Geoffrey Kirk on how the Whig interpretation of history has been given a church reinterpretation as ‘the tide of God’
Rooting through some old correspondence I recently came across an exchange of letters (from around 1990) with the then Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Richard Holloway. Holloway, of course, has come a long way since then: once the white hope of the Loughborough Conferences, he is now a post-Christian minister in the Church of Scotland.
I had written to him because he claimed in a newspaper article that opponents of the ordination of women were, for the most part, repressed homosexuals. I thought he should be made aware of the fact that the vast majority of members of Cost of Conscience (of which I was then the National Secretary) were married men with children.
His response (unsurprisingly) did not address the substantive issue, but ended with a revealing statement. ‘I have no doubt that you and those like you, will eventually be seen as having sought to sweep back the tide of God.’
‘The tide of God’. That struck me as putting the case for women’s ordination very nicely. Like the partisans of the ‘Whig interpretation of history’, of whom Butterfield wrote in now famous essay of 1931, they believe themselves to have backed a winner: indeed, the only horse in the race.
In the preface to his essay, Butterfield defined the area he was covering. He writes there of’ the tendency in many historians to write on the side of the Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.’ Butterfield’s target was a sort of history which, paradoxically, had a disdain for the past, or at least for large tracts of it, preferring a simplistic analysis based on doctrinal certainties to a real encounter with ages different from our own.
He defines real and worthwhile history as something quite different. ‘The primary assumption of all attempts to understand the men of the past must be the belief that we can in some degree enter into minds that are unlike our own. If this belief were unfounded it would seem that men must be for ever locked away from one another, and all generations must be regarded as a world and a law unto themselves.’
What is true of secular history is equally true of Church history. But the fact is that, presently, the ‘Whig interpretation is in that quarter running wild and unchecked. The partisans of the Liberal Agenda are past masters of the most advanced type of Butterfield’s ‘whiggery’. They confidently divide the biblical past into goodies’ and ‘baddies’, in a manner as comically crude as that of Sellar and Yeatman, and are confident that they have identified a ‘trajectory’ in Scripture which inexorably leads to those aspects and tendencies in the present of which they themselves approve.
But unlike the historians of whom Butterfield disapproves, these ecclesiastical ‘Whigs’ are even prepared to fabricate evidence where none exists. They attack the integrity of the Canon and draw wholly unwarranted conclusions from the flimsiest of textual and archaeological evidence. A doubtful fresco on the Via Salaria has been elevated to a cause célèbre and a textual variant at the end of the Letter to the Romans has been given a biography the size of a Victorian novel.
All this is tragic when you consider that Christianity is, par excellence, an historical religion. The Incarnation ties it to a particular historical time and that time is understood to be the culmination of a preceding history of several millennia. The conventional method of dating (still, in a revised form, in use in the secular West) makes that event – and not the present moment – the focus of history and the turning point of time.
These facts, you would think, would encourage Christian scholars to be the most diligent and dispassionate of historians. At stake in their encounter with the people and events of the past is not only a broadening of horizons by an insight into the passions and perspectives of another age and climes but a way into the very mind of God. Of course Christians are committed (as other historians are not necessarily or to the same extent) to a coherent and narrative views of events; but they are also committed in a radical way to encountering those events in and of themselves. Theologians often put this in terms of the manner in which we live under the judgement of Scripture: that is to say it judges us rather than our judging it. But it is in any event a process which involves stripping ourselves of the prejudices and presuppositions of the present (so far as that is possible) in order to facilitate and encounter with the unknown and unforeseen.
Herbert Butterfield was himself a Christian and, when it came to the events of the Second World War was not averse to a sort of narrative history which allowed for moral judgements. ‘Butterfield’s own later trajectory was to be more erratic and in some ways elusive than one might have supposed,’ writes John Burrow. ‘During the Second World War he published an essay (The Englishman and His History) in which the Whig (not ‘whig’) interpretation, while still being held at a distance as history, was said to have a desirable political consequence: ‘Whatever it may have done to our history, it has had a wonderful effect on our politics’.’ Butterfield was unable and unwilling to exclude narrative from history writing, and knew narrative to be ‘whig’ (with a small w). But he stood for that openness of mind which gives the past a chance, and so leaves avenues open in the present, which the closed mind will always cordon off.
The tragedy of the modern theological liberals is that they are unwilling or unable to give the past a chance. They are retrospective totalitarians. For them it has ceased to be a place of learning and encounter (‘they do things differently there’) and has become at best an arena for self-approving apology. The best they can do for the past is to apologize for it; a response so arrogant and self-centred as to leave one speechless. The proper reaction to a twentieth century academic who, for example, feels an obligation to apologize for the crusades is disgust. May St Bernard pray for her!