On the Development of Protestant Historiography (Part II)

[Continued from Part I. Again, the bold-faced headings are taken from the book.]

Confessional Histories in the Age of Orthodoxy

In the 17th century age of confessionalism, all sides continued to use history merely to support their own factional claims against everyone else. Using documents as supports, “disputes were played out endlessly in immense volumes of controversial literature, which won nobody over, and occasionally contrived to create new fissures and disagreement within each denomination” (pg. 136).

On the Lutheran side, Johannes Pappus (d. 1610) and Lucas Osiander the Elder (1534-1604) both wrote works called Epitome of Church History. Pappus liked to compare his own opponents with ancient heretics (thus, Zwinglians were “Manichaeans,” Roman Catholics were “Pelagians,” and Swiss Reformed were heirs of Berengar of Tours). Osiander the Elder, across 3,840 pages (1,158 of which covered just the Reformation!) continually referred to the simplicity of the ancient, apostolic Church as over against the developed corruptions of later eras. Significantly, as Cameron summarizes, Osiander’s view was negatively-oriented: “The primitive Church was thus defined in terms of the things it did not do, but which the present-day Roman Catholics did; and which the Lutherans had removed” (pg. 137). Prior to Gregory I, Osiander was content largely to argue that most of the “evidence” for Roman Catholic claims was spurious and forged. After Gregory I he shifted to “denouncing the genuine evidence of terminal theological and moral decay in the medieval Church” (pg. 139). What was new about Osiander’s history was that he just as vigorously attacked other Protestants as he did Catholics.

On the Calvinist side, Abraham Scultetus (1566-1624) wrote a history of the first 20 years of the Reformation, Annals of the Renewal of the Gospel Throughout Europe, published between 1618 and 1620. Because the Reformed were generally more inclusive than the Lutherans, Scultetus’ criticism of other Protestants was less severe than the Lutheran historians. He “regarded the Reformation not as a single thread of development, but as a bundle of parallel strands, where different leaders in different communities and churches pressed for essentially the same program” (pg. 140).

For the Catholics, few seem to have done as much as Cesare Baronius (1538-1607). Baronius conceived of his task as writing a reply to the Lutheran Magdeburg Centuries. This he did, in 12 huge volumes called the Ecclesiastical Annals which took the story up to the year of the accession of Innocent III (1198). Baronius possessed something of the new critical spirit that was developing in scholarship, and as such he often took issue with previous Church historians. He complained particularly of the Medieval chroniclers, whom he said “often wove in old wives’ tales [aniles fabulas], the ravings of old men, the rumors of the common herd, not without great prejudice to the solid foundation of other things” (pg. 141). Intriguingly, apparently knowing the power of choosing a structure for historical interpretation, Baronius measured the passage of years in terms not just of the years of the Incarnation (A.D.), but of the reigning emperors and reigning popes. This created the impression throughout his record that “just as the emperors were the mainsprings of all political activity in the Empire…so were the popes the mainsprings of all activity in the Church” (pg. 142).

Nevertheless, for all his desire to be critical, Baronius could be just as injudiciously selective as any Protestant polemicist, and just as driven by purely theological concerns to suppress or magnify documentary evidence as needed: “…Baronius believed a priori that the continuous witness of the Church in intepreting Scripture was valid and authoritative. The possibility that the same text might be interpreted in different ways at different times, or that doctrine might evolve or develop (as opposed to being simply “clarified” through controversy) was anathema to him” (pg. 144). This belief led him to polemical distortions of his own, of equal gravity as those indulged in by many Protestants.

Reading through this part of the survey, I believe that Cameron’s description of “the tragedy of ‘confessionalized’ Church history” is right on the mark (pg. 145).

Writing Christian History in the Shadow of the Enlightenment

The exaggerated, sectarian, polemicized history of the 17th century began to be somewhat mollified in the 18th. The coming of the Enlightenment, which brought increased willingness to denounce all forms of “dogmatism” (even to the point of rejecting all Christian claims as equally “superstitious” and “fanatical”) seemed to require some adjustment in attitudes, though of course the older views still remained and could easily bubble to the surface merely by a historian accepting or rejecting a certain document in his work (pg. 145). Cameron chooses to illustrate this era with two German Lutheran historians, Gottfried Arnold and Johann Lorenz von Mosheim.

Arnold (1666-1714) was a member of the Lutheran Pietists, a group which had reacted against what they thought of as the cold, dead orthodoxy of 17th century Lutheranism. Though rejecting the scholastic dogmatic attitude, interestingly the Pietists seem to have taken a different spin on the basic historical motif seen throughout Part I of trying to recover an earlier, pristine form of the Faith. Arnold shared with other Protestants the conviction that this early purity had been lost to increasing elaboration and Gospel-obscuring institutional pride and power. Organizing his work An Impartial History of the Church and Heresies (1699-1700) on the same pattern as the Magdeburg Centuries, Arnold nevertheless departed from the earlier tradition by attempting to view “heretics” sympathetically rather than polemically: “Arnold believed that most if not all ‘heretics,’ even in the early Church, had been misrepresented and blackened by their orthodox opponents. He strove as far as possible to reach past the misrepresentation and to present the ‘heretics’ in a clearer and possibly fairer light.” One way he did this was to highlight the various failings, doctrinal and personal, of the orthodox parties. Pelagius, for instance, lived a virtuous and modest life even as his opponents testified, but Jerome had serious trouble controlling his temper and rhetoric against the “heretic.” Arnold does not appear to have used this tactic to discredit orthodoxy per se, but only to allow for a more sympathetic understanding of the opponents: “The ‘heretics’ may indeed have been heretics; but those whose conduct fell so far short of the supreme Christian ethical command of mutual love and care were in the wrong as well, even if their doctrines were technically correct” (pg. 147).

Though he claimed to be writing an “impartial” history Arnold’s work is full of advocacy of mystical traditions, whose members have often been found among the heterodox. Cameron summarizes: “In these and various other ways Arnold eroded the idea that all the right was necessarily on the side of the ‘orthodox’” (pg. 148).

Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (1694-1755) published his widely-influential work Four Books of Institutes of Church History in installments, the last of which appeared the year of his death. Unlike Arnold the Pietist, Mosheim wrote more within the stream of Enlightenment thinking in the sense of striving for less partisanship in his reporting (and consequently, more critique of those who were openly partisan). He had no sympathy for the common historiographical approach of both Catholics and Protestants that automatically identified “truth” (according to the particular historian) with what “the primitive Christians believed.” Like all Enlightenment thinkers he had strict standards of what counted as “rational,” and did not hesitate to lambaste views which fell short of those standards as “foolish,” “absurd,” “ridiculous,” “superstitious,” and “fanatical” (pg. 150).

Unlike previous Protestant writers he did not organize Church history according to an apocalyptic eschatological theme. Because of his practice of sociological analysis of human behavior in the religious sphere, he is sometimes called “the Father of modern Church history.” True to the form we have seen time and again, “he believed that pure monotheistic religions tended to suffer contamination from the surrounding environment” (pg. 150). So just as Judaism was contaminated by Cabbalistic philosophy, Christianity was contaminated by Platonism and pagan superstition. Also in keeping with the simplicity theme, he believed that God had providentially caused the first Apostles to be uneducated so that their wisdom could not be attributed to human causes. Mosheim was sharply critical of both saints and heretics, sparing neither the early ascetics who endured “the useless hardships of hunger, thirst, and inclement seasons,” nor the later Medieval sectarians “whose pestilential fanaticism was a public nuisance to many countries in Europe during the space of 400 years” (pg. 151). He tended toward skepticism of “pretended prodigies” in ancient records, but he nevertheless retained his Christian belief in the miraculous.

Toward “Modern” Histories of Christianity

As Cameron reports it, “The historiography of the Christian Church from the mid-eighteenth century onwards is largely a story of secularizing religious history Christian history gradually came to be written as though from a dogmatically more or less neutral stance.” Historical analysis came to be detached from personal commitments (pg. 152). A key figure in this development was Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886). In tune with the intellectual current of his day Ranke was an extremely meticulous scholar, bringing to bear on his accounts practically every scrap of primary documentation he could find (largely from private archival materials) and weaving it together into engaging narratives filled with minute day-to-day events. By this means he illuminated history in a way that had scarcely been done before. Says Cameron, “The historical technique of day-by-day political narrative tends to make absolute value judgments impossible to sustain. One is too constantly aware of the mingled virtues and vices of the actors, and of the multiple reasons, worthy and unworthy, why they chose to act as they did.” Though a Lutheran in nominally Protestant Prussia, for Ranke “Catholicism was not an apocalyptic threat, but a remote irrelevance to his everyday concerns” (pg. 153).

Interestingly, Ranke’s work History of the Popes, a minute account of the politics of the Catholic Church in Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries, was “so bold and innovative…that [it] still, to this day, shapes much of what is written about the Counter-Reformation” (pg. 153). A German himself, Ranke seems while writing about the papacy during this period to convey the impression common to Germans even in the 16th century that “Germans believed themselves to be on the whole morally serious and religious people, while Italians were skeptical and self-indulgent materialists.” Still, Ranke nearly manages to achieve the ideal of detached scholarship prevalent in the 19th century: personalities and character mattered more to him than ideologies, such that he could even be sympathetic to “good” Catholics despite himself being a Protestant. Ranke set an example for generations of historians to come: “It was usually still possible to detect from which of the available confessional perspectives (or indeed none) a historian was writing, but that perspective had ceased to inform or structure the presentation of the evidence or the questions asked of it. The ideal for a Church historian was to write in such a way that the reader could not be absolutely sure where the historian stood on a personal religious level” (pg. 154).

Cameron believes that Ranke’s attitude reflects the highpoint of “historicism,” the theory of history “that theologies always and inevitably reflect the values of their own time, and implied (in its most developed form) that the values of one age do not have any necessary superiority over those of any other.” An additional factor influencing his aim for detachment was the fact that throughout the 19th century the range and number of sources available to historians expanded prodigiously as armies of scholars traveled the world seeking out, collating, and analyzing the treasures contained deep within archives and libraries. This was the era when the Vatican Archives would be opened, as I have discussed in my posts Fear, Honor, and Interest and the Records of the Council of Trent and A Victim of an Age…Over Which He Had No Control. The glut of materials that became available during this time ensured that Church historians, like all scholars, would have to become specialists. The “universal history,” in other words, has become all but impossible except perhaps in multi-volume works which combine the efforts of numerous specialists attacking the same problem from different angles (pg. 156).

In this climate, the ideal of detachment seems almost impossible not to achieve, since no one at any time really knows the whole picture. Debates among those who study history professionally now largely take the form of intra-field academic journal exchanges, and less according to the sheerly polemical form of the 16th and 17th centuries. However, Cameron does note that confessional-polemical histories still do exist. These are not the norm, however. Although “the entrenched positions of Protestants and Catholics were not entirely abandoned…their dogmatism and their exclusiveness became more and more of an embarassment” (pg. 162).

[Go to Part III]

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