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The World in God’s Fist: The Meaning of History

In the words of Ecclesiastes, history is “the work that God accomplisheth from the beginning to the end.” But the study of history, and more particularly of eternal things, is a source of travail because “man is unable to reach unto the work which God accomplisheth.” We are driven to try to grasp the scope of it, to get our arms around it … but cannot do so.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede,
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I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in its time: also he hath set eternity in their heart except that man is unable to reach unto the work which God accomplisheth from the beginning to the end.” (Eccles. 3:10–11)

In the words of Ecclesiastes, history is “the work that God accomplisheth from the beginning to the end.” But the study of history, and more particularly of eternal things, is a source of travail because “man is unable to reach unto the work which God accomplisheth.” We are driven to try to grasp the scope of it, to get our arms around it … but cannot do so.

History is driven forward by God because our doings and actions are derivative and secondary, not causal or primary. We’re pathologically forgetful of God while we’re absorbed in temporal affairs. We find the idea that our doings are derivative rather than primary quite unsettling.

That the Scriptures teach us that our actions, and all of history, are ultimately derivative and dependent upon Him is incontrovertible. In Isaiah 37:26, God upbraids Sennacherib through Isaiah with precisely such a declaration: “Hast thou not heard long ago, how I have done it; and of ancient times, that I have formed it? Now have I brought it to pass, that thou shouldest be to lay waste defenced cities into ruinous heaps.” God is merely bringing to pass what He has already done and formed in ancient times, i.e., before the world began.

Against this idea, man pits his claim of autonomy, of independent action. But God scoffs at such posturing as a meaningless boast, no more so than in His rebuke of the king of Assyria. “Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? Or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself, as if it were no wood” (Isa. 10:15). The wooden staff (the symbol God uses for the Assyrian king) has the attitude it isn’t made of wood at all, that its actions are not controlled by a transcendent Being that wields it, believing instead the fiction that it exerts its own free, self-determined control over itself and others. The staff, the axe, mentioned by Isaiah, are instruments shaped for a workman’s hand: they were fashioned to be controlled and used of God.

History is thus the process whereby human autonomy is continually being shattered and laid in ruins by the triune God.

A Christian History of the United States?

The Christian history of the United States of America: why do the humanists oppose such an idea and vigorously seek to discredit it? Because they fear that people may want America to return to its roots. “If it once was Christian, it could become Christian again!”

But, most nations did not start out Christian. Whether the U.S. was or was not a Christian nation in the past is utterly irrelevant to our mission. Our strategy, our commission (Matt. 28:18–20), remains the same.

So, what does a Christian origin for the United States represent? Would this circumstance be bad news for humanists who oppose it, who fear the teaching of such an origin for this nation?

No. If we started out Christian, that fact would constitute an indictment, not of the humanists (who at least act consistently with their worldview and principles) but of Christians, representing proof of Christian decline and decay.

We shouldn’t be proud we began as a Christian nation. We should be saying this with fear and shame, that we squandered an amazing beachhead for Christ.

If anything, the fact that we were Christian at one time in the past should be a comfort to humanists—because we set the decisive precedent that we couldn’t or wouldn’t keep our nation Christian. The situation is the opposite of what both sides think it to be.

King Josiah and Other Examples

Consider the reconstruction under King Josiah. What good did a glorious history do the Hebrew nation? Were they consistent with their reconstruction under Josiah? Did Josiah’s example rub off on the people at large? The people loved Josiah, and still the revival under his benevolent and godly rule flopped after he was killed.

Consider Laodicea, praised early on by Paul but rebuked by Christ in Revelation 3 a single generation later. The lesson here is equally clear: decline is inevitable if the conditions for growth are not met. What are the conditions for growth or decline? It is here that history can help us, for history is the handbook of man’s failures at being his own God.

Division in the Camp

Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden published a book in 1983 entitled The Search for Christian America. As reviewer Dr. W. David Gamble explains, these three authors believe that the United States of America is not, was not, and never will be a Christian nation. They hold that the very notion of a Christian society is erroneous and an impossibility, and this idea usually has harmful effects upon the individuals who entertain such notions. The authors thus state their intention to debunk the mythological idea of a Christian origin of the United States and to declare that there will never be a Christian culture. In other words, history is tied to the alleged shape of the future!

As Gamble reveals, the three authors “acknowledge that their conclusions concerning the non-Christian nature of early America are conditioned by their theological understanding of the impossibility of a truly Christian culture (pp. 28, 43ff). Thus, the authors give us an interesting insight into their task as historians: they already believe, even before examining the historical record, that there is no possibility that early America, or any other culture in the world, could be accurately described as Christian. Therefore, as they begin their historical research, their conclusion is already established, and facts are made to conform to their views concerning the impossibility of Christian culture.

“It is the authors’ understanding of the nature of the Gospel which radically influences their historiography … They tell us that the Gospel cannot change the foundational principles of culture, but they give us no exegetical reason for this impotence of the Gospel.”

The approach of these authors is identical to that of humanistic scholars, as C. Gregg Singer documents in his analysis of R. G. Collingwood’s philosophy of history when the latter asked, “What is this criterion of historic truth?” Collingwood found that criterion in the web of imagination, by which he meant the historian’s own a priori imagination. This a priori imagination furnishes the historian with a picture of the past, which in turn justifies the sources that the historian uses in constructing the past. The history thus gives credence to the sources only because they are justified in this manner. This approach justifies Collingwood’s statement that “the Biblical records cannot be considered from the point of view of whether they are true or not.” (Truth is an irrelevant question to historian Collingwood.)1

Christians Noll, Hatch, and Marsden adopt a similar approach to Collingwood’s. Singer analyzes Collingwood further, pointing out that “every new generation must rewrite history in its own way … At best, every historian and each new generation is free to assign to history that meaning or purpose which fits the needs of the moment.”

Kings Aplenty

As Rushdoony put it, when God is not the king, every man makes himself the king. The historians have assumed precisely such a kingship, but their kingdom is nothing but rotted timbers under their rule, as Singer and others have ably documented.

So we return to the question, Why all the fear about a Christian history of the United States? It is feared because that history came complete with a total worldview and legal system (God’s law-word) that circumscribed all of life prescriptively. That feared history acknowledged an Authority over man in all things, but modern man wants to be his own authority, to be free to create his own paradise on his own terms.

The Enlightenment agenda can never succeed on its merits. The vilification of Christianity as the religion of knuckle-draggers is therefore part of the artificial propping up of Enlightenment thinking.

U.S. History: Christian or Not?

Journalist Jeff Sharlet2 is concerned about the rising tide of Christian fundamentalism in general and its incursion into the field of historiography in particular. He suggests that American history is being hijacked by wrongheaded revisionists. But Sharlet acknowledges that the fundamental question is, Who is really guilty of revisionism? He acknowledges that there is some basis for the “revisionist” claims.

Compared to secular democracy, the Christian vision, says Sharlet, “seems to some great portion of the population more compelling, more just, and more beautiful.” Sharlet has to lamely excuse his own secularist vision for looking comparatively dull (due to “the perfunctory processes of secular democracy”), but his actual problem is quite different. He doesn’t have a dull model, he has a nonfunctional one, as shown by Richard A. Shweder, Professor of Human Development, University of Chicago.3

Shweder asks, Why so many barbed attacks against religion lately? “The most obvious answer is that the armies of disbelief have been provoked.” But Shweder probes below that superficiality:

[T]he popularity of the current counterattack on religion cloaks a renewed and intense anxiety within secular society that it is not the story of religion but rather the story of the Enlightenment that may be more illusory than real.
The Enlightenment story has its own version of Genesis, and the themes are well known: The world woke up from the slumber of the “dark ages,” finally got in touch with the truth and became good about 300 years ago …
As people opened their eyes, religion … gave way to science. Parochial and tribal allegiances gave way to ecumenism, cosmopolitanism and individualism. Top-down command systems gave way to the separation of church from state, of politics from science. The story provides a blueprint for how to remake and better the world in the image and interests of secular elites.
Unfortunately, as a theory of history, that story has had a predictive utility of approximately zero.

Shweder’s subsequent explanation makes clear that we’re witnessing the death paroxysms of the Enlightenment story of history.

Not only is the humanistic theory of history coming up short, modern educators are miserably incompetent to propagate it. Former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett sat down for an interview with Gloria Gaither.4 The problem Dr. Bennett outlines, regarding American education, is letter simple:

Our worst subject is history. People have heard ad nauseum the reports and the scores of our reading and math. Our kids actually do better in reading and math than they do in history, American history particularly. Many kids from other countries know American history better than we do. That’s a stunning fact.
And second—if we do not teach it to them, they will not pick it up, unless they watch the History Channel, which a lot of kids don’t do. It’s the obligation of one generation to pass on to the next things of value. There’s hardly anything of greater value than passing on the legacy of this country. We’re not doing it. Our schools are teaching social studies, which is not history. When historical subjects are taught, they are often taught either: A) in a very tendentious, politically correct way, or B) in a very boring way, or C) both of the above.

The very vehicle (public education) intended to propagate the secularist outlook is an international disgrace. But what children do imbibe history and grasp it? Those in conservative Christian schools and homeschools.

Frederick Clarkson, lecturing at a New York secularist seminar in October 2005, held that Christian Reconstructionists “know where they stand in history” and the role they’ll be playing in it. Clarkson contrasted this with the rest of society, which “is pretty much disconnected from” history.

“Obstacles to Our Understanding of the Past”

Rushdoony notes that the Humanistic Education Sourcebook, an anthology “used in training teachers,” contains an essay “entitled ‘Humanism: Capstone of an Educated Person.’ This title is revealing. For our statist educators, a truly educated person is a humanist.”5 This academic reality is confirmed by the secular scholar Karl D. Uitti, thus:

What is the purpose of humanistic scholarship? What, in fact, does the humanist scholar do? The job of the humanist scholar is to organize our huge inheritance of culture … to clear away the obstacles to our understanding of the past, to make our whole cultural heritage … accessible to us.6

The problem, as Bennett and Clarkson have noted, is that this entire program has failed. The Enlightenment heritage that secularism sought to perpetuate has not been made accessible. And from all accounts, the program is not even worth saving because the secular view of history must now compete with the Christian view of history.

The flaw in history education is a simple one. As Robert Erwin puts it: “In the long run humans do not bear up well without meaning.”7 Sharlet recognizes that a Biblical worldview delivers history from meaninglessness. It also delivers us out of the cold hands of an expurgated version of history, a tale denatured by educational necessity given the exigencies of public policy. Sharlet writes concerning the Christian nation depicted by Christian revisionists that:

Secularism hides this story, killed the Christian nation, and tried to dispose of the body. Fundamentalism wants to resurrect it, and doing so requires revision: fundamentalists, looking backward, see a different history, remade in the image of the seductive but strict logic of a prime mover that sets things in motion.8
The movement now sees that to reclaim America for God, it must first reclaim that tradition for Him, and so it is producing a flood of educational texts with which to wash away the stain of secular history.9

All “revision” is spurious to the stalwart old guard. To be called a “revisionist” is a slur one tier below “extremist” in today’s environment. But if the Christians are correct about God and history, then God Himself is a revisionist, and His story cannot ultimately be buried, let alone countered. If the Christian history proponents didn’t have a seemingly infinite storehouse of evidence for their view, but only shallow, easily exhausted resources that paled next to the evidence for the Enlightenment version of history, the Christian history movement would have long ago died.

Notably, Rushdoony never saw history as normative:

I have more than a few times been disappointed in men whose knowledge at first glance made them notable. Their problem was a past-bound vision. Their focus was on the early church, or the medieval church, or the Reformation church, and so on and on. If their interest was political they often looked backward to a particular era in history.
Now such interests can be good, but too often such people idealize the past and want a return to something no longer tenable. The modernist, on the other hand, wants a continual revision of the content of the Faith in terms of the spirit of the age. Those of us who hold that it is God’s enscripturated word that is alone authoritative must recognize that it must transform and govern our todays and tomorrows.10

Jeff Sharlet has failed to recognize that Rushdoony is future-oriented and is not seduced by idealistic notions of an alleged “romance of American fundamentalism.”

Sharlet laments that his secular history message (1) isn’t competitive, (2) is so far from attractive it’s positively stultifying compared to Christian historiography, (3) is a complete bust in terms of predictive utility, (4) inspires nobody to live for something greater than himself, and (5) has led to attempts to remediate one through four that are manifestly futile since Christian Reconstructionists are latched onto the future.

Our Place in History

Rushdoony comments on Deuteronomy 4: “What Moses assumes from start to finish is a chain of generations accountable to God and subject to His judgments. Our modern individualistic perspective makes this a strange concept today. Each new generation now sees itself in supposed freedom and independence from the past. The result is both shallow and dangerous thinking. The freedom presupposed by this anarchistic view of history is very faulty. The chain of generations is not a binding chain but a foundation to build upon and in terms of which to grow.”11

To speak concerning God’s judgment constitutes one a prophet. Rushdoony points out that the true prophet is not a welcome person. He calls attention to the apostasy of men from God’s covenant and law. This fact creates a market for false prophets who speak encouraging words where judgment is required. As he points out, “For covenant-breakers, judgment is the governing and overruling fact of history. Man’s goal, however, is history without judgment, history as an experiment, not a test. But history without judgment does not exist. Because God made heaven and earth and all things therein, history is a continuing test and judgment.”12

Rushdoony, commenting on Exodus, points out that “[f]or God to act in history means that the decisive determiner of events is not man but God.” Events are given a naturalistic interpretation so that man can retain his priority and keep God in His place. He further quotes Joseph Parker to the effect that “The Song of Moses is simply history set to music.” Rushdoony adds, “If left to the scholars, history could never be set to music because it is dehydrated, dehumanized, and stripped of God.”

Meaning and History

Meaning and history are tied together. If there is no meaning, there can be no history—men can then create meaning by fiat. If history is meaningless, time cannot be precious. But because time is precious, is to be redeemed, history by implication has meaning.

If humanists consistently believed in meaninglessness being ultimate, they wouldn’t care about history or historic determinism—such ideas would be myths to dismiss. But, because humanists want to be their own gods, because they want to create meaning and not submit to a preexisting meaning that they stridently deny in their ethical rebellion, they deliberately undercut history. Humanistic historians always become mythmakers and spin doctors.

As Rushdoony notes, “[M]an, in seeking to wrest control of history from the hand of God, has made himself instead the prisoner of history, and moreover, a prisoner without hope.”13 The non-Christian doctrine of history “places man under nature and seeks to place him over God; the Biblical doctrine places man under God and over nature in Him. Thus, the consequence of every philosophy of history which denies the God of scripture … is to open the way for the terror of man under nature and under the divine and messianic state.”14

Purpose of Secular History Books

One of the main purposes of secular history books is to document a progressive trend from darkness to light, to enlightenment. This is the enlightenment heresy. History books make a point of talking about the evils of the past and the darkness under which men lived (scientific, artistic, cultural, racial), and they depict the process by which everything is becoming new. This anti-Christian bias in a history book makes it objective. A Christian bias in a history book makes it worthless in the eyes of a humanist, and even dangerous. 

This philosophical requirement—that schools not establish a religion—requires the rewriting of history. The children get a false understanding of the truth. But they do get an understanding that is useful from the point of view of humanists, who are interested in manipulating truth for their own purposes.

A notorious example of such manipulation can be found in the writings of Dr. Susan McClary. A dedicated revisionist, she received a reported six-figure grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 1995 and wrote as follows:

It is no accident that the dynasty of great bourgeois composers begins with Bach, for he gives the impression that our way of representing the world musically is God-given. Thereafter, tonality can retain its aura of absolute perfection (“the way music goes”) in its native secular habitat. This sleight of hand earned Bach the name “the fifth evangelist.” I would propose the age-old strategy of rewriting the tradition in such a way as to appropriate Bach to our own political ends.

It is clear that humanists aren’t even hiding their intentions anymore, they’ve become so brazen. Herbert Schlossberg has identified such “idols of history” equally well:

Thus far almost everything we have said has stressed the plasticity of history. Instead of the constellation of names, dates, treaties, and other hard facts we learned in school, it now seems that history is apprehended subjectively and used in accordance with the purposes of the moment … Thus, history has always served equally as well those who ransack it for weapons and those who explore it for wisdom. The past is made to fight the battles of the people who are using it.15

Memory and Remembrance

In Deuteronomy 16:3 Israel is told, “[R]emember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life.” Rushdoony comments that people with no sound memory of the past have no good hope for the future: “Having no sound memory of past victories, they have no foundation for present and future triumphs … [Biblically] the purpose of memory is to guide and govern action.”16 It is no surprise that Rushdoony discerns in Scripture the view that history is, in part, a memory war, quoting Jeremiah 11:19 to the effect that Jeremiah sees his enemies as men seeking to obliterate the very memory of him because their cause in history is anti-God.

Forgetfulness of history leads to the Deuteronomy 8 problem: beware lest you forget what God has done. We redefine our philosophy of reality when we forget what God has done. Loss of history is a loss of our understanding of reality. Reality is inevitably distorted to the extent that history has been lost. In Exodus 1, there arose a king that knew not Joseph. Forgetfulness has consequences.

The biggest example of divine consequences in history is the seventy years of Babylonian captivity exacted against Israel for nearly 500 years of missed land Sabbaths. The Lord didn’t execute justice speedily (Eccles. 8:11), and men misinterpreted His providing opportunity to repent as His winking at sin for century after century.

God is never mocked.

History Rendered Irrelevant

Herbert Schlossberg provides further evidence of the trend toward irrelevance that marks modern idolatrous historiography:

In 1977, David Donald of the Harvard history department … says that the lessons of the past are not only irrelevant for his students, but dangerous. “Perhaps my most useful function would be to disenthrall them from the spell of history, to help them see the irrelevance of the past.” Donald’s position gives the appearance of devaluing history, but in fact it is only a disguised version of the Hegelian divinization of history. It dismisses history as a subject of study to exalt it as a principle of inevitability.17

It comes as no surprise, then, that when C. Gregg Singer attended an annual convention of the American Historical Society, “the scholars were agreed that history is devoid of meaning and purpose. When Singer asked why they then taught it, there was no reply.”18

Pray that we might have a reply for why we teach history, a history that is saturated with ultimate meaning and purpose. Let’s teach it with resolve, let’s remember the rock from which we were hewn, and let’s build the future that is advancing to meet us in Christ Jesus.

1 C. Gregg Singer, “The Problem of Historical Interpretation,” in Gary North, Foundations of Christian Scholarship (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1979), 57.

2 Jeff Sharlet, “Through a Glass, Darkly: How the Christian right is reimagining U.S. history,” Harper’s Magazine, December 2006, 33–43.

3 Richard A. Shweder, “Guess who’s unwelcome at dinner? Nonbeliever elites may as well get comfortable with God in conversation.” Shweder, a Guggenheim Fellow and winner of the AAAS Socio-Psychological Prize, was president of the Society for Psychological Anthropology. Shweder’s piece first appeared in the New York Times on November 27, 2006, under the title “Atheists Agonistes.”

4 “Raising a Ruckus,” Gloria Gaither’s interview with Dr. William J. Bennett. Homecoming, Vol. 4, Issue 5 (September/October 2006), 25–28.

5 R. J. Rushdoony, “Education: Today’s Crisis and Dilemma,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction 11.2 (1987), 69.

6 Karl D. Uitti, Linguistics and Literary Theory (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969), vii.

7 Robert Erwin, The Great Language Panic and Other Essays in Cultural History (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990), 75.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., 36.

10 Andrew Sandlin, ed., A Comprehensive Faith (San Jose, CA: Friends of Chalcedon, 1996), 15, quoting Rushdoony’s article, “Unconstructive Religion,” first appearing in Chalcedon Report, No. 362, September 1995, 2.

11 Rushdoony, upcoming commentary on Deuteronomy.

12 Quotations from Rushdoony’s upcoming commentary on Deuteronomy.

13 R. J. Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History, 10.

14 Ibid., 14.

15 Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 1990), 19–20.

16 Rushdoony, upcoming commentary on Deuteronomy.

17 Schlossberg, 22–23.

18 Ibid., 24. Also see North, Foundations of Christian Scholarship, 53.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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