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From the July/August, 2001
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History & Strange Reversals by Phillip E. Johnson

History & Strange Reversals

The April issue of Christianity Today features an article by Tim Stafford on some Evangelical Christian history professors who have gained scholarly prominence. Mark Noll of Wheaton, Harry Stout of Yale, and George Marsden of Notre Dame are major players in the academic mainstream. Some critics say their books are good but not distinctively Christian. Academic history, like natural science, imposes a requirement of methodological naturalism that disallows reference to the “God hypothesis.” If you want to speak to the academic culture, you have to obey the rules of its language game. In that case, how does the work of Christian historians differ from that of secular historians of comparable ability?

The problem arises because the scholars rightly want to make the kind of nuanced judgments that earn the respect of other historians, rather than be perceived as cheerleaders for some Christian cause. For example, Mark Noll has an understandable aversion to “providential history,” stemming from his reading of American Revolutionary War sermons of the “God is on our side” variety. But enlisting God on America’s side, or anybody’s side, is propaganda in a Christian vocabulary, not a genuinely Christian viewpoint about history.

Here is where I would start. A great deal of history has been written from the perspective of the Enlightenment rationalist story of progress. To put it crudely, the underlying story is that in Greece and Rome people made a start towards knowledge, but then the world was set back in the Middle Ages, when people threw their brains out the window. Just in time, modern science galloped to the rescue, preparing the way for a triumph of reason that is still unfortunately retarded by the lingering vestiges of superstition. That’s another form of providential history, as simple-minded in its way as the claim that God is an Englishman. The Enlightenment story is countered these days mainly by its equally crude postmodernist rival. This recasts Western patriarchal civilization as the villain of the story, with aboriginal peoples, proletarians, women, and homosexuals emerging as the heroes.

Christian historians have an opportunity to pose a new meta-narrative that is illuminating rather than merely tendentious. Mark Noll says that a theology of the Cross allows for “strange reversals,” in which admirable institutions nonetheless commit unspeakable evil, and yet good things somehow come out of hopeless situations. That makes me think of Jaroslav Pelikan’s marvelous Jesus Through the Centuries, which shows how the figure of Jesus emerges in distinct form in each era to encapsulate the reigning narrative. Reading that book convinced me not that Christians are necessarily playing on God’s team, but that Jesus will still be active in the world when most of what we call “modernism” is gathering dust on library shelves.

George Marsden’s The Soul of the University is a profoundly Christian book and was so perceived in the scholarly world. This is not because Marsden is overtly partisan but because his detailed account of the transformation of the universities’ worldview implicitly challenged the Enlightenment meta-narrative. Ask an Enlightenment rationalist why universities secularized, and he will probably wonder what needs to be explained. People learned more, especially about science, and so of course they outgrew the superstitious beliefs that prevailed in a less enlightened age. But if you think that some of those old beliefs may have been closer to the truth than the new ones, then it’s a fascinating project to find out why the new beliefs met so little effective resistance. Reflecting on how naturalism took over the universities may also prepare you to envisage one of those strange reversals that the theology of the Cross permits but the Enlightenment myth of progress does not. Good Christian history can make such possibilities come alive in our minds.

Two recent books from Christian publishers provide examples. Philip J. Sampson’s 6 Modern Myths (InterVarsity Press), which comes with an enthusiastic jacket endorsement by Mark Noll, tells how Enlightenment propagandists have continually employed myths drawn from (distorted) history to advance their worldview. Whether the subject is Galileo, Darwin, witches, or the environment, the story is always the same. Nasty and ignorant Christians try to prevent the Enlightenment heroes from bringing knowledge, tolerance, and progress to the world. If industrial technology causes pollution, then lingering Christian influences are to blame, just as lingering capitalist influences were blamed for the failures of the Soviet economy. The “Inherit the Wind” myth of the Scopes trial is perhaps the paradigmatic case of this pseudo-historical storytelling. The literature that contrasts the myth with the reality can contribute to a strange reversal regardless of whether it is explicitly Christian or not.

Another new book I admire is George Hunter’s Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Brazos Press, 2001). Hunter portrays Darwinism as primarily an exercise in theodicy, offering a solution to the problem of how to justify the existence of evil and suffering. Darwin went so far in removing God from responsibility for earthly suffering that he just about removed him from existence, but he was pursuing a line of reasoning that had originated with creationists. Understanding the role of theodicy in Darwinism helps to explain why the theory won support from many Christians, and why scientific difficulties alone cannot destroy its base of support.

As modernist rationalism fades into decline, Christian historians will find some wonderful stories to tell about this paradigm’s rise and fall. Mark Noll has it right. The theology of the Cross inspires a narrative in which good and evil are often mixed, but where truth and life can unexpectedly emerge from despair with renewed strength.


Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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