What difference does being a Christian historian make? George Marsden suggests three things that Christian perspectives do not mean. First, Christian perspectives on academic topics will not change everything, but it will change some things. Important areas of thought regarding human nature, anthropology, justice, etc. greatly influence the way history is perceived. Second, for Christianity to make a difference, it does not mean that the perspective must be uniquely Christian. Distinctly Christian scholarship means that our scholarship is grounded in distinctly Christian principles, not that it is wholly unlike other perspectives or scholarship. Third, there are no set formulae for the Christian perspective. There are many types of questions that a Christian might ask if they consciously seek to relate faith and learning.
So, how does being a Christian shape the way we do history? Marsden suggests three things that are unique about a Christian writing history. First, our Christian commitments shape our selection of topic. What is worth studying? Our priorities and values shape these choices, so a Christian may choose a field of inquiry that is considered politically incorrect to scholars committed to cultural relativism or scientific naturalism. Second, our Christian perspectives will influence the questions we ask about the subject. Christian scholars are likely to be interested in a different set of issues than are other scholars and to see different things. Third, our Christian commitments inevitably influence which current theories we are likely to accept. For example, Christians who accept the authority of ancient texts are unlikely to accept radical postmodern deconstruction of the authority of all texts, or accept the idea that humans are, in effect, the only creators of reality.
For example, Christians approach the study of man as a created being made in the image of God, marred by the fall, capable of being redeemed by Christ, and destined for an eternity beyond this lifetime. This metanarrative explains much about psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc. In contrast, secular scholars view man as the “Transcendental Self” that is devoid of a creator, and therefore any transcendent authority. Human capacities are immensely inflated and man’s goodness is assumed, along with the inevitable progress of mankind. The secularist’s metanarrative also provides a number of answers (however flawed) to problems of human nature, psychology, anthropology and sociology. Applied to history, Christian and secular historians end up telling a very different story of the past.
The insights that a Christian view of history brings should not, however, result in pride. Being a Christian historian does not in any way mean that one is a better historian than a non-Christian historian. It simply means that a better way of viewing history is available to the historian who is willing to submit his perspective to the Scriptures, do the hard work of history and remain humble in the doing. Marsden sums it up well when he says,
Ultimately people are convinced not simply by arguments, although sound scholarship is essential. They are convinced also by the character of the people who present arguments…So Christian scholars should, without compromising their scholarship, present themselves as models of genuine servanthood within adverse academic communities.
This essay is adapted from George Marsden, “What Difference Might Christian Perspectives Make?” in History and the Christian Historian (ed. Ronald Wells; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).