The modern view of history is not historical

Twentieth century philosophy and present-day academia have all but rendered secular history meaningless. U.S. and world history is being rewritten to say what the authors want to say about people and events of the past. Like the news media, the secular writers of history propagate opinion rather than fact. Not only does it save a lot of research time, it also puts modern views in historical situations. Then people can point back in time and say, “It has always been this way.”

We can see this played out in the way historians have rewritten the founding fathers of America to portray them as atheists or agnostics rather that the godly men history books from the 1700s to the late 1900s  portrayed them.  The world now has a new genre of historical literature called “faction” which is a mixture of fact and fiction. The author does not distinguish one from the other so it is left up to the reader to determine what is fact and what is fiction. The only way to do that accurately is to know the facts of history before you read a history book.

Studying history, true history, does have its benefits. Just as knowing our parents and grandparents helps us know where we came from and gives us a sense of identity, knowing the history of Christianity will help us put present-day Christianity in its proper perspective. This is an excerpt from the Introduction to the History volume of my School of Christianity:

In our study of twenty-first century Christianity, the Christian church, and the Christian worldview, it is wise to begin at the beginning, with a study of the history of Christianity (throughout this volume Christian history and church history are used interchangeably). Swiss church historian, Philip Schaff, gives several reasons why the study of Christian history is useful. In history can be found the backbone of theology that keeps it straight, and the storehouse from which the supply of theology is drawn. It reveals the gradual unfolding of God’s plan of redemption in history, tracing the moral and religious development of humanity. A study of its history is the key to understanding the present condition of Christendom. “The present is the fruit of the past, and the germ [seed] of the future.” Finally, Schaff gives the practical value of Christian history for all Christians. From it can be received warnings, encouragement, consolation, and counsel. Christian history gives a coherent philosophy to the facts of history. It is “Christianity in living examples.”

At the time of this writing, fairly early in the twenty-first century, the discipline of history itself is under the attack of ever-changing philosophers and higher critics of ancient literature. Beginning with the philosopher, Hegel (1770–1831), the interpretation of history and the actual way it is recorded has become a matter of philosophical interpretation, rather than a recording of facts from the past. Philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) argued that we can only interpret the past through the concepts and concerns of the present. In other words, the present helps us interpret the past. This idea evolved into the postmodern doctrine of the discontinuity, or fragmentation, of historical events, in which there is no pattern of relationship, or all-embracing theory, that can explain history. If this were true, it would render the Bible to be useless as a historical record, and the study of Christian history to be a study of the ideas of the historian rather than the actual events taking place in the history of the church.

The Christian view of history is the opposite of the secular philosophical view. The attack on the truthfulness of written history is an attack on the Bible as God’s written history. In the words of Francis Schaeffer, “God is a verbalizer and He made us to be verbalizers so that He could communicate with us.” If that communication was not “good” and did not transmit the thoughts of the Source to the thoughts of the respondent it would be a failure. God is not a failure or He would not be God. God has not failed to communicate truth to His prophets and apostles whom He used to write the Bible. The Christian understanding of life comes from historical events, the acts of God in history. Christian revelation is made up of these events, plus their biblical interpretation.

History is His story. It is the story of God’s direct dealing with humanity through the Israelites, through Jesus Christ, and through His church, all culminating in the establishment of the Kingdom of God in this world. The rising and falling of civilizations, nations, governments, and rulers are significant only as they fit into that story. The Christian view is that (1) God controls history; (2) God personally acts in history; (3) God has a purpose and goal for all the events of history; and (4) God will bring history to its end, when, in the words of Philip Schaff, “the stream of time comes to rest in the ocean of eternity.” This view applies to all of history, even though this volume concentrates on church history. Church history is the living out in world history of the Lord’s twin parables of the mustard-seed and the yeast (Matt. 13: 31–33).  It records how Christianity began from the small seed of a few believers in Jerusalem, and grew until its branches were spread all over the world. It also records how being a Christian works all through the individual believer, to change everything within, and thereby, affecting things without.

For the Christian, there is much to be gained by studying Church history. It gives an understanding of the context in which we live out our Christianity in the present. The “why?” questions of today, gets answered by studying the past. Why is there a Roman Catholic Church and a Protestant Church? Why are there so many denominations in the Protestant Church? With the present being the harvest of the past and the seed of the future, church history can be a guide to the future.

In 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11 we are told to take warning from the past so that we can avoid the same errors in the future. It is so often the case that new heresies in the church are really old heresies in a new form. Studying church history can be a source of hope, encouragement, and motivation for the Christian. In Romans 15:4 we read, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The Scriptures tell us the early church was persecuted, subsequent history tells us the true church is still persecuted in many parts of the world, but Christians should not be fearful for the future of the church, because history shows us the indestructible character of the church.

2 thoughts on “The modern view of history is not historical

  1. Bob

    Hi Jack,

    What you say looks sound at first reading, but I detect a few of your own assumptions in there as well.

    I strongly support reading the Scriptures in the context of the first hearers/readers. We need to know what it meant THEN, because it means the same thing now. God’s word is not rubbery. The problem arises when we try to take that meaning and apply it to our own context.

    For example (and not wanting to be argumentative), Paul asked women to be ‘submissive’ in Graeco-Roman society. Was female submissiveness therefore an eternal teaching, or was it merely a way of behaving in a patriarchal society so as to not bring the Way into disrepute? This is not as cut-and-dried as either side would like to assert. I have heard it argued that to limit the scope for formal ministry of women in modern Western cultures is to bring the Way into disrepute and therefore breaches Paul’s primary consideration even more severely than following the black letter. And I have heard this argued by men who would be the first to require female submission in the context of missionary work where patriarchal structures are still the norm. To them, the guiding principle is that ‘all things should be done in order’, and the precise application is dependent upon local custom and perceptions of decency (1 Cor. 11:11-16).

    But I trust that your approach is genuinely historical, not merely a throwing-back of a Classicist understanding of History (‘facts from the past’) in reaction to an equally flawed post-modernist view.

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