Interpreting History Through a Christian Lens: Part 1
The image above is of David Roberts's The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70. Painted around 1850, it depicts in haunting detail the siege of the great city by the Romans under Titus. The significance of this event historically cannot be overstated.
For the Jews, the destruction of Jerusalem, God's holy city, including the Temple of the Lord finished in dazzling detail by Herod the Great, was devastating. It brought to mind the first time that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar several hundreds of years prior. The siege that preceded it had plunged the city into turmoil and anarchy and subjected its people to starvation. Josephus, a Jewish historian who was alive and present during the siege, describes in detail what happened in the city before it was destroyed. Here is an excerpt from his book, The Wars of the Jews or History of the Destruction of Jerusalem, Book VI, Chapter 3:
"Now of those that perished by famine in [Jerusalem], the number was prodigious, and the miseries they underwent were unspeakable; for if so much as the shadow of any kind of food did any where appear, a war was commenced presently, and the dearest friends fell a fighting one with another about it, snatching from each other the most miserable supports of life. Nor would men believe that those who were dying had no food, but the robbers would search them when they were expiring, lest any one should have concealed food in their bosoms, and counterfeited dying; nay, these robbers gaped for want, and ran about stumbling and staggering along like mad dogs, and reeling against the doors of the houses like drunken men; they would also, in the great distress they were in, rush into the very same houses two or three times in one and the same day. Moreover, their hunger was so intolerable, that it obliged them to chew every thing, while they gathered such things as the most sordid animals would not touch, and endured to eat them; nor did they at length abstain from girdles and shoes; and the very leather that belonged to their shields they pulled off and gnawed: the very wisps of old hay became food to some; and some gathered up fibres, and sold a very small weight of them for four Attic [drachmae].
In this lengthy passage, Josephus describes in detail the horrible starvation that those in Jerusalem experienced. Imagine being so hungry and desperate for food that you begin cutting up and eating your shoes!
In light of the religious importance of Jerusalem, one can imagine that there was an attempt to understand what had happened. Indeed, interpretations were forthcoming. For the Jews who had hoped for the Messiah to rescue them from Roman oppression, the sight of the Temple being destroyed must have been devastating. Had God not come through for them? Is He not trustworthy? Or, had He seen the sin of the Jews and decided, as He apparently did the first time the Temple was destroyed, to allow a foreign power to act as His tool of divine judgement? We can imagine that all of these discussions took place among the Jews, as they had hundreds of years prior, as is recorded in Old Testament books such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Lamentations, and Chronicles.
Among Christians, a similar but different interpretation arose. Irenaeus, who was born only 60 years after the destruction of Jerusalem, in A.D. 130, supplies one example of a Christian explanation for the destruction of Jerusalem. His book, Against Heresies, contains a passage in which he gives a Christian explanation for the destruction of Jerusalem. It is found in Book IV, Chapter IV. In this section, Irenaeus formulates a somewhat complex argument, according to which the destruction of Jerusalem was initiated by God because Jerusalem, once the place where the "fruit" of God's revelation had flourished, had become useless once that fruit was sown throughout the entire (Roman) world. This is similar to Paul's point in his epistles that, now that Jesus has fulfilled the law and it's requirements (and we fulfill the law through faith in Him), there is no further need for the old law and old covenant. So, Irenaeus writes:
"The fruit, therefore, having been sown throughout all the world, she (Jerusalem) was deservedly forsaken, and those things which had formerly brought forth fruit abundantly were taken away; for from these, according to the flesh, were Christ and the apostles enabled to bring forth fruit. But now these are no longer useful for bringing forth fruit. For all things which have a beginning in time must of course have an end in time also."
In the larger passage in which this quotation can be found, Irenaeus is responding to an argument that claimed that God's power had been shown to be impotent because of the destruction of Jerusalem. If Jerusalem was the great city of the Jews, on which God's favor was directed, how could He allow the city to be destroyed? Irenaeus' explanation is the claim, in fact, God had allowed Jerusalem to be forsaken for a reason that is discernable from Scripture.
So, depending on one's worldview, the destruction of Jerusalem presented, to a greater or lesser degree, a challenge to that worldview and a need for an explanation. This is puzzling in one sense. If history is nothing more than the description of past events, as they involve human beings, why does that description beg an explanation? Why is it something that must be accounted for? Yet it clearly is! Virtually all Americans remember, as children, learning about events like the American Civil War or the Holocaust and thinking, "Why did this take place?" Why is that issues such as slavery, states' rights, and disparate interpretations of the implications of the Constitution turned into a war that killed over 600,000 Americans by 1865? What could have led Adolf Hitler, those around him, and even the German people to sign off on the intentional killing of over 6,000,000 Jews by 1945? History may at times appear as if it's merely descriptive, as if it's just about rote memorization of facts and dates, yet on greater reflection, it raises many troubling questions that beg an explanation.
What are those questions? Lately, I've had the pleasure of reading Susan Wise Bauer's The History of the Medieval World, a large book that covers the histories of various peoples and kingdoms spanning from the Roman Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in 312 to the First Crusade, which began in 1095. This period is typically referred to as the Early Middle Ages (early Medieval period) or, sometimes, the Dark Ages, as the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 led to chaos across Europe, in the absence of an emperor and unified system of governance, for centuries. At times, as I've read Bauer's book, it's felt as if this period were nothing more than a continuous series of corrupt, often tyrannical kings and other rulers shamelessly vying for power, often willing to kill family to obtain or retain it. In many ways, that's what had occurred in the Early Middle Ages.
Eventually, for the Christian, this question will inevitably arise: Where is God in all of this? If we believe that God is sovereign over the events of history, as Scripture not only suggests but actively affirms (see, for example, Romans 13:1, as well as numerous examples from the Old Testament), then why does it seem as if His apparently active control over history is obscured in the description of the historical facts themselves? This question emerges not only from reading history written after the end of the New Testament; the Old Testament actively reflects on this question in different ways. First, reading historical books such as Kings and Judges will cause the question to emerge. Second, biblical authors themselves will reflect on the question in different ways, as when Jeremiah prays in Jeremiah 12:1-2 (NASB):
"Righteous are You, Lord, when I plead my case with You; Nevertheless I would discuss matters of justice with You: Why has the way of the wicked prospered? Why are all those who deal in treachery at ease? You have planted them, they have also taken root; They grow, they have also produced fruit. You are near to their lips But far from their mind."
Jeremiah is lamenting the prosperity of those who hate the Lord in his day, but this is something that we see in our study of history as well. Wars leave thousands, if not millions, dead. Villages are raided and burned, their inhabitants slaughtered. A king spends years trying to increase his power, only to die of a stroke. In a way, the study of history can cause the Christian to sympathize with the author of Ecclesiastes (called "Qoheleth" or "Teacher") when he says in Ecclesiastes 1:2 (ESV):
"Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
Of course, that question ("Where is God in all of this?") is just one question that the theist must ask. History presents questions for anyone who studies it. First, what do the actions of human beings in the past imply, if anything, about human nature? Second, is there a meaning or significance to history? Does it have a structure or direction? Others have given answers to this question, and it forms what has been called speculative philosophy of history. Non-Christian thinkers, such as G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Arnold Toynbee, have given answers to these questions. How should Christians think about history in a way that's grounded in the Christian worldview?
The primary focus of this blog post is to search for an answer to that question, and part of answering that question will be searching for a Christian answer to the two questions cited above. I am no expert on the topic. I've only begun to read about speculative philosophy of history, though I'm somewhat familiar with it through my study of other things such as critical theory. I also have Scripture, which I think gives some indications of how we ought to interpret history as Christians.
But before I set about addressing these questions, let me explain why I wanted to discuss this in the first place. As I've read Scripture and history on my own, many of these same questions have emerged, so in a sense, I'm writing because I have been troubled by the study of history before in my own life. But I also believe that these issues are vital for the Christian for at least three reasons. First, false worldviews, such as critical theory, include an interpretation of history that I would claim is unbiblical. Second, the study of history can cause doubt about the truth of certain claims about God and Christ, which is highlighted in Scripture by passages such as Jeremiah 12:1-2. I believe that the Christian worldview has an answer to these doubts. Third, I believe that a Christian interpretation of history can serve us in apologetics by showing how the historical facts themselves so clearly cohere with certain Christian claims. For these reasons, this is an issue about which all Christians should be, in some way, concerned.
This post will have four parts. First, I will discuss history in connection with human nature. Second, I will discuss the problem of finding a meaning or significance to history. Third, I will discuss the uniquely theistic problem of God's involvement in history. Finally, I'll bring all of this together into a more unified Christian approach to history and explain why it's important for Christians to understand this, in light of false worldviews and their interpretations of history. Because I have much to write on this topic, this is only the first of multiple parts, and I will only cover history and human nature in this part.
History and Human Nature
The philosophical study of human beings is called philosophical anthropology. In Christian theology, the study of human beings can be called either theological or Christian anthropology (hereafter referred to as "theological anthropology"). These fields differ in their ways of approaching the study of human beings. Generally speaking, philosophical anthropology considers human beings from the standpoint of reason in a kind of self-reflective way (i.e., humans reflecting on themselves), whereas theological anthropology, as with all theology, will approach the study of human beings from the standpoint of divine special revelation (i.e., Scripture). To oversimplify a bit, we can think of philosophical anthropology as "what humans think about themselves" and of theological anthropology as "what God thinks about human beings." Using the Bible as its epistemic foundation, theological anthropology assumes that God exists and has communicated to us already what human beings are, and what He says is trustworthy because He created human beings.
But, taken alone, the way I've defined the fields thus far can be misleading, since philosophical and theological anthropology often overlap. In fact, for Christians who attempt to define the Christian view of human nature over and against those of false worldviews, it is necessary to interact with philosophical anthropology while approaching the field from a confessionally Christian perspective. For example, in an excellent book called Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate, the Christian philosopher, John W. Cooper, addresses the monism-dualism debate, which is important in philosophical anthropology, from a biblical perspective, concluding that the biblical view is what he calls holistic dualism. That is, human beings are body and soul, but these two aspects of human nature are integrally connected to one another and are separated only unnaturally at death.
The topic of Cooper's Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting has to do with the composition of the human person, a metaphysical issue. What's more relevant for the study of history is the question as to whether human beings are born in any kind of "state" that is tied to their nature. There are at least three options that one can take with regard to this question:
Human nature is good.
Human nature is evil.
Human nature is a "blank slate," or is neutral.
At least, this is how the options are often cast. I prefer a fourth option:
Human nature is "mixed," created good but infected with evil.
I highlight this fourth option because I believe that it accommodates the empirical aspect of the question of the "state" of human nature and because I believe that the fourth option is the more biblical view. It is only after the creation of mankind, made in the image of God, that we see the Scripture affirming that everything that God had made was "very good" (Genesis 1:31). But, because of the fall of mankind into sin in Genesis 3, we find human beings as fundamentally part of God's good creation but "infected" or "corrupted" by evil in a way that affects the whole human person. But, even though the whole human person is infected by evil, this doesn't entail that an individual human person is incapable of good. In teaching about God the Father's willingness to give good things to those who ask Him, Jesus illustrates the capacity of fallen mankind to do good in Matthew 7:7-11 (NASB):
"'Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or what person is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf of bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? So if you, despite being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!'"
So, as the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Of course, the capacity to occasionally do good to one's own is not the whole story, for human actions are not carried merely on the interpersonal level. History must especially include the actions of those who changed or influenced the course of events in human history, who affected changes in kingdoms, peoples, and cultures. Julius Caesar might have given bread to his son when asked, but he also killed untold thousands in the Gallic Wars (58 B.C.-50 B.C.), which were wars of conquest to spread Roman superiority over Europe. Indeed, much can be attested to concerning the depth of human depravity, whether in Scripture (e.g., Genesis 6:5-6) or in the study of history (e.g., the Holocaust, Stalin's reign over the USSR, etc.). So, while the capacity for good still exists, the capacity for evil is a well whose bottom may never be discovered-and we should hope never to discover it.
Why is the study of history important for our understanding of human nature? This is a complex question on which (of many in this post) I'm still reflecting. One way to start would be to highlight three non-Christian approaches to philosophical anthropology as a springboard for a larger conversation on the importance of history to these questions. I'm going to discuss, briefly, the views of Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx, who in many ways present very different perspectives.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher whose most famous work is The Leviathan. In this book, he presents a political philosophy that begins with what he calls the "state of nature," a state in which mankind can pursue his self-interest in a way that is unrestrained and barbaric. In this so-called "war of all against all," no one is safe from the predation of anyone else, and the rule is of the strong against the weak (and each other) in a perpetual and anarchic contest for resources. The only thing that can end this chaotic state is a strong, centralized government whose authority to govern and enforce laws is given via a social contract between individuals. In other words, for the sake of safety, individuals will give up some of that unrestrained freedom to a central government whose purpose is to keep the peace. The Hobbesian view, then, is that human nature is evil, and that it is the purpose of the state to restrain evil through top-down control.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a French philosopher whose work continues to influence streams in Marxist and postmodern thought today. Similarly to thinkers such as Hobbes, Rousseau explains his view of human nature by posing a "state of nature," though this state of nature is essentially the opposite of that envisioned by Hobbes. Whereas Hobbes saw unrestrained freedom as disastrous for human flourishing, Rousseau sees the state of nature as an idyllic state, and the imposition of society on the individual, with its laws, regulations, and the ownership of private property, is evil. One of Rousseau's most famous quotes is this: "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." For Rousseau, the imposition of society on the individual corrupts his good nature. Thus, as much as we can, it is best to return to a state of nature.
Karl Marx (1818-1883). Karl Marx was a German philosopher who, in his system of Marxism, cast social relations among groups as oppositional (i.e., dialectic), such that one group of oppressors, because of their place in the social hierarchy, was oppressing another group, the oppressed. For Marx, the dialectical was based on economic relations. Those who owned the means of production in a capitalist economic system (i.e., the bourgeoisie) exploited the labor of their workers (i.e., the proletariat) in order to make a profit off of them. Because the unjust exploitation was structural, the actions of individuals were relatively unimportant compared to the place they held in the social hierarchy. What was needed was a "class consciousness" that would allow the oppressed class to overthrow the oppressor class, taking the means of production by force, and thereby producing a system in which no private property exists so as to develop a capitalist system. In this "Communist" system, that which is of value, particularly the things necessary to sustain life, are freely and equally available to all. All are free from work and free from the kind of government system that would produce a social hierarchy. This is distinct from Rousseau in that there is still a society; that society is a Communist one. Marx famously coined the phrase, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs," to capture this idea. Though this may be controversial, I understand Marx to subscribe to the neutral view of human nature. Human nature is a kind of "blank slate," and corrupt social structures corrupt the individuals in that system.
Each of these three influential philosophers have an understanding of human nature that, we can assume, should bear themselves out in the study of history if true. But here, the epistemic situation can get a bit complicated. How can any one view of human nature be confirmed by historical facts? My view, which I derive from an excellent paper by C. Stephen Evans in the journal, Philosophia Christi, called "A Global Hermeneutical Perspective on Contemporary Moral Philosophy," is threefold. First, a universal theory of human nature cannot be proven true by the historical data. Second, particular historical facts can, in principle, serve to either support or undermine a universal theory of human nature. Third, if a particular historical fact contradicts a universal theory of human nature, then it is less probable that the theory in question is true.
The upshot of these three claims is twofold. First, it is easier to disprove a universal theory of human nature than it is to prove it. Second, a cumulative case for a universal theory of human nature, especially if it lacks historical facts that undermine it, is a strong case for that theory of human nature. In other words, we want a theory that coheres well with the historical facts to which we have access on the whole, though, because the theory is universal, no collection of historical facts can decisively prove the theory true.
What we find, broadly, in Hobbes, Rousseau, and Marx are proponents of three of the four views on human nature that we mentioned above. Since I would argue for the fourth option (i.e., that human beings are created good but corrupted by sin), I'd have to show that this option better coheres with the facts we discover in our study of human history than the other three options, as defended by proponents of them. Doing that in great detail is way beyond my area of knowledge as well as the scope of this post, but some considerations are, I think, important.
First, since the fourth option acknowledges both the good and bad of human nature, it can more easily accommodate all of the historical data than the other options. In Hobbes, we find what could be called a pessimistic view of the human being. Human beings, without a strong central government imposing order from the outside, would simply act out of self-interest and pleasure, practicing their freedom at the expense of those around them. Thus, the major role of the state is to restrain evil, particularly the evil impulses of those who seek freedom at the expense of others. There is truth to this, as we see in Romans 13:1-4. On the other side, we have in Rousseau an optimistic view of the human being (and, consequently, a pessimistic view of social institutions). For Rousseau, human nature is fundamentally good and is corrupted by social institutions. Again, there is truth to this view. One of the most disturbing and lasting questions that emerged from World War II was this: how is it that otherwise seemingly decent Germans could have consented to the arrest and forceful detainment of their Jewish neighbors? An insidious ideology, enforced by fiat by a dictatorial government, was at least in large part to blame.
I would argue that the mixed view of human nature accommodates all of the historical data precisely by being broad enough to explain the often contradictory aspects of human action that can so clearly be seen in our study of history. A strong government is needed to restrain the evil intentions in people's hearts, but history shows that humans have an amazing tendency to protect their own. In fact, intratribal (i.e., within the tribe) cooperation is common. People will, at times, act out of compassion and even self-sacrifice for their own people or family. Yet, intertribal conflict is the often the norm, and this has often resulted in unimaginable atrocities. Certain social structures or organizations can corrupt the individual, but who creates those institutions? Ultimately, it seems, history is a testament both to the towering achievements of an image-bearing humanity and its precipitous fall into the lowest depths of depravity imaginable. Hell on earth exists side-by-side with glimpses of heaven, and it seems that, for those who study history closely, either reality is more perceivable. Thus, we have optimistic and pessimistic views that emerge from the same historical data.
In short, I think that the other views are too simplistic. They can seemingly account for a part of human action in history, but they miss other parts. The mixed view grasps not only the good and bad of human action, also the reason why human nature and action seems so fragmentary and contradictory.
Of course, this short account could never hope to be a full-fledged defense of a biblical view of human nature from history. Nor could I have hoped to attempt a full study of the alternatives, or to have given a strong case against them. Ultimately, I hold to a mixed view of human nature because I believe it to be the biblical view. Yet, I do think that the mixed view has strengths over the alternatives and avoids some of their weaknesses.
This brings up another important point. In my treatment of these alternatives, I don't mean to imply that each of the views is equally as plausible. To use an example from the last few years, we can understand why the formation of CHAZ (the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) in the wake of riots in Seattle, Washington, which involved the force removal of law enforcement from the precinct within which CHAZ was established, quickly led to lawlessness, including murder. Whether or not the zone was formed out of intentions that could be construed as good (utopian visions have an appeal to them), human sin prevailed. In many ways, the Hobbesian view seems closest to the right view, and we should expect this, given the extent of human depravity as a result of the Fall. Compared to it, and with the facts of history on our minds, Rousseau's view, as well as Marx's, seem more naïve.
For Christians in particular, the mixed view of human nature is further substantiated by the historical accounts in Scripture. I first noticed this when I realized that reading the Book of Kings, an account of the history of Israel from the end King David's reign (he died in about 970 B.C.) to the destruction of Jerusalem under King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (587 B.C.), always left an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. The basic structure of the book (divided in our Bibles into 1 Kings and 2 Kings) centers around the accession of kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Judah in the south (Israel was split in two after the death of Solomon). Each time a new king is mentioned, he is described as either doing good or evil in the sight of the Lord, usually based on idol worship and whether he treated his people justly.
A question emerges as a result of closely studying this book: why is it that some kings are good and others bad? Indeed, we even observe that one of the greatest Judean kings, King Hezekiah, was followed by his son Manasseh, one of the worst Judean kings! Knowing all we know about the law and the promises contained therein, about the promises of blessing for obedience and of curses for disobedience (Deuteronomy 28), one could reasonably ask, "How on earth could the nation have been so foolish?" Indeed, a significant portion of the Old Testament is dedicated to the theological puzzles that emerge from such a disobedient people. If the Lord punishes the nation of Israel, then is He contradicting His promise to preserve the people? Is He powerless to stop Babylon from advancing? It seems that free human beings, corrupted by the same sin that corrupted others such as Cain, go their own way and worship anything but the God who actually is. Some repent and walk with the Lord; most don't. The explanation of the Old Testament is succinct but profound and can be found in Jeremiah 17:9 (NASB):
"The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?"
I believe that part of the purpose of the Book of Kings is to reveal that the external requirements of the law were not enough to motivate good in the people at large. What is required is a change of heart. Often, for me, reading history outside the Bible leaves the same uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Why are we caught in a seemingly endless cycle of civilizations that rise, fall, and then give rise to new civilizations; intellectual movements whose tenants result in the deaths of tens of millions under totalitarian governments; the continual reshaping of old ideas, old falsehoods, into current cultural milieus? Ultimately, Christians know that human beings were created good because of the account of our creation in Genesis 1-2. But the well of human depravity runs deep.
In this way, I believe that history can itself be a tool for apologetics and evangelism for those who study it and connect it with biblical truth. It points to a universal tendency toward evil as well as the glimpses of goodness that peak through all that darkness in our achievements, particularly those that point to a world and reality beyond us. We can supply the narrative that makes sense of the chaos of human history, and I think that it's best to keep this in mind as you read and study history, as I hope you do.
That's it for the first of multiple parts to this blog post! I hope that you found this post intellectually and spiritually stimulating, as well as edifying, as you consider how Christians ought to interpret history through the lens of truth. This post will be long and, at times, technical, but my hope is that it can spur you on, as these issues have spurred me on, to a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of history. If you're interested, stay tuned for the next posts in the coming weeks! 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!