Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (1): History and the Believer

According to Henry Ford, the renowned American carmaker, “history is more or less bunk.” He claimed that the past was irrelevant and that only the present mattered.

Bookshops and libraries prove the above statement to be in error; they provide ample evidence that we cannot get enough of it. History fascinates us; for some, it is the lives of great men and women, their triumphs and their failings, the way in which, for better or for worse, they wielded great power. For others, it is the smooth and inscrutable operations of the political machine, the struggle between idealism and self-interest, the loyalties and the betrayals that have shaped our world. And for others, the charm of history is not found on the large canvas, but in the intricate and intimate details of the lives of ordinary people. Whatever it is that draws us to history, we read and study it because we believe it to be more than mere “bunk.” We are convinced that it does have something relevant to say to our own time.

To believe that history is irrelevant, the story of a dead past that should be buried and forgotten, is reprehensible in any context. It is a particularly incomprehensible view for the believer. As Christians, history has special importance for us for we know history to be more than the effects of blind and random chance. We see, or we should see, a value in the past that goes beyond a recognition of a humanity shared with our forebears. The most cursory examination of our Bibles will confirm that we have a God to Whom history matters.

Our God is a God Who has intervened in history. The God revealed to us in the Bible is not the remotely transcendent deity imagined by some. Though God “inhabits eternity” (Isa 57:15), He has created a universe bounded by time as well as space. But He did not create time and abandon it to randomness. Rather, He intervenes in it, reveals Himself in it, and, in the Incarnation of Christ, entered it. The shape and texture of history come from God and reveal His wisdom and might just as surely as every other facet of His marvelous creation.

God is also interested in history. This would be a difficult conclusion to avoid even for someone encountering the Bible for the very first time. Beginning at Genesis, he would find book after book devoted to historical record, to the actions and events of generation after generation of the people of God. Archaeologists and historians have wondered at the accuracy of this record and those who study the writing of history accord Scripture a special place. They all recognize what can not easily be denied – that history matters to God, and that He has given it a special prominence in His revelation.

The God Who intervenes and Who has so great an interest in history, also instructs us through history. It was this great purpose of history, and the attitude that it demands from us that Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 10:11: “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” As believers, we have an obligation to be instructed and admonished by those who have gone before, to live as those who “are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). This imperative means that faithful history cannot be an airbrushed picture of idyllic bliss; it must be accurate and honest. There can be a tendency, when historians describe events that distress us, to shoot the messenger, to blame the historian for the story he is telling. To do so is to misunderstand the true purpose of history. We ought not to feel any glee in recording or reading the weaknesses of others. A quick glance at Biblical history will remind us that “for our admonition,” God has provided comprehensive and accurate accounts of the past – the good as well as the bad.

For the believer, Biblical history is of the greatest interest and importance. It has been recorded for us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and its accuracy and its implications are thus safeguarded for us. But, after that must surely come an interest in church history. By this, we mean not the history of any institution – whatever the institution, these are likely to make depressing reading – but the history of how the people of God have sought to maintain testimony for Him throughout the centuries that have passed since the birth of the Church at Pentecost. That account, too, is not without its depressing elements, but it is also a stirring and cheering story of the unchanging, unwavering faithfulness of God to His people, and the faithfulness of His people to Him.

It is also a long, complicated story, encompassing two millennia. In this series of articles we shall (DV) only be able to look at it in a sketchy fashion. Even so, we can learn a great deal that is of pressing contemporary significance in our consideration. In particular, there are two outstanding lessons that we should grasp.

First, we should appreciate afresh the importance of the Word of God to the people of God. As we trace the history of the Church, we soon discover that her only source of spiritual strength and prosperity has been the Word of God. Only when her focus and dependence have been firmly fixed on the Scriptures is she effective in testimony for God. This can never be too often emphasized. As believers, we need “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). We cannot do without it, and if these articles make us appreciate this vital fact more clearly, they will not have been in vain.

We will also come to realize something about the power of error. The history of the Church is a history of the struggle between truth and error. This should not dismay us. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that truth will inevitably be subject to satanic attack. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 11:19 reminds us that error is not only inevitable but it is necessary: “For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” And we will see that this is what has happened repeatedly. The attack of error has resulted in truth being more clearly defined and more zealously defended. It is never healthy to be occupied too much with error, but it is important to be able to recognize it. Given that the errors of the past are constantly being repackaged as the latest and most exciting doctrine, we can learn valuable lessons from history. After all, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

History can, and should instruct us. We should be inspired by its paragons and admonished by its failures. But, if we understand the fact that God’s power and providence are manifested in history, our consideration of it should, and must, move us to worship His wisdom and His power. That was certainly the result of Habakkuk’s contemplation of the past.

In chapter three of his prophecy, he begins his great prayer with an account of God’s might and a ringing affirmation of His faithfulness with words that express a true understanding of the significance of history: “O LORD, I have heard Thy speech, and was afraid: O LORD, revive Thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known, in wrath remember mercy” (Hab 3:2). From his consideration of the past Habakkuk drew strength for the present and a renewed trust in God. May God grant that our consideration will do the same for each one of us.