This review, written by George Alkema, is one of our series of reviews of chapters of David W. Hall & Marvin Padgett, Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (P&R, 2010). We welcome your engagement and responses.
That Calvin was drawn to Clio, the muse of history, was betrayed by a matched pair of intellectual Freudian slips tucked away in his commentaries: History, he taught, is “the teacher of life” and even the “mistress of life.” Editors Hall and Padgett note these descriptions in the book’s introduction, but Darryl G. Hart, visiting professor of church history at Westminster Seminary in California and historical contributor to the volume Calvin and Culture, will have none of it. Calvinist historians, he contends, are not equipped by their faith to understand the final meaning of historical developments. He in fact implies that their Christian viewpoint may be an impediment to understanding the significance of historical events. Reformed scholars, says Hart, need “epistemological humility,” by which he means a distinct reticence in interpreting history. (Hart’s reference to 1929 highlights two influential events of that year, the stock market crash and the reorganization of Princeton seminary, which would lead to the establishment of Westminster Seminary.)
Professor Hart rests his thesis on Calvin’s concept of divine providence, by which a good God rules sovereignly over all that occurs in history and in the lives of his children. Nevertheless, in spite of our belief in divine direction and control, events appear to us mortals, says Calvin, as “fortuitous.” That “chance” quality of events is enormously significant. As Calvin points out, Moses wrote that the secret things belong to God (Deuteronomy 29:29) and not to us. We do know that all things will work to the consummation of the divine plan, but we can’t penetrate the manner of its working out. For his use of the doctrine of providence and its implications, Calvin was dependent on Augustine, who was well-respected for his philosophy of history as set out in The City of God. Not a bad ally to have, especially when intellectual frustration is implied.
Christian scholars, then, Hart teaches, don’t possess a key to understanding the significance of specific events, and can’t know how these contribute to the advancement of God’s kingdom. They are at times tempted, however, to be over-confident, because Scripture reveals the aim of history, the middle of history, and history’s end. Hart provides examples of recent and contemporary Christian (and Calvinist) historians who have practiced their craft in a manner that for him crosses the line into stating too much and making claims that are really unsustainable. Ronald Wells, for instance, wrote some nasty prose about the humanism of the Enlightenment and its implications for the subsequent history of the west. [See Ronald Wells, History Through the Eyes of Faith (Harper, 1989) and Ronald Wells, ed., History and the Christian Historian (Eerdmans, 1998).] He in fact declared that the Enlightenment led mankind down a blind alley of “moral and spiritual blackness.” Hart terms this sort of pronouncement “moral judgment,” and as such inadmissible. Indulging in it, he believes, can derail the historian’s purpose and blind her to the “variety, complexity, and mystery of the past” (p. 4). It violates the interpretive humility and the intellectual modesty that, in his view, Calvin’s doctrine of providence imposes on the historian.
Thus Hart has put Calvin into the traces of a decidedly minimalist cart. Calvinist historians must accept the limits of their competence and refrain from kicking against the goads. One may well question, however, whether this is really the emphasis we need. After all, are we known for extravagant claims and wild-eyed enthusiasms? Hardly, I would say. What is needed, rather, is a spirit of encouragement, so that as Christian historians we work with robust analysis and discernment, and with a keen understanding of the significance that historical ideas, events, and movements naturally contain. Our task is to establish connections between our faith and historical events. Let’s take as an example (more or less arbitrarily chosen) the Battle of the Boyne of 1690. This battle saw the defeat of James II and of absolutism in England: The victorious William III was willing to sign the Bill of Rights which de facto initiated limited monarchy and provided for the growth of parliamentary institutions. Are we not obligated to notice God’s providential guidance in such events?
The calling of Christian historians requires them also to defend the faith from the vicious and often faddish calumnies of secular historians bent on defaming Christianity with false representations of past events. For this and for their interpretative tasks they have the necessary tools, for Scripture affords us wisdom in the estimation of humankind and its deeds. History, “the mistress of life,” is a great teacher when her story is told with the discernment that biblical insight can provide. A pity that Daryl G. Hart does not see this.
George Alkema is head of the History Department of Guido de Brès Christian High School in Hamilton, ON. He holds an M.A. in Ancient and European History from McMaster University (1975).