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Response to Review no. 565

I am most grateful to Dr Webster for his careful, thoughtful, and sympathetic review. His perception of the purpose behind the book is acute, his analysis is thorough, and his judgments are extremely fair. In fact, there is so little to cavil at in Dr Webster’s discussion of Interpreting Christian History that I considered simply accepting his review with thanks and making no further comment. However, given the valuable opportunity afforded by the format of Reviews in History, it seems a shame entirely to forego the occasion to continue the discussion a little.

First, let me agree entirely with Dr Webster’s characterization of the enterprise, and indeed strengthen it a little. Interpreting Christian History stands intentionally somewhat outside the genre of most historical writing on church history, including the rest of my own work. Many modern church historians conceal their belief stances so thoroughly in their writing that readers find it difficult to discern what the author believes, if anything. Even those historians who do express an overt partisanship (say, the Cambridge school of pro-Catholic church historians of early-modern England) express a historical sympathy for a particular point of view, which may, but need not, reflect allegiance to a corresponding modern church.

In contrast to the typical approach, then, Interpreting Christian History is avowedly a confessional work. I wrote it as a historian whose career had been largely focused on difference, disagreement, and, sometimes violent, discord within western Christianity. Keeping one’s intellectual and faith lives in discrete, hermetically-sealed compartments was not an option for me. The target audience for the book was, therefore, those who, like myself, attempt to sustain a holistic approach to faith, work, life, and intellectual curiosity, acknowledging no impermeable boundaries between these domains. I therefore wonder if Dr Webster is quite right when he conjectures that the concerns of the book are closest to those of students in denominational theological colleges. The questions may be; the answers certainly will not. My worry about some denominational theological education, at least in the United States, is that it is not nearly enough troubled by the historical predicament. Within the vast spaces of North America it was all too easy to construct a world in which one could live as though Thomas Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin were still alive. The book is meant to make those who see their task as merely the purifying and continuing of a single ‘correct’ and orthodox tradition profoundly uneasy.

The book is also written from a theological position, which resembles, but also differs from, that of the liberal Protestantism of a century or so ago. The classic liberal theologians of pre-1914 Germany acknowledged the human and evolving nature of religions (including their own Christianity). However, many were also optimists. They believed that the processes of evolutionary development would ultimately produce a religion more and more thoroughly purged of ‘irrational’ or cultic elements. My own stance agrees with some of the older liberals’ diagnoses, but makes a much more mordant, even pessimistic, prognosis. The tendency to religious excess and hypertrophy is not, for me, a relic of a medieval past to be discarded with the rise of scientific modernity. It is a constant flaw in human religious nature; it will simply take ever new and different forms as one cultural model succeeds another.

The inherent tendency for self-critical insights to decay rapidly is seen dramatically in the period I know best, the sixteenth-century Reformation. As Dr Webster rightly points out, early reformed historical criticism of religion coexisted with an apocalyptic view of history. Some of this reflects the obvious fact that the reformers were not ‘modern’, as cultural historians constantly remind us. However, it also reflects how the initial, self-critical phase of the Reformation was overtaken by partisanship and alienation from the ‘other’. Martin Luther, in On Councils, asked ‘how did we go so wrong that we invented a wrong religion’? The later confessional-orthodox Protestants asked instead ‘how did they go so wrong that they invented a wrong religion’?

While the book is intended to help the historian who is a believer, it also has a message for the theological academy. My suggestion is that, after the nineteenth-century schism between the disciplines of religious history and theology, it is time for meaningful conversation between them to re-start. Yet reluctance to enter into the discussion, in the current climate of thought, will probably come as much from certain kinds of theologians as from (secular) historians. There is a strong movement in western academic theology that seeks to adapt the insights and challenges of postmodernity for the benefit of neo-orthodox dogma. The argument runs as follows. Since postmodern critical theory has demonstrated the fickle and unstable nature of truth-claims about ‘reality’ and the language used to describe it, there is now an opportunity for theologians to validate their own claims for doctrine within a privileged linguistic space that they construct for themselves. Their truth-claims are as valid—or invalid—as anyone else’s. They need not justify themselves by reference to scientific or modernist criteria of truth or reason. Those who advocate this approach often argue that the liberal project to integrate Christian doctrine and a modern perspective led, inevitably, to Christian theology becoming marginalized and discredited. Modernity was fatal to faith, so modernity must be rejected in favour of plural postmodernities.

Of course, history has its postmodernists as theology does. However, most historians have not given up on an integration of, or at least a conversation between, different views of the human predicament to the extent that critical theorists have done. Historians—and a fortiori historians who have an essentialist view of the Christian faith—ought to find the self-isolation of postmodern theologians inside their ‘bubble’ profoundly unrealistic and unacceptable. My critique of such postmodern theologies in chapter four was intended to demonstrate how this avoidance of the historical perspective breaks with a whole tradition of western theological writing, whether that of the liberal Ernst Troeltsch or the neo-orthodox Karl Barth.

Dr Webster’s comment that there is a paucity of reference to Anglican theologians in my book offers an interesting reminder and a provocative thought. British subjects are not entirely absent from the story, whether it is John Foxe or James Ussher in the post-Reformation era, or Alasdair MacIntyre and John Milbank from the present day. However, it is undoubtedly true that Anglicanism, perhaps because it has contrived to incorporate at least two conflicting views of Christian history almost from its outset, has struggled less with this issue than other traditions (and I say this as an Anglican myself). More importantly, though, Interpreting Christian History never claims to offer more than a sampling exercise in the vast array of Christian thought and historical testimony. There will be many potentially valuable source texts, and even more secondary discussions of the subject, that I inevitably failed to exploit in the urgency of completing the project. One engaging theological treatment of the subject from a neo-orthodox and Catholic perspective, Terrence W. Tilley’s History, Theology, and Faith: Dissolving the Modern Problematic (Maryknoll, NY, 2004) came to my notice too late to be addressed in the text. Archbishop Rowan Williams’s Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church (London, 2005) only appeared as my own book was in production.

Since Dr Webster has been too gracious and too generous to say this, let me say it: my book is a preliminary essay, necessarily unfinished, needing much more reflection and thought. If it in some small way contributes to the revival of a debate that has been dormant for too long, and assists in bringing historical and theological thought into a new and creative form of dialogue, it will have succeeded far beyond its deserts.