Archive Philosophy W. Bradford Littlejohn

The Follies of Contraceptive Historiography

Here at The Calvinist International, we care deeply about history, and yet we frequently trample freely on the shibboleths of contemporary historiography.  One of these is its commitment to truth-neutrality. In this it mimics, but goes even further than, the procedural liberalism that dominates the modern administration of justice, which abandons any concern for the true or the good in favor of merely upholding of rules of fair play. Some contemporary historiography, however, does not merely abandon any interest in the outcome of the game, but abandons even the role of referee in favor of that of mere commentator. In discussing Elizabethan political and theological polemics, in which the various interlocutors sought to claim for themselves the mainstream and marginalize their opponents, Peter Lake sums up this would-be orthodoxy of postmodern historiography neatly:

This calls for an attitude of critical distance, a more or less permanently suspended judgment about the “veracity” of the various renditions of the core and the periphery deployed by contemporaries. The aim is to describe and to understand, not to adjudicate these disputes. Not to maintain such a skeptical relativism, risks, indeed almost always leads to, the reproduction, within the terms and structures of the historian’s own analysis or argument, of one or other of the contemporary renditions of the core and the periphery thematic.

This is a prime exhibit of what we call “contraceptive historiography,” unwilling to consummate the historiographical act with a resolution that can engender any truth claims. It presupposes a hermeneutic of suspicion in which the claims of historical interlocutors should not be treated primarily as truth-claims, but as propagandistic power plays, none necessarily more valid than any other. Of course, only a fool would deny that many historical interlocutors, not least in the Elizabethan period, are engaged in propagandistic power plays, but one would have thought it the task of the historian to determine which were, and which weren’t. Not for Lake, the doyen of early modern English history. Any such attempt to sort truth from falsehood, he worries, commits the historian to aligning himself with one of the historical disputants, and marginalizing the others. Historical objectivity, he claims, can only be maintained by permanent skeptical detachment. However, this contraceptive historiography does not merely prove sterile, but risks backfiring on the historian.

First, it proves essentially impossible to carry through with any consistency. If we refuse, a priori, to accept the frame of reference of any of the figures we are studying, we will not ensure that we impose no frame of reference, only that the frame of reference that we do impose will be one of our own manufacturing, completely unknown to the historical actors. In Lake’s case, for instance, this means that, by refusing to take seriously Richard Hooker’s own account of what he’s up to, he simply supplies a paradigm of his own making which purports to discover what Hooker is really up to, and thus whether he belongs to the “core” or “periphery” as constructed by Lake.

Second, such a stance can actually impair our ability to understand the 16th century writers, who did not share our modern Foucauldian assumptions, and for whom the question of veracity was all-important. We may imagine that, since they are obviously (to us) always engaged in jockeying for rhetorical position, they are not much interested in the truth value of their statements, and don’t really mean what they say. Peter Lake himself is a prime offender, arguing, for instance, that while Hooker speaks repeatedly and unequivocally of the invisible church, he doesn’t really believe in the concept. Likewise, I have also written here in the past about the unseemly spectacle of A.J. Joyce’s rhetorical criticism of Richard Hooker, in which she expends many pages purporting to evaluate his polemics without scarcely once pausing to ascertain whether he is making things up or accurately describing his opponents. After all, for the proponent of contraceptive historiography, the difference doesn’t really matter; because once polemical discourse has begun, we are to assume, there really isn’t such a thing as “accurately describing” one’s opponents. Of course, the modern historian himself is supposed to be somehow above all this; because he does not concern himself with the truth of the matter, he can confine himself to “accurately describing” what people did and didn’t say. It is almost too much to watch the rich irony on display when these same historians then turn, with polemical ferocity, on other historians believed to be insufficiently objective, and expect to be taken seriously in the process.

Indeed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a historian who consistently puts into practice Lake’s permanent “skeptical relativism,” including Lake himself, who has done some marvelous historical work. Most of this, however, he has achieved to the extent that he has failed to follow through his sterile methodological prescriptions.

What then are we to do? Abandon the ideal of objective historiography and just assume that “our guys” (whomever we may prima facie sympathize with) were always right? Not at all. Rather, we are to apply the virtues of justice and charity to the historiographical task, doing unto others as we would be done by. This means that when a historical figure, say Thomas Cartwright, claims to represent “the true legacy” or “the mainstream” of Calvinism, we treat him with the respect to assume that he probably means his claim in earnest, at least barring any evidence to the contrary. And then we treat his claim with the respect to seek to discern whether it be true, searching the writings of Calvin and of Cartwright’s contemporaries to see whether the follower truly lines up with the master, or with the “mainstream” of other followers. Although adjudication may not always be easy, and in certain cases at the end of the day we may have to suspend final judgment, there is no reason to assume in advance that the inquiry will be fruitless.

Needless to say, this sort of inquiry may be responsibly pursued, in principle, whether or not one is oneself a Calvinist; and is that extent quite properly objective. Of course, actually caring about the theological truths in question can be helpful, inasmuch as it ensures that one takes the various debates and differences quite seriously, rather than imagining them to be mere quibblings over words—the otherwise excellent Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed by the agnostic  Philip Benedict, for instance, suffers somewhat in this regard. So there is a further conversation to be had about how much the historian need care about theological truth in order to be a good historical theologian. But at the very least he needs to care deeply about historical truth, about whether, when historical figures make claims about themselves or others, these claims are true or not. For if that’s not what historians are for, then what are they for? we may justly ask.

By W. Bradford Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh, 2013), is President of the Davenant Trust and an independent scholar, writer, and editor. He is researching the political theology of the Reformation, especially Richard Hooker (the subject of his dissertation), and other areas in Christian ethics, especially pertaining to economic questions.