The Problem of Christian Grand Theory


Matthew A. Kelsey


I. The Problem of Christian Grand Theory

It is hard to deny that Christian historiography got off to a good start; the Middle Ages saw Providence-seeking chronicles as the primary mode of historical writing, and the linear view of history powerfully set forth by Saint Augustine’s City of God has given the modern conception of history its shape. However, since Voltaire’s inauguration of the philosophy of history (and his dismissal of non-Enlightenment historical writing as “nothing but a pack of tricks we play on the dead”) the writing of Christian history has fallen on hard times. Modern historians tend to avoid complex analyses of the sweeping movements of history, precisely the kind of history Christian thinkers historically felt most comfortable with, and today, historians regard any appeal to supernatural agency as illegitimate.

For Christians wanting to bring the insights of their faith into historical scholarship, the contemporary debate takes place in two camps: the debate over the historicity of the Biblical narrative and the more general concern of what Christian historiography should look like as a broad-based approach to the discipline. Of paramount importance for Christians is the establishment of the veracity of the Biblical Incarnation narrative, thereby making belief in a historically-grounded faith reasonable. It is this locus of conflict that provokes the greatest debate, since what is at stake is nothing less than the epistemic credibility of Christianity as it has traditionally been understood. Even provided that historically-based Christian faith is epistemically credible,1 there remains another vexed question: how does or should Christian faith interact with modern historiography? The claim has been made that modern historiography is automatically committed to being an empirical science—as far as is possible—and that this fact precludes employing faith-based considerations in historiography.2

Attempts to defend the writing of Christian history are complicated by the Judeo-Christian metanarrative of salvation, which looks, at least at first glance, like a grand theory3 of sorts; it has a beginning that makes the world a created order, a climax in the incarnation of the Son of God, and an expected (though difficult-to-explicate) eschaton that takes place within history and marks the end of history. This overarching narrative is problematic because grand theory has of late been almost universally criticized, and is eschewed by almost all serious professional historians as too ambitious and, ultimately, impossible to verify empirically anyway. Historians view the great systematic philosophies of Hegel and Marx as typical philosophical overreaching, and very few historians would consent to the restrictions placed on the discipline by an overarching theory of this sort.

The general Christian response to this latter problem has been twofold. One route is to see Christian history, in a form generally unmodified from the traditional Providence-seeking, as remaining perfectly valid. In an essay on the unique perspective of a Christian historian, George M. Marsden takes this approach in hand, with a tone of wry amusement at the overzealousness of his critics in attacking what he considers to be an eminently reasonable view of the matter. As he sees it, “one way to describe the history of modern Western thought is as a rejection of the doctrine of creation and its systematic exclusion as a consideration in academic study, outside of theology itself.”4 For Marsden, this implicit program is the key premise that a Christian historian must reject. His essay concludes with a quotation from Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions that underscores the incommensurability of the Christian worldview, and this is Marsden’s basic point; Christian history is indeed incomprehensible from the point of view of most modern historians but is still valid as an explanatory model.5 By staunchly pressing forward in the attempt to divine God’s plan and actions in history, Christian historians can produce what amounts to a rival paradigm in historical studies and contribute to the Christian faith in their own way.

In the same book in which Marsden’s essay is printed, we find an example of the usual alternative to the incommensurable-paradigm model of Christian historiography in D.G. Hart’s history of the Conference on Faith and History.6 Hart describes attempts (like Marsden’s) at Providence-seeking Christian historiography as the view that the Christian historian, like the scorekeeper for the home team, tallied up and cheered on the triumph of the forces of light over those of darkness. For some, this activism involved using the past to remedy the social needs of the present, while for others it meant demonstrating the relevance of biblical religion through history… [Ultimately,] Christian faith was one…way of discerning other meaningful ‘dimensions to reality,’ dimensions that were ‘valuable’ in themselves…the Christian historian, sometimes only in a glass darkly, could make out in contours of human history ‘a larger struggle among real spiritual forces and personalities,’ not unlike the characters in Tolkien’s stories.7

This discernment of real spiritual forces in worldly history is the great hope of Christian writers of history from Saint Augustine well into the days of Edward Gibbon. It no longer looks so sound in a pluralistic culture, though, and Hart’s judgment is a decidedly negative one: that Christian history is “great work if you can get it,” that “it would be marvelous if, because of faith or regeneration, Christian historians were able to divine what God was up to,” but “Christian theology says we cannot discern God’s hand in this way.”8 The strategy here is not to deny the Christian metanarrative, the great movement of salvation in time, but to deny that it is possible to usefully connect individual historical narratives (even those of whole civilizations) to the revealed movement of God in history.9 Hart portrays the Christian metanarrative as being only superficially a grand theory; it imposes no interpretive framework on a working historian.

Few of the participants in this debate are inclined to say that their Christianity has no impact on their work as historians, but it becomes a moral impact instead of the theoretical-conceptual influence of a systematic theory. This moral impact is usually expressed in terms of a universal Christian humility, well-phrased by G. Marcille Frederick: “we bring forward the poor and serve those who cannot return our service, this means also sending the rich away empty of textual centrality, bringing down the powerful into the footnotes, scattering the proud here and there in the text.”10 Unless we are willing to look further and examine the preconceptions of the philosophy of history these two views depend on, this moral injunction is the most that can be salvaged from the Christian worldview, given the difficulties of mapping the ecclesiastical progress of history depicted in Scripture to worldly movements of historical time. The attacks on grand metanarratives are simply too intimidating to be met, and Christian history can proceed only by means of one of the two tactics I have sketched. This general pessimism appears to stem from an acute awareness of the difficulties posed in passing through the Symplegades of a supernatural-aversive and rule-seeking modernism, epitomized by the work of the theologian Van Harvey, and a “history is simply literature” postmodernism, epitomized by Lyotard’s work on metanarratives. Between these two persuasive depictions of the historiographical project, there does not seem to be much hope one way or the other for preserving the overarching Christian sense of history as a means of arriving at truth.

In this essay I describe what I consider to be a viable alternative to these two common ways of dealing with the problem of Christian grand theory, an alternative that relies on reinterpreting “grand theory” in such a way that a conception of human nature is the key determiner of the nature of a systematic history of philosophy. Even critics such as Hart, who believe that the overarching story of Christianity cannot be successfully introduced into the pattern of human history, concede that Christianity carries with it a rich, nuanced, and difficult-to-ignore conception of human nature. This idea is expressed in Hart’s concluding comment that “the real direction of history is from the first to the last Adam.”11 Combined with Collingwood’s demand that we see history from the internal “thought-side” of human action and with an expanded definition of Walsh’s suggestive notion of “colligation” in historical explanation, the essential Christian doctrine of the fallenness of humankind amounts to a sort of grand theory to which philosophers of history of an idealist bent can justifiably refer.12 The faith of the historian clearly affects his or her judgment of the central events of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. However, an awareness of the role of human nature in historical explanation, and of Christian teachings on the nature of humanity, has the potential to help a historian provide more truthful and more insightful explanations even of such an event as the 1618 defenestration of two men from a castle in Prague, or the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in May and June of 1940, otherwise difficult to consider in a Christian and historical manner.

To that end, this essay is divided into several parts. The second section is devoted to a version of Walsh’s principle of colligation that allows for human nature (among other things) to make up an important part of the historical context employed by the historian. A third section addresses the specific role and influence of human nature in this scheme; I argue that a strong conception of human nature is the lynchpin of any systematic philosophical account of history, linking external perception to the historical understanding we expect from good historians. The final section moves from the realm of theory into that of concrete examples, and Herbert Butterfield’s well-known lectures on the Christian philosophy of history provide a touchstone well-suited to illustrating the concepts I see at work here.


II. Explanatory Colligation

The search for a philosophy of history that takes into account the crucial role of insight into human nature in the process of transforming perceptive external knowledge into insight-based internal knowledge seems to lead naturally to covering-law theories in the style of Popper and Hempel, where the science controlling history is psychology, and the laws of that science applied to the past explain the movements of history. However, admitting this strongly positivist philosophy of history is deeply problematic, on my view.13 W. H. Walsh suggests an alternate conception of the method of history in his Introduction to Philosophy of History: “the procedure of explaining an event by tracing its intrinsic relations to other events and locating it in its historical context.”14 Walsh refers to this method of explanation as “colligation.”

This method is characteristic of historians, who cannot possibly give every detail of an event in order to explain it. Instead, they see the discrete historical event as embedded in a web of historical context that is changing through time; this web of historical context is marshaled by the historian to explain an event. The key but ambiguous phrase here is “historical context,” raising the question of what is to count as legitimately susceptible to colligation by historians. If we consider “historical context” to be the law-governed environment envisioned by Popper’s applied-sociology model of history, we find ourselves back in the positivist camp. Understanding “historical context” instead (as Paul Veyne does) as “a mixture of material causes, aims, and chances—a slice of life, in short, that the historian cuts as he wills”15 allows for a strong case on the idealist side, where there are many true stories to tell, but no singular true explanation of a given event that completely encapsulates the whole truth of the matter. For the positivist, history collapses into a sort of science. For the idealist, history very nearly becomes a special sort of literature. This distinction between history as science and history as literature is a basic problem in the philosophy of history. Even for those philosophers committed to a version of historical explanation that both avoids the problems of the covering-law model and does justice to the truth of historical explanation, the temptation to draw a neat divide between history and science is strong. As William Dray puts it, it would be very natural to draw a sharp contrast between historical explanations and all theoretical ones… We give theoretical explanations where our knowledge of the subject matter allows explanatory interpolation; we give historical ones where no such interpolation is licensed – where we have to refer to the peculiar history of what is to be explained.16

Though logically distinct, this idea that history is a science of sorts almost always comes bundled with some version of the Popper-Hempel theory of generalization to historical laws. Likewise, the critics of covering-law theory almost always feel the need to underscore historical explanation as sui generis, a unique mode of understanding—science and history are seen as two separate disciplines of rational inquiry, with each pursuing its own sphere of interests.17 The widespread unwillingness to disentangle the search for a model of historical explanation from the question of whether history is science-like or not obscures a possible interpretation of Walsh’s “historical context” in the pragmatist mold. This interpretation also has the effect of thinning the line of radical division between scientific and historical explanations that most critics of the covering-law model want to draw.

Instead of taking “historical context” to mean either the generalizable laws governing the situation or merely some sum of the chaotic maelstrom of events, I suggest considering “historical context” to be any item of knowledge which, colligated with a historical explanation in the manner suggested by Walsh, enables understanding of that situation on the part of the historian and his or her audience.18 No longer limited to just the localized facts, in this definition of “historical context,” we can ask that the historian colligate the theories of the natural and social sciences with his or her historical narrative, as well as anything else that would help ground the particular historical event in our understanding.

This interpretation of colligation fits well with what historians already do, and it is especially useful in that it allows us to retain Giambattista Vico’s distinction between history and the sciences while still placing history in the same context of inquiry as the empirical sciences;19 the operation of this sort of colligation can be seen particularly well in reference to historians’ use of ideas of human nature. In Vico’s New Science, human nature (the “empathetic understanding”) is the criterion for internal access to the human agents that make up history and is what differentiates history from the empirical sciences or sciences of perception. As Walsh himself puts it, human nature is the most important guiding idea which a historian accesses, with human nature defined as “judgments about the characteristic responses human beings made to the various challenges set them in the course of their lives, whether by the natural conditions in which they live, or by their fellow beings.”20 This is as good a theoretical definition as any, though the content of any understanding of human nature is bound to be much more complex.

Every historical context makes reference to the historian’s understanding of human nature, and it is this understanding that makes the difference between very dull “purely objective” history21 and what we usually think of as the craft of historiography. By accepting any genuine source of knowledge as potentially being a part of the historical context within which a historian’s narrative is colligated, insight into human nature can take its place as the fundamental touchstone in any account that seeks to give a rational explanation of human action in history. It can even be found somewhere in the background of any given historical work, including those usually classified as economic history or as highly abstract social history, the areas in which covering-law theorists usually have the best case. The history/science dichotomy promulgated by the critics of covering-law theory is also inadequate in this broadened interpretation of Walsh’s “historical context;” there is no fundamental logical difference between the sources of knowledge that a historian is willing to adduce to explain context, dissolving the rigid distinctions between history, science, and philosophy.

With historical context understood as just that which makes historical explanation possible, history is an inherently multidisciplinary field, with few sources of knowledge that belong specifically to it. Indeed, the only completely unique understanding that has an important effect on history while remaining largely within the bounds of history is the internal understanding of human nature the historian brings to his or her task (again, following Vico and Collingwood’s point regarding the difference being human makes in writing human history). This gives an understanding of human nature pride of place in historical contexts because it is always a factor of the historical context provided by the historian. There is a degree of reciprocity here: historical explanations can be read as comments on human nature, and history is a means of refining the concept of human nature. In this way, we see history as a disciplinary whole concerned with colligating the ideas that are important to it. Extending the field to which history can make contributory colligations to all of the sources from which it can draw knowledge also places history in the general pattern of human inquiry and gives it a hermeneutic role in the reader’s overall understanding.22

As human nature is the key single knowledge source to which history qua history appeals, the gradual process of branching and connection in search of the sufficiently complete historical context demanded for a successful explanation means that history partakes deeply of some understanding of the way human beings are or can be. As this understanding increases in depth, history gradually becomes more synoptic, moving from the “slice of life” understanding put forth by Veyne towards an act by which a historian is capable of taking the events of the field of history and “comprehending them in an act of judgment which manages to hold them together.”23 This definition of history is grand theory, the attempt to encompass ever-mounting spheres of events in a single vision. This is the ideal end to which that view of historical understanding leads which gives due credence to the ideas of colligation and human nature as I have defined them. Whether it is justifiable or not for a historian to attempt such all-encompassing colligations via the field of “historical context” is another question altogether, but even if it should turn out to be the case that grand theory is untenable—the “view from nowhere” that assumes more objectivity than human effort allows—it will remain the form of history in its idealized aspect.


III. The Structure of Colligated History

Identifying the ideal form of history as an explanatory network perfectly colligated with other human knowledge and (crucially) with an understanding of human nature is effective as a rubric for assessing the explanatory form of any grand theories we come across. However, as Louis O. Mink and others have pointed out, “There are critics of speculative philosophy of history…but there are, today, no speculative philosophers of history to criticize.”24 I believe this is a problem, but a more thorough description of the process is necessary to successfully justify my interpretation of Walsh’s principle of colligation, and to vindicate grand theory when approached in the way I will suggest.

Although in the last section I presented human nature as being only the most important and frequently-occurring knowledge-source that could justifiably be colligated into a historical narrative, it is actually almost impossible to explain history without some degree of human insight. A purely external account, one denying that a human agent is explaining the actions of other human agents, would be of little value as history, because it cannot be historicized and fit into the narrative of events that we hold in our minds as “the past.” The Jewish writer Primo Levi had a sense of this. He maintains that “no human being will be able to identify with Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Eichmann, and many others of the Nazi period. This dismays us, and at the same time gives us a sense of relief, because perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us.” Levi brackets off the Holocaust as essentially ahistorical; since we can have no inner access to the historical agents we therefore cannot have any rational explanation of their actions. They have defied human nature, acting, Levi adds, in a way “really counter-human.”25 R. G. Collingwood, rather more dryly, makes the same point on a theoretical level when he distinguishes between history and science on the grounds that “the data of physical science are given by perception, and perception is not understanding,”26 which is what we demand of historical accounts.

This point strays dangerously close to being a truism, and it is indeed the case that the importance of human nature as the universal and ultimate ground of any account of historical explanation from the agent’s perspective is virtually undeniable. However, there is no demand in the philosophy of history that the historian have a particularly refined knowledge of human nature in the form of logically ordained propositional sentences like “people don’t like being shot at” or “sufficiently discontented people will overthrow their government.” This would stray back to the problematic covering-law theories. Idealists hold that historians have everything necessary to understand human nature simply by virtue of being human themselves; this has been the consensus opinion since Vico first formulated his historicism. And in most cases, this is absolutely true; no especially great or penetrating insight into the workings of human agents is necessary for many historical explanations to be made (though I would argue that it always helps). It is only in a few cases that a strong understanding of human nature becomes the lynchpin of the account, the lens through which the explanations are filtered. Grand theories of history constitute some of these cases, and generally the most important and controversial cases.

It is at the level of the individual human action that the historian’s understanding of human nature first comes into play. Here I again have recourse to a position already in the literature—Dray’s method of explanation by reaching “logical equilibrium”:

[A]lthough we may have to examine very critically any particular example…when we do consider ourselves justified in accepting an explanation of an individual action, it will most often assume the general form of an agent’s calculation…[and] a complete or satisfactory explanation is not necessarily one given in terms of what is itself explained. It is in terms of what…does not require explanation. It is part of the logic of ‘explanation’ that if something can be explained, there is something else which does not require explanation. But the reason it does not require explanation is not necessarily that we know its explanation already….[Additionally, there are] gradations of rational explanation, depending on the amount of ‘foreign’ data which the investigator must bring in to complete the calculation: beliefs, purposes, principles, &c., of the agent which are different from those we might have assumed in absence of evidence to the contrary.27

This is an idealist account of historical explanation which works remarkably well with colligation; colligation is the means to the end Dray describes. It is easy to see how insight into human nature works in this context; it gives the historian the baseline from which he or she deviates as the evidence demands. As Dray further points out, “in achieving rational explanation of an action we do project—but we project from our own point of view. In each case, the inclusion of ‘foreign’ data in the calculation requires positive evidence that the agent was not like-minded with us. The historian does not build up to explanatory equilibrium from scratch.”28 This “equilibrium” is the balanced account between an insufficiently broad explanation and one full of meaningless detail. By understanding generally how human beings work, the historian is able to come to an explanatory equilibrium that is communicable to his or her audience, rationally selective in its details, and something that takes part in the “internal” knowledge that Vico and others have emphasized as crucial in historiography. There is some difference between levels of understanding of human nature at this point in the historiographical task because the effectiveness of the historian’s attempts to filter the external perceptual data into an internal historical explanation is a function of his or her grasp on human nature and what is humanly possible.

Explaining the actions of individual human agents is a critical part of historical explanation, but there are many gradients of abstraction between explaining the actions of one human agent and propagating a grand theory of history. Most of these gradients—households, businesses, political alliances, and other social conglomerates—are well within the usual operating range of the historian. Explanation at the level of these higher-order groupings of people seems at first to diminish the importance of human nature in historical inquiry, but the reverse is actually the case. As Dray argues, we seek only a sort of logical equilibrium in a historical account, not an exhaustive list of details or the ultimate general law which the event instantiates. As more and more details are brought into a picture, forcing greater levels of abstraction in the explanation, increasing stress is put on the historian’s baseline understanding of human nature to fill in the gaps. In the case of the French Revolution, for example, the historian must have a pretty good idea of how a human being reacts in the general milieu of late-eighteenth-century France. Otherwise, the sheer mass of details will overwhelm the interpreter, and he or she will be unable to discern the particular causes effective in the situation or the point in time at which these causes became strong enough to trigger the Revolution. It is only a small expansion of scope that takes the historian from such “acceptable” topics as the French Revolution to the question of the progress of history, the question of grand theory. An understanding of at least the general process by which grand theory is achieved and defended is useful at this level; human nature and its uses in history provide a fruitful field of exploration for any historian. It is in this context that Marxism is spoken of favorably even today in historical circles; it made historians more aware than ever of the shaping of human nature by economic conditions.

Progressing through the different abstractions of social organization puts ever more stress on the underlying idea of fundamental human nature, the one concept in historical studies that does not disappear at any level of abstraction or in any particular geographical or temporal location because it is fundamental to the discipline. The process of abstraction to a higher level of historical explanation demands ever-more-sure understanding of the basic means and motives of human agents because that base of understanding must act as a proxy for the increasing amounts of biographical and situational data lost in explaining the actions of larger and larger aggregates of people. It is at a certain level in this process that many historians begin to balk because the demanded understanding of human nature exceeds the level of a reflective understanding. It becomes necessary to refer to other sources of knowledge—philosophical, religious, scientific—to achieve the depth of insight into human nature that historical explanation demands. Grand theory in history is thus no different from everyday history in fundamental character; the difference lies in grand theory’s demand for ever-increasing surety and sophistication in the historian’s understanding of, and insight into, the range of the humanly possible and humanly explicable.

The difficulty is compounded by the nature of the knowledge necessary; insight into human beings is some of the most complex and nuanced knowledge to be had, and it is unlikely that this understanding can be communicated in any efficacious way by the forms of propositional argumentation. This is not to say that various sources using these forms are not capable of imparting this sort of insight, but that no single source will be sufficiently rich to contain an understanding strong enough to underlie high-level historical explanations like the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, much less sweeping grand theories like those of Hegel or Toynbee. A historian must start from a strong basis—his or her own ability to understand his or her own actions—and the remaining difference must be made up piecemeal from other sources, including both historical accounts and the observations of day-to-day human interactions.

Different understanding of human nature is what makes grand theories, which occupy the highest level of abstraction in historical inquiry, differentiable from each other. The working knowledge of human beings being employed is so strong that it starts to drive the process of historical inquiry itself. For example, in the case of G. W. F. Hegel’s philosophy of history, the movement of history is dialectical; the end is the self-realization of Absolute Spirit; and the method of inquiry is speculative philosophy. Quite naturally, readers assume this to be Hegel’s own philosophy of history, and it is in a certain sense. What Hegel explores in his Philosophy of History actually has its vital roots in Hegel’s idea of human nature, descended from Kant’s categories of reason but finally unique to Hegel. By colligating what he knew of the raw events of history—the external observations of historians—with an assured sense of human beings as idealized agents working in the dialectical vein toward the ultimate goal of the perfection of reason, Hegel’s philosophy of history converts the external, perceptive aspect of history into an internal explanation akin to the usual explanations historians produce.

Even accepting all this, the historian should still be wary of grand theory. Four basic arguments against grand theory remain: (1) Grand theory is, even if possible, far beyond what can be expected from historians; at best its use should be restricted to a small number of geniuses who stand apart from history in its existence as an academic discipline. (2) Grand theories universally and illegitimately limit historians to adopting certain methodological principles (e.g., dialectical materialism, Toynbee’s categorizations of civilizations, and so forth) and pursuing certain goals (e.g., tracing the evolution of reason, or the analysis of capitalist-bourgeois structures), thereby limiting historical inquiry. (3) Grand theories are ultimately too abstract to be of any use in the pursuit of empirical historical knowledge. This is a pragmatic objection. And (4) interpretation of the empirical evidence relies unduly on a priori principles (even if it is admitted that grand theory is not in a class separate from the usual historical explanations). Each of these objections must be dealt with before any defense of grand theory can be accounted a success.


III.1 Is grand theory impossible for merely intelligent historians to do?

Grand theory is usually seen as the province of only those philosophers and historians inclined to the magisterial point of view and with the intellectual acumen to encompass all of history in their theoretical nets. In a sense, this is true; the development of an understanding of human nature (well-founded or otherwise) powerful enough to bear abstraction to the degree demanded by this sort of historical work is no mean intellectual feat. However, there are two points that mitigate this. The first is the reliance that all historians have on some kind of insight into human thought and action in making an external account into an internal one, a mass of details into a historical explanation, a reliance that means that they are always at least on the path to some form of grand theory, whether they choose to pursue that path or not. The second, and more crucial, point is related to the first: as we learn more about history, we tend to inadvertently develop a sense of human nature. This can manifest as nothing more than a sense of the progress of humanity through history, or as an awareness of historical human depravity, but it is nevertheless the seed for a global understanding of history. Given this tendency, it becomes at least partly the historian’s responsibility to rise from the level of the specialist’s monograph and lend expertise to a project that is carried on half- or unconsciously by many people.


III.2 Does grand theory restrict the range of historical inquiry unjustly?

As I have described grand theory, this objection loses most of its force. The objection relies on seeing grand theory as essentially a dogma or controlling metanarrative rather than as the result of a sophisticated explanatory understanding of human nature colligated with everyday historical explanation. Even when a powerful and nuanced understanding of human nature is active in the historian’s work, history so conceived is hard to see as limited by an overbearing doctrine external to the historian. Furthermore, the historian is under no obligation to penetrate deeper into his knowledge of human nature than is required by the material. Especially in the case of dealing with individual human agents (as with biography), the historian can rely almost exclusively on the details of the case and need put only the bare minimum of stress on the grounding conception of human nature. As the level of abstraction of the explanation increases, the historian must increase his or her reliance the human-nature conception, but this is simply the justified reliance on the best tool for the job. As long as the historian approaches grand theory from the perspective of the inquirer rather than the simple dogmatist, the use of grand theory and its underlying touchstone will improve the historian’s historiography insofar as the conception of human nature used is one that derives from genuine knowledge.


III.3 Is grand theory too abstract to count as true historical explanation?

Historians are well-known foes of the abstract and non-particular. The defense of grand theory overlaps here with the defense made of philosophy of history as a whole. As Mink has pointed out,

Historians have often risked [a conceptual impoverishment of history as an ongoing activity] by their insistence that history is not ‘theoretical’ and is concerned only with the particular and the ‘unique’ …As historians succeed in domesticating new concepts, even implicitly, philosophers of history will be quite happy to point out to them what they have done.29

This is the mode of this essay; I see a pattern already in use that is potentially sufficient for pushing grand theoretical history and a distaste for grand theory that I find too uncritical. It is undeniably true that historians prefer the concrete and particular to the theory-based abstractions typical of philosophers, but historians are called on to make use of the fruits of philosophy (as well as of science and the other branches of human knowledge) in the course of their everyday work, since that work involves the process of colligation which Walsh originally proposed and which I have expanded upon here.

There is a strong tendency in the creation of grand theory that relates to these points: interesting grand theories often arise more from philosophy growing naturally into history than from historians deliberately attempting a synoptic view of history. Spengler and Toynbee’s pessimistic philosophies of history were a conspicuous part of the cynical intellectual currents in the wake of the First World War; Hegel’s philosophy of history had its original impetus in Kantian arguments for the categories of reason; and Marx’s ultimate goal was consistently conceived in terms of the happiness of the individual, in a society that would allow for humanity to express its generally good nature. These are only superficial categorizations, and not really arguments for or against these particular grand theories, but they do illustrate how the general motive force or drive toward grand theory results from a dramatic insight into human nature and the actions of humans bound into various social units.


III.4 Does grand theory rely too much on a priori, non-empirical knowledge?

This is the most common objection made to the possibility of fruitful grand theory. No amount of empirical verification, it is argued, could possibly justify the level at which explanation proceeds in grand theory. Of particular concern is that there is quite a lot of history (past and future) not accessible to historians or philosophers interested in explaining history as a whole.30 This objection rests on an oversimplification in that the relationship between empirical evidence, a priori insight, and grand theory is more complex than the usual model of grand theory, in which a priori knowledge simply determines what empirical data the grand theory takes into account, thereby blinding the historian or rendering his work unhistorical. Selection of evidence is a problem endemic to historical studies, and the problem looms larger here than elsewhere. The proper relationship between the two knowledge-constituents (the empirical and a priori) of grand theory is a reinforcing one, in which any given historical situation can add sophistication to the model of human nature the historian employs in explaining that situation. Grand theories usually stem from some degree of a priori insight into human nature, but this is only the seed of a credible grand theory.

The distinction between the point of view of the agent and that of the spectator is also important here. The best historical explanations are of the sort Dray calls “rational explanations,” explanations in terms of the rational agent’s calculation in a given historical situation (or of some abstract superagent like “Germany” or “the French people”). This difference mirrors the external/internal historical knowledge distinction used earlier in this essay, and the historian’s idea of human nature has the same effect; when colligated with the external data, insight into human thought and action allows for the internal perspective (the point of view of the agent) to be realized. If a strong enough conception is used properly as the ordering principle for the explanation, the historian can give empirical evidence its proper relationship to grand theory, as the raw material that mutually reinforces the core insight. It is only this transformative process that can have this effect, and can justify grand theories as legitimate explanations of the external and empirical data of history.

With these qualifications in mind, grand theory of the sort I suggest is a possible field of inquiry for historical and philosophical work. The fact remains, however, that there are no grand theorists of history worth mentioning working today, with the possible exception of certain Christian thinkers; it is a field whose time seems to have passed, justly or unjustly. Of course, as the most theoretical and abstract of the levels of historical thought, grand theory is still of interest to philosophers as a way to critique the speculative philosophies of history. The pursuit of grand theory is justifiable in theoretical terms, but it remains to be seen whether the practical problems represented by the four objections above have been, or even can be, overcome in the form of an explanation of historical action that has achieved both a synoptic perspective and a deep sympathy for the point of view of the agent acting in time. Only the exploration and verification of actual, concrete grand theories of history can justify any defense of grand theory to working historians, but doers of history can at least point out the untapped potential of this type of historical work.


IV. A Model for Christian Grand Theory and Conclusions

At this point we can return to the beginning of this essay, to the question of Christianity as grand theory. I have attempted to show that Christianity certainly has the potential to be a recognizable grand theory, by offering both a metanarrative of sorts and a powerful insight into the human nature. It is the Christian claim to knowledge of human nature that implicitly commits Christians, though not necessarily Christians acting as historians, to some high-level theory of the meaning and explanation of history.

The basics of Christian ideas of human nature can be presented in a straightforward way, even by a layperson: humanity is fallen as a result of sin; human beings have free will guaranteed to them by God; and that same God is both willing and able to act decisively in human history to bring about results rendered unintelligible by an understanding of human nature divorced from revelation. I take these doctrines to be as orthodoxly Christian as any. This bare-bones account is not sufficient for a grand theory, however; it lacks the richness and nuance only attainable by actual insight into (knowledge of) the fallenness of humanity.31 The most one could derive from this bare-bones account would be something akin to Robert P. Swierenga’s injunction that behavioral methodology and social science theories that made a “faith commitment to behavioralism as a philosophy of life” should be avoided by Christian historians.32 This is a sound methodological principle, insofar as Christian insights represent genuine knowledge, but it does relatively little to advance an explanation of the unfolding of history that goes beyond the “moral injunction” defense of Christian history addressed in section one.

Thus, there are many paths one can take from this point, if pursuing a synoptic view of history. There is no single Christian grand theory that I would recognize as the correct one because a multitude of knowledge-sources (theological, philosophical, psychological, interpersonal, and others) must be combined before something sturdy enough to ground a grand theory results.33 To explore the ideas presented in this essay, however, it is necessary to take in hand a specific example. For this purpose, it will be hard to find a better demonstration than Herbert Butterfield’s lectures on Christianity and History.34

Butterfield includes three key ideas in his account: cupidity, the human creation of its own nemesis, and personality. Cupidity is Butterfield’s term for the fallenness of humanity, and it is interesting how he deals with it. There is no explicit definition of it in denotative or propositional terms; instead, it gains its basic meaning, connotations, and weight by putting it in relationship with numerous examples pulled from history; by itself, cupidity is a nebulous term. Indeed, Butterfield states several times that he doubts whether human cupidity can be fully understood by human beings, even as he tells us that no historian can possibly avoid seeing the influence of humanity’s essential cupidity in history. The closest he comes to defining cupidity is as “what seems to me a kind of bias or a gravitational pull in history,” and he wonders whether “to the theologian and the philosopher it would seem like a mere grain of sand spoiling the mechanism of an otherwise beautiful watch.”35 The irritation introduced by cupidity dooms all attempts at cohesive human societies to ultimate dissolution: “judgment is always upon us…the sentence falls on great human systems…all the schematized patterns into which human life ranges itself in various periods.”36

Colligating this complex perception with what he knows of history, Butterfield finds everywhere the creation of nemesis by human folly.37 Working with civilizations as his basic unit, he sees parallels to the Old Testament interpretation of Israel’s sufferings; humans, when falling away from God (as they inevitably do), create a counteracting force in human history that does the work of Providence in securing their judgment. This is the pattern of Butterfield’s explanations, and it risks being taken as a grand theory of the dogmatic sort. It is to Butterfield’s credit that he does not make this move, however. Instead, he takes in hand the fundamental methodological principle of all his historical work—the emphasis on personality as the explanatory unit of rational explanation in history—and recognizes the impossibility of judging the truth or falsity of his arguments without first judging the validity of his claims to have some genuine knowledge of human nature, ultimately derived from his Christian faith. This is a recurrent theme for Butterfield. He argues that our final interpretation of history is the most sovereign decision we can take, and it is clear that every one of us, as standing alone in the universe, has to take it for himself. It is our decision about religion, about our total attitude to things, and about the way we will appropriate life. And it is inseparable from our decision about the role we are going to play ourselves in that very drama of history.38

Considering this with his argument that “this is another of the cases where mere history books will never carry us deep enough into human beings, and our ultimate decisions must come as we move from history to self-analysis,”39 it becomes evident that Butterfield is doing something very like what I have described, but he is doing it from the perspective of the working historian rather than from that of the philosopher of history.

The particulars of Butterfield’s analysis also display this understanding of grand theory. In his discussion of the judgment of the Germans in the first half of the twentieth century via their self-created nemesis, he traces what he sees as the usual collapse of human systems, but admits finally that in the privacy of this room I may say that Germany has come under judgment…I know, however, that I have no right to say any such thing, and I very much doubt whether it would be within the competence of the technical historian to assert it. Here is the kind of truth which is only effective provided it is adopted and taken to heart by the nation concerned, as a matter between itself and God.40

Here, Butterfield is not denying the force of his explanation of Germany’s downfall; he is instead inviting those engaged in it to approach the difficulty from the non-empirical side of his argument first. He is confident that someone who has a strong, Christian insight into human nature is capable of detecting the patterns that he is identifying, and, more importantly, is capable of acting on them to harmonize better with the course of a history in which Providence and the historical action of God take a crucial part in dealing with human cupidity. It is this possibility of greater harmonization with our history that makes grand theory a worthwhile pursuit for Butterfield: “History is the business of making personalities[;]…its very vicissitudes bring personality itself to a finer texture.”41 Here we can see clearly that human nature (as it is informed by Christian faith) is the essential lens through which Butterfield’s explanation works; it converts the external empirical evidence of the fall of Germany in the first half of the twentieth century into an internal explanation that takes us into the ways and means with which human actions decide human fate.

Butterfield’s analysis illustrates with remarkable clarity the manner in which a true source of knowledge can contribute to valuable grand theory. Even in this brief sketch it is evident that Butterfield’s work is the rich outgrowth of distinctively Christian stands on the issues raised by reflection on human nature. To whatever degree that Butterfield is justified in accepting the truths that he finds in Christianity, he is justified in finding what he found in history; knowledge expressed as understanding of human nature gives rise to a speculative philosophy of history when it is joined to the actual facts of the historical situation. Herbert Butterfield’s Christianity and History is only one of the possible ways that Christian grand theory can be expressed, and those expressions themselves are not the full range of explanations that could be attempted with at least a degree of justification. This field of historical and philosophical inquiry has been neglected more than is justified, and it has been the central aim of this paper to demonstrate this. Christians have a special advantage in rectifying this missed opportunity because they are already in possession of an idea of human nature that is both insightful and deeply integrated into their faith. It is a natural pursuit for Christians to look at history through the eyes of their faith, following the sort of path that I have described in this essay. Christian historians have another notable advantage in that they can call on thinkers from Saint Augustine to Herbert Butterfield, who have presented persuasive and distinctly Christian accounts of human and divine nature in history, in searching for the meaning and explanation of history. As Butterfield says, in the great Christian narrative of the Gospels, “all that we have been examining…—judgment, tragedy, vicarious suffering, Providence—are brought into stronger focus…we meet the issues now in a purer state, so to speak, than elsewhere.”42 This is the promise of Christian grand theory, and the answer to the problem posed by this essay. Christian historians, working with a strongly-grounded conception of human nature, have the potential to introduce some of the richness of the Christian understanding of human life into the broader field of historical studies. That they have forfeited this potential in recent years is due to a flawed conception of the nature of the project. By looking more closely at the way historians do what they do, it becomes apparent that there is still room for intellectually respectable and preeminently useful work in the field of grand theory.




1 Naturally, I think that historical Christianity is sufficiently well-supported to be intellectually credible, though this is not the place to discuss the matter in any great detail. For a book-length account of the rationality of Christian historical faith, see C. Stephen Evans, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

2 For a somewhat aged but vigorous attack along these lines, see Van A. Harvey, The Historian and the Believer: The Morality of Historical Knowledge and Christian Belief (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966). Such claims, which generally stem from the theologian Ernst Troeltsch’s assessment of history, tend to be replete with underlying allegiances to the positivistic (or covering law) theories of historical explanation first defended by Karl Popper and C. G. Hempel. I think that a case could be, and frequently has been, made for historical explanation in the idealist tradition inaugurated by Giambattista Vico and given its best recent formulation by R. G. Collingwood. It is in this vein that this essay is conceived. My own views are not directly relevant except where they come up explicitly in this paper, but they are sympathetic to Hayden White’s account in his Metahistory and fairly close in conception to Dray’s account: “The historian must penetrate behind appearances, achieve insight into the situation, identify himself sympathetically with the protagonist, project himself imaginatively into his situation. He must revive, re-enact, re-think, re-experience the hopes, fears, plans, desires, views, intentions, &c, of those he seeks to understand.” (William Dray, Laws and Explanation in History [Amen House, London: Oxford University Press, 1957], p. 119.)

3 Grand theory describes broad and general attempts at explanation of large-scale events in history, and it often has something to say about the future. In using the phrase “grand theory,” I want to avoid some of the associations with the more common but problematic distinction (first made by W.H. Walsh) between “speculative philosophy of history” and “analytic philosophy of history.” For a discussion of the problems with this distinction see Louis O. Mink, “Is Speculative Philosophy of History Possible?”, in Leon Pompa and William H. Dray, eds., Substance and Form in History: A Collection of Essays in Philosophy of History (22 George Square, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981), pp. 107-119.

4 Page 16 of George M. Marsden, “What Difference Might Christian Perspectives Make?,” in Ronald A. Wells, ed., History and the Christian Historian (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), pp. 11-22.

5 The Kuhn quotation that Marsden cites to sum up his position on and hopes for Christian historiography is: “They [non-Christians, in this case] can say: I don’t know how the proponents of the new view succeed, but I must learn whatever they are doing, it is clearly right.” Thus, the Kuhnian model of incommensurable paradigms is used to define Christian history as a competing science difficult for the uninitiated to understand. Ibid., p. 22. (Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second edition, enlarged [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970], p. 203.)

6 D. G. Hart, “History in Search of Meaning: The Conference on Faith and History,” in Ronald A. Wells, ed., History and the Christian Historian, pp. 68-87. The Conference on Faith and History was originally formed as a sort of fellowship organization, and Hart argues that it has moved through three successive stages in its history to the current state of confusion and lack of decisive direction. He cites an earlier essay by Marsden as emblematic of the second stage of the Conference on Faith and History’s history, which was characterized by a surety of purpose, reflected in a sense of capability in meeting the stated goals of the conference: that a Christian historian must have “a ‘profound faith in the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ’; an understanding of ‘the nature of man, of time, and of the universe’; and a ‘mastery of the craft and of the art of the historian’” (p. 68 of the Hart essay).

7 D. G. Hart, “History in Search of Meaning: The Conference on Faith and History,” p. 82. Hart’s comments on Marsden himself are in terms of this general assessment: “Unlike his graduate school peers who taught history in such a way as to insure that their students voted Democratic, Marsden argued that a Christian historian could recognize the value of history…” (On the same page.)

8 Ibid., p. 86.

9 Hart makes this point explicitly: “No matter how much the historical profession says that history moves from antiquity to modernity, the Bible tells Christians, whether historians or not, that the real direction of history is from the first to the last Adam. Only with a sense of history that culminates with Christ and the establishment of the new heavens and new earth will we finally have a Christian history. The problem for CFH members is that of trying to connect the metanarrative of redemption to the narratives of the United States, ethnic groups, or Western civilization, stories all of which are fascinating and part of God’s providence, but that may distract from the grander history of salvation.” ( Ibid., pp. 86-87.)

10 Page 233 of G. Marcille Frederick, “Doing Justice in History: Using Narrative Frames Responsibly,” in Ronald A. Wells, ed., History and the Christian Historian, pp. 220-234.

11 D. G. Hart, “History in Search of Meaning: The Conference on Faith and History,” p. 87.

12 For a similar project, see Peter Munz, The Shapes of Time: A New Look at the Philosophy of History (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1977). Munz approaches the same problem—the current unpopularity of speculative philosophies of history (i.e., grand theories)—but does so in a way that does not emphasize any particular account, and which explicitly depends on the positivist/covering-law model of historical explanation. My project here is analogous to his, but I find the idealist accounts of historiography to be the most persuasive.

13 For a thoroughgoing critique of the covering-law theorists, see William Dray, Laws and Explanation in History (Amen House, London: Oxford University Press, 1957).

14 W. H. Walsh, An Introduction to Philosophy of History, 3rd Edition (London, England: Hutchinson, 1967), p. 59. Cited in Michael Stanford, An Introduction to the Philosophy of History (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), pp. 82ff. Before any unfortunate comparisons are made between this concept of colligation and Van Harvey’s “principle of correlation” as depicted in his The Historian and the Believer, I should point out some differences. Troeltsch’s original formulation, which Van Harvey adopts with few changes, is that “the sole task of history in its specifically theoretical aspect is to explain every movement, process, state, and nexus of things by reference to the web of its causal relations.” In one sense, this is a truism. It is exceptionable as Van Harvey depicts it, however, along the lines of C. Stephen Evans’s critique in “Critical Historical Judgment and Biblical Faith,” in Ronald A. Wells, ed., History and the Christian Historian, pp. 41-67. The difference is that Van Harvey attempts to force the frame of colligation that the historian uses to the natural sciences, and only the natural sciences. It is my express aim to open Troeltsch’s “web of causal relations” to other sources of knowledge and other explainers than those in Van Harvey’s unfairly restricted range.

15 Paul Veyne, Writing History: an Essay on Epistemology, tr. Mina Moore-Rinvolucri (Wesleyan University Press), pp. 15 and 32. Cited in Michael Stanford, An Introduction to the Philosophy of History, p. 222.

16 William Dray, Laws and Explanation in History, p. 84.

17 For a good assessment of this tendency by a philosopher, see Louis O. Mink, “The Autonomy of Historical Understanding” in William Dray, ed., Philosophical Analysis and History (New York and London: Harper and Row Publishers, 1966), pp. 160-192.

18 This discussion is inspired in large part by John Dewey’s essay, “Creative Democracy: the Task Before Us” in Stuart Rosenbaum, ed., Pragmatism and Religion: Classical Sources and Original Essays (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), pp. 91-96.

19 Vico explores this distinction in Giambattista Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, tr. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1948).

20 William Dray, Laws and Explanation in History, p. 135.

21 A good example of this sort of historical work, so dull as to harm its claim to express the interest and particularity of historical explanation, is Lord Acton’s Cambridge Modern History. Acton’s rationale for eliciting such purely external history from his contributors can be found in Lord Acton, “Letter to the Contributors to the Cambridge Modern History” (1898), printed in Fritz Richard Stern, The Varieties of History, from Voltaire to the Present (New York: Meridian Books, 1958). Cited in Michael Stanford, An Introduction to the Philosophy of History, p. 52.

22 It is true that history only very rarely makes what I have called a “contributory colligation” to the empirical sciences. It is not impossible in principle that it should do so, however. The process approaches a full inter-colligation of the sciences and historical sources in the explanation of a historical event. This ideal end, unachievable in actual historical writing, is not the positivist dream of the absolutely objective and “scientific” history, but something more like history’s knowledge-contribution to what Dewey has called “the unity of all ideal ends,” i.e., the human pragmatic understanding of God. See John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1934) for further elaboration of this unity.

23 Louis O. Mink, “The Autonomy of Historical Understanding” in William Dray, ed., Philosophical Analysis and History (New York and London: Harper and Row Publishers), p. 178.

24 Louis O. Mink, “Is Speculative Philosophy of History Possible?” in Leon Pompa and William H. Dray, eds., Substance and Form in History: A Collection of Essays in Philosophy of History, p. 107.

25 “‘Perhaps One Cannot’”: Primo Levi, afterword to If This Is a Man and The Truce (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 395. Cited in Ian Buruma, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994), p. 246.

26 R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946), p. 222-3.

27 This quotation is an amalgamation of several parts of Dray’s overall treatment of historical explanation in history, from William Dray, Laws and Explanation in History, pp. 123, 72, and 125. The emphasis is his.

28 Ibid., p. 130.

29 Louis O. Mink, “Is Speculative Philosophy of History Possible?” in Leon Pompa and William H. Dray, eds., Substance and Form in History: A Collection of Essays in Philosophy of History, p. 119. The bracketed phrase is Mink’s own, from the preceding sentence.

30 This is a problem even for idealist philosophies of history, and even those idealists who assert that the events can be covered by a multiplicity of possible true historical explanations. For them, the problem is one of historical irony—the perspective from which a historian does his or her work is localized in the present, which threatens to make all attempts at schematizing history as such little more than exercises in historical irony. As A. C. Danto puts it, “Completely to describe an event is to locate it in all the right stories, and this we cannot do. We cannot because we are temporally provincial with regard to the future…To be alive to the historical significance of events as they happen, one has to know to which later events these will be related, in narrative sentences, by historians of the future. It will then not be enough simply to be able to predict future events. It will be necessary to know which future events are relevant, and this requires predicting the interests of future historians.” From A. C. Danto, Analytical Philosophy of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), pp. 142 and 169. Cited in Michael Stanford, An Introduction to the Philosophy of History, p. 197. There could also be an argument from the structure of grand theory, which would make grand theory something not quite history (and thus not subject to this objection to the same degree), and go on to argue that grand theory produces valuable knowledge (or is valuable knowledge in itself) despite (or because of) this “contamination” with more abstract and reflective principles. I am inclined to think that the difference between history and grand theory is one of scale rather than kind, though, and would not pursue this line of argument beyond simply noting that the points I made earlier in section one on the inevitability of some kind of synoptic version of history are still valid here.

31 This is usually formulated in terms of the awareness of sin, particularly of one’s own sin. It is such a central feature of Christian faith that a conversion experience requiring the realization of this fallenness is a prerequisite for acceptance in some branches of Christianity. In philosophical analyses as well this is seen as a defining characteristic of Christian faith, as when William James makes it the root of his distinction between the “once born” and the “twice born” in his Varieties of Religious Experience.

32 Page 49 of Robert Swierenga, “Social Science History: A Critique and Appreciation,” Fides et Historia 14 (Fall 1981), pp. 42-51. Cited in D. G. Hart, “History in Search of Meaning,” in Ronald A. Wells, History and the Christian Historian, p. 80, footnote 30.

33 The difficulty of expressing any grand theoretical conception of human nature in propositional terms enforces the need for elasticity of mind in evaluating any system that comes with as much theoretical freight as a grand theory does. Even Herbert Butterfield has a warning on this score: If historical education gets into the hands of heavy pedagogues, who teach a hard story in a rigid framework and expect it to be memorized, then new depths of unimaginativeness will have been reached, not possible of attainment without an education in history.” Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), p. 15.

34 Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950). Butterfield is a helpful choice at this juncture because his 1950 lectures on the topic combine the insights of a lifelong Christian and an eminent historian, and because grand theory has received so little attention from reputable scholars recently that 1950 is actually a strikingly recent date in this context. Butterfield is also aware of most of the points I have made regarding the logical form of historical writing, and thus requires minimal translation to be employed here. This is not to say that I agree with his case at every juncture. For instance, when Butterfield insists that “whether we are Christians or not, whether we believe in a Divine Providence or not, we are liable to serious technical errors if we do not regard ourselves as born into a providential order” and that “we can save ourselves from errors of inelasticity provided we picture the course of things as if its final shape were under the direction of a superintending intellect,” I find his arguments to be shaky at best. For a remarkably different treatment of Christian grand theory that stands in the Troeltsch–Van Harvey tradition, see Peter C. Hodgson, God in History: Shapes of Freedom (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989).

35 Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History, p. 41.

36 Ibid., p. 64.

37 His favorite examples are drawn from the course of German history in the first half of the twentieth century—“a judgment both on the Hohenzollerns as a dynasty and on the Germans as a people.” Ibid., discussed in the section beginning on p. 50.

38 Ibid., p. 25.

39 Ibid., p. 122.

40 Ibid., p. 63.

41 Ibid., p. 76. Supporting this point about the centrality of harmonization as the fruit of historical inquiry is the distinctly musical nature of many of Butterfield’s metaphors for history. At one point (page 109) we find him writing that “there is no symbolic representation that will do justice to history save the composer…who composes the music as we go along, and, when we slip into aberrations, switches his course in order to make the best of everything.” This conception of God’s providence in history also has a surprisingly passive function. Earlier in the lectures (page 86) he expresses the reward of historical inquiry as a mantra, one that he says bears constant repetition in the background of historiography: “’There is dissonance in the universe, but if I strike the right note it becomes harmony and reconciliation—and though they may kill me for it they cannot spoil that harmony.’”

42 Ibid., p. 121.