Christ and the Writing of History

By: Dale M. Coulter
Monday, September 30th, 2013

icon_VersionHistoryA recent question from a friend on Facebook about Mark Noll’s book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind prompted some reflections.

Having gone through the book again, my primary objection would be that it does too little in its drawing out the implications of a commitment to Christ in relation to learning.

For Noll, what really matters is an affirmation of the creeds leading up to Chalcedon and a particular understanding of the atonement he takes from John Stott. These twin affirmations are placed within a solidly Reformed framework to tease out their implications.

For example, in dealing with history Noll is less concerned with drawing out any of the implications of Christology for one’s approach to history than with affirming creedal Christianity as a means of steering between historical skepticism and a naive belief that the past can be objectively and fully reconstructed.

The basis of this affirmation is the creedal insistence that Christianity is historical and the dual natures of the incarnation, which affirms universality and particularity. Noll then deals with the question of providence on the basis of a distinction between general revelation and special revelation that supports his Kuyperian appeal to the presuppositions of the historian.

One wonders how different this would look if the starting point were Irenaeus of Lyons’ understanding of Christ’s work, which sees the Incarnation as the re-living of human history in order to heal humanity and bring them to perfection (deification). The narrative structure of the creeds points toward the narrative of salvation that Irenaeus describes.

On Irenaeus of Lyons’ view, the eternal Son becomes flesh and through a process of growth and development overcomes temptations and subdues the demonic in order to achieve perfection. This was all made possible by the Spirit of the Son at work within the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

What are some possible implications of this different starting point?

  • Following Jesus’ own life and ministry, the church exists to renew history through the ongoing proclamation of the kingdom of God in the power of the Spirit.

The historians’ task, then, is to examine the phenomena accompanying renewal in all of its various forms. This is a place where the task of the Christian historian intersects with the task of any historian.

The historian must enter into the complexities of persons and events to unpack the various ways in which humans attempt to advance culture by reclaiming a past to forge a future. It may even be the case that renewal is a feature of the historical process insofar as societies generally advance by constantly probing, reclaiming, and adapting their past to present realities, which helps the historian understand an important element of her vocation as a historian.

The historian must remember that she is shaping history to speak to a cultural identity in the present as much as she is describing history. It is her job to probe the past as a means of forging a future. By examining the broader historical dynamic of renewal and the formation of cultures, the historian supplies a wide angle of vision from which to interpret the present. In an important sense, the task of the Christian historian to “re-enact” the past for the sake of the present mimics Jesus’ own vocation.

Yet, since this task is not merely one of the Christian historian, one can see the dynamic of renewal at work in the writing of history by other historians as well. This is exactly what Richard Hofstadter thought he was doing when he wrote his work on anti-intellectualism. He was resourcing America’s past to help the nation understand her identity and move beyond it. He was engaged in a form of renewal.

  • Jesus’ movement toward perfection was a synergistic process of growth and development

The connection between Greek Patristic writers and the Wesleyan notion of synergism becomes clear here. Synergism operates as a basic presupposition so that renewal is a developmental process that unfolds as humans cooperate with the manifold display of grace in the world.

Thus the proclamation of the kingdom is really the acting out of the kingdom and this action concerns the creation of a culture that drives humans toward perfection, the sanctified life.

What is the historians’ task in this instance? It is to examine how humans have understood the unfolding of history in the shaping of culture and the individual.

  1. How are humans active players in the creation of culture?
  2. How are humans passive recipients of the social dynamics at work in cultures?
  3. How do humans seek to use culture as a way of forming “a more perfect union”?

In addition, for the Wesleyan, prevenient grace means that the Spirit is indeed at work in this process and that conversions to the good, the true, and the beautiful do occur. These conversions are not to Christ in an explicit way, but akin to Augustine’s reading of Cicero’s exhortation to philosophy (the Hortensius). Augustine claimed in the Confessions that reading Cicero converted his heart and he became a lover of wisdom. This was not simply a notional conversion, but at the level of emotion and desire.

All conversions are manifestations of the grace that heals and sanctifies because the Spirit is always the love that seeks to right human loves. To become a lover of wisdom is to become a lover of God even if, as Paul said at Athens, it is the unknown God to whom this love is directed.

Of course, these conversions are not salvation in the full sense of that term. Neither, however, is this a Reformed notion of common grace in which the activity of the Spirit in culture either reprobates the human heart or keeps the tide of sin at bay. These conversions suggest that the Spirit is at work synergistically in humanity, and culture is a product of that process in some way.

I should be clear that culture is not the kingdom and the kingdom is not the culture. There is no submersion of the one into the other so that the kingdom is simply the unfolding of historical processes. There remain two cities, two cultures or ways of life in the world. The church is at work as an alternative culture within the broader culture and thus seeks to cooperate with what the Spirit is doing in the way Christ himself cooperated. The historian must see himself or herself as part of this larger dynamic.

  • The Spirit’s dramatic movement in the life of Jesus means that history moves through a dynamic of continuity and discontinuity

In this notion, the historian comes face to face with the reality of divine in-breaking into history and the way in which humans encounter God and are thus changed.

The task of the historian is to reflect upon the tension between a continuous process of development and a discontinuous rupture, a break with the past. Awakenings, times of renaissance, etc., represent ruptures in the unfolding of history that alters its course in some way. In exploring the dynamics of populist movements, historians should be sensitive to the way in which ruptures occur in the historical process in a manner analogous to the ruptures experienced in the moment of a crisis encounter with the living God.

This is the same for the history of the natural world as it is for human history. Evolutionary forms represent ruptures in the natural world akin to the way in which populist movements and periods of renaissance do for human history. They point toward the social nature of life and the “exquisite sensitivity” of beings to their environment, to borrow a phrase from chaos theory (the butterfly effect). Moreover, this remains the case whether one is committed to macroevolution or not–all forms adapt to their environment.

This is where the charismatic becomes a formal principle of historical investigation because it elucidates the form of ruptures in the historical process.

  • The Son’s battle with demonic forces underscores the idea that history does not simply progress in a linear fashion 

This leads to another set of questions in terms of how humans seek to redress the evils inherent in their world and what mechanisms they utilize to redress those evils? Under what conditions do humans succumb to forces of evil in their various modes? What role do Christian institutions play in this entire process?

History is not simply an evolutionary progress into some utopian society as some late nineteenth century thinkers proposed in the wake of Darwinian ideas. The historian must be sensitive to causes, both internal and external, that create progress and regress.

If one is going to invoke the tension between the universal and the particular, as Noll does, then one must deal with a host of questions surrounding this tension. Centrally, one should deal with the scandal of particularity: that a first-century Jewish messiah embedded in that culture is the savior of all peoples. This has implications for how one deals with pluralism as a historian.

The scandal of particularity is met by the historian when she analyzes colonial forces at work within the world as a feature of a broader conflict between Christ and the powers. The historian should focus on the way in which minorities grapple with the dominance of larger cultural patterns.

Well, these are my initial thoughts on the matter briefly sketched in haste, as most blogs are. By utilizing Irenaeus of Lyons’ understanding of the work of the eternal Son as a synergistic renewal of history itself, it seems one can come at the question of history in a different way than Noll does.




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Dale M. Coulter
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