For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. Romans 15.4
“Thus whatever evidence we have of past times in that which is called history helps us a great deal in understanding of the sacred books, even if we learn it outside of the Church as part of our childhood education.”
- Augustine, On Christian Doctrine
Interest in history?
There is truth to the adage, attributed to George Santayana, that those who remain ignorant of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. What Paul said about the writings of the Old Testament can be equally said, with modifications, about the records of history. I agree with Augustine: We have much to learn from making the study of history part of our ongoing effort at growing in Christ and ministering His Word.
The first Christian historians – Eusebius, Sozomen, Socrates Scholasticus, and Augustine – writing in the fourth and fifth centuries, readily acknowledged and carefully discerned the sovereignty of God in the affairs of men and nations. This template for historical writing, which was grounded in the Biblical doctrines of providence and redemption, held sway in the Western world through the middle of the 18th century. But all that changed once Enlightenment thinking began to leach God out of all the disciplines of study and learning.
Nevertheless, there remain a good many lessons from history to enlarge our sense of God’s sovereignty and Kingdom, and to inform and enrich our preaching and teaching.
The writing of history
The discipline of writing history – historiography – might seem uncomplicated. Difficult, to be sure, but not really all that complex. Writing history is much like reading it. Both involve gathering the facts about a certain period, incident, person, or trend, and arranging those facts into an interesting story. Certainly, this is part of the process; however, much more is involved in the writing of history than simply bringing forward the facts and details of the past for remembrance and review in the present. And the same is true for how we read the works of historians.
Every historian has an axe to grind. The writing of history begins with an outlook, a philosophy, or a worldview which colors and guides everything. A book of history – or a course, lecture, or even a conversation – is not simply a rehearsing of facts. All history represents the presentation, elaboration, and defense of a worldview. No matter the subject or the depth of the report, every historian is seeking to advance an outlook on life, and to promote a cherished vision of the way things ought to be. It is good for those who read history to be aware of this; otherwise, we might find ourselves agreeing with conclusions that are at odds with our own understanding of life and its purpose.
For those who do not read history, the danger is that they lose all sense of their true past, and thus all significance for their present or future. The promise for those who read it, is that they can have greater confidence in the sovereignty of God and greater appreciation for His workings in people, nations, and events.
Keep the proper focus
You may discover a grain of truth, and often more, in almost every approach to writing history. But Christians are interested, as we take up the study of history, in the unfolding of the divine economy and the progress of Jesus’ Kingdom, as it comes on earth. As we begin to remedy our neglect of history, let us not be naïve, and let us not take a willy-nilly approach to the study of this important field. Be aware of the perspective any historian brings to his work; at the same time, work at developing your own understanding of the true nature of history, so that, as you read and study history, you’ll be able to see the hand of God at work, in spite of whatever bias the historical writer might bring to his task. Read Augustine’s City of God to see a beautiful example of how history can be understood in the light of God’s continuous care for His people.
Read from all kinds of histories – of nations, movements, institutions, disciplines (art, music, sports). Read surveys of periods or topics, and read specific studies which are more narrowly focused. Look for historians who share your Christian convictions about history, such as Marilynne Robinson, George Marsden, Mark Knoll, Nathan Hatch, and Paul Johnson. Reading a book like Paul Johnson’s Modern Times can give you a whole new – and more reliable – perspective on the 20th century, one that can help you truly understand that marvelous, mad, and murderous century. Marilynne Robinson’s historical essays, What Are We Doing Here?, will give you a new appreciation of the Puritans, among other matters.
Choose a few figures from history and read biographies. For my money, Alexander the Great is the greatest pagan who ever lived (I’d be happy to explain why), and Robin Lane Fox’s biography makes the great 4th century BC Greek tyrant come alive. Read about great saints, artists, poets, statesmen, inventors, or philanthropists. Let their lives help you to appreciate more of God’s common grace, and lead you in thanks-giving for the Lord Who made and sustained and used such people throughout the course of history. Then use what you’re learning to help in ministering the Word of God to the people in your care.
Read collections of historical documents – such as those associated with the American Founding, or the speeches and letters of great personages, or even the journals of brilliant thinkers or artists. Above all, and most importantly, read Church history. Contrary to what many Christians seem to think, the Christian movement did not begin at the Reformation, or with the post-war rise of evangelicalism. And the pages of Church history are laced with lessons about how God has been faithful to His people in every age.
History has much to teach us about the greatness, goodness, wisdom, power, and love of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we put on our Scripture lens as we take up the study of history, we will see the handiwork of our Lord everywhere, and this will help us to increase in love for and devotion to Him. And as we do, we will find an abundance of sound resources to demonstrate the historical reliability of God and His Word.
It is evident from this, that the Apostle had not given over reading, though he was already preparing for death. Where are those who think that they have made so great progress that they do not need any more exercise? Which of them will dare to compare himself with Paul? Still more does this expression refute the madness of those men who ― despising books, and condemning all reading ― boast of nothing but their own ἐνθουσιασμοὺς divine inspirations. But let us know that this passage gives to all believers a recommendation of constant reading, that they may profit by it.
- John Calvin, Commentary on 2 Timothy 4.13
T. M. Moore
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).