David Bebbington and the Pursuit of Christian History


The old cliché has always been that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. Yet as with most clichés a rub quickly appeared. Many have wondered and pondered another old question just what is meant by history, and if one could come to know this thing called history, what would one do with it once they had it. These questions could then lead to the even more troubling question- can one even know this thing called history. David Bebbington’s book Patterns in History: A Christian History on Historical Thought sought to illumine these very interesting questions, and even more intriguing has attempted to defend the Christian response to these issues as the sine qua non of answers. Christians everywhere, particularly Christians involved in discussing, cataloging, and writing history, should rejoice in the brevity and force of Bebbington’s argument. That does not mean that Christians might not disagree with some of the unique ways in which Bebbington works out his thesis; but it does mean that Bebbington’s answer represented a tour-de-force which deserves respect and admiration. In order to better understand Bebbington’s view of history as a Christian enterprise and his apologia for this enterprise, one must first understand his discussion of the other means and methods for understanding history. Various peoples in various times have come to varied ideas of just what shapes history. In light of the alternatives Bebbington forcefully argued that the Christian perspective sparkles and retains the grandest shine.

Perhaps the oldest and longest running view of the main force that gives shape to history was that which Bebbington referred to as the cyclical view of history. This view which arose in the ancient world and maintained a hold on much of the Eastern and Near-Eastern World states that the forces of time and decay themselves shape history. In this view the world began as a golden and bright place, and since then decay has set in. In the chronological schema Christianity and its linear view of history struck this view its death knell, or at very least provided the impetus that would remove this view from its dominant place in the marketplace of ideas. The other views presented in his book work as answers to the Christian view, or answers to these answers.

The Progressive View popularized by the ongoing onslaught of technical and popular achievement within the Modern World sought to place man (that is humanity as a whole) at the center of history. In this view it was humanity that provided the central shape and spark of history. Man as he or she moved every forward into new technologies, new insights, and new achievements moved history forward inching and jumping toward a more perfect union. The seemingly oblivious optimism of this view prompted responses from two groups of historians and philosophers. These groups did not argue with the assertion that humanity moved humanity; but they did ask if perhaps there were not certain concepts or establishments that moved humanity. The German Historicists of the 18th and 19th centuries argued that one’s time and place imparted a nature and temperament that ensured one would act and think in set ways. In Britain the philosophers Karl Marx and Frederick Engels proposed that it was humanity moved by the needs to provide a home and sustenance that moved history. It would be these economic systems and the needs of the masses to provide that provided the impetus to move humanity to move and shape their history.

In this mix of ideas and philosophies of history and what is meant by the process of writing and recording these histories, Bebbington intended to set the Christian ideal as the ideal worth saving and using. Whereas the various other theories included an impersonal force and its affects on humanity (progress and man; class and man, etc.), Bebbington argued that history is culmination of the work of a personal God and humanity (or God on humanity as the case may be argued). Bebbington argued that two statements of the Christian faith applied here. First that God is concerned with the minutiae and details of each person’s life and in the societies formed by these persons, and secondly, that the ultimate form of this involvement can be seen in the cross (172). In the incarnation and in the cross God in Christ showed the ultimate example of his involvement and concern in humanity.

Yet if this involvement can be observed plainly in the scriptures, the other workings of God in history are not meant to be, nor are so plain. Bebbington writes “no historian is compelled to acknowledge that particular providences are a reality. God seems to hide in history as well as to reveal himself in it” (172). The job of the historian who operates from a Christian perspective was to be simply that which he or she has been called to be, to observe and record what one finds in the search and research of their craft. The job of a historian then was not to be a prophet, that is to point to events and proclaim the workings of God. Bebbington wrote that “The Old Testament prophets saw with clarity what God revealed; we can only discern provisionally what history suggests” (180). The Christian historian then can gaze upon the records and annuls of history and seek to provide the fullest answer as to just what history is and just what history means. They do not have all the story, but can argue that they have more of the story in play.

For Bebbington all other answers to the question of how to view and understand history have been weighed and found lacking. Each of the theories mentioned had good and true concerns. People are, have been, and will continue to be influenced by ideas, by the economy, by their social status, or by their communities. The very act of focusing exclusively onto any of these fields caused and causes its proponents to miss a valued part of the overall story. First it caused them to miss the others areas of human actively mentioned by other schools, but secondly and more important it caused them to miss the working of God on the schemes of man. In the Christian historians’ mantra that both people and God matter, the Christian has been able to tell a fuller, more complete, and more intellectually fulfilling story. One might even hedge one’s argument by arguing that a true and good Christian historian would be able to best combine the respect and trust in God’s work (even when it cannot be seen or understood), the eschatological hope of the Progressives (tempered by a true understanding of the blessed hope), the intellectual rigor of the Historicists, and the concern for class of the Marxists. With its great attention given to the strengths and weakness of its main opponents; as well as, it careful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses within the Christian scheme, Bebbington has masterly argued for a return to the Christian understanding of history.

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