Eighty students gathered yesterday afternoon in Boyer Hall to hear Dr. Jim LaGrand, professor of American history, give the 2011 Messiah College History Department Faith and History Lecture. Dr. LaGrand’s lecture was entitled “Consideration of a Somewhat Calvinist Historian.”
Dr. LaGrand was very sensitive to the fact that many students at an Anabaptist College might not be familiar with some of the central tenets of Calvinism. He began by explaining the core theological beliefs of the Calvinist faith and how those beliefs might shape the way one does history. For example, the “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 give Christians a call to go into the world and create. He compared this to the Catholic idea of co-creation and reminded the students that the Calvinist cultural mandate is very similar to what they learn about creation in Messiah’s “Created and Called for Community” first-year core course. Another feature of Calvinism that has implications for the pursuit of the intellectual life is the belief that “Christ is Lord.” Calvinists, he argued, believe that Jesus Christ is sovereign over all areas of life, including the human experience as understood through time. (As a good Dutch Calvinist, Dr. LaGrand also introduced the students to the work of Abraham Kuyper).
Dr. LaGrand encouraged the audience to think about the idea of “total depravity” as a useful theological category for historians to employ in their study of the past. Drawing on the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, George Marsden, Flannery O’Connor, and Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, he suggested that human sin, even “evil,” might help us to better understood human behavior.
Though firmly committed to the Calvinist faith, Dr. LaGrand also suggested some of the limits of Calvinism in doing history. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination is not an excuse for failing to address human agency in the past. (In this sense, he rejected a Dooyeweerdian approach to the past). The Calvinist view of providence is not particular helpful in explaining human history. Moreover, a “Christian view of history” does not mean that one moralizes or preaches through the past. Rather, because of the Calvinist doctrine of “common grace,” good can flow from all human beings, even those who are not believers.
He concluded his lecture with ten ways in which Christian theology comes to bear on the doing of history:
1. The unity of the human family.
2. Equality of people before God.
3. Empathy and solidarity
4. The importance of the “least of these.”
5. The place of religion in people’s lives.
6. The Christian belief in legitimate and illegitimate authority.
7. Peace and peacemaking.
8. The limits of the human endeavor.
9. The danger of idolatry.
10. The proper place of government vis-a-vis individuals, groups, and families.
It was a great lecture. Our Messiah College history students are privileged to hear lectures that help them connect their faith with their academic course of study.