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Bradley, James E., and Richard A. Muller
Church History. An Introduction to Research, Reference Works, and Methods.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1995. XV, 236 S. gr.8. Kart. £ 19,-. ISBN 0-8028-0826-3.
This unusual book meets a painfully felt gap in precise and attractive manner. It is a handbook for doctoral students in church history, which, though designed mainly for the American and British scene, will be found very helpful elsewhere.
Its aim is to gather together in brief compass everything that a graduate student needs to know when embarking upon a dissertation, from methodology and perspectives to the practical 'tools of the trade'. It offers sensible and detailed guidance to the doctorand from the first tentative search for a topic to the final transmutation of the dissertation into a monograph or periodical articles. As the front cover suggests, a personal computer superimposed on an ancient manuscript, it is characterised by an almost evangelical fervour for the computer age. It sensibly takes nothing for granted, being an introductory manual, and its suggestions at times verge on the simplistic, but well-versed practitioners of the church historian's art will find much to ponder in its crisp definitions and sage observations. German-speaking historians will also find it a fascinating window on the best of contemporary American ethos and praxis.
Its initial chapter offers reliable, if unsurprising distinctions between the various branches of church history: the history of dogma, of doctrine, of Christian thought, institutional and social history. It emphasises the social genesis of ideas, and the need to work much more intentionally than we have in the past towards an integration of doctrinal and social history. There follows a fairly elementary but pleasant enough ramble through the emer-gence of critical historiography, which may underplay the contribution of Renaissance and Reformation writers, but pays due homage to the contribution of eighteenth and nineteenth century German scholarship. While apparently unaware of more recent hermeneutical discussion in Germany and of the emergent debate about cultural history in the French and Anglo-Saxon world, it argues for a balanced, eclectic approach, and assumes throughout an awareness of ecumenical, gender, and minority perspectives.
Chapter 2, on perspective and meaning in history, offers more to the established scholar, steering a middle path between Elton's confidence in the 'brute facts' and E. H. Carr's decided caution. One wonders if the old American penchant for the Scottish common-sense tradition in philosophy lingers on in the measured optimism of the authors that a genuinely balanced and objective historiography is possible, provided due attention is paid to context, and the primacy of original sources. One's bias, if recognised, can be a heuristic tool. The claim that Christian faith provides the church historian with special insights is treated with proper scepticism, and the occasional swinging attack is launched on dogmaticians who press the past too readily into their service. It is interesting to observe the vigorous self-consciousness of the church historian, her or his responsiblity for keeping theology honest! Chapters 3 and 4, by contrast, are very down to earth, beginning with excellent advice about the selection and narrowing down of a prospective topic (very much the prerogative of the candidate in the American context), but soon moving on to perhaps the central thrust of the book: the insistence that computer technology and the availability of source material in microform or compact disc format provides today's church historian with quite unparalleled opportunities for primary research and bibliographical comprehensiveness. Any scholar who continues to try to do without them is, by definition, considered 'precritical', and is likened to those who resisted the methodological advances of the Enlightenment. Strong words, indeed, qualified only slightly by the observation that access to the world's great libraries and archives will always remain important!
The bibliographical tools at the disposal of the researcher in church history are then reviewed in systematic manner, with particular attention being paid to the massive new data-bases which have emerged in the last decade. It is indeed helpful to have these resources listed together in one place. Text databases and materials in microform are mustered, period by period. The authors underline the unprecedented searching power of the computer, and the advantages of miniaturization. A brief section on research in archives follows. Here, as elsewhere, the authors make no pretence to be exhaustive.
Chapter 5, on the practice of research and the craft of writing, deals sanely with the mechanics of note-taking and information storage and the painful process of committing thought to wri-ting. Useful as it quite certainly is, the discussion is confined to the technical level, and there is no recognition of the key role of supervisor or research seminar in directing, encouraging, and steering the candidate through the material, and frequently also through the apparently inevitable onslaughts of hybris or de-pression, or both. The final chapter, meant as a simple guide to preparing one's first lectures and publications, seldom rises above predictability.
The final sixty pages, a quarter of the whole book, take bibliographical form, listing the reference tools and research resources for church history, and while of course not exhaustive, will be a godsend to researchers. A very useful appendix describes microform series of source materials and computer applications currently available for church historical research and writing.
The handbook is not without its limitations. It is understand- able that American and British interests are at the forefront, but less so that African, Asian and Oceanic Church History are so totally ignored. The role of a 'sense of place', and of the historical imagination could have been acknowledged, and the genesis of the book in the conservative Fuller Seminary may be apparent in the choice of areas of study and illustrative examples. One is mildly astonished at some of the dated textbooks suggested, and at some of the omissions, such as the Ecclesiastical History Society's Studies in Church History. And can one really talk of 'causes' in history any more?
Yet this is undoubtedly a quite superb introduction for beginners, and can confidently be put in the hands of graduate students. Its strategies for research are based on long experience, and will avert countless disasters if followed. Its vision of what Oberman has dubbed 'total' church history, carefully balancing social and intellectual factors, is a generous one, and it will encourage many a reader to scrutinise their own use of traditional and innovative research tools and be more alert than before to the value of the new technology.