How Should Christians View History?
What is the Relationship Between Christianity and Historical Scholarship?
The tone with which a historian writes is derived from his worldview and directly affects how readers will interpret the subject. It is important for historians, especially Christian historians, to understand the ramifications that their worldview has upon their historical research. Further, it is important for Christian historians to ensure that their worldview is in accord with biblical teachings and principles. By examining Scripture, Christian historians can improve their research by gaining insights into the nature of the sinful human heart, human motivations, the progression of history, and the role of divine providence in historical investigation.
How do Christians View Human Nature?
The most fundamental belief that shapes how Christian historians interpret history is the severity of humanity’s sinful nature. Paul refers to man and his unregenerate heart as “dead…in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1, ESV; cf. Col. 2:13). Unregenerate humans are inherently and utterly sinful, incapable of making willfully moral choices (Rom. 8:7-8). If God did not extend a limited grace or innate moral knowledge to all humans, they would be unable to restrain their sinful desires and incapable of coexistence. It is only after spiritual regeneration that humanity is capable of making willfully moral choices, although they still retain and frequently exercise the ability to sin (Rom. 8:10-17).
Understanding that the human heart is incapable of making moral decisions causes the Christian to understand that all earthly goodness is a product of God’s gift of grace to humankind. Because the human heart is corrupted, Christian historians realize that no utopian society can exist and that humans must have laws in place to restrain their sinful desires. He also recognizes that human society will always tend towards disorder rather than order. Further, a totally depraved heart is dead. It can be neither improved nor worsened—it is consistently dead. Thus, a society of dead hearts cannot morally progress or regress, but will be constant across cultures and throughout generations.
Understanding Human Motivations
In light of original sin and total depravity, the Christian historian must recognize that the unregenerate human heart is governed solely by its sinful desires. Galatians 5:19-21 states that the desires of the flesh include “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” All of these sins ultimately stem from selfishness. The regenerate Christian is freed from the bondage of sin and can choose to selflessly serve the Spirit. However, although the Christians undergo a spiritual regeneration, their bodies will not be redeemed during their earthly lives, and consequently Christians often still yield to sin. Thus, selfishness is the primary human motivation, but Christian historians must also recognize that Christians have the capacity to make selfless decisions.
Determining the motivation of another human in any given situation is not a simple task, but it is made easier by the knowledge that all human actions were intended to serve the self or to serve others. The Christian historian can determine whether a person was motivated by selfishness or selflessness by looking at his actions, noting whether or not any of the sinful desires mentioned in Galatians were present, and examining how his actions affected other people. The selfishness of a sinful heart provides the historian with the only explanation for why people so often make such illogical, irrational decisions that often eventually lead to their destruction.
God as the Author of History
Because history has a definite beginning and endpoint, it follows that history progresses. God, as the creator and author of history, wills history towards its culmination. Romans 8:20-23 illumines that all of creation waits in eager anticipating for God's coming redemption (cf. Isa. 46:10). Human actions and the “City of Man”, though used by God within history to accomplish his purposes, are not the driving force behind the progression of history (Prov. 19:21). The City of Man experiences neither progression nor regression, but stays fundamentally the same throughout history. Human culture sees no essential moral progress or regress, because sin is present in every generation and in every culture. Human hearts are morally dead and can neither improve nor regress. Ecclesiastes 1:9-11 explains that culture moves in cycles and that people do not remember the mistakes of the past so that they can learn from them. Although sin is more overt in some cultures than in others, sin itself is what is repulsive to God, for God does not distinguish between what humans would refer to as lesser and greater sins. All sin separates man from God. Further, temporal technological advance should not be mistaken for human progress. Improving upon technology does not connote progress because history is not moved towards its endpoint by the temporal, but by an eternal God. The “City of God” however, does see progress as the Church spreads the Gospel throughout the world and extends its reach to areas that it previously had not influenced.
That cultures do not see essential moral progress or regress from generation to generation prevents the historian from idealizing or glorifying either the morality of the past or the present at the unfair expense of the other. A good historian will recognize that sin in all its forms has been prevalent in every generation that has dwelt upon the earth and will continue to plague humanity until the end of time. Consequently, he will be much more ethical with his treatment of differing eras and cultures in his research. Further, the knowledge that only God, not man, progresses history teaches humanity to glorify the Lord and trust in him rather than attempting to bring about the Day of the Lord through bettering themselves morally.
Natural or Supernatural Causation?
Lastly, the Christian historian must determine whether it is acceptable to credit supernatural causes for the outcomes of earthly events or if he should only attribute earthly events to natural causes. This has always presented the historian with a dilemma when writing academically because those who are not sympathetic to the Christian worldview generally reject supernatural explanations. Some Christians have even argued that it is presumptuous to ascribe supernatural causes to events because it is impossible to know whether or not God was actually involved. To the contrary, the Bible makes it clear that God is actively involved in the earthly affairs of humankind as he wills history towards its culmination (see Prov. 21:1;,Ex. 11:3, Ezra 1:1, 2 Cor. 8:16, and Acts 1:7). Daniel wrote that “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will" (Dan. 4:18 cf. 4:25, 32; 5:21). He hardens and softens hearts, raises up and tears down rulers and kingdoms, and Hebrews 1:3 adds that the Son “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” Colossians 1:17 adds that in Christ "all things hold together."
How Christian Historians Should Explain Events
However, God’s sovereign control over human events does not render humans unaccountable for their actions. Romans 9:17-23 explains that although God chooses to harden the hearts of some people and have mercy on others, humans are still accountable for their actions and cannot blame God (cf. 1 Chron. 29:18-19). The Christian historian understands that in all situations humans are responsible for their actions, but that God is also using them to accomplish his will. Therefore, a good history will feature both natural and supernatural explanations. Because God’s intervention in temporal affairs is so extensive, it would be redundant to repeatedly mention his role in history throughout a book. Rather, it would suffice for the historian to explain God’s relation to the universe and human events in an introduction so that readers will imply his presence in the events of the book as they read it. Within the main body of the book, the historian should focus primarily upon human actions and natural causes, which are much more easily understood by the general public. Nevertheless, the historian should retain the right to comment within the text if he notices an event where he feels the presence of God was especially apparent and important, such as the Great Awakening or the Reformation.
Serving God by Studying History
A Christian worldview has profound effects upon the way that a historian interprets historical events and writes about them. Having a proper understanding of human nature, human motivations, how history progresses, God’s role in history, and their interrelationship with one another enables a Christian historian to better represent his worldview in his research. It also gives important insights into the fundamental causes for human actions within history and the progress of history from its beginning to its endpoint. Furthermore, it helps Christian historians to determine how to implement divine Providence and their Christian beliefs into their historical research without completely marginalizing their writings in the eyes of the academic world. Ultimately, a comprehensive Christian worldview empowers the historian to fulfill his call to be “salt…and light” in the world (Matt. 5:13-14).