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Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion.

Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion. Edited by Alister Chapman, John Coffey, and Brad S. Gregory. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. vii + 267. $38.00 paper.

This well-conceived volume draws its inspiration--a bit paradoxically--from the career of British intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, arguably the most influential Anglo-American student of developing political theory in the early modern West, but also among the least disposed to credit religion with a role in the enterprise. Even so, the editors offer a suitable homage au maitre by taking seriously his main precept--the historian's bounden duty to address his subjects by "seeing things their way"--while also placing a corrective lens on the curious astigmatism that impaired his own otherwise magisterial vision.

Brad S. Gregory begins with a taxonomy and critique of anti-religious reductionism framed by the case of Anabaptist Jacob de Roore. It would seem axiomatic that the execution in 1569 of an itinerant preacher at the hands of theological opponents calls for some form of religious explanation. Yet such is the heritage of the past century's secularist reductionism that in the case of religion (almost alone), the historian must argue such a point. Even so, Gregory obliges--patiently dismantling the claims of history that presumes to reason within the limits of reductionism alone. John Coffey follows with a friendly corrective to Skinner's classic The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), noticing how its search for the classical and humanist ideas of liberty behind the English Revolution under-accounts for the prevalence of the biblical Exodus narrative in the Puritan and parliamentary imaginations. In a close analysis of medieval Christian-Jewish disputation materials, Anna Sapir Abulafia explains that these dialogues were chiefly internal Christian set-pieces that grappled with the intellectual challenge of doctrines like the trinity and incarnation. By no means were they exercises in coercive nonrationality, as misconstrued in Gavin Langmuir's provocative History, Religion, and Antisemitism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). Howard Hotson takes a similarly corrective tack, reassessing Norman Cohn's signature study, Pursuit of the Millennium (London: Secker & Warburg, 1957), which traced medieval Christian apocalypticism to "rootless and desperate men" seeking judgment on their oppressors and enemies, especially Jews. But that is certainly not the dominant theme of early modern millenarians, argues Hotson. If we see the texts as leading figures like Henricius Alsted, Joseph Mede, Henry Jessey, and Pierre Jurieu actually wrote them, what they often manifest is a distinctively philo-semitic piety--at times embracing salvation of the Jews so warmly as to nearly suppress the centrality of Christ.

In separate chapters, Richard Muller and William van Asselt offer a comparable rescue of Protestant scholasticism from its contemporary despisers. Both find the stress on "great thinkers" misplaced. They also reject the notion that scholasticism distorted the true spirit of reform. On the contrary, it built usefully on the work of the medieval schoolmen, and in theological debate, it formed a natural development and needed strategy to address the formidable attacks on reform led by the gifted Jesuit and Dominican theologians of the age: Cano, Bellarmine, Molina, and Suarez. All of this is wisely noted, though also somewhat ill-attuned to contemporary discomfort with the scholastic mind--a disconnect that resides in the revolution wrought by historical criticism, which drew the curtain definitively on scholastic efforts to build theological systems from scriptural texts as plane geometry is built from the postulates of Euclid. Muller and van Asselt both demonstrate an appreciation of scholastic texts that is admirably deep and impressively wide, though their much learning occasionally makes them (ever so slightly) mad. They crusade rather quixotically against use of generalized language in historical writing-especially terms suffixed with -ism, such as "Calvinism" and "Scholasticism"--as if their own essays could have been written, or even titled, without them. Muller takes the additionally curious view that in describing the thought of the past ages, historians should be governed exclusively by the definitions provided in age-contemporary dictionaries.

One can reasonably ask how feasible this is, given that history cannot both begin and end as antiquarian; if its goal is interpretive, it must in some way bridge words and meanings out of the past to those same words with new meanings of the present. Fortunately, Muller's own astute interpretive practice appears to violate this antiquarian principle. James E. Bradley issues a well-informed challenge to the paradigmatic secularist reading of eighteenth-century English thought--first framed by Leslie Stephen--that traces an intellectual pilgrimage from "unenlightened belief" to "enlightened unbelief." Stephen and his secularist successors have held that only in the voices of heterodoxy--Latitudinarian, Unitarian, Socinian, and freethinking--do we see the hallmark virtues of modern society: innovation, toleration, liberty, and enlightenment. Bradley's closer look suggests that orthodoxy was a strand far more subtly interfused into the modem temperament than this secular paradigm allows. During the English subscription controversy that peaked in the 1770s, Bradley observes, "there were almost as many treatises written against subscription by orthodox Trinitarians as by non-Trinitarians" (187). In refusing to accord to a prescribed theological formula an allegiance owed only to the divine person of Christ, orthodox Dissenters affirmed the cause of toleration as fully as any of the most freethinking rationalists. Mark A. Noll adds a transatlantic tribute to the influence of both Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock upon his own efforts to write the history of theology in America. For Noll, their shared insight into the subtle exchanges of influence that occur between the discourse of a given text or treatise in political theory and the several alternate "sublanguages" of the culture that surrounds it in the process of its creation holds promise as well for the historian searching to find the place of theology in society. Noll concedes that such thick interdisciplinary inquiry is demanding. But in the works of scholars like Boyd Hilton, Daniel Walker Howe, and Margaret Van Die, he finds illustrations--both British and North American--of the rich intellectual dividends it can yield.

Alister Chapman points to the promise offered by Skinner's approach in appreciating the place of belief in societies where, as in undeniably secular Britain of the last half-century, religion has become a marginal, minority component of the culture, subjected to the "secular overreach" of interpretive elites too readily inclined toward the default settings of social scientific reductionism and linguistic indeterminism. David Bebbington concludes the sequence with a characteristically thoughtful assessment both of the general challenges that the historian of religious ideas faces and of certain constraints in Skinner's historical vision that should alert those who embrace it not to do so uncritically.

The aim of history, C. S. Lewis once wrote, is to escape "the provincialism of the present." These analyses--simultaneously lucid, learned, and, if anything, understatedly substantive--take that task to heart, not only by embracing the principle, but also by ably exhibiting its many merits in practice.

Daniel L. Pals

University of Miami

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Author:Pals, Daniel L.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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