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Interpreting History Through a Christian Lens: Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I introduced the topic of interpretation of history by beginning with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, a monumental historical event whose occurrence, because of the religious significance of the city, begged for some kind of explanation. This launched me into a broader inquiry into this question: how should Christians think about history in a way that's grounded in the Christian worldview? Because of the broad scope of that question, I split this post into four distinct sections:

  • 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

In Part 1, I discussed "History and Human Nature." That is, what, if anything, does history tell us about human nature, and how does the Christian understanding of human nature fare compared to other approaches to human nature? I came to the conclusion that a "mixed" view of human nature, according to which human beings were created good (and are therefore part of God's good creation) but corrupted by evil, is both the most biblically-faithful view and most lines up with what we discover in the study of history. I encourage you to read Part 1 first if you haven't yet, so that you will be ready to continue our discussion in this post.

In this post, I will continue this discussion on interpreting history with a discussion on finding a "meaning" or "significance" to history.

Finding a Meaning or Significance to History

Lately, as I've been researching for this post, I've read a short book by the Canadian philosopher, William Herbert Dray, entitled Philosophy of History. In that book, Dray distinguishes between the two major divisions within philosophy of history: critical philosophy of history and speculative philosophy of history. The former concerns the place of history as a distinct field of inquiry and seeks to find out whether history is a science, much like the philosophy of science defines distinctions between various scientific fields and describes their methods and modes of inquiry. The latter concerns this question of whether there is a "meaning" or "significance" to history.

What do we mean by denoting a particular meaning or significance to history? All of us remember lamenting that history class involved nothing more than the rote memorization of facts and dates, but a good history teacher or professor (or book) would show you that this is not the proper way to study history. Historical events have a way of revealing underlying patterns and movements that point beyond themselves to ideas and values that transcend the events themselves. The American Revolutionary War wasn't just a series of battles between some colonies and the New World and the British Empire to whom they were subjected; it was a clash between an old-world vision of monarchism and new political philosophy that centered political sovereignty in the individual. Most historians recognize this transcendent aspect of history because it's what makes reading and studying history interesting. Events have a way of forming patterns out of which narratives emerge, and historians often do the job of discovering, picking and arranging the important events in order to tell a certain story.

Speculative philosophy of history goes beyond this more ordinary task of history in trying to organize all of history under a certain theory. In this sense, theories in speculative philosophy of history are interpretive; they organize all historical knowledge under a relatively simple theory. Whereas interpreting individual historical events or sets of events is the modus operandi of ordinary historical research, relatively few theorists have set out to interpret all of history, and it's unclear whether it makes sense to conduct such a project in the same way as it does for ordinary events.

By way of introduction, I'll first distinguish between philosophies of history according to the specific pattern they attribute to historical events. This distinction comes from Dray (61-62). One set of philosophies of history is called linear. These theories see history as progressing toward some end and tend to define what that end is and the way in which the end is reached. One example of a linear philosophy of history can be found in the German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, whose system (to grossly oversimplify it) sees history as a process of change with the progressive emergence of the Geist or "Spirit." As history is advanced through influential historical figures (called "world-historical individuals"), the Geist becomes more self-conscious of its freedom, culminating in a historical situation that maximizes freedom. (You might recognize in this what would later become Marxism, another linear philosophy of history.)

The second set of philosophies of history is called cyclical. These theories see history as a seemingly endless cycle of movements in history. Philosophers of history whose views are cyclical would describe the stages that facilitate transition of one part of the cycle to another and explain why the cycle starts again. Dray points to Arnold J. Toynbee, the 20th-century historian, as an example of a cyclical view. Finally, the third set of philosophies of history is called chaotic. These views see no discernable pattern in historical events and instead focus on the appearance of randomness (or contingency) in them. Dray points to the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, as an example of a chaotic view.

His discussion of Niebuhr was fascinating for me because Niebuhr shows an apparent concern for the relevance of certain theological convictions to one's view of history. Just as with the discussion on history and human nature, theological convictions are very important for Christians to consider as they seek to understand history from a Christian perspective. In my discussion on this, I'm going to focus on three questions. First, is a Christian necessarily committed to one kind of speculative philosophy of history? Second, what theological convictions are especially relevant for a Christian speculative philosophy of history? Third, is a Christian speculative philosophy of history linear, cyclical, or chaotic?

First, is a Christian necessarily committed to one kind of speculative philosophy of history? This question repeatedly came to mind as I read Dray's book, particularly in his discussion of Niebuhr. Christian theology confronts us with many questions that seem more central to Christian orthodoxy than the question as to whether a Christian ought to hold a particular speculative philosophy of history. But here, it's important to remember that the world is replete with other views of history that, I would argue, can distort the Christian's perspective.

In Western societies today, one is presented with at least two understandings of history, which are sometimes mixed into one view. The first is linear and could be called presentism. Presentism is often used in critiques of a kind of lay-level understanding of history that uncritically prefers the present, as well contemporary attitudes and values, over the past. Presentism is especially seen in its dismissive, if not hostile, view of the past and values that were more commonplace in the past. The Christian is regularly confronted with the problems associated with presentism just as long as he or she is regularly reading Scripture. Let's consider, for example, the story of Onan in Genesis 38. Onan is one of the sons of Judah (the patriarch of the Israelite tribe of Judah) who, after his older brother Er dies, is tasked with providing a son to Er's wife, Tamar, so that Er would have an heir. In Genesis 38:6-10, we read (NASB):

"Now Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord took his life. Then Judah said to Onan, “Have relations with your brother’s wife and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up a child for your brother.” Now Onan knew that the child would not be his; so when he had relations with his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground so that he would not give a child to his brother. But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord; so He took his life also."

Because Onan refused to father an heir for Tamar, the Lord killed him. In this passage, we're reminded that the customs and duties associated with familial relations in the ancient Near East radically differ from those in the West today. If the husband of a wife dies before they can have children, I doubt that anyone would expect the husband's brother to have sex with the wife to father a child for her. Surely, no one would have thought the brother obligated to do it! So, why do we see such a radically different standard in the ancient Near East, and why does God uphold that standard by punishing Onan when he refuses?

These kinds of questions arise from all over the Old Testament, and those who reject Christianity are fond of pointing to "Iron Age morality" in the Old Testament as a supposed argument against the ethics of the Bible. Indeed, there is no clear command against owning slaves in the Bible. Indeed, Paul tells slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5). The world of the ancient Near East (the world of the Old Testament) is brutal and warlike, and we read that even the Lord commanded the Israelites to slaughter whole populations, including the women, children and even animals (this is signaled as "utterly" destroying them; Deuteronomy 7:1-2; 20:16-18). In these passages, it is explained that these other clans would mislead the nation of Israel with their worship of foreign gods (this is why the Israelites are prohibited from intermarrying with them). In an age of pluralism, when people consider it offensive to reject the sincere beliefs of another person, such overt exclusivism is unconscionable. For these and other reasons, the Bible has been variously called racist, misogynist, and the like.

But it's not just the Bible that raises concerns for Christians. Some of our favorite figures in church history conflict with our modern sensibilities. Martin Luther was arguably an anti-Semite, depending on how you interpret some of what he wrote about Jews. John Calvin was by no means a supporter of religious liberty. Jonathan Edwards owned slaves. These and other facts about key figures in church history raise serious doubts in the minds of Christians today concerning whether these men should be honored or revered as highly as we often do. The same disputes are happening in the wider culture, as statues of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and even Abraham Lincoln are being taken down because of past support for views we find morally unacceptable today.

Don't get me wrong; there is a conversation to be had about how moral beliefs and values change over time with differing conceptions of morality. But much of this reaction against figures and beliefs of the past is, I think, due to presentism. It is all too often the same people who so virulently reject exploitation in the past who are silent about it today, especially when the exploitation concerns some issue that they support. Why do we not hear equally loud cries against pornography and the harm it inflicts both on the user and those who make pornographic content? Why do the people who claim to be compassionate toward the disadvantaged and oppressed at the same time support and defend the willful killing of the unborn, the most vulnerable member of any society? It's all too easy to attack the dead. Presentism comes with an uncritical conviction in the moral superiority of today's values, while the moral atrocities being committed today in the West are ignored and dismissed. This, I would argue, is a linear and progressive understanding of history that distorts Christians' understanding of the Bible and church history. A Christian understanding of history can help to overcome these distortions in our perspective.

The second understanding of history is cyclical and prominent in critical theory. It has its roots in the French postmodern philosopher, Michel Foucault, whose inspiration comes from the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. This view is increasingly becoming mainstream at the lay level, but it is still most prominent in universities. I'll call this view the Foucauldian view of history, as it comes mainly from Foucault. I discussed his philosophy, which includes his view of history, in more detail in "Deconstructing Critical Theory: The Guise of Oppression."

The Foucauldian view is postmodern in the sense that it seeks to undermine the claims of objectivity and neutrality that dominated modern thought in the 18th through the 20th centuries. To oversimplify things, modernism centered the role of human reason to, using neutral and objective methods, discover truth in a way that would be objectively and rationally binding for any rational and informed person. For Foucault, the institutions that functioned to instill modernist thought and practice were actually hidden mechanisms for power, a power that is sustained via institutions whose role is to subjugate the individual. For Foucault, who identified as a homosexual, the classification of systems intended to either criminalize or institutionalize those deemed "mad" or "homosexual" were merely means of controlling those individuals by defining their means of control as "scientific." If Foucault is right (whatever that word means), then not even scientific institutions have any valid claim to the truth.

How does Foucault's understanding of modernism lead him to a particular view of history? For Foucault's arguments to work, he must provide a history of the transformation of premodern institutions to modern institutions and show how the power that operated to control individuals in premodern institutions were not removed in the formation of modern institutions. For Foucault, power is much like energy; it is neither created nor destroyed. Rather, it simply changes form. Thus, for Foucault, power may operate differently in the transition from one set of social institutions to the next, but it is never lost. Power is the constant in history, and the cyclical aspect is the formation of different institutions that utilize power in different periods of intellectual development. In the coming centuries, who knows how power will be ingrained in institutions again? What we can know is that it will.

For some, it may seem implausible that such an abstract understanding of history could be mainstream among laypeople today. It is certainly the case that presentism is more prevalent among laypeople. But the proliferation and increasing popularity of books, such as Ibram X. Kendi's How To Be an Antiracist and Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility, suggest that the Foucauldian view is gaining popularity. One logical implication of the Foucauldian view of history is that it undermines the notion of moral progress. If the Foucauldian view is correct, then the oppressive use of power in society is simply a fact of life. Its forms might be different, but its use is the same.

For critical race theorists like Kendi and DiAngelo, the same is true of so-called systemic racism. One of the goals of critical race theory is to show how systemic racism is still present in society today. Critical race theory is not presentist because it doesn't uncritically involve a preference for the present situation. It is critical of the present, seeing little if any moral difference between it and the past. Because of this, I'd argue that critical race theory is Foucauldian in its view of history. Because critical race theory is becoming increasingly more mainstream in our culture, this is a way in which the Foucauldian view is filtering into popular culture and becoming part of laypeople's worldview. This is why presentism and the Foucauldian view often mix, even though they conflict with one another. Someone may be more presentist with regard to views about women but Foucauldian on race.

The Foucauldian view may seem more in line with the Christian worldview that presentism, since its conviction that the situation is oppressive today as well as in the past would seem to be in agreement with the biblical doctrine of sin. Yet I would still argue that the Foucauldian view is a major distortion in at least two ways. First, it denies what Scripture says is the source of oppression in the world: evil human individuals. Instead, the Foucauldian view sees institutions as the corrupting agent in forming oppressive social structures.

Second, the Foucauldian view denies the reality of moral progress, in spite of what we observe as obvious moral progress. Does racism still exist today? Of course, and it will as long as human beings have hearts corrupted by sin. But it's hard to deny that there's moral progress in the fact that we no longer enslave certain people because of the color of their skin. That social conditions today even allow for the prosperity of African Americans is an indication of moral progress, a moral progress brought about, I would argue, by the embodied enactment of the consequences of the Christian worldview. As Christians, we must not lose our conviction that Christ saves the soul and improves the world. If people live by the teachings of Christ, the material circumstances of their neighbors will improve. This is part of the transforming testimony of the gospel as Christ-followers live out what it means to be in Christ. By denying the reality of moral progress, the Foucauldian view distorts the Christian perspective on history.

Therefore, because Christians are faced with questions about how to interpret history both from their study of Scripture and in light of the distortions around them, we should work to develop a view of history that is more in line with the Christian worldview. But here, we're going to encounter more difficulties. Which Christian theological convictions are especially relevant to a speculative Christian philosophy of history, and how would they apply to that Christian view of history? That we turn to this set of questions is partly necessary for determining whether Christians are committed to one kind of speculative philosophy of history over another. In other words, are more than one view acceptable for thoughtful Christians to take, without running into the claim that a Christian necessarily has an unbiblical view? This is not an easy question to answer, but it is at the core of the next section of this post.

Second, what theological convictions are especially relevant for a Christian speculative philosophy of history? In the previous section, we never answered whether the Christian is necessarily committed to one kind of speculative philosophy of history. We showed that the Christian needs an alternative to presentism and the Foucauldian view of history, but we haven't sketched a Christian view that would be binding for all Christians that seek to be "biblical" in their understanding of history. The reason for this is that it's not entirely clear what those convictions would be or how exactly they'd apply to a Christian speculative philosophy of history.

This can be seen with Reinhold Niebuhr, whose view Dray describes as "chaotic." It's chaotic because Niebuhr applies the Christian doctrine of original sin to undermine what he calls "progress theories," which were common in the 19th and early 20th centuries and which envisioned a future utopia in which mankind was freed from the constraints of nature through technology. For Niebuhr, the Christian doctrine of sin implies that these progress theories are naïve and that there's no reason to think that human beings will progress toward some utopia. In other words, according to Niebuhr, the Christian doctrine of sin undermines presentism or any positive linear view of history.

One can just as well see how such the doctrine of sin undermines Marxism, which is a positive linear view of history. Recall that in Part 1, I indicated that Marxism includes a neutral view of the human person, according to which human beings are neither good nor evil and are constituted by the social structure in which they grow up. Change the social structure, and you change the individual. The Christian doctrines of the imago Dei (image of God) and sin suggest that this view is false. Instead, the Christian view is "mixed"; human beings were created good but are infected by evil due to the Fall. With this in mind, it's easy to see how Dray could have labeled Niebuhr's view as "chaotic." Given that, without divine intervention, human beings are left in a state of fallenness, there is no guarantee that human beings, acting on their own, will achieve utopia. In fact, things look quite the opposite.

Indeed, progressive views have been on the wain lately, and for good reason. The 20th century provided little reason to think that human beings, on their own, would get better. In fact, the 20th century is widely recognized as the bloodiest in human history, with an estimated 187 million people dying as a result of wars in the 20th century. In light of all that bloodshed, the rise of postmodernism after World War II makes sense, as postmodernism denies the objective reality of any metanarrative that organizes the facts of history according to an underlying worldview, whether progressive or not. Yet, for Christians, it can't be the case that no metanarrative is true. Rather, we must define and describe the Christian metanarrative.

So, the Christian doctrine of sin is a good place to start. What other theological convictions are relevant for the Christian understanding of history? It seems to me that the next place to go in discussing this issue is eschatology (i.e., doctrine of the end times), but this might seem like an odd next step. How could the Christian's convictions about the future affect how he or she interprets the past? There are three broad views concerning eschatology that have to do with how Christians are to interpret the Book of Revelation (especially the "1,000-year reign" of Christ in Revelation 2o), the last book of the Bible, as well as other eschatological texts:

  • Premillennialism: interprets the Book of Revelation as being about literal events in the future, which will involve cataclysmic natural disasters, rampant sin, and persecution

  • Postmillennialism: interprets the Book of Revelation metaphorically and sees a continual victory of Christ that will be seen in most of the world's conversion to Christ prior to Christ's Second Coming

  • Amillennialism: interprets the Book of Revelation metaphorically as being about movements or cycles of church history, which it sees as symbolized by the "1,000-year reign" of Christ; in other words, the events portrayed in Revelation are symbolic descriptions of historical events

This is a gross oversimplification of these views, as I unfortunately don't have the space to discuss them in detail. For our purposes, we need to focus on how each of these eschatological perspectives affect how one views history as a whole. Christian eschatological perspectives affect not only how someone understands the future, but also how someone understands what's called the "church age." Church age is a term used to describe the period from the beginning of the church at Pentecost (Acts 2) to either the Second Coming of Christ or the Rapture (an event premillennialists believe will occur before the Tribulation at the end of the world, in which all Christians will be "taken up" to be with Christ). The church age, then, includes Western history from the first century A.D. to now, and because of this, eschatological perspectives include some understanding of history.

What's the best way to describe how each views interpret history as a whole? All three views distinguish between the history of the church and history "outside" the church. Since, for Christians, there are truly only two types of people - Christians and non-Christians - then the history of the church age itself can be discussed in terms of the church and how those outside the church respond to it.

For premillennialists, the degree of rebellion and persecution increases in conflict with the church. The church, victorious in Christ, continuously grows, but those still outside the church continue resisting it. As the Book of Revelation suggests, that rebellion will reach a fever pitch, ending in a cataclysmic Battle of Armageddon (Revelation 19). Though in the end, Christ and the church will be victorious, this will take place through divine intervention to end history, not within history. Because of this, it seems to me that premillennialists have a linear, regressive view of history. It is regressive in the sense that the moral and spiritual state of the world will worsen over time.

For postmillennialists, the church will be victorious and grow, as with premillennialism, but the world's response to the church is different. Postmillennialists lean on scriptural passages that portray the Lord's establishing His victorious rule over the earth seemingly within history. For instance, we read in Isaiah 2:2-4 (NASB):

"Now it will come about that In the last days The mountain of the house of the Lord Will be established as the chief of the mountains, And will be raised above the hills; And all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, 'Come, let’s go up to the mountain of the Lord, To the house of the God of Jacob; So that He may teach us about His ways, And that we may walk in His paths.' For the law will go out from Zion And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations, And will mediate for many peoples; And they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning knives. Nation will not lift up a sword against nation, And never again will they learn war."

Postmillennialists could argue that this text portrays a victory of the Lord over all peoples and nations, ending in peace, within history. For postmillennialists, peace within history precedes the end of history at the Second Coming of Christ. Because of this, postmillennialists have a linear, progressive view of history.

Amillennialists are interesting because, in one sense, their view is simply the rejection of the linearity of the other two views. Having grown up believing and being taught premillennialism, I was first exposed to amillennialism when I attended a Presbyterian church for a couple of years in college. During a series on the Book of Revelation in the Sunday School class, I learned that amillennialists interpret Revelation figuratively, usually as symbolic representations of events or kinds of events in church history. Again, the common element that all three views have is that Christ and the church are victorious. The church will grow and remain, in spite of the powers of the world that seek to destroy her. But, because amillennialists interpret Revelation as symbolic representations of events or kinds of events in church history, the details of that symbolic interpretation will guide their understanding of the coherent movement of history. In the case of the teaching of this Presbyterian church, they interpreted Revelation cyclically, where the various events described in the book represent cycles of responses to the church throughout church history.

There are, I would argue, two forms of amillennialism based on how they interpret Revelation: cyclical and chaotic. This is the view that I'd come to land on after hearing about it at that church in college, but I'm not as convinced in the cyclical understanding. Therefore, I'd probably call myself a chaotic amillennialist, in the sense that the world's response to the church has no definable pattern (because of original sin and its chaotic elements, when combined with human freedom).

The upshot of all of this is that, no, Christians are not necessarily committed to one kind of speculative philosophy of history. There are central theological convictions that would rule out non-Christian speculative philosophies of history, but how a Christian interprets history is too dependent on tertiary issues in Christian theology, such as one's interpretation of passages in Revelation, to require that all Christians hold to the same view.

There are, however, common elements to any Christian understanding of history. Let's call these elements of a generic Christian speculative philosophy of history. First, history has a beginning and will end with the Second Coming of Christ. It begins and ends with God, the Alpha and the Omega (Revelation 22:13). Second, from the beginning, history can be construed as a story of God's people (whether Israel or the church) and the world's response to His people. God's people are at the heart of history. Third, history has a central narrative whose climax is the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and exaltation of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. The history of the world is a story of redemption. Fourth, the church age is an age of increasing victory for Christ and His church. Finally, original sin complicates, if not precluding, the possibility of progression or coherent pattern in history. These elements, at least, need to be part of any Christian understanding of history.

Third, is a Christian speculative philosophy of history linear, cyclical, or chaotic? The answer here is obvious enough: it depends. Since not all Christians are committed to a particular Christian speculative philosophy of history, then not all Christians will agree concerning the pattern or structure of historical events. One caveat here is that, because all elements ought to include the increasing victory of Christ and His church, we should see linear, progressive elements to any Christian speculative philosophy of history. And indeed, as we get into particular details, perhaps we'll find elements of all views that are linear, cyclical, or chaotic.

Let's compare a generic Christian speculative philosophy of history with presentism and the Foucauldian view of history. Presentism is linear and progressive and holds that the values of modern or postmodern Western societies are superior to those of societies in the past. In one sense, it's hard to argue with that. But in another, one must remember that any moral improvement in the world (i.e., outside the church) ought to be explained either in terms of common grace (God's grace given to people, whether or not they acknowledge or believe in Him) or in terms of the blessings of gospel brought into the world through the church. What finally defeated racism, for instance, was a conviction in the universal value of human beings as created in God's image, no matter their skin color. This leads me to my second point: whatever moral progress is made in human societies is easily reversable if the values that underly that progress are abandoned. This can be seen in the fact that, now that prenatal screening technologies have been developed to detect Down Syndrome in the womb, babies with Down Syndrome are much more likely to be aborted. This denial of image-bearing dignity to those with Down Syndrome is a reversal of exactly the values that freed black slaves after the Civil War. To expect that moral progress can't be reversed by human sin is naïve.

What about the Foucauldian view? Recall that this view is cyclical. This view is wrong, according to the Christian perspective, for the opposite reason: it denies the reality of moral progress. Even non-Christian historians like Tom Holland (not Spiderman), in his book called Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, have argued that the benefits of the modern world that we enjoy today would not have been possible without the values of Christianity. Rodney Stark, in his book called The Rise of Christianity, argued that one major factor in the explosive growth of early Christianity was its dignified treatment of women compared to Jewish and Greco-Roman society. To claim that moral progress is impossible and that today's systems are nothing but restructured means of oppression is not just cynical but also contrary to the evidence. It's foolish to suggest that people oppressed in the past, such as black people, are no better off today than they were in the past.

As you can see, a clearer Christian understanding of history can help us think more clearly when we see presentism and the Foucauldian view supported in our culture. In discussions with unbelievers, we can discuss the Christian view as a more realistic and truer alternative, with the hope of presenting the gospel to that person. This will also help us in thinking through history as we encounter facts that are troubling for us.

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!

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