“Thank God, It (Never Should Have) Happened”: Theology, Historiography, and Supercessionism in John Howard Yoder and Herbert Butterfield

Andy Black
Bucknell University

Christians from the beginning have a strong investment in history as a discipline which seeks to hold together in one story continuity and discontinuity. That is the nature of their story, with its unexpected fulfillments of prophecy, its crucified God. Christians are people (just like the Jews after the exile) for whom the past has become a problem, a challenge, to be talked about, talked through, mended and unified in language. The strange and interruptive has to be made into a unity, has to be made intelligible, yet not reduced and made so smooth that you don’t notice there is a problem. The action of God is allowed to appear in the telling of such a story as that which holds together apparent contradictions and drives us to deeper levels of consistency.
– Rowan Williams1


Like the rabbis of the Talmud after the destruction of Jerusalem, John Howard Yoder spent his scholarly career advancing an account of faith and life that would enable Christians to find new possibilities for faithful existence after the demise of their social and cultural dominance in the West. Though he took as inspiration his sixteenth-century Anabaptist forebears, Yoder’s signal achievement was to compel much of late 20th century Christian theology to reckon with his contention that Christological non-violence is mandated by classic, ecumenically affirmed doctrines. As such, he insisted that the call to non-violent discipleship cannot be reduced to the respected but peculiar witness of a few marginal denominations.

Yoder never gave a systematic account of “his” theology or ethics. Nevertheless, those most familiar with his writings have found within them a remarkably consistent focus.2 Throughout his work, Yoder showed a concern for reading history rightly, which he sometimes voiced in the more abstract language associated with theologies of history. Thus, interpreters have sought to unlock Yoder’s hermeneutic of history by using categories such as “eschatology” and “apocalyptic.”3 Equally prominent, however, are Yoder’s attempts to revisit particular historical moments, drawing upon relevant sources to challenge familiar accounts of how the past turned into the present.

In other words, Yoder wanted to “do history” just as much as he insisted that non-violence follows directly from the claim that Jesus’ cross and resurrection reveal history’s inner meaning. In fact, as we will see, the two were for him closely related: to do good history is to refuse to protect one’s present sense identity at the cost of doing violence to the past. For Yoder, a paradigmatic instance of such violence occurred as soon as followers of Jesus began to conclude that a divorce between “Christianity” and “Judaism” was inevitable.

Jewish philosopher Peter Ochs claims that Yoder’s entire theological project should be of interest to Jews because the Christianity Yoder articulated was, like Judaism throughout so much of its history, a “biblical religion after.”4 He contends, however, that Yoder’s attempt to wrestle with the theological and historical problem of the “Jewish-Christian schism” is filled with both remarkable “wonders” as well as difficult “burdens.”5 He argues that the kind of reasoning Yoder employed in his valiant attempt to overcome Christian supercessionism (certainly in its “hard” forms—i.e., “replacement theology”) reinforces the very problem he set out to repair. If the bulk of Christians tragically came to relegate the Jewish people to the past, Ochs worries that Yoder’s solution would do the same to all but a slender minority of both communities. His critique echoes a more general unease with aspects of Yoder’s treatment of history among many scholars otherwise appreciative of his work.

In this essay, I examine more closely what it means to think of Yoder as a historian by putting his work in conversation with that of Herbert Butterfield (Professor of History at Peterhouse, Cambridge, for the middle third of the twentieth century). Best known for his essays critiquing what he called the “Whig Interpretation of History,” Butterfield was also what we might call an amateur theologian. A Methodist layperson who quietly served as a supply preacher for local congregations throughout his years as a Cambridge don, he began to explore more explicitly the relationship between “history,” the historian, and Christian faith in the latter years of his writing career.

Butterfield’s historiographical writings provide an important perspective on Yoder’s entire project. For instance, there are noteworthy similarities between Butterfield’s critique of “Whig” history and somewhat overlooked aspects of Yoder’s famous polemic against the influence of “Constantinianism” within mainline Christian ethics. More specifically, however, Butterfield’s work contributes a distinctively historiographical voice to critical engagement with Yoder’s legacy. From a quite different direction, speaking strictly about the character of “good history,” Butterfield’s writings contain a position remarkably similar to Ochs’s critique of Yoder’s work on the Jewish-Christian schism.

What I seek to show here is that the points at which the otherwise highly compatible Yoder and Butterfield part ways have little to do with disjunctive contrasts between empirical history and abstract theologizing, between mere description and subjective interpretation, and between facts and values. Yoder was an accomplished historian in his own right, and Butterfield had astute theological instincts. Rather, the problem has roots in different historiographical and theological accounts of the relationship between human freedom, the general processes of history, and/or the working of “providence.” This broad statement will make more sense after describing what it means to read Yoder as a historian.

Yoder the Historian

Yoder is known best as the author of The Politics of Jesus (1972), which combined systematic ethical reflection, theological analysis, and contemporary biblical and historical scholarship to argue that Jesus of Nazareth taught and embodied non-violent, suffering servant love as a serious political option for himself and for the community that would gather in his name.6 Commentators have since struggled to classify this work. Is it best understood as theology, ethics, or biblical studies?

In the preface to the first edition of The Politics of Jesus, Yoder acknowledged that the book operated on multiple levels. Most obviously, it represented “the simple rebound of a Christian pacifist commitment as it responds to the ways in which mainstream Christian theology has set aside the pacifist implications of the New Testament message.” He also considered Politics to be, in a deeper sense, an exercise in “fundamental philosophical hermeneutics.” In this case, Yoder was trying to demonstrate the existence of a “distinct biblical worldview” that could give clear and decisive guidance for the contemporary Christian community.7

Between making moves in a particular intellectual contest and attempting to clarify first principles, Yoder acknowledged an in-between level, in which he contended that it is possible to find “a bulk of specific and concrete content in Jesus’ vision of the divine order which can speak to our age as it seldom has been free to do before, if it can be unleashed from the bonds of inappropriate a prioris.”8 The realm of this specific and concrete content, drawn from the past, is—to put it simply—“history.” Thus, in Politics, Yoder drew upon recent historical investigations of first-century Palestine and Second Temple Judaism in order to challenge mainstream assumptions about Jesus’ social/political ethics (or lack thereof).

In Yoder’s articulation of this “historical” level of The Politics of Jesus we can discern three significant claims; these are claims about (a) how history should be done (“unleashed from the bonds of inappropriate a prioris”), (b) why it should be done (it “can speak to our age”), and (c) why it should be done now (“as it seldom has been free to do before”). Roughly speaking, we can say that the first contention deals with what good historical work should be about, the second with the general utility of such work, and the third with saying something specific about the relationship between the present and the past. Though these three dimensions are difficult to discuss separately, this schema provides a way to sketch the relationship between some of Yoder’s most prominently displayed concerns, particularly as we look at his attempt to re-narrate the Jewish-Christian schism.

Unleashing History:  “It Did not Have to Be”

Yoder once described himself as an “amateur,” which he considered to be the natural role of anyone involved in interdisciplinary and interfaith conversation. While his assertion of amateur status sounds like false scholarly humility, it entailed a specific stance toward his subject matter and his interlocutors. For Yoder, while the “expert… shares her or his colleagues’ axioms,” the amateur, like himself, “asks why they have become axiomatic.”9

Working in this amateurish mode, on multiple occasions Yoder challenged the assumption that history is best understood as the attempt to establish why all the things that have happened did happen. Why was there a Civil War? Why are there Christians called Methodists? How can we account for the rise of the Third Reich? Historical answers to these questions may attribute major developments to a few straightforward causes, or they can weave a rich tapestry in which multiple factors intersect in complex ways.  In any case, the goal remains the same: “good history” gives a satisfying and illuminating explanation of how a particular part of the past moved toward our present, using sources and methods generally accepted by others in the historical guild.

While hastily conceding that it is much better to have good historical explanations of this sort than not to have them, Yoder insisted that “there is no error more natural, and perhaps there are few errors more damaging in the reading of history, than the assumption that events had to go the way they did.”10 As he saw it, an unreflective sense of inevitability is so damaging because, in a subtle and ultimately unhistorical manner, it denies the moral agency of particular actors, thereby denying something fundamental about the human past:

[T]he living of human history matters because moral choices are not only real but important; they make a difference for how the world is to go and what is to happen to our neighbors. Therefore the writing of history, when rightly done, ought to somehow render the decisiveness of the choices people make. Yet often the historian puts a premium on being able to lay over events the grid of an explanatory cause/effect connectedness such that things really had to go the way they finally did. The more convincingly the historian can demonstrate that necessity, the better she/he believes the job has been done.11

For Yoder, history “rightly done” skillfully describes the multiple options, pressures, and uncertainty with which people and groups in a particular moment were dealing as they weighed their responsibility for the future. To amend for the damage done by history when it is suffused with a sense of the past’s predetermined character, Yoder urged the adoption of an “indispensable corrective emphasis concerning historical method” which works from the axiomatic assumption that “it did not have to be.”12

One can see a concern to show that certain things “did not have to be” from the very beginning of Yoder’s scholarly career.  His doctoral research at the University of Basel focused on the series of formal disputations held for more than a decade, starting in the late 1520s, between representatives of what would become the (city-)state-sponsored Reformed churches and the eventual leaders of the persecuted Swiss Anabaptist communities.13 Drawing upon copious primary-source research, Yoder stressed that figures like the “Reformed” Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Bucer, on the one hand, and the “Anabaptist” Menno Simons and Michael Sattler, on the other hand, were unaware “that the switches had already been set long before, whereby abstractions like ‘inclusivism’ or ‘state church’ were going to dictate fatalistically the course of events.”14  By contrast, he insisted that there is plenty of evidence that neither side believed or wanted to accept that a painful and decisive schism was inevitable. Instead, members of all parties continued to hope for unity well after what historians generally consider to have been the all-important turning point, the first articulation of what are now seen as incompatible and timeless sets of principles.15 For Yoder, perceptive accounts of the sixteenth century will show that, despite the presence of sharply differing conceptions of what disciplined Christian community entailed, many believed for quite some time that a fateful choice between the communities later known as Anabaptist (or Swiss Brethren) and Reformed did not have to be.

By imbuing a historical moment with dramatic tension, this kind of history calls into question the absolute necessity of the present. In the process, it destabilizes contemporary identities and the narratives on which they rely (“if things could have gone otherwise, then perhaps we could be different from what we understand ourselves to be now”). This is, in the broadest sense, what Yoder meant by freeing the past from unnecessary assumptions so that it may “speak to our age.” His doctoral research enabled him to challenge the notion that his own Mennonite/anabapist tradition was essentially sectarian and unconcerned with Christian unity.16 In a similar project, one of interest to a much larger audience, Yoder hoped to open up a new form of Jewish-Christian dialogue by pressing the claim that a decisive parting of the ways between church and synagogue “did not have to be.”

Letting History “Speak”:  The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited

A series of Yoder’s essays entitled The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited was posthumously published in 2004. He introduced the essays by claiming that most attempts at Jewish-Christian dialogue tend to take place among or between individuals located within the liberal wings of their respective communities. In other words, such dialogues are often perceived by traditionalist Jews and Christians as yet another means by which assimilationist, cosmopolitan elements hope to pull their respective communities further away from their particular, inherited convictions. As an alternative, Yoder argued that the needed breakthrough in Jewish-Christian relations could come not from a disavowal of the past (“the differences we need to take stock of are too fundamental to be ‘outgrown’ by merely regretting that someone once took them too seriously”17), but only from an honest re-envisioning of what happened and, in light of this, a renewed posing of the question of whether it was theologically necessary that the schism occurred in the way it ultimately did.

To begin, Yoder laid out the plain-sense understanding of the “schism.” The standard account, following more than a millennium of established habit, presupposes the existence of two mutually exclusive social and doctrinal/ritual systems called “Judaism” and “Christianity.” With the long history of Jewish-Christian division and animosity in the West firmly fixed in one’s memory, it is assumed that—like oil and water—it was only a matter of time after the life and death of Jesus until these fundamentally incompatible substances would separate. This background narrative of an inevitable split incorporates several implicit assumptions: first, that there was such a thing as normative Judaism in the first centuries of the Common Era, with recognized authorities and clear boundaries; second, that Jesus (and, later, Saul/Paul) categorically rejected this normative Judaism, and that “Judaism” returned the compliment; and, finally, that the combination of these two breaks clarified the essential nature of “Christianity.”

To all of this, Yoder responded by saying that there was no single event anyone can point to and call the Jewish-Christian schism. Employing his “indispensable corrective concerning historical method,” he provided evidence that there was a significant time period (half of a century at the very least, though almost certainly much longer) during which many “Jews” and “Christians” (to use the anachronistic terms) would have agreed that a decisive parting of the ways “did not have to be.” To make his case, Yoder summarized the conclusions of recent historical investigation into the earliest years of Jewish-Christian co-existence.

First, Jews in the first century belonged to a variety of divergent Judaisms. Intra-Jewish debates of the time were punctuated by mutual condemnations in the harshest of terms, yet all parties remained, in some sense, Jews. It was not until the second century C.E., and perhaps even much later, that a normative Judaism took shape that could enforce to some degree the boundaries of Jewish identity.

Second, neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor the earliest Christian communities categorically rejected Judaism. This is not meant merely in the superficial sense that there simply was no normative “Judaism” to reject. Yoder insisted that close readings of the New Testament writings yield no outright rejection of the Jewish story or the Jewish people.18

Third, Yoder claimed that “the Jews did not reject Christianity.” Again, this is true on its face because primitive “Christianity” was itself rather amorphous, making wholesale rejection of such a slippery entity difficult. More importantly, during this transitional period, Jewish believers in Jesus were still seen as Jews. They were allowed to worship in the temple until its destruction, and they were certainly not the only Jews at the time to identify a particular individual as the Messiah.19 Finally, Paul’s evangelistic mission to Gentiles can be seen as the further development (a novel and controversial one, to be sure) of trends already present in diasporic Judaism that sought to provide a way for Gentiles to live as “god-fearers” and to be included somehow in the divine promises.20

Yoder insisted that the reading of contemporary assumptions about “Jews” and “Christians” into accounts of an earlier time either ignores or treats as insignificant persuasive evidence showing that, for the space of a few generations, “it was completely possible, subject to no necessary disciplinary measures, according to the best traditions of both communions, for the same Jew to be both ‘rabbinic’ and ‘messianic’ (or, in later anachronistic terms, both a ‘Jew’ and a ‘Christian’”).21 The critical point for Yoder is that confession of faith in Jesus did not serve as the critical point of departure for a parting of the ways. Instead, he pins most of the blame for disrupting the fragile but real state of fluidity between “Judaism” and “Christianity” on second-century Christian apologists like Justin Martyr. By Yoder’s reading, the apologists stressed the discontinuity between synagogue and church in a distinctively new way, thereby short-circuiting the theology of Paul, who insisted that the door between those “in Christ” and those who claim fleshly descent from Abraham remain open. From this, he concludes that it is only with these apologetic efforts to gain a wider hearing among Gentiles that, from the Christian side, schism with the “Jews” is given a specifically doctrinal basis.22

There are several important points to draw from Yoder’s attempt to let a re-envisioned history speak to the contemporary question of Jewish-Christian relations.  First is his refinement of the “inappropriate a prioris” from which history must be freed if we are to hear what it has to say. According to Yoder, historians need to bring to bear upon their subject matter the same skills of critical awareness that are developed through responsible participation in any significant dialogue. These skills include sensitivity to the reality that seemingly contradictory ideas are often held together within flesh-and-blood people and communities, as well as an ability to recognize that certain kinds of conflict and tension may actually be constitutive of community:

Intellectual historians are especially prone to sniff out necessary divisions where only paradox, or inconsistency, or tolerable diversity, inconclusive debate, or amusing variety really existed. The rabbis were especially skilled at managing contradictory views within the one social process. The fact that people argue against one another does not prove that they are in incompatible movements:  it may prove just the opposite.23

At this point, Yoder was emphasizing what needs to be done to let history “speak.” What can most immediately be gained from such listening is negative: “it did not have to be.”

Clearly, however, this negative conclusion opens the way for a positive, if tentative, theological claim: what did not have to be then (according to many of the participants) may not have to continue now. Yoder knew that his reading of the available sources was hardly controversial within the historical guild, but this new portrait of the first centuries of the Common Era had yet to influence many Jews and Christians for whom fidelity to tradition holds great importance. To those with such concerns, Yoder argued that even the slightest historical precedent for a fluid border between Judaism and Christianity means that it cannot be ruled out as a contemporary option on theological grounds.24

In yet another commentary on Yoder’s contributions, Randi Rashkover expands on this point to contend that it is both possible and necessary for believing Jews and Christians to combine theological conviction with re-visionist historical work. This is so, she argues, because historical de-essentialization correlates logically with the confessional stance of pilgrims—i.e., those who acknowledge their contingent status as finite, temporal sojourners before God. In other words, “the believer who asks ‘who am I?’ always answers ‘I am one on the way in my testimony who longs to say more and acknowledges the insufficiency of what I say.” Thus,

When historians [like Yoder, in this case] point to the formation of religious identity they contribute to the theologiansown account of the dialectical character of how we speak about God. When historians enshrine the past in certainty and such historical determinacy grounds subsequent dogmatism, the historians labor refutes the theological exercise.25

We shall return to both of these points. In the meantime, it is important to note that Yoder’s affirmation of an indeterminate relationship between Jews and Christians remains itself provisional. In this case, “history”—disciplined to avoid imposing a determinism drawn from present assumptions—opens the door to a dialogue in which the essential nature of the relationship between the interlocutors is no longer presumed. To express this ambiguity, Yoder suggested that Christians should begin referring to Judaism as a “non-non-Christian” religion.26

Finally, however, Yoder wanted to say more than this. It is here that his claims become more controversial. In addition to giving reasons for why the schism was not inevitable, and in addition to his claim that revisiting the past opens up new possibilities for contemporary Jews and Christians, Yoder went further to argue that the schism should not have been. Yoder’s insistence that the Jewish-Christian schism did not have to be is related to his call in The Politics of Jesus for letting the concrete history of Jesus’ life and teachings speak “as it has seldom been free to do so before.”

Jeremianic Judaism and Constantinian Christianity

Throughout his writings, Yoder claimed that “Constantinianism” was something akin to the original sin of mainline Western Christianity. Yet, in The Jewish-Christian Schism, Yoder came closest to pinpointing a precise moment for the catastrophic “fall” of the historical church—not in the fourth century, but perhaps as early as the second, when “Christianity” began to turn its back on the Jews. Yoder saw the eventual rejection of historic Israel as a decisive step leading the church away from its original commitment to Jesus’ radically Jewish ethic, a move that would be reinforced by the thoroughgoing transformation of the church by the “Constantinian shift.”

The ironic and tragic result of this development for Yoder is that Jews within Christendom provided a living example of the kind of community Jesus intended for his followers. To convey the sharpness of his claims, I quote his words at length:

Judaism within Christendom since Constantine has the shape which historians will later call ‘radical reformation’ or ‘peace church.’ Jews expect and accept minority status. They deny ultimate loyalty to any local nation or regime, which is what war presupposes, while they provisionally accept its administration. They look on past and present righteous violence and religious nationalism, including that of their own ancient history, as mistaken. It is evident how this sociological distance from the Christendom synthesis frees one for pacifist moral insight.

…For two millennia Judaism has lived its ages of toleration and its ages of renewed exile or even martyrdom, sometimes within and sometimes outside the ‘Christian’ empires of East and West, but they have never reached for the sword. …Occasionally privileged after the model of Joseph, more often emigrating, frequently suffering martyrdom non-violently, they were able to maintain identity without turf or sword, community without sovereignty. They thereby demonstrated pragmatically the viability of the ethic of Jeremiah and Jesus.

In sum: for over a millennium the Jews of the Diaspora were the closest thing to the ethic of Jesus existing on any significant scale anywhere in Christendom.27

For Yoder, while Jews after “Constantine” represented the kinds of communities Jesus had hoped for, a de-Judaized Christianity increasingly became “an a-historical moral monotheism with no particular peoplehood and no defences [sic] against acculturation.”28 In the end, Yoder did not simply claim that the Jewish-Christian schism did not have to be. Rather, he insisted that what should have been was the sustenance of a kind of free-church/peace-church Judeo-Christianity.

This is not quite counter-factual speculation (“if only Justin Martyr and his ilk had not tried to de-Judaize the church, it would never have accepted Caesar’s bargain …”), but it is close. Yoder certainly believed that the schism did not occur as straightforwardly as popular accounts of “Christianity” and “Judaism” suggest. However, his broader claims about the future course of Western history display his belief that something decisive happened in this later, drawn-out severing of fellowship. Yoder’s reconstruction of a theologically tragic, prolonged period of separation functions as an essential turning point in his narrative no less than the “Jewish-Christian schism” does in the standard-issue narratives he rejected.

Few historians would challenge the basic contours of Yoder’s portrait of the Jewish-Christian “schism” as a lengthy and convoluted process. What has proved most controversial is the polemical thrust of Yoder’s theological claim that the schism, and what followed directly in its wake—that is, something like ninety percent of Christian history and much of the formation of what we now refer to as “Judaism”—never should have happened. In the published edition of The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, a brief critical response from Peter Ochs follows each of Yoder’s essays. Among the “wonders” Ochs applauds is Yoder’s attempt to do what he calls “depth historiography,” which refuses to rest content with plain-sense accounts of history that remove human drama from the past.29 In addition, Ochs agrees that Yoder is right to see that the complicated, intertwined history shared by both Christians and the rabbinic communities that would become “Judaism” implies that contemporary Jews and Christians have substantial reasons for revisiting the nature of their relationship.

Ochs concludes, however, that Yoder’s laudable efforts are burdened by a harmful binary logic that too easily divides historical examples into either faithful or unfaithful categories: Christians must be either “Jewish,” congregational, and free-church or “Constantinian”; Jews must either remain committed to Jeremiah’s vision of “exile as mission”30 or become Constantinian themselves. For Ochs, Yoder undermines his own efforts to promote a new, theologically serious dialogue between Jews and Christians by declaring ahead of time what the outcome of such an exchange should be.31 Though at one point he lauds the kind of rabbinical logic that could skillfully hold several possibilities in a certain tension, Yoder struggles to imagine a Judaism that is willing to live faithfully in exile and which refuses to spiritualize the concrete, geographical landedness and fleshly peoplehood of Israel. According to Ochs, Yoder privileges a specific chapter in Jeremiah’s prophecies to such an extent that he does violence to other important voices within the canon. In the end, Yoder became a kind of supercessionist in spite of himself: he eventually decided to leave large parts of the Jewish and Christian story behind, concluding that certain things should not have occurred.

Others have taken up the task of seeing what conceptual resources can help Christians revisit the question of Christian supercessionism “after Yoder.”32 In the rest of this essay, I draw upon Herbert Butterfield’s writings to clarify the particularly thorny theological and historiographical issues Yoder raised so provocatively. As a historian rooted in a tradition of dissent not unlike Yoder’s, Butterfield shared many of Yoder’s historical instincts, but he would almost certainly have rendered a mixed verdict similar to Ochs’s. Yoder moved from (1) questioning pre-reflective assumptions about how the past turned into the present, to (2) exposing how good history can open up new possibilities in the present, to (3) making claims about how the future should go, based on moral judgments on how the past could (and should) have gone. As we will see, it is tempting to conclude that at a certain point, Yoder stopped doing history and became a theologian or ethicist more interested in conceptual clarity than attention to complex particulars. But that is far too simple. Sin, providence, and “history”—and their relationships to each other—are issues central to both theologians and historians, whether they use the precise terms or not.

Butterfield on History, Providence, and Moral Judgment

In The Whig Interpretation of History (first edition, 1931), Butterfield cried “foul” regarding “the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs [i.e., bourgeois English progressives], to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”33 Butterfield’s critique has significant affinities with Yoder’s understanding of the “inappropriate a prioris” that muffle the voice of history. The self-satisfied heirs of successful revolutions tend to portray these upheavals as inevitable and certainly excusable; moreover, histories driven by principles of progress leave little room for the realm of moral freedom which Yoder saw as essential to any rightly told history.

Whiggish and Constantinian Historiography

In his history of American historians’ internal debates over the nature and purpose of their work, Peter Novick tracks the ebbing and flowing fortunes of the ideal of historical “objectivity.”34 His final chapters recount the late twentieth-century collapse of consensus and confidence among professional historians in the wake of broader intellectual shifts and political developments (e.g., postmodernism, multiculturalism). With the emergence in the 1960s of a trend toward what looked for all the world like “every group its own historian,” the specter of relativism appeared with a vengeance, threatening to erode the social benefits and prestige that accrue to professional historians by virtue of the consensus results their specialized techniques supposedly guarantee.35

In this context of identity politics, at a conference held in 1992, Yoder urged historians with pacifist convictions to refuse to display their work in the fashionable mantle of mere revisionist or advocacy history. Though agreeing that better history can challenge the assumption that specific conflicts were unavoidable, he distinguished between instinctual revisionist reactions to mainstream history by pacifists (and others) and a deeper and broader concern for the past in its integrity.36 Without advancing a rigorously argued case for the epistemological possibility or superiority of “good” or “responsible” history, he insisted on a kind of historical realism in which there are things we can know about the past that resist our present-minded interests, if we are willing to seek them.

For Yoder, history cannot simply be a weapon employed in contrarian fashion against any and all versions of the status quo. Such destructive willfulness occludes the historian’s vision just as much as mainstream histories that assume things had to go the way they did. He contended that there is a historiographical non-violence required of the historian—especially the historian with Christian convictions—and that such forbearance enables an encounter with something true about the past and potentially accessible to all.  In short, “it did not have to be” is not special pleading, but a challenge to see what is actually there: the abundant evidence showing us particular people and communities that cannot be reduced to abstractions (“sectarians,” “inclusivists,” “realists,” etc.) and that employ moral freedom as they wrestle with multiple options, sometimes making choices they could not themselves have predicted.37

For Yoder, neat historical explanations that remove these elements from their accounts “do violence to the lived reality of history as it really was.”38 In this concern for the past “as it really was,” historians will almost certainly hear the echo of Leopold von Ranke, the nineteenth-century German whose concern for stringent research methods set the standard for the modern discipline of history. It is in their shared profession of certain Rankean sentiments that we begin to find the greatest intellectual affinity between Yoder and Butterfield.

As Novick notes, Anglo-American historians have tended to identify Ranke with a positivist historiography that insists on the need for, and possibility of, “objective history” (history “as it really [i.e., ‘factually’] was”). However, Novick also observes that many of Ranke’s admirers have ignored another, romantic side of Ranke’s thought, in which he understood history writing as more analogous to a skilled craft than to a potentially exhaustive or cumulative science. The German wie es eigentlich gewesen, traditionally carried into English as “as it really was,” can also be rendered as “as it essentially was.” In this second sense, the goal of historical science—however ultimately inaccessible—is to “resurrect” a moment in the past in its unique integrity, such that we can recognize that its challenges and opportunities were as complex as our own present.39

Similarly, Butterfield criticized historians and moderns in general who allow a certain master story about the West’s progress out of the dark ages to serve as a magnet inevitably pulling particular historical sources into a specific shape. Most of Butterfield’s examples in the Whig Interpretation are taken from popular interpretations of the sixteenth-century “Reformation.” A paradigmatic question posed by present-minded “whiggish” history is, “to whom do we owe our religious liberty?” In such accounts, the Reformation “had to be” in order to break the old world out of its mold.

Butterfield warned that fundamental misrepresentations of the past occur when historical agents are employed as characters in a story that is really about the present, its origins, and causes.40 Similarly, Yoder’s conception of Constantinianism is not simply shorthand for the Church’s exchanging of convictional integrity for power and social influence. As he described, it, Constantinianism is fundamentally a simplistic and presumptive historical hermeneutic:

Before Constantine, one knew as a fact of everyday experience that there was a believing Christian community but one had to “take it on faith” that God was governing history. After Constantine, one had to believe without seeing that there was a community of believers, within the larger nominally Christian mass, but one knew for a fact that God was in control of history.41

Both whiggish history and Constantinianism presuppose the perspicuity of history, and they conclude that, for all practical purposes, we have reached history’s end in the dual sense of both terminus and telos. Both standpoints assume that we can rest assured that God (or at least an impersonal historical process) is in control through the providential agency of the contemporary powers that be—whether Caesar or the universal principles of modern political liberalism.42

Yoder was particularly anxious to use history to disclose a realm of historical immediacy before God, where moral decisions matter and where specific sins have consequences—i.e., where “apostasy” is a real possibility. This is hardly a surprising stand for a theologian who spoke from within a tradition marked by its stress on voluntariety as seen in the free-churches’ characteristic insistence on adult “believers’ baptism” and on locating primary ecclesial authority (and accountability before God) in the local congregation.43 For his part, as an English Methodist, Butterfield inherited somewhat similar characteristics from a slightly different kind of dissenting ecclesial tradition, and his Christian piety was suffused with a deeply personal spirituality characterized by intimate relationship with God.44 In light of this conviction—i.e., that history is the study of ultimately free human beings—Butterfield contended that historians must never forget that, despite their “scientific” concern with technique, they are primarily practitioners of the humanistic liberal arts.45

With Yoder, Butterfield would agree that “history” must be freed from “inappropriate a prioris” before we try to appropriate a usable past for contemporary purposes.  However, unlike Yoder, Butterfield would have steadfastly resisted the notion that a historian or a Christian can make specific moral arguments about how the future should go based on definitive judgments about what should have been. Butterfield developed his clearest statements on this point as he reflected more explicitly on the relationship between historiography and theological convictions.

Providence and the Three Levels of History

We can conclude that Butterfield would join Yoder in rejecting Constantinian historiography, but he would certainly question the helpfulness of “Constantinian Christianity” as a historical description. In Whig Interpretation, Butterfield specifically addressed the task of recounting the momentous events of the fourth Christian century. Though he recognized that it is natural to want to capture this epoch in terms like the “triumph of Christianity over paganism” or, alternatively, the “Constantinian shift,” he believed that it is

much more illuminating to watch it as the interplay of personalities and people, with the four winds of heaven blowing around them; much more interesting if we can take the general statement with which we began, the mere formula for what happened in this age, and pursue it in its concrete incidence till we discover into what manifold detail it differentiates itself, and learn how various were its workings in actual life, how surprising even its by-play and the side-issues which it raised, how rich its underlying complexity and its implications in human story.  It is along this road that the historian carries us, away from the world of general ideas.46

In statements like this, Butterfield sounded like he was calling for the training of pure historians who, by a rigorous asceticism, would deny themselves the indulgence of inserting moral or philosophical concerns into their description of the past. As noted earlier, this is one way to read how the matter stands between Yoder and Butterfield: Yoder eventually left off being a historian and started imposing his tidy theology and ethical rigor on the intransigent messiness of history.

However, Butterfield acknowledged that the astringent historiography he advocated seems to require nothing less than the absurdity of a thick description of all that has ever happened. He recognized the need to narrate events with an eye for general changes over time, for social patterns and shifting mindsets. Good history must also try to talk about those larger patterns in time that do place significant constraints on individuals’ freedom, even if these forces cannot eradicate the unpredictability of human choices. In Whig Interpretation, he described this as the problem of “abridgment” and, while conceding that abridgment was necessary, he insisted that it should be done in such a way that the overall shape of the past is not marred. The question is, what is that shape?

We may believe in some providence that guides the destiny of [people] and we may if we like read this into our history; but what our history brings to us is not proof of providence but rather the realization of how mysterious are its ways, how strange its caprices – the knowledge that this providence uses any means to get to its end and works often at cross purposes with itself and is curiously wayward.47

Butterfield seemed determined to avoid admitting the tremendous tension in a passage like this. No doubt, out of loyalty to the Rankean ideal, Butterfield wanted to maintain the principle of presuppositionless history, yet he offered his own surmise about “what history brings to us” in the manner of an unchallengeable axiom. He would later confess that the very possibility of historical realism rests on a fundamental conviction that “history” is not the mere product of blind chance and is ultimately enfolded in some kind of providence. But, to use a characteristically Butterfieldian term, his axiom was extremely “elastic.” Providence is no simple matter, for Christians or historians.

What Butterfield saw is that anyone dealing with history at any depth encounters the dilemma of how to speak about the past in ways that do justice to the drama taking place on two levels of history: the synchronic (the realm of freedom, in which nothing “had to be”) and the diachronic (e.g., Yoder’s use of “Constantinianism” to describe a mindset from which he believed mainstream Christianity since the fourth century has rarely been able to escape). Butterfield called the first level “biographical” and the second “scientific.” When dealing with this first level of particular people and their choices, he claimed that the most stringent moral evaluations are appropriate and that no one should escape judgment. The second level includes both generally observable tendencies (e.g., that periods of military mobilization generally precede the onset of hostile engagements) and what he often referred to as “the history-making going on over our heads” (e.g., great historical forces such as “Industrialization” or ephocal shifts in habits of thought and forms of life such as “ the Enlightenment” or “Modernity”). Because it is much harder to locate individual responsibility when searching out the past on this “scientific” or “expository” level, it provides “the great opportunity for Christian charity in history…we might almost say that [a Christian] cannot read history without being a little sorry for everybody.”48

Refusing in principle to let one historical level eclipse the other, Butterfield concluded that the Christian “must” say that there is a third level, in which a benevolent Providence is able to enfold human free will as well as probabilistic “laws” of historical causation and those mysterious movements of thought and life which human beings are tempted to attribute to chance. For Butterfield, in their rush to identify causes and origins of the present, the sweeping narratives of whig historians at best get the story half-right.  They fail to recognize that

[i]t is not by a line but by a labyrinthine piece of network that one would have to make the diagram of the course by which religious liberty has come down to us, for this liberty comes by devious tracks and is born of strange conjunctures, it represents purposes marred perhaps more than purposes achieved, and it owes more than we can tell to many agencies that had little to do with either religion or liberty. We cannot tell to whom we must be grateful for this religious liberty and there is no logic in being grateful to anybody or anything except to the whole past which produced the whole present; unless indeed we choose to be grateful to that providence which turned so many conjunctures to our ultimate profit.49

This passage contains Butterfield’s characteristic concerns. Most important here is his sense of the inscrutability of history. For Butterfield, wise historians (and Christians) recognize the “labyrinthine network” that is the past and are therefore reticent to forge the kinds of retrospective causality chains Yoder warned against. “It did not have to be” is a necessary historical corrective because it signals an apophatic reserve which acknowledges that we cannot hope to account for all that was going on such that we can say, with confidence, that certain developments—e.g., the first-century tensions between “Jew” and “Gentile” Christians leading to the “Jewish-Christian Schism,” or Luther’s protest leading to modern secularism—could not have been otherwise.

But this inscrutability goes in both directions. Both retrospective moralizing and prospective, counterfactual (“if only x, then y”) projections are misleading. Butterfield understood “providence” not as an esoteric reference to an elusive god of the historical gaps, but as a reasonable inference drawn from close attention to the past:

An important aspect of the historical process is the work of the new generation forever playing providence over even the disasters of the old…50 The whig historian thinks that the course of history, the passage of centuries can give judgment on a [person] or an age or a movement. In reality there is only one thing that history can say on this matter, and this itself is so commonplace that it can almost be reduced to a piece of tautology. It is, that provided disaster is not utterly irretrievable provided a generation is not destroyed or a state wiped entirely from the map there is no sin or error or calamity can take place but succeeding generations will make the best of it; and though it be a Black Death or a Fire of London that comes as a scourge and a visitation, [people] will still make virtue of necessity and use the very downfall of the old world as the opportunity for making a new, till the whig historian looking back upon the catastrophe can see only the acquired advantages and the happy readjustments. So in the result the whig historian will be tempted to forget the sufferings of a generation, and will find it easy to assert that the original tragedy was no tragedy at all. We of the present day can be thankful for the religious quarrels of the 16th century…because the very disasters drove men to what was tantamount to a creative act; and we, coming in the after flow of the centuries, can see only the good that was produced.  But we are deceived by the optical illusion if we deny that when Luther rebelled against the Catholic Church, and the Popes so deliberately hounded him into rebellion, they did not between them produce a tragedy which meant the sacrifice of more than one generation.51

For Butterfield, providence can never be simply identified with “what happened.” However, he would probably say something to the effect that providence is best understood as what happened, in light of what happened. The whig historian insists on telling a story of essential progress despite abundant evidence of tragedy. For those who reject this option—like Butterfield and Yoder—what remains to be debated is the matter of how one could discern which disasters were utterly irretrievable such that they ultimately should not have been.


Despite his habitual preference for an ever-deeper synthesis, Butterfield saw two basic ways of approaching the historical task: as “avenger” or as “reconciler.”52 A desire for reconciliation drove Yoder’s efforts to re-envision the Jewish-Christian schism and the distant origins of his own Anabaptist/Mennonite community. Yet he maintained that the corollary of a historiography that emphasizes human freedom is an insistence on the reality of sin and moral culpability: certain things should have been otherwise.53

For Butterfield, history does not follow a simple moral logic of progress or decline. What history can show historians is not “origins” and “causes” but “transitions” and “mediations.”54 Butterfield’s reflective intuition that history has its meaning outside of itself, in the combination of forces and contingent circumstances we cannot simultaneously contemplate, led him to insist that ultimate moral evaluations of the past lie beyond history.55 Human beings are certainly free, but even our own exercise of freedom is not transparent to us. There is also a “history-making going on somewhere over our heads.” The operation of law-like probabilities and the rise and fall of epochs and empires are part of providence, together with the complex interactions of individual human beings. We are neither as unencumbered nor as fated as we are tempted to imagine.

Ochs contends that, in his treatment of the Jewish-Christian schism, Yoder was ultimately hamstrung by the limitations of binary reasoning, despite Yoder’s own admiration for the kind of (“rabbinic”/”Talmudic”) logics that can acknowledge those times when it is possible and appropriate to refuse the either/or binary without surrendering to moral relativism. What this paper has shown is that Butterfield articulated something like an historical or providential logic in which “providence” names that whole process in which we live, move, and have our being, a process that includes (and requires from the historian who studies it) both judgment and charity, attentiveness to detail and sensitivity to broad trends and patterns.

From a Christian theological standpoint, it is difficult to argue with Yoder’s concern that we refuse to incorporate an abstract concept of sin into our reading of the historical process such that the possibility of real disasters are ruled out beforehand.  Aesthetic theodicies, in which it is argued that particular tragedies find their meaning and resolution when incorporated into the larger, providential fabric of history, do often ring hollow. In the end, perhaps the debate has not moved all that far from medieval theologians’ discussion of whether the sin of the first humans made the Incarnation necessary and inevitable—or, “would Christ have come if humanity had never sinned?”56

While this might seem like an illustration of the kind of idle speculation highlighted in caricatures of scholastic theology, what was at stake was whether there is something good, unique and revelatory in the particular historical events related to Jesus of Nazareth or whether everything essential about them could be also be known through reflection on abstractions like “human nature,” “sin,” and “justice.” We can see something like Butterfield’s providential logic in the answer given by Thomas Aquinas, who on this question showed a rare reluctance to rule on the matter.

Ultimately, Aquinas decided that it is right to say that Christ came because of sin (this seems to be the dominant sense of Scripture), but he took care to avoid dangers in opposite directions.  By denying that Christ would have been born as a matter of course, he rejected an abstract affirmation of incarnation in which the event of God’s becoming human simply manifested something eternally true about reality, thus guarding against the relativistic conflation of sinfulness and finitude that Yoder was worried about. Yet, he was careful not to make God dependent on an external historical cause. (The Incarnation did not, strictly speaking, have to be.)  While he expressly denied that the Incarnation was inevitable, Aquinas left open the possibility that it could have occurred, even if the human race had never sinned; this scenario was “not impossible.” God’s ability to act in history is limited neither by sin nor its absence.

Aquinas endorsed the traditional liturgical proclamation that humanity’s original sin can be considered a “happy fault,” because it led to Christ’s coming into the world. In his view, it was not strictly good that humanity “fell” (Adam deserves no credit for humanity’s redemption), but it was good that God was able to respond to this eventuality in a way befitting God’s perfect wisdom and goodness.57

In his early work showing that what later historians would label the “radical reformation” did not, strictly speaking, “have to be,” Yoder began to distance himself from the kind of primitivist historiography that presupposes a decisive fall that made a complete restoration of the church absolutely necessary, (“hard” versions of Christian supercession would make a quite similar claim vis-à-vis the Jews). His later writings on the Jewish-Christian schism, however, reflect a move back toward a supercessionism in which many Jews and Christians had to get a new start by disavowing their pasts. For his part, Butterfield—conscious of the deep ambiguity involved—would be willing to say with respect to the Jewish-Christian schism something like, “Thank God it (never should have) happened.”58


1. Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 9.
2. This is the judgment of Mark Thiessen Nation, editor of extensive Yoder bibliographies, in John Howard Yoder: Mennnonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2996).  See also Craig Carter, The Politics of the Cross:  The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001). Yoder provided the rationale for his studied avoidance of methodological debate in his “Walk and Word: The Alternatives to Methodologism,” in Nancey Murphy and Mark Thiessen Nation, eds., Theology Without Foundations: Religious Practice and the Future of Theological Truth (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994).
3. See, e.g., Anthony G. Siegrist, “Bringing Down the Eschaton: The Apocalyptic Structure of John Howard Yoder’s Theology,” Mennonite Life 62:1 (2007); Philip LeMasters, The Import of Eschatology in John Howard Yoder’s Critique of Constantinianism (San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992); and Nathan Kerr’s Christ, Apocalyptic, and History: The Politics of Christian Mission (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2009).
4. Peter W. Ochs, commentary on John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Schism Revisited (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2003), 2.
5. Ibid., 38-39.
6. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972, 2nd rev. ed., 1994).
7. Ibid., x-xi.
8. Ibid.
9. Yoder, Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, 46.
10. Ibid.
11. Yoder, “The Burden and Discipline of Evangelical Revisionism” in Louise Hawkley and James C. Juhnke eds., Nonviolent America:  History Through the Eyes of Peace (North Newton, KS: Pandora Press, 1994), 22. My emphasis.
12. Yoder, Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, 43.
13. The dissertation has been published in English as Anabaptism and Reformation In Switzerland, ed. C. Arnold Snyder, trans. David Carl Stassen and C. Arnold Snyder (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2004).
14. Yoder, “Evangelical Revisionism,” 25.
15. Here Yoder was critiquing the essentialist “Anabaptist Vision” articulated by his mentor Harold Bender, Mennonite denominational leader and one of the first professional historians of Anabaptism.
16. In the judgment of Mark Thiessen Nation, “One could argue that John Howard Yoder’s entire academic career was committed to communicating in broadly Christian terms what he learned through his studies of sixteenth-century Anabaptism in the 1950s in Europe.  It was through those studies that he came to the central convictions that he would subsequently spend a lifetime articulating,” John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 31.
17. Yoder, Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, 46.
18. Among other things, he claimed that the view that Jesus established and Paul systematically presented a religion of grace that could supplant “Jewish” legalism has been exposed as an unfortunate caricature. These broadly sketched claims can be found in the work of twentieth-century historians and biblical scholars such as Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, Jacob Neusner, James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, et al.
19. While the doctrinal definitions of Nicene orthodoxy regarding the nature and person of Jesus Christ would seem to invalidate this entire line of argument, Yoder repeatedly inserted the reminder that the earliest Christians did not claim to be anything but monotheists. In his view, while the technical theological definitions of “Trinity” and “Incarnation” were perhaps legitimate outworkings of primitive Christian claims within the thought-forms of Hellenistic culture, the use of such terminology should not be read back into the first Christian centuries. Yoder’s treatment of the classic creeds can be found in the posthumously published Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method, edited, and with introduction by Stanley Hauerwas and Alex Sider (Grand Rapids:  Brazos, 2002). From the other side, it can also be noted that Hellenistic Jews had and would continue to speculate about the ontological status of God’s “Word” or “Wisdom” using some of the same metaphysical terminology employed in the patristic-era Christological debates.
20. Yoder, “Paul the Judaizer,” in ibid., 93-98. While he generally endorses Yoder’s conclusions with enthusiasm, Daniel Boyarin thinks Yoder overplays his hand here. See Boyarin, “Judaism as a Free Church: Footnotes to John Howard Yoder’s The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited,” Crosscurrents 56:4 (Winter 2007), 13-14.
21. Yoder, Jewish-Christian Schism, 54.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid., 56.
24. Ibid., 53.
25. Randi Rashkover, “Further Footnotes on Judaism, Yoder, and Boyarin,” Crosscurrents 56:4 (Winter 2007), 37-38). My emphasis.
26. Jewish-Christian Schism, 147-156.
27. Yoder, “Jesus the Jewish Pacifist,” in ibid., 81-82.
28. Ibid., 152.
29. As Ochs clarifies, a post-critical appropriation of history “as it really happened” need not be equated with nineteenth-century (Schleiermachian) hermeneutics in which, through sympathetic imagination, we come to know our predecessors better than they knew ourselves: “We are claiming, instead, to learn about ourselves now by imagining ourselves in their skins then.” (Ochs, commentary on Yoder, “It Did Not Have to Be” in Jewish-Christian Schism, 67).
30. Jewish-Christian, Schism, 190.  “Exile (galut) as mission” is a prominent theme in several essays from one of Yoder’s last published collections, For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1997).
31. Ochs, commentary on Yoder, “It Did Not Have to Be,” Jewish-Christian Schism, 68.
32. See, for example, Michael G. Cartwright, “Afterword: ‘If Abraham is Our Father …’ The Problem of Christian Supercessionism after Yoder” in The Jewish Christian Schism Revisited, 205-240.
33. Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (New York: Norton, 1965), v.
34. Peter J. Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
35. Ibid., chap. 14.
36. “Love of enemy must include love of the intellectual adversary, including intellectual respect for the holders of the positions one must in conscience reject.  That will call for avoiding some of the kneejerk orneriness which discredited some of the antiwar militancy of the age of Vietnam, and which leads some of our contemporaries to relegate environmental or world health concerns to New Age esotericism. …It cannot or should not be argued that any old revisionism is better than tradition, or that rebellion is in itself always morally imperative.” (Yoder, “Evangelical Revisionism,” 20-21).
37. “We do not posit ‘freedom’ more than a doctrinaire Marxist or Darwinist would because we have sold out to a religious world view; we find decision in the story because it is in the documents when we are honest with them.” (Yoder, “Evangelical Revisionism,” 27.)
38. Yoder, Jewish-Christian Schism, 43.
39. Novick, 26-31. Also lost in English translation is the subtlety of the German wissenschaft, which nineteenth-century Americans tended to equate with a rather flatfooted notion of Baconian, empirical “science” (See Novick, 24-26).
40. “[W]e have to be on our guard when the whig historian tells us for example that the Reformation is justified because it led ultimately to liberty; we must avoid the temptation to make what seems to be the obvious inferences from this statement; for it is possible to argue against the whig historian that the ultimate issue which he applauds only came in the long run from the fact that, in its immediate results, the Reformation was so disastrous to liberty” (Butterfield, WIH, 77-78).
41. Yoder, “The Constantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics,” in The Priestly Kingdom:  Social Ethics as Gospel (South Bend:  Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 137.
42. Yoder inelegantly described something like Butterfield’s whig historiography as “neo-neo-Constantinianism.”  In this incarnation of the perennial temptation to historicize everyone but ourselves, church and state may be institutionally separate, but “moral identification of church and state remains.” Rather than Caesar, divine providence now exercises benevolent control through the will of the democratic majority and/or through constitutionally enshrined principles of freedom and equality (ibid., 142). Yoder’s  second stage (neo-Constantinianism) refers to the smaller establishments created in the wake of the Reformation (“cuius regio, eius religio”). See the section on “The Ever-new Shape of Establishment” in Ibid., 141-144.
43. I use voluntariety (others have employed “voluntaryness”) to avoid the more philosophically-freighted “voluntarism.”  See P. Travis Kroeker, “Why O’Donovan’s Christendom is not Constantinianism and Yoder’s Voluntariety is not Hobbesian:  A Debate in Theological Politics Re-Defined” Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics 20 (2000), 41-64.
44. “You can learn about the ups-and-downs of one state and another in one century and another, you can learn about the rise of vast empires and the growth of big organizations and the evolution of democracy or the development of modern science – and all this will not show you god in history if you have not found God in your daily life.” (Butterfield, “God in History” in Herbert Butterfield:  Writings on Christianity and History, edited, with introduction by C.T. McIntire [New York:  Oxford University Press, 1979], 12.)
45. Butterfield, “The Role of the Individual in History,” in Ibid., 35.
46. Butterfield, WIH, 70-71.
47. Ibid., 23.
48. “So you have free will in history, and the statesmen of 1914 are blamable for unloosing the horses of war. But also you have the operations of laws and processes in history, and the statesmen of 1914 are not as blamable as they might have seemed at first sight, perhaps not more blamable than you yourself might have been if you had been in the same historical predicament – perhaps not more blamable than you yourself have often been at moments when the disaster was only reduced because you did not happen to be a statesman responsible for the welfare of millions of people” (Butterfield, “God in History,” 10-11).
49. Butterfield, WIH, 45.
50. Ibid., 77.
51. Ibid., 88-89. My emphasis.
52. “It has been said that the historian is the avenger, and that standing as a judge between the parties and rivalries and causes of bygone generations he can lift up the fallen and beat down the proud, and by his exposures and his verdicts, his satire and his moral indignation, can punish unrighteousness, avenge the injured or reward the innocent. …But if the historian can rear himself up like a god and judge, or stand as the official avenger of the crimes of the past, then one can require that he shall be still more godlike and regard himself rather as the reconciler than as the avenger; taking that his aim is to achieve the understanding of the men and parties and causes of the past and that in this understanding, if it can be complete, all things will ultimately be recognized” (Butterfield, WIH, 1-2).
53. According to Yoder, “Doubting that things had to go as they did way back when correlates logically with doubting the rightness of how they continued to go later” (Jewish-Christian Schism, 45).  Emphasis in original.
54. Ibid., 61.
55. I am indebted to Keith Sewell’s presentation and evaluation of Butterfield’s increasingly refined historiographical convictions.  His conclusion: “While Butterfield’s standpoint did constitute an interpretative position, his belief in providence did not function as a constraining hypothesis. It did not inhibit the range of possibilities that he was prepared to contemplate. It was his manner of recognizing that the cosmos, including all human life and history, is not autonomous, but contingent, ordered from beyond itself by an all-transcending Creator. Such a standpoint was at least in principle free from all ideologically driven overemphasis or reductionism.” Keith C. Sewell, Herbert Butterfield and the Interpretation of History (New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 216.
56. See Summa Theologiae IIIa 3.1.2-3.
57. For Thomas’ explanation of what it might mean to say that a good and powerful God “permits” evil so that even greater good might be achieved, see Ia 2.3 ad 1; 19.6; 19.9; 48.2; 49.2.
58. For extended, constructive Christian theological engagement with some of the very wonders and burdens that Ochs identifies in Yoder’s work, written in a spirit congenial to this essay, see J. Alexander Sider, To See History Doxologically: History and Holiness in John Howard Yoder’s Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). I would like to thank D. Michael Cox, Sandra Yocum, Myles Werntz, and Jacob Goodson for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

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