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Tag Archives: History

History and theology

What follows are excerpts from Ramsay MacMullen’s book Christianizing the Roman Empire, A.D. 100-400 (Yale, 1984). He begins with historiography pointers relevant to religious history.

My subject here is the growth of the church as seen from the outside, and the period is the one that saw the church become dominant, and Europe Christian. p.vii

My object is history. It might be, but it isn’t, theology. Accordingly, my view focuses naturally upon significance, the quality of weight that distinguishes historical phenomena from the (sometimes much more engrossing or at least more diverting) items of merely human interest that we see in the headlines of certain newspapers: ‘‘Mom Axes Babe” or the like. Significance, in its turn, indicates the degree to which many people, not just a few, are made to live their lives differently in respects that much engage their thoughts, not in respects they do not think about very carefully. … Significance must be compounded of both “many” and “much,” in a sort of multiplicand of the two elements. p.1

This is all elementary. Still, it needs to be said in order to explain the inclusion in my account of scenes not usually given much attention in books about church growth, scenes in which large numbers of persons are brought to a change in their religious allegiance, but namelessly—they are just ordinary folk of no account—and without great dramatic, further consequences in their manner of life. I think these scenes need to be included, along with Saint Augustine and a handful like him, because otherwise we would see only a church all head and no body, a phenomenon that affected only a few lives, a change without mass and therefore without historical significance. And that is the exact opposite of the truth. p.1

The process we are tracing, of the slow but gigantic growth of a community of believers, seems thus to have had at its heart a psycho-logical moment that might have been, though it was not always, quite uncomplicated; and that fact belongs by right, and not by later development, to the whole long process of ecclesiastical maturing. From the very beginning, Jesus’ disciples followed him instantly, without instruction; new adherents, by supernatural actions, were won to instantaneous belief, or trust (πιστις, “commonly mistranslated, ‘Your faith’ …,” with implications of doctrine, as has been pointed out). p.3-4

There is an obvious connection between simplicity of belief and rapidity of conversion: the simpler the set of ideas with their attendant feelings, the shorter must be the period of transition to the new. Which is not to say that much longer, complicated transitions may not also have had their abrupt moments, like Saint Augustine’ in the garden near Milan. The point is worth stressing because the more richly intellectual and dramatically interesting conversions naturally hold our attention best, and are most written about. p.4

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Physical history

At the highest level of classification, history may be divided into human history (better known simply as ‘history’) and physical history. The former is a large subject with many subdivisions, while the latter is usually turned over to the physical sciences. This is a pity since science and history are different disciplines (see posts here). What follows is a description of physical history as distinct from physical science.

History requires an agent of some kind. The environment is the proxy for an agent in evolutionary science. In physical history the agent is either humanity or one or more non-physical beings that connect to the physical world at its boundaries. The metaphysics of the latter are of no interest here, only their possibility. In other words, the physical universe has boundary conditions that are given; they are not a result of physical laws or processes.

But this sets up a potential conflict between a boundary condition which could have been the result of physical laws or process but was not. It would be simple to assume that all boundary conditions are such that they could not have been the result of physical laws or processes. But that assumes the limits of physical laws or processes are known, when they are to be determined rather than assumed.

Accordingly, the limits of physical laws and processes are themselves a matter of investigation. In other words, such limits are an open question. A good example of this is the argument for the existence of design in the physical world apart from human design. From human design we know something of what design is; if the physical world exhibits the features of human-like design but were not designed by humans, then a boundary condition has been found.

Otherwise, physical history is like human history. Physical particulars of the past are at the forefront, and universals of physical science are in the background. Whatever might be determined by physical science is acknowledged but the significant changes, the physical catastrophes and surprises, are granted a much greater rôle. There will no doubt be controversies between those who place much weight on key events versus those who look to the slow accumulation of little changes but such is usual for history.

Isaiah Berlin on history and science

The following (long) excerpts are from Isaiah Berlin’s article “History and Theory: The Concept of Scientific History”, published in History and Theory 1 (1):1 (1960). Republished in Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays. NY: Viking Press, 1979. (online here).

HISTORY, according to Aristotle, is an account of what individual human beings have done and suffered. In a still wider sense, history is what historians do. Is history then a natural science, as, let us say, physics or biology or psychology are sciences? And if not, should it seek to be one? And if it fails to be one, what prevents it? Is this due to human error or impotence, or to the nature of the subject, or does the very problem rest on a confusion between the concept of history and that of natural science? These have been questions that have occupied the minds of both philosophers and philosophically minded historians at least since the beginning of the nineteenth century, when men became self-conscious about the purpose and logic of their intellectual activities. But two centuries before that, Descartes had already denied to history any claim to be a serious study. Those who accepted the validity of the Cartesian criterion of what constitutes rational method could (and did) ask how they could find the clear and simple elements of which historical judgements were composed, and into which they could be analysed: where were the definitions, the logical transformation rules, the rules of inference, the rigorously deduced conclusions? While the accumulation of this confused amalgam of memories and travellers’ tales, fables and chroniclers’ stories, moral reflections and gossip, might be a harmless pastime, it was beneath the dignity of serious men seeking what alone is worth seeking – the discovery of the truth in accordance with principles and rules which alone guarantee scientific validity.

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History and science combined

For previous posts on history and science, see here.

History and science are different kinds of knowledge. History is based on the particulars that go into narratives. Science is based on the universals that go into theories.

History is focused on the matter and science is focused on the form, in the Aristotelian sense. The nature of something is its essence, its participation in universals, which is why there are natural sciences. Social sciences look at the form of human interaction. The term natural history is an older term for a scientific investigation into the natural world, especially biology, not a history in the modern sense.

The matter of something is its key particulars. Physical history is the investigation of the key particulars of physical objects in the past resulting in a narrative. This might be called natural history, but that term has meant science so it would be confusing. The investigation of the key particulars of documents in the past resulting in a narrative is simply called history.

History and science can be combined to explain something in the past. Yes. This is often called science but it is mainly history, with science assisting. For example, the investigation leading to the conclusion that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by a large asteroid or volcano is physical history that is commonly called science. Key particulars explain what happened. Science provides support. The result is a narrative, not a theory. (See here.)

The explanation of an event or series of events is history, since the particulars of events are history, even if science takes a supporting rôle. The explanation of a phenomenon or multiple phenomena is science, since their explanation depends on their nature, even if history takes a supporting rôle.

Repeating events entail universals that require science for explanation. Non-repeating events entail particulars that require history for explanation. Ancient mythology tried to explain repeating events through particulars, e.g., Zeus’ anger explains lightening, as if their nature was irrelevant. Modern mythology tried to explain unique events through universals, as if their substance was irrelevant.

“Creation science” concerns created universals. “Creation history” concerns created particulars.

Thoughts on science and history

History is diachronic. Science is synchronic.

History is a narrative of time. Science is a theory of space.

A scientist sees two things and notices their similarities. An historian sees two things and notices their differences.

A scientist seeks what is universal that explains. An historian seeks what is unique that explains.

For science the default inference is to a universal nature. For history the default inference is to a unique particular.

A history of science is not a science. A science of history is not a history.

Historical science universalizes recent history. Historicism particularizes universal science.

Scientific history, or a science of history, is pseudo-history because it devalues particulars and overvalues universals.

Evolution is a theory of history presented as a science. Whig history is a philosophy of science presented as a history.

Science and history posts

Posts on science and history:

10/17/2018 – Science and history once more

July 27, 2018 – Science or stories

3/13/2018 – Science and history again

2/19/2018 – Distinguishing history and science

January 17, 2017 – Combining history and science

September 19, 2016 – History and science once again

December 15, 2015 – From history to nature

August 8, 2015 – Science in history

February 21, 2015 – History and science

October 12, 2014 – Science and history again

January 21, 2014 – Science and history

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Church and ethnos

Most Christian congregations have an ethnos, a term from cultural anthropology for people with a common national or cultural tradition. Congregations are usually part of a larger network, denomination, or hierarchy, which has at least one ethnos. (Eastern) Orthodox autocephalous churches are national churches, which include the ethnos of their nation. The (Roman) Catholic church incorporates multiple national churches, each with its own ethnos. In places such as the U.S., a Catholic parish reflects the ethnic background of the parishioners, usually Italian, Spanish, Irish, or Polish.

Protestant denominations reflect their national origins. Lutherans have a Germanic or Scandinavian ethnos. Presbyterians have a Dutch, Scottish or Swiss ethnos. Anglicans have a strong British ethnos, which includes the Queen. Many denominations adopt the ethnos of the country they reside in, so for example American Baptists have an American ethnos. The Messianic congregations springing up have a Jewish ethnos.

A church ethnos reflects the way that Christianity is a universal religion that does not replace the ethnos of its adherents. The original Christian church had a Jewish ethnos but as Gentile believers became dominant, Christianity acquired the ethnos of the nations. The apostolic decision that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised or keep the Jewish law affirmed Gentile national customs and laws.

Some worry that a church ethnos may be excessive or even idolatrous. While that is possible, church and ethnos have been together for centuries without significant harm. The excesses that have been pointed out, such as the Russian Orthodox under the Czars or some Lutherans in Nazi Germany, have come and gone. And the Lutheran Confessing Church was a witness against an excessive ethnos in the church.

Creation and flood

The Bible includes a creation narrative of the universe in general and humanity in particular and a worldwide flood narrative. Are these accurate? That is usually interpreted as the question: are these the earliest accounts? Let’s see.

There are many ancient accounts of creation (see here and here) and flood (see here and here). These were written down at some point based on oral sources. So the earliest one written down does not necessarily mean that is the earliest oral source. How can we know what is the earliest one?

There are three approaches to finding the earliest account: (1) the degeneration approach, which says there was an original, accurate account that spawned other accounts that are degenerate accounts; (2) the elaboration approach, which says that there was an original, primitive account that spawned other accounts that are creative elaborations that produced more sophisticated accounts; or (3) the variation approach, which says that all the accounts are variations of one another, and that what happened is the account that best explains how all the other variations came to be.

I submit that (1) is the best approach because the best-preserved account, the Bible, passes the test of what an original account would have in order to explain the other accounts as degenerate in some way. For example, either some details of the biblical accounts of creation and flood are omitted (e.g., the names of the first man and those who survived the flood) or extraneous material is added (e.g., conflicts between the gods). The Bible is the theistic account closest to a naturalistic account.

A previous post related to this topic is here.

History and science once more

History within the bounds of science is surely the only genuine history. That should not be controversial. If perpetual motion machines are scientifically impossible, then claims that one was invented in the past must be rejected.

Does history only within the bounds of science exclude the resurrection of Christ from history? No, since there is no law of physics that says once a person is dead they cannot be resurrected.

Science within the bounds of history is likely controversial. The scientific community resists others except mathematicians telling them what the limits of science are. But if science goes outside the bounds of history, then science becomes a kind of history beyond history.

This is what happens with deep time, the concept of time beyond human history. There are no documents, no artifacts to show that deep time was experienced by anyone. Deep time is disconnected with time as ordinarily experienced; it is in its own world.

Evolutionary and uniformitarian histories are not really histories. The sciences are concerned with all the possibilities of what might happen. If water can take three phases, then a theory of water must cover all three phases. The sciences are also concerned with what always happens. If water freezes at 0º C, then in a theory of water, the freezing point must be 0º C.

But history is concerned with what actually happened in the past, whether it happens repeatedly or is something unique. In fact, to cover the full detail of history, everything that happens must be unique, because the exact same point in time and space will never occur again. History does not cover the full range of possibilities, only those possibilities that are actualized.

Time in evolutionary and uniformitarian histories is theoretical, not actual. The concern is with what might have happened, rather than what actually happened. If it were the latter, then a chronology of events would be developed before proposing a theory. But evolutionary and uniformitarian chronologies are hypothetical, and their histories are pseudo-histories.

Synchronic and diachronic time

Synchrony or diatopy means 3D space with simultaneous events in order of increasing time. Space-time is synchronic or diatopic.

Diachrony means 3D time with simulocuous events in order of decreasing distance. Time-space is diachronic.

Chronicles and histories are diachronic. Models and theories are synchronic or diatopic.

Knowledge of the distances between objects is important in order to understand their motions. Knowledge of the modal durations between subjects is important in order to understand their movements. In history travel time matters more than travel distance. In science travel distance matters more than travel time.

For the study of history, 3D time is more significant then 3D space. What matters more is not the distance between places, but the transit time. The reason is that time is the measure of effort to go from one place to another.

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