27 June 2010

Mercersburg and Hegelian Historiography

updated July 2012


Post number three of four dealing with issues related to Nominalism

Schaff's Hegelian Historiography:

The misguided quest to find a synthesis between Augustinian Ecclesiology and Soteriology

It's difficult to find a good Church History. They either suffer from brevity, or often in the opening pages you can detect the author is perhaps not a Christian and poorly interprets not only the Apostolic Period, but all of the early church controversies.


To be fair, I don't expect historians to write with a proto-protestant bias…their efforts are by necessity going to focus more on the so-called cultural achievements, the development of western thought, interactions between lords temporal and lords spiritual…those sorts of things. Some of the popular histories I think are lacking, and there are also some which smack of Christian propaganda (not in the promotion sense, but in the exaggerated and sanitized presentation ), which is repugnant, because it is not even attempting to assemble facts with an eye to painting a portrait of truth… it is a selective rendering to validate an agenda.

I cannot really recommend a good church history. Read lots of histories, general and specific. That's the safest route. If I had to pick one general history, in the end I would probably still pick Philip Schaff's 8 vol. History of the Christian Church. These volumes end with Beza's death in 1605...so even Schaff is rather limited. But certainly, all the big questions were dealt with long before Theodore Beza came along. But in a way, and I'm sure Schaff didn't mean this, he's kind of a fitting character...things coming full circle. Sacralism is re-born and re-cast in the Protestant motif.

Schaff's interpretations are terrible…but at least it is very clear when he is offering his interpretation. Though it is blended in the narrative...he's trying to be honest and doesn't seem to try and manipulate.

His historiography is prima facie ridiculous and his theological observations are rather liberal. In fact, by the standards of the day he was on the liberal side of the coin. It's amazing how conservative he looks compared to modern theological liberals!

But overall, the facts, ordering, and discussions in Schaff are probably the best out there. There are a few others I haven't engaged, but it would seem for the moment, Schaff is probably the best general history. I don't care for Latourette. His non-Christian histories of the Orient are I think quite poor, very biased, very simplistic, and concerning western interactions with the Orient, quite naïve.

Williston Walker's Church History is terrible in the first century…a completely sceptical revision of the Apostolic period…and after that decent, but far too concise.

Wylie's History of Protestantism is both excellent and worthless. It is propaganda, Protestant Sacralist Propaganda………when it's accurate, it's helpful and moving as it is meant to be. When it's inaccurate, it is guilty of historical manipulation…often by omission more than interpretation. You can't beat the illustrations though. It's worth purchasing just for them.

So back to Schaff. He has his weaknesses but one of them is well…kind of interesting. The Mercersburg Theology produced a Hegelian Historiography based on Hegel's famous Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis model of history and progress... The Hegelian Dialectic. This dialectic is a process, a description of the progression of nature or history, and thus constitutes a usage differing from the Dialectical Hermeneutic for Metaphysics or Dialectic Theology advocated in these writings. It's a constantly shifting dialectic, repeatedly eliminating and forming new tensions. Once again just to make it clear, Hegel's Dialectic (of which many have heard) has nothing to do with the Theological Dialectic I propose.

Schaff took this Hegelian (or Kantian) Dialectic and applied it to Church History. He doesn't use the terms I use, but he actually had some notion of the issues. He sees the early church as Ecclesiastically focused and developing its theology and practice based off these Ecclesiastical assumptions. He labels this Petrine Christianity, because the developing Papacy always identified its power-source as the giving of the Keys to Peter…signifying his Primacy and the fact that he was Bishop of Rome…his supposed legacy.

First I would say, the proto-papacy misinterpreted the Keys. And second, though contrary to some, Peter was probably in Rome, but not 'the bishop' since until the end of the first century and this can be demonstrated in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch…the church was still employing a plurality of elders or bishops. The terms (episcopos and presbuteros) are used interchangeably in the New Testament writings. And even if Peter had some sort of Apostolic Primacy, there's no Biblical basis to develop a Succession doctrine. It is making a host of assumptions.

That said, Schaff is correct in pointing out the triumph of hyper-ecclesiology in the early church. I'm not sure Petrine would be the desirable label.

Augustine corrected this as the social and logical consequences of hyper-ecclesiology (hyper-visible emphasis) became manifest in the Pelagian Controversies.  Focusing on the temporal order, the visible, things like the sacraments, polity, and certainly Bible verses focusing on action are going to receive a greater emphasis and become foundational to thought.

Augustine picked up on the flip-side of the coin, the Eternal/Invisible doctrines like Election, the Sovereignty of God in Predestination, and the nature of Grace. He did this while retaining a Temporal/Visible theology which allowed for efficacious sacraments, a strong visible institution with a very real, (not just theoretical) ecclesiastical authority. The church hadn't seen anything like this since the days of the Apostles. Schaff calls these Soteriological-emphasizing doctrines, the Pauline Christianity.

To be fair, he's not trying to say there are different and competing Christianities (as many do today) at work. He's just saying there are these impulses……and to a certain extent he's right. I just don't care for the terms, and I don't think the Hegelian model is a way of understanding it all.

But even Hegel wasn't completely blind. History and especially ideas often work in pendulum swings. One side reacts to the other….and goes to the extreme….and then later a middle ground is worked out. There is some truth to it...it's hardly axiomatic or a trustworthy grid to impose on history... but the big problem with Hegel is you have a model failing to recognize God's overall Hand of Providence, moving us lineally ever closer to the eschaton.

I certainly support two-axis (dual) thought and certainly we can speak of parallel categories and interactions, but history is moving in a straight line toward the eschaton. In another sense...the eschaton is now. In fact that dualism, that tension between the Already and Not Yet, this age and the age to come helps to explain much of history, especially in terms of calamity and the way empires rise and fall.

Sadly, as with all giants, Augustine had his flaws. He played a key part in the inclusion of the deutero-canonicals into the Medieval Ecclesiastical Canon, and he abandoned his City of God model when he sought for the Emperor to 'compel' the Donatists. And the mainstream of the rapidly apostatizing Old Catholic church rejected the portions of his theology which did not develop within their already determined Semi-Pelagian path.

Schaff asserts the Reformation was the Pauline Antithesis to the Petrine Thesis and we are awaiting the ecumenical Johannine Synthesis. He finds in the Johannine writings a less dogmatic, less emphatic structure, capable of developing a harmonious and irenic system.

Schaff was wrong, but he's interesting. He's not very kind to the proto-protestants, but it is because he is a Sacralist and an Institutionalist….and really has no room for them and consequently little time for them. His theology in this case certainly informs his historiography.

At least he avoids a Nominalist view of Church History. Theologically he sees dimensions, parallel developments, competing systems.........

And Schaff was right in the sense of the Reformers really being only half-Augustinian...The problem is they then take one half and their descendants run with it and make a crooked building. Rome had taken the other half and centuries before constructed a lop-sided structure on their side of the street. Schaff the premier ecumenicist of his day wants everyone to get together and join the structures in the middle. From my standpoint, two crooked houses with a spanning addition make one big crooked house.

Read every history, even the ones you like, with a heavy grain of salt. Sometimes the better histories are the one's which don't espouse your view.

Remember we're not trying to 'claim' historical entities and persons. We trying to figure out the truth and give an accurate report. That is most glorifying to God even if the so-called church doesn't always look so good.

If you read hagiographical-type history…Wylie is a bit guilty of this… read it, but don't trust it until you've at least found some verification in other sources. And the more you read, the easier it is to grasp larger concepts......then when you return to histories like Wylie...it lessens your appreciation.

Trying to understand the truth of the Scriptures…or the truth of history's annals……is not a quest for the lazy. But it is always interesting.



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