Written by: David Buschart
With these two general observations made, we turn to the two variables identified in the opening paragraph above. One variable is differing understandings of the relationship between the natural and the supernatural. Historians of Christianity have long debated such questions as whether or not they should attempt to discern how God has worked directly and supernaturally in the history of Christianity. Scholars, including both "secular" and "religious" scholars, hold varying views regarding God's providence, that is, God's sovereign oversight of and involvement in history.
If an historian is of the view that God does not work directly or intervene supernaturally in history (this is, of course, a theological view, whether acknowledged by the historian or not), then, of course, certain historical questions—such as whether or not it is possible to identify God's work in history—is a moot point. And, in this case, the story of Christianity, past and present, will be told exclusively with respect to non-supernatural factors, such as economics, sociology, technology, culture, and the like. Such an historian has already concluded that there is no such divine working to (even potentially) study.
If an historian is of the (theological) view that God does indeed work providentially in history, then the question still remains as to whether or not it is possible, and whether or not it is advisable, to attempt to discern such workings in history. And, scholars draw different conclusions regarding these questions. Some, believing that God does work providentially in history, believe that historians can and should attempt to tell the story of Christianity in a way that includes "acts of God" in history.
Other historians, including some who also hold the belief that God works providentially in history, believe that, due to the nature of history and the historical enterprise, historians are simply incapable of identifying such divine operations as divine, providential workings of God. According to these scholars, historians-as-historians cannot and should not attempt to make statements about God's providential working in history. Thus, functionally, these latter scholars approach the study of Christianity in much the same way as those who hold different (theological) beliefs about God's providential working. Both these historians and those who do not believe that God does work providentially in history (see preceding paragraph) will tell the story of Christianity exclusively with respect to "non-supernatural" factors, such as economics, sociology, technology, culture, and the like, not including any explicit appeal or reference to divine sovereignty.
Obviously, differing understandings of this matter—the relationship between the natural and supernatural in history—will generate different approaches to, questions about, and conclusions regarding both the historical past and the historical present of Christianity.