For years now on our cultural calendar, February has been popularly designated “Black History Month.” Unfortunately, such emphases are sometimes greeted with a rolling of the eyes or a suspicious furrowing of the brow; they’re dismissed out of hand as part of a “liberal agenda” to politicize, co-opt, or just plain rewrite history. But that begs a critical question: Is the history that we have and hold dear genuinely historical? Church historian Richard A. Muller raises a serious concern here, one which ought to unsettle all of us who want to understand the past as it really was, and especially those of us who are classified as theologically conservative, confessional, Reformed, Calvinistic Christians.
Muller’s masterful, multivolume series Post-Reformation Dogmatics is a standard in the field of church history and thus a must-read for every Reformed seminary student, professor and pastor. As a good historian, Muller is concerned not only with the factual content of history, but the methods by which we access, understand, and relate it. So, along with fellow historian James E. Bradley, Muller wrote an outstandingly helpful book called Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2016). The urgent historiographical need the authors highlight is not only a crisis in historical studies, but a humanitarian crisis in general. “We now know that the histories of at least half the human population and many ethnic minorities and others without a voice have been neglected or distorted for centuries.” Let that sink in!
For some historians this reality only reinforces their conviction that the past is unknowable; history is simply a social construct, a tale told by the powerful for their advantage – a bag of tricks we play on the dead as Voltaire once (perhaps not with full seriousness) quipped. For Christian historians, however, this startling realization reveals a moral imperative. What Muller and Bradley bring to our attention is a global-scale violation of the ninth commandment. But as the authors happily detail, we in our day are blessed with ever-increasing ways of accessing the past more broadly and deeply than has ever been possible. Thus, God has provided us with unprecedented means to redress an egregious historical and ongoing defiance of his holy law, a violation that has victimized over half of humanity and the most vulnerable and mistreated among us in particular.
To honor the one “who inhabits eternity,” and to love and serve the image-bearers who animate history, we must make every effort to hear the voice of those wrongly silenced and ignored and to provide correctives against uncritically received, corrupt historical narratives. As theologically conservative Christians, we believe that absolute truth – even moral truth – is knowable. The Lord calls us to understand life as it is, and he gives us in Scripture the ethical standards by which to evaluate it. As confessionally orthodox Reformed Christians, we have a deep and personal interest in the past and a desire to tell God’s truth in our day. In light of Muller and Bradley’s call to action, we ought to be first in line to pursue this historical act of love for God and neighbor, no matter what cherished historical narratives we need to challenge, no matter what history we need to unlearn, or dare we say – deconstruct.
The phenomena of faith deconstruction in our day is beyond the scope of this post. But suffice it to say that sometimes our protests against deconstruction are really a pretense for protecting our idols. At the same time, conservative Christians rightly raise concern about the standard by which deconstruction takes place. This tension provides a beautiful opportunity to get to the neighbor-loving works required by our orthodox faith. What would it look like if, instead of constantly criticizing and calling out as apostates those fleeing the idolatries of the church, we operated from a fundamentally positive posture of heart? One which certainly calls out evil, but which is known not so much for ceaseless criticism of what’s wrong “out there,” but most fundamentally for creating and contributing to a God-and-neighbor-loving culture that takes special notice of those who’ve been marginalized among us, especially when such segregation has slanderously happened in the name of the Savior? In God’s providence, we not only have the theological pedigree, we have historical precedent for such faithful, positive work. What’s holding us back? Our reactions to cultural initiatives such as “black history month” might be diagnostic here.
If we find ourselves suspicious of the ideological currents along which popular cultural initiatives sometimes flow, we should revert back to historically Reformed instincts: honor the Lord by seeking truth where it may be found. Herman Bavinck, arguably the greatest post-Reformation Reformed theologian, was a master of this.
Driven by what he saw in Calvin, Bavinck sought to deeply understand even the most heterodox ideas of his day. He commended what was good within them while humbly and clearly demonstrating what was out of step with Scripture. And he did so not simply for the sake of refutation. Their incompatibility with God’s word was a sign of their incompleteness, a cry for fulfillment in the one who fills all in all.
In 1894, Bavinck wrote a paper entitled “The Future of Calvinism.” In it he recounts the defining influence of Calvinism upon his beloved home, the Netherlands, and the way in which Calvinistic principles in effect built a national character. He also reflects upon the posture of heart possessed by the Reformed in their best moments within the best days of Holland’s history, and what encouraging signs he saw of the same in his day. He writes,
“To the alarming fact that unbelief is increasing on all hands, the Reformed do not close their eyes. They do not wish to repristinate and have no desire for the old conditions to return . . . As children of their time they do not scorn the good things which God in this age also has given them . . . They strive to make progress, to escape from the deadly embrace of dead conservatism, and to take their place, as before, at the head of every movement. Even at the present day many in Holland consider them too radical, and suspect them of a secret alliance with socialism.”
Bavinck was well aware that there were indeed Marxists – real Marxists – and theological liberals in his day, people truly committed to unorthodox principles. He kept his eye on them, especially in the academy. At the same time, he cared enough about his fellow human beings as image-bearers and about the commandment-keeping, practical holiness of the church that he even honored avowed, explicit enemies of the church by searching through their sometimes blazingly Satanic ideas to find what truth they unintentionally reflected to God’s glory.
In a 1902 work entitled “Present Day Morality,” Bavinck leveled his strongest and most emotive criticism against arch-atheist Friedrich Nietzsche, whose work and influence was ascending in the Netherlands. After the criticism, Bavinck added - insisted - that our judgment of such work must be “…based on the comforting thought that even in the grossest error there is still an element of truth which carries it and gives it charm. The world in which we live is arranged in such a way that truth and falsehood, virtue and sin, glory and shame hardly ever appear unmixed…”
Jesus said to bless those who curse us as his people. Obeying that command can be seen as a crucial, distinguishing dynamic of Bavinck's theological and historical writing and methodology. Honoring all people but being a “respecter of no persons” (James 2:1-9, KJV) he was willing to get hit for his stance by his hyper-conservative critics as well as his ardent liberal detractors. In our harshly polarized times, we can gain courage and learn much from his posture of heart and modality of ministry.
In his final address to the theological seminary at Kampen, before taking up work at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902, Bavinck remarked in “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church” that “The gospel is a joyful tiding not only for the individual person but also for humanity, for the family, for society, for the state, for art and science, for the entire cosmos, for the whole groaning creation.”
For Bavinck, the gospel was not just truth to be preached at people, but truth to be worked into individual lives, communities, nations, and ultimately the world itself. Doing this with Christian integrity requires a profound understanding of God’s world and the people who inhabit and move its history. Christian historians are calling our attention to the ways in which we’ve failed in this work, and to the many people and peoples who’ve suffered the consequences. How will we respond?
One way is to warmly welcome, with discernment rather than suspicion, cultural initiatives such as “black history month” as they advance our ability to learn history as it really happened, and to love people as they really are. If we roll our eyes or furrow our brows at this kind of initiative, let it be because, contrary to our theology and our heritage, pop culture beat us to it.
(This is a slightly edited version of an article that originally appeared on Gentle Reformation in Feb. 2022. The Bavinck speeches referenced here can be found at this outstanding website . See also Volumes 1 and 2 of Bavinck's Reformed Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019, 2021).