Whatever Happened to Christian History?
Thirty years ago, evangelical Christians could claim perhaps one prominent American historian. Today, it's easy to name half a dozen well-known scholars. Dozens of self-consciously evangelical professors and graduate students all but guarantee that the next generation of historians will have a strong Christian presence. For Christians anxious to win respect in academia, the field of history tells a story of success. But so what? To succeed, some would ask, must you sell your soul? Must you agree not to mention God except as an abstraction?
The debate began in 1991, when Yale's Harry Stout, a prominent evangelical, published a biography of revivalist George Whitefield. Stout emphasized Whitefield's use of techniques to influence crowds, an emphasis that went exactly opposite the traditional Christian notion that Whitefield depended entirely on the work of the Holy Spirit to convert sinners. Stout's portrait scandalized some, particularly readers of the conservative Calvinist Banner of Truth magazine. Iain H. Murray, editorial director of the Banner of Truth Trust, wrote that Stout's portrait of Whitefield was "barely recognizable" and that Stout (and others of a "new approach to evangelical history") had failed to write history from "the standpoint of supernaturalism."
Stout responded to the criticism, writing in Banner of Truth that professional historians "agree to settle for something less than ultimate explanations," and that the academic "canons of evidence and interpretation" leave no room for notions of providence and the work of the Holy Spirit. Westminster Seminary historian D. G. Hart (to whom I am indebted for an account of the fracas) summed up the crime in mock horror: Stout "was guilty of saying that in good history, that is, history practiced by university professors, such questions did not seem to matter."
Banner of Truth's reaction was undoubtedly parallel to that of many a Christian exposed to historical scholarship, whether in a class on biblical studies or a course on the founding of America. Where is God in history? Historians seem resolutely skeptical whenever acts of God are mentioned, and they are nearly as doubtful of religious motivations. Historians seem determined to tell the story of the world without recourse to "the God hypothesis."
And the same questions that Christians have posed to secular historians are now being posed to the best-known evangelical historians, who have become major players in the American academy by writing history like their secular counterparts. If Christian historians write history like everyone else, what is their value?
I have met many scholars whose offices shamelessly display an infatuation with books, but Mark Noll may be the limit. When I interviewed him in his office at Wheaton College, he had so many books and papers stacked up that they formed a small wall across the front of his desk, making it necessary to talk to him as though through a cashier's window. Tall, cautious in demeanor, Noll seemed uncomfortable speaking about himself. Only when we began to discuss history did his energy level rise.
Noll had just completed what some would consider a revolutionary role, being the first to fill a new position at Harvard Divinity School dedicated to evangelical scholarship. The confluence of proud Harvard with devout Wheaton, best known for its famous graduate Billy Graham, suggested an unprecedented acceptance of evangelical scholarship. Noll modestly downplayed the honor. "As I tried to tell the [Harvard Divinity] dean, having a historian come in is pretty safe. When they get a biblical scholar who says two-thirds of the last century's practice of New Testament criticism is worthless, then it's going to be more interesting."