Thursday, 9 October 2008

George Marsden and Jonathan Edwards: on learning from the past

The American church historian George Marsden is currently delivering the Stone Lectures here in Princeton. (The lectures are being blogged – see the series of links here.) Marsden, author of the great biography on Jonathan Edwards, is creating a dialogue between Edwards’ thought and contemporary theological issues.

Although I admire Marsden’s work on American church history, I was very disappointed by the methodological framework which he set up in the opening lecture. He asked how we can learn from someone like Edwards, whose views are obviously outdated and offensive in many ways. Marsden’s answer was that we can access Edwards’ lasting insights by distinguishing between his great “perennial ideas” (e.g. his doctrine of the Trinity) and his outdated nonessential ideas (e.g. his biblical literalism, his millennialism, and so on).

I realise that Marsden was only sketching some brief remarks on historical method, but I think this represents a deeply flawed approach to the question of how we can learn from the Christian past. If we learn from the past by distinguishing the timeless “perennial core” from the nonessential (i.e. flawed) elements, then we’re acting as though our own commitments are the final arbiter of history — we’re assuming that history has found its goal in us. And one of the unfortunate side-effects of this approach is that we’re no longer in a position to be critiqued by history. This would explain the strange fact that Marsden didn’t find any contemporary critical significance in Edwards’ millennialism, his doctrine of progress, or his theology of the election of nations. (Seriously, isn’t all this just a little relevant to American identity and to US foreign policy?)

In contrast, the point of historical study (as Rowan Williams has compellingly argued in Why Study the Past?) is to encounter the past in all its irreducible strangeness — and yet to perceive this strangeness itself (not some timeless “core”) as something that was actually possible for the Christian church. In other words, we need to recognise even Edwards’ most unpalatable ideas as things that it was possible for a Christian to think and say. If we can do this, then we’re placed in a position where Edwards can challenge and question our own most basic assumptions about what counts as “Christian”.

As Karl Barth remarks in his work on 19th-century theology: “I have to count all these people as members of the Christian Church and, remembering that I and my theological work are in the Christian Church only on the ground of forgiveness, I have neither to dispute nor even to doubt that they, like me, were ultimately concerned with the Christian faith” (p. 28).

Once we perceive that a thinker like Jonathan Edwards was “ultimately concerned with the Christian faith,” it becomes impossible to distinguish between any timeless “core” and the mere “husk” of culturally-bound ineptitudes. Instead, by encountering the strangeness and offensiveness of Edwards’ ideas, we are encountering something new and unexpected about the nature of Christian identity itself. And this means that our own assumptions about Christian identity have also become less certain and less secure. Edwards is now not merely a curiosity or the source of a few timeless verities; now, he becomes a question to us.


Joshua said...

not only tenable, but a vital post to the question of historical theology.

Geoff Smith said...

Thanks for that. I always figured that the core of things agreed upon in church history was a call to defend those beliefs, not to misread ancient writers simply to find those beliefs in them.

On Marsden's view it would seem that the only reason to read Luther or Athanasius would be because they believed in the Trinity and the resurrection from the dead and therefore they can help us(who already believe such things) resolve theological problems related to those doctrines.

Dave Belcher said...

Not to mention that this is all posited in a very Harnackian way that separates out the eternal "kernel" from the historical, phenomenal husk -- which is also done in all-too neo-Kantian way.

Great stuff Ben. Especially that Williams' reference -- those little "books" (much more "essays," I would say) of his are just penetratingly...right (I still can't shake myself from the first experience of reading Silence and Honecakes).

Jason Goroncy said...

Great post Ben. As one who spends most of his mental energy in centuries other than our own, I confess that I found this post offering a timely challenge to my own reading and teaching. I hope it stimulates some fruitful discussion on- and off-line.

Doug Harink said...

Wonderful post, Ben. I was about to say that this reveals Marsden (and others, e.g. Noll) as a good historian but a bad theologian. But, in what sense is he even a good historian? Only perhaps, as Dave Belcher, notes, in the neo-Kantian sense, that is, he is a good modernist-progressivist historian. But to be a good Christian historian one would have to work with an apocalyptic sense of history, such as Paul develops in Romans; such as Barth explicates in the commentary on Romans; such as Walter Benjamin seems to grasp deeply in "Theses on the Philosophy of History"; such as Walter Lowe in several recent essays is shaping into an orientation to theology as a whole; indeed, such as Ben Myer displays frequently in his blog posts and essays.

Anonymous said...

Amen Bro
That'll preach!

Danny said...

This seems exaggerated. Where does Marsdsen claim that the only reason to study Edwards is to get some "perennial core"? Surely he would affirm there are all sorts of reasons to study Edwards and deny that we are somehow above history; his point is simply that we need to avoid the type of "binary thinking" that would reject the study of Edwards on the grounds that he is "too backwards" for us.

The nonessential elements of Edwards' work are those which we should not affirm today, which does not imply that they are separable from our Christian heritage. The "perennial ideas" are those which more closely relate to what we should affirm today, which does not imply that the former and the latter are strictly divisible, only that such an approximate division is a useful way to explain one aspect of Edwards' importance to those who otherwise would be skeptical of his value.

I agree with your view of the past, but so could Marsden.

Hoover said...

Thank you, Danny. How easy it was appearing to dogpile on a distinguished and intelligent historian as if he were either disingenuous or unthoughtful about his discipline.

joel said...

this post is great!

Is your explanation of Williams' point fairly near the quote? The thought on strangeness and possibility is one that opens new avenues for me, i want to chew on it.

How does one explain this to someone whose views have been captured by this vision that our modern selves are the goal of history?


Tim F. said...

What do we do about the fact that for many earlier Christians the past was NOT a strange place or so dissociated from them? Hence, they had no problem with anachronism (e.g. Irenaeus says we have the same faith as Abraham; Bede says Moses was speaking about the trinity in Genesis, and that the church was being built in the temple).

Only now after the modern turn to history and the rise of historical consciousness do we experience the past as a strange place.

If my own history (theory) serves me well, I believe it was Ranke who first began to speak about all times being infinitely unique and different, which he theologically roots in God's own experience of time as simultaneity. However, I am not familiar with any other theologian who took God's relationship to time in this direction.

I don't have answers or solutions to anything I raise here, just more questions. But, I think these issues are important and need addressed.


Tim F.

Aaron said...

Can't comment on Marsden but great stuff. Edwards indeed has a lot of questions to put to us.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Danny and Hoover. I appreciate your point, and I certainly don't mean any disrespect to George Marsden. But I attended the lecture, and he was really very explicit in articulating this simplistic distinction between the timeless doctrinal core and its historical husk — so I think it's quite fair to critique him on the basis of what he actually says. (For what it's worth, David Congdon's recent post raises some very similar questions about Marsden's approach to history, and David observes that this neo-Kantian "kernel/husk" distinction underlies the entire series of lectures. )

I don't think this makes Marsden a bad historian. Some historians can be very good at what they do, without necessarily being very good at reflecting on historiography. Marsden himself is a good historian, but his attempt to articulate a method of historical inquiry seems to me to be deeply flawed — and his methodological naivety goes a long way towards explaining why his attempt to engage theologically with the past has been so disappointing.

None of this makes him a bad historian — but he's not necessarily the best guide to the contemporary theological relevance of his own historical work.

Erin said...

Any thoughts on how this historical method should bear upon canonical history/composition? In particular, how NT authors reflected upon the OT? Just a passing wonder. I enjoyed the post, as usual :)

Dave Belcher said...

Since I was the one to attribute the label "neo-Kantian" to Marsden's method -- an epithet in some places -- I should probably explain.

I was not intending to question Marsden's abilities as an historian (I only cursorily know his work through his Fundamentalism in America, which is not my area of history), but as Ben puts it, there is nevertheless a question of "method" or "historiography" that attends all good (and bad!) historical work; and I think these questions are not at all tangential to the kinds of choices an historian makes, and inevitably the kind of "story" one will tell. So we have to be aware of these things, and keep a critical eye. And speaking of a critical eye....I also do not intend by my comment to suggest that anything Kantian or of family origin is prima facie wrong, or smelly or something. Precisely what we must take from Kant is his critical perspective (and especially self-critical perspective)...what we must be leary of is his divorce of phenomena and noumena (what some call his "agnosticism"), such that knowledge of "the real" is impossible. And this is precisely what is taken up in Harnack's "essence" of Christianity, and what seems to be taken up in Marsden's historical method.

Dave Belcher said...

Wow, I put that terribly....

Tito Titnajero said...

I understand the fear of becoming the judge of History and historical figures like Edwards, but is that not the process we all have to go through coming to any history figure whether that is Edwards or Lincoln. We have the hindsight of history and yet it has to be approached with deep humility. Examine any man under a scope of time and they including me reveal the flaws and imperfections. I really cannot see another way of doing history, and can only hope that same humility wen history is written about us.

Joanna said...

Ben, I appreciate the work Marsden has done, but I couldn't agree with you more that history should be a question to us rather than vice versa. And I blame theologians for having a bad influence on historians in this regard! In my experience, at most theological colleges, historians are encouraged to teach history along very teleological lines. They don't teach historical method, they teach a particular narrative of theological progress and/or decline.
As you know, I work in the area of religious history, but in a secular university. One of my colleagues attended a conference on missions history which included the usual odd mix of historians from universities, historians from theological colleges, ex-missionaries and misc. When someone commented to her that the missionaries were an odd bunch, she responded: 'I don't mind the missionaries at all - they have some interesting insights. What I really, really can't stand is the church historians.' I'm very sympathetic to her point of view!

Danny said...

I think it should be recognized that Marsden associates himself with the Reformed Epistemology crowd (see his chapter in the book edited by Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff in Faith and Rationality). In this sense he is anything but Neo Kantian and probably places himself epistemologically speaking in the the common sense realism tradition of Thomas Reid (as does Plantinga and Wolterstorff). So perhaps the kernel/husk metapher has Kantian overtones, but I would not associate this with Kant. Actually, I think the last chapter of Marsden's book The Soul of the American University entitled, "Concluding Unscientific Postscript" would show just the opposite.

Dave Belcher said...

Danny, thanks for the comment. I recant that comment about neo-Kantianism. Seriously. Thanks.

Dave Belcher said...

And Danny, I just wanted to add that my last comment wasn't an attempt to shore up conversation; I just recognize that I might be wrong here, and I want to think through things a bit more. Thanks for prodding me on this (as others have in private correspondence). peace.

Danny said...

I must admit I did not read through all the comments so I apologize if I succumbed to redundancy. I am more taken back by Doug Harnick's remarks. You see, Doug knows what constitutes a good theologian and a good historian. He has discovered the kernel of truly good theology and history and can point to specific examples of who gets it and who does not. Of course, this is truly good theology.

Brian said...

Edwards' views do not seem to me to be "obviously outdated and offensive in many ways". Not sure I am understanding you here. This seems to be a fairly arrogant claim, does it not? As if we admirers of Dr. Barth have finally arrived.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Brian — I was just summarising Marsden's lecture (not expressing my own opinion about Edwards' thought). In any case, I'm on your side here: the whole point of my post was that we should take Edwards' thought even more seriously than Marsden does.

George Marsden said...

Since this has been an interesting ongoing discussion, I guess it would not be out of place for me to clarify what I said. Below is the text of what I said on the point in question. I did not use the core and husk image, but rather said that in a tradition there are some ideas that have shone through in a tradition in many times and places but these are sometimes “intertwined” with outdated social and political views of a particular time and place. Example: the beauty of Christ’s sacrificial love being intertwined with the belief that the Pope is the Antichrist. A brilliant exposition of the former resonates today, but a brilliant exposition of the latter does not.
These lectures were about what we can learn from Edwards today. In my two biographies of Edwards I adopted just the stance that Ben cites from Rowan Williams. But in these lectures I was attempting something different. So my thanks to Ben for his good comments which I basically agree with except with respect to what he thought I was trying to say. Here is what I said:
“What can we expect to learn from someone whose views on many important subjects seem so bizarre, outdated, and perhaps even offensive?
Probably in this place where there is an appreciation for the long-term Christian heritage it will not take extensive argumentation to answer this question. If we excluded from our mentors all those who held views on some social or political issues that to many today seem bizarre or offensive, we would have to dispense with just about everyone in the history of the church as well as all the biblical writers and stick with just the wisdom of the very recent past and our own contemporaries--which is a truly depressing thought. Second, as I think will also gain general assent here, theologians present a special case. Theologian work within traditions and, although traditions are shaped and modified by historical contingencies, they also (by the nature of the case) contain elements that transcend the faddish outlooks of particular times and places. Hence they contain insights and challenges to our own assumptions and outlooks, just because they offer rays of wisdom that have shone in many other times and places.
Nor is learning from the greatest proponents of a tradition an all or nothing enterprise. In our specific case of Edwards and the Reformed version of the Augustinian tradition there are some emphases such as on the eternal flames of Hell or God’s eternal decrees to election and reprobation that some Reformed and other Christians today find very off-putting. But I think it is also most important not to be so off-put by these dimensions of the outlook of a great expositor or a tradition that we miss the truly grand insights of that expositor. As I said, I don’t think that point will require much argumentation at this seminary, where there is already appreciation for the likes of Edwards or Calvin, even among those who are not strictly Edwardseans or Calvinists.
But beyond that, I want to argue that we can also gains some valuable insights and challenges to our culture and or cultural assumptions from the likes of Edwards. In order to do so we need to be alert to be able to sort out the lasting insights of the great minds of the past from the non-essential assumptions of another era with which those perennial truths may be intertwined. Learning to do that is, it seems to me, one of the great values of studying history. We try to understand another era not to simply dismiss it as curiously different and inferior to our own, but to be able to takes its peculiarities into account so that we can learn from its greatest thinkers.
In fact sometimes we can gain some great insights from the profound thinkers of the past about our own times just because they lived in times so different from our own. Listening to them in their own contexts may have an effect similar to refreshing insights that we might gain from living for a time in a foreign country.” Then I quoted from C. S. Lewis, Learning in Wartime.

George Marsden

Dave Belcher said...

Prof. Marsden,

I for one found this to be a very helpful clarification -- especially as one who was unable to hear your talks. I think what you are dealing with is indeed not the kernel/husk distinction...the "intertwining moments" that have shone through in our history are at the same time not transcendent, essential elements, please forgive me if I created a headache by raising it! But, again, thank you for responding to clear the air, so to speak...this is good stuff, and the stuff of good theology and good history.

In the peace of Christ,

dave belcher

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