Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
-George Eliot, Middlemarch
I’m about two-thirds through Philip Jenkins’ book and I would like to record some of my side reflections on the problem of historical activity in general especially as it relates to the Christian faith.
The Limits of the Historical Method
History as it exists is essentially a human activity. It is an empirical method of collecting data, recording events and forming explanatory causal relations between various events.
Immediately it should be obvious why a “historical” approach to the Christian faith itself poses a theological problem. If, as Protestantism rightly emphasises, the Christian faith dwells in the hearts of man and true righteousness is that of a clean conscience unseen by earthly eyes, it becomes difficult to speak of the Christian faith according to methods which are intrinsically tied to sight, i.e. the empirical method.
A historian necessarily is a person of a certain class and intellectual stature. Lacking omniscience, he can only gather whatever materials or data which are readily available. Thus, there is a tendency towards “official records” and looking at “macro” events or phenomenon which are sufficiently large scale and visible to provoke civic or political interest to bother recording down and commenting on it. Inevitably, historians tend to write in service of rich and powerful patrons, their eye is necessarily therefore trained upon phenomena of interest to the rich and powerful. Those were not the days of Twitter and lay reporting. Information had first to be painstaking written down, and even after it was written down, they had to be transported physically from one place to another via the slowest of transportation method. Today, someone’s execution in Iraq can be seen in Singapore in matter of minutes. News of a rebellion in one part of the Roman Empire would take weeks for it to be known to the other side. Furthermore, records, by its perilous dependence upon the physical medium, could be lost and destroyed very easily, especially in times of persecution and purging when the civil powers orders the books to be burnt and all records stricken. Or, the records could quite simply be lost, degraded and reduced to dust through the passage of time.
It is little wonder that the first surviving account of the history of the Church was written by Eusebius right at the middle of the inauguration of Christendom with Constantine’s patronage of the Church. His narrative necessarily centres on the major players of the civil and political affairs of the time, Roman Emperors, bishops, clerics, martyrs, etc. His praise of Constantine as a virtual rival Saviour of the Church should give us some clue to the inherent bias of historians towards the significance of political and civil power and “macro” events.
The Relevance/Irrelevance of Visible Events
Attempting to tie the faith macro-institutions and events should naturally be problematic for the Christian for whose “life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Therefore it is difficult to see why the Christian faith should be tied to macro-political events. Remember, those were the days of very slow communication and limited enforcement “checks”. The Emperor may decree a persecution of Christians, but while some local governors may enforce it enthusiastically, other local governors may enforce it half-heartedly and sporadically, if they decide to enforce it at all. (It is analogous to Singapore’s 377a law against homosexual sex, it exists on the law books, but it is rarely if ever actually enforced.) Thus, the line between a political player and the Christian on the ground is very difficult to trace, even more difficult would be attempting to trace that all the way to the heart.
It is amusing to note here Jenkins’ description of the Latin Christians who, upon arriving in India, was appalled to discover that the Nestorian Indians has never heard of the Pope in Rome and they called “the Patriarch of Babylon the universal pastor and head of the Catholic Church.” What outrage! How could they possibly have never heard of the Rock upon which Christ built his Church?
This just goes to show that the influence of macro-political players, ecclesiastical or civil, were rather limited in their influence. Popes, Patriarchs and councils can pass decrees and bulls and laws and it would have been little regarded beyond the narrow confines of their capitals. Information travelled slowly, centralised enforcement was costly and rarely effective. Meanwhile the lives of Christians on the ground, especially in villages and rural areas, continued undisturbed by the squabbles of power players. Most people throughout Christendom would never have known who was their pope or their patriarch and even if they did know cared very little for his actions. So very different from our media savvy and twitting popes!
However, the historian tends towards tracking the movements and actions of macro-political players and would naturally attribute to them more relevance than they deserve. They rarely have the time or resources to perform extensive surveys. And of course being patronised by such powerful figures, they would naturally tend towards exaggerating the extent of their influence and the amount of difference they actually make in the lives of believers.
Even at the local level, again the historian tracks visible elements once more, church buildings, monasteries, wealth and treasures and donations to the church, etc. The historian has no real ability to truly discern the heart of believers, what did they actually believe or know, etc. Surveys and statistics have not yet been invented and so nobody truly knows how the people actually lived or thought. What history therefore tracks are visible empirical things and things which interest political powers, but its ability to know the spiritual condition of the believers is something which they could only conjecture.
The Theological Bias of the Historical Method
What however is most objectionable about the historical method, in so far as it departs as a secular enterprise and seeks to legitimise a theology, is that it is already prejudiced towards a form Christendom. If history is evidence for the validity of a doctrine or practice, and if the historical method can only track what is visible, then obviously the sort of beliefs it would validate would be those who are visibly welded to civil power or structures, to those sorts of beliefs which endorse robustly visible institutions and canonical forms. But this is a rather substantive premise to accept, and also quite question begging. The use of history in theology would bias that theology towards the relevance of the visible and the irrelevance of the invisible. This would turn into a justification by history rather than a justification by a faith in that which is unseen and beyond the historians’ reach.
It is worth here quoting from Gary North’s “Beating the State: Third Century Christianity in the Third World Today.”
In 1973, in his last years, Mao’s persecution had reduced the number of Protestants in China to something in the range of 3 million people. The estimate today is 120 million. No one knows. This is a good thing. If the state cannot count them, it cannot persecute them.
Chinese Protestants have adopted a strategy used in the late Roman Empire. They are worshiping in homes and secret buildings. They stay on the move. In short: the churches do not have 9-digit zip codes.
The same system is working in Latin America, to the dismay of the bureaucrats.
This has received little attention in the West, because this strategy relies on invisibility. The West’s intellectuals suffer from a myth of modernism: “If bureaucrats cannot count something, it cannot be important. If it cannot be computerized, it cannot be socially relevant.” Call it the NSA’s blind spot. Call it the IRS’s nightmare.
The historian can only track what they can see. But most of the Christian life is lived under the radar of the historian. A historian counts buildings, official census, finances and political offices, the Kingdom of God has no buildings, its electoral roll is secret, its treasures are heavenly, and its only office is the service of discreet love, whose right hand doesn’t know what their left hand is doing. The historian can record the approval of men; the Christian seeks not the approval of men but of the Father who watches in secret. The historian sings the praises of movers and shakers of the public world, the angels laud the unrecorded and unknown faith of the insignificant believer. The latter is ignored by the historian, but remembered by God. If even modern historians, with so many modern scientific and statistical instruments and efficient information processing systems, have problems “tracking” the millions of Chinese Protestants who live under the radar of the state, how much more difficult would it be for ancient historians to be able to track the faith and practices of the churches of old!
Jenkins also notes that what is interesting about the so-called Christian “converts” to Islam is that their conversion seems to be merely nominal while they may continue to secretly practice their faith. A Muslim back then complained about them saying that they never go to mosque, they never pray or fast and they never go on pilgrimages, in what sense of the word are they Muslims? Once more, the historian sees the destroyed churches, the numbers on a piece of paper recording their formal adherence to Islam, but in the secrecy of their houses, away from the historian and the powers prying eyes, the Christian continues to practice his faith, unseen by those who seeks their blood, yet seen by the Father who watches in secret, and who will reward their faith.
If a historian did not record an event, did it ever happen? Protestant theology here must insist that all things happen under the eyes of God and not the eyes of the historian. History is important in so far as it explains to us the meaning and origin of visible things. Church buildings, art, institutions and even theological traditions finds its substantial meaning in its past.
However, history itself is limited, tied to the empirical method to what it can see. Its students are man of limited information processing and gathering capabilities, their interest tied to visible powers and patrons. In this we must insist that the Church transcends history, it is an object of faith and not of sight, its faith and deeds have only one infallible witness, the Holy Scriptures, beyond that, they are only known to God to whom alone the elect eagerly seek to unveil the true children of God at the end of time.
Ultimately, it is not for the historian to define the Church but for its author the begotten Word. It is He alone who shall justify the elect and he alone who shall judge their faith and deeds. It is for Him alone to decide who are His and to remember that not all who says “Lord, Lord” shall enter the Kingdom but only he who does the will of the Father. But who indeed has so obeyed the Father? The Day of Judgement alone can reveal that, and not the inquisitive historian.