Tag Archives: Historicism

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Public Enemy #1? And if So, Why?

Paul Gottfried, p. 15: “conservative critics…attack Hegelianism as a source of moral mischief, one that has spawned both personal utopias and crazed social prophecy.” Why?


He influenced not only philosophy, but theology, and a myriad of other academic disciplines. Oh, and he was most influential when if comes to Western culture and politics.

So was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel the 19th century German philosopher and one of the most fascinating persons in history, the perhaps unintentional enemy of Christendom and Western Civilization? And if so, why?

Fascinatingly, when it comes to his political views he was, in his time and since, claimed by both revolutionary and conservative political forces. In his 1986 book Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right (President Nixon’s favorite book of 1987), Paul Gottfried writes, regarding the interpretation of Hegel’s dictum: “What is real is rational,” that it is a common understanding that:

Whereas the Marxists and other radical Hegelians identified rationality with revolutionary change, the Hegelian Right defended the inherent rationality of their own society (4).

Peter Singer on Hegel: Up until him humanity had been pawns in the game… they weren’t really controlling the game…. (from here)

And yet, even this picture is woefully incomplete, as Karl Rosenkranz, writing in 1869, made clear:

“He [Hegel] opposed feudalism, which exalts a patriarchal constitution, by insisting on legality; he opposed abstract democracy, which flatters the masses, by promoting monarchy; he opposed artistocracy by calling for popular representation; the state bureaucracy by calling for freedom of the press, for jury trials, and for the independence of corporations. He offended the hierarchy of all confessions by calling for their submission as churches to the sovereignty of the state and for the emancipation of science from church authority. He antagonized the industrial state, which seeks to ensnare the people with the promise of riches and material prosperity, by stressing ethics as the state’s absolute purpose. He opposed enlightened despotism… by demanding a constitution; and he opposed cosmopolitan socialism by subordinating it to the state’s historical and national character.” (quoted in Gottfried, 11).

Hegel: “Political and cultural history contained an immanent design arising from a universal mind” – Gottfried on the views of “nonleftist Hegelians” (5)

So one can talk sensibly, Gottfried argues throughout his book, for a Hegelian left, center-left (in line with classical liberalism), and a Hegelian right – in spite of the “ritualistic anti-Hegelianism” found among some of these (i.e. they don’t realize the extent to which Hegel has influenced them) (104). “According to Karl Lowith, Hegel viewed his schematization of history as a defense of ‘Christian bourgeois society'” (133). Obviously, this man was a fascinating figure, appealing to many in politics like Augustine appeals to a variety of Christian traditions today.

For me Hegel in many ways cuts a sympathetic figure. The world that he knew was losing its traditions as exciting discoveries and societal gains, seemingly accomplished by Enlightenment thinking alone, were unraveling the old certainties. The Romantic counter-movement also caused a good deal of confusion and doubt when it came to the old ways. Hegel came on to the scene as a careful observer of the past and present and as one who could make some real sense of what was happening – and much that he says is no doubt insightful. He was, for the most part, the first philosopher to actually take history seriously (even if he does it the wrong way). Furthermore, I get the impression that for him, rationality when it comes to politics is something more like wisdom than it is “technocratic” solutions.

“The conservatives’ Hegelianism provided a historical perspective that united East and West, antiquity and the modern world, and paganism and Judeo-Christianity within an unfolding divine plan accessible to human understanding.” (p. 104)

What I find most interesting though are his philosophical views, and their impact on religion (and politics). Hands down, the most helpful thing that I have found for beginning to learn more about Hegel, his beliefs, and his influence is this excellent 1987 BBC production available on You Tube (Bryan Magee appears to have been something else!):


How does Hegel describe reality? In the video, Bryan Magee, sums up what Peter Singer says about Hegel, by saying that for him, “Reality is a process of historical change.” What does this mean? Well, Hegel is a historicist, and, as the literary scholar Hans Gumbrecht has said, with historicism, “there is no phenomenon in time that can resist change.”[i]

“My studies…against the essentialist metaphysics of the Western tradition. I would not be completely alone…There was Hegel to.”- Gadamer

Mark that. Of course reality, is not, fundamentally, “a process of historical change.” For the Christian, it would be more accurate to say something like this: Fundamentally, reality is an ontology of harmony for eternity. The cosmos we know, because of the Triune God, is at bottom relational and stable. This is not to ignore the change that can and does occur in the world, but to acknowledge the True Creator, Preserver, and Driver of history.

Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.”

In light of this viewpoint then, I am going to simultaneously quote and critique the section of Gottfried’s book where he talks about Hegel’s debt to historicism and defends the same (all from p. xi):

“….what we should be seeking is a dispassionate understanding of historicism, and certainly incorporates sources other than Marxist-Hegelians. By historicism is meant an ethical and epistemological perspective that makes the awareness, and ultimately, the validity, of values dependent upon historical experience.”

A couple comments here. First of all, in what sense are “values” then, “dependent upon historical experience”? In the sense that human beings must experience values in history in order to be able to discuss them and their meaning? Who can deny this then and who is not a historicist? Just what is meant here by “depend”? As I noted in this post on the 19th century “conservative Lutheran” Hegelian-influenced theologian Johann Von Hofmann, just because human beings have different perspectives and cannot stop interpreting world events[ii], this does not mean that all things which human beings come to know – and which make their presence known to them – are subject to change in time. For a “dispassionate understanding of historicism,” I recommend Dr. Martin Noland’s PhD thesis, summarized here.

“Selfie theologian” Johann Von Hofmann, leader of a Hegelian-influenced school of theology that sees Scripture as merely a “form of the word of God” (think Plato)

“The historicist, by this definition, does not deny the ontological status of values that are unrelated to historical practice but simply treats them as irrelevant, like the unnoticed leaf I the forest over whose existence, or nonexistence, philosophers once disputed.”

This, along with his comment about “honoring of forms without reference to historical contexts (p. 33),” seems to be a dig at Platonism (and with him, the political conservative giant Leo Strauss, who he is very critical of in the book), which would make sense. I contend that in view of Hegelianism, any form of Platonism which might hope to exercise cultural and political influence is helpless. As I will argue in more detail in an upcoming post on my Reliable Source blog:

“Knowledge certainly does have a very dynamic aspect – for Plato, for example, it is always “solid” in the Heavenly Forms but, significantly, here on earth our ideas can be quite off, as we struggle with the Shadows. This, of course, is taken to new levels with Hegel (where there cannot be a statement made by human beings that is true by itself and that endures throughout time). The core idea here is that Laws, Forms, or the Ideal to which we are grasping might not change, but our interpretations of them — as elites get both more educated and smarter — does. For example, our past representations of some forms (e.g. marriage, father, mother, male, female, etc.), it is reasoned, were evidently off as we, under less reasonable influences, misinterpreted the Appearances.

Is a “good, true, and beautiful” that is always changing still “good, true, and beautiful”? Or if it is stable in heaven, but not on earth?

But now, we are being enlightened, pulled along by Something, helping us get on “the right side of history.” Even postmodernists find themselves talking this way because they to have teleological impulses that sync with stable (for the moment!) notions of right and wrong that should be expected from all. They must, because they are human beings. Even if one is uncertain about their views, traditional notions of law — based on Christian ideas — must be updated and/or replaced. In other words, they might not be certain about Right and Wrong, but they are confident enough about what they don’t respect and appreciate to act. And it seems to me that any conservatives looking to Plato who want to say there is some permanence in the world — and not just in the heavens — are absolutely helpless in light of this. For permanence is the illusion of the Appearances, and Hegel, bolstered of course by Galileo, Darwin, etc. rules the day.”

Gottfried goes on:

A historicist outlook similar to the one presented previously influenced my subjects [in this book]. They arrived at this outlook, at least partly, through their exposure to Hegel, who expressed it emphatically in almost all of his writings. For the historicist, man is knowable and definable through his historical situation and cultural upbringing, but never as the object of purely abstract predicates. The charge raised by [neo-Thomist David] Levy, however, does not go way completely, even if we present historicism in its most favorable light. Historicists, and among them Hegel, have sometimes treated moral and intellectual truths as being relative to particular epochs and cultures and thus fated to vanish in a changing world. Yet, this exaggerated emphasis on historical change does not represent the whole of historicist thinking. Many historicists, including Hegel, have stressed historical continuity more than change. They have also presented history as a vehicle for teaching and testing values without ascribing the origin of morality to a changing historical process.[iii]

Nevertheless, change is stressed. And not just change, but radical change. We are not just wrestling with Kant’s antinomies anymore, perhaps doing something like what E.F. Schumacher does here in this statement:

Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice.  Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay….

No. It is no longer responsible for us to conclude that a proposition is true, even if we do not necessarily understand the full depth (and therefore full meaning) of what is being said. We now are insisting that no statement can stand on its own. We are now talking the next step, synthesizing and more with wild confidence en route to our goal of some kind of fuzzy, perpetual progress that pulls us along. But as Schumacher goes on to say:

“ Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind. — Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 127.

Persons of a more “progressive” mindset, influenced by Hegelian philosophy (whether they know it or not), see the matter of seeking justice very differently from, for example, those influenced by more classical notions of Christianity. In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote, “[progress] should mean that we are slow and sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does not mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy… [Today,] we are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is much easier” (1909, p. 195).

This is most certainly true.

David Brooks, not acting very conservative: “…creativity can be described as the ability to grasp the essence of one thing, and then the essence of some very different thing, and smash them together to create some entirely new thing.”

As was his custom, the perspicacious 20th century Lutheran theologian Kurt Marquart nailed it. The religion of Hegelianism would attempt to appropriate even the Bible for in its cause….:

“To suggest that the orthodox [Christian] concept of authoritative propositional truth, dogma, is ‘Greek,’ while the pietistically sugar-coated agnosticism of the modern, tentative sore of ‘theology’ is ‘Biblical,’ is to turn the facts topsy-turvy and to betray a total lack of perspective. Exactly the opposite is the case! It is precisely Biblical religion which insists on the absolute and universal significance of historically-anchored particularities.”

Missing delightful, brilliant and holy Lutheran saint Kurt Marquart, very much…. (listen to him here)

Recently, in our local paper, a person responded to a piece by the conservative columnist John Kass, and wrote:

As a lifelong Christian, I join many others in the understanding that Kass’ claim[, that “[t]he basic tenet of Christianity is the belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God and that, without that belief, salvation is impossible],” is false and that the basic tenet of Christianity is, instead, the basic teaching of Jesus: Love God above all, and love your neighbor as yourself. The exclusivist claim cited by Kass, and probably held by most fundamentalist Christians, is based on an interpretation of scripture with which many Christians disagree.

Hegel would have also likely disagreed, and many of his followers certainly do. But the historically-anchored particularity of the God-Man Jesus Christ — with His perfect life and innocent death for us — is indeed said to be, by the historically-anchored witness of His disciples, the only “name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

In sum, reality is an ontology of harmony for eternity revealed in human flesh.




Images: Peter Singer from the Star ; Hegel from Wikipedia ; Gadamer from ; Noland from himself ; Von Hoffman, Plato, and David Brooks from Wikipedia, Marquart from:

[i] from The Shulman Lectures, “All that Matters is Invisible: How Latency Dominates our Present”. Regarding a definition of historicism, Martin Noland writes in his PhD thesis: “In summary, historicism was both a worldview and a method. As a worldview, it was identified with anti-naturalist and post-speculative realist perspectives, emphasizing the themes of the malleability of human nature and individuality. As a method, it operated with the principles of criticism, analogy, correlation, development, and the historical idea.” (p. 83) It also “looks at the world from the standpoint of intellectual, spiritual, and psychological entities and processes, even to the extreme point of explaining all natural phenomena as a cultural growth. Unlike the model of Newtonian science, which posited the fixed nature of entities and the mathematical description of processes, historicism recognizes that entities change and develop over the course of time. Such change of an entity, requiring a historical account of its origin and growth, is thus the root issue dividing naturalism and historicism. (p. 47)”

[ii] Since Kant especially, the focus of human knowledge has been the human subject. As Jordan Cooper notes regarding the 19th century theologian Albrect Ritschl: “what Mannermaa rightly points out is that Luther has been misunderstood due to Ritschl’s adoption of Kantian ideas, especially as explained by Herman Lotze. In particular, the problem lies in the nature of what Kant refers to as the noumenal realm which is inaccessible to the human person. Instead, a thing is only known through its impact upon the human subject. When Ritschl applies this distinction to theology (albeit with several modifications), this means that God is explained only through one’s experience of him. This is not a subjective personal experience, as Ritschl is highly critical of individualistic pietism, but the experience of the Christian community” (italics mine).

[iii] Gottfried goes on to write in the next paragraph: “It must, of course, be stated that all historicists have not been Hegelians. Edmund Burke, who had a keen sense of the historical and evolutionary aspects of human society, preceded Hegel by almost two generations….” This seems to be a hotly debated topic (see here and here) and is certainly one I am eager to learn more about. the first paragraph of this article would seem to set the stage well.



Posted by on June 29, 2017 in Uncategorized


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The Rorty-ification – and Hegelianization – of the West: A Primer on Social Constructivism and Social Constructionism for Concerned Americans

“There is a deeper pleasure in following truth to the scaffold or the cross, than in joining the multitudinous retinue, and mingling our shouts with theirs, when victorious error celebrates its triumphs.” — Horace Mann, Thoughts

Confused about why saying "It's a girl!" might be an act of oppression? Read on....

Confused about why saying “It’s a girl!” might be, objectively, an act of oppression? Read on….


Social constructivism and social constructionism. What are these things? What do they imply? What are they connected with? Can they, for example, help to explain why the recent actions of the Obama administration’s Department of Justice? (see here). Including, for instance, the federal demand that private doctors be willing to assist children in transitioning from one gender to the other? (see here) Or why a California court recently ruled it was illegal for pastors to advise youth about gay and transgender feelings? (see here) Or a N.Y. court recently said that when it comes to determining parenthood neither biology or adoption need to be considered? (see here)

Truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying. -- "Neopragmatist" and social constructivist Richard Rorty,

Truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying. — “Neopragmatist” and social constructivist Richard Rorty,

Well… first of all, these ideas, social constructivism and social constructionism, are everywhere. Even in the domain of the hard sciences today (think biology, chemistry and physics), with its usual emphasis on what is called “realism” (namely, the idea that a “mind-independent reality” exists), most persons are already fully on board. It is now largely taken for granted that we, as individuals, certainly do actively construct our understandings of the world and how it works. Michael Polanyi, and then Thomas Kuhn after him, were just some of the figures who made this kind of thinking more prominent and important in the hard sciences

(note that we can acknowledge that even men like Aristotle – and “America’s Aristotle” after him, Charles Peirce – talked about the role human beings play in attaining real knowledge: he talked about how human beings could – through their inquiry and experience; capacity for imagination [phantasia] and ability to make mental images and symbols [phantasma]; and by hearing from the varieties of beliefs which had “previously withstood debate and argument” [endoxa] – arrive at a true understanding of the ways things take place in the world).

It seems to make some sense, doesn’t it? Doesn’t good education build on what pupils already know, “scaffolding” their current knowledge, and giving them more rich experiences in order to help them mentally build more complete understandings of the world? As you might guess, in the field of education, emphasis on students’ constructing their understandings of themselves and the world they inhabit is now the norm. Anyone who has studied the most influential educational theorists of the 20th century – Dewey, Bruner, Piaget, Bandura, Vygotsky – is well aware of this.

And again – what is the harm in this? Doesn’t it make perfect sense? Even many educators with more culturally conservative dispositions certainly think so, as they, like most persons in the hard sciences, tend to embrace social constructivism. In his book defending relativism, the Christian Reformed scholar James K.A. Smith focuses on the advantages of social constructivism, looking specifically at the thought of Richard Rorty and others (see the intro to my series critiquing his book here).

Meanwhile, those educators of a more liberal and politically activist bent – those invested in movements such as “critical pedagogy,” for example – tend to embrace the notion of social constructionism. And now, social constructionism – which I think is daily making less relevant the distinctions that social constructivists think are important[i] – is not only everywhere in academia – and not only in popular culture – but in our general culture as well. In a Wisconsin Public radio broadcast discussing Jacques Derrida and the philosophical movement known as deconstruction, To the Best of Our Knowledge host Steve Paulson said

“the way that we now talk about gender has been profoundly influenced by these ideas… we know that male and female are not strictly biological categories ; they are socially constructed identities which keep changing…. ‘Queer theory’ comes directly out of this and it would be hard to explain the emergence of… the trans movement without this theory…”

A couple questions I know you might be asking:

First, just what are the differences between constructivism and constructionism? How do those who adhere to these philosophies distinguish themselves from one another?

Bruce Lincolns 1989 work hearkening of things to come....

Bruce Lincolns 1989 work hearkening of things to come….

Second, where did these philosophies come from?

The answer to the second question is that they largely come from the social sciences and the field of psychology (and then, education) – and the ideas that grew up in these fields really owe a lot to Immanuel Kant, who built on what Descartes had started (as Ernst Troeltsch pointed out, for Descartes the question is no longer about ontology [“what is”] but rather the mind’s apprehension of reality, or “epistemology” [“an analysis of the contents of consciousness”, “what is known”]).

As regards the first question, some of the thoughts that I came across from a few academics in these fields might be of some help. I’ve tried to simplify and summarize them in the paragraphs that follow, but I’ll confess that some headaches may be unavoidable here…  Therefore, my short answer: conceptually, there are some significant differences; practically, I don’t think the differences are significant – that is, if the person of a more conservative disposition insists on focusing on social constructivism at the expense of other things.

I will explain that a bit more at the end of this post. First though, let’s unpack these terms in some detail…

(skip to the end of everything in blue if you don’t want the details).

The psychologists Richard A. Young and Audrey Collin note that constructivism is a viewpoint that emerged in developmental and cognitive psychology (they mention folks like Bruner, Kelly, Piaget, von Glaserfeld and Vygotsky). It “proposes that each individual mentally constructs the world of experience through cognitive processes” (emphasis mine). Unlike positivism, they say, constructivism says the world can’t be known directly, but only by the construction of it actively imposed on it by the mind. Like positivism, they contend, it has a “dualist epistemology and ontology”: This means, according to Blackwell Reference online (not Young’s and Collin’s words), that that which is directly perceived is always distinct from the physical object itself, even if it is exactly similar to it like a faithful mirror image. In this sense, it is epistemological – “concerned with how we know and by implication how we develop meaning”. “These processes,” they say, “are internal to the individual—integrating knowledge (or meaning) into pre-existing schemes (assimilation) or changing the schemes to fit the environment (accommodation).”

They note differing positions within the “constructivist family”. Radical constructivists (von Glaserfeld) “interpret that it is the individual mind that constructs reality.” More moderate constructivists (Kelly, Piaget) “acknowledge that individual constructions take place within a systematic relationship to the external world.” Lastly, Social constructivists (Bruner, Vygotsky) “recognize that influences on individual construction are derived from and preceded by social relationships”. This, they say, differs from social constructionism because of its dualist assumptions (again, where that which is directly perceived is always distinct from the physical object itself), even if some in other disciplines who take on constructivism’s mantle also try in various ways to overcome this dualism and others related to it (i.e. dualisms of  “mind and culture” and “biology and physical resources”).

They go on to say:

Martin and Sugarman (1999) contended that the failure of constructivism lies in its reliance on “an individually sovereign process of cognitive construction to explain how human beings are able to share so much socially, to interpret, understand, influence, and coordinate their activities with one another” (p. 9). Essentially, their point is that constructivism posits a highly individualistic approach without reference to social interaction, contexts, and discourses that make self-reflection, meaning-making, autobiography… possible. To some extent, this failure is being addressed as social constructivists (Bruner, 1990; Vygotsky, 1978) move to more social explanations and the dualist assumptions of constructivism are challenged… (bold mine) [ii]

Psychotherapist Berta Vall Castello starts to help us nail down the differences even a bit better. She talks about her realization that “the notion of identity as a story has permeated both constructivist and social constructionist approaches since their historical beginnings.” She quotes Gergen (1994) saying “The term ‘self-narrative’ will refer to an individual’s account of the relationship among self-relevant events across time. In developing a self-narrative we establish coherent connections among life events.” One can see here, I submit, these “construction-of-understanding” approaches addressing, like historicism, a real need: the importance of narrative when it comes to our understanding of the world. This is something that the West lost as a whole when it begin to lose faith in the biblical plot that had certainly brought a degree of coherence among its peoples. Instead, its elites begin to depend more on the “practicality” and objectifying tendencies inherent the scientific method – such that even classical philosophy – concerned with matters of justice and morality (but which also tended to underemphasize the importance of narrative) – also begin to be seen as less relevant than ever.

In an important paragraph, Vall Castello goes on:

Both constructionist and constructivist approaches share the basic epistemological assumption that “reality” is not revealed to us, but is instead reached through a process of construction. This entails that the meaning of what happens is not a passive, neutral, objective, detached, and external fact, but is instead the result of an active, passionate, subjective, engaged, and (inter)personal process of ongoing inquiry. However, these approaches differ in terms of the emphasis they place on the individual versus social worlds. Thus, whereas constructivist views tend to focus on meaning-making as an intra-individual process, the social constructionist perspective sees meaning as a process that occurs between people and through relationships. (bold mine)

Oh, be practical. Just method, please.

Oh, be practical. Just method, please.

She also points out that both approaches see this process as “an essentially linguistic one”. “All major constructivist and constructionist authors,” she insists, “incorporate the notion that language is not (or not only) a tool for representing [italics hers] reality, but is a means to make sense of reality in a social context—with individual authors varying in emphasis on these basic positions, from the more individual constructivist to the more socially oriented constructionist ones” (bold mine).[iii]

Back to Young and Collin for another key difference:

….social constructionism contends that knowledge is sustained by social processes and that knowledge and social action go together. It is less interested, or not at all interested, in the cognitive processes that accompany knowledge. Martin and Sugarman (1999) suggested that attention to these [cognitive] processes in social construction shrouds the construction of knowledge as an interactional and rhetorical process and reifies and externalizes the mental world which itself is constructed through discourse. This stance that is critical of knowledge construction is another distinction between social constructionism and the constructivist family.

In other words, as they go on to say, differing from the “dualist assumptions of the constructivist family, the ontological position that social constructionism invokes is generally understood as anti-essentialist and anti-realist (Burr, 1995)”. The differences, they insist, “run much more deeply for some social constructionists than the difference between a social and an individual orientation.” This means, in sum, that we – actually those who have the influence to do so and invite us along with them (don’t worry – they aim to be benevolent with their power to be sure!) – are always, in the midst of this ocean-like cosmos (i.e. fluid), building the airplane in the air…. This, Young and Collin infer, is the legacy of Berger & Luckman, Mead, Derrida, and Foucault – and there does not appear to be any real concern on their part that this legacy might, overall, be an undesirable thing. 

So, what to make of all this heady stuff? (if you skipped the “in detail” stuff in blue above start here).

Keep in mind that these scholars are doing their best to put their finger on things that many who use these terms might not recognize or identify with. For example, in another article featuring a dialogue between three psychologists holding to different philosophies of how our understandings are constructed[iv], some saw a lot of overlap and few differences – even after being challenged with questions about relativism (a “boring” issue, one said ; “I’m not interested in what our basic human purpose in life is” said another ; “not a problem” seeming to be the general attitude…). They ended up talking about non-moral issues, largely echoing the positions noted in the book Is God a Mathematician?, which also deals with these issues of reality and just how or if our constructions make a difference – though just when it comes to issues of mathematics.

Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.”

Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.”

So can constructionism teach us some things – or perhaps better put, raise our awareness of some things we usually don’t pay much attention to? Sure – but realize the inherent moral relativism – and that its proponents often simply do not see this as a problem. And what about constructivism – is it also wrong at its core? I don’t think so. It’s not so much that it’s wrong as that it takes the emphasis off of what we should be focusing on… the fact that much in life is given to us: there is real truth and beauty and goodness – and this means moral goodness, even discernible purposes, etc. – in the world whether or not our constructions allow for this. And, interestingly, it seems that for many who are most eager to talk about the way human beings construct their understandings of the world, they are some of the least eager to talk seriously about seeking to know things like truth, beauty, and goodness (Bible passages about strong delusions come to mind…)

Rather, all, it seems, comes down to issues of position, power and privilege. Knowledge is power and power is knowledge. We create “truth” and “reality” – and the old lines between what we consider unchangeable and changeable in the cosmos are always – always! – changing. Since many persons are probably thinking of evolution at this point, I’ll just say this: Darwin himself is not to blame for this, even if his theory, which tends to exert a totalizing influence, doesn’t help matters one bit. In fact, both Hegel and Darwin fit their own influential worldviews into historicism, unleashed by the anti-Cartesian (understandable, but…) Vico. All this said, modern scholarship has evidently demonstrated that Vico’s repudiation of Lucretius, popularizer of Epicurus (whose views about nature and change seem much more compatible with Darwin), was not real but feigned!

"By convention sweet, by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention color: but in reality atoms and void." -- Pre-socratic philosopher and precursor to Epicurus, Democritus

“By convention sweet, by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention color: but in reality atoms and void.” — Pre-socratic philosopher and precursor to Epicurus, Democritus

And today, in spite of a few brave voices of protest from secularists, when the ruthlessly “empirical” and quantitative and technological Darwinian machine is basically taken for granted (fact!), this simply gives strength to the historicist viewpoint. And so, what does this Hegelian-historicist-social constructivist/ionist viewpoint imply? As Hans Gubmbrect says of historicism “there is no phenomenon in time that can resist change.”

None. And, that, to the horror of the most respected – and anti-Epicurean/Lucretian! – philosophers of classical antiquity, would include things like goodness, beauty, justice, etc.! (admittedly, one might argue that men like Plato and Aristotle only believed goodness, beauty and justice were unchanging precisely because the cosmos of which they were a part was thought to be eternal…but then again, Epicurus and Lucretius also did not question this either). Might this historicization of the Western consciousness also have something to do with many 20th century theologians like Karl Barth, Jacques Ellul, Paul Lehmann, Stanley Hauwerwaus, John Milbank, David Bentley Hart etc., abandoning notions of natural law as well?

I think in a situation like this – where some, still seeing the need to counter a relative “good,” “true,” and “beautiful” (note the quotes), can only put forward an evolving good, true, and beautiful – we need to question whether a simple realism or positivism (“There are some essential fundamental particles! There are some laws of nature that don’t change!”) can really be of help..(see footnote 1 again). The key question: Is a good, true, and beautiful that nevertheless evolves – fundamentally changes even! – still really good, true, and beautiful? One wonders if perhaps even Epicurus and Lucretius, given what they said, might have been hesitant to say that all the things they thought were good (real goodness!?) were or should be (freedom of the will via the swerve) subject to change! I again go to that most insightful of men, Mr. G.K. Chesterton, who puts it well (albeit in a more explicitly political context):

“[Progress] should mean that we are slow and sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does not mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy… We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is much easier” (Orthodoxy, 1909, p. 195).

" man-centered in its perspective, and views religion (and truth) in terms of adaptation and synthesis...based on a naturalistic system. It's basis and standard of truth move along with the changing culture... All things get caught up in the historical stream of critical relativism." - Pastor Philip Hale

“Modernism…is man-centered in its perspective, and views religion (and truth) in terms of adaptation and synthesis…based on a naturalistic system. It’s basis and standard of truth move along with the changing culture… All things get caught up in the historical stream of critical relativism.” – Pastor Philip Hale

For Chesterton, that which is good (in this case justice and mercy) – the ideal – should change us and our current reality. What is good does not change – or, especially, is not changed by us as we change (“grow up”). Even if we do come to a greater realization of what goodness entails – and are even surprised by it or our previously anemic understanding of it! – a greater realization of goodness will, ultimately, be fundamentally contiguous with more child-like (not childish) notions.

Where to go from here? At this point, I will attempt to speak to Christians in particular, because I think that we really do have some good answers.

First, remember that Jesus Christ – God’s risen and vindicated Savior of the world (see Acts 17:30 and 31 for how this gets empirical) is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This is never to be lost, for by this truth, the Truth incarnate means to comfort us.

Second, when even conservative theologians insist that our knowledge, like every other community’s, exists inside of rational traditions with their own linguistic rules and ideas for understanding reality, think twice about what is being said – and what the world will take that to mean as regards the relevance of what we have to say. The importance of tradition and “social epistemology” here, yes ; “existing” only here in this way, no….

Why? Because third, there is this:

Realize that if Pastor Cooper is right to insist that Lutherans assumed a classical view of the nature of things (and with this, stable moral norms), that is not an intellectually indefensible thing – even if most of academia (save more conservative Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox institutions) currently won’t give you the time of day. Just wait though, and be confident that this kind of stubbornness is not about preservation of the status quo‘s power… rather there is wisdom – love – in such bulwarks…


Image credit of baby: by Tom Adriaenssen

Democritus picture source:

[i] For example, some might say that while they do not fully buy into social constructionism, they are not overly concerned insofar as it does not deny realism (and, presumably, its “mind-independent reality”).
But is this really the issue to be concerned about, or are there perhaps more significant things to be attentive to? Consider the contemporary philosopher Robert Brandon, when he goes so far to argue that simply by speaking we already, in effect, are taking an ethical stance: “Asserting a sentence is implicitly undertaking a commitment.” This can be seen in a particular kind of social justice warrior’s absolute insistence that the seemingly harmless exclamation of doctor – and then a father and a mother that “It’s a boy!” – might ultimately turn out to be an oppressive act. The reason that this could be an act of violence vs. another is because in some way there really does exist – for everyone – something (a female brain? mind? soul?) that makes the exclamation to not be the case, or fact (here, “idealists”, “Romantics” and other “liberal progressives” might wonder about the “naturalism” they indirectly espouse). The person with “positivist” or “realist” sympathies pauses, if just for a moment, wondering if it really is right for a doctor and parents to share joy in such a matter. Aware of the pressure to conform to current views on these issues, perhaps they suppress any lingering thought that it would be ethical for them to agree with others who do assume boyhood. Therefore, they do not embrace the seemingly apparent reality before them…
Why? Because they do not want to be perceived as acting in an oppressive manner vs. what the individual feels about him/herself to be real, even if all the external “public knowledge” would point to the opposite being the case. Why? If they do insist that persons who think they are one gender are actually the other this would only confirm to others that their concern for “truth” is really only about power, about the desire to categorize and control… the desire to make everyone conform to the world of appearances for the sake of their comfort, “appropriate” order… sense of security – and not to allow people to be freed by the authentic truth only the individual can know (supposedly). That regard for the individual’s truth is the only good way for knowledge to be socially constructed – other constructions, captivated by external appearances, would be illusionary…
[ii] RA Young, A Collin. “Introduction: Constructivism and social constructionism in the career field.” Journal of vocational behavior, 2004.
[iii] Vall Castelló, Berta. “Bridging constructivism and social constructionism: The journey from narrative to dialogical approaches and towards synchrony.” Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, vol. 26, no. 2, 2016., pp. 129-143.doi:10.1037/int0000025.
[iv] Efran, J.S, S McNamee, B Warren, and J.D Raskin. “Personal Construct Psychology, Radical Constructivism, and Social Constructionism: a Dialogue.” Journal of Constructivist Psychology. 27.1 (2014): 1-13. Print.
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Posted by on September 6, 2016 in Uncategorized


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“The right side of history” – what does this mean? History, historicism, and the Christian faith (part III of III)

The greatist history lesson ever: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:32)

The greatest history lesson ever: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

Part I

Part II

if history has meaning, this meaning is not historical, but theological; what is called Philosophy of history is nothing else than a Theology of history more or less disguised.” — Robert Flint (1838-1910)*

In the last post, we looked in some detail at historicism, which I said has been one of the great enemies – along with philosophical naturalism/mechanicism – of the Christian faith.

My take on the current influence of historicism in the Western world is that it is gradually going extinct as particularly Christian notions of divine providence dissipate in the wider populace. That said, I think that historicism still exerts significant influence in the [dying] mainline churches and, ironically, perhaps increasingly in more conservative church bodies as well…. (with Erlangen theology, for example, being increasingly attractive to some conservative proponents of Lutheranism looking for what are widely considered more intellectually respectable options).

An agnostic seeking to be escape the "myth of progress", based, he says, in religion.

An agnostic seeking to be escape the “myth of progress”, based, he says, in religion.  More here**.

Onward. The final post in this series addresses the reality of purpose in history as well as the Christian alternative to historicism (and more indirectly, philosophical naturalism/mechanicism as well).

These days, we hear much from persons – even those who consider themselves quite “non-religious” – about “being on the right side of history”. A good question here is why one would assume – particularly if a person is more atheistic or agnostic – there is a right side to be on? Truly, even those who insist that impersonal and purposeless processes are the foundation of the cosmos consistently find themselves attributing a purpose to life that goes deeper than their mere preferences.

In his book, Christ and History, mentioned in previous posts, George Buttrick says

“…the ‘fatalities’ of nature (interesting word: fate-alities) invade history; and nature sometimes seems irrational, at least to historical eyes. Why should a flash flood in the Pennsylvania hills sweep away an orphanage?..Hitler’s Germany or an engine driver cannot fully be ‘explained.’ There is an irrational streak in history.” (66 and 67)

Russel Crowe as "Maximus" in the 2000  movie, Gladiator

Russel Crowe as “Maximus” in the 2000 movie, Gladiator

…and then perceptively notes that just when people

“say that history is irrational it reveals purpose… [this] heresy [of American progress] could not have risen except as deviation from a true surmise, namely, that history has a purpose – so that man is able to ask, “What is the meaning of history?” How strange that amid all the fatefulness of human freedom, politics is still a valid quest! How strange that history is not a raveled chaos, but a tapestry of which we ask, “What does this portray?” Good statesmanship is the right reading of events and the proposal of realistic action: it assumes that history will honor, at least in measure, our honorable purpose – because history itself is purpose. Jesus seems to have assured men of this trustworthiness in our human story: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” Here he compares the dependability of nature with the sure purposes of history. So each man says of public and private pilgrimage: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends.” Yet how can purpose be irrational, and irrationality show purpose?” (67-68)

He also writes, compellingly

We assume human freedom, and have little option; for if we deny freedom, we assume that the denial is free, not merely the lip movements of a marionette. Similarly we assume that freedom is responsible freedom, as when we say, “he was brave’ or “he was a coward.” If we confess, as we must, that we have small right to judge our neighbors since we cannot read their inner history and may be ignorant even of their outward circumstance, and since we also have a tarnished record, we thus make a larger confession, namely, that we are all under a higher court….Yet history seems often to scorn the responsible man…” (p. 70)**

Only written by the winners?

Only written by the winners?

And as noted in our first post, history goes down to the deepest levels. Who am I? Where am I from? Where am I going? What is the meaning of life? Or, in words Buttrick uses: Who am I? Why am I? What is the meaning of history? From where have I come and where am I going? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? And if we should not, like those under the thrall of historicism, talk about “salvation history” as distinct “world history” – but rather say “history is history is history” – what does this look like?

History is a part of who we are – not just the facts but the meaning of the past, present and future are always before us! We cannot avoid being creatures who must give an account of who we are: from where we have come, where we are, and where we are going. This is because we are the crown of God’s creation created in His image. As He does history, we do history.

That said, it is true that from the beginnings of the creation only God has perfect knowledge about what has, is, and will happen on this stage that He has prepared – the drives, the thoughts, the words and deeds of all flesh. And this is true even as He Himself is far from being a “neutral observer” but rather moves (in Him all “live and move and have their being”), influences, directs and harnesses all things. It sounds a bit trite, but it really is true – history is “His story”.

And yet, thanks be to God! He has revealed to us that which we need to know about our living, moving and having our being in Him in space and timethe things that really and truly matter. God has spoken! – He is there and not silent, as the 20th century Reformed Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer liked to say. In working with His prophets and apostles He tells us what really matters – primarily who He is and what He has done and who we are and what we have done – giving us forgiveness, life, and salvation and – telling us also what He is doing and will do – filling us with direction, purpose, and power for living.

whereishistorygoingIn giving us this life-giving account of what has unfolded by His design in time, our Lord is, again, certainly not “neutral” – such a depressingly deadening and uncommitted word! – even as He certainly is just, fair, and reliable – true – in its telling. In His words to us we discover that in His work in time our Lord has chosen to work intimately with His image-bearers – that is the mini-Creators bent on rejecting Him due to the historic space-time fall. In fact, He has done this very thing – that is working with men – in giving us the Bible (again, see this post on the role of trust in human beings in God’s plan). This book was “co-written” with men more “given over to Him” than most – that is, by those who allowed Him to work through them to give us the Divine Scriptures, which we can and should say are in but not of this world. Like the Son and like the sons themselves.

But of course, it is only natural that we want to ask: if this is the case can we say that God is “objective” in His telling of history? Again, we can see that what is really being asked here is whether or not the account that God has given us is fair, accurate, and reliable – true. It is indeed this – we can rest assured that in giving us the only real message that brings forgiveness, life and salvation He has described the past – and the future – in just this way, even as, again, it is not only this: fort the True One has also been in the midst of it, shaping it. Without a doubt, as regards what has come before us, for example – that is, history proper – we can and should say that there is a certain past that really happened, and that only God knows this past in its fullness, for He very actively knows all of us perfectly. We have no better account of the doings of God and men in time and space than what He can provide us with.

So all of this raises a very interesting question for us: what to make of all other human efforts to record the facts and meanings of man’s past, present and future? Compared with Holy Writ, we can simply say that these are pale imitations – some better, some worse – of what our Lord has done. As men have worked to create accounts which portray the past and speak of its meaning both then and for now, there are certain things we notice. When we talk about the important events in history we tend to focus on victory, wealth, power, prestige, fame, worldly success (and post-Enlightenment, “progress”). He, on the other hand, seems to focus on more simple matters, particularly the power and work of death-defying love – divine and human – that goes deeper than all of these things, transcending them.

So, some historical accounts of men will be more valuable than others, and not only because some are more “objective” than others. Of course, it really does go without saying that no human history is “objective” – it simply cannot be “unbiased”, as if we were the all-seeing and neutral narrator of a novel (of course detailing only the important events in the story – neutral?). And we come to this important point again: even as this idea of the Author and the novel has often been connected with our ideas of God for good reasons, His knowledge of the past, present and future – as we have repeatedly noted above – is much more involved than this! We might equate the notion of “objective” with having a “God’s eye-point of view”. But of course when we think about what having a “God’s eye-point of view” on the world and history means, we might again be tempted to think of God as not being involved – or that involved – in the story.  

How God is "objective" in the ultimate sense.

Is it more that God is objective or that He has an objective?

But He is deeply involved – for He is the great Subject and the Lover of His whole creation (Psalm 145), with man its crown, as the great object. Yes, God’s objective is His beloved object – so here is how history is “objective” to the hilt! 

God’s reliable history – the Holy Scriptures – are not a removed and dispassionate accounting of the facts, but of the meaning of a romance between the Husband and His bride, the Church. Here, all the facts are important – incredibly important!*** – but fall into this wider context.

And there are indeed dark nights in the soul in this history-defining relationship.  But as Buttrick reminds us: “Faith in action has eyes when our natural eyes cannot see”. (p. 79) And in the crucified One, it overcomes the world – in the “long defeat”.

Finally, perhaps some are disappointed that what I have said here does not take more of a “systematic theology”-like approach.  That is deliberately the case – for I think that the Reformed theologian Michael Horton is right when he often asserts that “the doctrine is in the drama”.  As I hope is clear from what I have written here, I think that what the Christian church has to offer the world when it comes to this matter of history cannot be underestimated in terms of its importance.

That will become even more clear in an upcoming series: *How* will we know the truth that sets us free? What is TSSI and is Jesus’ bodily resurrection the validation of His teachings? 

I hope you will join me for that one to.




*Quoted in Montgomery, Where is History Going?, p. 184

**He goes on to say: “[Israel] admitted that judgment had rightly fallen, or so at least her prophets knew; but Assyria! – Assyria was blind to God and His judgments, and worshipped only idols! So we ask why a megalomaniac paperchanger should bedevil the world. Yes, the seeds of Hitlerism were in every land, but the world arraigned against him was not Hitler. Bright eras come, not by man’s contriving; dark eras, not by man’s intention and desire. We are still responsible, but history ever and again appears irresponsible, as if there were no right and wrong… (pp. 70-71)

***In a recent post, the prominent and highly influential Eastern Orthodox blogger Father Stephen Freeman said:

Deeply connected to materialist Christianity is a “materialist” understanding of time. In the modern understanding, time is simply a description of the chain of cause and effect – the past being a collection of causes, the present being the result of those causes, and the future being the results that have not yet happened (and therefore do not yet exist). With a materialist notion of cause and effect, history (with a solid/fixed existence) becomes of supreme importance. Christianity as a “historical” religion, becomes a description of Divine causes and effects. The linear character of time takes on a controlling character. Thus historical (solid/fixed) events such as the Creation of Man, the Fall, Noah’s Ark, the Red Sea, etc., have their historical character as their prime importance. The story of the universe is a story that takes place entirely within a materialist system of cause and effect. Sin is a historical problem requiring a historical solution. And because of the fixed nature of time/cause/effect, each historical event presupposes and requires the same character of its causes. Thus if the historical character of Adam and Eve are questioned, then the historical character of all subsequent events are challenged as well. The Fall becomes the cause of the Cross.

Elsewhere, he had written:

“Adam as the progenitor of sin is nowhere an idea of importance (or even an idea) within the Old Testament. St. Paul raises Adam to a new level of consideration, recognizing in him a type of Christ, “the Second Adam.” But St. Paul’s Adam is arguably much like St. Paul’s Abraham (in Galatians), a story whose primary usefulness is the making of a theological point.

Nevertheless, St. Paul’s lead eventually becomes the pathway for history’s ascendancy. For while it is true that man’s breaking communion with God is the source of death, this is reduced to mere historical fact in the doctrine of Original Sin. For here Adam, as the first historical man, becomes infinitely guilty and deserving of punishment, and pays his juridical debt forward to all generations. This historical understanding of the fall, with inherited guilt, locks the Fall within historical necessity. It is among numerous reasons that Original Sin, as classically stated in the West, has not found a lasting place within Orthodox tradition.”

One must wonder: are we then, in the West, by virtue of our believing in a historical Adam, all crass literalists now?  In responded to him regarding that first post above, I asked this

.when you say that “Sin is a historical problem requiring a historical solution”, is this not, from our perspective, something that seems to be very true? A simple reading of the account in Genesis 1-3 would seem to suggest this, would it not? Is there not some sense in which innocence was lost? Do they not realize they are naked? Do they not run? Does not “everything change” in some mysterious sense here? You speak of us misunderstanding the Fathers today, seeing them through the lens of this materialist Christianity (the “alien metaphysic” as you say). Do not some of the Fathers speak in this way though?

He said, in part:

you correct that there are fathers who speak in this way. I would speak in that way in certain contexts.

But the Genesis account is not a simple account and there are many things within it that signal this. It is layered and complex and sometimes begs questions (that call us beyond the simple). I sometimes think that the “simple” approach to Genesis forgets to stay with the text and reads an imaginary construction of the text that ignores the signals to abandon the simple.

“In the Beginning.” Sounds simple. St. John did not think so. Many fathers immediately noted that Christ Himself is the “Beginning.” I could go on and on and never leave the first verse.

I replied, in part:

What concerns me is that for many, Gods’ word seems to be merely something like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – the main intention not being to convey real history that speaks to us and forms us now, but rather to simply speak to us and form us now…

Now, now, now.

But look at Jesus… he never gives any indication that He took the events of the OT as anything other than things that really happened. What do we do when the True Myth Incarnate gives us such impressions… and then tells us to to believe like children?

For it seems to me, there is a ruthless logic here. There are these genealogies that connect Adam with Christ after all… Why stop with Genesis and Adam as being mythological so as to just be for the now, now, now – at the expense of words acknowledging that it also has to do with the real past?

Must these be set against one another? Is the realism you speak of – and which I hold to as well – against this?

And that, for now, is where the conversation ends.  I am told that someone like C.S. Lewis was “absolutely not a Christian materialist” but a decided “Realist” like the rest of the Inklings.  And I ask “What does this mean?”  Are we in the West who believe in a literal Adam not realists now where those who would deny him are?

What do you do when the True Myth Incarnate (Hat tip: C.S. Lewis) gives every indication that the stories of the Old Testament are utterly historical as well as for our moral edification? Do you, in an effort to stifle this inconvenient truth, eventually end up consigning the True Myth Incarnate to more ethereal realms as well? Why wouldn’t you? And then, even if you still say that you believe in Jesus Christ (as Jowett – see part I – no doubt would have claimed), do you really?  Might it not be time to wonder, with Paul, whether or not you have a “different Jesus”?


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Posted by on August 25, 2014 in Uncategorized


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“The right side of history” – what does this mean? History, historicism, and the Christian faith (part II of III)

“If exegesis is to be practiced historico-critically, it must use the methods of secular historical science, i.e. criticism which allows only probability judgments, and the principles of analogy and correlation (cf. Troeltsch).  Thereby it subjects itself in principle to secular-historical judgment” (theses presented for discussion in the University of Munich, quoted by Marquart on p. 114)

“If exegesis is to be practiced historico-critically, it must use the methods of secular historical science, i.e. criticism which allows only probability judgments, and the principles of analogy and correlation (cf. Troeltsch). Thereby it subjects itself in principle to secular-historical judgment” — theses presented for discussion in the University of Munich* (picture is of Ernst Troeltsch)

Part I

“[The distorted ideas of modernity] see man as his own god, and history either as man’s work or as a naturalism.” — p. 25, Bible as history, George Buttrick

Today I want to talk about historicism, with lots of help from the respected confessional Lutheran apologist and historian Dr. Martin Noland.

Over my last Christmas vacation, I tackled his PhD. Dissertation, Harnack’s historicism: the genesis, development, and institutionalization of historicism and its expression in the thought of Adolf Von Harnack (1996).** Right away I was hooked and intrigued with Dr. Noland’s ambitious work, because we share very common interests and he seemed to “fill in” many of the gaps that have existed in my own knowledge of topics such as these (see my own series on this topic “What Athens needs from Jerusalem”).

What follows is my own highlighting of key elements of Dr. Noland’s dissertation, along with some comments that aim to build on his very insightful observations and synthesis.

Be warned – what follows is admittedly some very dense and heady stuff – this can’t be avoided when talking about historicism! – but I am trying to make it understandable as best as I can, choosing the most helpful quotes and the like. At 360 pages, the dissertation covers a lot, and in order to not simplify the complexity too much, I have chosen to error on the side of going a bit too long myself. Here is a particularly helpful summation of Noland’s work by the man himself:

In summary, historicism was both a worldview and a method. As a worldview, it was identified with anti-naturalist and post-speculative realist perspectives, emphasizing the themes of the malleability of human nature and individuality. As a method, it operated with the principles of criticism, analogy, correlation, development, and the historical idea.” (p. 83)

The “post-speculative realist perspective” talked about in that quote is a term that emphasizes a distinction between men like Hegel and the others who followed him that are usually considered to be historicists – Hegel was far more optimistic about man’s ability to speculate accurately about the future, given what he considered the discernible workings of the Spirit in the world. In his dissertation, Noland points out the Christian influences (particularly a strong notion of “divine providence”) on some of the first systematic thinkers in historicism – men who responded to and countered Hegel – particularly Ranke and Humboldt, and also says that the highly influential early 20th c. theologian Adolf Von Harnack was “closer to the early historicists… than Troeltsch may have realized” (p. 202, hence Von Harnack’s picture being in part I).

Who is Troeltsch?  Pictured above, he is most well-known as a Christian historian of culture and religion, and the author of the famed work Die soziallehren der chrsitlichen Kirchen und Gruppen, which Noland says can be seen not primarily as a theological treatise, but “the epitome of historicist analysis of Western society at the highest level” (p. 213). So it is not surprising that Noland cites Troeltsch quite a bit in his dissertation, for the most part seeming to accept his analysis and synthesis as helpful (Noland’s own view is that Troeltsch himself should be classified as a historicist – he also told me that his views were affected by World War One and that he thinks Troeltsch can be considered a transition figure***).  Again, what follows will summarize some key bits of Noland’s overall analysis.

With the overthrow of Aristotle, both good and bad things came.

With the overthrow of Aristotle, both good and bad things came.

First however, I will share some of my own comments – to set the wider context a bit more. With the advent of Descartes in the mid- 17th c., there is a fundamental shift in philosophy in the Western world – a shift that the great Lutheran theologian John Gerhard perhaps just caught the tail end of.  Nevertheless – and I admit that I could be wrong about this – it seems to me that with Descartes we have an attempt to partially salvage Aristotle’s focus on certainties external to, or outside of, us – namely, their discernible essences – from the onslaught of Francis Bacon’s program (exemplified by a title riffing on Aristotle: the New Organon****), which in sum emphasized the importance of “what works”- technique (with extreme forms of nominalism being the inevitable result of this) via experimentation, systematic observation, and probabilities.

Rene “I think therefore I am” Descartes was not only a towering philosopher but also a mathematician and practicing scientist.  His ideas, scientific and philosophical (in these days, these were seen as going together, science was philosophy) had an immediate influence.  It would be  then be other action-men like Blaise Pascal who would soon afterwards seem to further vindicate crucial aspects of both Bacon and Descartes’ approaches, what with his many experimental science and mathematical-invention successes. Newton would follow soon thereafter, lending even more credibility – immense credibility – to Bacon and Descartes.  However, even in these days there were men who saw what was being missed in these approaches and endeavored to put forth their own viewpoints. Some indeed sensed that the Enlightenment efforts of men like Descartes (“the only things that can be proved, demonstrated, and verified beyond a doubt can be called ‘knowledge’”) and later, David Hume (there is a “fact-value split”) were, to say the least, “a bit off”.

Back to Dr. Noland’s dissertation: the key point in all of this, according to Troeltsch, is that for Descartes the question is no longer about ontology (“what is”) but rather the mind’s apprehension of reality, or “epistemology” (“an analysis of the contents of consciousness”, “what is known”).*****  Descartes, according to Troeltsch, is a “naturalist” who looks at the world through the lens of quantity and regularity and seeks to “express everything by mathematical statements and to find constant mechanisms behind all phenomena. It conceptualizes these mechanisms in the forms of laws, based on observations of physical, social, or moral regularity.” Naturalism “looks at the world from the standpoint of physical entities and processes, even to the extreme point of explaining all human behavior and history physically” (Troeltsch, quoted in Noland, pp. 46 and 47).******

On the other hand, historicism, according to Troeltsch, is the great antithesis of naturalism. And Descarte’s great antithesis personified was an Italian writer by the name of Vico. According to Noland and those he cites (men like Isaiah Berlin, for example), we see the beginnings of this species of thought called historicism with him, who also introduced the notion of “mytho-poetical” truth – and how it could explain what had happened among the heathen (note: not Jewish and Christian) nations (p. 102). Like Descartes, Vico wanted to pursue “science” and “general laws” and so did not outrightly reject the scientific mindset like the historicists of the future would (“German thinkers steeped in pietism and mysticism”), who put their focus not only on organic ideas, like Vico, but individualities as well (p. 116). While Descartes rejected the “application of human ideas, such as ‘laws’ and ‘principles’, to the study of history, Vico argued that human history is, in fact, created precisely through such ideas, which are ‘modifications of the human mind’” (p. 108) – he “asserted the epistemological primacy of the man-made historical world” (Gadamer, in Noland p. 217). In Vico’s mind, methodological error was to be charged towards persons like Descartes, who “apply human ideas, such as ‘laws’ and ‘principles,’ to the study of nature, which was created by God and so is fully known by God alone” (p. 108)!

Noland sums up Troeltsch’s views on historicism by saying that while it to, like Descartes, was concerned with the “contents of consciousness” (the “cognito ergo sum” – i.e. vs. ontology, i.e. “what is”), it also…

looks at the world from the standpoint of intellectual, spiritual, and psychological entities and processes, even to the extreme point of explaining all natural phenomena as a cultural growth. Unlike the model of Newtonian science, which posited the fixed nature of entities and the mathematical description of processes, historicism recognizes that entities change and develop over the course of time. Such change of an entity, requiring a historical account of its origin and growth, is thus the root issue dividing naturalism and historicism. (p. 47)”

In short, “what the Enlightenment [and its naturalism] attributed to nature and nature’s God… the historicists attributed to history and history’s God” (p. 143).

John Henry Newman, also big on the importance of probability...

John Henry Newman, also emphasized the  importance of probability when it comes to finding faith…

Troeltsch contends, Noland says, that “the empiricist category of ‘experience,’ with its anti-naturalist concentration on knowledge attained a posteriori, not least by immersion in the ‘stream of history,’… laid the foundations for the rise of historicism” (48-50). Noland also says that “criticism is not a chief, distinguishing principle of historicist thought” even though for the historicist, we note that actual historical events become all about probabilities (p. 59).

In addition, for the historicist, the notion of “correlation” (“there can be no change at one point without some preceding and consequent change elsewhere…. Everything is interconnected and each single event is related to all others” – Troeletsch, p. 64) replaces the naturalist’s “mechanical concepts of causation” (though ultimately “’culture’, i.e. [bildung], is the historicist’s causal principle”) and “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change” (italics mine, p. 103).******* Importantly, the past is not a “series of isolated, sporadic, and ultimately meaningless events”, but everything contributes to “development”, which “connotes some form of growth or improvement” (p. 69). Again, note that many of these ideas are either explicit or are implicit/tacit already within the writings of Vico, who can be called the “father of historicism”.

Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.”

Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.”

I would also note here that for the naturalist and historicist (throw in empiricist, rationalist, etc), the present becomes the key to the past (for the historicist, this means “empathetically” coming to understand human nature more and more now, in line with creating a “psychology of historical causes”, p. 64) even if this also means “thinking in terms of the totality” (where there are necessary internal factors and contingent external factors to consider – this key principle is known as the “historical idea” [p. 74]) and not simply in terms of accurately reporting specific historical events, or as a historicist might say “unique and autonomous historical forces” [where these “stand in a current and context comprehending the totality of events” and are always conditioned by their context])******** (p. 64, 68, 69; for more key paragraphs explaining historicism see 62)

Noland also touches on the modern era, with the “linguistic turn” in historiography, which insists that the historian’s language does not only represent or reflect “past actuality”, but in some sense also creates it – the “narrativist” Ankersmit, for example, “argued that the historical idea was a construction of historicists, which they mistakenly located in the past itself as its principle of coherence” – this is to be guilty of “reifying” the historical idea. In other words, the “historian’s language does not reflect a coherence… in the past itself but only gives coherence to the past” (Ankersmit, quoted on p. 80). Noland says that if the historical idea is simply an arbitrary concept it “may well be judged a bankrupt method and worldview”. On the other hand, he says “the historicist notion of a ‘cultural whole,’ for which there are evidential grounds in both present and past history, resists the complete dissolution of the historical idea into textuality” (p. 81).**********

How can the “good, the true, and the beautiful” avoid becoming that which certain persons – and those they choose to associate with – simply agree is  - or they will say is – good, true and beautiful?

How can the “good, the true, and the beautiful” avoid becoming that which certain persons – and those they choose to associate with – simply agree is – or they will say is – good, true and beautiful?

Also noteworthy here is that before postmodern critiques like this came into play, Heidegger’s “existentialist analysis of Dasein and its temporality” can be seen to coincide with prominent historicists like Dilthey for example, who “judged that the internal experience of human ‘self’ and its historical memory” – “that strange fusion of memory and expectation” in internal experience – “afforded the only adequate foundation for historical knowledge” (p. 218). Unlike Vico, Dilthey summed up the view of many a modern historicist when he said that “the historical world cannot be subsumed under general values and laws, because history is constituted by the constant development of life in its inexhaustible and unpredictable fullness” (p. 219).

And we would also be remiss to mention how with the advent of Darwinism, this naturalism and historicism Troeltsch speak of could actually be imagined to merge together and go hand-in-hand, something Troeltsch himself observed had happened (pp. 48-50). I would sum this up by saying that the only difference here is that there are evolutionists more in line with Newton’s more naturalistic and mechanical approach (think Dawkins minus Newton’s piety) and those more in line with Goethe’s more organic approach to evolution (think Stephen J. Gould minus Goethe’s supernaturalism).   Here, I would refer persons to Benjamin Wiker’s helpful book Moral Darwinism to help one get a sense of the long and interesting story of evolutionary ideas and their influence. Further, I would also add that notions of “essences” – that is unchanging things – at this time could be more easily associated with things like atoms (and today particles known to be even more fundamental) as opposed to things like dogs, cats, men, women, marriage, children, etc.   Of course when this is pitched we are then left with this question: how can the “good, the true, and the beautiful” avoid becoming that which certain persons – and those they choose to associate with – simply agree is – or they will say is – good, true and beautiful?  

Who do you trust indeed?  Ah, trust.  Who are the voices from history that really do have a handle on history – real history?  We will pick up here tomorrow, but in the meantime, you can also see this post (“Put not your trust in men?  Overcoming the Cretan’s paradox in Christ”) I did as regards the critical role of trust in the world in general and the Christian church in particular.




* quoted by Marquart on p. 114, Anatomy of an Explosion: Missouri in Lutheran Perspective.  He also quotes from a May 1975 Forum Letter:

“It is not enough to say that historical criticism means ‘discriminating appreciation.’  ‘The historian,’ says [David] Lotz, ‘must cross-examine, test, weigh, probe and analyze all written records of the past.  If he fails to do this he de facto surrenders his claim to the title of historian!’ (p. 116, italics and bold mine)

Note that well.  Evidently, we can’t seek to learn more about history simply because we are curious to do so.  Of course questions will come, but no one can question absolutely everything.

As regards that first quote accompanying the Troeltsch picture, of course this “secular historical science” was in many cases advanced by professing Christians.  Although for many of them, universal human reason which could be shared by all (producing clear and distinct ideas) was not necessarily supposed to be opposed to the Bible – such was the claim at the time.

** In light of the issues presented by Lutheran theologian and textual critic Jeffrey Kloha several months ago, Lutheran theologian and historian Martin Noland gave pastors and interested laypersons a reading list (as had Dr. Kloha), and I slowly begin working my way through some of those recommended titles. One of those titles was Dr. Noland’s dissertation, evidently recommended to help persons have more historical context for better and more complete understanding these issues. The dissertation is available through the ProQuest dissertations database and so can be readily obtained from most academic libraries (I have commented more on this issue that arose a few months ago here).

Another note: I shared this part of my series with Dr. Noland and he wanted to point out that he is not a historicist by just about any definition of the term.  He actually took on this topic because his doctoral advisor, Dr. David Lotz, said that work needed to be done in this area for the “guild” of church historians.

*** Personal email, Aug. 3, 2014.

**** I can imagine that Aristotle would have found some of what Bacon had to say amenable to his own approach. After all, it was Aristotle who first pointed out that “Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations (quoted in Crawford, Shop class as Soulcraft, p. 23).”

***** Quote from a First Thoughts commentator I saw while writing this: “I recall coming across in my reading a description of the modern/postmodern worldview as a worldview that has in effect replaced the metaphysics of the ancients with epistemology. This observation seems particularly relevant [in the following case]: Whereas the Carthaginian inhabits a cosmos haunted by metaphysical gods demanding blood sacrifice, the Postmodern inhabits a world that is ultimately subject to his or her own solipsistic preferences: thus a fetus is a life when the mother wants it, but not when she doesn’t want it.

****** Later on, according to Noland, Hamann would, along with Berkeley, assert that “human beings experience a regularity in the world around them, which they then improperly abstract into a concept of ‘natural law’ that excludes from serious discourse, the mystical, and the religious” (p. 124). Noland notes that this assertion was not adopted by later historicists. Nevertheless, I was happy to see this insight from some respected thinkers, as it is something that I myself have thought of quite frequently (see here)

******* Manelbaum has stated that historicism helped people to obtain a “historical sense”, which involved being able to “shed the prejudices of the day” and the rejection of anachronism, and he says that the “historical sense” “has also been regarded as characteristic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (p. 66, 7 ; I note that there have always been careful historians who have tried to keep their prejudices and ignorance of other’s customs in check, and would point to the 16th c. Lutheran humanist Flacius as a good example of a historian like this).   While this certainly sounds good, I note that one person’s “prejudice” may also be another person’s devout faith – and something they ought not give up

Note that on p. 113 Noland says that in Vico one cannot find the historicist principle of criticism (this would be where the historian tries to get behind the text, seeking for a “more credible” story) and yet it seems to me that the roots of this at least are clearly seen in this denial of more classical understandings of the terms “substance” or “essence”, which was certainly encouraged by Vico’s affinity for the Epicurean disciple, the Roman poet, Lucretius. If there are no stable categories that persons of varying backgrounds can agree on throughout time, can we, or should we, really be confident of anything that we are able to perceive? On what basis? The idea that we can be confident on the basis of a “principle of analogy”, affirming that human beings can know the things they have made (the mind’s awareness of its own productions over time) falls flat for both scientific (see Kant’s critique of this notion in his words vs. Herder) and practical reasons (for example, one simply needs to see all the important questions that historicists disagreed on! Which “self-understanding of the Spirit”???). Thus it is easy to see how the criticism that results in only skepticism without end gets started.

Further, on p. 96 note that Vico, in spite of his belief in a version of Divine providence, contrasted his own view with the “doctrinaires [i.e., the Cartesians], who “judge human actions as they ought to be, not as they actually are (i.e. performed more or less at random)” and who, “satisfied with abstract truth alone” and “unused to following probability” (emphasis mine), do not bother to “find out whether their opinion is held by the generality and whether the things that are truths to them are also such to other people”. While Vico is not dealing with the probability of historical events here, one can see how his idea of human belief and behavior – with the emphasis on generally held opinion and actions “performed more of less at random” – decreases the importance of both particular beliefs in the world and individual human agency (even if it does increase the importance shown to individual “forms” – according to Noland, as the father of “organicism” Vico could say that everything that is ‘made’ is ‘true”” and that “there are no mutations and no aberrations, only manifold potentialities”, p. 103), and with this the importance of character, and with this the importance of loyalty and trust.  This seems like it will inevitably lead to even more criticism and dissolution. After all, men are ruled “not be forethought, but by whim or chance” (p. 99).  Also note that in spite of his supposedly un-mythical-poetical use of the Bible (he applied the mythical-poetical critique to all the non-Christian/Jewish religions), Vico also did not believe that we were all one in Adam (p. 180).

********  Noland: “Historicists, to be sure, make ‘present experience’ a criterion of ‘what really happened’ in the past; but this methodological principle of analogy does not require one to minimize or otherwise obscure the ‘differentness’ of the past. Historicism, however, does oblige the historian to view events as ‘embedded within a pattern of development.’ The historical sense, by contrast, is content to investigate the discrete event as such, to determine its individual nature, apart from any concern to locate it in a larger developmental process.”

With this principle in mind, one wonders how much “differentness” the historicist is actually able to tolerate. Resurrections from the dead? The lives of totally unique human beings like Jesus of Nazareth, the very Son of God himself incarnate in the flesh?  If historicism can only be conceived of in categories more Platonic than Aristotelian, one wonders where this leaves the importance of this concrete determinative action of the Son of God in human history.

One can see lots of Plato in Vico: “Abstract, or general truths are eternal; concrete or specific ones change momentarily from truths to untruths. Eternal truths stand above nature; in nature, instead, everything is unstable, mutable. But congruity exists between goodness and truth; they partake of the same essence, of the same qualities…. (p. 96)

That said, I do not think the idea of the “historical sense” is perfect either, when one considers the importance of not only God’s individual acts in history, but the ongoing story that the Bible tells of his faithfulness.

********** Note also this statement by Wayne Hudson, in his recent article, “Theology and historicism”, thesis eleven 116(1) 19-39, 2013: “Put bluntly, it is not clear why…. recurrent structural features should not also be historicized if things change in the course of history as much as historicists suggest.  Conversely, if things do not change that much, then historicizing may have limited applications in other areas as well.


Images: Wikipedia ; Noland – Brothers of John the Steadfast.

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Posted by on August 23, 2014 in Uncategorized


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“The right side of history” – what does this mean? History, historicism, and the Christian faith (part I of III)

Vico, Hegel, Harnack... in the line of historicism, yet another Christian heresy.

Vico, Hegel, Harnack… in the line of historicism, yet another Christian heresy.


“Vagueness as to what is meant by Christ’s historicity must necessarily result in vague and indecisive theologies of history.” — J.W. Montgomery, Where is History Going? 1969, p. 185


I plan on getting to my posts dealing with Lutheran apologetics soon.  First though, this series (which will lay some good groundwork for those forthcoming posts).

In recent posts, “Daring to Deny Darwin” and “The ‘Upside’ of Being a Gadget”, I talked about one of the great enemies of the Christian faith: philosophical naturalism.

(and I have characterized one of the most modern forms of philosophical naturalism – existing from the 17th century and up – as the modern scientific and technological mindset, or MSTM, which we could also call “mechanized naturalism” or “mechanicism”).

I also recently posted a very short critique of Erlangen theology.  One aspect of this kind of theology is that it attempts to take into account some of the more creative ideas and methods of the great 19th c. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.  Hegel is perhaps the foremost proponent of “historicism”, which is a philosophy that originally arose in order to counter some of the negative aspects (and fruit) of more modern naturalistic views.* (more on this specifically in part II of the series).

That said, historicism is another great enemy of the Christian faith.  I would contend that the modern form of philosophical naturalism/mechnicism is like the drunk man who gets on the horse and falls off on one side.  Historicism is the basic counter-response, and the drunk man falling off the other side of the horse. The one who tries to utilize both in tandem also cannot balance on the horse.  Of course the drunk man in our analogy is a symbol of fallen man, particularly fallen man at the utter heights of his fallen intellectual powers (there is no denying he is clever and aware of much that is true!) – natural man’s own view of himself is that he is the “reasonable man”.

In this series we will take a look at historicism while also talking about the importance of real history.

We begin…

Who am I? Where am I from? Where am I going? What is the meaning of life?

These are questions about historical matters that none of us can fail to ask or think about. That said, naturalism and historicism, which I have said are two great philosophical enemies of the Christian faith, complicate terribly our potential answers to these questions.

sparrowThese days, you will certainly not get sage advice like the that given to Edwin, the 7th century King of Northumbria (now northern England and south-east Scotland).  After hearing the Gospel preached, the King proposed to convert to Christianity and one of his chief advisors, according to the Venerable Bede, said this:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”** (story from Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731).

Answers such as these were at one time seen as being eminently reasonable, especially in an age where much history had been lost.  To say the least, this is no longer the case.

Starting with the Renaissance but with the Enlightenment in particular, new ideas and new discoveries were in the air…  Many of these ideas, some good and some bad, would find their most fulsome flowering in the thought of the great German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. (though starting out with a man by the name of Vico – see next post). While it is fair to say that Hegel is more known as an idealist than a historicist, his work is associated with both of these streams of thought, which tend to merge.

In order to give you a bit of the flavor of the kind of influence Hegel enjoyed and the fruits his ideas bore, here is a lengthy – but very interesting – quote from the book “God’s Funeral” by A.N. Wilson.  In this quote, Wilson follows some of the history of a highly influential scholar and professor named Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893), who is little known today but in his own day “turns up in a thousand nineteenth-century anecdotes”. Please note that Wilson himself is a septic skeptic – I will refrain from editorializing too much about his own rather skewed take on things:

An interesting account of the increasing atheism and agnosticism in 19th c. England.

An interesting account of the increasing atheism and agnosticism in 19th c. England.

“Unlike most Oxford men of his age, [Jowett] knew that there was an alternative [to self-defeating Humean empiricism and “insulting” revealed religion]. When his friend Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (destined to be Dean of Westminster – he is the little boy Arthur who risks the ridicule of his dormitory in Tom Brown’s Schooldays by daring to kneel down and say his prayers) had finished his magnificent hagiography of his hero Dr. Arnold, Jowett proposed that the pair of them take a holiday in Germany. They set off in the summer of 1814, with Liddell and Scott’s enormous and newly published Greek Lexicon, and with one copy of Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft, which they took it in turn to read and analyse. They attended various philosophical conferences, but the most exciting and important thing Jowett did was to meet Erdmann of Halle – the meeting took place in Dresden. Erdmann was Hegel’s representative on earth. The two young Englishmen were thirteen years too late to meet Hegel himself, but meeting Erdmann was the next best thing.

Jowett never became a full-blown Hegelian. There was always a part of him which, as Geoffrey Faber his biographer says, was ‘salty’ and empirical; there was an even larger part of him which was so Platonist that it did not need Hegel. A typical Jowettism, this:

‘Hegel is untrue, I sometimes fancy, not in the sense of being erroneous, but practically, because it is a consciousness of truth, becoming thereby error. It is very difficult to express what I mean, for it is something which does not make me value Hegel the less as a philosopher. The problem of Truth idealized and yet in action, he does not seem to me to have solved; the Gospel of St. John does.”

There is a brilliance about this remark. Of course, all the churchy bigots regarded Jowett as a complete heretic, and he spend his life, after he came to fame and prominence, being denounced by them. But he was something of a mystic, so that although he never for a moment believed in the Thirty-nine Articles or the literal truth of miracle-stories in the New Testament, he believed deeply in God and Christ.

[editorial comment: OK…]

At first glance, certainly, idealism, the German version, seemed like the best approach for an attack on the dead hand of materialism and empiricism. The extent to which Hegel’s God – mentioned so frequently in that philosopher’s works – is the same God of Christianity can always be a subject of debate. Is Hegel’s God Personal? The community of the Spirit in Hegel consists in the Spiritual Community, or the Church. But this is not understood as [Cardinal] Newman and friends would have understood it in using the word. It is not the laying-on of apostolic hands, still less a sacramental ‘magic’ which constitutes the Hegelian community. The perfected community of enlightened ones is itself, in Hegel’s world, God. And he chose, when describing this community, and impersonal word, Gemeinde, ‘whose ordinary meaning excludes any idea of personal unity’.

Jowett was a great teacher rather than himself an original metaphysician. This is what makes his visit to Germany so important – and so different from [Edward] Pusey’s visit to Gottingen and Berlin nearly twenty years before. Whereas Pusey came back to England and decided that there were storms ahead and it was time to batten down the hatches, Jowett returned with a feeling of liberation…

Lutheran theologian Franz Peiper - Pieper was writing his critique of Erlangen before World War I (for all intents and purposes), before Barth and Bultmann came on the scene, before Barth and Gogarten had their "throw-down" about whether or not God can be known through history, or even creation. Pieper therefore was, to a certain extent, like the scout that saw the opposing force coming, and galloped back to try to warn the garrison of what was coming. Therefore he can be forgiven somewhat for not being as prescient as we now can be about the topic post Barth

Lutheran theologian Franz Pieper was “like the scout that saw the opposing force coming, and galloped back to try to warn the garrison of what was coming.”*** (this is what he warned us of)

Relevance for us? Stories like this have been recapitulated many a time by many a young theological intellectual (perhaps particularly those intellectuals studying in Germany). German thinkers – with their intoxicatingly comprehensive and systematic foci, have loomed large in world history…. (check out this paper and learn about Bad Boll – you will need to download this to read due to formatting issues)

Hegel’s style of thought was to exercise much influence in 19th and 20th century theology. Of course in the twentieth century there was also resistance to his thought, particularly from the Kierkegaard-influenced neo-Orthodoxy, led by Karl Barth. That said, for all the good that can be found in neo-Orthodoxy, it was lacking in many respects, including its unwillingness to speak about the matter of history and the Christian faith in a way that did not cause utter confusion.  

The late theologian George A. Buttrick wrote a very interesting book in the early 1960s called Christ and History. He is clearly influenced by men like Karl Barth and his neo-orthodoxy, and his comments below a) sound pretty good and yet, b) sound a bit strange, with some jargon that may be unfamiliar to us:

“Is thought primarily scientific or philosophical or theological?  Or is it historical, that is, so constituted as to be able by nature to respond to the onsets of God in history?  At any rate, the Bible is history… the Bible is history, and sacred history and faith-history… Bible history is eschatological…Bible history is focused history… [it] sets a Year One in the midst of history…” — George A Buttrick, Christ and History, 1963, p. 18, 22, 24-26

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Hegel: "the philosopher should seek to discover the rational within the real—not to impose the rational upon the real."  Hegel himself:  “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept”   Hegel: on the wrong side of history[‘s Author]

Hegel, on the wrong side of history[‘s Author]: “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept”

Despite Buttrick’s overall theology not being ideal, did he indeed hold the line here on this matter of Christ and history?  On the one hand, after I read the book, I thought that he basically did.  On the other hand, upon more reflection, I found myself doubting whether or not he really did! (though I can definitely say that in many respects the book struck me as quite insightful and informed – I will quote from it later on)

Here, it seems to me, is the crux: against Hegel, the Christian must assert that there are some statements made on earth that remain and always will remain true. Permanent.**** Over against those who would employ Hegel to re-imagine the historic Christian faith in this or that way, we must assert that there is no “salvation history” that should be held as distinct from larger (or smaller, according to some theologians) “world history”. In short, “history is history is history”.  That said, I think that some will, understandably, want to be nuanced in their understandings of these things, and in and in part II we will get on that road by taking a closer look at historicism….

(part II in a couple days)




*That said, in many cases historicism – in the minds of many men at least – is also frequently thought to be highly compatible with philosophical naturalism/mechanicism (particularly as regards what is the chronological and mechanical process of evolution and accompanying ideas of progress and goals). Part II will talk about this more.

**”The King did become a Christian and. St. Paulinus[, who had preached to him,] went on to convert many in the kingdom of Northumbria, notably the great Hilda who received the monastic habit from our own St. Aidan who served the next king of Northumbria after Edwin, Oswald.” (from here:

*** Full quote from my pastor: “Pieper was writing his critique of Erlangen before World War I (for all intents and purposes), before Barth and Bultmann came on the scene, before Barth and Gogarten had their “throw-down” about whether or not God can be known through history, or even creation. Pieper therefore was, to a certain extent, “like the scout that saw the opposing force coming, and galloped back to try to warn the garrison of what was coming.” Therefore he can be forgiven somewhat for not being as prescient as we now can be about the topic post Barth…”

**** In this view then, the notion of positive law, for example, cannot simply be thought to be the mere product and catalyst of social change, but is rather is intimately connected with things that are permanent and transcendent, outside of us.

Images: Wikipedia ; sparrow: ; Harnack pic:

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Posted by on August 21, 2014 in Uncategorized


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