History: Trivium vs. Trivial Pursuit Part One

History: Trivium vs. Trivial Pursuit Part One by Bob Donaldson

As we seek to apply the trivium to the study of history, we struggle against two common cultural biases. First, we struggle against a culture that discounts anything that pertains to any generation older than its own. The “Christian” version of this mindset asks if studying history for lessons applicable to the present isn’t like putting new experiential wine into old “traditional” wineskins. Second we struggle against a preconception of history as a collection of dry names, dates and places to be memorized, regurgitated on a test, then relegated to a future involving little more than success at Trivial Pursuits. How do we address these issues?

Fortunately, God speaks to this question directly. In 1 Corinthians 10:1-11, for example, Paul refers to God’s authoritative history book. He cites numerous historical incidents from the Old Testament, then concludes as follows: “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction”

While application of this principle to non-inspired histories should obviously be limited by the lack of authoritative standing for those works, we can still look to those histories for much valuable instruction. God reveals Himself to us both through the scriptures and also through the natural world. In the natural world, He reveals Himself through creation and through His sovereign providence as worked out in history. As students of the truth, we must continually seek to understand every fact in the context of God’s revelation to us. Cornelius Van Til addresses the natural man’s inability and unwillingness to do this as follows:

“. . . these facts [of history] needed to be explained by God himself. Sinful man cannot and will not explain them truly. . . . According to a pragmatic philosophy of history anything may happen and nothing will have any particular and universal meaning”

In other words, it really does matter what worldview assumptions are brought to bear on history. It matters, for instance, whether Moses or Pharaoh writes the history of the Exodus.

It also matters how we go about applying the lessons of history to our current situation. Pagans also look to history for examples, but while these brief quotes from Thucydides and Herodotus confirm the value of historical study, they also reveal a somewhat different presupposition concerning the relevance and purpose of historical study (emphasis mine):

“The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. ”

“These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preserving the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory.”

As we study history then, or any other subject for that matter, both our own worldview, whether or not we hold it self-consciously, and that of the historian or teacher, will influence our interpretation.

As regards the study of history, we should also recognize how limited our view of “the facts” really is and how dependent we are on the worldview of those who have sifted and selected those facts for us. As John says in his Gospel:

“And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books which were written.”

As teachers (and curricula developers) we need to recognize the awesome responsibility of both the selection and the interpretation of historical events. We must resist the temptation of “Christian revisionism” (i.e. revising history to make all the “good guys” into Christians), while encouraging students to answer the question, “How is God revealing Himself through these events?,” as they study. There can be no doubt that God is revealing Himself. As Christians, we must recognize the importance of history as a source of revelation. J. Gresham Machen, a reformed theologian of the early 20th century, said it this way (again, referring directly to scripture, but with application to history as a whole):

“Historical study is absolutely necessary for a stalwart Christianity…. We Christians are interested not merely in what God commands, but also in what God did; the Christian religion is couched not merely in the imperative mood, but also in the triumphant indicative; our salvation depends squarely upon history; the Bible contains history, and unless that history is true the authority of the Bible is gone and we who have put our trust in the Bible are without hope…. The centre and core of the Bible is history. Everything else that the Bible contains is fitted into an historical framework that leads up to an historical climax. The Bible is primarily a record of events.”

There will always be limitations on our understanding, whether of history or of any other subject. God is constantly revealing Himself to us, but his infinite character remains always beyond the understanding of our finite minds. Our challenge as we teach history from a distinctively and self-consciously Christian worldview is to avoid the trap of seeing information (or truth) itself as our “savior.” As Van Til reminds us:

“Men often speak as though the only thing that the sinner needs is true information. This … is not the case. Man needs true interpretation, but he also needs to be made a new creature.”

Instead, we should model the study of history as the study of God’s providence as He reveals Himself through the events of history, and we should equip students to understand history in this light. If we accept the necessity of equipping students to study and apply history, what then are the components of historical study that make up the trivium? How should we present historical truth in ways which equip students at various levels with the tools of historical learning? The rest of this paper will suggest answers to these questions…. [To be continued next issue.]