For Christians, there are even more compelling reasons to study the past. Most of the Bible is history, and most of the theology and morality we glean from it are presented in the context of history. Unlike religions that are based primarily on esoteric speculations, the Christian faith is rooted in divine revelations manifest in historical realities – the culmination being the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the apostle Paul noted in his epistle to the Corinthian church, “If Christ has not been resurrected, your faith is futile” and “we are false witnesses about God” (1 Cor. 15:17, 14). Christians, of all people, should value history; it is, as John Calvin declared, “the theater of God’s glory.”
Implicit in every historical orientation is an underlying philosophy that seeks to understand not only the root causes of specific events, but the macro-forces that move the whole process along. Because history and humanity are integrally connected, there is a direct link between our view of history and our philosophy of life. It was this realization that prompted the Christian historian Herbert Butterfield to argue that our historiography conditions our theology.
Secularist historians who operate out of a naturalistic worldview naturally assume a closed universe in which humanity creates history independent of any external or transcendent reality. As Hegel taught, nothing happens in history that does not have its entire explanation within history. Furthermore, history has no over-arching purpose: it is a meaningless, lawless, shapeless sequence of events – just “one damn thing after another.” (I’m reminded of one former student who, in his term-ending essay assessing the course, concluded that “History is just an orgy of slaughter.” Apparently, I must have over-emphasized the military component in that particular course.) This is a cynical and simplistic assessment, but even the great classical historian Edward Gibbon essentially concurred when he declared that “History is little more than the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweer succinctly summarized this secularist view of history:
From the outset of the Christian era, centuries before Augustine developed a systematic philosophy of history in The City of God, Christians held a coherent view of history that encompassed three fundamental concepts:
(1)History is an open system and the earthly theater of a cosmic spiritual struggle going on behind the scenes. Human history is an epic drama between the forces of Divine Light and Satanic Darkness, with the human soul as the primary battleground. Whether history is, as Calvin proclaimed, “the theater or God’s glory” or the Devil’s playground depends upon whether we view it from an eternal or a strictly temporal perspective.
A New Testament-based philosophy of
history presupposes divine involvement but
defies simplistic speculation. It acknowledges the reality of the supernatural while avoiding superstition. God interacts in human history both directly, through supernatural intervention,
presence in the lives of individuals who are attuned to his will, but the exact manner and extent of God’s involvements are often mysterious.
The Christian view of history is not an argument for strict determinism. God does not micro-manage human history, nor does God, as a matter of course, cause wars, famines, plagues, natural disasters, or terrorist attacks. (To argue otherwise is to attribute to God actions that contradict his character – a theological absurdity.) Nor does God contravene human free will. Human beings make history, and God is involved in the process primarily to the extent that he inspires and guides human thought and action. God’s involvement in history, while indisputable, is also inscrutable. Normally, it is subtle and manifest through natural processes and human volition.
Thus, a Christian view of history recognizes the reality of a complex paradox incorporating two fundamental theological truths: divine sovereignty and human free will. Without these factors – along with an understanding of the Fall and endemic sin – history truly is nonsensical.7
Another social implication of a Christian view of history relates to our public witness. True Christian faith is not privatistic but an open and public proclamation of the life-transforming love and power of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Jesus warned that “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.
But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33). For those who have been truly converted, sharing their faith with others is neither burdensome nor embarrassing; it is a great joy and the natural overflow of a grateful heart. But for our witness to be credible and effective it must be both genuine and knowledgeable. Our testimony must be consistent with our lifestyle and character, but it also must be consistent with objective truth.
Evangelism is more than merely sharing one’s “personal testimony.” When the early apostles and evangelists took the Good News of Jesus Christ into mainstream society, they presented an apologia, a reasoned argument, for the truth of the gospel that was based on factual and historical realities. Reasoning from the Old Testament scriptures and testifying to objective realities that many of them had witnessed personally – in particular, the life, ministry, miracles, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus – they led thousands to a saving knowledge of Christ. They practiced what the apostle Peter later preached in his epistle: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have” (1 Peter 3:15) – an admonition that necessitates that we have our facts straight and know what we’re talking about.
Unfortunately, in much of modern evangelism, the objective components of the Gospel have been subordinated to one’s own subjective experience. Today, many Christians present the Gospel primarily, if not exclusively, by way of a personal testimony. There are some obvious flaws with this approach, most notably the fact that many Muslims and Mormons and New Agers also have personal testimonies of how their religion has changed their life. Furthermore, many skeptics and secularists who don’t identify with any religion will testify to being quite satisfied with the quality of their lives. So unless we want to get embroiled in a battle of dueling testimonies (who is happier, more fulfilled, or more peaceful than whom), we would be well-advised to learn from the example of the early church. They confronted a skeptical (and often hostile) world with objective facts, sound reasoning, and the witness of history – the truth of which was manifest in their love for one another and their own personal stories of how Jesus Christ had changed their lives. The result was phenomenal as even their enemies marveled, “They have turned the whole world upside-down.”
In essence, Christian history is the story of God’s redemption of humanity through the agency of the church. In his epistles, the apostle Paul refers to the church as the Body of Christ. In a mystical, but also in a very real and practical sense, the church functions as the mind, eyes, ears, voice, hands, and feet of Jesus Christ in this world. From the beginning of the human race, God has been preparing a corporate body through whom he could offer salvation to all mankind. Unwilling to violate man’s free will, God chose not to force himself upon anyone, but accepted all who freely responded to his love out of grateful hearts.
In response to God’s initiative, people in every culture were stimulated to seek God. The result was a proliferation of religions that possessed some truth and divine insight in varying degrees, but were also clouded and confused due to the inherent sinfulness of mankind. None of these religions fulfilled God’s purpose, and for some inscrutable reason, God chose the Hebrew race and spent several centuries revealing specific aspects of his character and purpose to them through their prophets and national history. A remnant of Hebrews remained faithful and obedient to God over the centuries, and through their descendants, the Jews, God eventually sent his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, into the world as the spiritual savior of humanity. Following Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, the Holy Spirit indwelled and empowered those who submitted to the lordship of Christ in their lives. Thus, the church was born, the community of Christ here on earth, and through it God offers salvation to all humanity.
An essential component of any credible and substantive Christian witness is an understanding of how God has worked through the church since apostolic times. Christian history provides a context for interpreting and applying the Scriptures, illuminates the subsequent growth and development of the faith, offers access to the great Christian minds of the past, exposes the frauds and fallacies that have been perpetrated in the name of Christ, and immerses us in the currents of faith that have carried the Gospel over the past 2,000 years. An eclectic and sometimes maddening mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly, we find much in Christian history that is truly inspiring and sordidly appalling – but we can learn from it all.
There is a war going on today for the heart and soul of America. It is fundamentally a spiritual struggle but manifests itself on two fronts: the intellectual and the cultural. There is no doubt of the final outcome – God’s truth will prevail and his kingdom will be established here on earth – but in the meantime, we are losing most of the battles. Most Christians tend to focus on the cultural front because it is the most obvious. Culture directly reflects our values, morals, ethics, and beliefs in the realms of politics, economics, law, education, religion, and social institutions – as well as in art, literature, music, sports, and entertainment. But in fact the priority should be otherwise. History teaches that philosophy determines culture. What is considered intellectually credible determines what is socially and culturally acceptable.
This is particularly problematic because the Christian worldview of the past is no longer predominant. We now find ourselves living in a culture that is not simply “post-Christian” but increasingly anti-Christian. America today is becoming remarkably similar to the society and culture in which the early church functioned. Like ours, theirs was a pluralistic, multi-cultural society lacking any religious consensus. The Roman Empire in the 1st century was a hedonistic and materialistic culture rife with political corruption, social injustice, economic exploitation, violence, moral decadence, and ethical confusion.
If the church is to offer a credible witness today, Christians will have to confront not only the cultural challenges but the intellectual ones. This calls for a comprehensive apologetic that encompasses not only our lifestyles and values but our beliefs as well. Both our minds and our hearts have to be engaged. The early church understood this and offered a wholistic defense of the Gospel that eventually changed the world.
Knowledge as an end in itself, disconnected from the Spirit of love and the art of living, is of little value. Ultimately, the greatest apologetic lies not in compelling arguments and irrefutable historical facts, but in the resurrection power of Jesus Christ to transform lives through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Christianity is much more than an evidential faith – it is an existential reality. But to separate the mind and the heart is to create a false dichotomy that is antithetical to New Testament doctrines and practice.
So why study Christian history? Certainly, to learn from the past. To find out what God has been doing in the lives of individuals and in the corporate life of the church for the past 2,000 years so we can better discern what God wants to do in our own life and times. And to provide a context for our own lives, or as Christian historian Justo Gonzalez notes, “To tell the story of those whose heirs we are is to write a long preface to our own life stories.”8 Ultimately, of course, the point of the Christian life is not so much to understand the world as to change it. But we can be agents of change only insofar as we allow God to change us, personally and corporately. And in Christian history, we have many examples of people who did precisely that. As the writer of Hebrews reminded his 1st century readers, we have before us “a great cloud of witnesses” from whom we have much to learn.
1 Cicero, Orator 34:120.
2 At least, traditional historians are often reticent to admit the limitations of history. At the other end of the spectrum, postmodern scholars question whether we can know much of anything about the past. For them, history is almost totally subjective, a mere projection of the particular psychological and sociological factors operating upon the historian him/herself.
3 Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (Peabody, MA: Prince Press/Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), p. xix.
These comments are not to imply that there are no accepted standards governing the research and writing of history. The professionalization of the discipline in the 20th century has established academic standards that the historian violates at his/her own risk. In most fields of historical study, this provides a check on some of the worst impulses of the most ideologically-driven and/or intellectually dishonest scholars.
4 Ibid, p. xx.
5 Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (London: Collins, Fontana, 1957), p. 39.