Don’t know much about history? You can fix that.
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
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. We have much to learn from making the study of history part of our ongoing effort at increasing in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. And if we read history through the lens of Scripture, then we will see Jesus at work on every page, and our devotion to Him will soar.
The ignorance and indifference to history on the part of many Christians today is disappointing. In one sense, it’s just a reflection of the larger disdain for history which seems to characterize many in our day. But since so much of history has been affected by the progress of the Gospel, and since so many Christians in history have made important contributions to human wellbeing, it is regrettable that believers today show no more interest in history than they do.
What is the source of this neglect of history, and what can we do to remedy it?
In his book, The Origins of History, Herbert Butterfield, explained that the neglect of history, as a discipline for moral instruction, began in the 19th century, when God’s role in history was shoved aside, and history was made the plaything of “chance and contingency”. 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 into all the disciplines of study and learning.
The secularizing of history
Following the lead of French philosophes, writers with a strictly secular agenda imposed their views on all disciplines of learning. History was no exception. As Butterfield explains, historians stood on a foundation of truth laid down by centuries of Christian thinkers, yet they repudiated the faith convictions of that worldview and set about to create a brave new world apart from any need for God. Butterfield explains, “they did not recognise how much Christianity had shaped their minds, how much their secular ideals went back to the first principles of the Christian religion.”
As these “lapsed Christians” – as Butterfield calls them – began writing history as a “self-explanatory” discipline – that is, without any need of or reference to God – and as their writings began to be accepted in an academic world ready to throw off the moral constraints of the Christian faith, history lost its identity as the story of God’s unfolding Kingdom. And once it lost its identity, it lost its significance for the vast majority of people, including most Christians.
The result, over the past 150 years, has been the production of histories of various sorts in which it is clear God has no involvement and, apparently, no interest in the affairs of people and nations. And contemporary Christians, guided by the world spirit of our postmodern age, have all too willingly washed their hands of history and the many benefits it holds out for those who know how to read and study it for the purpose of knowing, loving, and serving Jesus.
The writing of history
The discipline of writing history is called, historiography. Writing history might seem uncomplicated – difficult, to be sure, but not really all that complex. It involves 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.
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, they might find themselves agreeing with conclusions that are at odds with their 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.
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 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, 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.
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 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 thanksgiving for the Lord Who made and sustained and used such people throughout the course of history.
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.
History has much to teach 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.
1. Do you have a favorite period of history? Or favorite event? Or person? Can you see how thinking more carefully about these can help you grow in love for Jesus?
2. Why do you think people today care so little about history?
3. Where might you begin to do more reading and study in history? Why should you?
Next Steps – Preparation: What would you most like to learn about history? Make some notes, then start searching for a resource or two to get you started.
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.