Saturday 18 October 2008

Learning from the past: George Marsden responds

A guest-post by George Marsden (responding to my recent post)

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some ideas that have shone through in a tradition in many times and places but these are sometimes “intertwined” with outdated social and political views of a particular time and place.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 Jonathan Edwards today. In my two biographies of Edwards (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and A Short Life of Jonathan 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“What can we expect to learn from someone whose views on many important subjects seem so bizarre, outdated, and perhaps even offensive?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 [i.e. Princeton] 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 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.”


Dave Belcher said...

Prof. Marsden,

Since you have moved this here, in case you didn't see my response below, I'll move it here as well:

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

David W. Congdon said...

Well, since this debate first began in the comments to my summary of Marsden's lecture, I feel like I need to weigh in here.

Unlike Dave Belcher, I do not find Marsden's "response" to be helpful in the least. It's simply a repetition of what he already said in the lecture. And for those of us who were at the lecture -- like Ben and myself -- it's not like we were under any serious misconceptions about what was said that evening.

Look again at what Marsden wrote. He says that we need "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." How is this not a kind of husk/kernel distinction? You have the "lasting insights" intertwined with "non-essential assumptions." The task of the historian is to peel away these assumptions in order to discover the lasting insights.

It doesn't seem to cross Marsden's mind that these so-called "lasting insights" might actually depend upon or be materially interconnected with the so-called "non-essential assumptions," such that any attempt to distinguish between the two would be to create an imaginary history rather than the actual history.

The example of Christ's love and the Pope as the antichrist is not very helpful or interesting. What about the material interconnection between Edwards's postmillennialism, revivalism, and anti-Catholicism? Can we really extract Edwards's reflections on the religious affections out of the context of his millenarian and anti-Catholic views?

I think we are faced with two kinds of demythologization. The first is the one pursued by von Harnack and other 19th century liberals. This involved dispensing with those views that no longer seemed relevant or desirable and keeping the ones that were attractive. The second kind of demythologization is that pursued by Bultmann himself, who rejected the husk/kernel distinction. Instead, he argued for an existential interpretation of the whole in concert with careful historical-critical exegesis. While this was pursued by Bultmann in relation to Scripture, I think we need something similar in relation to the rest of Christian history. We need the careful historical exegesis, but more importantly, we need an interpretation of the whole -- not tossing aside what we deem to be meaningless today, but rather understanding the entirety as a communication to us here and now.

Anonymous said...


What if we viewed what Marsden is doing in these lectures as closer to dogmatics than to history as such? He is thinking with someone of the past about what needs to be said today. Presumably, as he says in the post, Marsden has done proper historical work on Edwards in which he has allowed "the entirety [of Edwards] as a communication to us here and now." But now he is taking a further step. Having heard Edwards, he is trying to speak back, trying to appropriate him.

He is 'using' Edwards for a constructive theological project just as you might 'use' Luther without appropriating his anti-Judaism.

What do you think? Way off?

Shane said...

I suspect David and Ben's frustration with Marsden stems from an anterior disagreement about the nature of theology.

Marsden's claim that there are essential and non-essential claims is basic and obviously true. If you don't believe God exists you aren't a Christian. But you can be a Christian and hold to baptism by sprinkling v. baptism by immersion. Obviously the claim "God exists" is essential and "Baptism is sprinkling" is not.

I take it that David and Ben agree with me (and Marsden as I read him) about that.

David and Ben's objection to this kind of distinction is not that they don't think it exists, but that it is hard or perhaps impossible in principle to separate the two kinds of claims out. Thus David asks, "Can we really extract Edwards's reflections on the religious affections out of the context of his millenarian and anti-Catholic views?"

I think to David (and presumably Ben) this question implies a negative answer. Why should that be? Well, I think they share a more fundamental assumption that theology is more like poetry than logic.

Poetry is allusive, affective and a poem forms an organic whole whose meaning depends upon each of its parts. Thus you cannot ask about the meaning of a line without asking about the meaning of the whole poem and vice versa. Therefore, theology conceived on the model of poetry does not allow you to separate your ecclesiology from your eschatology and so on. I think this is what I hear David implying.

However, in logic, it is not so. In a logical system it is simple, clear and unambiguous whether two claims are separable or not. Simply ask whether one entails the other. If so, then they aren't inseparable. If not, they are. If the proof of p depends on q as a hypothesis, or if p is a hypothesis that proves q, then p and q are not separable.

I think theology is more like logic than poetry and I suspect that Marsen does as well. I think I can point out how it is possible (at least in principle) for us to separate out essential from non-essential.

(a) Suppose David and Ben grant me that there is a difference between essential and non-essential claims of the Christian faith (as I hope they do).
(b) Suppose further that there are some matters which are clearly essential and some matters which are clearly non-essential to Edwards' though and a third gray area inbetween, which is the contested ground.
(c) A claim which falls into the gray area is 'essential' to Edwards' theology if it is an implication of anything that is clearly essential OR if it is a hypothesis Edwards uses (perhaps even implicitly) to prove some other clearly essential claim. Otherwise it is non-essential.

So, to answer David's question from above, here are the questions we ask: "Does Edwards' Millenarianism imply his anti-catholicism or is it an implication of his anti-catholicism?" Obviously to answer that question is going to require a further layer of textual and historical interpretation--my point is simply that it does seem like a reasonable question which could, in principle, be settled.

David W. Congdon said...


You're correct that I reject the view that theology is simply a form of logic. But that's because the high (and I mean really high) majority of theologians also reject that view. And, here is where the discussion becomes concrete, Edwards also would have rejected such a view. In fact, of all theologians throughout history, Edwards would be on the extreme side of "theology as poetry." His entire theology is shaped by theological aesthetics and the category of beauty. So even if you're correct that Marsden approaches history and theology in terms of logic, that would still be doing a major injustice to Edwards, whose entire thought is marked by the aesthetic and poetic.

Now, I agree about the distinction between essential and non-essential doctrines. That's a hallmark of the Reformation, the distinction between essential beliefs and adiaphora. But that's not the debate here. Marsden was making a distinction between "lasting insights" and "assumptions of another era." In other words, his distinction is between theology and culture. Marsden wants to extract the truths of theology from the historical views of another time and place. What we have here is a kind of demarcation between "accidental truths of history" and "necessary truths of reason," to use Lessing's terminology.

My point (and I think Ben's point as well) is that you simply cannot, as an historian, extract reason from history, theology from culture. These things are necessarily implicated in each other. That's not to say that theology cannot transcend particular cultural frameworks, but it does mean that any attempt to make a person's view "relevant" to people today cannot be accomplished by simply discarding with cultural assumptions. What we end up with is a figure of our own creation, an Edwards who is ahistorical, or at least deculturalized.

This is precisely the criticism of the old quests for the historical Jesus: the historians looked down the well of history and saw their own reflection.

So while your comment is interesting, it has no real bearing on this debate, in my opinion.

David W. Congdon said...


I think you have a fair point, and that's probably what Marsden has in mind. But Ben and I are criticizing the brief methodology that Marsden described in his first lecture. And that's also what Marsden defended in this response. What troubles me is that Marsden seems to think the only way to make the views of someone from an alien culture relevant to us today is by dispensing with everything that is culturally alien. What we are left with is the logical "kernel" within, the transcendent truths of reason that still speak to us today.

But think what the consequences would be if Americans employed that same approach to an Iraqi author or a tribal sage from Papua. Or, to turn it around, could we extract our own views out from the context of bourgeois, capitalistic, militaristic, democratic America?

(Parenthetically, instead of Shane's distinction between logic and poetry, we might describe this debate in terms of philosophical theology and contextual theology.)

Anyway, the point is that we need a hermeneutics which interprets history in a way that is anthropologically relevant, but without sacrificing those things that we deem alien or strange or non-essential. We need a hermeneutics that recognizes the relevance precisely of those things which are alien, strange, and supposedly non-essential. To sovereignly determine what is essential and non-essential about an historical figure is to create that figure in our own image. Here, again, I would reference the two types of demythologization from my first comment.

Ben Myers said...

Shane: David's right, your remarks about logic are interesting but not relevant to history (since history is neither a poem nor a series of propositions). To try to get at history using the procedures of logical analysis is like trying to serve ice cream with a pizza slicer: it's the wrong tool, and you'll end up with a big mess.

Just to support David's larger point about the "relevance" of past thinkers, here's another quote from Quentin Skinner: "The alien character of the beliefs we uncover constitutes their 'relevance'. Reflecting on such alternative possibilities, we provide ourselves with one of the best means of preventing our current moral and political theories from degenerating too easily into uncritically accepted ideologies" (Visions of Politics, vol. 1, p. 126).

It's a crucial point: the alien character of Edwards' past beliefs isn't an obstacle to his contemporary relevance; this alien character is his relevance. In so far as he merely reflects our own prior beliefs, he is of no interest and we have nothing to learn from him.

Shane said...

@David and Ben,

The precise claim which I am advancing is not that theology is a division of logic or something like that. Merely that it is more like logic than poetry--as the spelling of the word indicates. And I take it that my view is actually the view of the majority of the tradition. It is the view that anyone who believes theology to be a 'science', for instance (i.e. a rational, deductive enterprise).

[Moreover, I am well aware of Edwards's interests in religious affections and aesthetics, but those interests do not imply that he did not examine them in a 'scientific' way. One does not have to write poetry to be an aesthetician.]

Imagine a contemporary physicist questioning what importance Newton might have for us today and giving a series of lectures on this subject. Now he is going to start out by saying that we obviously now know that Newton's physics is incorrect in serious and substantial ways. There are better, clearer and more rigorous mathematical formulations of all of his central ideas. And it seems like he is preoccupied with the obscure metaphysical entities of the 16th century like vortexes and the like. "Nevertheless," we could well imagine the speaker asserting, "Newton has something important to say to us today . . ."

Well, I have no idea what it would be; I'm not a physicist. Perhaps Newton's opinions about weird metaphysical entities like vortexes might help us think about the weird metaphysical entities of contemporary string theory. Maybe what we will learn from knowing more about Newton is that physicists need to possess certain sorts of insights or ought not to pursue certain veins of metaphysical speculation. Who knows?

My point is that these are entirely relevant questions to ask. And they do not require separating the husk from the kernel, history from truth. Rather, the truth (Physicists shouldn't do metaphysics) emerges from the history (Look at all the trouble Newton got into).

Marsden's already written the history--now he's just trying to get at the truth. One way of doing that is perhaps what I suggested in my previous post. Perhaps some of Edwards's most crucial claims and arguments are actually valid ones, which we should consider, because they do not entail or are not entailed by any of the other ridiculous things he believes. Another way Edwards might be contemporarily relevant is if he provides an example which is worth following (or rejecting), as in my example about Newton above.

Either way, I don't think this requires that we fail to do justice to history--we aren't trying to do history at this point. What we are doing is trying to appropriate, and obviously so.

In response to Ben, I object that alienness is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for an idea's being worth entertaining. Osama bin Laden's moral beliefs are alien to me, but this doesn't imply I have anything to learn from him, or ought to spend time patiently listening to him, being open and so on.

This reminds me of a quote I recently read: "If you are able to seriously debate the morality of slavery, you are either a schizophrenic or a philosopher."

Anonymous said...

As a conservative reader who enjoys this blog, I see irony in this debate. It would seem the kinds of notions that shape Ben and David's critique of Marsden would form an immanent critique of the way evangelical and (gasp!) fundamentalist contemporaries are treated in contexts like this. Perhaps its easier to advocate taking seriously the "alieness" of Edward's offensive historical views rather than taking seriously living advocates of those views, who are simply not worth engaging, or hopelessly fundamentalistic, etc.

Alieness is not the province of the past alone and history is not the only antidote to historical provincialism; looking around and taking seriously's one contemporaries may be an even more jarring way to grapple with alterity than that of dusting of a great thinker of the past.

Incidentally, I enjoy and appreciate Ben's charitable disposition towards different perspectives on his blog. It seems incontrovertible, however, that the plausibility structures of most on this blog and similar one's (e.g. Halden's) are such that evangelicals (or whatever you want to call American conservative theologians) are not typically taken seriously.

In that sense, then, the critique of Marsden, valid or not, seems problematic.

Anonymous said...

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you can check it here: (the last blog entry)

a student at WTS Holland MI.

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