Tag Archives: Historiography

Salvation at Stake

Today we wrap-up a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history.

The final essay in we will look at in this series is a chapter from Brad Gregory’s Salvation at Stake. This final essay represents the strongest set of arguments against a form of historiography dominated by what have variously been called, “the new historicism,” “the linguistic turn” or most simply, post-structuralism.

In the introduction to Salvation at Stake, Gregory describes his two-fold purpose: 1)

Brad Gregory holds the Dorothy G. Griffin Chair in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame.

present an account of Christian martyrdom from the perspective of four traditions and 2) make a methodological contribution to how historians approach the early modern period. (2) For the purposes of comparing this essay to the others from this week, our focus will be on the section titled “On Understanding Early Modern Christianity.” Here Gregory addresses how poststructuralist theory “alleges a radical disjunction between representations and realities, rendering truth claims unverifiable.” (9) The “insights” of post-structuralism have “taught” us that the martyrs who died for their religious beliefs, in fact held views that are mere constructions. Post-structuralism has also “taught” us that these martyr’s beliefs were nothing but “strategies of domination” and that the literature which reported martyrdom was nothing but propaganda and political power-plays.

In light of these “lessons” Gregory calls us to declare a postmortem for poststructuralism “so that we may avoid its dead end.” (10) Instead we should take these martyrs and their storytellers on their own terms. (10) Instead of deconstructing early modern accounts we ought to be reconstructing these accounts. (11) When we do this we will have come up with an account which (hopefully) the subjects of study would have recognized as their own.

In order to reconstruct plausible accounts Gregory has to address two issues. First, that all claims, including religious claims, are embeded within social relationships, institutions, and other cultural expectations. Second, that people often act for covert interests and rationalize their actions. The second issue can be addressed without adopting a hermeneutic of suspicion. The hermeneutic of suspicion should be avoided because it “destroys the very possibility of understanding historical difference” and “undermines the sincerity and integrity of people whose actions fall beyond the boundaries of behavior enacted ‘in good faith.’”(14) Instead of a hermeneutic of suspicion we ought to adopt a hermeneutic of charity, taking sources at their own words unless there are reasons to believe that the source is being deceptive. In the case of martyrological sources, one can maintain a fine balance between suspicion and charity by checking martyological literature against literature produced by opponents. Surprisingly, both kinds of accounts tend to be very similar in what they report. Thus, it seems as though a hermeneutic of charity can give us adequate details of events as they are reported.


Out of the five essays we have examined this was the essay that I resonated the most with. I find myself agreeing with much of what Gregory has to say; especially as it concerns the problems of post-structuralism or “the linguistic turn.” The method he proposes does a good job of guarding against some of the realities that post-structuralism brings up, namely subjectivity and covert motives. His method does not dismiss these realities, however he refuses to let historiography be put into bondage by these realities. Instead he leverages these two points to develop an even more objective account of historical events.

In addition to the fact that this method has some payoff regarding research I believe that it also has another strength: it displays Christian virtue. By this I mean, that this method attempts to refrain from reading false motives into its subjects. In a sense you could say that this method attempts refuses to bear false witness against its neighbor and thus keeps 9th commandment. Also, one might think that this method is in line with Paul’s description of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13: love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. For these two simple reasons I am drawn to Brad Gregory’s method over the method of the other authors we have examined thus far.


The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the “Linguistic Turn”

Today we continue a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history. In the next few days we will take a look at all sorts of views regarding how to do history. These views range from critical realist accounts all the way to post-structuralist accounts and even some feminist accounts.

“Has the lady vanished?” When Elizabeth Clark poses this question she means to ask, can we recover women’s voices in their pure and simple form from historical texts? (31) The simple answer is, no we cannot. However, answers to difficult questions rarely tend to be simple. This is also the case for this question, because in a sense, although the insights of the “linguistic turn” tell us that the “pure and simple” voice of women can no longer be found in texts, there are other ways to find traces of women’s voices in texts. As Clark explains, “she leaves her traces…embedded in a larger social-linguistic framework.” (31) And even though in a sense the lady has in fact vanished, “she lives on.” (31)

Clark’s essay which attempts to defend the possibility of feminist history after the

Duke Historian, Elizabeth Clark

“linguistic turn,” referring to structuralism and post-structuralism, begins by explaining how these linguistically grounded schools of thought overlaps and contradicts the feminist agenda. The linguistic turn in literary criticism and even historiography has aided feminist thinkers by confirming the feminist critique of objectivity. The feminist historian can be thankful for this. Yet at the same time the various schools of the linguistic turn have so critiqued objectivity and so emphasized how we cannot escape our social-cultural-linguistic location that they “annihilated the female subject.” (3) After she explores a few potential solutions to this problem of the vanishing lady, and finding them wanting, she proposes a more temperate approach. This approach follows the work of Spiegel who suggests that texts can be treated as both consequences of extratextual development (read: cultural-linguistic frameworks) but also causes which can impose and help create new ways of thinking. With this dual concept of consequence and cause, the historian can not only approach a historical “text” as a product of the extra-textual realities which produced it but also as a “text” which also plays a role in producing new extra-textual realities.

For of how this consequence-cause concept plays out in reading ancient Christian texts we might look to how Clark understands Macrina’s voice in Gregory of Nyssa’s Vita  and On the Soul and the Resurrection. Like post-structuralists, Clark recognizes how Macrina’s voice, is written out within the framework of a particular genre: Lives of Philosophers

An icon of St. Macrina

and within particular cultural assumptions about gender. Because of these two realities, we don’t “really” hear Macrina’s voice, but rather we hear: 1) Gregory’s voice and 2)the voice of the culture. However, in another sense Macrina has not “really” lost her voice, we can hear her voice as we examine how women and gender are constructed in the text.


Apart from the direct application to feminist historiography, this essay provides interesting food for thought concerning the general epistemology of history. Like several of the other essays we have read this week, Clark’s essay emphasizes the large role that cultural-linguistic frameworks play in the creation and in our reading of texts. Clark is rightly worried that pushing this point to far yields a skepticism about the subjects of those texts. In other words, its not just the lady that vanishes, but the subject as well. The only thing we have left with an extreme version of he linguistic turn is languages and cultures – no individuals. This result should be concerning to the historian. Yet the historian should not be too concerned because Clark has pointed one way out of this problem: an emphasis on consequence and cause. This is an important distinction for some of the work I’m doing on Jonathan Edwards’s doctrine of hell. Edwards is in a sense bound up in his own cultural-linguistic framework when he thinks about this doctrine. Thus, everything he writes is a consequence of his social-location. However, to leave it at that would mean that he could never move beyond the ideological assumptions of that location. The concept of “cause” however opens up the possibility of examining how his work plays a role in changing the cultural-linguistic framework which makes up this doctrine. Thus, even an ideologically powerful concept, like the doctrine of hell, does not simply perpetuate a particular “oppressive” or “totalizing” agenda, that is, it does not necessarily act as a strategy for domination,” it can also challenge common agendas of the day.

Despite the significance of “consequence and cause,” I am left wondering if the hermeneutic of suspicion engendered by the linguistic turn leads us to being uncharitable to the authors of texts. It seems to me that emphasizing the “consequence” too much leads to an interpretation of texts that the authors would not recognize as their own.

Elizabeth A. Clark, “The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the ‘Linguistic Turn,’” Church History 67 (1998): 1-31.

Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic

Today we continue a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history. In the next few days we will take a look at all sorts of views regarding how to do history. These views range from critical realist accounts all the way to post-structuralist accounts and even some feminist accounts.

“Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic” is a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde confession. In the same man there exists two persons. The first is a “historian and polemicist of literary theory, who could speak with passion, without noticeable impediment about literature as a political instrument.” (59) This man could murder a piece of literature and expose show how literary texts are devious acts of power. The second is a man who simply enjoyed the pleasures of reading good literature. One might imagine that the second man is Dr. Jekyll, a polite, composed, model citizen and that the first man is Mr. Hyde, a ruthless villain, robbing people of the pleasures of life. Although many non-academics might see things this way, the fact is that in the academy – specifically literature departments – the second man is the one who is paraded as a model to be emulated and the first is deemed to barbarous to roam the halls of the elite institutions of academia. Such a man is called “non-literary.”

In explaining his experience of living as a literary critic and a lover of literature Frank

Frank Lentricchia

Lentricchia exposes some of the absurdities of the sort of literary criticism practiced by various approaches to the study of literature, including (but not explicitly named) the New Historicism. He explains that at one point he was convinced that as a literary critic he could “be an agent of social transformation, an activist who would show his students that, in its form and style, literature had a strategic role to play in the world’s various arrangements of power” and that all literature was “either in opposition to or in complicit with the power in place.” (60) However, Lentricchia eventually came to believe that this sort of approach to literature, which is standard in literature departments is misguided. He now believes that literary criticism is “a form of Xeroxing.” (64) Literary critics a live in an echo-chamber, when they speak of the imperialism, homophobia, sexism, etc. hidden in a literary text, they are simply voicing their own ideological concerns. Instead of being concerned with the “power plays” supposedly voiced in literary texts, Lentricchia now contents himself with simply trying to “describe what is on the page.” (67) And thus, it seems that for now Lentricchia’s Mr. Hyde, the lover of literature, has eclipsed Dr. Jekyll, the literary critic.


This essay does a fine job of exposing the fact that literary criticism can serve as a form of political activism. The literary critic, by exposing the supposed ideologies present in great works of literature, believes she can shape and mold her audience towards pursuing a better world. There is something noble about this. However, Lentricchia, rightly in my mind, exposes the fact that in their desire to make the world a better place, some critics can read things into texts that are not actually there simply because the critic is driven by a particular agenda. This is what he calls “Xeroxing.”

The act of “Xeroxing” is a danger that is not just present for the literary critic but the historian as well. Its too easy to read sexism or racism, issues which a historian is right to be concerned with, into historical texts which are neither sexist or racist. “John Calvin did not allow women to take the pulpit in Geneva, therefore he is a sexist.” “Peter Martyr Vermigli never attempted to teach outside of Europe, therefore he is euro-centric.” These are potential examples of “Xeroxing” in the discipline church history. Lentricchia is right, we should attempt to allow our “texts” speak for themselves instead of imposing our own judgements upon “texts” for issues that “texts” are not even concerned with.

See, Frank Lentricchia, “Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic,” Lingua Franca 6/6 (September/October 1996): 59-67.

The “New” Historicism

Today we continue a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history. In the next few days we will take a look at all sorts of views regarding how to do history. These views range from critical realist accounts all the way to post-structuralist accounts and even some feminist accounts.

What happens when E.H. Carr’s claim that “The historian, before he begins to write history, is the product of history” is applied to the historical study of literary texts? (Carr, 48) [See the previous blog post] What happens when “the norm of disembodied objectivity to which humanists have increasingly aspired” is perceived as an illusion, and not just an illusion but an illusion which is capable of producing harm? (Veeser, ix) The result is what is called, “The New Historicism.”

Although the term escapes a clear definition (Veeser, x) or an “agreed upon intellectual and institutional program,” or a “systematic or authoritative paradigm” for practicing the New Historicism,” (Montrose, 18) there are several key assumptions which tend to mark New Historicist thought. Veeser lists five of these assumptions. (Veeser, xi) What binds these assumptions together is the idea that all “texts” both literary and non-literary do not stand apart from cultural-linguistic frameworks. Because no text ever exists a se the literary critic ought to discard modes of analysis which content themselves in analyzing the purely literary features of written texts. There is no purely literary text. As Montrose explains, “the social is understood to be discursively constructed”  and “language use is… socially and materially determined and constrained.” (Montrose, 15) Because language is socially and materially determined and constrained, literary texts like those of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Orson Wells or any number of authors of “great books” are products of history, culture, society, politics, institutions, class and gender. (Montrose, 15) Recognizing that all texts are socially constructed (even determined) the New Historicist also recognizes that her own writing of “texts” will be socially constructed. She will realize that she is also “incapable of offering any description or explanation that is located at some Archimedean point” outside of history. (Montrose, 30) She will recognize that issues of politics, gender, ethnicity, class, age color her choice of which literary texts to read, how she reads these texts, and how she writes about them. In other words the New Historicist is a “product of history.”

Recognizing that she is a project of history, the New Historicist cannot help but be invested in her “product.” She has a task, namely to, “disabuse students of the notion that history is what’s over and done with.” (Montrose, 25) This task, is by no means neutral, it is a task of “oppositional social and political praxis.” By showing students that “they live history” the New Historicist takes part in the task of exposing hidden assumptions in our own cultural-linguistic frameworks. In doing so she takes part in confronting “harmful” ideologies.


There is something attractive to me about this approach to the study of historical texts. The New Historicism as represented in these two texts correctly, in my mind, draws our attention to the fact that historical texts do not exist in a vacuum but that when they were first created they were placed within a particular cultural-linguistic framework. That is historical texts are based on the assumptions of their day. Second, the New Historicism draws our attention to the idea that even the historian is socially and linguistically located, and that such a location affects both the texts we select as worthy of study and how we study those texts. To ignore the role our own history plays in doing history would be foolish. These two points are points that are very similar to E.H. Carr’s in What is History? However, these two points differ a bit from Carr’s points in that they emphasize not just that cultural-linguistic location affects the texts that are read and our reading of these texts, but that the cultural-linguistic location determine and constrain texts and reading of texts. Carr advocated for the possibility of “objectivity” through a dialectical process of moving between the past and present. However, it is not clear to me that the New Historicist believes that such a dialectical process is even possible. Without the possibility of “objectivity” even in the sense that Carr calls for it seems to me that the possibility of doing history is severely undercut – historical analysis ends up being the critical practice of analyzing  how our own ideological commitments color older ideologically colored texts.

For references see:

  • H. Aram Veeser, “Introduction” in The New Historicism (New York: Routledge, 1989), ix-xvi.
  • Louis A. Montrose, “Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture,” in The New Historicism, 15-36.

The Epistemological Foundations of History: Bloch and Carr’s Philosophy of History Compared

Today we begin a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history. In the next few days we will take a look at all sorts of views regarding how to do history. These views range from critical realist accounts all the way to post-structuralist accounts and even some feminist accounts.

The Epistemological Foundations of History:

Bloch and Carr’s Philosophy of History Compared

When reading evangelical theologians, one is almost bound to discover that there exists a passionate debate concerning the nature of knowledge and truth. Such debates typically revolve around the concepts of foundationalism and coherentism. Regarding foundationalism some evangelical theologians and philosophers have gone as far to say that “on all fronts foundationalism is in bad shape. It seems to me that there is nothing to do but give it up for mortally ill and learn to live in its absence.”[1] However there are others who offer a more temperate opinion. For instance Alvin Plantinga has argued that classical foundationalism[2] is self-referentially incoherent, yet he advocates for a different sort of foundationalism.[3] Besides being a significant debate among theologians, the subject is also debated among scientists and likely has its roots in the philosophy of science.[4] Given that these epistemological debates likely have their source in philosophy of science, or at the very least find significant contemplation in philosophy of science, it is not surprising that this debate has made its way into the realm of history which some have considered a science. How does the debate between foundationalism and coherentism play out in the philosophy of history? It does so in several areas: (1) the nature of history and historical enquiry, (2) human nature and social change, (3) causation, (4) objectivity, and (5) the meaning of history. How foundationalist and coherentist epistemologies of history play out in theory is exemplified by both Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft and E.H. Carr’s What is History? respectively. In what follows I briefly examine some of the differences between Bloch and Carr’s approach to history with an eye towards evaluating their approaches from a theological perspective.

What is history? Is it a science or is something else? Bloch believes that it is a science. Specifically, it is the ‘science of men in time.’ (27) This phrase might be read in various ways. For example, history is a science performed by “men” (read human beings) in time. Or, one might read this phrase as saying that history is the science which studies human beings who exist in time, including those who are dead and living. This is Bloch’s approach. As the science of humanity, Bloch is interested in drawing from all sources and disciplines in order to develop “universal history.” (48) Thus Bloch’s view of history is a Histoire Totale.[5] Carr, however, is insistent that history is not a science (at least in the way that science is typically conceived). Carr objects to the idea that history be called a science because it “justifies and perpetuates the rift between the so-called ‘two cultures.’”(110) What does this rift consist of? It consists mainly of the notion that the “sciences” are after universal laws and principles. This notion has been applied by some historians, including Buckle, who states that the course of human affairs is “permeated by one glorious principle of universal and undeviating regularity.” (Carr, 73). If this is what is meant by history as a “science” then Carr will have no part in it. Science however, is no longer practiced with the confidence that we can discover, let alone have access to, such universal principles. Instead, as Carr explains, “Nowadays both scientists and historian entertain the more modest hope of advancing progressively from one fragmentary hypothesis to another, isolating their facts through the medium of their interpretations and testing their interpretations by the facts.” (Carr, 77) Is this much different from Bloch’s view which also holds that various conceptual tools shade how we interpret historical data? Remember, Bloch holds that language, periodization, and characterization all affect how historical analysis proceeds. (Bloch, 156-189) Despite the apparent similarity between Bloch and Carr on this subject, the difference is radical.

At its core the difference between Bloch and Carr’s view is to be found in how they understand the process of deriving truth from the data of history. Bloch takes a tempered foundationalist approach.  As a foundationalist Bloch believes that some beliefs, i.e. our belief that the historical event X is to be explained as Y, is grounded on other beliefs that are justified. The initial or basic belief that justifies Y is the belief that X can be accessed adequately. Bloch is not naïve about how we access X. He acknowledges that the “tracks” or documents need to be carefully examined because they can be forged, tainted, skewed, or just plain wrong. Similarly, he recognizes that the scholar who examines the historical data is in danger of imposing her personal inclinations into reading the data. (Bloch, 139) This is especially true when examining historical causes because in examining causes the historian is likely to make value judgements. Carr on the other hand also believes that we can be justified in saying that X can be explained as Y. However, Carr does not understand this justification process in a foundationalist matter. There is no “basic” belief that justifies saying that X is true. Rather, the belief that “X” is true exists within a system of other beliefs. These other beliefs which make up the historian’s system of beliefs are rooted in the historian’s individual, social, and historical background. As Carr explains, “The historian, before he begins to write history, is the product of history.” (48) In a sense, the historian is stuck within this system of beliefs, and cannot transcend this system to get at what “actually” happens. Thus, the historian cannot actually explain or provide the causes for Y as they exist mind-independently. She can however, provide the logic of the events given her other beliefs.

Does this view of history reduce to an examination of our own interpretation of events? Does this mean, for example, that the historical study of the American revolution just is the study of how our current historical and social situation affects the way we understand the events of this war? Perhaps. This however, doesn’t mean that one’s historical and socially created interpretive lenses will be provincial and narrow; i.e. that does not mean one can only approach the American revolution as a 21st century pro-American because one was born in the 21st century in a patriotic setting. The historian has a “capacity to rise above his social and historical situation” but the capacity to rise above a provincial and narrow set of interpretive lenses is “conditioned by the sensitivity with which he recognizes the extent of his involvement in it.” (Carr, 54) By recognizing that he functions within an interpretive framework, and that his historical analyses are justified by other beliefs within that framework, and not something external to that framework, the historian can begin the process of expanding the framework in order to develop a more “objective” account of historical events.  This process can best be described as a hermeneutical spiral. I quote Carr at length,

The historian starts with a provisional interpretation of facts and a provisional interpretation in light of which that selection has been made – by others as well as by himself. As he works, both the interpretation and selection and ordering of facts undergo subtle and perhaps partly unconscious changes through the reciprocal action of one another. And this reciprocal action also involves reciprocity between present and past, since the historian is part of the present and the facts belonging to the past. (Carr, 35)

This hermeneutical spiral, or “unending dialogue between the present and the past,” just is the discipline of history. (Carr, 35)

Thus far we have examined some differences between Bloch and Carr’s approach to history. As an aspiring theologian engaged in the discipline church history I can’t help but ask what the theological implications of these views might be. I agree with Bloch when he says that Christianity is essentially a historical religion, that is, “a religion that is, whose prime dogmas are based on events.” (Bloch, 31) If we were to take Carr’s approach to history, then our theological reflection which is based on historical events, would result in theology which looks a lot like post-liberal theology. Postliberals, like Carr, emphasize how much language and tradition do to shape our understanding of reality. Post-liberals believe that Scripture is “world-creating,” thus the biblical narrative forms the cultural-linguistic “world” for the church. According to post-liberals we attend to the world primarily through whatever cultural-linguistic framework we possess. Thus, our experience of the world is not neutral, it is concept laden, it is experienced in light of our “language” or grammar of faith. Postliberalism’s emphasis on intra-systemic coherence and intertextuality calls into question whether Postliberals are making “real-world” claims in their theology or whether they are simply making claims about their own language/grammar. One concern with post-liberal theology is that “dispenses with external referents and reduces truth claims to simply intra-systemic consistency.”[6] Agreeing with Bloch that our dogmas are based on events, I am concerned that a full-scale adoption of Carr’s method would result in a form of history which undercut’s theology’s ability do derive dogma from historical events. For this reason, I believe that Bloch’s tempered foundationalist approach to history is preferable to Bloch’s coherentist approach.

[1] Grenz and Franke quote Nicholas Wolterstorff in: Stanley Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: WJK, 2001), 38.

[2] That is: A proposition p is properly basic for a person S if and only if p is either self-evident to S or incorrigible for S or evident to the senses of S.

[3] Plantinga’s proposal for Reformed Epistemology is clearly laid out in “Reason and Belief in God” which can be found in the book Faith and Rationality (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 16-93.

[4] Cat, Jordi, “The Unity of Science”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/scientific-unity/&gt;.

[5] This is a riff on Sarah Coakley’s idea of Theologie Totale in God, Sexuality, and the Self (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[6] Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm,“The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals,” in The Nature of Confession, eds. Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1996), 16.