Sunday, April 16, 2017

When Historians Attack: Mark Noll, Part Deux

Mark A. Noll, who started as a professor at conservative evangelical gold standard Wheaton College and achieved his largest notoriety for his acidic takedown of his co-religionists, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind [“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind”], has now become ensconced as the gold standard on early American religious history on his throne at putatively Catholic University of Notre Dame.

I registered my own objection to Noll's approach here, that he may conflate his historian hat with his theological one--with his left-liberal sentiments coloring both--but this broadside on similar grounds from one Glenn Moots of tiny Northwood University makes me look like a pussycat.



In the Beginning was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 by Mark A. Noll, Oxford University Press, 448 pages, $29.95
Notre Dame historian Mark Noll recently released the first of three promised volumes chronicling the use of the Bible in American public life. In the Beginning Was the WordThe Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 follows cultural and theological movement over three centuries: from the “Bible under Christendom,” to the “Bible over Christendom,” and finally to the “Bible against Christendom.” Unfortunately, Noll’s reliance on a reductive caricature of Protestant political theology causes him to give a false impression of how most colonial American Protestants deployed sacred and secular sources in their political thought. The result is a work of history whose questionable methods and underlying assumptions are every bit as telling—perhaps more so—than the historical chronicle itself.
...
But more pertinent to Noll’s charge against Allen, Biblical exegesis in favor of resistance and republicanism existed in America and Britain long before supposedly corrupting influences of “Whiggism” or “the Enlightenment” came on the scene. British Protestant arguments for resistance and revolution were advanced first by Marian exiles (who took some cues from the Lutheran Torgau and Magdeburg Declarations) and then by Noll’s ideal biblicists—the Puritans! (It must also be noted that all Protestant political arguments owed a debt to medieval precedent, too.)

When Massachusetts Bay colonists faced invasion from England in 1634, an invasion they feared was intent on taking their charter and imposing an Anglican establishment, their justification for armed resistance included both scriptural and legal arguments. There was not yet an “Enlightenment” to corrupt the supposedly “proper” reading of Romans 13 as unconditional obedience—just as there had been no Enlightenment to inspire the Roman Catholic conciliarists, the Marian exiles, or Cromwell’s New Model Army. Why, therefore, does Noll so readily charge these “Whigs” or “patriots” with using “Scripture to clothe what opposition politics created”? Noll’s insistence on the American Revolution as a departure from Protestant biblicism also implies a preference for pacifism. Noll writes, “Among the authors who did seek direct biblical guidance, Christian pacifists stood out by invoking the sacred page to defend positions that had been derived originally from Scripture.” However, wasn’t classical just war theory largely owed to Christendom?
We want Professor Noll to keep his historical studies coming, but one wonders how he can insist on dividing wheat from chaff in the Bible’s proper use. Will Noll cast abolitionists as biblicists, given that many of their polemics resemble the politicized ravings of the Revolution’s patriot ministers, whom Noll scorns? Will every war be condemned if its proponents used the Bible to justify it? What will Noll make of the civil rights era? Shouldn’t its wedding of political ideology (the Declaration of Independence or nonviolent direct-action) to the Bible—particularly in the work of Martin Luther King, for example—be due the same criticism he levels at the Whigs of the mid-eighteenth century who defended British rights and liberties?
Ideally, Noll will settle into simply telling this long and difficult story of America’s relationship with the Bible, and not seek to impose ahistorical categories on its use in public life.

24 comments:

Jonathan Rowe said...

"that he may conflate his historian hat with his theological one--with his left-liberal sentiments coloring both"

What I see in Noll's theology is fideistic evangelicalism, the lauding of Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans as authentic "biblical" theology. I have a hard time as seeing this as "left-leaning."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Because Noll's ire throughout his oeuvre is quite pointedly at the Religious Right and "patriotism." Noll's a liberal, politically and theologically. Not a big secret, at least to me and Professor Moots.

You are technically correct if you want to call colonial-era Toryism conservative and the revolutionaries liberal or left, but that doesn't describe Noll and his ilk in terms meaningful today. The view that the Revolution contravened Romans 13 is a more a creature of today's left then the right.

And in technical terms, Moots argues that the Puritans themselves, as well as all those subscribing to "Calvinist resistance theory"

http://www.davekopel.com/Religion/Calvinism.htm

predate the Enlightenment or "Whiggism," leaving Noll's argument anachronistic.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Because Noll's ire throughout his oeuvre is quite pointedly at the Religious Right and "patriotism." Noll's a liberal, politically and theologically. Not a big secret, at least to me and Professor Moots.

I have a hard time as seeing this as "left-leaning."

To wit, Jon, re-examining my original essay, quoting Noll directly:

"Yet neither Williams nor Dochuk addresses directly what should be one of the most compelling questions about the political history they describe so well: what exactly is Christian about the Christian right..."

OK?

Jonathan Rowe said...

No. Not okay. It doesn't necessarily follow that Noll is part of the Christian left.

I'm more familiar with Frazer who operates in the tradition of Noll. This understandings holds Christianity to be something that fundamentally transcends politics. But Frazer is much more of a right winger, both politically and in terms of his theology than a man of the left.

Fea may be moderate left. Jimmy Carter and Cornel West are members of the Christian left.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It doesn't necessarily follow that Noll is part of the Christian left.

If you want to demur, don't cry to me, Argentina, offer evidence to the contrary. I'm familiar with none.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As for Gregg Frazer, Moots 'criticism applies to him as well re Romans 13

...the supposedly “proper” reading of Romans 13 as unconditional obedience...Why, therefore, does Noll so readily charge these “Whigs” or “patriots” with using “Scripture to clothe what opposition politics created”? Noll’s insistence on the American Revolution as a departure from Protestant biblicism also implies a preference for pacifism.

We've often rebutted Dr. Frazer with "Calvinist Resistance Theory" as being as legitimate historically as his own version of the Reformed faith, but like Noll, he insists his view of Romans 13 is the only correct one.

To accept his history, we must accept his theologizing.

I think he's a member of a tiny sliver of conservatism akin to the Buchananite right of "American Conservative," that rather swings around to touch fingers with the left. I don't say this prejudicially; uberCatholic Robert Kraynak's a solid scholar with a coherent ideology. But it is an ideology.

But I see nothing to park Mark Noll there. Although not overtly left, like Dr. John Fea he's a "stealth" liberal, saving his scholarly fire exclusively for the GOP and the religious right, while trying to maintain a plausible deniability of partisanship. [Fea recently chortled on Twitter about this blog quite properly identifying him as a "liberal historian and polemicist."]

For even as the liberal Protestant mainline sets slowly in the west, these gentlemen continue to advance the meme that it's conservative Christianity's support of 'traditional values' and thus the GOP that are somehow the biggest threat to American Christianity. But that horse left the barn long ago; they try to lock the barn doors of their colleges, but their churches began emptying long ago.



Jonathan Rowe said...

"[O]ffer evidence to the contrary. I'm familiar with none."

https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2004-09/none-above

Tom Van Dyke said...

Exactly what I said, Jon.

None of the above: Why I won't be voting for president

"Neutrality." What bullspit. You fell for their pseudo-neutrality trick hook, line, & sinker despite my predicting it in advance:

Although not overtly left, like Dr. John Fea he's a "stealth" liberal, saving his scholarly fire exclusively for the GOP and the religious right, while trying to maintain a plausible deniability of partisanship. [Fea recently chortled on Twitter about this blog quite properly identifying him as a "liberal historian and polemicist."]

For even as the liberal Protestant mainline sets slowly in the west, these gentlemen continue to advance the meme that it's conservative Christianity's support of 'traditional values' and thus the GOP that are somehow the biggest threat to American Christianity. But that horse left the barn long ago; they try to lock the barn doors of their colleges, but their churches began emptying long ago...


God, dude. They're so transparent.

Tom Van Dyke said...

What makes them think people aren't on to them? How disingenuous.

https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/716
© November 2004
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 4, Issue 11

[4] First, I think he has reached a mistaken decision not to vote. (I'm secretly happy that he is not voting because if he were I think he would vote Democratic.)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Prophetic. Even back in 2004 he smells Noll and Fea a mile away.


[10] It is not simply that this rights-based secularism will be enshrined in public law, which is bad enough, but it will increasingly be imposed upon private organizations, including the church. There is an authoritarian whiff to secular liberalism. The Left has always yelped that fascism is coming to America, but I think it far more likely that a secular elite will impose its wishes upon the American people without their consent. We may indeed find that one day we will be governed by the Harvard faculty instead of the first one hundred names in the Boston telephone directory. Being from the South I would prefer to be governed by neither, but I would vastly prefer the latter to the former.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I haven't looked at Noll's words carefully enough on Romans 13, but Moots could have used more precise language to describe Frazer's position (which I suspect is identical to Noll's).

"the supposedly 'proper' reading of Romans 13 as unconditional obedience"

No because parts of the Bible -- parts that Frazer is quite familiar with, as Noll probably is -- say when God and man's rules conflict, obviously obey God. Saying they support unconditional obedience thus sets up a straw man for their critics to knock down.

Rather submission, not obedience is unconditional. Revolt is always wrong. When God and man conflict, obey God and if you are disobeying Caeser then accept the civil legitimacy of the legal system and, if you can work within the confines of it to change it or get justice for yourself.

The position also holds generally speaking obey government, provided you aren't disobeying God in the process. That means, unless you can show you need to speed in order to obey God, obey the speed limit because the government said so.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Same thing in the end. Obey Nero. The "disobeying God" exception is simply not germane here.

But this runs contrary to Calvinist Resistance Theory and the American revolution, and it lost. [Even Aquinas permits some regicide.] It's improper for the historian to adjudge whether it's the right or wrong interpretation of Romans 13 and this is why although entitled to their religious opinions, Noll and Frazer are out of line as historians.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yes Nero, the ruler who was in charge when Paul wrote Romans 13.

FTR, Calvin was on Drs. Frazer and Noll's side here. It's okay for lesser magistrates to restrain the lawlessness of kings pursuant to some positive legal mechanism like Congress impeaching and removing a President.

The Calvinist resisters, even if they "evolved" beyond what Calvin taught, still did their best to pay lip service to his teachings. Their experience with crappy kings led them to stretch the doctrine of interposition as Calvin originally conceived of it, but they still felt the need to, as it were, stress the positive legal mechanisms of their "resistance." Hence the King is not law, but "law" is King.

The later part of the DOI speaks to this dynamic when it tries to argue positive legal technicalities against the King and Parliament.

On the other hand, what follows is not the language of resisting lawlessness from above by those who, from below, were trying to follow law --

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, ..."

-- but rather, such is the language of revolt.

It's possible some pre-Enlightenment source anticipated this. But this is not the teaching of the Calvinist resisters.

Art Deco said...

uberCatholic Robert Kraynak

I don't think Dr. Kraynak is associated with traditionalist strands within the Church. As far as I am aware, he has never published in The Latin Mass, The Wanderer, The Remnant, or Catholic Family News. He may have placed articles in New Oxford Review (which is friendly to Latin traditionalism but more inclined to Eastern-rite worship). In the past, he has not been so dissatisfied with contemporary liturgy that he made the hike to indult Masses or Eastern-rite Masses.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Blogger Jonathan Rowe said...
Yes Nero, the ruler who was in charge when Paul wrote Romans 13.

FTR, Calvin was on Drs. Frazer and Noll's side here...

The Calvinist resisters, even if they "evolved" beyond what Calvin taught


"Even if?" There's quite a slip between the cup and the lip here.

http://www.davekopel.com/Religion/Calvinism.htm


The argument is that Calvin is not "Calvinism" and the later "Calvinists" quickly went past his interpretation of Romans 13.* I've been imprecise in terminology: The proper term is "Reformed Resistance Theory."

Frazer and Noll can insist all they want that Reformed Resistance Theory is aBiblical, but that's a theological argument. Historically, it became the majority position.

_______________________
*And Frazer and Noll's position can also be disputed. As Dave Kopel writes in the above-lined essay

Calvin always believed that governments should be chosen by the people. He described the Hebrews as extremely foolish for jettisoning their free government and replacing it with a hereditary monarchy. He also came to believe that kings and princes were bound to their people by covenant, such as those that one sees in the Old Testament.

In Calvin’s view, which was based on Romans 13, the governmental duties of "inferior magistrates" (government officials, such as mayor or governors, in an intermediate level between the king and the people) required them to protect the people against oppression from above. Calvinism readily adopted the Lutheran theory of resistance by such magistrates.

In a commentary on the Book of Daniel, Calvin observed that contemporary monarchs pretend to reign “by the grace of God,” but the pretense was “a mere cheat” so that they could “reign without control.” He believed that “Earthly princes depose themselves while they rise up against God,” so “it behooves us to spit upon their heads than to obey them.”


Interestingly, Jefferson claims in the D of I that King George "abdicated." Deposed himself, as it were.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Anonymous Art Deco said...
uberCatholic Robert Kraynak

I don't think Dr. Kraynak is associated with traditionalist strands within the Church. As far as I am aware, he has never published in The Latin Mass, The Wanderer, The Remnant, or Catholic Family News. He may have placed articles in New Oxford Review (which is friendly to Latin traditionalism but more inclined to Eastern-rite worship). In the past, he has not been so dissatisfied with contemporary liturgy that he made the hike to indult Masses or Eastern-rite Masses.





I don't want to get too deep into the tall weeds of uberCatholic. For the purposes of this blog, what I do mean is that Kraynak is not congenial to modern secular liberalism. There is a theocratic tinge to his vision of government that goes beyond mere general revelation/natural law that I think Calvin would like [were Kraynak not, you know, Catholic].

http://brothersjudd.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/reviews.detail/book_id/1002/Christian%20Fa.htm


In the first place, Christianity places duties to God and duties to one's neighbor before individual rights and cannot easily
accept the proposition that people have the right to pursue happiness as they see fit, especially if that right leads to societies
that are indifferent to God. Second, Christianity's foundation on divine revelation implies a duty to accept transcendent truth
as well as authoritative pronouncements about truth by a hierarchical church rather than to accept the dictates of individual
conscience wherever they might lead. Third, the Christian notion of original sin implies distrust of weak and fallible human
beings to use rights properly; it instills a keen sense of how freedom can go awry and ultimately must view political freedom
as a conditional rather than an absolute good. Fourth, Christianity puts the common good above the rights of individuals,
and its emphasis on the family and man's social nature conflicts with the individualism and privacy of rights. Fifth, the
Christian teaching about charity--whose essence is sacrificial love--makes the whole notion of rights seem selfish, as if
the world owes something to me when I declare, 'I have my rights!' Ultimately, of course, Christians cannot accept the
premise of human autonomy or the natural freedom of the autonomous self that underlies most doctrines of rights.

Jonathan Rowe said...

It's interesting; during our round table at Gordon College that very passage from the commentary on Daniel was invoked contra Frazer.

I hope I need not reproduce passages from Calvin's "Institutes" -- that you will trust my claim -- where Calvin 100% asserted the position of Dr. Frazer & Noll (or they faithfully follow his understanding) regarding submission & obedience.

If there is a conflict, I would say the "official" "Institutes" would trump a commentary on a book in the biblical canon.

Or, we could read the two without conflict. Calvin is still referring to "obedience" to government which all biblically literate orthodox Christians know the Bible does not absolutely demand. The claim is submission is absolute, obedience is conditional.

So, we could say Calvin's position was submission is absolute, obedience is conditional; but if you are going to disobey government, in order to obey God, you might as well spit in the face of the God disobeying prince whose God ordained civil system that you are about to submit to will soon nail you.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Historically, it became the majority position."

They may well concede this; but as they did, they tell the story historically. They may underplay the reformation resisters and overplay Locke. But it's about liberal democratic theory. Liberal democracy is dominant geopolitically. The three big revolutions, Glorious (British); American and French represent different strands of a geopolitics that prevailed. It ended up changing the dominant understanding of the Christian faith. The Straussians say it was an importation of Hobbes & Locke.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Except that Reformed Resistance Theory predates Locke by over 100 years.*

http://michaelbryson.net/miltonweb/regicide.html


Hobbes is very much in favor of the king controlling everything including the the church, so I don't know where you're going with that. For Hobbes, stability, not liberty, is paramount.

Moots also makes passing mention of "medieval" sources, meaning [I believe] Catholic. Aquinas does not have a blanket prohibition on regicide.


As for Calvin, I've seen the tactic of trying to disavow his Commentary on Daniel. The counterargument is that since it was written later it supersedes the Institutes

Still, the Continental Congress were duly constituted "lower magistrates," thus were in accordance with Calvin there too.

I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God's ordinance. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV. xx. 31)

_________________________
*see also
http://www.davekopel.com/Religion/Calvinism.htm


Some Reformation leaders went further. Among them was John Poynet, an Englishman who had been Bishop of Winchester during the reign of Edward VI, Mary's Anglican predecessor. When Mary came in, he fled into exile, where in 1556, he published "A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power, and of the true obedience which subjects owe to kynges and over civil governours." He asked “Whether it be lawful to depose an evil governor and kill a tyrant?” The answer was definitely "yes."

Art Deco said...

what I do mean is that Kraynak is not congenial to modern secular liberalism. There is a theocratic tinge to his vision of government that goes beyond mere general revelation/natural law that I think Calvin would like [were Kraynak not, you know, Catholic].

Just about any Catholic who gives religion and politics much thought is not congenial to 'modern secular liberalism'. Christian democracy, Carlism, Spanish 'accidentalism', and 19th century Latin American 'conservatism' all have bones to pick with that. I think the distinction between spiritual and temporal authority in Catholic understandings of the social world - the latter exercised by churchmen only in the Papal States and in some German prince-bishoprics - precludes using the term 'theocratic' to describe Catholic social thought concerned with political questions (at least without generating some confusion).

Dr. Kraynak may or may not have ever used the term 'Social Reign of Christ the King' in his writings. It is frequently used by Thomas Droleskey, who hasn't the scholarly publications under his belt Dr. Kraynak does, but is a frequent presence in Latin traditionalist publications.

I believe Dr. Kraynak has written that the Catholic contemplating political life should have a clear preference for monarchy, however, a 'preference' is not highly prescriptive or exclusive. Neither do the precepts he offers above necessarily imply any specific architecture (legal or institutional) for their implementation (unless I've misunderstood him). Rather, they're a means of guiding the office holder and for critiquing the office holder.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I know Kraynak mostly from Jon dragging him out in the Frazer context, and his occasional overlap with Leo Strauss. I think you'll agree as long as it's Catholic, he wouldn't be one to start yelling "Theocracy! Theocracy!"

I'd guess Kraynak--in that Hobbes sort of way--would be OK with Francisco Franco's Catholic-friendly authoritarianism. No?


I do think the contemporary Catholic preference for liberal democracy is-- like Protestantism's embrace of theological pluralism--more a surrender to reality than an actual defensible a priori principle. The Church swung in and out of political influence and power, and in the end with the demise of the Papal States, out for good.

Much like how Puritan New England slowly mutated into the seat of secular liberalism in America. Tocqueville noticed the inverse relationship between religion's hold on government--or, perhaps more accurately, government's hold on religion--and the people's piety.



Jonathan Rowe said...

On Hobbes, it's the Straussian claim. Hobbes initiated "state of nature"/social contract and rights. Locke and Rousseau spoke in that language that Hobbes initiated. Locke is the revolutionary. But it's the Hobbes-Locke tradition.

And again, Noll & Frazer credit Locke for reconciling Christianity and liberal democracy.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And again, Reformed Resistance Theory predates Locke by over 100 years. Moots won the historical debate with Noll right there. John Ponet, the Vindiciae contra Tyrannos, the Puritans, who landed in America in 1620. Locke's Treatises aren't published until 1689!!

And on theologico-political tip, I do wish y'd read the whole thing. Moots covers that too.

As becomes apparent, Noll has his own opinion about how Scripture should and should not have been employed by rival parties. In the Beginning Was the Word is Noll’s own implicit sermon against what he considers misappropriation of Scripture. But his sermon is flawed—most notably by his belief in Puritan exceptionalism, and by his imprecise dichotomy of the “Bible” opposed by “the Enlightenment.”

Echoing my complaint from the first--that first we must accept Noll's [and Frazer's] theology to accept their history. I think Gregg thought I was getting personal on him, but it is a formal objection. Thomas Paine did not misappropriate the Bible when he argued against monarchy; he used it quite appropriately, even if he didn't believe a goddam word of it.

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2010/04/thomas-paines-common-sense-as-heard-by.html



Jonathan Rowe said...

Well I agree with Dreisbach and Hall that parts of the DOI are congenial to what the "reformation resisters" whom Kopel invokes wrote about.

"Still, the Continental Congress were duly constituted 'lower magistrates,' thus were in accordance with Calvin there too."

Again Calvin's position is that lower magistrates had to have legal authority under the position law to resist and depose. You really think the Continental Congress' actions were akin to Congress impeaching a President?

I think Frazer misses in that as he tells the tale the "Calvinism" that the American populace learned prior to the Lockean incorporation into the pulpits was Calvin's teachings on Romans 13 which demanded absolute submission and then Lockean teachings were introduced.

I'm not sure we have uncovered the content of these American sermons to begin with. What I have seen is the Sandoz sermons of the Founding era, and they are much heavier on Locke than Rutherford, Ponet, etc. AND, we must stress, whatever the parallels Locke is not Rutherford et al. These figures had a nuanced argument about resistance under law. Locke was a revolutionary.

As Thomas Kidd notes,

"Can we wholeheartedly accept Jefferson’s assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is [the people’s] right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government”? Resisting patently ungodly commands is one thing. Resisting unjust taxes on consumer goods is another. But “throwing off” a government for such taxes, and for a lack of effective representation, is hard to square with the stance recommended by Scripture. Maybe John Zubly had a point?"

And this is the reason why Moots in fact did not "beat" Noll.