Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Christianity and History

George Marsden.  Still from video by Regent University.
How does a strong Christian faith influence the work of a historian?  First of all, Christians who study history acknowledge God’s sovereignty and guidance over all the universe, including the affairs of men.  It may be objected that this approach forces historical facts into an ideological viewpoint.  However, everyone who studies history comes with a certain frame of reference.  “The best way to deal with these universal phenomena,” writes George Marsden, a leading Christian historian, “is to acknowledge one’s point of view rather than posing as a neutral observer.  That way readers can take an author’s viewpoint into account, discount it if they wish, and learn from it to the extent they can.” [1]

The weather at Dunkirk is as providential as the arrangement
of Saturn's rings. (Public Domain)

A major part of a Christian historian’s viewpoint is acknowledging the role of providence in historical events.  Question and answer 8 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines providence as God’s “most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures and all their actions.” [2] Since God directs the universe and the actions of those within it, this means that He has decreed the paths that history will take.  While some people separate providential events (like the weather at Dunkirk that aided a British escape) from ordinary events, the truth is that all events are equally controlled by God.  “The weather we actually had is therefore in the strictest sense providential; it was decreed; and decreed for a purpose, when the world was made—but no more so (though more interestingly to us) than the precise position at this moment of every atom in the ring of Saturn.” [3]

However, acknowledging God’s providential guidance of events does not always mean that we understand why historical events happened in a particular way.  Because we are God’s creatures, not His counsellors, we ultimately cannot know God’s purposes, aside from those that He has revealed to us in the Bible.  Some Christian historians attempt to understand God’s plan as it is revealed in history, and this is a commendable exercise, as long as they realize that they are limited to speculation.  In The Lord of the Rings, the wise wizard Gandalf understands that everyone, including himself, has limitations and cannot know everything.  “For even the very wise,” Gandalf tells Frodo, “cannot see all ends.” [4]
Gandalf and Frodo in grave discussion.  Picture from Time Magazine

Even though we cannot know everything, we can still apply God’s principles of right and wrong to historical events.  In an effort to avoid using history primarily as a lesson in morality, some people have argued that, when looked at from the position of that person’s era, no action can be classed as right or wrong.  But this position embraces a philosophy that there are no universal principles of good or evil.  Christians, whatever their field of study, have a responsibility to apply the Bible’s ethical standards to history.  This will ensure that they “judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24, King James Version) and “hate the evil and love the good.” (Amos 5:15, King James Version).

Judging with righteous judgment: Jesus and the woman
taken in adultery.  Engraving by Gustave Dore
(public domain)

Christianity should influence every aspect of one’s life, including a study of history.  A Christian historian can study history more richly, because he or she acknowledges the hand of God where others would only see coincidence.  Christian historians can also emulate the virtues of Jesus Christ like humility (acknowledging that we do not know the mind of God) or justice (judging the events of the past with the Bible’s ethical code).  In short, Christian history is merely an outworking of our internal change: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature:  old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17, King James Version)


[1] George M. Marsden.  Jonathan Edwards: A Life.  (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 5.

[2] Westminster Shorter Catechism.  Online.  Accessed June 20, 2018. 

[3] C. S. Lewis.  The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics.  (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 457.

[4] J. R. R. Tolkein.  The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.  (New York: Ballantine Books, 1981), 93.