Reading Mark Noll is not like reading Christopher Dawson or Henry Chadwick. When you read Dawson you are in the presence of a mind that has read and digested the primary sources. Dawson’s conclusions are his own, from being present where he should. In other words, his conclusions are not derivative.
Not that it is a simple thing. You try to tell people that studying the Bible is not the same as studying what the commentaries say the Bible says, and you will get those who think you’re against commentaries altogether. It has happened to me on this blog. But there is a quality to derivative conclusions that is real. The difficulty is of course that entirely original conclusions are rather suspect. We need the help of other people. But I think we need to come to terms not only with what other people have concluded, but with that about which they are drawing conclusions. Yes, you need help, and you need to be guided. But what about freshness? Vigor of engagement, penetration and understanding?
Noll struggles with that in his Turning Points, especially in the earlier parts. He’s getting better during the Reformation, which is characteristic of evangelical scholarship on the whole, I understand. But I think it is the same thing as the study of Scripture which we are supposed to be trained to do, and the study of the commentaries merely which those who perhaps don’t really understand or perhaps don’t really desire to attain what was being suggested in the more advanced language classes do.
Still, Noll has his uses. One of them is to provoke reflection. For example: he says that it is difficult to be completely objective about the subject of the rise of the papacy. Of course, he’s saying he won’t be, but there is the suggestion that he ought to be. It provokes thought, because he wants to be objective about a subject. I know we use language in many ways, but just go to the meaning of those words: objective about a subject.
I don’t think you can be objective about anything that isn’t an object. I don’t think you should even want to. I think there’s the difficulty: the rise of the papacy is an event. And perhaps here’s where I’m wrong, but what clarifies it for me is that objects are subject (!) to cause and effect. But a complex event like the rise of the papacy is the result of more than cause and effect. I know Noll knows this, but his language doesn’t seem to me to have gotten to the place where he deals with it as well as other historians might.
Scruton helps me there (subjects incarnate in the world of objects), and Lukacs: purposes, reasons, the things that move subjects incarnate in the world of objects, beside the causes bringing about effects on their bodies (Collingwood!). Ambitions, perceptions, conflicts of interest, thwartings, desire to see good carried out under unfavorable circumstances, pandering to monarchs, many such things! If you try to sort out the papacy as an object, objectively, you leave out the subjects, you leave out the reasons, you may fail to understand.
And it is Lukacs who provides the better term, though Collingwood would do. Understanding is what you’re after, not complete objectivity. What, after all, does complete objectivity provide? What? Understanding, on the other hand, needs no explanation.