In looking at 20 centuries of the Church we try to find answers to questions about the ways in which Jesus’ influence has come right down to our own day. People used to talk “the lessons of history” but now society has become very sceptical. Over the centuries Christians have experienced Jesus in different ways. Christian history helps us share this experience and enlarge our own.
The Oxford Dictionary (1989) defines history as “A continuous record of important or public events. The study of past events; those connected with a person or thing.” The postmodernist historian Keith Jenkins regards history as “A shifting problematic discourse, ostensibly about an aspect of the world, the past that is produced by a group of present minded workers who go about their work in mutually recognisable ways that are epistemologically, methodologically, ideologically and practically positioned and whose products once in circulation, are subject to a series of uses and abuses that are logically infinite but which in actuality generally correspond to a range of power bases.” Neither of these definitions mentions God and both are typical of today’s secular value system which opposes a Christian perspective. A much better definition can be found in the Webster’s dictionary of 1828. “History is an account of facts, particularly of facts respecting nations or states; a narration of events in the order in which they happened, with their causes and effects. History is the study of the acts of a person in a
fallen world, and how and why they live in obedience and disobedience to God. It is the interaction of leaders, people and the environment.” The study of history offers a repeated, solid demonstration of the character of the Christian faith. Christians have the key to understanding history because of the transcendent perspective afforded in the Bible. In the world today there has been a trend towards postmodern revisionism and blind relativism without any reference to God.
As Christians our final, authoritative and inerrant framework for reference is Scripture, and we acknowledge that there are absolute values and truths which reveal God’s overall purpose and movement in history. The Psalmist clearly understands: Psalm 78:2-8 “sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.” This Psalm highlights that God is at the heart of history. History is a story in which providence has countered human aberration.
The Christian historian’s starting point is that God is wise, powerful, holy, just and true and that God who created the world is not only interested and concerned with it, but also intimately involved with it. Providence is the backbone of the History curriculum. Nothing can happen that lies outside the reach of God’s sovereignty. As Bismarck, stated “The statesman cannot create the stream of time, he can only navigate it.”
Those who say that everything in history can be explained without bringing God into the argument are doing no more than walking around in a circle because God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. There is considerable potential for historical error in any ostensibly accurate account and the corroboration of evidence is often not conclusive because no historian can avoid bias. This is demonstrated in the selection or omission of evidence or material which supports a version of history in keeping with the historian’s own worldview and beliefs. In Christianity and History, Herbert Butterfield writes “The Agents of History – those who witness actions, make and transmit records—are people with worldviews, biases, blind spots and convictions.”
Regardless of the historians’ conclusions they are not infallible observers because human beings are fallen, come short of God’s standards and cannot possibly understand the whole of history with a finite mind. The Christian historian ought to examine evidence critically and reach his/her judgement based on Biblical absolutes.
There are of course opposing viewpoints to this among secular historians who see man as the source of history and also the cause of events. The Christian historian on the other hand knows that ultimately God is the cause of all events. In his outstanding book “For the Glory of God” the renowned Historian and Sociologist Rodney Stark believes that faith and history should not be separated but brought together. Stark notes “Many claim that Christianity played no significant role in sustaining the abolition of slavery but was a major factor in justifying slavery. Those who sustain and repeat such historical falsifications do not mean to mislead-they too have been misled.” Dallas Willard offers a penetrating critique of how belief in knowledge holds no place in the contemporary university. He claims that a cluster of secular myths has coalesced over time to squeeze out the notion that the Bible is a legitimate source of knowledge.
In his book The Gospel and the Mind, Bradley C Green claims “Biblically, the failure to remember is not always a minor oversight or inconvenience. It is often a sin.” While this might sound odd to our ears, one of the chief sins of Israel was that they so often forgot God. For example, Deuteronomy 4:9-10 declares, “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart and all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children.” A little later in Deuteronomy, Moses says, “And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish”. As C.S. Lewis observed, in every thought or action we are becoming either more heavenly or more hellish. Soren Kierkegaard wrote “We live forward, but we can only think backward.” Therefore, we can rightly claim that to lack memory is to lack understanding. But since our age sees little value in the past, there is little emphasis on memory.
Memory is a part of being human and I would suggest that attention to memory and more generally attention to the past-- is inherently nurtured by historic Christianity. By emphasizing the importance of remembering God’s actions or God’s revelation to us in history, the Christian faith encourages attentiveness to the past. The gospel is the historical reality that shapes all the rest of history. A.G. Sertillanges rightly notes the importance of memory when he says “We do not live by memory, we use our memory to live.”
The lack of memory or more particularly, the assault on memory is widespread in our culture. It is perhaps most radically prevalent in modern academia. While the academy used to be a stronghold of love for the past- relishing old books and old truths, the contemporary academy appears to have lost its nerve in regard to the importance of the past and often seems little concerned about passing on an intellectual tradition. As Bradley Green states, “Perhaps the most insidious aspect of modern education is its arrogance and chronological snobbery, seen to cut students off from the past.” This war on the past is essentially anti-Christian in that it is essentially a gnostic obsession with the immediate. There is an advantage to being grounded in history. A person who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the ignorance and errors of his local village. Similarly, the student of history has explored the past and is more immune to the great amount of nonsense that emanates from the press and the microphones of his own age. Given that our culture is often unconscious of the importance of history, we need to recognize that our efforts to pass on an intellectual inheritance to our children and others in our community will need to be more intentional than ever before.
In conclusion, the way forward requires that we look back. A recovery of a genuine and meaningful life of the mind is ultimately a recovery of the constructive influences of the past, challenging the emptiness of contemporary worldviews and helping shape the future for the next generation.