Friday, March 26, 2010

Mark Noll on Providential History & the American Revolution

This was taken from a 2001 article at "Christianity Today":

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."


secular square said...

Providential history would require more than "the best possible theology;" it would require direct revelation from God. Because that would no doubt be a private, subjective experience that takes place in the mind (or heart--to used a more religious term)of the historian, it does not serve as evidence that other historians could examine. And how do you footnote it? My Turabian manual is a little old and streamlined; maybe the Chicago Manual of Style has a section on how to cite divine revelation in a manuscript.


Tom Van Dyke said...

"Somebody who has some religious sensibility," [George] Marsden notes, "is in a much better position to say, 'Look, these people are driven by their religious commitment.'. … There's a tendency of reductionism in history, to reduce something to some essential cause, [an] economic or social factor. I think it's worth giving religious factors their due. You don't have to be a religious person to do that, but certainly it helps. Most American historians just don't have any antenna for recognizing that."

Bingo. It's like trying to tell the history of the Middle East without any knowledge of Islam.

Richard Lovelace: You simply write differently if you are, on the one hand, an academic historian and on the other hand, if you are writing a historical theology of Christian experience. [A spiritual theologian] is going to have to come down and say, Was it Christian or not? Was it renewal, or was it a blind alley that led nowhere?"

Exactly. Which is why all this nonsense about the Revolution being against the "true [God's] meaning" of Romans 13 is irrelevant on this blog. It's theology, not history.

Mormons have a far more detailed providential account of America's Founding than anybody, but they seem to be able to tell the difference.

Joe Winpisinger said...

"Exactly. Which is why all this nonsense about the Revolution being against the "true [God's] meaning" of Romans 13 is irrelevant on this blog. It's theology, not history"

It is history if the discussions were had then. Mayhew's sermon tells us it was and Adam's tells us that his sermon had a great deal of influence. I think what is extremely relevant is that these "rational" interpretations preceded the Enlightenment. Thus, Jon cannot claim some form of oddball Christianity that twisted the Bible aided the revolution.

Romans 13 is a small brick in his much larger argument. But a brick that if taken out can cause the whole wall to collapse.


Vincent Harris said...

and why would 'the best possible theology focus on the cross'?

Vincent Harris said...
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