Reeves Responds to Clark

Russ Reeves of Tolle Blogge (and Providence Christian College) wrote such a thoughtful response to the “Natural is Not Neutral” post that it shoudn’t be buried in the comments.

Two quick comments. I do realize there are some who would claim revelatory or redemptive insight into the meaning history (with an academic specialty on trans-Atlantic revivalism, I face the revival v. revivalism thing often); I only wish to claim that this doesn’t exhaust the options. There is another approach that can be fairly described as a distinctive Christian perspective on history that does not rely on these formulations, but is rather a biblically and theologically-informed interpretation of creation and the cultural development of creation by human beings as image-bearers fallen into sin. I’d say that most prominent Christian historians who claim a distinctive (or even “outrageous”) Christian perspective would fall into this camp in varying degrees.

Second, on natural law, while I don’t take natural to mean neutral, I do think many Christians do. Most evangelicals I have encountered who reject the idea of a distinctive Christian perspective on non-theological subjects do so on the basis of a supposed neutrality (“being a Christian economist just means being the best economist I can be”). Rejecting this, I do heartily affirm that what is creational (preferable to “natural” in my opinion) is universal, common to all people as created beings. Through creation God teaches everything from his existence to proper sexual relations to how to farm. However, the obstacle to rightly understanding creation is not merely sloth in the application of reason (though this is often a factor) as it is rebellion in the pursuit of sin. The problem being idolatry rather than ignorance, the real problem of an ideology like economic materialism is not that it fails to account for all the facts, but that it fails to account for the facts because it is an idolatrous notion of reality. On abortion, a natural law claim that all human beings know abortion is wrong needs is fine, but it’s rare to hear a follow up from the natural law theorist on why in fact many human societies, even societies that were home to some of the great ancient jurists, have acted as if they did not believe abortion, even infanticide, was wrong. That historical fact demands some kind of explanation, and I think special revelation helps us form a distinctively Christian one.

Clark responds briefly:

I agree, in substance, with much of what Russ says above (e.g. creational = natural) though I continue to wonder what is distinctively Christian about the Christian’s explanation of the proximate causes of history? Even if I grant that Russ’ account is distinctively theistic, what is Trinitarian, or “resurrectional” about it?

Russ’ account above seems, in principle, to come close to denying the existence of commonality between Christians and non-Christians. Even the staunchest Kuyperians affirm “common grace” AND antithesis, even if the latter gets all the ink.

Russ’ response still seems to be more about apologetics than history. As a historian, when I respond to an ideologically driven account of history my main obligation is point out the fact that such and such an account seems to be more ideological than historical. My job, at that point, is not prosecute his unbelief but to give a better historical account.

Regarding natural law ethics, my job (were I an ethicist — on this please see VanDrunen’s work) would be to show how such and such an account doesn’t really accord with creation. I don’t say that this is easy, but it is being done by folk such as VanDrunen and others.

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  1. Help me out – where do you see a principle that comes close to denying creational commonality between Christians and non-Christians in my comments above?

  2. Russ,

    When you say “rightly understanding creation” you don’t seem to be speaking about proximate questions. Pagans “rightly” understand paving all the time. They know that material has to be heated to a certain temp before it can be spread. Pagan lifeguards understand that if they see a body on the floor of the pool with no bubbles coming up, that’s a bad thing and calls for a rescue. One need not be a Christian to see this. The pagan might, ultimately considered, not have have a very good reason for making the rescue or for accounting for the fact that material must be at a certain temp, but, as CVT reminds, they do sit on our Father’s lap and as creatures with us operate on a proximate level in much the way we do.

    The fact that a pagan historian may have an idolatrous notion of history doesn’t mean that he is incapable of telling the truth about proximate or penultimate questions.

    I sense from your post that you seem to want to resolve all questions to ultimate questions.

    When you say that the problem is more than sloth, you seem to be suggesting that the non-believer is not only incapable of giving a coherent answer regarding ultimate questions but of proximate questions as well. That seems tantamount to an implicit denial of true commonality.

    The regenerate mind is able to interpret the ultimate meaning of proximate issues differently, and truly, in contrast to the pagan, but do we necessarily have superior insight into penultimate issues?

  3. This is helpful, and indicates to me that there is a difference (though I don’t think it should be over emphasized) in how we approach the study of history that is related but distinct from the question of whether there is a distinctive Christian approach to history. If I were to frame a critique of your perspective using the categories you use above, it looks to me like you have placed ultimate and proximate into hermetically-sealed boxes, allowing no interaction between the two. Segregating the proximate questions of history allows them to be treated as essentially neutral territory (just the facts, ma’am), untarnished by the historian’s broader understanding of the nature of reality, human nature and motivation, causation, etc. Should any overlap be detected in other historians, they can be written off as ideological and ignored. As Peter Novick put it, that’s a noble dream, but I don’t think it accurately reflects they way fallible, finite beings study history.

    While I don’t think I’m guilty of collapsing the proximate into the ultimate, I do think the membrane that separates the two is porous, in both directions (unlike Kuyper, who, it seems to me, only allowed for movement in one direction, that our view of the ultimate automatically determines the proximate). I’m not sure it’s fair to jump categories to road-paving, but I’ll play along with the analogy. Both the Christian and non-Christian road paver can understand the essential qualities of tar, which is necessary for them to do their work effectively. But then it is also true that the historian of the human past can only work effectively if he or she understands the essential qualities of humanity, and while “what is tar?” is not an ultimate question, the question “what is man?” is second only to “who is God?” in any taxonomy of ultimate questions. That being said, inconsistency, in both the Christian and non-Christian, is to be expected in finite and sinful creatures, so that non-Christians can do far better with proximate questions than their ultimate perspective can account for (and even their study of proximate questions potentially serving to at least temper an idolatrous ultimate perspective – this is what I meant by creation pressing in on them even if their theories try to resist), and, conversely, Christians can do far worse with proximate questions than they should.

    I will see you this weekend, btw.

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