Pillar Journal

History has meaning under God’s direction

From the Christian perspective, God is undoubtedly active in history, working all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11)

Men and women are historical beings, immersed in the flow of time. History, as the first-century BC Roman orator Cicero rightly observed, is “the director of life.”1“History [is] the evidence of time, the light of truth, the life of memory, the directress of life, the herald of antiquity.” Cicero, De Oratore, 2.9.36, in Cicero on Oratory and Orators, trans. J. S. Watson (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1860), 92. The word magistra refers to a female superior, either a master or a teacher. One cannot escape the effects of history. Even to think nonhistorically for any length of time is a difficult task. We are part of history; indeed, we are part of one human family that extends throughout history. The Bible tells us that God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation” (Acts 17:26). Each human being is part of something much larger, for the entire human race descended from one man and one woman and expanded across the world through the ages. God is executing His sovereign plan for our lives not as isolated atoms of humanity, but as descendants of our ancestors, parents of future generations, and members of present-day communities and nations.

Our participation in history is especially meaningful if we are vital members of the church of Jesus Christ. Then we are bound together by faith in Christ, the head over all things, for whom all things exist (Eph. 1:10, 22– 23; Col. 1:16). Also, we are bound together in “one Spirit” with all Christians (Eph. 4:4) and are “members one of another” (Rom. 12:5) in a manner that transcends time. We are no longer strangers and aliens, but members of the ancient people of God’s promise, united in the peace purchased by Christ’s blood (Eph. 2:12–13, 19). When we read about believers and churches from times past, we are reading our family history— the stories of our brothers and sisters.

For the Christian community, history is the stage on which the drama of redemption is displayed. At the beginning is the fall; at the end is the last judgment. In between, the most crucial event is the entry of the eternal God into time as a man, Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate. From the perspective of the New Testament, the incarnation is the culmination of the history of salvation sketched in the Old Testament (Gal. 4:4; Heb. 1:1–2). The incarnation has hallowed history and initiated a history of salvation that embraces not only Israel but the entire world (Matt. 28:18–20; Mark 16:15– 16).

From the Christian perspective, God is undoubtedly active in history, working all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). Tom Wells says, “When we study history we are studying the activity of God.”2Tom Wells, “Why We Study Church History,” Banner of Truth, no. 191 (1979): 1. And it is right and proper to study history for that reason alone. God does not want His works to be forgotten, but “hath made his wonderful works to be remembered” (Ps. 111:4). Though it is impossible to trace God’s footsteps across the sands of time in detail, it is blasphemous to deny that He is at work. His work may often be hidden, but it is biblical to confess that He is providentially guiding history for the glory of His name and the good of His people. The study of history can also highlight the judgments of God, who “is angry with the wicked every day” (Ps. 7:11). John Calvin (1509–1564) said, “Thus it becomes the faithful to be employed in reflecting on the histories of all times, that they may always form their judgment from the Scripture, of the various destructions which, privately and publicly, have befallen the ungodly.”3John Calvin, Commentaries (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), on Gen. 18:18.

Christians who demean history do not understand the Bible’s teachings very well. The gospel centers upon historical events such as Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3–8), apart from which our faith cannot stand (vv. 14, 17). The preaching of the apostolic church shows that the history of Israel is an essential part of God’s message, which culminates in Christ’s life and works (Acts 7:1–53; 13:16–41). It is indeed the history of the world from creation to Christ (Acts 14:15–17; 17:22–31). God cares deeply about history, and He caused His gospel to center on it. Without history, Christianity ceases to be the good news of God’s redemptive intervention into human life. As the people of the gospel, therefore, we should care about history and recognize that under God’s sovereign hand it has great meaning. God charges us in Psalm 78 to communicate to future generations not only the law of the Lord but also “his wonderful works that he hath done,” so that our children and grandchildren “might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (vv. 4, 7).

At the same time, we need to remember that, outside the pages of inspired Scripture, the study of history is a merely human endeavor and therefore suffers from the flaws of a fallen world. Carl Trueman offers this advice for when we read history: “First, remember that history is a narrative of the past constructed on the basis of evidence. Thus, when reading history, always ask: What evidence is being cited?… Second, remember that the historian has an agenda…[that] will no doubt shape how he reads the evidence.”4Carl R. Trueman, “Fallacious History,” Tabletalk 36, no. 3 (March 2012): 82–83, See Carl R. Trueman, Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2010). This does not mean we should view history with total skepticism and discard it as meaningless, but it does mean we should not believe everything we read. There is only one book that is absolutely pure of error in all that it affirms, and that is the Word of God (Ps. 12:6; Prov. 30:5). The Bible is our authoritative guidebook in history, both in recording significant events in the stream of redemptive history leading up to Christ and in teaching us principles about history in general.

While our study of history outside of the Bible is merely human, the reality of history is controlled by the God of the Bible and is therefore wise and meaningful. Every strand of history has been woven into the larger fabric of reality according to the almighty will of the Lord.5Robert D. Knudsen, History: The Encounter of Christianity with Secular Science (Cherry Hill, N.J.: Mack, 1976), 36. God causes all things to work together to bring His elect to the glory of Christ (Rom. 8:28–30). God works through means and coordinates all events to bring history to its decreed goals. The book of Esther reminds us that we do not always see God’s hand at work, but He is there, placing each person in exactly the right place “for such a time as this” (Esth. 4:14; cf. Eccl. 3:1– 11).

Since divine wisdom guides history (and not human wisdom), we must also remember that we often cannot discern why God has ordained events to take place as they do. Following Paul’s example when discussing why, in God’s providence, the slave Onesimus ran away from his master, we must use the humble word perhaps when discussing the reasons why events happen (Philemon 15). In the face of God’s mystery, we must bow down in worship and say with Paul, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33).

Excerpt From
Why Should I Be Interested in Church History?
Joel R. Beeke and Michael A.G. Haykin