Ordinary vs. providential
But what about God? Asked about the anti-supernaturalism of history, Noll made a distinction between what he called "ordinary" and "providential" history. Ordinary history, he said, limits itself to "evidence and causes and effects that almost everyone can be convinced might have taken place." While ordinary history might look quite secular, Noll sees it as fundamentally Christian in its presuppositions and worldview. He compared it to science. Christian scientists do their work with confidence because they believe that the world will make sense, and that God has made it possible for the human mind to understand the world.
So with the historian. "If I want to study the history of the American Revolution, I'm presupposing that something real took place, that the evidence left corresponds in some way to what really took place, that I'm intelligent enough to understand that evidence, that I'm able to put together a plausible explanation of cause and effect that might get us close to the truth," Noll said. "All those enterprises I see as implicitly dependent on a Christian view of God."
Noll seemed to imply that ordinary history, while it depended on God, would never have much to say about God. For as soon as someone contended that God had acted in a particular way, the subject would be too contentious to hope for general agreement.
I asked, therefore, about what Noll called "providential" history—history that assumed God's goodness to be at work in history and attempted to trace it. Noll resisted such an approach, saying he believed good providential history could be done, but that he has yet to see good examples of it. Providential history only made sense to "people who already shared your very specific religious position. If someone said the Reformation was God's way of bringing about a reform in the church, I knew that person wasn't a Catholic."
Noll's feelings stem partly from his early research in American history, when he studied how Christian ministers justified the Revolutionary War in their preaching. Most often they spoke of the Revolution as, literally, God's work. "When I really got into it, I came to the conclusion that this was hopeless, bogus. If you use Christian standards, it is very hard to say God brought the Revolution." American patriots painted England as the ultimate in godless tyranny, and drew parallels with the biblical escape from Egypt. Such arguments were nonsense, Noll says.
Noll warns that providential history must be driven by the best possible theology, which focuses on the Cross. "Very strange reversals take place in the Christian story focused on the Cross. The Christ is crucified. Good appears to fail. The monuments of historical goodness—Roman order, Jewish morality—conspire to do unspeakable evil. Good things come out of hopeless situations. Things that are not supposed to happen—the resurrection of the dead—happen, and happen at the center of the universe. If you think Christian theology has a lot of built-in reversals in it, then interpreting events becomes more complicated and not less."
Friday, March 26, 2010
Mark Noll on Providential History & the American Revolution
This was taken from a 2001 article at "Christianity Today":