History is one of the most important disciplines. It is important because our memory of what happened directly informs our viewpoint of what should happen. Everyone has a particular understanding of past based on what they have experienced and what they have learned, even if it is not well developed. If our understanding of what happened and why it happened is incorrect, our understanding of what we should be doing now will also be incorrect.
History, then, is a convenient place for historians to “tell their own story” inside the narrative of the past. A history of the United States, for example, can make it out to be the greatest or worst country in history depending on which facts are highlighted, what contrasts are made, and what conclusions are drawn. Therefore, even those historians who are working hard to be “unbiased” are still “telling a story” by the events they choose to highlight. The issue becomes which story does God want us to tell?
The Bible is, before anything else, a history book – a divinely inspired account of events that actually took place. By studying its historiography, that is the way that it records and views history, we can learn a lot about the correct approach to history.
Human nature never changes. Contrary to evolutionary views, people have always been the same, and therefore the struggles they fight are strikingly relevant to our current time. There are power struggles, heroes and villains. The Bible does not present us with perfect heroes (except for Jesus) either. This is the difference between history and hagiography. Hagiography, as is often found in biographies, exalts an historical person to super human status, and separates us from understanding their real role in history.
Contexts do change. The environment in which human dramas plays out can change radically. Technology such as transportation and communication is the most obvious way in which it changes, but the laws customs and culture in which human nature reveals itself can change. Failing to understand this will lead to a misunderstanding of what happened, and by extension it’s relevance for what is happening today.
There are defining issues, and spiritual issues are the ultimate ones. A secular history of Bible times would tell us much more about the long series of events. The Bible history highlights the issues which define the times. Modern scholarship has given incredible emphasis to remarkably small time periods. Scholars are required to be specialists, not generalists. This means that few people are able to connect the dots to the overarching picture well. As Christians, we look for and see the big picture, and place these smaller events inside of them. Secondly, the defining issues of the times are ultimately spiritual. A great battle is significant, but it does not occur in a vacuum, it occurs in a spiritual context. The Bible sees events in the light of God’s action in them, and His ultimate purpose for His people. History has not changed. There are still critical moments, and they still are ultimately defined against a spiritual backdrop.
The Bible provides us with an inspired account of what was important to the advance of God’s plan in the first era of history. We do not have an inspired record for the last 2000 years, but by following the same approach we can begin to identify where the story that God wants to tell is in the midst of a long litany of events. Conversely, we can begin to identify when we are being told a story that misses the key points.
The first issue for the historian is what is its prime cause? For a long time, American history, basing itself on the thought of the early Puritans, took a “Providential” view. This began with Cotton Mather in the 17th century, and continued in at least a similar tradition all the way down to George Bancroft in the 19th century. It was suddenly replaced, however by the work of a younger generation of scholars, foremost of whom were Charles and Mary Beard. That generation took the view that economic causes were foremost. Marxists see economic class warfare as the prime cause. Others might propose random factors as the prime cause, such as in “Guns, Germs, and Steel.”
Scholarship is no longer open to providential explanations, but does that mean that all of our history will be written from the wrong perspective? No. Within the academy at least, we can not write about spiritual causes, but we can write about “cultural” causes. Culture is the embodiment of the spiritual state of a people — culture is driven ultimately by religion. A people that is turned towards God will have Godly values deeply inscribed in their culture. A people that is turned away from God will have the opposite. By examining culture and religion we are able to determine which people and nations represent God’s purposes in an era, and which are raised up by the enemy to stop those purposes. This does not mean we write racist or nationalist history. It means we tell the story of ideas and people or national moments when those ideas were defended. Once we know who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are, our history has the correct orientation. It become providential when we connect the dots to show how the “good guys” win, and the “bad guys” lose, and how people suffer when the opposite takes place. Therefore you can write moral history without being moralizing, spiritual history without being spiritual.