Years ago, my wife asked me to construct an historical timeline as a homeschool project. She wanted to stretch the timeline along the staircase as an ever-present visual reminder to the children of the past. “So,” I asked, “do you want the timeline to progress up the stairs—or to plunge downward from the second floor to the ground level?”
All philosophies of history involve some concept of progress or regress, I explained, or a vision of where history is headed. For some, history will get better and better through some agency or mechanism. The agency might be the power of the Holy Spirit, the influence of Darwinian evolution, the intrusion of space aliens, etc., but history is more-or-less moving in a positive direction. For others, world history will inevitably decay and crash, through some inherent weakness or dark instrumentality. Or, as I told my wife, one could stay entirely neutral on the question of progress and run the timeline along the hallway—although even this presupposed a linear and essentially Christian conception of time. Or one could take an Eastern approach to history and run the timeline around an old silo. “What goes around, comes around,” in an eternally recurrent cycle. Or one could take the postmodernist approach and randomly post events, dates, and names around the house, thereby refusing to assign a metahistorical perspective and giving the children freedom to construct their own meanings of historical events.1
By the time I finished, my wife was thoroughly disgusted with her historian husband. “All I wanted was a simple timeline for the children,” she protested. Fair enough, but timelines are anchored in a comprehensive worldview and a definite philosophy of history. Those philosophies might be implicit and unexplored, but they always exist.
Teleological Christian History
The problem with modern philosophies of history is that they are internally inconsistent, poorly defined, and unconsciously embraced. Most operate on borrowed capital, relying on Christian and Biblical ideas of progress, justice, and objectivity, although they have long since repudiated the substance of the Christian faith.
These modern and postmodern philosophies of history will inevitably lead to meaninglessness. “When man makes himself and his reason god over creation,” Rushdoony explains, “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.”2 Christian historian C. Gregg Singer once described a meeting of historians where everyone agreed that history lacked a discernible purpose. If you really believe that, Singer asked his colleagues, “Then why teach history?” The problem, he concluded, is that historians teach and write with “no conviction that the history they present is worth teaching or learning.”3
Christian historians, on the other hand, can offer a clear alternative. We know how history began. We know the paramount events of history. We know the One who sovereignly governs history, and we know precisely where history is headed. As Rushdoony puts it in The Biblical Philosophy of History, “[T]he 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.”4
Colossians 1:13–20 offers a comprehensive overview of human history and God’s purposeful work in Christ. The world was created through Christ, who upholds all things by His power. Christ is the Redeemer who reconciles all things to His Father through the blood of the cross. The Father delivers His children from the domain of darkness and transfers them into the Kingdom of His Beloved Son. Christ is exalted above all powers and will have first place in all things.
Christian history is teleological or purposeful. (Coming from the Greek telos, meaning “end,” teleology is a theological term meaning the study of a definitive end or final purpose.) Paul’s benedictory conclusion in Hebrews 13:20–21 emphasizes the finished work of Christ, refers to the “blood of the eternal covenant,” and has a conclusion that is both doxological and teleological: “[T]o whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (NAS). Scripture repeatedly points to the fulfillment of all things in Jesus Christ and His rule (Heb. 2:8; 1 Cor. 15:25–27). For the Christian, history is purposeful and emphatically Christocentric.
A Firm Foundation
Someone once said that modern man either stands with one foot on the Reformation and the other on a banana peel—or stands with one foot on the Enlightenment and the other on a banana peel. The cute quip underscores the fundamental antithesis between these radically divergent worldviews and implies some epistemic weakness in both. (It is best, of course, to stand with both feet planted securely on the Word of God.)
Historians need a firm foundation. What they believe about humanity’s origins will frame their approach to the past and their expectations of the future. I took Western Civilization at a secular university from a quirky professor who was a dedicated Marxist and atheist. “Around 4000 B.C.,” he explained in a bewildering early lecture, “man decided to become rational.” His worldview provided a poor framework for understanding the nature of man and the emergence of ancient civilizations.
In contrast, the first chapters of Genesis provide an excellent historical framework. The world was created by an omnipotent God. Man was created in the image of God. (Historians influenced by Darwinism and Marxism will inevitably denigrate man and misunderstand his role in creation.) The Fall brought sin and death to the world, damaging man’s relationship with God and corrupting human relationships and institutions. God brought judgment to the world, but also gave the promise of redemption. The gospel-promises to Abraham involve blessings for the whole earth (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:8).
Rushdoony places special emphasis on the historical value of Christian creeds. Radically different than the creeds of other religions, for instance, the Apostles’ Creed offers “a synopsis of history, created by God the Father Almighty, requiring salvation by Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, Who entered, lived, died, and was resurrected in history, and is now the Lord and Judge of History.” Since “the whole creed therefore is a declaration concerning history,” he continues, “nothing then can be more alien to Biblical faith than the dialectical separation of faith and history.” Over time, Christian creeds “progressively formulated the reality of God’s sovereign power and Christ’s role as priest, prophet, and king over man and history.” “Biblical creedalism is an assent to God’s creation, redemption, and government,” Rushdoony concludes, and “Christian creedalism is thus basic to western activism, constitutionalism, and hope concerning history.”5
The Christian historian, then, has a solid and comprehensive interpretative paradigm. The foundational truths of Scripture, the historic creeds of the church, and the doctrinal affirmations of the Reformation give foundational truths sufficient to understand history. They also explain where history is heading.
Providence and Destiny
Christian historians can be certain that history will move to its destination because God is sovereign. Early Christians had absolute confidence in God’s predestination (Acts 2:23, 4:28) and proclaimed, following Psalm 110, that God would place all enemies beneath the feet of Christ (Acts 2:35). Rushdoony argues that “[i]n a universe ruled by God, the future is assured. Every fact is a God-created fact and moves to a God-ordained purpose. Nothing is futile nor by chance.”6
Recently, some evangelical historians have denied God’s sovereignty. Drawing upon “open theology” and a “risk view of providence,” they assert that God does not know the future, thereby giving greater place to human agency and leaving an open or indeterminate element to the future. As one admiring historian puts it, “God chooses to be a macromanager of Creation and history, but not a micromanager. Humans collaborate with God on how history unfolds.”7 Openness theology illustrates a critical doctrinal weakness in the church and shows the inroads of humanism within evangelicalism.
Scripture consistently attests to God’s comprehensive sovereignty over all creation and history (Acts 17:26). Daniel blesses God, stating that “[i]t is He who changes the times and the epochs” and “He removes kings and establishes kings” (Dan. 2:21 NAS). King Nebuchadnezzar affirms the same thing, 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 earth” (Dan. 4:17, 35 NAS). Isaiah stresses the same lesson, that the Lord is the One “[d]eclaring 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 NAS). As Paul affirms, God works “all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11 NAS). Because God is in charge, His purposes are certain.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (5:1) clearly summarizes the teaching of Scripture on providence: “God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”
The message of God’s total sovereignty directly challenges the presuppositions of a humanistic age. Christian historian Steven Keillor has recently written, “[W]e will have to risk much as faithful witnesses of the Son of Man’s triumph, which is also political and, therefore, unpopular.”8 No matter how unpopular, Christians must faithfully proclaim the truth of Scripture—and be confident in God’s providential control of all things.
No Nostalgic Navel-Gazing
Historians may be tempted to become nostalgic navel-gazers. Some may become fixated on a narrow slice of the past and ignore the broader movements of history. Others may develop an antiquarian longing for a beloved period. Christians may view a special group or perceived golden period (the first-century church, the Reformation, the Puritans) with uncritical devotion.
The Bible, by contrast, offers excellent examples of fair, textured, and pedagogically oriented history. It introduces heroes of the past, but presents them completely and critically, showing their failures as well as successes. Its portrait of David, for instance, shows both the king’s glories and his wretched warts. Psalms 105 and 106 illustrate the purpose of Biblical history: they remind Israel of God’s past covenant faithfulness, warn God’s people about the consequences of sin, and urge them to greater faith, obedience, and praise.
The Christian’s goal is not to return to a golden past. We do not wish, for instance, to return to the Reformation era. The Reformation was a tremendous movement of God to revive the church and revitalize the preaching of the gospel. The Reformers were great men of God. The church is far stronger and more faithful because of the Reformers. “We see further,” someone has said, “only because we stand on the shoulders of giants.” All this is true. But God has given twenty-first-century believers their own challenges and an obligation to apply the Word of God afresh to contemporary culture.
Rushdoony is a good example of a grounded, forward-looking Christian confronting modern problems candidly. Concerned about creeping liberalism at one institution, and its unwillingness to hear criticism or engage in reform, he simply withdrew to focus on his work. “At this point,” Rushdoony said, it “is a dead issue with us, and we see no point in having anything to do with it. Our feeling is this: let the dead bury the dead. We are the living, and have work to do.”9 His advice is still valuable: Christians should be Biblically faithful, hardworking, and forward-looking.
In The Foundations of Social Order, Rushdoony comments on the triumph of Hellenism and neoplatonic humanism. What he says of the Eastern church a thousand years ago is true of many denominations today: “Those who contemplated their navels were to find more support in the church than those who believed in and studied the word of God.”10
Avoiding Rabbit Trails
Historians may become sidetracked by special issues, novel theories, and tangents. I know one historian whose special interest is India. No matter what he teaches, he invariably steers the students toward his favorite topic. Others see sinister forces at work and believe that the forces of darkness will ultimately prevail in human history. Conspiracies and sinister forces certainly have been at work in history—and they have caused much damage.11 But conspirators do not control history. God does.
Psalm 2 offers a comforting perspective on conspiracies and the sovereignty of God, and the theme was emphasized in apostolic preaching (Acts 4:25–30). The Psalm 2 conspiracy involves all humanity (kings, rulers, nations, peoples), not just a select group of uniquely depraved conspirators. The conspiracy involves rebellion against God, Christ, and God’s law—not attempted control of political and economic institutions. The primordial conspiracy of man, moreover, is destined to fail; indeed, the Sovereign Lord scoffs at man’s petty attempts at resistance. God is perfectly able to thwart conspiracies (Gen. 11:9), and He commands His people not to fear the conspiratorial plans of sinful man (Isa. 8:12–13; Ps. 83:5, 18). In the face of conspiratorial opposition, the early church used Psalm 2 as a rationale to ask for (and receive) special power in preaching the gospel (Acts 4:29).
Rushdoony’s files include interesting correspondence about conspiracies. One was from a young man wondering about joining the John Birch Society. Though not a member, Rushdoony shared the Society’s concerns about the threat of Communism. He believed, however, that the fundamental problem facing Western civilization was ultimately religious: “Our problem is basically moral and religious. The answer to our crisis, which is FIRST of all a moral and spiritual crisis, is Christian reconstruction. This is what concerns me, and the purpose of Chalcedon is to provide the theological and philosophical foundations for reconstruction. The battle is the Lord’s, and we shall triumph.”12
Another correspondent asked about a Zionist conspiracy behind the Federal Reserve System. Rushdoony certainly didn’t like the Fed, as he notes in his response, but he didn’t think that Jews controlled things or that history was dominated by conspiracies: “I believe that our problem is moral dereliction; nothing else is biblical, and I believe that I must think Scripturally. I have perhaps two hundred works on the Jewish conspiracy alone, and I am not convinced that the writers have made a case. I do believe that conspiracies exist, but I believe that they are basically anti-God, and that they succeed only to the measure that we become morally irresponsible ourselves.”13
Rather than pursue rabbit trails, Rushdoony maintained a clear Biblical focus. The problem was always human sin. The solution was always found in Christ and covenant faithfulness. Victory was always assured by God.
No Myopic Disillusionment
Elijah was a great man of God, but Scripture records one moment of deep disillusionment. After his great victory over Ahab and the forces of Baal, Elijah went into hiding, fearing retribution from Jezebel. The disillusioned prophet asked God to take his life, arguing that he was the only one left (1 Kings 19:4.).
Why did Elijah do this? Perhaps he wanted to wallow in self-pity. Perhaps he wanted to celebrate his own solitary faithfulness. Whatever his motives, Elijah certainly forgot about God’s sovereign power and ability to transform the future, and that is the lesson God impressed upon the prophet (1 Kings 19:15–21). The Lord told Elijah of a faithful remnant, promised to bring judgment on faithless Israel, and made arrangements for a highly effective successor to the aging prophet. Elijah himself would have a part in this unexpected reconstruction—anointing those who would follow.
Christians can become disillusioned by focusing on present problems and distresses, rather than looking to the future. They might pursue “newspaper exegesis”—accepting at face value the bleak reports of the modern media, instead of accepting the sure promises of the sovereign God.
On the eve of the Reformation, there was much to discourage true Christians. The church was in bad shape, plagued by false doctrine and horrible corruption. Though the future looked bleak, however, God was pleased to bring a Reformation. At roughly the same time, a new world was opened to discovery and colonization, giving persecuted Christians a place of refuge and causing the Reformed church to flourish in an unexpected corner of the world.
Jonathan Edwards commented on this unique historical development in “Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival.” Writing at the time of the Great Awakening, Edwards anticipated a greater, more glorious future revival of religion in the New World. Such a revival may have seemed unlikely from a human perspective, but all things are possible with God.
A half century after Edwards wrote, many American Christians were discouraged by the condition of the country. Alarmed by public scandals and creeping infidelity, they feared that the political chaos of the French Revolution might soon touch the infant American republic. The Presbyterian General Assembly of 1798 issued a sober pastoral letter, warning that American religious and moral declension would quickly bring the judgment of God. At the very time the pastoral letter circulated, however, revival was already breaking out in America, beginning in Presbyterian churches in the South.14
Focus on the Future
God is able to do all things. If He promises revival, it will come. His Word and promise will not return to Him void (Isa. 55:11). God taught that lesson to the prophet Ezekiel, asking him to observe a Valley of Dry Bones. God promised to place His Spirit upon the bones, miraculously bringing them to life (Ezek. 37:14). Too many Christians focus on the dry bones of a decaying culture. Instead, they should focus on the power of God to bring revival and transform a nation.
The Christian’s task is clear. The Great Commission gives marching orders for the church (Matt. 28:19–20), in terms of disciplining the nations, baptizing them, and teaching them all things that God has commanded. The task involves evangelism, the sacramental work of the church, and the obligation of Christian education.
Now more than ever, Christians should be committed to that calling. Contemporary Christians have been given remarkable tools. Homeschooling has provided Christians with unprecedented opportunities for training future generations. The Internet has provided incredible avenues for global evangelization and discipleship.
In Romans 16:20, Paul predicts that “[t]he God of Peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (NAS). There is a promise of God-ordained victory, accomplished through the work of the church. While this may seem unlikely now, the Christian is to trust God to fulfill His Word.
I once asked Rushdoony about his take on the future. Was he optimistic or pessimistic? I was encouraged by his absolute confidence in God and the certain fulfillment of God’s purposes: “In the short term … it is going to be grim. Long term, very good, because I believe the Word of God. It tells us that the wages of sin are always death. All they that hate me, God says, love death. It is ridiculous for Christians to believe that the opposition can win … So I am hopeful in the long run and know that ours is the victory. ‘This is the victory that overcometh the world—even our faith.’”15
1. Even this is deceptive. It presupposes that something is more important than others. The very act of assigning significance to a certain event or person is rooted in beliefs about the meaning and significance of history.
2. R. J. Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 15.
3. C. Gregg Singer, “The Problem of Historical Interpretation,” Foundations of Christian Scholarship, ed. Gary North (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1979), 53, 63.
4. Rushdoony, Biblical Philosophy of History, 8.
5. Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1968; 1978), 4–8.
6. Rushdoony, Salvation and Godly Rule (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1983), 202.
7. Donald Yerxa, “A Meaningful Past and the Limits of History,” Fides et Historia XXXIV, Spring 2002, 23. Most of thediscussion about open theology and “risky providence” arises from John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998). John and I were students together at Oak Hills Bible College, a tiny school in northern Minnesota, and we later served on the faculty together for a few years. I am convinced that openness theology is rooted in Pelagianism and arises from a hyper-Arminian focus on human autonomy.
8. Steven Keillor, God’s Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 203.
9. Rousas J. Rushdoony to George Marston (July 29, 1966 and August 27, 1970). Rushdoony was absolutely opposed to a bureaucratic and hierarchical ecclesiastical polity—seeing it as an extension of Romanism. He was committed to a Biblical and organic Presbyterian polity, but had little use for bureaucratic machinery Presbyterianism. His resignation from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1958 includes a detailed explanation of his commitment to Biblical polity.
10. Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order, 160.
11. I especially like the Masonic conspiracy. In 1995, we moved to the mountain hamlet of Mendota, Virginia, where our house sat directly across the street from the Masonic Lodge. In response to questions from my children, I told them that Freemasonry was a secret fraternal order that some believed to be part of a vast conspiracy to control the world. On the first Saturday evening of the month, we did a little empirical research, surreptitiously observing the congregating Masons. The clear majority of the Lodge brothers wore denim, drove pickups, and chewed tobacco. If there was a Masonic conspiracy, the Schultz children concluded, the Mendota Lodge probably wasn’t involved. Either that, or it was a clever disguise!
12. Letter of Rousas J. Rushdoony (November 1969).
13. Letter of Rousas J. Rushdoony (October 3, 1969).
14. See Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelism, 1750–1858 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1994).
15. “Interview with R. J. Rushdoony” Contra Mundum, No. 13, Fall 1994, 33–38. (http://www.contra-mundum.org/cm/cm13.pdf)