Why Study History? Why Remember The Past?
Historians with increasing and distressing frequency are openly admitting that history has no meaning
and shows little or no purpose or goals.
– C. Gregg Singer, “The Problem of Historical Interpretation” (1976)
One has to go back of the “facts” of history to a discussion of the meaning of history.
– Cornelius Van Til, The Psychology of Religion (1961)
Why Do We Study History?
Why do we study history? And what’s the best way to go about it? Most folks rarely have a good answer for the first question. And, when pressed, they are likely to say, “So we can learn from the past.” Or, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Of course, a lot of kids in this country don’t study history at all. Instead, they attend classes called social studies, an orchestrated, highly secularized “stream of consciousness” that contains abstract “bits and pieces” of history, almost always out of sequence and always agenda-driven. Proof? You’ll never find social studies taught today with an ultimate frame of reference that reflects God as creator. Never.
Alright, what’s this “ultimate frame of reference” concept as it pertains to history, then? Well, for starters, all “professional” historians have an ultimate frame of reference, despite what they may say. They have a starting point. And when these secular historians speak of the reasons for studying history, they usually tell us that history helps us understand peoples and societies, that it provides material for moral contemplation, that it helps a people develop a sense of identity, or that it even makes for stories that are simply entertaining. But here’s the dirty little secret: These reasons or assumptions require some sort of overarching framework to be at all meaningful. That said, most historians today deny meaning for history.
But if history has no meaning and no purpose, what possible significance is there to succession laws of the French, the rites of the Aztec human sacrifices, or the funerary practices of the Egyptians? If there is no moral law that applies to all peoples in all times, how in the world would anyone judge between imperialist and colonist, Marxist and Capitalist, or slaveholder and slave? If there are no transcendent values, can we even call history an important story? “A good story”? Or any kind of story, for that matter?
How Do We Study History?
A failure to answer the first question is always going to leave you with little hope of answering the second: How do we go about studying history? The rejection of any true meaning for history necessarily leaves the secular historian with nothing but intellectual and moral relativism. He has no grounds or guidelines for inquiring into history or any reason to think the inquiry has any value whatsoever.
And so these guys usually overrule source documents and then lecture with what the source documents should have said. They generally ignore and deride any empirical evidence that threatens their ruling paradigm. And, of course, they ignore the work of Christian scholars without hesitation. They write off the Bible as a source of history and chronology simply because it is the Bible.
The Foundations of Christian Scholarship
Christian scholarship, on the other hand, rests on the solid rock of Scripture. A biblical approach to history begins by presupposing all that Scripture says. It can’t be developed out of one or two doctrines or three or four verses. It is ingenuous if not downright dishonest for us to pronounce history “His Story,” and then go on to sequencing facts and narratives without further theological consideration.
It’s also important for the Christian historian to understand that what Scripture says about history is but one dimension of God’s total self-revelation in Scripture. So, we may say something like, “God controls history,” but in the end, that, too, it is a meaningless statement until we confess clearly who this God is, what exactly it is that He controls, how and to what decree He effects that control.
If we are to have a biblical understanding of history, then, we’re going to have to speak of … and presuppose at all points … the doctrines of the self-contained, ontological Trinity.
Of God’s eternal decrees and all encompassing providence; of special creation in six days and of man’s creation in God’s image.
Of God’s plan for man’s dominion; of man’s ethical fall in Adam and the judicial and moral consequences that followed.
Of God’s gracious covenant with His people and the promise of the Gospel that lies at its heart.
Of the verbal inspiration and infallibility of Scripture and of its sufficiency; of the Incarnation (the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures in one Person).
Of Christ’s substitutionary death for sinners and His literal, bodily resurrection and ascension to heaven; of His current reign in fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
Of the central role of the Church in history; of the restraining (“common”) grace whereby God advances His program of dominion even through the unconverted.
And of the literal, physical Second Coming of Jesus Christ at the end of history to raise the dead and judge the world.
In other words, if we are to understand and teach history, we must have a good understanding of all the great truths that appear in Scripture, many of which are summarized in the creeds and confessions of the Bible-believing Church. (Remember that “creed” just means what you believe. And everybody believes something about God and Scripture. Everybody.) So “doctrine” becomes a pretty important tool when studying history.
The Bible as History
The Bible is the only reliable account we have of the first 4,000 years of Earth’s history. In fact, it is virtually the only account we have at all for the first 2,000 years or so of that history. The Bible tells us about man’s creation, his fall into sin, his first civilizations, and the great Flood and the waters God used to destroy and renew the Earth. The Bible tells us the origin of marriage, writing, worship and sacrifice, division of labor, agriculture, animal husbandry, metallurgy, music, urbanization, capital punishment and linguistic diversity.
But its more than that. The Bible gives us a consistent chronology that runs from creation through Abraham, from Abraham to the Exodus, from the Exodus to Solomon’s Temple, and then through the kings of Judah and Israel up to the Babylonian Captivity. (Conservative theologians have generally argued that the prophecy of 70 Weeks in Daniel 9 continues the chronology up to the death of Christ in A.D. 30.) Bible chronology is at odds with the currently accepted secular chronology of the ancient world, because historians have made the chronology of Egypt the touchstone for that of every other ancient people. The problem is … Egypt’s chronology has always been in kind of cloudy chaos … as we’ve seen earlier.
Of course, Scripture gives us the personal history of the patriarchs. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. And the history of Israel from the Exodus through the republic and monarchy to the Babylonian Captivity and the Restoration. Though Scripture doesn’t speak out rightly of topics like social history or cultural anthropology, it’s accurate whenever it talks about such things and as such is a treasure trove for the cultural historian, the sociologist and the archaeologist.
The Ethics of History
Scripture also gives us the ethical standard by which we can evaluate the actions of men and nations. Even a cursory reading of the prophets demonstrates that God regularly rebuked kings, nations and whole cultures in terms of His covenant law.
Christ and His apostles continued that tradition. Jesus denounced King Herod, calling him “that fox,” and reminded the imperial governor Pilate of his personal responsibility as God’s servant (Luke 13:32; John 19:11). Paul reasoned with the Roman governor Felix concerning “righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come” (Acts 24:25). John described the Roman Empire under Nero’s rule as a monstrous Beast whose atrocities Christ would judge (Rev. 13; 17; 19). And the writer of Hebrews told us that under the New Covenant God will shake all things, kingdoms and cultures included, until only the Kingdom of Jesus Christ remains (Heb. 12:25-29; cf. Hag. 2:6-7).
The Meaning and Goal of History
Scripture also speaks plainly of the central theme and purpose of history. It tells us God’s plan of redemption in Christ. That plan has its origins in eternity, but its historical roots lie in the creation and fall of man. God created man good and after His own image and appointed him steward and vicegerent over the whole creation (Gen. 1). Man, “through the instigation of the devil and by willful disobedience,” fell from that high calling. But God gave His people the promise of a Redeemer, one who would destroy the works of the devil and undo the work of the Fall (Gen. 3:15).
And so all of ancient history was preparation for the coming of Christ … for His incarnation, ministry, atoning death, resurrection and ascension to glory. The goal of history then, is the spread of the Gospel, of Christ’s salvation and Kingdom to the ends of the earth (Matt. 28:18-20). Paul writes of Christ’s certain victory in these terms:
For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death (1 Cor. 15:25-26).
So Christ’s Kingdom, when viewed from the long lens of history, is supposed to grow and develop over time. This Kingdom growth also involves a winnowing or “sorting out” process (Matt. 3:11-12). New Covenant history, then, is marked by differentiation and distinction. Jesus separates the wheat from the chaff. The tares become, more obviously, tares … the wheat becomes, more obviously, wheat (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43).
The difference or “antithesis” between light and darkness, truth and error, godly culture and satanic culture, becomes clearer and clearer as the centuries go by. God’s Kingdom matures in history. His people, at least to the extent they are faithful and obedient, can even be covenantal blessed. (Lev. 26; Deut. 28). In like fashion, Satan’s followers mature in their rebellion. That is, they become more and more reprobate in their understanding, character and culture (cf. Rom. 1:28-32; 2 Tim. 3:13).
And, in the process, as we see in the case of secular historians, they become increasingly irrelevant. Read their textbooks. They posit a meaningless universe and so are disinherited by their own rebellion. The meek (those harnessed for service) really do inherit the Earth (Matt. 5:5).
At some point determined by God … redemptive history ends. Jesus returns. Resurrection and judgment follow. But here’s the cool part: The grace, the love, even the learning, that take place here, in this world, carry over into the next, into a renewed and transformed creation (Matt. 25:28-29; Rom. 8:19-23).
This means that everything we do here matters forever. No good thing is forgotten before the Father; every cup of cold water has its reward (Matt. 10:42). The ripples of history go on into eternity. This makes history … studying and remembering the past … a testimony to Gospel and its fruit. An effort very much worth the time.