“To hold that history is in the hands of anyone but the sovereign God is to be Satanist ultimately, because control is then transferred to creation and either to unseen malignant forces or to malignant men.” – R. J. Rushdoony
In 1956, C. S. Lewis wrote a book titled Till We Have Faces. The novel is a brilliant retelling of the ancient Psyche and Cupid myth. It’s a book well worth reading because Lewis illustrates the nature of pagan (non-historical) religion as he tells the story of the cult of Istra. Lewis shows how paganism ties myth to ritual and ritual to myth, never having a place for history. Truth and meaning then, in the pagan scheme, always lie outside the stream of time and matter. So clock and calendar end up having very little to do with ultimate reality in the old Roman and Greek allegories.
Christianity as History
Christianity, on the other hand, is a religion of history. The Bible is a book of sequenced historical events linked together by an explicit chronology. From the beginning of creation, God measures His interaction with His creation in terms of carefully numbered days. His law requires His people to imitate His example and measure out their work and worship in weeks of seven calendar days each. In the New Testament, the gospel writers carefully set the life of Jesus in the context of Roman and Jewish history. Luke, for example, writes:
Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2)
John was Jesus’ forerunner. He baptized Jesus and presented Him to Israel shortly after Jesus turned thirty (Luke 3:23) – chronology again.
There’s more. When the early Church summed up its faith in the Apostles’ Creed, it spoke primarily, not of grand propositions, but of historical realities. God the Father created heaven and earth. God the Son entered history through a miraculous conception and a virgin birth. He suffered under a particular Roman governor in a particular time and place. He was “crucified, died, and was buried.” On the third calendar day, He came back to life. As a real human, He ascended into heaven and sat down at God’s right hand—that is, in a real physical location somewhere within the material cosmos. One day He will return to our world as its Judge. In the meanwhile, God the Holy Spirit works through an earthly Church to spread the gospel of the forgiveness of sins and resurrection to come. For the early Church, as for Scripture itself, this was the heart and the meaning of history.
History as Story
Meaning implies interpretation. For Christianity there are no “brute” or neutral facts, only God-interpreted facts. Every fact is what it is by virtue of God’s predestination and providence. Every fact serves God’s purposes. And so we speak of history as God’s Story. God’s sovereign purposes embrace all of creation and move the whole package from creation through redemption to judgment and glory. The God who ordains the fall of the sparrow knows the place and purpose of every created fact in His massive, all-embracing Story.
But as creatures we don’t have all the details of the master playbook. We can, however, grasp the central plot and often make out subplots and minor themes. To do so, we must carefully choose from the available facts and order them in terms of God’s own interpretation. This is what God did when He gave us the Bible.
The Old Testament give us God’s selection of the details that make up the prologue to His cosmic Story: God created the world in six calendar days. He made Adam from the dust of the earth and Eve from Adam’s side. He brought judgment against Adam’s sin, but also promised grace and redemption through a coming Savior. From there Scripture takes us through the Flood to Babel, from Abraham to Moses, and from Joshua through the time of the judges to reign of King David and his heirs. Then came the captivity and the restoration, followed by 400 years of divine silence. All of these historical events set the stage for the advent of the Messiah.
Secular history and archaeology can flesh out bits and pieces of the story. Mesopotamian ziggurats, Egyptian funerary rites, Greek philosophy, and Roman jurisprudence all have their place in an expanded version of the gospel prologue. But the Law and the Prophets set its theme and determine its heart.
The Heart of the Christian Story
The heart of God’s story is the earthly life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. The New Testament Gospels tell that story from four complimentary perspectives. In Matthew, Jesus is the Son of David and Abraham, the prophesied Messiah. In Mark, He is Servant of Yahweh who comes to conquer sin and death. In Luke, He is the ideal Son of man, the Second Adam. In John, He is the eternal Word made flesh, the Son of God and Savior of the world. The Book of Acts continues the history of Jesus by showing us His work (in time) through His Church. The New Testament epistles supply further details and commentary. It is in and through these true stories, these histories, that God’s people find their identity and purpose.
History as Identity
History always entails the concept of identity. We, as individuals, families, and nations, properly define ourselves in terms of the relationships that we have enjoyed or endured through the course of our lives. The most fundamental of these is our relationship with God. We are of course, either covenant-keepers or covenant breakers. In either case, our relationship with God has shaped all our other temporal relationships and all of these relationships together makes up our history and defines who we are.
To identify and explain ourselves, then, we must tell our history in terms of God’s purposes for us. We must recite the great things that God has done for us. Mere names and dates are sterile and need help. The facts require interpretation. Our history must be in story form if we are to make sense of out of our lives. Even more important, our history must be told as part of God’s narrative.
Storytelling Versus Social Studies
Today in our schools the work of cultural transmission is assigned to classes called “social studies.” These classes are generally not history classes. Rather, they give students abstract facts and processes mostly found in statistics and graphs. They studiously avoid explicit, let alone transcendent, perspective and meaning. They present themselves as science courses, and so they focus on what modernist educators consider to be objective and analytical… the dates and dead guys. Students usually find them pretty boring.
History classes can be just as boring, of course. Names and dates without purpose and meaning are also big-time snoozers. But history as story—well-told story—can and should be intriguing, inspiring, and charged with meaning and inspiration. Real history communicates identity and purpose and helps us understand the greater narrative we find ourselves participants of.
As Moses preached his farewell sermons, he wrote them all down. They became Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Law. Moses delivered all five books of his books, the whole Torah, to the Levitical priests so they could preserve them and teach their words to Israel. Most of the material in the Torah was history—the history of God’s people from creation to conquest. The promises and precepts that made up the rest of the Torah had immediate application to daily covenant life. There were no myths and no mystical cycles. (There were indeed temple rituals, but they always tied man’s legal relationship with God in history and God’s historical mercy in the coming Messiah.) It was in terms of this worldview grounded in history that Moses prepared the next generation for spiritual and cultural victory.
This Christmas, graciously ground your children in history. Tell them about Mary, Joseph, and the manger, but don’t start there. Start in Genesis and tell them the story of why we need a savior. Tell them what God has done for you and your family in the past and what he promises to do in the future. Tell them not only about His love but also what he requires of them. Remind them of their place in this great story.
For Further Reading:
William Kirk Kilpatrick, Psychological Seduction, The Failure of Modern Psychology, ch. 8-9 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983).
James Jordan, “The Theology of Biblical Chronology,” Biblical Chronology, December 1989, Vol. 1, No. 3.
S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance (St. Catherines, Ontario: Paideia Press, 1977).
Ray Sutton, That Ye May Prosper, Dominion by Covenant (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economic, 1987).