New Tales of Two Historiographies

Current history is itself affecting the contest between the witness theory of history and the participant theory of history. As has been implied, most twentieth-century theologians felt they had no choice but to look for God partly beyond history, on the grounds that nothing sacred could be fully manifest within their own violent century. But also, in this most secular century ever, other theologians, as well as most philosophers and scientists, argued that truths beyond history were indefensible and implausible, so that, if there is meaning at all, it must be found through human participation in social and national history themselves.

With a grim realism, Karl Barth in Europe and Reinhold Niebuhr in the United States attacked claims that human participation can save history from the evil in which it is enmeshed, and saw themselves standing with Reformation theologians, recommending a contrite witness to a grace from beyond history. Although Niebuhr refused to analyze the nature of the God beyond history, as classical theologians had, his belief in the existence of such a God offered him religious security and freed him to treat history primarily as a laboratory for human sin. Barth and Niebuhr maintained that people who believed human participation could fundamentally enhance history were either proud, hopelessly superficial, or bluffing, claiming to have a wisdom they did not have. The view of Barth and Niebuhr was so persuasive that, by mid-century, not only progressive liberals and the Chicago School theologians, but all academic advocates of the participant theory of history had lost prominence, leaving Christian theology to the orthodox or neo-orthodox, who saw themselves as theologians whose primary source was the Bible.

In the last three decades of the twentieth century, however, postmodern theologians gained a hearing. Ironically, though chastised for their departure from the historic faith, they advanced a biblical view of history - one far closer to the participant view of history than that of the classical theologians. European and American theologians began to suggest that those who claimed to be in touch with a world beyond history were themselves bluffing. Deprived of a realm beyond history, they argued, people have no choice but to accept history and, literally, to make history.

At the turn of the millennium, it appears that in Europe and America a combination of intellectual currents has washed away the assurance that history is rooted in a world beyond history. Whether the skeptical existentialism of Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, the linguistic relativism of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the hermeneutical suspicion of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, or the neo-pragmatism of Willard Quine and Richard Rorty, claims to see through history to something fixed and stable seemed to verge on the comic.

Feminist and Black theologians joined the chorus, showing that so-called history-transcending theological claims, though wanting to be unwarped by historical bias, were exactly that. Left with almost no precedents, they tended unapologetically to construct theological truths that gave greater meaning to women and people of color.

In addition, after decades of neglect, William James, John Dewey, and Alfred North Whitehead began to have unanticipated influences on those American theologians who were interested in a historicism but still influenced by pragmatism and "radical empiricism."

Out of these various developments a "new historicism" arose, one that superseded the "old historicism." Because they were not only affected by history but confined to history, the new historicists in theology and the philosophy of religion felt they had no alternative but either to abandon religion or to locate it entirely within a historical world that was their last, best hope. With little recognition that they echoed history for the Hebrews or the historicism of the Chicago School, religious scholars began to argue that religious truths were generated out of the interaction between historical imagination and religious heritages. They struggled to reconceive a role for historical tradi-tion,3 to say specifically how religious reality can rise on the tide of historical interpretations,4 and to develop a concept of God.5

At the beginning of the twenty-first century these and other struggles between theories of history could be described by reference to Reinhold Niebuhr's 1949 Faith and History. In the "Preface" Niebuhr carves out a space for his own work on history - a space between those prewar optimists who made historical development itself redemptive and those postwar pessimists who despaired of any redemption. Niebuhr rejects both, correcting historical pessimism with biblical faith and historical optimism with a gospel that looks beyond history to something "the same yesterday, today and forever" (1949:vii-viii). Niebuhr and others were heard, and their listeners were not satisfied with what they heard. By the century's end, after the Cold War and in the vacuum that followed, the pessimists had grown stronger, claiming to be even more intimate with the indifferent power and the moral ambiguities of history. They seemed to suggest that history will never be responsive to truths from beyond history (the witness theory of history), and that history will never, even with God, carry the seeds of redemption (the participant theory of history).

In the decades to come, theories of history may rotate around the question of whether this new pessimism about history is warranted. If it is not warranted, then history may be redemptive after all, as the participant theorists say, or it may be a metaphor for extra-historical truth, as the witness theorists say.

But if that new pessimism is warranted, then those who oppose it will have little choice but to participate in history militantly, until it is no longer warranted.


1 John Van Seters focuses on genres when he compares Greek and Israelitic theories of history in his In Search of History (1983). His focus on genres allows him to see similarities between the two theories of history.

2 Admittedly, "the Hebrews" is, technically, a designation for one of the small and early groups that were to become the Israelites, so that the identification between "the Hebrews" and the people of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament people, is technically wrong. But other terms, such as "Israelites" or "Jews," refer to these peoples at some but not all periods in their history and are just as technically wrong.

3 For example, see Brown (1994).

4 For example, see Dean (1988).

5 For example, see Kaufman (1993).


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