History: Trivium vs. Trivial Pursuit Part Three by Bob Donaldson
In the dialectic stage, students begin to interpret historical events and explain them in terms of broader motivations and themes. To do this, it is imperative to begin with a Biblical philosophy of history, which in turn, can be developed from the first eleven chapters of Genesis. While the following list does not really begin to do justice to a full Biblical treatment of history, it at least sketches an outline which should drive our principles of interpretation:
God created man in His own image, which explains the good things man does.1
Man sinned and fell under God’s curse, which explains the evil he does.2
God chose to redeem fallen man through faith, choosing some but not others according to His own purposes, which accounts for conflict between His chosen believers and unbelievers.3
Sinful man persisted in his unbelief, striving to make a name for himself through his own works, which accounts for our fascination with technology, progress and human potential.4
God continues to call His chosen ones in each generation,5 never allowing man’s sin to frustrate His plan.6
God continues the progressive revelation of His character and purposes in His renewal of the covenant with Noah,7 but mankind again pursues his own purposes.8
God confused their language and scattered men abroad upon the face of the earth, setting the stage for separate cultural development,9 while continuing to maintain a
Godly line of His chosen.10
With this as the starting point and building upon analytical skills developed through formal logic, the dialectic of history consists of seeking out and identifying cause and effect relationships, building on the grammar that has gone before. What ideas and worldview motivated the historical figures being studied? How did those ideas come to be accepted as true? How does sinful man’s continuing commitment to self-aggrandizement shape the development of history? How does God’s continuing commitment to choose out a people for Himself and to honor obedience by His chosen people shape the development of history? These are the kinds of questions that characterize this developmental period.
Although we will increasingly focus on looking at primary source documents throughout this stage, it will also be necessary to deal with the subject of historians. When reading a narrative history (or an historical novel), there will be an increased emphasis on critiquing the writer’s interpretive presuppositions. Does the writer’s view of man coincide with the truth as found in the Bible, or is the writer more concerned with “preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done?”11
The rhetoric stage of history is where the students must begin to synthesize their own coherent view of how God has revealed Himself, not just through the events of history, but through the physical universe and through man himself as well. They will need to draw on the full range of their education as they do so. They will be following the apostle Paul’s exhortation12 to learn from the examples of those who have gone before and beginning to develop their own answers to the question (with apologies to Francis Schaeffer) of “How shall we then live?” Every fact, every truth has its ultimate meaning in God, and God is ultimately behind every fact and every event in history. He reveals himself to us through creation which we study under the name of “science.” He reveals Himself to us through His providence, which we study under the name of “history”. He reveals Himself to us through man himself, created in His image though marred by sin, which we study under the names of “philosophy” and “poetry” and “art” and “music” among others. All of this must be brought to bear on the question of how we set about to glorify God and fully enjoy Him forever.”13
In summary, then, the goal of a classical and Christian sequence in history is not to prepare students to always win at Trivial Pursuits, not to arm them with some critically minimal set of “essential facts,” but to equip them for a lifetime of learning from the “examples … written for our instruction. ” We will (or at least should) always be learning new facts about history, but the application of the principles of the trivium to a Christian study of history is much broader than the “how” and “when” of presenting historical events and facts, and much more relevant than a parlor game. Rather it is an effective way of equipping students with one of the essential tools of learning–that of applying the lessons gleaned from events providentially recorded for us, whether in scripture or outside it, to our “chief and highest end” as Christians.14
1 Gen. 1:26, 31
2 Gen. 3:6, 17, 23-24
3 Gen. 4:5-6, 8; Heb. 11:4
4 Gen. 4:16-24
5 Gen. 4:25-26; Gen. 5:6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 25, 28-29, Gen. 6:9, 22
6 Gen. 50:20; Prov. 21:1
7 Gen. 9:1-17
8 Gen. 11:3
9 Gen. 11:7, 9
10 Gen. 11: 10-26
11 Herodotus, The History, as cited earlier.
12 I Cor. 10:11, cited earlier.
13 Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 1.
14 Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 1, as cited earlier.