Interpreting Christian History: The Challenges of the Churches' Past
Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2005, ISBN: 9780631215233; 292pp.; Price: £15.99
Date accessed: 30 May, 2023
Euan Cameron, former Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Newcastle, now Henry Luce III Professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has written a fascinating and, in many ways, remarkable study. It contains much that may be of interest to professional religious historians, to historians of ideas, to students and teachers of theology, and to the general reader. In addition, its approach neatly demonstrates the dilemmas facing historians of Christianity who are themselves religiously committed, and the contrasting audiences for writing on Christian history.
Cameron’s central enterprise, as outlined in the Preface and developed in the Introduction, is one that is of pivotal importance to many historians of religion in general, and of Christianity in particular, yet entirely beside the point to others. The usefulness of studying Christian history for many, if not most, Christians lies in the degree to which it aids the process of identifying which elements of the inheritance of one or other of the denominations constitute part of the ‘core’ of the faith, and which may safely be reformed, re-ordered, or discarded. This set of priorities may well be familiar to church historians working in some denominational theological colleges, and also conceivably (although less likely) in university departments of theology or divinity. Cameron rightly identifies the damage done by an uncritical use of the past to settle issues in the contemporary church, and the problematic nature of the notion of a timeless, ‘pure’ core content that can be traced developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit throughout the millennia of the Church’s history. As the archbishop of Canterbury recently put it, ‘When people set out to prove that nothing has changed, you can normally be sure that something quite serious has’ (1). In many ways, this view of the history of doctrine as the progression and ‘emergence’ of key ideas, detached and floating free of context and free from the minds required to think them, sounds very much like the style of writing of the history of political ideas that Quentin Skinner so effectively destroyed over thirty-five years ago (2).
The second, and diametrically opposed, approach is that prevailing in most secular history departments. This sets aside entirely all consideration of the ‘truth’ or otherwise of religious statements and practices, and seeks to understand those statements and practices purely in terms of their functions in the society in which they are embedded and from which they grow. To pose questions of ‘truth’ attracts the taint of the most partisan historical writing of the past, most often, but not exclusively, concerning the Reformations. Having delineated this seemingly-irreconcilable opposition, Cameron seeks to identify a Third Way, for which this volume is both a manifesto and a series of exploratory essays. Nailing his own colours firmly to the mast, he correctly identifies the fact that for most Christians the adoption of a thorough-going relativism—the abandonment of any core in historic Christianity—would surely be difficult to accept. Thus to capitulate would truly be to build one’s house on sand. For Cameron, there does exist an ‘essential Christianity’, reflecting the immutable nature of God. However, all visible Christianities are always and everywhere a composite of this eternal core, and the inevitable situation of the Church and its members in particular places, cultures, and languages. Cameron then looks to assert that, whilst it would be impossible ever to sort out definitively the core from the time-bound and conditioned, it is nevertheless possible for historians, by a process of ‘triangulation’ of different periods and churches, to infer useful things from the churches’ past.
After a brief overview of Christian history in chapter 1, designed mainly for the non-specialist reader, in chapter 2 (‘Constantly shifting emphases in Christian history’), Cameron looks to draw out some examples of periods in the churches’ history in which a particular and repeating pattern of development can be detected. For Cameron, Christians have often collectively seized upon a particular practice or doctrine as particularly expressive of a need or useful as a tool. These particular elements of the faith, often blameless and indeed admirable as means of Christian perfection, have often become ends in themselves. Such practices have often then been elaborated upon and developed in such a way as to conflict with, and distract from, other, arguably more important, principles, thus leading to an unbalanced and distorted whole. These shifts of the centre towards one extreme or another are often accompanied by a lesser, but nonetheless clear, counter-movement, such as the emergence of Lollardy in the context of late-medieval sacramentalism. Sometimes, but not always, these imbalances have led to the outgrowing structures collapsing under their own weight, and a re-balancing of the church occurring—a prime example being that of the Reformations. Without claiming that the ‘core’ elements thus obscured and then recovered are necessarily easy to discern, Cameron convincingly lays out examples of such a pattern in the medieval church, taking in examinations of asceticism and martyrdom in the medieval period, and Protestant emphases on catechesis and the integrity of the visible church community since the Reformation. Cameron is not concerned to establish any grand narrative of why this pattern should be, although he provides much material for the theological pursuit of such a question as he proceeds. His aim, and one which is achieved, is to demonstrate the pertinence of such a pattern, and the use of a wide enough historical lens to discern it, for the enterprise of writing Christian history.
Chapter 3 examines the status and development of church history as a distinct and self-conscious activity from Eusebius to the late-twentieth century. Whilst making no claims of exhaustiveness, this section is an admirably concise and, on the whole, convincing narrative of changing priorities, and fills a gap in the literature. In order to show that his approach is not purely a late-twentieth century exercise in relativism, Cameron demonstrates that historians of the churches have for five centuries been dealing with just such an awareness of the flawed and time-bound nature of the historic church. The writing of church history is to a great degree predicated upon the ecclesiological point from which one begins. Particularly interesting is Cameron’s account of the development of the relationship of sixteenth century theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, with the Catholic past. The crucial shift in Reformation church history was the jettisoning of any emphasis on the integrity of the hierarchy as a mark of the True Church, and the relocation of that essence in the presence of a saving remnant, however small. Christian thinkers were for the first time faced with the task of identifying how and why the institutional church could have become so corrupt as to cease to be a True Church. This necessitated a new relationship with the historic church. Cameron also draws out the incongruous co-existence of this increasingly critical approach to sources with the continued attribution of influence to divine or Satanic agency, and the reading of church history through the prism of the Apocalypse. As his narrative proceeds into the modern period, Cameron rightly identifies the crucial nineteenth-century withdrawal of professional historians from explicit theological reflection on the implications of their work; a task that was picked up almost at the same point by theologians, and latterly by sociologists of religion.
In chapter 4, the work reaches its theological core, and as such is the point at which many, if not most, historians of religion may choose to stop reading. To do so, however, would be a shame. Cameron samples some of the attempts of historically-informed theologians to solve the central epistemological problem outlined in the Introduction: is it possible to develop an historico-theological method with which to begin to discern the core elements of Christian doctrine and practice from the history of the flawed, human, error-prone institutions that are the churches? Whether or not the reader accepts the validity of, or sees any point to, such an undertaking, there is much suggestive material for historians of ideas along the way. Fascinating conjunctures are presented between Hegelian thought and the currents within German liberal Protestant theology of the nineteenth century. The reaction of Karl Barth, in the context of the turmoil of world war, against the profound optimism concerning human nature of many of his predecessors also suggests many fruitful avenues of new research. For this reviewer, with interests in British history, the absence of British, and in particular Anglican, theologians from this endeavour is striking, and indicates much about the Church of England’s own and perhaps rather particular view of its own past. What is perhaps of the greatest general interest in this section is the picture it gives of a sister discipline to history grappling with many of the same issues relating to language and epistemology, globalization and social change that have exploded to the surface in recent years.
In summary, Cameron has produced a work that, whilst unlikely to surprise period specialists in matters of detail, may profitably be read as an examination of a crucially important part of church history, and as a peculiarly fascinating meditation on Christian history, theology and the relationship between them.
- R. Williams, Why study the Past? (London, 2005) p. 4. Back to (1)
- Q. Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, History and Theory, 8 (1969) 3–53. Back to (2)
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.