On the Development of Protestant Historiography (Part III)

In the first two posts on this topic (here and here) I summarized Euan Cameron’s discussion of the post-16th century development of Protestant historiography. Some additional details, and several other important historians, are discussed in James E. Bradley’s and Richard A. Muller’s Church History: An Introduction to Research, Reference Works, and Methods (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), pp. 16-24.

A major Church historian after Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (see part 2 of the above posts) was August Neander (1789-1850), another German. A disciple of the epoch-making theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), Neander also felt deeply indebted to the philosophers Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854) and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). All of these men may be generally placed within the 18th century movement called “Romanticism,” which has also been called by some a kind of “Counter-Enlightenment” because of its attack on the Enlightenment concept of Universal Reason. Neander’s debt to Schelling is illustrated by his dedication to his General History of the Christian Religion and Church, published between 1826 and 1852. There Neander wrote to Schelling, “In striving to apprehend the history of the church, not as a mere juxtaposition of outward facts, but as a development proceeding from within, and presenting an image and reflex of internal history, I trust that I am serving a spirit which may claim some relationship to your philosophy….” (Bradley and Muller, pg. 17).

As with Schleiermacher, Neander placed heavy emphasis on the subjective, experiential aspects of religion. This was part of the broader trend of the time of trying to reconcile Christian truth claims with the rapidly developing scientific-critical approach to truth. Following Schleiermacher’s lead in emphasizing experience, Neander also said in his Introduction, “To exhibit the history of the church of Christ, as a living witness of the divine power of Christianity; as a school of Christian experience; a voice, sounding through the ages, of instruction, of doctrine, and of reproof, for all who are disposed to listen; this from the earliest period has been the leading aim of my life and studies” (Bradley and Muller, pg. 17).

Neander followed Herder in trying to contradict the Enlightenment notion of Universal Reason as it was manifested in such writers as Voltaire and Hume. As another source puts it, Herder’s thesis was “that there exist radical mental differences between historical periods, that people’s concepts, beliefs, sensations, etc. differ in important ways from one period to another”:”(See Johann Gottfried von Herder)”:. Following this general trend, Neander, like Mosheim and Arnold before him, attempted to “judge a movement favorably without agreeing with it theologically” (Bradley and Muller, pg. 18).

Neander, in turn, influenced Friedrich A.G. Tholuck (1799-1877), a professor of theology at the University of Halle. In 1842-43, Tholuck gave a series of lectures in which he described, following Neander, the criteria for being a “worthy historian.” First, “one must consult the original authorities.” Second, one must have “individuality of style; [the worthy historian] describes times and persons in detail rather than in general” (ibid., pg. 18). Third, the worthy historian has no “party prejudices” but does have “party preferences.” The difference here appears to be that a “prejudice” is something like a “blind partisanship” whereas a “preference” merely gives color and life to an individual historian’s account. Tholuck does criticize Neander, however, for being “sometimes too desirous of exhibiting impartiality, and is therefore more favorable to the heretics of whose character he describes, than the truth will warrant.” Fourth, Tholuck enjoins the worthy historian to “accompany his narration of events with a reference to their causes and consequences”; in particular he “refers the events to the directing providence of God, and to some definite moral and religious final cause” (ibid., pg. 19).

Bradley and Muller then discuss “the father of American church history,” Philip Schaff (1819-1893). Schaff’s 1846 essay “What Is Church History: A Vindication of the Idea of Historical Development” demonstrates his debt to Herder, Neander, Tholuck, and, of course, Hegel. Bradley and Muller believe that “while Schaff represented the best in post-Enlightenment historiography, the influence of Hegel was so pervasive that the work suffers from at least three characteristic weaknesses, all related to Hegel’s schema and the optimism typical of the nineteenth century.” First, he is “naively optimistic” about the “steady improvement” of circumstances in history. Second, he seems to believe that the historian “is able to comprehend past events truly, and to unfold them, just as they originally stood, before the eyes of the readers.” Third, he “is overly optimistic about the historian’s ability to discern the hand of providence and the guiding spirit of Christianity in history.” (ibid., pg. 20).

Bradley and Muller note that “Since the mid-nineteenth century, historians have generally become a good deal more sober about the likelihood of discerning the final outcome, the factual accuracy, and the inner causes of historical events” (ibid.). I believe this is a very important point, because it is not just Protestant historians of the 19th century who suffer from an excess of optimism about the human ability to discern final causes in history. The historical work of the eminent Catholic convert, Cardinal Newman, is also characterized by this attitude. In some ways, in him it is even more excessive because of his commitment to an overly dogmatic form of the Catholic appeal to “faith.”:”(An attitude that has begun to be corrected by the reforms of Vatican Council, but which has yet to bear lasting fruit in a mollification of the Roman communion’s typically over-inflated view of itself.)”: One must certainly keep in mind the tenor of a given age when evaluating a thinker. Profundity alone does not, or at least, should not be allowed to, carry the day.

Generally speaking, historiography in the 19th century was characterized by an intense focus on achieving an “objective” reconstruction of “the facts” via inductive research into primary sources, a commitment to understanding, insofar as possible, the mind of the subjects of study, and to presenting history to contemporary readers “just as it happened.” Bradley and Muller cite the judgment of E.H. Carr about this type of historical writing: “[19th century] Historians walked in the Garden of Eden, without a scrap of philosophy to cover them, naked and unashamed before the God of history. Since then we have known Sin and experienced a Fall.” (ibid., pg. 21).

From this point, the authors move into discussing more recent historiographical contributions, including those of Carl L. Becker, which I have already summarized in my post What Is “History”? And What Are Historical “Facts”?

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