Editor’s Note: Sir Herbert Butterfield (1900–79), who was a Methodist lay preacher, was vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge, where he taught history, and is best known for The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). He founded the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics, which produced the English School of International Relations, and was a Christian Realist who arguably echoed Reinhold Niebuhr. His work merits wider appreciation in America.

In 1949 in his famous lecture series on “Christianity and History” at the University of Cambridge, Herbert Butterfield asserted that “the hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine that they can control things in a sovereign manner, as though they were kings of the earth.”

With a skeptical view of man’s capacity to control the course of history, Butterfield found fertile ground in the post-World War II generation disillusioned by the horrors that had resulted from Nazism, communism, and other secular creeds’ absolute truth claims about the meaning of history. Known for his criticism of intentionally biased accounts of history, Butterfield’s Christian faith essentially inspired his view of history and government and made him the English forerunner of a hopeful Christian Realism as an alternative to both Western secular materialist liberalism and collectivist atheist Marxism.

However, while his lectures were popular with students and the wider public (to whom they were broadcasted by the BBC), his approach to history and government provoked differing responses in academia. Some welcomed his faith-based interpretation as a stronghold against secular ideologies. Others denounced it as incompatible and inconsistent with his own plea for an impartial and technical approach to history.

To what extent did Christian Realism influence Butterfield’s skepticism of government’s capacities? How does Butterfield’s Christian view of Providence play in his interpretation of history? And how can his ideal of an impartial historian be reconciled with Christianity?

Christian Realism and Butterfields Individualistic Social Theory

“Underlying Butterfield’s understanding of… politics was a severe Christian Realism, the fruit of his deep Christian faith.” Alberto Coll’s observation recalls that Butterfield’s view of government and history rests on his perception of the nature of man individually and collectively, within the conceptual framework of the Christian Realist tradition. The Old Testament and the teachings of St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and Reinhold Niebuhr heavily influenced Butterfield’s appreciation of the ambiguous nature of man’s freedom, sinfulness, and responsibility as well as Butterfield’s skepticism about government.

Thus, Butterfield’s emphasis on each soul’s “value, incommensurate with the value of anything else in the created universe,” echoes the Christian doctrine of imago Dei (God made humans in his image). Referring to Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 18, he asserts that man should be valued for his individuality while also individually accountable to God and his own conscience. In his Christian notion of freedom—in contrast to a secular, materialist one—“the connection is organic: no conscience, no freedom”; man’s free will is dependent on his capacity of self-transcendence. This spiritual freedom distinguishes man from animals, uniquely determined by their drives. And this freedom makes him responsible for his own fall and for the universal presence of sin in the world.

Echoing Luther and Augustine, Butterfield stresses that in the earthly realm, “in the first place, predicament arose from human sinfulness,” which is evident in man’s tendency to self-glorification and “the element of cupidity.” And this tendency is “universal in the sense that all are touched with it,” ruler and ruled, judges and judged alike. Sin is present in the individual and on the collective, challenging man’s original freedom through mundane desires and engendering a “screen between man and God,” which prevents man from finding equilibrium in God’s love.

However, Butterfield firmly rejects any cynical claim asserting that man’s cupidity is natural in the sense that it ought to be accepted as prescriptive and deterministic for his fate. For him, as “the Word was made flesh, matter can never be regarded as evil in itself.” Man per se is not evil. Only his decisions are, which can make him “simul iustus et peccator” (simultaneously justified and sinner). Based on such an ambiguous view of individuals’ nature, Butterfield refuses any Manichean temptation to draw a sharp distinction between good and bad, since any attempt to morally judge the sinfulness of others must necessarily result in hypocrisy and ultimately bear the risk of total wars of righteousness.

It is this Christian anthropology, holding that “individuals are souls of eternal value as well as sinners prone to self-righteousness and cupidity,” which drives Butterfield to his ambivalent view of government as a necessary but ultimately limited institution. He mirrors Augustinian and Lutheran doctrines, asserting that to avoid anarchy and a Hobbesian state of nature, government is essential to provide the “peace of Babylon”: “social institutions however bad, are better than nothing and have the effect of making men appear a little more virtuous than they really are.” Like Niebuhr, he concedes that the norms in such a mundane order cannot equal Christian agape love even though the latter must always be the ultimate standard against which any norm must be evaluated. Instead, specific political ethics based on law and justice, which allow government to cope with sinful men, must govern the earthly sphere of politics. Despite government’s capacity to provide proximate peace and values, according to Coll, Butterfield “never thought there could be any permanent solutions, only temporary and highly relative ones.” As a result, “the earnest quest for utopia seemed to him an absurdity.”

With this sobering Christian realist view of human nature and government in mind, Butterfield rebuts both liberalism and Marxism. According to him, “it is not social institutions that make men worse than they might have been” Instead“it is essential not to have faith in human nature” but only in God. Only through individual sola fide (faith alone) can man be saved. For Butterfield, secular collectivism—whether inspired by liberalism, Marxism, or naturalism—is equally dangerous for man and society. It tends toward an instrumental view of man, denuding him of his individuality, freedom, and dignity.

In Butterfield’s “unashamedly individualist and nominalist” social theory, according to biographer C.T. McIntire, there is no such thing as an Aristotelian collective, “wisdom of the multitude,” or a Rousseauian “volonté general (general will). There are only “identifiable, discrete, self-conscious individual personalities, each different, each uniquely valuable, each made by God, each answerable to God.” The only purpose of government ought to be to protect the individual’s freedom, and to provide pluralism.

Such a limited form of human government could emerge only from insights of the Christian faith. The Christian doctrine of imago Dei guarantees individual freedom and pluralism in the face of secular collectivism; Christian freedom of conscience saves us from an irresponsible materialist freedom, incapable of self-transcendence and prone to cupidity and conflict. Consequently, it is the Christian insight about the universal ambiguity of man that provides us with a stronghold of humility against totalitarian claims of secular intellectual arrogance. However, in a cataclysmal paradox of the human drama, because of these very principles, Christianity loses its monopoly over society, clearing the way for new forms of human cupidity and pride.

Providence and Butterfield’s Interpretation of History

According to biographer Michael Bentley, this “marriage of intellectual arrogance and mass cupidity promised ill for the future, but Butterfield’s binding concept… of Providence, came to the rescue.” Bentley hence shows how an Augustinian awareness influenced Butterfield: Any human attempt to avoid sin, produce ultimate solutions, or shape the course of history—even if the church undertakes these endeavors—is doomed. Only through the grace of God evident in divine Providence can human life become bearable in history.

However, this does not mean that Providence guarantees a particular and predictable outcome of history. Nor does it limit men’s individual freedom and responsibility. For Butterfield, the course of history is an open process in which individuals, who are free in their decisions and actions, “can calculate the immediate consequences of their actions and… are heavily responsible for those consequences,” as Bentley describes. In rebutting communist and Nazi teleological interpretations of history as a struggle of classes or races, Butterfield presents a view of history that is not determined by any universal law of nature, but where man’s inner personality can freely play its role in the human drama. “Things of nature might be manipulated for human purpose, but… humans must not be manipulated,” as McIntire puts it.

Nevertheless, the human capacity to calculate and control the consequences of their actions is limited to the very short term. As soon as it comes to remote consequences or long-term developments, man cannot predict historical evolution, let alone shape it with calculation. The claim of modern secular creeds, which try to understand and control the historical process, is for Butterfield a sin in itself. It is the sin of presumption, intellectual arrogance, and human self-glorification: “By an excessive desire to control the destiny of mankind,” this sin will only “create disaster and… enlarge the area of original disorder.”

Despite this impossibility to control history in the present, discerning pattern and structure in the historical process retrospectively is possible. Butterfield argues that individuals, while acting in an uncoordinated way and according to their individual interests, are at the same time “agents of deeper processes than those of which they are aware and instruments of Providence that combines their labors and works them into a larger pattern.” Working between the conscious actions of agents, this providential order creates the great outlines of history, while leaving space for human actions, taking them into account, and responding to them. As a result, “Human beings and Providence are both the creators of history. Neither one is sovereign.” The striking difference is, however, that Providence always strives for good while mankind is often the source of evil. For Butterfield, Providence is nothing other than the evidence of the living God in history who brings good out of evil.

For this reason, instead of succumbing to the sin of presumption and pride by feverishly aspiring for ultimate solutions, universal knowledge, and total sovereignty over history—man ought humbly to accept his limitations and cooperate with Providence. Against the utopias and ideologies of the twentieth century on the one hand and the temptation of political quietism on the other, the Yorkshireman Butterfield hence proposes a pragmatic and humble “muddle through approach” in politics and history. Accordingly, “Christians besides working for remoter purposes, have to look for those intermediate measures of relief, which the condition of the world requires in the meantime.”

Butterfield’s anthropology and his view on government and history are products of Christian Realism. Based particularly on insights from the Old Testament, Augustine, and the Reformation about the ambiguous nature of mankind after the fall, he develops a highly individualistic social theory and an “approach to history and life [that] was deeply Augustinian,” according to Adam Watson. Its ambivalent view of government is torn between the necessity of “the peace of Babylon” and the limitedness of the civitas terrena (earthly city), as well as in his conception of Providence as the expression of the living God in history.

Academic Integrity Despite Faith: The Ideal of Technical History

Scholars dispute whether or not Butterfield’s Christian faith and worldview also influenced his historiography. For Karl Löwith, Butterfield is “a wise historian and a Christian” but not a “Christian historian.” Hugh Kearney claims that Butterfield is “almost unique among modern historians in having a Christian philosophy of history.” To grasp the importance of Butterfield’s faith for his work as a historian, and to understand the relationship between Christianity and his ideal of the technical study of history, a closer look at the nature and implications of the latter is needed.

Butterfield’s early work The Whig Interpretation of History is a crushing critique of the introduction of worldly ideologies into the study of history and the partial reading of it, which he detects with liberal and socialist historians. To Butterfield, such politically or philosophically corrupted interpretations make history a political tool to provide justification and authority for subjective claims, rather than giving a truthful and object account of the actual course of history. Heavily influenced by the teachings of the German scientific tradition that propagated the necessity of skepticism and impartiality for the academic discipline of history, Butterfield imagines “a scientific history which transcends all conflicts, thrives beyond the reach of politics and war, isolates itself from contemporary affairs and operates unimpacted by the present”

Such a “technical history,” which accepted the limitedness of human understanding of history, would in a first stage limit itself to the pure narration of the actual historical events by “eliminating all general or abstract ideas” that could bias its perception. Only in a second step could the historian brood over the facts, discover and describe more extended processes in retrospective, while always preserving an elasticity of mind and outmost neutrality. To Butterfield, the historian must acknowledge that the technical apparatus of history only allows for the outside description of human actions. He or she must refrain from any moral judgments, for “if ever man arrogates to himself the right which he is not fitted to possess… to judge actual wickedness to adjudicate on sinners and to punish the sin itself—there can be no end to the atrocities.”

Truthful to his individualist anthropology and social theory, Butterfield established that the historical process is a product of individual personalities’ actions, rather than of abstract collective entities. Therefore the inside of the individual, rather than social structures, matters in the study of history. The dilemma is of course that the apparatus of scientific history—with its imperatives of skepticism, impartiality, and elasticity of mind—cannot see inside man. At this crucial moment, after gathering and organizing the bare historical facts in a truthful manner, the technical historian’s resources are exhausted. From here on his “mere skepticism carries one nowhere and everything depends in the last resort on… an ‘act of judgement,” of which he is yet incapable.

To Butterfield, only religion in general and Christianity in particular, with its revealed truths about the very nature of man, can grasp the inside of human beings, to “restore value and meaning and flesh where scientism left behind bone.” Thus, whereas pure technical history is eventually doomed to a nihilistic relativism, unable to extract any meaning of the patterns emerging in the course of history, Christianity equips man with the tools to put these patterns into context and discern the providential order, with which he ought to cooperate. Butterfield argues that religion is the crucial ingredient of a truly impartial technical history.

Butterfield thought the complete transcending of human subjectivity is impossible: “History was first of all a science… but it was nothing at all if it was not also a form of wisdom arising out of charity.Without a deeper spiritual hold, the tools of science become ideals worshipped in and for themselves. Science, in a sense, then tends to turn it into scientism, and the method becomes an ideology of its own, unable to resist absolute truth claims as did communism, liberalism, Nazism, or any other ideology.

Only religion—and particularly Christianity – allows historians to acquire the elasticity of mind necessary for technical history. It provides them a stronghold of humility against the attempts of intellectual arrogance to transgress its limits and usurp authority and absolute truth claims. It reminds them of the threats, emerging from man’s inclination to self-righteousness and cupidity. It points them to the divine providential order that relativizes any secular creeds. Only when informed by the Christian faith is the technical historian safe from succumbing to intermediate principles and can “remember the limits of the science, the need for humility, the importance of getting inside human beings, the call for charity.”

The “evil of the Christian society,” however, is that the Christian church, which ought to preach these truths, often tries to accommodate the faith to the worldly order. So the church becomes involved in mundane affairs and thereby loses its capacity to transcend and reconcile oppositions. As a result, “the humbler academic historian,” rather than the theologian, sometimes has to become the “last resort” to reconcile mutually exclusive interpretations of history. The historian assumes the task and in a profound way “expresses the reconciling power of religion.” Ultimately, Butterfield hence not only attributes the technical study of history a quasi-religious vocation, but he also identifies the scientific imperatives of skepticism and elasticity of mind as products of the belief in a heavenly kingdom not of this world and permitting a Christian “to be absolutely neutral about mundane events.”


From Butterfield’s Christian anthropology, social theory, interpretation of history, and historiography, readers can draw four conclusions about the importance and implications of his Christian faith for his political and historical thinking.

First, the Old Testament, Augustine, Luther, and Niebuhr heavily influenced Butterfield’s individualistic social theory, which stresses the ambiguous nature of man with his individual freedom, sinfulness, and responsibility. These scriptures and writers also affected Butterfield’s critical assessment of the capacities of government to produce final solutions and restrain from the sin of presumption.

Second, against the illusionary presumptions of secular creeds to fully understand and control the course of history, Butterfield revitalizes the Christian concept of divine Providence as the ordering principle and moving force of history. Through Providence God works between the conscious actions of individuals in order to wrest good out of evil, so the individual should humbly cooperate.

Third, instead of perceiving his faith as a threat to his plea for an impartial technical historiography, Butterfield considers it to be an asset. Christian doctrine solves the dilemma of historiography by providing insights into the human soul and allowing the historian to discern the deeper providential order in history, where sheer positivism would only lead to nihilistic relativism.

Fourth, Butterfield identifies religious faith as the source of elasticity of mind and neutrality over mundane things, which are the essential part of any scientific research. They enable the historian to give an unbiased account of earthly affairs and thereby fulfill his quasi-religious vocation, to transcend opposition, reveal Providence in the course of time, and enable man to cooperate with it.

Ultimately, whether Christianity’s insights about the nature of history and man provide a true conception of reality is a matter of faith. Those arguing that Christianity itself is only a constructed ideational framework cannot be disproven. However—and this appears to be Butterfield’s most crucial insight—he argues that history has yet to produce an alternative ideational framework that could surpass the Christian faith in allowing us to be simultaneously hopeful and realist, critical and humble, free and responsible, open-minded and stable. As Butterfield writes, “We can do worse than remember a principle which both gives us a firm Rock and leaves us the maximum elasticity for our minds: the principle: Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.”