The biblical view of history stands in sharp contrast to all philosophical approaches to the problem of the meaning of history. It supplies the necessary elements which they lack. And it resolves the seeming paradoxes upon which they come to failure.
The Christian conception is actually not a philosophy of history at all. Rather, it is a theological interpretation. Its basic presuppositions are not those of human reason or experience, for they rest upon the great doctrines of the Scriptures. It shares no common ground with philosophical interpretations, except the facts which it seeks to interpret. Such biblical doctrines as the sovereignty of God, the divine creation and government of the world and man, and the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures are not only theological postulates, but are, at the same time, the presuppositions on which alone a truly meaningful interpretation of history can be erected. These fundamental doctrines shed light on the very essence of the historical process.
THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD
The sovereignty of God guarantees the possibility of history as objective truth and therefore as an intellectual discipline worthy of the mind of men. Without the exercise of divine control over the world and over human actions, history would be unintelligible and its study a veritable impossibility. If God were not sovereign and if this sovereignty were not directly exercised in his decrees of creation and providence, the historical process would have neither a directing force nor a controlling agency, and it would be “without form and void.” This doctrine makes it both possible and necessary to affirm with certainty that history has both a purpose and a goal, and the consciousness of this meaning moves Christian historians to cry out with Augustine: “Omnia referenda ad gloriam Dei.”
It is the sovereign God who controls and guides the actions as well as the thoughts of man and nations for his own purposes and glory. The purpose and meaning of history do not arise from man or the historical process as a whole, but from the decrees of God who sees the end from the beginning. By his decrees of creation and providence God governs all his creatures and their actions, and they move the stream of events irresistibly toward that goal which is neither visible to human reason nor susceptible to human manipulations and devices, for it lies beyond the scope of human political, social, and economic planners.
THE FINAL GOAL
This final goal is the triumph of the kingdom of God which will be fully realized only in the glorious return of Jesus Christ. History is not an endless stream of human life and consciousness, nor is it destined for the unending reign of the proletariat. God who by the act of creation brought history into existence will conclude the drama by an act of righteous judgment. Biblical statements concerning the final judgment and the nature of the kingdom of God set aside both the unnatural pessimism of the existentialists and the shallow optimism of the liberals.
THE CLUE TO MEANING
The doctrines of creation and providence also guarantee that the study of history (and its teaching) is worthwhile. For they mean that God made the world knowable, and that the mind of man is able to know His truth. It is the knowing mind in the knowable world that makes all knowledge possible. Divine creation guarantees the existence of an objective body of truth and the ability of man to discover it in all areas of his intellectual activity. Only thus is historical truth available to the historian. The past has an objective validity which, in part at least, he may investigate with certainty.
These biblical doctrines also speak to another problem of contemporary historiography, namely, that of meaning, or the interpretation of facts. History has meaning, and this meaning is not found within the stream of events. Neither does it have as many interpretations as there are historians who evaluate historical data. Its meaning is divinely assigned. It is the sovereign God who interprets all of human life, past, present, and future, and it is both the duty and the privilege of the historian (as it is of the scientist and the philosopher) to think the thoughts of God after him and to find for history that meaning which God has already given to it.
But the Scriptures do not stop at this point in providing us with a theology of history. They go on to give us some keys by which we may gain an insight into the biblical position. In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul makes one of the most comprehensive statements of all Scripture concerning God’s control and evaluation of the historical process when he states clearly that the fullness of time is the birth of Jesus Christ.
THE FOCAL POINT
The Incarnation is the focal point of history and the great watershed of human experience. All ancient history looked forward to it and all history since that day harkens back to it. It was a decisive turning point in human affairs which no historian, whatever his personal religious position may be, can ignore or deny.
The Incarnation brings to history the fullness of the redemptive plan. Always present prophetically and symbolically in the Israel of the Old Covenant, it received new force and status in the Church of the New Testament which now as the Ark of the New Covenant becomes the central factor in all human history. By this I mean that all history, both before the coming of Christ and after his birth, has to do in some way with the redemptive mission of the Church. The historical process does not exist as an end in itself apart from the divine plan, but as integral to it. Augustine saw this very clearly when he wrote that election and grace are the very essence and mystery of history. The historian and the philosopher of 1960 can do nothing less than bow in humble submission before this sublime truth.
REVELATION AND SCRIPTURE
Finally, underlying all that is said in regard to the Christian view of history is the biblical doctrine of revelation. The ultimate authority for all Christian thought is Scripture. Christianity is a revealed religion and the Christian view of history is thus a product of revelation. It is neither rationally nor empirically discerned. In the Bible man finds the key to the meaning of his past and the goal toward which the whole of human experience presses. The view that the Scriptures are divinely inspired, inerrant and, therefore authoritative, must underlie all meaningful human intellectual activity—scientific, political, sociological, philosophical, or historical. Only this conception of the Scriptures can save historiography and philosophy from the snares of an existentialism which must ultimately bring the world of thought to disaster, and provide a solution for the epistemological dilemma which haunts contemporary thought.
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
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