For Christians who want to study history—or just to think more carefully about what history means and how it should be responsibly interpreted—the two best books to start with (in my view) are:
- Nathan Finn, History: A Student’s Guide, in the Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition Series, edited by David Dockery (Crossway, 2016), and
- Robert Tracy McKenzie, A Little Book for New Historians: Why and How to Study History, in IVP’s Little Books series (IVP, 2019).
Robert Tracy McKenzie (PhD, Vanderbilt University) is Arthur F. Holmes chair of faith and learning and professor and chair of the department of history at Wheaton College. He is the author of books including One South or Many?, Lincolnites and Rebels, and The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History.
Nathan Finn (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is provost and dean of the university faculty at North Greenville University. He is the co-author of The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement and co-editor of A Reader’s Guide to the Major Writings of Jonathan Edwards.
Thomas Kidd writes of Finn’s book:
I do not know of a better introduction to historical studies, or a more cogent assessment of how Christians should think about history.
Mark Noll writes about McKenzie’s volume:
This book makes an outstanding contribution―for students of history, readers of history, history classes in college or high school, and discussions of history in church groups. It explains clearly what historians do, how historical study can promote the right kind of intellectual discipline, and why history means so much for Christian faith. The book is as powerfully effective as it is accessibly succinct.
So I wanted to ask both of them the same six questions to see how they’d respond.
1. What is history?
I typically use the word in two senses.
First, history is “the remembered past,” a succinct definition that I borrow from the late Christian historian John Lukacs.
The crucial point to understand is that history is not equivalent to the past itself—the near infinite totality that encompasses everything that human beings have ever said, done, or thought. Almost all of the past is irrevocably lost to us. God in his omniscience knows its every detail perfectly and exhaustively, but we humans deal with a tiny subset of the whole, a fraction that has been imperfectly preserved in physical artifacts and oral traditions. The difference between the past and history, so defined, is enormous.
Second, we can speak of history to denote an academic discipline, a specific way of training our minds to analyze historical evidence and build historical interpretations to the end that we maximize our abilities to make sense of the past.
Defined in this way, the goal of historical study is less the mastery of discrete facts about the past than the development of mental habits that equip us to engage the remembered past wisely.
To the proverbial man on the street, history is more or less synonymous with the past. I suspect we all use the word that way sometimes.
But as a historian, I argue that history is the discipline of reconstructing and interpreting the past. We weren’t there for the vast majority of the past (we aren’t eternal), and we don’t know all the details (we aren’t omniscient), so the past has to be both reconstructed based on the best sources available, and also interpreted based on the most reasonable assessment of those sources.
2. Why should Christians in particular care about and study history?
I devote a whole chapter of the Little Book to this question. It’s a question I care deeply about, as I’ve long been distressed by the essential “historylessness” of most Christians in the United states. Most Americans live “stranded in the present,” I should stress, by which I mean that we largely disregard all but our own personal histories. American Christians are hardly unique, then, but we have far less excuse for our present-mindedness than the unbelievers around us.
Here are five reasons (from a much longer list) why Christians, of all people, should have a deep and abiding interest in history:
First, God created us to be historical beings. This side of heaven, an essential attribute of our humanity is that we live in time. We cannot survive without constantly drawing on our memories of the past to make sense of the present and plan for the future. When we learn how to do that more systematically and effectively, when we begin to draw from more than our own narrow experiences, when we work to develop what I would call historical consciousness, we’re not practicing some arcane intellectual pursuit. We’re leaning in to one of the inescapable dimensions of what it means to be human.
Second, recall that history is absolutely foundational to Christianity. The pillars of our faith—creation, fall, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection—are real-time past occurrences that we believe are fraught with theological significance. Call to mind the verbs in the Apostles’ Creed. Christ was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, and so on. As historian Margaret Bendroth puts it, the past tense is “essential to our language of faith.” Indeed, the historical dimension of Christianity is so integral to the faith that one of the premier historians of the 20th century, a secular French scholar named Marc Bloch, concluded that “Christianity is a religion of historians.”
Third, as Christians, we are members of a community of faith that binds living and dead, present and past. This is what the Apostles’ Creed refers to as “the communion of saints.” We evangelicals have so imbibed the individualism of American culture that we rarely think of the church as an institution that vastly transcends our own historical moment. We may occasionally imagine the day when every tribe and nation will gather around God’s throne, but we almost never remember that the church in eternity will not only bridge the divides of race and class and ethnicity but also what Chesterton called the “abyss of ages.”
Fourth, our faith informs us that the entire unfolding human story is worthy of attention. God is the author of that story, of course—it unfolds according to his decree—and its characters bear his image. He also ennobled it immeasurably by entering the story, identifying with its characters, and walking the earth as one of them.
Fifth, historical understanding plays a vital role in faithful Christian discipleship. Scripture commands us to not be conformed to the world. But when we cut ourselves off from the past, we can be shaped by our contemporary contexts without even realizing it, since the fads of the moment can look like timeless truths. We also deny ourselves the perspective and insights of those who have gone before us. Studied with humility, history allows us to glean wisdom from our ancestors. It broadens our perspective and expands the range of experiences that we can draw on as we face the future.
Christianity is a historical faith in a way that isn’t true of every religion. Christianity is grounded in biblical events that Christians believe were real historical occurrences. The truthfulness of Christianity depends upon the historical validity of the events recorded in the Bible.
Also, Christians believe that God is sovereign over all things—past, present, and future. The more we understand the past (even the mundane past), the better we are able to discern how God has been at work and might be at work today, for his glory and our good.
3. I’d love to hear your brief responses to the following well-known quotes and aphorisms on history:
Henry Ford: “History is bunk.”
Ford was neither the first nor the last fabulously wealthy entrepreneur who thought that business success is a barometer of wisdom. I’ve found that most individuals who truly believe this about history don’t know much history.
Who is Henry Ford?
Okay, seriously, when I hear this quote (or other similar sentiments) I’m always worried about the possibility of presentism: an unhealthy overemphasis on the present to the exclusion of the past. Appreciation for the past helps prevent the present (or future) from becoming an idol.
George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Not bunk, just misunderstood.
Santayana was a well-respected philosopher in the early-20th century who wrote more than a dozen heavy tomes but for some reason is widely remembered for a single sentence that we take out of context and twist to mean something that Santayana never intended. In context, Santayana was making an elementary observation about how we learn: We learn incrementally, and if we were to forget everything that we know every night when we go to bed, we would begin each day as new-born babies, essentially starting over again with a blank slate. In that sense, we would be perpetually repeating the past. Who would disagree?
Wrenched from its context, however, somewhere along the way we’ve interpreted Santayana to mean that the human story is essentially cyclical—an endless repetition of cause and effect—so that if we just pay attention to the past, we will know what to do and what not to do in order to accomplish our goals. The quote is a favorite of politicians and pundits who want to sound profound, but I don’t know a single academic historian who believes it. Human behavior is far too complex to be reduced to such mechanistic formulae. We study the past to see the present more clearly. Ideally, this helps us not to predict the future but to meet it more wisely.
I have mixed feelings about this one.
It drives me bananas when people repeat it as if it is some foolproof philosophical principle woven into the fabric of the universe.
At the same time, like many aphorisms it resonates with us because it often rings true. As a general rule, the better we understand the past, the better we can navigate the present and anticipate the future.
4. If Christians should believe in the providence of God, what role, if any, should this belief play in the interpretation of history? Does it require a compartmentalizing of our beliefs? Should we operate in different ways according to different venues (public vs. private) and audiences (Christian vs. non-Christian)?
These are huge questions that are hard to answer succinctly, so I encourage readers interested in this question to read my fuller discussion in the Little Book. I’d also refer them to a little-read gem by C. S. Lewis, his essay “Historicism,” which offers some wonderful metaphors for thinking through these complicated questions.
That said, let me begin by avowing my unequivocal belief in God’s exhaustive providence over human affairs. I believe that the Lord is working “all things according to the counsel of his will.” But precisely because I believe this, I don’t find God’s providence helpful in explaining specific historical occurrences. As Christian scholar Jonathan Boyd once observed, to the degree that we believe in God’s exhaustive providence, divine providence becomes “a lousy category of analysis.” Applied consistently, it reduces every historical explanation to three words: “God willed it.” As a Christian historian, I believe that, to the degree that I am trying to explain some particular occurrence in the past, my job is to explore secondary causes, that is, the means that God employs in effecting the outcomes he desires. And when I do this, my tentative explanations won’t look much different from those of non-Christian historians, and there is little reason for me to alter my observations between Christian and non-Christian audiences.
My sense, however, is that Christians interested in providential explanations of historical occurrences are rarely satisfied with acknowledging that God willed a particular outcome. The far more interesting, far more important question to them, is “Why?” Did God bring the colonists victory in the American Revolution because he had a special plan for the infant nation as his “new Israel”? Did he cause Union armies to triumph in the Civil War as a way of chastising the Confederate states for the sin of slavery? These are questions that I would hesitate to bring up before a non-Christian audience, because there is absolutely no evidence that I could produce that my audience would find convincing, and that makes the possibility of constructive discussion nil.
But here’s an even more important point: I would never presume to offer dogmatic answers to such questions when addressing a Christian audience, either. Except where God has clearly proclaimed his purposes via special revelation, it is presumptuous for the Christian scholar to declare them on the basis of normal historical research. No historical evidence in and of itself can answer such questions. I think it is acceptable to speculate on what may have been God’s purpose behind a particular historical occurrence, and I might occasionally do that with a Christian audience. But I would absolutely take to heart N. T. Wright’s observation that “the necessary reticence of faith” requires us to employ the word perhaps in such instances. To speak dogmatically about God’s purposes behind a particular historical occurrence not discussed in inspired Scripture is to speak as a prophet, not as a historian.
I appreciate you playing nicely for three questions before throwing me to the wolves!
I wrote an entire chapter on this topic in my book History: A Student’s Guide, and most readers tell me it is the chapter that made them think the most. I do believe that providence should affect how we interpret history insofar that, as a Christian, I do believe that God is always at work to bring about his ultimate purposes.
However, because I am not omniscient, I am not capable of discerning all the details of how God is working. In fact, I hesitate to do any more than make some general observations, since we do not have an inspired and authoritative interpretation of post-biblical history like we do with biblical history.
I don’t see this caution as compartmentalizing my beliefs—far from it. In fact, it is my beliefs about providence, God’s incommunicable attributes, and the Scriptures that cause me to be hesitant to attach a “thus doeth the Lord” to specific historical phenomena.
As for operating differently in different venues, I do believe that the audience helps determine how we interpret history. But I do not think this should be done in a deceitful way. In my book, I use the analogy of being bilingual. If you are bilingual, you really do know two different languages, and you know which context requires each of them. As a historian of Christianity, I speak and write for audiences that are secular/academic, confessional/academic, and churchly/popular.
When writing for the former, I stick to interpretations based on sources found in God’s general revelation.
When writing for the latter, I am willing to offer some tentative additional interpretation (and application) based upon my understanding of God’s special revelation in Scripture.
For the middle category, I’m willing to offer a synthesis.
Borrowing language from missiology, I see this as academic contextualization. And as long as my interpretations are complementary rather than contradictory, I see that as serving each of those audiences in a way that makes sense to their particular contexts.
5. What roles do love, discernment, and humility play in the historian’s approach to history?
It all starts with love. I take to heart Christian historian Beth Schweiger’s reminder that, “In history, the call to love one’s neighbor is extended to the dead.” Behind the historical documents that we analyze were human beings created in God’s image, and we must resist the temptation to use them—to manipulate them to further our preset agendas—and purpose to love them instead, to listen carefully to them and allow them to challenge and even to change us.
But love without discernment can lead us astray. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, we also need to bring a measure of skepticism to our reading of historical evidence. To love someone does not require that we accept uncritically everything that they say. (If you’re a parent, you’ll understand immediately what I mean.) While I have an obligation to love the figures from the past who I encounter in my research, I also have an obligation to provide my readers with the truest interpretation of the past that I can. This requires that I do everything I can to determine the trustworthiness or reliability of the voices from the past that I am listening to. Love constrains me to function as a host showing hospitality to the dead, inviting them into conversation. But my obligation to pursue truth requires that I function more like a juror, doing my best to determine the credibility of each witness.
Humility is equally essential to faithful historical thinking. I think it’s imperative to keep constantly in mind the vast difference between history and the past, between our limited knowledge of all that has transpired before us and God’s exhaustive command of even the minutest details. I’ve come to the conclusion that, whatever the branch of knowledge, when we approach it Christianly, a greater humility should be one of the first fruits. But this humility not only disciplines our hearts; it actually helps us to understand historical figures more accurately. Because we are mindful of how easy it is for us to misunderstand them, we are less likely to jump to quick conclusions, more willing to lavish the time and labor necessary to appreciate the complexity of their values and views.
I’m thankful for this question, because I think these virtues are more at the heart of a “Christian” approach to history than overly providentialist efforts that make pronouncements about how God was or was not at work.
First, I think we have to show neighbor-love in particular toward historical subjects. This is important because we might not have much affection for them, but still should show empathy toward them and interpret them in a way they would at least recognize, even if they disagree. For example, I once wrote a journal article on a famous universalist. I don’t have much affection for him, since I think he theology is dangerous, but I tried to be empathetic and write about him in such a respectful way.
Second, I think we need to exercise discernment toward which sources are most illuminating and which are less so. For example, there is a debate among scholars of Jonathan Edwards as to whether we should interpret his thought more by his published or unpublished works. This takes discernment, since all are his works and reflect his thoughts about various topics at various stages. (For the record, I think the published trumps the unpublished, since he tended to flesh out ideas in unpublished venues before distilling them in public sermons or published writings.)
Finally, I think we need to exercise humility in remembering that even our best interpretations are provisional, incomplete, and subject to revision. This is why all history is revisionist history. It may be more or less faithful or unfaithful—but it’s always revisionist. History isn’t fiction, so there is no place for would-be omniscient narrators.
6. What is the most common mistake your students make about history that you are eager to correct? Or asked another way, how do you want your students to think differently about history having studied the subject with you?
My answer, I hope, is already partially apparent from the above. Far too many of my students arrive from high school thinking of history as the boring memorization of innumerable discrete facts.
I try to obliterate that view from the start. Individual facts taken out of context are worse than meaningless. Sound historical thinking is never about mastery of detail. It is about trying to make sense of the past in the face of enormous limitations of evidence and the unavoidable personal limitations of the historian. It requires our best powers of analysis and imagination, and in the best case, it changes not only what we know, but also how we think and even who we are.
And as a Christian historian, I would go even further: When we approach the study of the past with humility and awe, recognizing the past as a sphere that God has ordained and prompted by biblical dictates and principles, the study of history can even become both an act of obedience and an expression of worship.
Two mistakes have been perennial among my students, most of whom have been studying for the ministry and taking courses related to the history of Christianity.
First, some of them believe that “good” history is objective and “bad” history is revisionist.
Historians almost universally agree there is no such thing as objective history, and as I stated above, all historical interpretation is revisionist. I try to redirect their thinking by urging neighbor-love and empathy in historical interpretation, and making a distinction between revisionism that results from new or fresh engagement with sources versus revisionism that is driven by some presentist agenda.
The second mistake is the simplistic assumption that ideas trump actions, and the latter always flows from the former.
Since my students are mostly theological students, they really want to believe that theology (broadly defined) necessarily drives what historical subjects do. After all, as Richard Weaver notes, ideas have consequences.
And yet, we must remember that both sin and ignorance are realities as well, meaning that nobody except Jesus of Nazareth always acts in a way consistent with his beliefs. Theology matters.
But there is often a disconnect between theology and practice—and that has always been the case. And this means sometimes “good” theologians did terrible things, while “bad” theologians were models of outward personal piety. History is complicated, because people are complicated.