How Should a Christian Approach History?
Why has the study of history become a touchy political issue with different sides emphasizing different facts? What is the biblical approach to history?
In the past decade, what is taught as history in classrooms—and how it is taught—has become extremely divisive. This has led to vicious arguments between parents, school boards and political pundits.
We hear arguments like:
- “Our kids need a patriotic education, where they learn to love their country!”
- “Our kids need a broader perspective on history, so they don’t feel entitled to mistreat minorities!”
- “Our kids need a reminder of all the horrors our country has committed.”
- “Our kids need a reminder of all the benefits our country provides and has provided.”
But the deeper we look at the fight over history, the more we see that it is not really a fight over history at all. It is a fight over the interpretation and emphasis of history. The arguments are over how facts are interpreted and what is emphasized.
Should all history be viewed through the lens of race? Should all history be viewed through the lens of “the end justifies the means”? Should all history be viewed through the lens of national pride and identity? Should all history be viewed through the lens of class conflict?
The point of this blog post isn’t to get into the weeds of those issues. But we do want to use this as an opportunity to discuss the biblical approach to the study of the past. When we understand how the Bible presents history, it can help us sort through a lot of the clutter of this world and its political debates.
The Bible’s perspective on history
First of all, for Christians, the most essential factor in the study of history is not interpretation; it is truth (John 8:32). We don’t want our understanding of history to be shrouded by selective interpretations of people with political agendas.
For Christians, the most essential factor in the study of history is not interpretation; it is truth. But does the Bible give us any guidance on how we should view and use history? Yes.
Consider that a large portion of the Bible is history. In fact, nearly every book in the Bible includes some history. Some books are all history (such as 1 and 2 Chronicles), and some integrate history in various ways.
One of the amazing things about biblical history is its sheer honesty. It tells people’s stories with candor and authenticity—including their triumphs, tragedies, mistakes and sins. Why? Because the Bible is truth (John 17:17). So, it tells the story of the past honestly.
A look at the Bible’s approach to history lead us to this essential point: Historical examples are meant to be instructive both in what we should do and in what we should not do.
History must include failures and accomplishments
One of the best examples of this is found in Paul’s writings. In 1 Corinthians 10:6-11, Paul recites some of the history of ancient Israel (which he undoubtedly learned from studying the book of Exodus).
In this section, Paul details several instances in which the ancient Israelites made terrible mistakes. He did not whitewash the Israelites’ history to show only their glorious moments. In fact, in this section he mostly highlights their mistakes—such as how they were complainers, idolaters, disobedient, etc. But, of course, Paul was in no way denying their triumphs either. He was simply emphasizing the lessons we can learn from their past failures.
This should show us the problem with viewing history only from a patriotic perspective of highlighting a nation’s triumphs. It’s not wrong to emphasize the positives of a people or nation—but that can’t be the sole emphasis. Human beings are imperfect. That means the history of any people will include plenty of mistakes. Those imperfections and mistakes can be very powerful lessons for the present and future—as Paul was pointing out.
Paul’s perspective of not ignoring the negative parts of Israel’s history was in stark contrast to that of other Jews of the time who had a distorted, overly positive view of the nation’s history. Jesus once encountered a group of Jews who claimed that the descendants of Abraham had “never been in bondage to anyone” (John 8:33). (They somehow conveniently forgot about Israelites being captive to Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome.)
But there's another ditch we can fall into. This ditch would be interpreting Israel’s history as only mistake after mistake and evil after evil. That would be just as wrong.
This view would conveniently forget the many triumphs in Israel’s history. It would dismiss the righteous kings of Israel, the times when calls to repentance were heeded, and the times when Israel did obey God. It would dismiss all the powerful examples of faithful men and women who lived throughout the timeline of biblical history. Think of all the instruction from positive examples of Israel’s history that would be lost if only the horrific problems were emphasized.
Consider the sad story found in Genesis 34. Here we read of the Dinah incident, when two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, did something truly troubling. They reacted to something awful that had been done to their sister (verses 1-2) by carrying out their own version of vigilante justice. They tricked and then brutally murdered all the men in a city—men who had played no part in what had happened to their sister. They then stole property and took women and children captive. Not only did they do this without God’s approval, they broke an agreement and badly damaged their father’s reputation throughout the land (verse 30).
The Dinah incident serves as one of the most shameful moments of injustice and brutality in Israel’s history. But should we view all of Israel’s history through this event and paint the whole nation with the broad brush of brutality and injustice just because of what Simeon and Levi did here?
Obviously not. We don’t ignore it. We learn from it. But we don’t use it as our sole prism to look through when studying Israel’s history—or judging the descendants of Simeon and Levi.
The lesson is that when we study history, we should study it with a balanced perspective. We should consider both triumphs and failures—moments of justice and moments of injustice—for the lessons they teach.
Balanced history through the example of King David
Let’s consider the example of King David—a man whose history is covered extensively in the Bible. Let’s analyze what a biased, one-sided view of David’s story would do.
Imagine if you were trying to learn about King David’s life, but the only things you ever learned about him were how he committed adultery, lied, ordered a hit on one of his most noble and loyal soldiers, had no control over his children, and pridefully counted on his military might instead of trusting in God.
Is this the truth about King David? Yes, but it’s only a portion of the truth.
We need to strive to have a balanced and unbiased view of all history. Instead of using history to push our ideological perspectives, we need to use history to learn lessons.If we learned about only this part of his life, we’d have an unhealthy, negative view of the man. This shows how truth can be turned into a lie. We can present facts, but if those facts are selectively chosen and presented in isolation, they can be used to deceive and promote a falsehood.
Now, on the flip side, imagine if you were learning about the life of King David, but with all of the above mistakes removed completely. This telling of history would highlight only his triumphs—how he slew a giant as a boy, showed mercy and respect to King Saul, unified the tribes, wrote beautiful poetry that expressed the great depth of his spiritual understanding, and was a man after God’s own heart.
Is this the truth about King David? It is, but if we taught and emphasized only these parts of his story, we wouldn’t understand the entire man and learn lessons from his mistakes.
We can only fully understand King David and learn everything God wants us to learn from him by putting it all together. We need to understand the triumphs in the context of the faults—and the faults in the context of the triumphs. The Bible doesn’t whitewash over the messy and troubling parts of David’s life—and neither should we. Likewise, the Bible doesn’t dismiss David’s strengths and triumphs because he sometimes made terrible mistakes—and neither should we.
Put it together, and yes, it is the truth about King David. That is why the Bible puts it all together, leaving in all the messy and difficult parts. With the entire story presented as it is in the Bible, what is God trying to tell us through David’s history? Here are a few things to consider:
- Can we learn from David’s mistakes as well as his accomplishments?
- Can even a man after God’s own heart have character flaws and moments of weakness?
- Can even a man with serious weaknesses repent and change?
- Can we learn from how even the greatest of all Israel’s kings fell far short of the perfect example of the future King of Kings, Jesus Christ? And can that dichotomy perhaps help us appreciate Jesus Christ at an even deeper level?
This case study of David’s history should serve to underscore the point that we need to strive to have a balanced and unbiased view of all history. Instead of using history to push our ideological perspectives, we need to use history to learn lessons.
Yes, we can learn from the good and from the bad.
What should you do when presented with potentially biased history?
In today’s hyperpolarized world, you will be presented with various interpretations of facts and history that are carefully presented to promote a certain point of view or ideology. How should you respond to this?
Here are some tips:
- Try to discern where the bias is. Sometimes it’s subtle, but if you pay close attention to how facts are presented, you can usually pick up on what direction the bias is coming from. (Sometimes the author is even honest enough to state his or her bias from the outset.) Remember: just because there’s a bias doesn’t necessarily make something wrong—but it could very well be only a carefully selected portion of truth.
- Be careful about immediate rejection or acceptance. We’re naturally prone to quickly accept a fact that confirms our previously held perspective or quickly reject a fact that seems to contradict our perspective. Be careful about immediately doing either! Instead, give ideas a fair analysis and “do your homework” on them before either accepting or rejecting them. We live in a world that’s driven by the shallow. It’s a world where people want ideas simplified into bite-sized memes that promote only those ideas they agree with. Christians should rise above the shallowness of our culture and be discerning—thoughtfully looking deeper into things to gain understanding.
- Read from a variety of sources. One good thing about our world today is that we have access to many sources of information—from nearly every perspective. By studying a variety of resources from various authors and perspectives, you can usually piece together a fairly accurate and unbiased view of a topic. This will help you get a “360 degree” view of history. It will allow you to see a topic from multiple angles and perspectives, instead of just isolating one angle that promotes a particular narrative.
- Remember the L.P. Hartley principle. L.P. Hartley was a 20th-century British novelist who wrote the following words: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” It can be very easy to judge and condemn figures of history by modern standards. Good history telling will help you understand historical figures in the context of the times they lived. Though we should recognize when historical figures made mistakes and not ignore those mistakes, we also must try to understand their motivations and decisions through the lens of the times they lived in. We must seek to understand the common culture, views and norms of their time instead of transplanting the people of history into modern times. Remember that if time goes on, in 200 years people will study the history of our time and find various things that will be confusing and nonsensical by year 2222 standards.
Learn from history
Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana popularized the adage that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The Bible supports this. We must learn from history—both the good and the bad (and everything in between).
History can help us understand where we are now and how we got here, with all the bumps and messes along the way. Are we learning what to do and what not to do based on historical examples, or are we enjoying cut-and-paste narratives that are selling agendas to satisfy our biases?
Let’s study history in a truthful and unbiased way, looking for understanding and lessons.