Learning The Lessons Of History

Jun 9th, 2018 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

It has been said that the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.  Sadly, this is often true.  We are to learn from history, but tragically rarely do we do that.  But, there is something called a philosophy of history and genuine, biblical Christianity has something to contribute here.  This is an important issue because we in the Postmodern world are slaves to what is often called “presentism,” which in itself is a philosophy of history.  Presentism is an arrogant way to view the past.  It assumes that our assumptions, our technological achievements make us superior to every previous generation and age.  We evaluate past epochs through the grid of our achievements and often hold with disdain those who preceded us.  Humanity usually sees history as an escalator, ever improving, ever prospering, until it reaches us.  We are the culmination of the progress of history.  Our wealth, our technology, our economic, financial and military power cause us to treat with condescension all things past.

Margaret MacMillan’s wonderful book, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, summarizes the nearly 100 years of peace from 1815, the close of the Napoleonic Wars, until the summer of 1914, when World War I began.  It was a century of astonishing technological progress (e.g., the steam engine, railroads, electricity, the telegraph and telephone, and the airplane).  Technology affected everything—work, leisure, military prowess and the creation of wealth.  As Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University, correctly argues, “humanity was not only wealthier but so very much wiser.  The barbarity of war was surely a thing of the past, left behind by the more mature, enlightened and sophisticated people of the time.  A runaway best seller, absorbed by elites across the continent, was Norma Angell’s The Great Illusion, which asserted that the ‘interdependent’ industrialized nations would see and avoid the stupidity of fighting, or that if a war did start, the obvious economic damage would lead them to put a quick stop to it.  A few years later, 20 million were dead, most at the hands of machine guns, aerial bombs, and other recent products of scientific progress, and perhaps 50 million more by a war-spawned influenza their ‘modern’ medicine proved powerless to stop.”  In addition, World War I planted the seeds that germinated into the far more devastating World War II.  The 20th century was a century of totalitarian barbarism, of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, all of whom killed it is estimated over 100 million human beings.  For that century, technological progress and wealth did not produce moral progress.

How then does genuine, biblical Christianity view history?  As Christians, how does the Bible help us avoid the hubris of a progress-view of history?  How does the Bible equip us to realistically study history, learn from its lessons and apply universal truths from the Word to our lives?  A biblically-centered philosophy of history has several aspects:

  1. A Christian philosophy of history posits the absolute sovereignty of God. He rules over His universe and is working all things according to His wise plan.  Sovereignty is an assuring attribute of our God, for it means that nothing is out of His control and that ultimately He will triumph.  Daniel 4 illustrates that the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar needed to learn that “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom He will and sets over it the lowliest of men ,”(Daniel 4:17, 25,ESV).  Furthermore, the Apostle Paul asserts that our submission to the state is based on the proposition that God created the state and puts in power whomsoever He wishes: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1, ESV).
  2. History is linear. Worldviews such as Hinduism, Buddhism and New Age pantheism all argue for a cyclical view of History.  (A belief in reincarnation illustrates this approach to history).  But the Bible asserts that space-time history has a beginning point—Creation in Genesis 1—and has a specific end point—Revelation 21-22, the New Heavens and New Earth.  Everything along the line of history is superintended by the sovereign will of God.
  3. History has a telos, an end or purpose to which it is moving. The overall purpose of history from God’s perspective is redemptive.  God is reconciling this rebellious planet to Himself through the death, burial and resurrection of His Son.  He is in the process of eradicating evil from His world by becoming a victim of that evil.  His Son is reclaiming this planet from Satan who successfully usurped that authority through enticing Adam and Eve to join His rebellion (see Genesis 3).  The telos of history from God’s perspective is the return of His Son, the establishment of His physical, literal kingdom and the collapse of the rebellion, the end of sin and evil and the triumph of His kingdom of light.  That redemptive plan has a cosmic nature to it as Paul so clearly argues in Romans 8:18-25. Finally, the ultimate telos of history is to bring glory to God.  The concluding chapters of Revelation demonstrate that when the rebellion is finally crushed and sin and evil are banished in the lake of fire, all of creation will be singing praises and giving glory to God, the One who redeemed them and who vindicated Himself through His redemptive plan.
  4. A Christian approach to history also understands the human condition, which is sinful and in conscious rebellion against God, His moral law and His sovereignty. Indeed, 1 John 3:4 defines the heart of sin as “lawlessness.”  Sin is not what we do; it is what we are.  Humans are born with the guilt and corruption of Adam and are in absolute rebellion against God.  In a practical application, that is what the coming of World War I demonstrated.  No matter how much wealth or how much easier life was because of technology, the heart of the human being remained “lawless.”  The most prosperous, wealthy, sophisticated, scientifically adept nations of the world in 1914 embarked on an insane course that killed 20 million people.  Human history is littered with examples of such irrational lawlessness.  Only God, through the finished work of Jesus Christ can cure such irrational lawlessness!

The Christian philosophy of history produces balance, realism and hope.  History is not filled with random events carried out by random actors on a random stage called earth.  The irrational lawlessness of humanity has been overcome by the triumphant Jesus Christ.  All humanity needs to do is embrace the gracious gift of salvation that He offers.  History is moving along a line over which God sovereignly superintends events to accomplish His redemptive plan for His purposes and for His glory.  May we embrace that plan and that Person, for without Him there is no hope.

See Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 and Mitch Daniels in the Washington Post (24 April 2018).

2 Comments to “Learning The Lessons Of History”

  1. Richard Pendell says:

    Twentieth and twenty-first century history is a record of what transpires when Man makes rapid advances in technology accompanied by a rapid retreat in his knowledge of God. Though most of the greatest breakthroughs in science and technology were made by ‘believing’ men and women with highly developed theological, moral and ethical philosophies, we now teach that all science must completely distance itself from such ‘superstitious’ thinking.
    Since the power of knowledge and science has become enthroned as the sole vehicle of Man’s inevitable advance, there has been considerable effort given to reconstructing the record of our human progress. In academic circles, there is now an assumed holy crusade to deny, erase and omit all contributions to our advance based in any way in the realm of theological thought or frameworks.
    In the areas of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, we are on the edge of redefining what it is to even be a Human. We are about to take control of our own species in ways never imagined even decades ago.
    We are entering this ‘Brave New World’ while continuing to deny the way we are wired for destruction, even from birth. Our sinful natures are being redefined as mere leftovers of once-useful behaviors that can now be biologically eliminated by advances in chemistry, genetics and neuroscience, as we would a new variety of plants. God, who sees the end of this narcissistic rebellion and knows the end from the beginning, will allow us the freedom to bring about ever greater destruction of ourselves and our Earth until He calls and end to this chapter of Man’s history and turns the page of what He has already written.
    We can never say, we didn’t know and weren’t warned. We must pray without ceasing that He will open the eyes of many before they pay the eternal price of their rebellion.

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