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The events which have already occurred and filled time for individuals and for political entities and provided meaning for life. The central importance the Bible places on history distinguishes it from other religions and philosophies of life. History in the Bible is the stage on which God related to people and in which God revealed His nature and purposes to people . It is through studying and understanding history's meaning and direction that Bible truths can be applied today.
Views of History Most human societies have pondered the meaning of events and the goal or direction of history. This has produced widely-differing viewpoints:
1. The chaotic view claims the human story has no purpose, pattern, or significance. No one controls history, and no one knows when, if, or how it will end.
2. The circular or cyclical view focuses on history repeating its patterns in cycles of various lengths or in a spherical pattern with some movement but as basically repetitious. Observation of natural seasons and life cycles advances such a theory, as seen in the Baal religion that tempted Israel. The Greeks described history as a “wheel of unending recurrences,” thus a periodic repetition that saw growth and decay again and again. Not surprisingly, the cyclical view provided little ground for the hope that life has ultimate meaning. The absence of a progressive historical view is illustrated by the often cited example from Homer's Iliad. The Greek warrior Achilles stood over the body of his victim Hector. His victory was darkened by his sorrowful acknowledgment to Hector's grieving father that he could be nothing but a warrior. Achilles was trapped within personal history he could not change and was condemned to repeat. In contrast, biblical characters can change; evil persons may turn to God; good people may turn away.
3. The Bible's linear view of history gives history a beginning and an end as well as a purpose or direction. The Bible is uniquely tied to history. Christianity links Christian experience with God to certain historical occurrences. Scripture notes God's blessing for the ordering of the seasons (Genesis 8:20-22) and recognizes that apart from God the cycle may lead to a hopeless understanding of life (Ecclesiastes 1:4). Old Testament saints recited their confession by recounting what God had done (Deuteronomy 26:5-9). New Testament saints tell the good news of God's actions through Jesus: that Christ died, that He was buried, and that He rose. Paul said that without Christ's resurrection the Christian faith was without meaning (1 Corinthians 15:3-4,1 Corinthians 15:14). While the Greeks often disparaged this world of constant change and sought to discover the divine by contemplating changeless eternal truths, the Hebrews held that God reveals Himself in history. Interestingly, many modern approaches which may reject the Christian message are nevertheless indebted to the faith for the linear notion of history.
4. A mechanistic view of history attempts to tell mankind's story while seeing humans as a product of nature and completely subject to outside influences. According to this view, the environment determines our history, making our freedom no more than an illusion.
5. A progressive or developmental view of history consists of many varieties with a common belief that to understand the past one must trace the “history” of institutions and movements from their emergence at a simple stage to the culminating, complex stage. Understanding a topic “historically” is often explicitly identified with imposing a developmental scheme. This developmental approach was applied in biological science in early evolutionary theory and in the social theory of Hegel and Marx. The common element is development toward a final climax through the tension of opposing ideas (Hegel) or after a series of conflicting classes or epochs (Marx).
History in the Biblical Story The biblical narrative reveals the major characteristics of a biblical approach to history. The Bible tells history as a series of God's acts in which He interacts with people to reveal Himself and His saving will for them.
1. Creation and Fall Asserting that God is the Creator of the earth suggests that He is ultimately responsible for all of history and nature. God's power to speak the world into existence implies that the world is not divine or eternal. Creation reminds us that God is in control of nature and its history.
Creation also implies that God is free. He does not need creation but desired it and loves His creation. Because of the loving nature of God, His people have confidence that a future awaits mankind. In God's sovereign freedom He grants humans restricted freedom. This reality is crucial because the biblical narrative suggests that people mysteriously have a role in shaping history. Neither the Creator nor the environment has so determined history that human decisions and human actions make no difference. Rather, God remains in sovereign control of history even as He lets free human actions determine the course of individuals and nations. The Bible does not try to solve this mysterious interworking of God's sovereignty and human freedom. Biblical writers confess God's control and their own meaningful freedom to act.
The Fall is the story of humans' first prideful misuse of freedom (Genesis 1-3). Human freedom and sin are crucial to history's telling, for the Fall means that human freedom will often be used in ways which oppose the Creator's will. History thus becomes not only the story of human events but the story of response and interaction between God and sinful humans. Both actors are important on the stage of history.
2. Covenant with Israel The spread of sin despite God's punishment and grace explains why God chose one people—Abraham's family. God diligently worked with this stubborn family. His selection was not out of favoritism. He intended and still intends to bless the whole world through His chosen people (Genesis 12:3;
Acts 3:25-26). Thus the reader of biblical history comes to accept that the universal and eternal significance of God's work emerges from His work with an individual people or person. Biblical history focuses tightly upon this particular people, giving a selective view of their history. Israel's story is set in universal history, with all the features of general history such as economics and politics, but it is told from a theological point of view. The Bible concentrates on the relationship of God and people. This relationship takes the form of a series of covenants—with Noah (Genesis 9:9-17), Abraham (Genesis 15:1;
Genesis 17:1), and all Israel through Moses (Exodus 19-24; renewed in 34). History thus becomes the unfolding of God's covenant promises and the covenant faithfulness or unfaithfulness of the people. See Exodus 19-24.
3. The Exodus Redemption The covenant with Israel that Moses mediated was founded on God's act in history in which He miraculously saved a slave people from the tyranny of the world's most powerful nation by leading them in the Exodus across the sea and into the wilderness out of Egypt (Exodus 1:1-15:21). This set the pattern for the Bible's understanding of history. History centered on the relationship between people and God, a relationship begun by God's acts of grace—in creation and in redemption. God's acts of redemption show He wants the best for His human creatures and is willing to act on their behalf. History can be seen to have purpose and meaning because God has shown His intention to provide that meaning and purpose. God's acts of salvation thus pattern human moral action as response to the expectations of a saving, caring God.
The story of Israel derives from God's activity. History is the medium through which God chooses to reveal Himself. This distinctive historical dimension of Christianity needs to be stressed, especially when addressing more skeptical hearers. God reveals Himself by what He says as well as what He does. God's work is not left to mere human discernment but is entrusted to inspired prophetic interpretation. The inspired oral or written interpretation of history ensures the revelatory quality of God's enacted history.
God's primary actions in Israel's history reveal the essential character of Biblical history. The call of the Hebrew fathers remind us that God will sovereignly call whomever He wants. The freedom granted by the Exodus shows that God has compassion on suffering. The central lesson of all the Old Testament is conveyed here: God is a historically-intervening, saving God. The giving of the law and establishment of the covenant reminds the reader that people are called to respond to God's deliverance in obedience (Exodus 20:2-18;
Leviticus 18:1-5). The blessing of the land and Davidic government teach that God's blessing requires faithfulness over time. The decline and destruction of the nations teach again that God is sovereign, using other nations to punish Israel's sin. God is not tied to His people's national history. This experience of judgment promotes anticipation, forcing the biblical historian to look both ways—to look “back and forth.” From within this great judgment God's people look back to the past, the glory days of David, the saving Exodus under Moses' supervision, and then look forward. With these images they are ready to understand God's future.
4. The Incarnation also represents God's dramatic, invasive activity in history. His supreme Revelation (Hebrews 1:1-4) became a historical Man (John 1:14;
Hebrews 4:15). God's becoming human affirmed His commitment to history as the place for His revelation. Jesus stands at the center of biblical history. His ministry inaugurates God's kingdom; His return will signal its consummation. Jesus' miracles and exorcisms are the delivering works of God which show that history is the place of spiritual warfare. The kingdom of God is breaking in through the person of Jesus (Matthew 12:28). The cross shows God's determination regarding history; the love displayed when Jesus bears our sins must be played out on the field of history. Mysteriously, God can sovereignly work His redemption even by using sinful men, such as those who crucified Jesus. Jesus' victory over sin, death, and evil on the cross, and the confirming resurrection, reveal that history will end, and it will end well.
5. The resurrection (assuming the life and death of Jesus) is the crucial point of defense of the historical validity of Christianity (1 Corinthians 15:14). Evidence for the resurrection is significant: the empty tomb, the appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5-8), the prophecy of the Scriptures and Jesus (Luke 24:25-27,Luke 24:44), and the ongoing witness of the church. The empty tomb provides an illustration of the relationship between historical evidence and faith. All four Gospel writers confess that the discovery of the empty tomb did not produce faith in a living Jesus. (John 20:8 presents the only partial exception.) These disciples were made full disciples only by a confrontation with the risen Jesus. The role of evidence is limited: an empty tomb does not a resurrection make. Evidence is important, however, because an occupied tomb would disprove the resurrection. So it is with most biblical evidence, accepting God's Word involves more than being convinced by the facts. The testimony of these eyewitnesses calls one to believe beyond mere evidence; they did not, however, ask one to believe against the evidence. The nature and historical reality of the resurrection is crucial for history. Because of Christ's resurrection, believers may anticipate a historical and transforming resurrection for themselves (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).
History for Jesus' followers will be marked by tension. Believers live between two decisive acts of God; they live between the partial realization of God's kingdom in Jesus' first coming and the final fulfillment of the kingdom when Christ will come again. Believers will suffer because they bear witness to the King the world does not acknowledge; they live by the principles of the kingdom (Matthew 5-7) the world does not acknowledge. Despite the inevitable suffering the church is sustained by the Holy Spirit. The church's history is the story of the Spirit's transforming, empowering, and equipping for mission.
6. Christ's return will signal the end of world history and the full revelation of its meaning. The prophetic vision of God's final kingdom will be realized fully. History will close as the one family of faith is inducted to a qualitatively greater future and fellowship with God.
Hints for Historical Interpretation (1) Language, historical language included, is multi-purposeful. For example, biblical language often intends to report (about history) but it also seeks to evoke faith (John 20:21). Thus the biblical documents are valuable as historical reports, but their full comprehension demands faithful response. (2) Historians must acknowledge the Bible's openness to God's miraculous intervention. An experience of Christ's saving power in the present provides a point of comparison for an understanding of God's past and future saving acts. (3) The interpreter must discern the context within Israel's history to insure that he or she does not advocate a divine concession but God's full intention (Matthew 19:4-9). God's greatest revelation, Jesus, is the guide to interpretation.
M Randy Hatchett