marsden are very close to being on the same page, but the fundamental question raised by the discussion is incredibly relevant for us today: Is the critical interaction with historical figures only one-way traffic? In other words, do we let the insights of Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, or even Schleiermacher and Arminius (dare I say) to correct and critique us?

Taking Schleiermacher as an example for a moment, my earliest exposure to him in evangelical contexts took an entirely critical stance; he was worth reading only for the sake of learning from his mistakes (and just barely worth that effort). Karl Barth is another example of a significant theologian that was for many years shuned by the evangelical theological community in America because his view of scripture didn’t accord well with conservative inerrantism. I find myself completely dissatisfied with this approach to historical theologians – as if we have the corner on theological methodology, orthodoxy, and perspective.



3 thoughts on “Will we allow history to critique us?

  1. This is an important post. I like Marsden’s response and especially his point about “great insights from the profound thinkers of the past about our own times…” I have found this to be my experience as a budding theologian. Reading history and historical writings are little less than conversations with the greatest thinkers who ever lived. Also, these bright lights have passed the test of time. How many contemporaries of historical theologians like Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Owens and Schleiermacher have been sifted out over time, leaving us the rare gems who’ve been preserved.

    In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis wrote about “chronological snobbery,” the disposition of assuming historical arts and sciences are inferior to contemporary ones. Could there be a generation more guilty of this than ours? Through technology, we have more access to historical resources than any generation ever, and yet we remain disinterested because of our fascination with “new” thoughts.

    We ought not think the cost of ignoring history is merely a lack of illustrative options in the classroom or from the pulpit. If we ignore history, we should not surprised when people digress to prior states of ignorance. May it never be that Augustine’s insight into conversion, Luther’s understanding of justification, Owen’s teaching on mortifying sin and the Trinity, Edward’s understanding of revival and proper religious affections, Bunyan’s allegorical genius, and Spurgeon’s ability to craft sermons are completely lost to God’s people, but it could happen.

    Therefore, I agree we should approach historical figures with open hearts and open minds. We come to these writings humbly, recognizing while history might still forget us, it has already proved them. So they ought to be revered and studied. It should greatly motivate and inspire us to think how much more these great thinkers could have accomplished with laptops, the internet and Bible software. They didn’t get to live in these days, but we do. Let us live worthy of our times and use our opportunities to stamp out our own contributions to the great conversation.

  2. Andrew, thanks for stopping in and reminding us of the need to read historical figures humbly ‘with open hearts and open minds’. The tricky thing it seems to me is finding the right balance between ‘reverence’ with a ‘critique’. Surely figures from our past such as J. Edwards and Barth have a great deal to teach us if we let them, but they also shouldn’t be read with such reverence that we fail to point up their own mistakes, short-sightedness, and false assumptions.

    This is one of my worries about the ‘Young Calvinists’ movement in the States right now. I haven’t followed it closely enough to say for sure, but from it seems to read Reformed figures like Calvin and Edwards without a critical eye whatsoever.


  3. Pingback: More on historical methodology « scientia et sapientia

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