Toward a Christian Philosophy of History

Over the past few years—due to teaching assignments, writing projects, and personal interest—I’ve done a fair amount of reading and reflection on the Genesis creation narrative. One the major questions with which professing evangelicals are currently wrestling is how we should understand the Genesis account as it pertains specifically to the existence of Adam and Eve. Specifically: Are Adam and Eve historical people, created de novo by God, or does the creation account provide merely theological truths without venturing to make material claims?

I’ve engaged these questions elsewhere, so I don’t want to take them up here. Yet I will say that these questions about the historicity of Adam have forced me not only to consider the Genesis text in more careful detail; they’ve also brought me to consider the very nature of history. That is, how do we define history, and what makes an event historical?

There is some debate among scholars as what the word “history” even means. To what do we refer when we talk of history? To what actually happened? To the recording of what actually happened? Even more foundational: Can we have any genuine knowledge of history (however you may define it)?

These questions remind us that we must think theologically, even about history. Defining what history is and providing the philosophical groundwork for doing historical work is not the prerogative of the secular academician; it is the work of the Christian theologian. The reason I make such a claim is because it is only the Christian worldview supply a basis for history as a metaphysical reality. More to the point: If the God of Scripture doesn’t exist, how do you ground reality in a way that accounts for the study of history? How can you guarantee that there is such a thing as history? And if there is, how can you ground your claim to have actual knowledge of history?

The principles offered below are merely preliminary and meant to spur more discussion. Nevertheless, I think these few points are foundational to the study of history.

Principle #1: God created the world and the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing) in order to reveal the glory of his Son to human beings in actual time and space. God created at a point in time so time exists and is sequential. Therefore, there is such a thing as history. History (that which is historical), strictly speaking, is whatever occurred prior to the present moment. We can speak of present and prior moments because God exists and he created time to move sequentially.

Principle #2: The implication of the grand truth that God created the universe in order to reveal the glory of his Son is that here is a reality external to our minds that can be known and enjoyed. Furthermore, God as omniscient (all-knowing) creator, made human beings in his own image and thus gave us the capacity to know reality as it is. Therefore true knowledge of history is possible.

Principle #3: Man is not omniscient, so he must piece his knowledge of history together from appropriate sources. Therefore, historical knowledge is always partial and perspectival. Partial and perspectival knowledge can be true knowledge, however. That is, historical knowledge does not need to be exhaustive in order to accurately convey what occurred in the past.

Principle #4: Historical reporting may be inaccurate due to the sinful motives, ignorance, or mistakes of the writer of history, but not necessarily so. That is, although man may error in his reporting of history, the property of mistake-making in reporting of history is not essential to human personhood. That is, a person can be fully human while making an accurate report. So, accurate reporting of history is possible.

Principle #5: In the historical narrative of Genesis the omniscient God gives us all the knowledge of the creation of the universe and man that we need in order to rightly understand the world and our place in it. He did not give us an exhaustive, pedantically detailed description of these events, for that would have been cumbersome and unnecessary. In Genesis 1-2 we have the fusion of history (what actually happened) and history (what is reported to have happened). The historical narrative is fully true, although it is not exhaustive.

Concerning the issue of Adam and Eve specifically, when we maintain that Adam is an historical man, we mean that he existed in time and space, that he was the first human being created, that God created him de novoand that he was the material progenitor of the entire human race. We mean that we have a reliable history (a report of what actually occurred) of history (what actually occurred). Said another way: If we walked backward sequentially from right now to thirty seconds ago, to yesterday, to last week, last year, and so on, we would come to Adam as the first man. That is what we mean when we speak of Adam as an historical man.

Principle #6: The death and resurrection of the Son of God is the most important event in all history. Our study of any of history (broadly considered), therefore, has a central, organizing principle around which we can understand the flow of history and judge specific people and events according to this central event.

Principle #7: The reality of Christ’s death and resurrection (as well as Christ’s own word on the subject) establishes the truth that Jesus Christ will again return to this earth, judge all humanity in righteousness, and end human history in its present form. Therefore, history has a specific direction and termination point. Like principle #6, this principle has an organizing function that enables us to judge what historical events and figures warrant our consideration and how these events should be viewed in light of the coming judgment.

Christian theology, therefore, provides the necessary philosophical framework for the study of history, because it provides (1) the grounds for history as a metaphysical reality; (2)the grounds for the possibility of historical knowledge; and (3) the basis for accurate reporting of history; (4) an organizing principle; and (5) termination point which serves as a point of reference for discriminating between significant and insignificant historical concerns. As scholars drift further and further from any semblance of a Christian worldview, it is likely that the debate about what constitutes history will only intensify and confusion will abound.

Photo by Dario Veronesi on Unsplash

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