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Did You Hear the One About the Three Historians?

  • Ben House,
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A Lutheran, a Roman Catholic, and a Baptist walked into a college classroom right in the middle of a professor’s class on Western civilization. “You are interrupting my lecture,” the professor said. “You are right about that,” the three men replied.

I admit that the story above lacks punch as a joke. The beginning is promising, but the punch line is not quite funny for a joke. The actual story should put a big grin on the mouths of Christians.

I speak in reference to three books: Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (now titled How Christianity Changed the World) by Lutheran pastor Alvin J. Schmidt, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Roman Catholic Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr., and The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Baylor Baptist University Professor Rodney Stark. These three complement the theme of the transforming effect of Jesus Christ and His Church in time and history. These three books provide an antidote to the secularized version of history. These three books boldly challenge the anti-Christian bias so often found in the world both inside and outside the academy.

Before we examine the books, we need to examine the issue of history itself. As Orwell said, “Those who control the present control the past. Those who control the past control the future.” History is anecdotal philosophy. A history lecture is as agenda- driven as a political caucus. Just as ideas have consequences, history lessons have consequences.

Sometimes history is explained as having lessons to be learned. “Those who ignore the lessons of history are bound to repeat them,” we are told. What the exact lessons are is not so clear. Does the Alamo teach the lesson of (1) the few sacrificing for the many, (2) the inevitability of American manifest destiny, or (3) “Don’t mess with Texas”? History does not teach plain, simple, moralistic lessons. It teaches perspectives, angles, and inquiries into truth.

Herodotus called his founding historical document Historia, which we would translate as Inquiry. History looks for roots, for common causes, for cause-effect relationships. History — not just in general, but in specific examinations — can reveal whatever the student is presuppositionally looking for. As Cornelius Van Til says: It becomes especially plain here that in the Christian conception of things interpretation precedes facts.[1]

History is the second vital front in the Christian culture war. The first front is the battle for the Bible. Without the Scriptures, we have no revelation from God, no marching orders, no army to march, no reason to fight. When the Christian Church battled over the Bible within its ranks, the world was able to march unhindered into all areas of territory once claimed and occupied by Christians. When Darwinian naturalism marched to the gates of Christendom from the outside, higher critical theology opened the gates to the enemy from the inside. Without the Bible, our churches are nothing more than community family centers. Without the Bible, we Christians have no agenda. For this reason, conservatism can never work as a philosophy. They can never truly advocate throwing the rascals out; they only call for a new set of rascals.

In a sense, the Bible more closely resembles an academic skill than a subject. Our compartmentalization of life leads us to segregate disciplines. A Bible confined to a course called “Survey of the Bible” looks like a lion confined in a cage with the description “King of the Jungle.” But just as the knowledge of the alphabet pervades and dominates all other academic disciplines, so the Bible should be the philosophical or intellectual alphabet to all learning. On one occasion, a Jewish lady called our Christian school and asked if her son could attend but skip the first part of the day, or the “religion part.” Our elementary administrator explained that the Bible and Christianity was not a 15-minute segment in the mornings. Anytime the Bible is caged, it ceases to be what it really is, and its effect is nullified. So the first front of the culture war is always the battle for the Bible.

History is the second front for three reasons. First, the Bible from beginning to end presents a philosophy of history. Second, the Bible contains history. Third, the Bible has impacted history. To say “I love the Bible, but I don’t like history” is to speak in a contradiction.

I am puzzled when I recall that I acquired a history degree without ever taking a class that defined what history is. Both warnings and encouragements were given in regard to what a history degree could and could not do for you. My professors seemed to have a personal enjoyment of the subject; perhaps they were merely relieved to be somewhere between more tedious factory work and more lucrative, but stressful, law work. But a philosophy of history was never given. Schools of historical thought were never explained. A history of historians was never offered. Interpretations of history were unavoidable, but an explanation of interpretive approaches never showed up.

It would be far easier to make sense of history if universities followed Van Til’s approach and allowed interpretation to precede facts. Perhaps the prevalence of humanistic worldviews completely blinded the historians to their own interpretations. Whether from blindness to other views, willful suppression of the truth, or indifference, a Christian philosophy of history is rarely provided in the classroom.

The historical events contained in the Bible makes it both an invaluable original source, particularly for ancient world studies, and a measuring rod for other original sources. One should not claim knowledge of the ancient world without a well-thumbed copy of the Bible, Herodotus’ Histories, and Livy’s Early History of Rome. But while the Bible is a supplementary collection of documents in one sense, it is the corrective to and interpreter of source materials in a greater sense.

The third key area of influence for the Bible is its influence on history. The three histories we mentioned at the beginning all focus on this subject, and the books’ titles and subtitles point out Christianity’s specific effects. Christianity did, as Dr. Schmidt shows, transform civilization. Christianity did, as Dr. Stark shows, lead to freedom, capitalism, and Western success. And the Catholic Church did, as Dr. Woods shows, both in the broader and narrower uses of the word “Catholic,” build Western civilization.

Just as historians ignore or avoid presenting the historic Biblical philosophy of history, and just as they ignore or misuse the Bible for source materials, so they ignore, avoid, and misinterpret the impact of the Bible on Western civilization.

Western civilization’s roots can rightly be found in the varied streams of the Greek, Roman, and Hebrew cultures. Ancient history contains numerous details of the currents and crosscurrents, the blending and separating, and the development of these cultures both in their interactions and their separate achievements. From the Incarnation of Jesus Christ to His death and Resurrection, these three separate cultures are brought together. That miserable pawn Pontius Pilate had no idea how profoundly he was serving Western civilization in his actions. John 19:19–20 tells us, “And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS. This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin.” This King of the Jews was being revealed to the three major cultures of Western civilization as the true unifying ruler whose Kingdom would have no end.

If this was the proclamation of the creation of Western civilization as a unity, Acts 16:9–10 was the inauguration of this civilization: “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us. And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them.” As historian Christopher Dawson writes, “When St. Paul, in obedience to the warning of a dream, set sail from Troy in A.D. 49 and came to Philippi in Macedonia he did more to change the course of history than the great battle that had decided the fate of the Roman Empire on the same spot nearly a century earlier, for he brought to Europe the seed of a new life which was ultimately destined to create a new world.”[2]

From this point on, Western civilization became the domain of Christianity. Western civilization became Christendom. The story is progressive and developmental; the story is uneven; the story is both thrilling and uplifting to the mind and the soul at points, and depressing to both mind and soul at other points. The story of Western civilization parallels the stories of both individual Christians and churches. Still, Christianity has been salt and light to this civilization. It has defined the norms of morality and justice. It has regulated the affairs of kings and rulers. It has provided the foundations for social, political, and economic institutions.

Schmidt, Stark, and Woods are not the first historians to chronicle the influences and celebrate the successes of Christianity in history. In fact, each of their books contains good bibliographies of both secular and religious histories. None of the three books is a complete history of European Christendom or a history of the Christian Church. All three books are topical in their presentations.

Schmidt’s book, Under the Influence, is a useful primer for seeing current issues from a historical and Christian perspective. He divides the subject of Christian influence into such topics as transformation of individual lives, sanctity of human life, sexual morality, women, charity, health care, education, labor, economics, science, art, music, and literature. Each topic, according to Schmidt, is worthy of a book-length study by itself. He marshals quotes showing the Christian impact in each of these areas. Schmidt quotes from original sources, from scholars and participants, and from friends and enemies of the faith. I have read many of the quotes before from different books and articles. But they are all here, well documented.

Stark’s book, The Victory of Reason, focuses more on economic development during the medieval period. He outflanks Marxist historiography by showing that economics is not the key to history; rather, it is built upon religious foundations. Then with those foundations in place, economic activity develops its course of action. It is significant that Stark reclaims the word reason for the Christian faith. He says, “While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth.”[3] The Enlightenment stole the concept of reason from Christianity and portrayed Christianity as the antithesis of reason and logic. In the best of cases, and it was far from being the best, Christians assumed that they could be people of faith in the cathedral and prayer closet, but would have to exchange those garments for reason and logic at the workplace or study. This work sets aside that dichotomy and reminds us that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ (Col. 2:3).

Thomas Woods’ book, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, calls for a bit of patience for the Reformed Christian reader. His trumpeting of the Roman Catholic Church is much like listening to proud grandparents brag about grandchildren. Calvinists need to do two things while reading this book, and we do need to read this book. First, we need to recognize that the church was not raptured for a thousand years during the Middle Ages. The medieval Catholic Church was Luther and Calvin’s church. They loved it. They loved the church so much that they and countless others labored to bring reform to it. Catholics during the Middle Ages, like Protestants now, had their shining moments and dark stages. Dr. Woods wrote this book so that his daughters would know the heritage of their faith. So this leads to the second reason for we Reformed types to read this book: we can grow through understanding the impact of medieval Christian thinkers on law, politics, and science, and we can get busy seeing to it that our children know about the contributions made since the Reformation by Reformed Christians.

So, did you hear the one about the three historians? A Lutheran, a Roman Catholic, and a Baptist walked into a college classroom right in the middle of a professor’s class on Western civilization. “You are interrupting my lecture,” the professor said …

I still cannot think of a good punch line to finish this joke, but for some reason, I cannot stop laughing.

[1] Cornelius Van Til, The Works of Cornelius Van Til (New York: Labels Army Co., 1997).

[2] Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (New York: Image Books, 1991), 27.

[3] Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Let to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005), x.

  • Ben House

Ben House is the author of Punic Wars & Culture Wars: Christian Essays on History and Teaching and the the editor of HouseBlog.

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