Gregg Singer once described a discussion group of historians at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The conversation concerned the meaning of history, and, to a man, the historians argued that history lacked any discernible purpose. If that is the case, Singer asked, "Then why teach history?" There was no answer. The problem, Singer concluded, is that historians teach and write with "no conviction that the history they present is worth teaching or learning."1
For Christians who are committed to the Word of God and the doctrine of God's providence, history is filled with meaning. This essay is the first in a series on a Christian philosophy of history and the implications of allowing the Bible to govern our approach to the past. History is valuable and meaningful, but only when understood from the perspective of the One who has ordained history. What follows, then, are the parameters of a theocentric or God-centered philosophy of history.
First, a Christian philosophy of history emphasizes God's creation. God is the Lord of history and He began it and directs it for His purposes. Non-theistic approaches assume that history is driven by naturalistic, humanistic, or irrational forces. The non-Christian historian, to be consistent with his anti-religious presuppositions, must exclude God from the dynamics of history. Christians, on the other hand, heartily concur with the great London Baptist Confession of 1689, which states that "God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass."2
Second, a Christian philosophy of history emphasizes God's comprehensive sovereignty. Our sovereign God, who "works all things after the counsel of His will" (Eph. 1:11), governs and directs history. As R. J. Rushdoony notes in The BiblicalPhilosophy of History, "The Christian accepts a world which is totally meaningful and in which every event moves in terms of God's predestined purpose, and, when man accepts God as his Lord and Christ as his Savior, every event works together for good to him because he is now in harmony with that meaningful destiny (Rom. 8:28)."3
The lesson of God's comprehensive sovereignty is clearly set forth in Scripture. Daniel blessed God, affirming, "And it is He who changes the times and the epochs" and "He removes kings and establishes kings" (Dan. 2:21). King Nebuchadnezzar learned that lesson as well, stating, "That the most High is ruler over the realm of mankind" and "He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth" (Dan. 4:17, 35). The Servant sections of Isaiah particularly testify to God's sovereign governance of human history. The Lord is the one "declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure" (Isa. 46:10).
Third, a Christian philosophy of history stresses God's particular providence in dealing with individuals. God's dealings are not restricted to the "big picture" of nations and kingdoms. In Psalm 139, for example, after speaking of God's omniscience and omnipresence, David describes God's gracious providence in fashioning him from his mother's womb: "Thine eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Thy book they were all written, the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them" (Ps. 139:16). Thus, Christians have great confidence that their individual lives have meaning. God has foreordained the days of our lives; He has even written those days into His book. In Psalm 56:8 David says, "put my tears in Thy bottle, are they not in Thy book?" What great consolation in time of trouble! Our trials are not meaningless. The sorrows and travails of the believer are foreordained by God and are written in His book, where they are stored and cherished by our Lord.
Fourth, a Christian philosophy of history is cautious in approaching particular events in the past. Where Scripture explains God's purposes in history, Christians may speak with authority and confidence. But where Scripture is silent, Christians must be circumspect and humble. Finite humans do not comprehend the fullness of God's purposes, and believers must not be hasty in identifying God's particular purposes in history, or in their own lives.
Those reading the Book of Job, for example, are privy to the conversations of God and Satan in the first two chapters and learn to understand the cosmic significance of Job's trials. Job and his friends, however, didn't have access to that information. The friends too quickly speculated about God's purposes and the meaning of Job's sufferings. Job felt that he was treated unfairly and demanded an explanation from God. God never answered the particular questions that Job raised, but He did emphasize His power and perfect providence (Job 38-41). By the end of the book, a repentant Job can only confess, "I know that Thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted" (Job 42:2).
Fifth, a Christian philosophy of history requires that the past be evaluated from a divine standard. One of the lessons of Job is that we must measure the events of life from God's standard, not from a human standard or measuring stick.4 "When man makes himself and his reason god over creation," Rushdoony writes, "he thereupon destroys all meaning in creation and leaves himself a chained and gibbering baboon, sitting in terror on a wired electric chair in the midst of a vast universe of nothingness."5 In subsequent essays, we will consider how the Bible can be used to measure and judge the past.
Sixth, a Christian philosophy of history is personally challenging and should move us to repentance and faith. Luke 13 provides an excellent example of how Jesus interpreted current events, and of how we might evaluate history. Christ's followers raised questions about two disasters, one natural (the collapse of a tower) and one human (a massacre by Pilate), and asked about the purposes of God in such events. Jesus warned them not to draw hasty conclusions from the catastrophes.
Jesus never explains why the disasters of Luke 13 happened. It is simply not important for them, or for us, to understand the meta-historical purpose of God in those disasters. But Jesus does make a personal and evangelistic application from the disasters: "unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (vv. 3, 5). Every disaster and every particular providence from the hand of God is a reminder of our mortality and weakness and is an occasion for introspection and repentance, and should ultimately bring us to greater faith in God.
The collapsing tower of Luke 13 presents a good paradigm for understanding the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11. We believe that the disaster was under the sovereign governance of God, but we do not know the overarching purposes of God in the event. It may, or may not have been a temporal judgment on the United States, and we can make no claim to know such matters with certainty. The attack, however, should have been an opportunity for individual and national soul-searching, for repentance, and for renewed commitment to Christ.
In conclusion, Christians have an obligation to read history from a theocentric and Christian perspective. It is the same approach to history that the Apostle Paul used in dealing with the men of Athens in Acts 17. Paul preached a sovereign and transcendent God, who made the world and sustains all things by His providence (v. 24f). He emphasized creation, noting that God made all men from "one," or from "one blood" (v. 26a). He emphasized God's foreordination of both history and geography, noting that God "determined [the nations] appointed times and the boundaries of their habitations" (v. 26). Paul notes that God is moving history toward a fixed conclusion, specifically the great day of judgment (v. 31). He also emphasizes the resurrection of Christ, a critical element of the gospel proclamation and one that the Athenians disliked. The dramatic point of the message, however, comes in verse 30, where Paul proclaims that "God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent."
For Paul in Acts 17, then, history had vital meaning. Though addressing a hostile audience, he gave a theocentric and evangelistic reading of history. History reminded them of the creation of God, demonstrated His sovereign control of the nations, underscored the importance of the resurrected Christ, warned listeners of the coming day of judgment, and emphasized the need for human repentance and commitment.
Those who defy God and deny His presence in history are left with meaninglessness. They are like "gibbering baboons" in a "universe of nothingness." Christians, however, have great opportunities in studying the past. History has meaning. It was ordained by God for His purposes and for His glory. Through it God governs the nations, and in it He sent His Son to be our Savior.
1. C. Gregg Singer, "The Problem of Historical Interpretation," in Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective, ed. Gary North (Vallecito, California: Ross House, 1979), 53 and 63.
2. The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (3:1). This Baptist classic is in theological harmony with the Westminster Confession of Faith and to other Reformed confessions of theology.
3. Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 8.
4. Rousas J. Rushdoony, By What Standard?: An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til(Tyler, Texas: Thoburn Press, 1983), 189. Rushdoony notes that the Book of Job made him a Calvinist.
5. Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History, 15.