History and Theology: 5 Variations

The following is an attempt at a typology of the various ways in which history and theology may cross pollinate and inter implicate one another’s domains of study.

  • History of Theology. This is a branch of history. Its object of study happens to be theological discourse, but it deploys broadly critical-historical tools of analysis in order to generate a narrative of the past. For an example consider Jaroslav Pelikan’s magisterial 5 vol. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Univ. of Chicago Pr. (1975-1991).
  • Theological History. This is not a branch of history but an approach to historical narration in general. Its object of study is not limited to theological discourse; it can survey any domain of life amenable to historical modes of representation. What’s distinctive here is its willingness to deploy theological categories of description, such as admitting of God as an agent in its causal plot lines . Think the New Testament’s Luke-Acts, Eusebius’ Church History, or Augustine’s City of God.
  • Historical Theology. This is an approach to theological inquiry. It attempts to offer constructive theological proposals on the basis in part of its accounts of the past. Can be contrasted with an approach to theology such as Analytic Theology which tries instead to establish constructive theological proposals primarily on the basis of the acuity and rigor of its conceptual analyses and demonstrations of logical cogency. Think Ephraim Radner’s A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church, Baylor Univ. Pr. (2012).
  • Theology of History. This is not an approach but a branch of theology, a limited subset of its sphere of inquiry. It endeavors to offer a theological description of specific matters like the nature of time, the legibility of the past, the place of history within God’s scheme of revelation and the outworking of his purposes. May partially overlap with another branch of theology, i.e., Eschatology. Think Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation as a soteriology of history. Or think Hans Urs von Balthasar’s A Theology of History or Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Revelation as History.
  • Theological Historiography. This is the interface of theology and philosophy of history. Theological categories will be deployed to evaluate historiographical categories, procedural axioms, and criteria of legitimation. Think Joel B. Green’s “Rethinking ‘History’ for Theological Interpretation,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 5.2 (2011), 159-174.

Best Assigned Readings (Fall 13)

These were the most memorable readings I was assigned from my last term of classes.

  • Elizabeth A. Clark, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn, (Harvard 2004). Read it for an introductory course in historiography. Provides a whirlwind turn of the 20th century’s leading historiographical schools and controversies.
  • Benjamin Kaplan, Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, (Belknap, 2010). Read it for a course in ecclesiology. Informative and entertaining. Filled with the kind of anecdotes to which historians are privy, and novelists envy.
  • Quentin Skinner, “Sir Geoffrey Elton and the Practice of History,” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 7 (1997): 301-316. Also read this one for historiography. Elton was a leading mid-twentieth century historian who advocated for a typically modernist, scientific approach to historical inquiry. Skinner helpfully brings to view some of the grave problems with Elton’s approach.
  • Merry Wiesner-Hanks, “Women, Gender, and Church History,” in Church History, vol. 71, (2002): 600-620. Read this one for historiography too. Clearly I was impressed by the readings for that class. Provides a balanced history of the rise of feminist historiography and examines its current status.

Hans Hillerbrand on the church historian’s task

Hans Hillerbrand on the church historian’s task

“We [church historians] [should] not hesitate to argue vigorously that the avenue through which to understand Western culture is its Christian history. We have been all too timid, I believe, about this. […] We tend to overlook the effects of Christianity on the political, social, economic, and intellectual dimensions of society. As long as we only see it the other way around, that is, as long as we are overwhelmed by how politics, economics, class, gender have impacted Christianity, we have yielded our place and have made ourselves superfluous. Our colleagues in economics, political science, or sociology can do this kind of analysis much better. Some of us might even suggest that historians of Christianity would be better off as members of such departments, since we have neither a distinctive subject matter nor a distinctive methodology. Of course, much of what is done in religion departments could well be done elsewhere in a college and a university. But the issue is not, so it seems to me, the structural alignment of the study of the history of Christianity, but the dictum of its intrinsic, indeed pivotal importance in Western culture. Surely, after we have acknowledged the reality of other factors, non-Christian, non-theological in Western (and since the eighteenth century also global) history, the fundamental importance of Christian history remains. Michael Walzer may well have overstated the case for the Puritan origins of liberal democracy and Max Weber may have been wrong on the Calvinist origins of modem capitalism. Still, they argued for the pivotal importance of our field.”

from “Church History as Vocation and Moral Discipline,” Church History, Vol. 70, No. 1, (2001), 17.

P.S. from Clifford Geertz

“Religion” is everybody’s favorite dependent variable.

from “The Pinch of Destiny: Religion as Experience, Meaning, Identity, Power,” in Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics, (Princeton, 2000), 173.