Christians and conservatives too often use the phrase “revisionist history” like it’s a curse word. The mere utterance of it is enough, in some circles, to dismiss the opponent accused of it. But my friends—to paraphrase Paul—these things ought not be. While it is true that many historians abuse revision for evil ends, it is nevertheless still a vital and necessary tool. The fact that some abuse it is simply a call for honest and probing Christians to get at the forefront of it.
Reading in Harold Berman’s great work Law and Revolution last night reminded me I have wanted to post something on this for a while. Berman’s 650-page tome itself was a piece of revisionist history. He was conscious of this and the stigma that would come: “Not all people will want to listen to this story. Many will find the plot unacceptable; they will consider it a fantasy.”
That book, however, now in its sixth edition, revolutionized the history of jurisprudence. It is now almost universally recognized as the standard work in the field and is required reading.
In the book, Berman describes the unique cast Enlightenment thinking and socio-political conditions had forced upon the study of history: history was “scientific” and rigorous now, but had also become wed to intense nationalism. “It was simply assumed that history meant national history.” The vast bulk of the history we are taught is of this nature: who was president, who was king, what nation fought what nation, and so on. Lost almost entirely is a vast variety of factors organically intertwined with culture and life—most of worldview, to be frank. But Berman saw a great sea change—and this is where revisionism becomes relevant:
In the twentieth century there has been some change in this respect. The social and economic historians were among the first to break the national barrier and to write about the West as a whole. After World War I this approach was extended by some people to political history. Even European legal history came to be treated in transnational terms. . . .
While this is describing only one change of perspective in what some may think is just one narrow aspect of history, it is nevertheless radical and huge. To throw off the blinkers of nationalism opens one to all kinds of new horizons.
Medievalist Norman Cantor described the same change in his field in one of the most impressive displays of mastering a discipline I’ve seen, Inventing the Middle Ages. He writes,
[M]edieval studies were very largely a twentieth century phenomenon. Victorian culture made its contribution to discovery of the medieval world by the founding of research institutes, by the building up of libraries and the organization of archives, and by the publication of medieval records. This was important work, but it was preliminary to the actual historical reconstruction of the Middle Ages. . . .
Part of the problem lies in the vast amount of what we don’t even yet know and haven’t read. Cantor goes on to describe how the negative views of the Middle Ages created by Romantic-era poets and later Victorians has been overturned in the twentieth century. But what has been done is just the tip of the iceberg. Cantor describes a “stupendous and unimaginable volume of unpublished material surviving in European archives and libraries.” This does not do justice to the size of the problem.
For the period after 1250 there is a vast amount of unpublished material in European archives, in such places as London, Paris, Barcelona, Munich, Toulouse, Florence, Rome, and Palermo. There are many philosophers or theologians of the late Middle Ages of whom we know little because their treatises exist in lengthy but seldom studied or completely unread manuscripts.
This includes vast numbers of court records in England: “Only a handful of these plea rolls have been published. Each runs to about four hundred pages, in legal jargon, and in hasty secretarial handwriting.” There is much more:
Italian libraries and archives are stuffed with medieval manuscripts. Only after several decades of scrutiny by scholars from several countries have the vast Florentine archives begun to yield their rich information, not only about the public finance and politics of the medieval republic but about the inner history of the great urban families. The medieval records in the Vatican Archives in Rome are so voluminous they have never been systematically catalogued. No one is sure exactly what is there. . . .
All this work takes time, but time does roll on. New generations get involved. New information reveals new insights. New insights lead to new understandings. At this point, in academia, only a fool would think that “revisionism” in general is a bad thing. Give us more, please! And the new generation leaves old fallacies behind, and moves forward with the new understanding.
This is not to say that the new understanding is perfect and does not rehash some fallacies, resurrect long-dead ones, or create new ones of its own. But we can always deal with those in the same way: through analysis and criticism. The point here is to appreciate the progress that comes and the process that brings it about.
Now, this is nowhere truer and more needed than in the fields of church history theology. Berman’s quotation reminded me last night of another I have long had on my mind. My seminary course in Medieval Church History assigned, among other things, R. W. Southern’s book, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. He wastes no time making the needed point. On the first page of chapter one, he writes,
[I]t is important to appreciate the forces which confined and directed the development of the church, for ecclesiastical history is often written as if these forces did not exist, or existed only to be overcome. . . .
When historians write of the church as if it could be separated from secular history, they are simply repeating the mistake made by the medieval ecclesiastical reformers, who were never more clearly the captives of their environment than when they spoke of their freedom from it.
They are doing more than that: they are simply repeating the dualisms that plagued many of those same figures. It is the separation of the heavenly and earthly in a way more akin to Plato than to Christ.
More recent attempts at church history have gotten much better. Writers like Diarmaid McCulloch, Rodney Stark, and others have done tremendous work that remedies this problem, but so much more needs to be done, especially among the conservative seminaries.
We are so set, it seems to me, on teaching church history as primarily the history of doctrinal battles and religious movements that we neglect even to think about the larger socio-economic, judicial, ethical, and political contexts in which all of these take place. And Southern is right, all of these forces often influence the direction of the ecclesiastical. We cannot afford to study church history in a pious vacuum. We cannot fail to discern the judicial aspects with which it is intertwined.
As a Christian Reconstructionist, this need is obvious to me. I cannot think of the movements and changes in the church without simultaneously at least asking what other factors were involved in the earthly realm. In more cases than not, you’ll find there is something to it.
Because of our insular perspective, secular historians end up doing a better job showing the relationships between church history and “secular” history than anyone—largely because they’re the only ones doing it. Writers in the past like Christopher Hill, a Marxist who devoted his career to studying the Puritan Revolution in England, 1600–1660, wrote some of the most fabulous and insightful essays on things like church courts, civil courts, and oaths—all of which were vitally entangled in the great religious upheaval at the time, and which had ramifications for what would later happen in the New England colonies. Some aspects were still being discussed as late as the time of our constitutional settlement.
Hardly any of it is discussed in standard church history classes in seminaries—master’s level stuff. We have totally lost the connection between Christian judicial convictions and the structure of society. All we have instead is the development of Christian doctrines abstracted from “the world” over there. For a nation whose existence, independence, freedoms, and system of law were almost literally born out of its colonial pulpits, this is a real tragedy.
But it’s a tragedy we can begin to recover, if we can break free from the mentality of separation between the church and earth, and the subsequent mentality it has birthed of leaving earthly matters to secular forces. And we can do that if we start reading the sources, reconstructing the history properly, and regain our bearings. But this will take revisionism: resurrecting forgotten sources, reading old stuff, learning the true nature of old battles, and knocking down some treasured idols along the way. And who knows? We may, sooner than we think, change the nature of the discussion like Berman did.
 Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1983), 1.
 Law and Revolution, 17.
 New York: William Morrow and Co., 1991.
 Cantor, 28.
 Cantor, 30.
 Cantor, 31.
 Cantor, 31.
 Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (London: Penguin Books,  1990), 15–16.