In the last several weeks, I've been discussing the topic of history from a Christian perspective, applying Scripture, theology and philosophy to the interrelated issues that confront us as Christians in our study of history. This four-part post has covered three topics so far, with the fourth being the topic of this post:
History and Human Nature
Finding a Meaning or Significance to History
The Problem of God's Involvement in History
A Unified Christian Approach to History
Part 1 addressed the topic of history and human nature. Part 2 addressed the topic of finding a meaning or significance to history. Part 3 addressed the complex problem of God's involvement in history. If you haven't read these posts yet, I encourage you to check them out before reading this post. In this post, I will attempt to pull together all of the threads of this discussion and provide some final thoughts about having a unified Christian approach to history.
What is meant by a unified Christian approach to history? Perhaps the first place to start would be to consider again the study of history. What is it that we discover in our study of history? One answer to this question is "facts about the past." Recently, I stumbled across a YouTube video in which a man asked young people in New York City basic questions. These questions have factual answers, and you probably learned the answers to most of them in elementary school. Here is a sampling of some of the historical and geographical questions asked in these videos:
Who fought in the Civil War?
When was the War of 1812 fought?
Who was the president before Donald Trump?
When was the United States founded?
How many states are there in the United States?
How many continents are there?
How many stars are there on the American flag?
Which country is Hawaii in?
Which country is Mt. Rushmore in?
What is the capital of the United States?
These are questions whose answers comprise what we might call "common knowledge." Assuming that the clips aren't too heavily cherrypicked, these videos would suggest that common knowledge isn't very common among young people anymore.
Why do I bring this up? Historical knowledge starts - but doesn't end - with knowledge of facts, including historical and geographical facts. If you don't know that Hawaii is a state in the United States of America, it becomes nonsensical to ask when its statehood was ratified. If you don't know that the American Civil War took place in the United States, then it makes very little sense to ask how Abraham Lincoln navigated the volatile and then-unprecedented political situation in order to maintain the integrity of the Union. It makes little sense to ask questions about how the socio-political situation in the United States in the years prior to 1860 led to war. (I suspect that increasing ignorance in the realm of common knowledge is one reason why ideologies like critical theory are so attractive for young people. It makes them good and virtuous people without the effort and burden of gaining knowledge.)
So, knowledge of the facts of the past is a necessary first step, but it is only the first step. Beyond this, one needs not only knowledge of the facts but a robust background in critical thinking to connect those facts in ways that cause interesting and probing questions to emerge. These questions, once answered with the expertise of a virtuous historian, contribute to the depth and insight of our understanding of history.
Recently, I've been watching an excellent series of lectures by the Presbyterian church historian, Carl Trueman, on the Reformation. In his extended discussion on Martin Luther, the man who, in many ways, was the primary catalyst for the Reformation, Trueman has emphasized the political and socio-cultural context in which Luther lived, situated as Luther was in the late-15th- and early-16th-century Holy Roman Empire as a monk whose training in Medieval theology coincided with an existential crisis that led him to propose that justification by faith alone was the central component of the gospel. But, though Luther's own personal struggles form one aspect of the explanation behind his shift in theology away from the Roman Catholic Church, how that led to a broader movement cannot be understood apart from the invention of the printing press around 1440. Note here that Trueman is not just transmitting facts. That's an essential part of the process, but beyond this is how the facts come together and beg for insightful explanation. The Reformation, which transformed the world and in some ways constituted and was influenced by the movement of Western history out of the Medieval period into the Enlightenment, is the result of a complex intermingling of factors that are historical, sociological, philosophical, theological, and geographical in origin.
Because of this aspect of historical knowledge, I would argue that the object of study in history cannot be reduced to the facts of the past. Instead, we have to go beyond this to something like understanding of the past. We have to, in some sense, gain an understanding for why the events of the past took place, especially given their contingency. Part of understanding the past is possible in a secular context. One needs no theological convictions, it seems to me, to understand what led to the Reformation. But part of understanding the past is also understanding how history, taken as a whole, communicates to us a particular grand narrative under the influence of God toward a particular end. I would go further, then, in arguing that history and narrative are inextricably connected. That connection is necessary to a unified Christian approach to history.
In this post, I will address a unified approach to history in three sections:
Atheism and Historical Absurdity
The Christian Worldview and the Narrative of History
The Importance of Interpreting History From a Christian Perspective for Christians
A Unified Christian Approach to History
First, Atheism and Historical Absurdity. If you recall from Part 3 of this post, I defined God's sovereignty as God's absolute rulership, which includes the claim that it is God's prerogative to act how He pleases toward His own ends (which, because of God's nature, are always good, which avoids the charge of arbitrariness in God's actions). I argued that God's sovereignty was exhaustive, meaning that it extended over all creation at all times. God alone providentially orders the universe and events in the universe to achieve His own purposes, revealing those purposes to us through His inspired Scriptures. In our specific discussion on how God's sovereignty applies to events in the past, I symbolized the past in this way:
E(-n)…E(-3), E(-2), E(-1), E(0)
Where E(-n) is any past event and -n is a placeholder for a number of moments prior to the present, which is represented as E(0). If God's sovereignty is exhaustive, then His will in some way extends to all of the events in the past, including events that involve evil and suffering (e.g., the Holocaust).
There is a sense in which this conclusion can bring significant doubt to a Christian, as he or she realizes that in order to maintain a consistent position theologically, he or she must account for the exhaustiveness of God's sovereignty. But, arguably, this picture can be comforting. Some theological schools press the comforting aspect of this picture especially, and I think that this is right. Viewed from the perspective of faith, God's exhaustive sovereignty assures us that evil and suffering are never meaningless or purposeless. The God in whom we know our good is met in abundance organizes all of history toward His ends, which we, as Christians, know includes the fulfillment of our good in Christ. Thus, we read in Romans 8:28 (NASB):
"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose."
So, in one sense, God's exhaustive sovereignty can be comforting in the midst of suffering. I know that this has been true for me in the midst of personal suffering. What God brings to our understanding of history is a sense of order or coherence. God's exhaustive sovereignty assures us that, though events in history (as well as our own lives) may seem chaotic, meaningless, or purposeless, this is not in fact true. God's existence makes a view like this impossible.
Let's compare this aspect of a Christian view of history with an atheistic view of history. Atheist philosophers have, in the past, attempted to provide a sense of order or coherence to history that is consistent with the claim that God does not exist. Karl Marx, following Hegel, accounted for historical movements in terms of economics, as conflict between classes give way to collapses and re-formations of systems of power, leading to capitalism. Friedrich Nietzsche, in the late 19th century, tells a story in his On a Genealogy of Morality, in which Christianity plays a deeply destructive role by subverting and repressing the triumph of the Greco-Roman Übermensch (Superman). Michel Foucault, in the mid-20th century, incorporated elements of Marxist theory and Nietzsche's genealogy to trace the history of institutions as dominant systems for the maintenance of power structures. Thus, atheist views of history can have a sense of order and coherence to them. Yet what they all have in common was first spoken by the Preacher or Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes 1 (NASB):
"'Futility of futilities,' says the Preacher, 'Futility of futilities! All is futility.' What advantage does a person have in all his work Which he does under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, But the earth remains forever. Also, the sun rises and the sun sets; And hurrying to its place it rises there again. Blowing toward the south, Then turning toward the north, The wind continues swirling along; And on its circular courses the wind returns. All the rivers flow into the sea, Yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, There they flow again. All things are wearisome; No one can tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor is the ear filled with hearing. What has been, it is what will be, And what has been done, it is what will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one might say, “See this, it is new”? It has already existed for ages Which were before us. There is no remembrance of the earlier things, And of the later things as well, which will occur, There will be no remembrance of them Among those who will come later still.
The Preacher, the author of Ecclesiastes, reflects upon the futility of human action in light of his demise and the continual movement of nature's processes. Human beings die; the world remains, unchanged. History in an atheistic universe might be linear, cyclical, or chaotic, but it is nonetheless meaningless, purposeless and valueless. We will strive, and then we will die. If God does not exist, then our deaths are a ceasing to exist, and nothing will remain. Life, as the existentialist philosophers observed, is absurd in a godless universe.
Perhaps material progress is possible in an atheistic view of history. Certainly, human beings have developed, at a stunning pace, the means to universally raise the health and wellbeing of themselves. Human beings today are safer, wealthier, and healthier than at any other time in human history, yet mankind can destroy itself at the press of a button in a nuclear war. Thus, while it may be true that an atheistic view of history can give a sense of coherence or order to history (I'm skeptical whether it can), it certainly cannot give meaning, purpose or value.
Thus, in comparing atheistic views with the Christian view of history, we find one of the most important contributions of the Christian view. Unlike atheistic views, only the Christian view can grant to those in Christ meaning, purpose, and value in spite of the suffering to which we're all prone and liable. It's this aspect of the Christian view that, for the mature Christian, can grant comfort when recognizing God's sovereignty in the midst of suffering.
Second, the Christian Worldview and the Narrative of History. The Oxford Dictionary defines "narrative" as "a spoken or written account of connected events; a story." Consider the concept of connected events. How is it that events end up being connected? (The first half of William Dray's book, Philosophy of History, was intended in part to address this question.) One obvious way that events are connected is via cause and effect. To use Hume's definition, what it means for event A to cause event B is that event B would not have occurred at that time, had it not been for the prior occurrence of event A. Certainly, this is one way to connect events, but it isn't the only way. Larger-scale movements and events, such as the Renaissance in Europe or World War II, cannot be accounted for through merely causal accounts. Nothing about Jan Hus's early attempt at reforming the church caused Luther's publication of The Ninety-Five Theses. Rather, both were in some sense "caught up" into the multifaceted religio-politico-cultural event we have since decided to call the Reformation. Because we call accounts of the course of connected events "narratives," it therefore makes sense to think of historians as storytellers, though the stories they tell are not fictional.
The concept of narrative requires that the events of the narrative be arranged in such a way as to make sense of the whole of the narrative as well as each of the events. In one of my favorite TV shows, Breaking Bad, some of Walter White's actions don't fully make sense until the end of the show. For example (spoiler warning!), two lines, "I am the one who knocks!" and "Say my name," aren't completely understandable until one of the last scenes of the show, in which Walter explains to Skyler that "I did it for me." This one line interprets not only the lines cited, but the whole of the narrative, and explains why, for instance, Walter rejects financial help to pay for his cancer treatments in the first season. Well-written fictional narratives arrange the events in such a way as to shed light on the meaning of the whole narrative, in a way that organizes its content and communicates the theme. Historians, who construct historical narratives, have the same task.
The problem, however, is that narrative makes little sense without God. Early Christian theologians focused heavily on the Son as the logos (Greek: λόγος), that is, the rational mind of God. The use of logos in its application to the Son is derived from John 1, in which John, the disciple of Jesus, refers to Jesus as logos (usually translated as "the Word"). Since the New Testament describes the Son as the One through whom all things were created (e.g., Colossians 1:16), it made sense to think of the Son as the One who enacts the Father's creative decree by providing order and shape to matter. The incredible insight of the theologians of the early church was that the source and end of all things is, in fact, a rational Mind. That Mind makes sense of chaos by forming order out of chaos, a garden out of the wilderness. My claim is this: a mind is necessary to make sense of events, to arrange them and point to that transcendent truth to which they refer, of which they are a witness.
Without a mind to organize and make sense of events, events become chaotic and disordered. They still occur according to cause and effect, but there is no meaning or purpose to those events. One may respond to this claim by contending that human minds exist to make sense of events, including the events of history. But then the next question arises: whose story is correct? Here, I'm not talking about competing interpretations of events associated with particular periods or movements in history. Rather, I'm talking about history as a whole. If God does not exist, then whatever stories we tell ourselves end up not mattering in light of the inevitability of death and the end of the human race. There's no objective way to tell whether any of those stories is true.
This is why, in the last century, we've seen what Jean-François Lyotard has called "incredulity toward metanarratives" (The Postmodern Condition, xxiv). This incredulity, I contend, is the result of prior widespread rejection of the existence of God (or whether we could know that He exists) in the modern period. Thus, what we find is that God's existence is necessary for making sense of history as a whole at all. As a side note, this means that we must rely on some form of special revelation to understand history as a whole, since only God was there at the beginning.
Thus, the truth of the Christian worldview entails that, aided by God, we can understand the grand narrative of history as a whole through the lens of the Christian worldview. That picture will look something like what I laid out in Part 2 of this post.
Finally, The Importance of Interpreting History From a Christian Perspective for Christians. If you've made it this far, I commend you. I probably should have addressed this topic in Part 1, though I never expected to write this much on the topic of history and the Christian worldview. In this section, I'll highlight three benefits of interpreting history from a Christian perspective: one for our own sanctification as Christians, one for ministry, and one for evangelism and apologetics.
First, interpreting history from a Christian perspective benefits Christians in their own sanctification. One purpose of reading and studying Scripture is to conform to its view of the world, God, other people, etc. The purpose is to "be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2 NASB). Often, in our personal lives, we face situations and problems that call on us to think, reason, and even feel in a way that is grounded firmly in the Christian worldview. One aspect of spiritual maturity is facing these situations in a way that is consistent with the Christian worldview. For example, we may be wronged by another person and forgive that person, thereby obeying the Lord, or we may seek vengeance and thereby disobey the Lord.
I believe that all of Scripture does this for us, as we diligently study it. But the way in which Scripture does this can be somewhat complex. How does the book of Kings help us to conform to the Bible's view of reality? It relays historical truths, but what does it do beyond this? This is not an easy question to answer, but I think that we can move toward an answer by reflecting on the way in which the Bible comments on itself. Since it is at once both a collection of ancient documents and a divinely-inspired document, intertextual connections shed light on the meaning of certain texts. In general, we can apply this by using the prophetic books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, etc.) to interpret the historical books (especially Kings and Chronicles). In historical books about which we don't find prophetic commentary in another book, we can rely on close study of the narratives within those books to interpret them (and of course, we should do the same for Kings and Chronicles). Intertextual study, as well as close study of the books themselves, will aid us in gaining God's perspective on history, which always relates to the theology of Scripture.
Let me illustrate this with an example that is often misused. In 2 Chronicles 7:14, we find a profound verse (NASB):
"[If] My people who are called by My name humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land."
All too often, I see American Christians use this verse as a call to spiritual revival in the United States, as if the promise applies directly to the United States. Americans are conflated with "My people," and the prosperity (or lack thereof) of the United States is attached to the faithfulness of Americans.
This is a gross misinterpretation of this text, and it shows from the fact that 2 Chronicles 7:14 is often quoted out of context. This text is given to the people of Israel, God's elect people, in the midst of an account of their history that ends with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple of the Lord as well as exile in Babylon. Thus, the Book of Chronicles was written after the Israelites had seen their land decimated and their culture destroyed. The Book of Chronicles, then, is a kind of reflection of Israel upon its own history, and one question that arises quite naturally is, "What went wrong?" What went wrong was that Israel was unfaithful and rebellious toward the Lord, constantly turning to idols instead of to Him. Her constant apostasy and injustice eventually led to destruction, as the Lord allowed a foreign power to utterly destroy the nation. But things didn't have to end that way. Second Chronicles 7:14 makes clear that all the while, Israel had the chance to repent and seek the Lord anew. Had they done this, the nation would not have been destroyed. Thus, 2 Chronicles 7:14 operates as a guide for understanding the whole history of Israel and why she eventually fell into exile. It is a key part of ordering Israel's history into a coherent narrative by incorporating God's perspective and promises.
None of this is to say that 2 Chronicles 7:14 is unapplicable to Christians. It's just that the way it is often applied is hermeneutically irresponsible. In fact, I would argue that 2 Chronicles 7:14 tells us something very important about God's patience, steadfast love, desire for our salvation, and faithfulness, and this is true at any time and for any people. But this verse is not to us. It can play a role in how we interpret other times and our own, but only insofar as we see clearly how it helps us to interpret the time period in which and the people to which it was written.
This is true of much of the historical content of the Bible, and I would argue that it's one of the primary ways in which the historical books, along with the prophetic books, conform our understanding of the world to God's. They do so by revealing to us what drives and guides history, as well as the nature of its chief author, and what its end was determined from eternity to be. Consider Part 2 and Part 3 of this post. In both, I claimed that the gospel has a formative influence on our understanding of history in a way that gives it coherence and shape, in a way that makes sense of apparent chaos. For Christians, this will be a help when faced with atrocities of the past or suffering in the present. Conformity to God's perspective, then, means understanding history the way its author and end does.
Second, interpreting history from a Christian perspective benefits Christians in their ministry. Here, I primarily have discipleship in mind. Often, the study of history confronts us with doubts about the truth of Christian claims. Where was the God of love when Auschwitz was built and its prisoners callously murdered? These kinds of questions arise in Scripture as well, in books such as Lamentations or the Psalms. The psalmist routinely wonders why God chooses not to intervene to deliver him from trouble. Why does God seem to be silent? Part 3 is important for addressing God's sovereignty and human history. How is it that a sovereign God could allow evil to have taken place in the past, let alone the present?
These questions confront and trouble us, and in my experience, studying and writing about these issues has greater immediate application in ministry to other believers than it does to unbelievers. As members of the body of Christ, we bear a responsibility to one another to encourage one another and build one another up. Part of this process is listening when another Christian doubts and providing an answer in a loving way. If you are a leader of some kind in your church, whether a pastor or lay leader, you will have conversations like these as long as your church cultivates an openness toward talking about doubts honestly (as it should). I encourage you to be the brother or sister in Christ who will walk alongside someone in the midst of his or her doubts.
Finally, interpreting history from a Christian perspective benefits Christians in their practice of evangelism and apologetics. If you've ever talked with an atheist about the problem of evil or the Crusades, you know that this is true. Many unbelievers find it unthinkable that the very same God of Scripture is sovereign over our world and its history. We're the ones making this claim, so we need to be prepared to answer those doubts in a way that clears the path for the reception of the gospel.
Here, I believe that the centrality of Christ and the gospel to a Christian understanding of history can be particularly powerful in our efforts to share the gospel with unbelievers. The central claims of the Christian faith concern the person and work of Jesus Christ, an historical figure who undeniably existed and exerted massive transformative influence over world history. That transformation, which can be summed up as the advent of the "Kingdom of God" on earth, can be seen not just in the West, but all over the world. There is a reason why our calendar numbers years according to Christ's birth ("Before Christ" and "Anno Domini," meaning "in the year of our Lord"). Jesus is the central figure in world history and continues to transform the world through His church. Thus, if we're careful, historical doubts can be turned into an opportunity to share the gospel. We need to be aware of this and use this opportunity as an inroads to sharing our faith.
At long last, we've reached the end of this post! I had no idea when I started the research for this project that it would take me so long and so much space to get my thoughts out on paper. I thought that all of this could be covered in only one part, not four! But I've found the process so edifying as I've confronted some of the disquieting feelings that would arise when I read history, whether or not in the Bible. If anything, this four-part post has been a testimony to the fact that our faith can engage with deep and challenging intellectual problems until we find intellectual satisfaction, and I'm glad to be able to say that I've reached something nearing that for myself. If you've read it all, bringing your own intellectual troubles to it, then I commend you and hope that this has been helpful for you.
With that being said, this post has now concluded! If you're interested, stay tuned for more posts in the future, as I hope to tackle other intellectual challenges that will help deepen and enrich your Christian faith. If you want to reach out, you can comment on this post or find me on Facebook. Alternatively, feel free to send me an email to the address on the homepage. Thanks for reading!