Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Historiography: Rights and Wrongs

I am a pastor, not a professional historian. I am however an amateur historian, and have written history for publication, so I know a bit about how you do history. Sadly the discipline of Church history is either ignored or misunderstood by many evangelicals today. Historical ignorance is corrected by the injunction to "go and read a book", but there are those who know something about history, but do not understand how history is done

That was one of the worst things about the White-Pinto debate last week, that Chris Pinto demonstrated a thoroughly false historiography that is too common in certain circles. The word historiography in this context refers to the study of how we "do" history, and Pinto displays the view that certain historians of the 19th century form a "canon" (small 'c', note), a rule by which all other historians are to be judged. This isn't an uncommon view in certain circles, as witness the fact that there are still people who hold to the "trail of blood" view of Baptist history. Now of course when young Christians set out reading history, they will tend to go with the older writers, those of a viewpoint they themselves hold, and there is nothing wrong with that; a biography by a sympathetic author is always a far better read than a biography by an unsympathetic one, after all, and a history written by an atheistic Marxist intent on imposing his ideas of how things ought to have happened upon the record is going to be a pretty irritating read unless you are an atheistic Marxist (and even then...). But we must beware taking those favourite authors and saying, "If anyone disagrees with them, then so much the worse for the one disagreeing." As Christians who believe in the reality and objectivity of truth, our first commitment must be to that same truth, to what really happened, as opposed to what we would like to have happened. I don't just refer to the interpretation of history, what certain events mean, what motives lay behind a person's action, for example, but the actual historical record itself, who did what and when.

When we go any distance into the past beyond about a hundred years, our knowledge of history is based upon records, sources. As the knowledge of sources changes, so too our knowledge of the past does; to give one example, open a 19th century biography of John Knox such as Thomas M'Crie's famous work and it will tell you that Knox was born in 1505. More recent works, including the biography by Henry Cowan published in 1905, give the date as between 1513 and 1515, up to a whole decade later. Why is this? Because between M'Crie's writing in 1811 and Cowan in 1905 further research had been done on Knox, following M'Crie's lead. No historian is to be regarded ipso facto as having given the last word on a subject. Cowan notes that the traditional date of Knox's birth rested almost entirely upon a historian writing about 50 years later, in other words on a secondary source, while the later date is based upon Theodore Beza, who knew Knox personally, and other contemporary sources. Now M'Crie's work is a classic, and yet it is wrong on the date of Knox's birth because later historians were able to uncover data unknown to M'Crie. That is how history works, being based upon sources, the judgement of historians is liable to alteration if new sources come to light. There are also people who create fraudulent sources, which creates all sorts of havoc for historians. In E.C. Pike The Story of the Anabaptists (London, 1904) he refers to Goadby's Byepaths of  Baptist History and its reference to the graveyard at Hill Cliffe Baptist chapel, near Warrington, mentioning a gravestone dated 1357. It is quite certain that the stone in question had been fraudulently altered, firstly because its style was not 14th century, and secondly because old records exist that show what the original date on the stone was. In the effort to claim the name of "oldest" people have stretched points and flat out made things up. The temptation to exaggerate can be strong.

This being so, to claim that any historians, however orthodox their theology, are the canon by which all others are to be judged is just a demonstration of appalling ignorance of how history works. The great 19th century Church historians are not honoured by being treated as the be all and end all of history, as the men who gave us the infallible facts and interpretation, but by our following in their footsteps, taking up the trails that they blazed, developing the country they explored, exploring still further. Just because a particular interpretation of history is seen as favouring a particular theological position does not mean that, should the evidence force us to that conclusion, it may not have to be abandoned, as for example the claim that the Cathars and Paulicians were in any meaningful sense "reformers before the Reformation". Nor should we read back the excesses of the late Middle Ages into the age of Anselm, far less the age of Augustine. The historian must go where the evidence leads, not cling to Hill Cliffe as pre-Reformation when all the evidence shows it is of 17th century origin.

And the reader must recall that history is not an exact science; the reconstruction of what happened in the past is often straightforward, but sometimes it is not. In days past people were not so exact at keeping records as we are today, the exact date of an event was not seen as important in the way we see it - the event itself was what mattered. Historians of the past were men like us, capable of error, of being misled or of drawing false conclusions; that J.A. Wylie's estimate of the Cathars was in error does not mean that we should cast out everything he ever wrote, far less that we should all become Roman Catholics or something like that. But we should remember this: those writers were not infallible, and their writings are not inspired. And for us to treat them as such would be to do them a great disservice, for it would be to treat Protestant historians as though they were, in the field of history, infallible popes.

Friday, December 13, 2013

There is no Canon of Historians

Last night I caught up with the debate between James R. White and Chris Pinto on Fighting for the Faith. The subject was the date and provenance of Codex Sinaiticus, whether it is a genuine 3rd century manuscript, or was produced in the 1840s by Constantin Simonides. As one cannot prove a point by a series of speculations, I remain unconvinced by Pinto's arguments, which amount to "Well, it might have been." But the debate speaks for itself.

More worrying for me, as a student of 19th century church history, was the fact that is rather swiftly became apparent that Pinto elevated certain Victorian speculations about Jesuits, and certain Victorian historians, to a status of practical infallibility.

A friend directed me to Mr. Pinto's post-debate analysis/declaration of victory, in which I was disturbed, but not overly surprised, to read this phrase:
" The historic oracles of the 19th century were rejected in favor of White’s revisionist ideas of Church history."
Now that worries me for this reason: who decided that Wylie et al were "oracles"? Who made them a sort of "canon". I do not use the term to indicate inspiration, but in its strict sense of a rule by which all else is to be tested, because make no mistake, that is what Pinto has made them. And that is the undoing of all of his theories. No historian, however orthodox his theology, however good his research, is to be set up as an "oracle". No church historian speaks that way. All history is to be subject to revision if more data emerges on the issues at stake. The reality is that while J.A. Wylie was a very able man, he died in 1890, and many documents that were unavailable to him and his contemporaries are now freely available.

Now, I do not know which historian(s) Pinto relies upon for his statement concerning the Oxford Movement, "...the Oxford Movement which was the aggressive effort of Rome to reclaim England for the Pope" I suspect that he is relying on works such as Walter Walsh's The Secret History of the Oxford Movement, first published in 1898. It was suggested in some of these works that whilst Newman openly converted to Rome in 1845, in fact he had secretly become a Roman Catholic over ten years earlier on a visit to Rome in 1833, and that from 1833 until 1845 he had been a secret Jesuit agent working in the University of Oxford. It is important to remember that in the 1830s Roman Catholicism in the United Kingdom was still subject to certain restrictions, and many people regarded it as a foreign aggressor that wanted to take control of the state and bring back the execution of Protestants.

It is also however vital to point out that since Newman's death in 1890 no evidence has been discovered that would indicate a secret allegiance to the Papacy dating back to 1833, much less secret membership of the Jesuit order. Newman, after crossing the Tiber, joined the Oratorians, an entirely different religious order, and for much of his career in the Roman church was sidelined. There is in fact no reason to doubt that Newman's own account of his religious opinions and their changes given in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua is generally accurate, and any errors in it are lapses of the writer's memory rather than deliberate deception.

Brought up an evangelical Anglican, at Oxford Newman first came into contact, not with men pointing back to Rome, but with liberals who denied that the Bible was intended to teach the fundamentals of Christianity. Accepting this position, he sought authority elsewhere and found it in the Church. At first he adopted a position that can be called historic High Anglicanism, but found that logically untenable, and eventually ended up at Rome, the logical end of his position. Despite speculation by certain Protestant writers in the Victorian era, there has never come to light any evidence to suggest that the Oxford Movement was anything other than what it appeared to be, a group of Anglicans, influenced on the one hand by Romanticism and its visions of Medieval England and on the other hand by a liberalism that was questioning the authority of the Bible and thus led men like John Henry Newman to seek an infallible authority elsewhere.

And there is the great irony of all this; Pinto has erected Wylie and other Protestant writers into just such an infallible authority in the matter of history, not only its telling but also its interpretation. He does not mean to do this, does not even apparently see that he has done it, but he has.

[Illustration: The interior of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where John Henry Newman was ordained]

Addendum: I missed the point where Pinto links the Revised Version of 1881 with the Jesuits, a truly remarkable feat given that the Roman Catholics invited to participate in the work (including, interestingly, John Henry Newman) refused to do so. And this is where I must accuse Pinto of being a conspiracy theorist. One mark of the conspiracy theorist is the tendency to connect everything to the conspiracy, which tends to assume the most enormous dimensions. The conspiracy theorist can become unable to understand that there are forces at work apart from his conspiracy, and sadly that seems to have happened with Pinto.