The Promises and Perils of Denominational History

Today’s guest post is by Nathan A. Finn, who serves as associate professor of historical theology and Baptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also directs the Center for Spiritual Formation and Evangelical Spirituality. You can follow him on Twitter​.

Near the end of my time in college, I was a history major who knew I wanted to be a professor. However, I also felt a keen sense of calling to full-time ministry. I wrestled with two different paths. The first was to attend seminary, earn the M.Div., and then pursue Ph.D. work in church history. The second was to attend a university and pursue the M.A. and Ph.D. in history. I knew I could write the same dissertation in either setting; it was more a question of vocation. After seeking advice from pastors and professors, I opted for the first path. I haven’t regretted it.

Almost fifteen years later, I now teach church history in a Southern Baptist seminary. But unlike my colleagues with specializations in Patristics or the Reformation era, my doctoral studies focused upon modern fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Furthermore, most of my writing thus far and about half of my teaching responsibilities relate to the history of the Baptist tradition. Contrary to the direction of the wider historical academy, I find myself engaged in that most outdated form of religious history. Hello, my name is Nathan Finn, and I am a denominational historian.

For several years, two colleagues and I have been writing a Baptist history textbook; it is due for publication July 2015. The book’s publisher is our denominational press, B&H Academic. Our primary audience is students who are either taking Baptist History as an upper-level elective in a Christian Studies undergraduate program, likely at a Baptist-affiliated college or university, or first-year seminary students who are taking the class as a required course, likely at a Baptist seminary. Though we’ve tried to write in such a way that professors in other Baptist denominations will appreciate the textbook (and perhaps even adopt it!), we are also aware that our ecclesial identity as Southern Baptists will almost certainly be apparent to thoughtful readers. Writing a Baptist history textbook has reminded me of the promises and perils of denominational history.

Denominational history has come a long way. For decades, denominational historians worked in confessional silos, whether implicit or explicit. They wrote and taught as insiders for insiders. They interacted with one another, but rarely with the wider academy; many were not even involved in broader professional societies. They focused on institutions, figures, and theology, but they rarely allowed the insights of social and cultural history to impinge upon their work. They perpetuated insular, often simplistic interpretations of their denominational traditions. Some of them were more chroniclers than historians, passing on mostly uncritical grand narratives that assumed the best days are always around the corner. The worst were really preachers and apologists, highlighting the alleged mighty acts of God through their particular tradition.

As recent edited works by Russell Richey and Robert Bruce Mullin and my colleague Keith Harper have demonstrated, over the past couple of generations denominational historians have begun to emerge from their insularity. A growing number of denominational historians have pursued graduate studies in history rather than (or in addition to) church history. Even those of us who opted for the church history route have read far more widely and received far more sophisticated training in historiography and historical method than our predecessors. Denominational historians are engaging with the wider academy, contextualizing their interpretations, and framing the stories of their particular traditions within the larger story of American religion. They are incorporating more minority voices, doing more (and better) archival research, and approaching historical theology as a form of intellectual history rather than background study for systematic theology. Simply put, denominational historians have become better historians who are writing better history. It’s a time of promise.

But there are still perils. Many of us navigate sincere confessional commitments with the demands of the wider academy. To say it more bluntly, we really do believe God has been at work in our traditions, even if, as historians, we are more measured in our pronouncements about dominical action than our theologian friends. Many of us have adopted what I call a “bilingual” strategy in our work. When we are in confessional contexts (like a seminary classroom or local church), we “own” our tradition, even as we try to bring a greater degree of historical sophistication to our work than previous generations. But when we are in scholarly contexts (like a professional conference), we simply want to be good historians who are appropriately empathetic toward our subjects. Our writing, of course, could go either way, depending upon the intended audience. (I enjoy writing for both confessional and more broadly academic audiences.)

We also have to tread carefully sometimes with our denominational constituencies. For example, as a Southern Baptist historian in a denominational seminary, I’m expected to teach on the “Inerrancy Controversy” that rocked the SBC from 1979 to 2000. This can be tricky. Confessionally, I resonate with the concerns of the more conservative faction that eventually gained control of the denomination’s institutions. Personally, I abhor much of how the controversy “went down”; denominational politics is a reminder of how far very short believers often fall from their professed principles. Professionally, I have a far more nuanced interpretation of the Inerrancy Controversy than many of the partisans—including many of the polemical church historians who came of age during the fracas. I’m regularly faced with the dilemma of balancing being critical without becoming cynical, and being confessional without becoming a cheerleader.

I think the promises outweigh the perils; there has never been a better time to be a denominational historian. While I’m thankful for how synthetic works shed light on the past and inform my own work, I hope more budding historians will choose to study denominational traditions. Historians of American religious history cannot adequately interpret broad concepts such as revivalism or modernism or fundamentalism or evangelicalism or charismatic or mainline without understanding how many of the folks who identified with these movements also worshiped in churches that were part of a denominational tradition.

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  • philipjenkins

    Welcome Nathan!

    It’s the same argument as micro-history, isn’t it? At its best, you can see the whole world in a single village or a single life. Or, the whole church in a single denomination. Also, without the essential building blocks, generalized statements have to be flawed.

    You might also be amused by one connection. When people discuss micro-history, they always cite Flaubert’s saying that “God is in the detail.” Hey, if that’s not true in religious denominations, where is it?

    Has anyone ever discussed denominational history against the background of that thriving micro-historical literature? If not, now there’s an opportunity for someone.

  • Nathan Finn

    Philip,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree about micro-history. In fact, I have been encouraged in recent years by the re-emphasis on a certain form of denominational micro-history: the history of local congregations. In the past, these sorts of books were pietistic narratives that were normally written by chroniclers who were members of the church whose past they were recounting. In recent years, a growing number of historians have written local church histories, showing how those congregations were (or were not) microcosms of larger trends, emphasizing local historical context, etc. I’m thankful for this trend toward “serious” local church history.

    Nathan

  • philipjenkins

    Boy, that sounds like a great theme for a collection of essays or a conference. Unless of course there is an existing one that I don’t know – I don’t claim to know that literature.