Saturday, March 08, 2014

A brief introduction to doing history as a believer

We're just one week away from spring break here, and after the break I'll be teaching a 32 hour course on the first thousand years of Church History. Just as my 1 Peter class has given me some impetus to write up exegetical notes, I thought it would be good to write a brief primer in the history field as well. As such, starting in April you should get some regular posts charting our way from the birth of Jesus through to the filioque controversy and East-West schism.

So, to whet your appetite, here are some introductory thoughts on approaching history as a Christian.


Over the next 8 weeks we are going to look together at 1000 years of history. We are going to be thinking about this material as both believers, and historians. As historians we are seeking to understand the past, to see cause and effect, to read carefully the evidence that is there, and to make reasoned and logical conclusions. History is a disciple that is concerned with seeking and understanding truth, which is likewise a value that we uphold as believers. As believers we worship the God who is truth and who speaks truly. We also believe that God is the Lord of History, the Beginning and the End, who rules all things by his will. So we are also seeking to understand how God is at work in history. Yet, unlike the authors of Scripture, we are not divinely inspired, and so our conclusions will be tentative. We should be hesitant to identify any particular event or movement as “the work of God” in a direct way, while at the same time recognising that it is all the work of God.

One of the dangers for everyone who does history is bias. As Christians we may be subject to some particular forms of bias. We may be more credulous, accepting things that are favourable to Christianity on less evidence than others. We may prefer to avoid complex issues when spiritual matters are mixed with political and ‘worldly’ affairs. We may be tempted to downplay moral and other failures of past believers, instead focusing on their achievements and successes. In all these things we do a disservice to the God of truth. Historians who hold other viewpoints, other religious ideas or atheistic ideas, will also have their biases. Our commitment is to seek truth without this kind of bias, or at least minimising it, so that it is real truth and so that it will stand the test of scrutiny.

And yet, history for us should be a spiritual discipline as well. We are convinced that in reading the book of history we read the book of God’s deeds in the world, and especially through the church. We are brought into communion with brothers and sisters who lived in far and strange times and places. We meet fathers and mothers who loved God, who struggled with sin, who tried to understand the deep things of the Scriptures, and who have paved the way for us today.

So in doing history we are engaged in a theological expression of our unity in Christ across time and space, we are investigating the development of the Church in the world, we are conversing with our ancestors, we are crossing cultures, we are witnesses to those who contended for the Faith, we are humbled as we see some go astray, and we are amazed at God’s Kingdom assailing the gates of Hades.

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