How Should Christians Think about History?
Is there a distinctively Christian approach to history? And if so, what does it look like in practice? How should we think about history? How should we write about history? How should we read critically the historical accounts of the past? How should each of us think about his own personal history and the history of relatives and friends?
Everyone participates in a single large historical stream of events, traveling from past to future. So does it make any difference what one believes about the events? As we read the Bible, we find that there are several ways in which God guides us to think in a distinct way about history.
Our beliefs about history make a difference because everyone wants to find meaning in history. If there is no God, if each of us is just atoms in motion, there is no overall meaning. All of it is “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”1 Out of his own mind, each person can still try to invent his own personal meaning for himself and for his surroundings. But deep down he is aware that it is his invention. It signifies nothing, ultimately, because in the end we are all dead. Such a picture is bleak.
By contrast, the Bible indicates that events have meaning, given by God. We ourselves are human beings created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27). We have significance as persons. God is personal, and he has created us as persons. We are to live in fellowship with him.
The Bible tells us about the beginning of history by giving an account of the creation of the world (Gen. 1–2). It tells us about the goal of history by telling us about the new heaven and the new earth to come (Rev. 21:1–22:5). We ourselves, and all the things and events around us, dwell in the time in between. The events in the in-between times have significance. That significance comes from God. Events unfold from an origin shaped by God. And they all have purposes, because they lead forward to a goal shaped by God. Each event happens in accord with God's plan (Isa. 46:9–10; Lam. 3:37–38; Eph. 1:11). Each event is known by God from all eternity, because it is planned by him.
In sum, we can have meaning in our lives because God gives meaning. Christians, unlike many other people with different views, believe in a God of meaning. This is important even when we cannot presently discern the meaning.
One primary principle is that God is in charge of events, both big and small.
[God] removes kings and sets up kings.—Dan. 2:21
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.—Matt. 10:29–30
His rule is comprehensive:
Who has spoken and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come?—Lam. 3:37–38
As a result, Christians have a source of security. The universe is under the control of our loving Father. His control is thorough and meticulous. We need to acknowledge his sovereignty and to give him thanks: “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18).
History involves events, persons, and the meanings that belong to them. All three—the events, the persons, and the meaning—come from God. All fit together into a coherent whole, because there is only one God who rules over all (Ps. 103:19).
If God is involved in everyone's life, in all circumstances, what are the implications? The first implication is to acknowledge his presence and to be aware of his presence. But how? There are two extremes to avoid.
Overconfidence about Purposes
One extreme is to be overconfident that we can know and discern God's purposes in the details of events. The Bible tells us about God's overall goal and his overall purpose, to “unite all things in him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). It also indicates that a prime means for moving toward that goal is the spread of the gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. . . . ”(Matt. 28:19). But what about the particulars? People sometimes make confident pronouncements. For example, Job's friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—thought that they knew the reason for the disasters that befell Job. They said that the disasters showed that God was punishing Job for some particular sins for which he needed to repent. But the book of Job as a whole shows that they were wrong in their supposition. Likewise, when the disciples inquired in John 9:2 about the man born blind, they supposed that either he or his parents had sinned and that the calamity was the result of the sin. But Jesus answered that it was “that the works of God might be displayed in him” (Job 9:3).
God's purposes are deep. We are not God. We need to recognize that, although God always has his purposes, many of those purposes in their details are hidden from us. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).
Refusal to Look for Purposes
The other extreme is to refuse to look for God's purposes at all. We may regard God as so inscrutable that we can never know anything about his purposes in particular events. Well, that is not true with respect to events actually recorded in the Bible. From time to time, God comments in his own infallible word about his purposes:
So the king [Rehoboam] did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfill his word, which the Lord spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. —1 Kings 12:15
This statement refers to an earlier prophecy by Ahijah the Shilonite in 1 Kings 11:31, which further explains God's purposes.
But what about later events after the completion of the writing of Scripture? What about earlier events about which the Bible does not directly speak? The safe course might seem to be to say that we can know nothing—nothing at all. We can know that God brings the events about, but we cannot know anything about his purposes in the events.
Cautious Genuine Application
But we can still use the principles of the Bible. For example, suppose that a Christian woman named Charlotte comes down with cancer. She prays to the Lord to heal her. She also asks her home church to pray. She consults the doctors, because God can use the doctors and their skills as a means to heal her. She may also use the time to reflect on what is important in life, and whether she is ready to die and meet her Maker. She reflects on any sins she may have committed. She asks forgiveness.
If we are Christians, we cannot be content just to “fit in” with the surrounding dominant culture. We are a distinct people.
Then, suppose that she is healed. It may be an apparently miraculous healing after the doctors had given up. It may be healing through the means of the medical profession. Does she thank the Lord for her healing? Does she thank the Lord for answering her prayers and the prayers of her Christian friends? Or, does she think, “I don't really know what God's purposes were in my cancer or its healing”? Does she also thank the Lord for giving her the opportunity to reflect on her life and its meaning and on her readiness to die? Or, does she merely think, “I can't know what purposes God had”?
Of course, she does not know infallibly. She does not know in quite the same way as she would in the cases in the Bible where God directly describes his purposes. Yet, she does know. How? She combines her fallible knowledge of her circumstances with her fallible knowledge of the Bible's descriptions of God and his purposes. She draws a conclusion that is fallible, but still solid. She is doing what she ought to do with the message of the Bible—namely, to apply it to herself. God's purposes in her life are mysterious, yes, but still not utterly inscrutable because she can apply the principles in the Bible.
The same principles hold in the more public setting where people are researching about the past and writing about the past. In a sense, Charlotte's experience is an instance that is partly “public” because she informed the people in her church. The news of her healing might spread beyond the bounds of her church as well. Her Christian friends are going to praise God. They think that one of God's purposes was to answer their prayers. Non-Christians may be skeptical. But their skepticism arises not primarily from the inscrutability of God but from their lack of proper saving knowledge of God, which God imparts through the Scriptures.
History for Broader Audiences
But what about the situations where a historian is writing for a much broader audience? There are many kinds of history writing that are legitimate, according to the principles of Scripture.
One historian might focus almost wholly on establishing details about the facts of the past. That is legitimate, because God is a God of truth, and he cares about whether reports are true or false.
Another historian might focus almost wholly on what theologians call “secondary causes.” What are the human motivations of the actors? What do they do as a result? What are the consequences in their lives and the lives that they touch? God, as the ruler of the whole world, is the ruler over secondary causes. It is legitimate to explore them.
Another historian might focus on the moral evaluation of the participants in the events. Of course, such evaluation can be reasonably fair only if the facts are established, and only if the historian has wisdom about human motivations. But there is a commonality to all humanity because God made human beings in the image of God. It is reasonable to hope that sometimes we can understand motivations, at least to some degree. And because God made us as moral creatures, it is legitimate to evaluate.
There can be good and bad moral examples in history. There can be moral lessons that we draw from them. This can be helpful. But it can also be hazardous. We can oversimplify the complexity of human motivation. Then the descriptions we make of the past become more like cartoon characters. They are over-simple. Or we might think that people can be saved from their wickedness just by having enough suitable moral examples, both good and bad. But the Bible indicates that sin is too deep to be rooted out simply by giving people examples.
Another historian may decide to focus on God's providential purposes in the historical events that he is studying. But then the same questions confront him as those we considered above. Does he find himself becoming overconfident about his ability to discern God's purposes? Or does he find himself too timid, with a reluctance ever to apply the principles of the Bible? It is a challenge to avoid both extremes.
Influence of Cultural Trends
We have another challenge in our day. In past centuries, when Christianity was dominant in Western thought, many people wrote historical accounts that included a mention of God's providential purposes. Some of them, no doubt, were overconfident. But present-day trends among professional historians have now gone to the opposite extreme. Talk about God is not regarded as professional. It is wise for us to be concerned about this trend, and to see it as a trend that is driven partly by the desire among leading intellectuals in the West to escape the presence of God.
If we are Christians, we cannot be content just to “fit in” with the surrounding dominant culture. We are a distinct people. We are made distinct by union with Christ and the renewal of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5). "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:2). The principle of renewal applies to what we think and say and write about history, as well as to every sphere of life.
Yes, there is a distinctly Christian approach to history, because we know that God rules history.
- William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5.
Vern Poythress is the author of Redeeming Our Thinking about History: A God-Centered Approach by Vern S. Poythress.
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