"History is just a way of separating the good guys from the bad guys." That's what I sometimes tell my students, and they like this practical approach to the discipline. Professional historians, however, often scorn attempts to make moral judgments in history, considering it dualistic or "Manichaean." Moral judgments in history are inescapable, and the Bible establishes both precedent and paradigm for such judgments.
Historical judgments are unavoidable. Whether they rest upon personal biases, or ideology, or faith, everyone makes evaluations of history, historical figures and the direction of nations. The academics I have known, for instance, usually judge history from a worldview that is liberal or politically correct. The annual meetings of the American Historical Association, have been nicknamed the "race, class, and gender meetings," because those are the themes and questions that matter most to liberal historians. People may employ different standards to judge the past, but it is clear that judgments are inevitable.
The Bible gives good illustrations of how to make historical judgments. David was a good king. He was sinful, to be sure, and the Bible discusses his failings, but ultimately he was a man after God's heart. Ahab was a wicked king, although the Bible notes a moment of humility. In short, God gives us brief, straight-forward judgments about kings, and individuals, and nations.
Historical judgments also have great pedagogical value. I am surprised at how often my young children ask if a certain president was good or bad. "History is not quite that simple and individual leaders are very complex," I usually try to explain, wearing my historian's hat. But I am never successful. They want a simple and comprehensive explanation: something like "President X was a dirt-bag," or "President Y is our hero." Then they want me to give a rationale for that judgment: why the leader is a bum or a great guy. In other words, they want the criteria we should use in judging history and its leaders. As Christians, we should be eager and able to give our Biblical criteria for moral judgments of the past.
Biblical Parameters for Historical Judgments
Our historical judgments are true and fair in so far as they follow God's Word. God is the perfect judge, able to assess the depths of the human heart. Though we are unable to judge perfectly and exhaustively, we can make judgments with confidence as we depend upon the standards or measuring stick given in God's Word.
First, Scripture gives an evangelical measuring stick. Hebrews 11 says that without faith it is impossible to please God and then provides a list of the heroes of the Faith. There are two kinds of people in the world: those living in faithful submission to God, and those in rebellion against Him. Any creditable history will take seriously the question of faith.
Second, Scripture gives a measuring stick of orthodoxy. The New Testament emphasizes a proper, orthodox Christ-centered faith, and it is clear that what a person believes about Christ is critically important.1 Indeed, in The Foundations of Social Order, Rushdoony shows the cultural and political significance of creedal statements. One's theological commitments will influence the direction of his life and is a valid area of historical scrutiny.
Third, Scripture offers a behavioral measuring stick. Jesus warned that good trees do not produce bad fruit. He predicted that some would even approach Him on the last day saying, "Lord, Lord" — thus professing to know Jesus with some intimacy. Yet Jesus repudiates them, says that He never knew them, and points to their lawless deeds (Mt. 7:23). Faithfulness, personal morality, and public virtue are fair items for historical review and assessment. For Christian history, "character counts, and morality matters."
As a corollary to this, it is absolutely imperative that Christians know the moral law of God and use it as an instrument for judging the past. Jesus said, after all, that He did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets (Mt. 5:21). As the great Baptist Confession of 1689 puts it, "The moral law doth for ever bind all ... to the obedience thereof; neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation."3 God's law, then, is a measuring standard for the lives of men and nations.
Fourth, Scripture gives idolatry and false religion as a measuring stick for historical judgments. The first chapter of Romans gives an overview of human rebellion and shows how people and cultures have repudiated the knowledge of God within them and corrupted the true worship of God. All false religions are rooted in rebellion against God. In Idols for Destruction, Herbert Schlossberg offers a compelling contemporary critique of the idolatries of our own age.
Fifth, at the conclusion of Romans1, Scripture gives a measuring standard of cultural and moral declension. Rebellious and idolatrous cultures are finally given over to grotesque forms of depravity. The Christian can easily "grade" a culture by applying the standard of Romans. (For an example of the temporal judgments falling upon rebellious nations, read Leviticus 18. These wretched nations of Canaan had behaved so abominably, God says, that the land itself "spewed" them out.)
Sixth, Scripture gives a measuring stick of humanism. Referenced in Romans 1, this problem is clearly illustrated in Genesis 10 at the construction of the Tower of Babel. Unified by a common language, a common confession and a common rebellion against God, the people of Babel sought to erect an indestructible tower, to reach to heaven and make a name for themselves. One of Rushdoony's great contributions was to show the essentially religious and pseudo-salvific nature of humanistic systems. Of the United Nations, for instance, he argues that its first premise is "[s]alvation by law...the hope and salvation of man and of society is through world law." That stands in stark contrast to the orthodox Christian faith: "For the orthodox Christian, the law cannot save; it can only condemn. The law cannot create true peace and order; it cannot save man and society from the consequences of their sin. Christ alone is the prince and principle of peace and of order, man's only savior and mediator."4
Seventh, Scripture gives a measuring stick of power. It is instructive to see how individuals and leaders use power and authority. This includes authority in the family (1 Tim. 3:4), the church (1 Peter 5:2-3), and in politics (Lk. 22:25). Do leaders seek to be servants, or are they concerned about capturing power? Do they model the characteristics of leadership given in the Bible?
Deuteronomy 17 has an excellent catalog of requirements for kings and prescriptions for how they should govern. The Bible requires that the king will be a "brother," coming from the people and not feeling elevated above them. The Bible prohibits kings from doing certain things (amassing wealth, collecting war horses, multiplying wives). Most importantly, God establishes a covenantal or contractual foundation for the monarchy. God required that the king read the law of God, write it out in his own hand (in the presence of the priests), and meditate upon it for all his days. The Word of God was to be foundational for good government.
The warnings about statist government in 1 Samuel 8 also give standards for evaluating nations. The people of Israel sought a king who would judge them and fight for them "like the nations." (The nations surrounding Israel were pagan and humanistic, governed by deified leaders.) In this request, God proclaims that the children of Israel repudiated His kingship and acted consistently with their Exodus idolatry. God tells Samuel to warn the Israelites of the nature of the humanistic statism they admired. The king would conscript young men for his armies. He would coerce young people into his national service. He would enforce eminent domain, taking the best of their land. And he would tax them at obscene and ungodly rates (10%). We might well expect God's displeasure on any other nation pursuing statist government.
Eschatological Surety of Historical Judgments
Matthew 25 records that one day Jesus will separate the nations. He will divide the good guys from the bad, the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the dirt-bags. He will review the deeds and faithfulness of the children of earth. One day, a final and perfect historical judgment will be rendered. The task of the Christian historian is to render judgments on history and its actors consonant with the judgments of God's Word.
Psalm 2 describes the great rebellion against the Lord's Anointed. This conspiracy is not restricted to the insider-elite; it involves the governors and leaders, peoples and nations of earth. The rebellion is against Christ and His law. Scripture says that this was fulfilled at Calvary (Acts 2), when the leaders and peoples of earth conspired to kill Christ. Arising from the Psalm are two questions that can be applied to every person and nation of earth and may be used as tools of historical judgment. First, how do they deal with Christ? Do they honor and submit to the King of Kings? Second, how do they deal with His law? Are they obedient to His Word? The conclusion of Psalm 2 is both forceful and evangelistic: "Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry and you perish in the way. . . How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!"
1. For examples of Scripture underscoring a proper Christology, see Matthew 16:16, I Timothy 3:16, and I John 2:22 and 4:1-3.
3. London Baptist Confession 19:5. The London Baptist Confession of 1689 is a magnificent Baptist doctrinal formulation, based upon the Westminster Confession of Faith.
4. Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System (Fairfax, Virginia: Thoburn Press, 1978), 115-116.