Refreshing History

April 1987By Sheldon Vanauken

Sheldon Vanauken is a writer located in Virginia and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His books include the award-winning A Severe Mercy, and most recently The Glittering Illusion.

The Founding of Christendom.  By Warren H. Carroll. Christendom College Press. 605 pages. $12.95.

The Founding of Christendom by Warren Carroll, a Columbia-trained historian and the founder of Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, is not about the college but Christendom itself - the entire people of God as well as the area of the world that has been traditionally Christian, even as Islam is the area of the Mohammedans. The Founding is the beginning of a mighty project, nothing less than A History of Christendom from its earliest roots to the present day in six volumes, the last of which, significantly, is to be called The Martyrdom of Christianity. Whatever the subsequent volumes may reveal, none surely can be more important than The Founding. This is history written from a steadfastly Christian and Catholic point of view. Carroll himself converted to Christianity nearly 20 years ago; and, as an historian, he saw clearly that, if Christ was indeed the Son of God, the Catholic Church was His Church. And even then the project of his great work shaped itself in his mind with all the enormous study that it must require. The Founding of Christendom is, first of all, a work of scholarship, conscientious and thoroughly annotated; but itis also dramatic and powerful, very moving at times and very readable - delightfully readable. Carroll never forgets that the historian is a storyteller - e.g., see the gripping chapter on Alexander and his phalanxes, "The March Across the World." It is not a book only for the learned; the ordinary intelligent reader will find in it a clarity that is quite exceptional, and he will feel himself a participant in these great events.

Founding devotes half its length not only to Christianity's roots in the history, very lucidly told, of the Chosen People of Israel, but to the convergence of three great streams: Israel with its stubborn faith, Greece with its splendid vision of beauty and truth, and Rome with its discipline and fortitude and probity. I am myself an historian who has taught Greek and Roman history, but I have never seen a book that so clearly shows the convergence and interaction of these three streams that were to shape Christendom. To be sure, there are minor points of disagreement: For instance, Carroll is inclined to give the Spartans more credit vis-à-vis the Athenians, who after all won Marathon and the crucial sea-victory at Salamis, than they deserve. But this is a trifle. Carroll handles the subject with sympathy and clarity. Then the history goes on to its very moving account of the days of Our Lord, and the Apostolic times, and the martyrs as Rome endeavored to stamp out this troubling faith; the volume culminates in "The Triumph of the Cross" in the time of the Emperor Constantine. The book holds one's interest from the first page to the last. The word that comes to mind again and again is refreshing - refreshing history.

In his introduction, with an honesty regrettably rare among writers of divine history, Carroll speaks of his own beliefs and of "the fundamental error in the widely held idea that the history of religion is ‘objective' when written by those who do not believe in the religion they are writing about.... " Since I, in one of my own books, spoke of "the sort of scholar...who thinks his objectivity would be marred by belief [but] never supposes that disbelief mars objectivity," Carroll's comment rang a bell. What is remarkable about Founding is not only that it is written by a believing Christian but that it is Christian history written by an historian - not, that is, by a theologian. Christian history has been almost entirely the province of the theologian, originally perhaps because it was felt that the theologian, whose study was God and the supernatural, would bring faith to the account of divine events. If this was ever true, it is all too often not true now. The theologian of the historical-critical school appears to feel doubt to be his province - doubt of everything that has engaged the faith of millions. Warren Carroll is himself a doubter, only he prefers to doubt the theologians instead of the faith. That is why the work is refreshing. He is not afraid to accept the evidence of the intervention of God, and he is not in the grip of secular assumptions. How very refreshing it is!

All this is so unusual that something more should be said of it. It is not that Carroll is naively accepting, but rather that he is not naïvely rejecting. He does not attempt to impose a meaning of his own - what C.S. Lewis would call "Historicism" - but he is aware, as Lewis also said in that essay, that we have about certain great events, those touched on in the creeds, what amounts to "divine comment which makes plain so much of their significance as we need, or can bear, to know." Carroll simply looks at the evidence for the existence of some biblical person or predictive prophecy or miracle with no imperative to reject or explain away. I am still smiling at the lovely understatement about those who would deny the historical existence of Moses: that their theories "must contain an error far more fundamental than mere misjudgement of a single historical figure or period." After reading Founding one may conclude that an historian can not only write biblical history as well as theologians, but he may write it better. Better certainly than any historical-critical theologian who approaches the record of divine events armed, not with faith, but with unprovable secular assumptions. For such theologians (and there are right many of them) the miraculous, regardless of evidence, is (in the modern jargon) "unacceptable" - which, freely translated, means, "No faith in anything requiring faith except our faith in secular assumptions."

It is, then, an almost unique pleasure - a refreshment - to read a careful, scholarly, and copiously annotated (the reader must not miss the notes) 20th-century history that is not marred by secular assumptions or what C.S. Lewis calls "chronological snobbery" about the superiority of modern insights and wisdom. As suggested above, Carroll believes that predictive prophecy may occur (see his discussion of Isaiah); and, therefore, both he and the reader are spared the frightful contortions of those who wish to prove that the prediction "must have" been added after the event. But Carroll is a scholar. When he differs from current theological opinions, he carefully gives the opposing view as well as his reasons for concluding otherwise.

An excellent illustration of his method may be found in his treatment of the authorship of the Gospels, particularly that of John. Carroll points out that the authorship of Mark and Luke is rarely contested by modern theologians but that they are intent to deny that the Apostles St. Matthew and St. John wrote the Gospels attributed to them in all ancient tradition. Then, pointing out the respect universally given to eyewitness accounts as opposed to secondhand ones (however carefully reported), he says tellingly: "It is hard to escape the suspicion that this is the real reason for the persistent attempts of so many critics to prove that the Gospels of Matthew and John were not written by St. Matthew, and St. John." He discusses the early modernist efforts to prove that the Gospels were written late in the first century or in the second, while that of John was relegated to late in the latter century. These learned books were scrapped by a scrap of papyrus, a fragment of John found in Egypt that established that John had to have been written not later than the turn of the first century - all tradition indicating that the Apostle John lived to be an old man. Most interesting of all, though, is Carroll's discussion of the internal evidence in the Gospel of John (Jn. 19:32-37 and Jn. 21:20-24) that affirms the Apostle's authorship, apparently written both by the Gospel-writer himself "and then, confirming him and testifying for him, his first hearers [or his scribes]." And then Carroll says: "The very truths about the composition and witness of his Gospel which modern critics reject are here most solemnly and explicitly avowed, in a context where surely any man who believed that Christ would come to judge the world and everyone in it (can anyone doubt that whoever wrote John's Gospel must have believed that?) would tremble to tell a lie. Rarely if ever does the critic who denies that St. John's Gospel presents eyewitness testimony, that it accurately reports the words of Christ, that it was in fact written by the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee the fisherman, dare to assert openly that these two statements are sheer perjury. Yet that is precisely what the position he holds requires him to believe. The battle is joined. Either the Gospel speaks falsely or the critic does. There can be no third position; there can be no compromise."

And there is no compromise with the modernist dismantling of the Faith in Carroll's book. It is not that he is attempting to prove what the Bible tells us; it is, rather, that as a conscientious historian dealing with an ancient document (the Bible) he refuses to reject the evidence because the miraculous is "unacceptable." "Who told you that?" he is, in effect, saying. A reader of the New Oxford Review can hardly fail to be aware of the enormous efforts of the modernists to discredit the key parts of the Bible, especially of course the New Testament. Sometimes the motives of the attackers are obvious, for instance, efforts to undermine anything that hints that some wars may be just, and, even more, the frantic feminist efforts to discredit St. Paul. But the main attack is that of what might be called (risking a contradiction of terms) "faithless Christians" who attempt to undermine or discredit anything - St. John as an eyewitness and the author of the Gospel - that supports the Faith. Above all, the Resurrection. "A faith happening," they say - meaning that those naïve Apostles really believed it happened but we know better. Typical chronological snobbery. Thus Warren Carroll is for the Christian a powerful and refreshing antidote.

Modernist theologians will not attempt to refute Carroll by argument; they will stonily ignore his work. He is not "in the club." All the same, this history is worth noticing - and, above all, for the faithful Christian, worth reading.

I venture to say that it would receive an excellent review from St. Paul.

DOSSIERS: Neoconservatism, Economics

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