At Cliopatria, Ralph Luker and Co. are debating the issues raised in Bruce Kuklick's review essay for Christianity Today. Can a modern historian write a narrative in which God is an agent? For Luker, this question raises some concerns about faith as both a "bias" and a "presumption." His point speaks to the project I'm currently finishing (Hah!--Ed.), which is a case study in historical thinking, Victorian popular Protestant-style. Emily Sarah Holt (1836-93), a novelist of no particular distinction but quite a bit of ambition, wrote a forty-plus novel "history" of Britain designed to undermine post-Lingardian readings of English history. Her evangelical Calvinist vision of history derives from that of John Foxe: history ultimately resolves into the ongoing battle between Christ and anti-Christ.* In this model, neither the true nor the false churches can be said to change in any essential fashion. Or, in Peter Hinchcliff's words, "if truth was true, then truth did not change."** As a result, Holt perceives no anachronism in representing Laud as to all intents and purposes identical to the modern Ritualists, just as she fails to see any difficulties in paralleling medieval Catholics and late-Victorian ones. At the same time, all heresies that seem to anticipate the Reformation qualify as proto-Protestant, so that such heretics can be appropriated for the "invisible church" of true believers over against the "visible church" of instituational Catholicism. Reigning over this ongoing battle is, of course, God himself. Holt follows earlier evangelicals like William Wilberforce and Hannah More in asserting that all apparent evils rebound, in the end, to the greater good of God's will; thus, the Marian persecutions form part of God's providential plan for establishing Protestantism in England, despite appearing at the time like a fatal setback. In much the same way, although John de Wycliffe and the Lollards--with whom Holt was particularly obsessed--failed to establish themselves in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, nevertheless their appearance shows that England has innate Protestant tendencies.
In this historiographical mode, God is always the First Cause of historical events. One ironic result of such a position is that, really, its adherents never need to mention God at all--his action is always understood. More importantly, this model defers historical understanding to the Day of Judgment: all human narratives are necessarily incomplete, for only God has truly objective access to human motivations and actions alike. Even Victorians who did not otherwise adhere to this evangelical explanation of history still often agreed that historical narratives were problematic, especially since it was often impossible for historians to delineate God's providence with any clarity.*** To that extent, invoking God as an agent provides a structuring framework but does not necessarily "bias" the account; one still has to work out all of the secondary causes as though God were not the final explanation. (This was Gibbon's point.) Where faith spills over into bias, however, generally comes through in a) the handling of source materials and b) the historian's definition of a significant event. Most scholars would argue, for example, that Holt's Lollard obsession--they feature in seven novels and a nonfiction biography of Wycliffe--is out of all proportion to the Lollards' actual impact on the course of English Christianity. More seriously, Holt's treatment of her key sources, especially Thomas Walsingham and Henry Knighton, often resolves into a hermeneutics of suspicion. Pro-Lollard materials are never self-interested, whereas pro-Roman Catholic materials always are. As a result, any attacks on individual Lollards suddenly mutate into paradoxical paeans to their real virtues, whereas praise for Catholics mutates, contrariwise, into signs of their real blameworthiness.
*--You can consult an online scholarly edition of Foxe here. William Haller's Elect Nation: The Meaning and Relevance
of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, even though "sloppy", is still an OK introduction; the work coming out of the John Foxe Project (responsible for the edition linked above), however, is far superior. Anthony Milton's Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600-1640 (Cambridge, 1995) is especially helpful for seventeenth-century permutations of Foxe's thinking, as well as objections to it. For a much briefer introduction, I recommend S. J. Barnett's "Where Was Your Church Before Luther? Claims for the Antiquity of Protestantism Examined," Church History 68 (1999): 14-41.
**--Peter Hinchliff, God and History: Aspects of British Theology 1875-1914 (Oxford, 1992), 45. Hinchliff is explaining why Newman's theory of development would have been so upsetting. Victorian Protestants tended to accuse Roman Catholicism of both being unchanging (in its essence) and forever changing (in its doctrines and ritual practices).
***--For a very non-Christian example, see the Anglo-Jewish novelist and theologian Grace Aguilar, in The Spirit of Judaism, ed. Isaac Leeser, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia, 5633), 155-56.
UPDATE: Typo fixed, parentheses deleted, Aguilar reference added.