The Christian Historian, the Bible, and “Secular” History

Part 3 of the Integration of Faith & History in the Classroom series

by Dan Miller.
Papyrus page with ancient Greek text from the Gospel of Luke
Papyrus manuscript of the Gospel of Luke

For me as a Christian believer as well as a historian, the Bible represents a bit of a conundrum. While it is relatively easy to see that the beginning chapters of Genesis and the concluding chapters of Revelation are “poetic” or “theological” or “prophetic” rather than “historical” in the modern sense, other portions of the Bible clearly resemble history in the modern sense, i.e., they purport to tell the story in the most factually truthful way. The most obvious candidates are the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and the Book of Acts. Luke refers explicitly to a remarkably modern-sounding methodology of evidence gathering, but all of them present events with a matter-of-factness that would be utterly compelling to modern historians except for one thing: they depict supernatural beings and circumstances such as angels, the virgin birth, miraculous healings, the resurrection, etc. Were it not for these “incredible” claims, I think it’s fair to say that these writings would be regarded by even secular scholars as some of the most reliable historical sources we have from the first century A.D.

It appears to me that the contentious issue is not the quality of the sources but the historians’ philosophical assumptions which dictate their answer to the question: “Do supernatural events ever happen?” The only serious reason to deny the authenticity of the gospel accounts is an a priori commitment to naturalism and a rejection of supernaturalism. To be fair, that is not an unreasonable objection. One has only to think how you or I would react if someone—maybe even several people—came to us with the excited report that someone had just risen from the dead or if a woman who was obviously pregnant insisted that she was still a virgin. Moreover, the gospels wed these inherently implausible supernatural accounts to an existential call for a life-changing commitment to Jesus, whose resurrection proves that he is lord of heaven and earth. So are these accounts “historical”? As a Christian and a historian, I prefer to say that they are true rather than historical because it requires Spirit-breathed faith to believe them and because their purpose is not merely to convey information but to inspire a life changing commitment to Christ.

Thus, as I understand it, to work as a Christian historian means to remain within the limits of the rules of logic and evidence that are understood by other historians, including nonreligious ones, as the norms of historical work. That means that I make no claim to special revelation in the interpretation of specific events. Nor do I invoke God or supernatural influences as direct causal factors in history. Doing so would not merely invalidate my work as “history,” it would also, I believe, represent a presumptuous claim bordering on blasphemy.

16th century Aztec illustration depicting a god wearing a human skin.
A 16th-century Aztec illustration of Xipe Totec, a life-death-rebirth deity in Aztec mythology and religion

On the other hand I also think that belief in God must be regarded as a motive in human affairs every bit as basic as self-preservation or economic interest or group loyalty or any other primary source of human behavior. Religious loyalty can certainly co-exist with other motivations and at times may serve as a mere cover for other motives, but it is not inherently insincere any more than other motives may at times be. History gives us too many examples of people who remained loyal to their religious convictions in the face of ostracism, seizure of goods, and even death to deny the power of religion as a motive for action. Of course, history also gives us many examples of people, including Christians, who remained loyal to their religion to the point of ostracizing others, seizing their goods, and killing them, sometimes in gruesome ways, to show God how much they loved him and hated sinners. My point is simply that while I do not speak of God as a direct participant in the historical process, I can certainly speak of Christians, and Muslims and Buddhists and Jews and Aztecs, as people who acted in certain ways because they were convinced that God or the gods wanted them to do so.

At this stage, I imagine that some readers are left wondering whether my perspective on history is different from any other historian’s perspective, secular or otherwise. If it ends up looking exactly the same as any “reasonable” historian’s, does it mean anything at all to be a Christian historian? That’s a good question. My answer is to turn the question around: why do non-Christian historians so often sound like Christian historians? They often use terms such as “courageous” or “unjust” or “cruel” without ever recognizing that such words represent moral judgments that a purely secular understanding of humanity and the material universe cannot justify.

Moreover the purpose for which a Christian historian does her work is to glorify God and to edify readers—Christians and others—by telling truthful stories about the past that can help them to become wiser, more compassionate, more committed to doing justice, etc. It is not just about amassing information with no concern about the use to which it’s put—history for history’s sake. To be fair, I don’t think most secular historians would say that they are just amassing information either but, once again, Christians have a more defensible reason for wanting people to learn from the past—and to grow in virtue—than secular historians do. Secular historians may have similar aims: Marxist historians want their readers to become aware of economic injustice, Feminist historians want their readers to become aware of gender bias, both hope that their readers will be moved to action; but I don’t think most of them realize that such purposes imply an understanding about the moral character of the cosmos that a purely secular starting point cannot justify. If there is no god/creator who infused the world with goodness and who hates evil, how can a historian call on her readers to agree with her particular moral vision of justice or whatever? Without the moral context that Christian faith provides, history is just some author’s account for each reader to do with (or not do with) whatever they wish and a historian’s purpose does not rise much above the desire to amuse himself and others or perhaps provide ammunition for arbitrarily chosen sides in ephemeral political battles.

This post is the third in a six-part series based on a statement essay entitled “What Does History Mean to Me as a Christian? On the Integration of Faith and History in the Classroom” by Daniel Miller. This essay was originally written as a faith and teaching statement, which is required of all Calvin faculty but is rarely seen outside the boardroom. On Historical Horizons, we would like to share excerpts from some of our statements as a way of connecting with folks off campus who would like to get to know us better or are thinking about these issues as well. Additional posts will explore Professor Miller’s approach as a Christian historian, including the use of evidence, the role of the Bible and Christians in history, thoughts on a “secular” approach to history, and what our common humanity means to us as historians and Christians.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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