Archive for April 25th, 2014

Why Study History Fea

NOTE: This book was provided to me free by Baker Academic and Net Galley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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This is a helpful work arguing for the importance of studying history.  It is written by John Fea who is a professor that specializes in early American history.  Although the book is written by a Christian for a Christian audience, non-Christians can benefit from reading this book.  The author’s passion in the book is contagious.  Hopefully if you have not thought about why history is important this book will ignite an interest.  In this review I will cover the strengths of the book follow by some constructive criticism.  While I do have some lengthy criticism of the book I hope that it would not be misconstrued that I did not enjoy the book nor do I want anyone to get the impression that its weakness outweigh its strength.  Even where I disagree with Fea, it nevertheless helped clarified my own thoughts concerning a Christian philosophy of history.


The beginning of the book distinguished between the past and history something that people can easily confuse as being synonymous.  History is the study of the past.  Fea also talks about the “five Cs” of history:  It is the study of the past that takes into account (1) change over time, (2) context, (3) causality, (4) contingency and (5) complexity.  The author acknowledges how some people can think of history as being boring but he also observed the ironic popularity of history; for instance the New York Times’ best seller lists often include “narrative historical” works and also how a significant factor for the tourism industry is generated by people’s interests in the past.

I appreciated the book’s reasons for why one should study history.  The author noted that history should inspire and warn us.  Yet he also acknowledge the danger of “Presentism,” when one assume “unwarranted continuities between the past” (Location 596).  The past is a different time than today as the author likes to point out.  I was particularly struck with the point that history should humble us when we look into the past and that the study of history makes us more compassionate and slower to jump to premature conclusion concerning those who are different than us.

Readers will also appreciate the chapter on what you can do as a history major outside the immediate field of being a historian and being a teacher of history.  As a pastor I also appreciate the epilogue on history and the church.


There is a full chapter devoted to the discussion of whether or not God’s providence should be invoked in discussing history.  I believe the book has some unresolved tensions about the role of providence in history.  He does not find the discussion of providence to be helpful for the historian.  One example given is that appealing to providence does not “help us better understand what happened” with Washington crossing the East river in 1776.  I submit that while we cannot scrutinize fully and certainly the Divine purpose of Washington crossing the river in 1176, nevertheless the doctrine of providence ensure that the event was not “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing,” to borrow a line from MacBeth.  Elsewhere Fea gives us examples of how poor history has been committed by those who have written providential history in the past.  In most instances I agree with his examples but I don’t think it rule out categorically that one can never see the providence of God in historical instances.  I believe the doctrine of providence is important since it is what makes history intelligible and significant though we can admit much of God’s way is a mystery.

Another example of his objection towards invoking providence in studying history is his stance against the claim “that the Reformation was an example of God’s providential intervention in the affairs of humankind” since this would “suggest that God was not overseeing human history before he had to ‘intervene at Wittenberg in October 1517” (Location 1294ff).  But this argument does not follow, since believing that the Reformation was an act of God’s providence does not necessitate that God’s providence was not operating before 1517.  We can see instances in Scripture where God’s providence is clearly identified and yet we see God working leading up to His “intervention” even though His involvement with human affairs might not be what we expect.  Think of the Egyptian exodus, the Babylonian captivity, the Incarnation, etc.

More problematic is the book’s tension with history and ethics.  The author is critical of the relationship of history and ethics such as using history to draw moral lessons.  Nor should history condemn the past.  Yet throughout the book he constantly presupposes how history ought to teach us moral lessons.  How can one look to history for inspiration and warning without realizing that moral categories are involved?  The author stated in the book that history “reminds us of the inherent weakness in the human condition” such as “slavery, violence, scientific backwardness, injustice, genocide, racism, and other dark episodes” (Location 1027ff.) which presupposes moral judgment are being made when one engages in historical studies.

This discussion about providence and ethics touches on a larger discussion of the role of faith and history.  It is interesting to note that he sees providence as a tool of the theologian but not that of the historian (Location 1143ff.).  This presupposes a dichotomy of history/theology that makes the author’s project difficult if he wishes to present a Christian perspective of history.  Such an endeavor itself is a theological/religious act, being involved with one’s faith and relation to God, etc.  Moreover, where do we draw the line between what a historian can and cannot use from the Bible?  The author is silent on a clear methodology.  This leads to the following tension: On the one hand providence is not a legitimate tool for the historian but on the other hand “it is very difficult to understand historical figures like Nero, Caligula, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot without a robust understanding of sin” (Location 1481ff.).  We need a robust understanding of sin in evaluating wicked men like Hitler but then on other hand Fea thinks the doctrine of providence in the Bible shouldn’t be used.  Yet even his statement that the Bible’s doctrine of sin is helpful for the historian goes against what he also wants us to believe that “history demands we set aside our moral condemnation about a person, idea, or event from the past in order to understand it” (Location 1874ff.).  Of course we don’t want a knee jerk condemnation done prematurely without a full understanding of the historical contexts of such men but at the same time we should make some kind of moral evaluation and have our theology of sin inform us what’s going on to enrich our historical reflection.  Contrary to certain claims made throughout the book, history should acknowledge wicked past actions as wicked.

It is also strange to see Fea say that because mankind is made in the image of God this must mean “there are no villains in history” (Location 1393ff.).  This train of thought does not matches up to the way the Bible present historical narratives since the very Bible that teaches us that we are made in the image of God also gives account of those who were enemies of God and God’s people.

I was genuinely surprise at Fea quoting Wineburg and Walter McDougall approvingly when they advance a view of history that makes history accomplish things only God can bring about (around Location 2017ff.).  Wineburg and McDougall call history “the religion of the modern curriculum” that “must do the work of theology” such that it would humble us and leave us with a sense of awe and worship directed towards the past; history here for all intent and purpose has taken the role of God.  It is idolatrous.  Space does not permit me to develop a full critique but this is where the role of theology, philosophy and apologetics intersect with history.  It is interesting that the author wishes to protect the field of history from encroachment from theology but does not notice the encroachment of history in the sphere of theology.  Theology tells us that any idol that is above God will disappoint us and does not please Him.  This of course would be against the grain of a Christian desire to pursue history.  Philosophically, if we could borrow the insight of the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, to make any sphere absolute in the place of religion will end up having rational problem under scrutiny because it is reductionistic while the sphere itself can be further reduced as being dependent upon other spheres thus indicating how it really can’t be the fountain head for everything else.  In terms of Reformed apologetics we can make the observation that even Wineburg and Walter has to borrow capitals outside of history itself in order to talk about things like humility as a virtue (which is from the sphere of ethics and religion).  Again space does not permit us to develop this point but a Reformed apologist would further argue that to even talk about history as a source of inducing awe (which is appropriate so long as it does not take the place of God or become itself a secularized “religion” or “theology”) presupposes the Christian worldview.  Again to get to the point at hand it is a shame that in encouraging a Christian perspective of history the author does not notice the idolatrous language his sources use to describe history.

I would say in summary that the author is weak in theology.  We see this weakness in some of the problems noted earlier but it is also evident in how Fea assumes certain individuals to be Christians in the book.  Though the book’s argues creatively of how history can serve Christians and the church, there is no discussion about the field of historical theology.  I think it is reasonable to expect at least a passing remark about the role of historical theology for the life of the believer.  He also attacks the “belief that human history has already been ‘scripted’ by God” inevitably “teaches us that this world is not as important as the next one, so we do not need to invest in it with any degree of seriousness” (Location 2033ff.).  But such a conclusion that does not logically follow.

As a minor point the book argues persuasively that history should make us more conscious of understanding others who are different than us and that has implication for how we relate to others whom we disagree today.  Fea laments on the culture war and how much it is driven by ignorance but one can’t help but to notice his own misrepresentation of the Tea party movement when he writes “The Tea Party movement and other libertarians have convinced millions of Americans that they have to answer to no authority but themselves” (Location 1811ff.).


Again, all this does not take away from the fact that I enjoyed this book.  I give this book a five out of five for stimulating one to think as a Christian concerning the subject of history.

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