You’re all familiar with the adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” originally uttered by the Spanish poet-philosopher, George Santayana. We all know that history is important for this reason. But what about unrepeatable history? What about one-time events that have shaped the way we think today? If we forget them, are we bound to repeat the unrepeatable?

I think for the Christian there is another reason why we should study history. It is simply that God manifested himself in history. Although God is outside of time and space, he invaded it, ultimately, decisively, and magnificently, in the person of Jesus Christ. The life Christ lived cannot be repeated. So, what if we forget about him? Are we bound to repeat his story?

No, it’s not the repetition of history that is at stake in this instance. Rather, the neglect of history—or rather, the subordination of history to theological concerns—is what can condemn us. All too often, Christians take at face value that the Gospels are true, that the Old Testament stories are true, that everything in the Bible, in fact, is true. Santayana’s adage is replaced by our own Christian subcultural one: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Frankly, I’m not so sure this is a very healthy approach to the Bible. It may be fine for baby Christians, but in the long haul a different attitude must prevail if we are to grow.

The truly remarkable thing about Christianity is that its holy book, the Bible, is the only sacred scripture of any major religion that intentionally grounds itself in history. It is vulnerable to historical inquiry. Jesus performs miracles in Bethsaida; he heals a man on the Sabbath; he speaks to crowds in the north shore of the sea of Galilee. He had a dozen men who were close to him, who witnessed what he was like. And there were scores of other followers who were almost as close and who witnessed many of his deeds and words. The Gospels are filled with information about times and places—and witnesses. They essentially are saying, “Test to see if this is true.”

In our Christian subculture today, however, we frequently decide that examination of the data is wrong, almost blasphemous. Evangelicals especially are tempted by the lure of an easy path that says, “Don’t test this; just trust it.” I have seen serious students in seminaries ask professors about the historical reliability of a particular biblical story, and the professors tell students that such questions are inappropriate. They say, “I believe this because I believe the Bible is inerrant. That’s good enough for me!” The problem that this posture creates is threefold: first, it does nothing to convince the person who doubts inerrancy; second, it’s an easy cop-out, a lazy excuse, for not studying the historical probability of a reported event; third, it creates a doctrinal taxonomy which elevates bibliology above Christology.

I should explain my third point a bit more. Whenever we hide behind the excuse of inerrancy and use that as a shield to protect us from studying the text, from investigating historically what happened, we dishonor Christ. Why? Because the incarnation demands that we study the Bible historically. God did not become man so that we could simply believe or disbelieve. He became man so that we could investigate and learn for ourselves. Often, inerrancy is a paper-thin protection from thinking, propped up by a person who tries to believe by simply believing. This is not biblical Christianity. A biblical faith is one that questions, one that investigates, one that pursues truth at all costs. A genuine Christian should never be afraid to pursue the truth. We of all people should devote our lives to this with reckless abandon.

When Paul wrote that over 500 believers saw the risen Christ at one time, he added an important little note: “most of whom are still alive” (1 Cor 15.6). Why did he add that note? Because the eyewitness testimony was important to him. Why was the stone rolled away on Easter morning—to let Christ out? Hardly. It was to let the disciples in, so that they could see with their own eyes that it was empty.

When Paul preached in Berea, Luke tells us, “These Jews were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they eagerly received the message, examining the scriptures carefully every day to see if these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with quite a few prominent Greek women and men” (Acts 17.11-12 [NET]). The Bereans were both critical and receptive. They listened to Paul with open minds, but they examined the scriptures to see if what he said about the Messiah was grounded in the Old Testament. They weren’t patsies for quick-fix evangelism. The word for ‘open-minded’ is the adjective eugenesteroi, an adjective that the standard Greek lexicon for New Testament Greek defines as “pert[aining] to having the type of attitude ordinarily associated with well-bred persons, noble-minded, open-minded.” Luke’s assessment of a closed-minded person seems to be that such a person is not noble, is not well-bred.

The problem is that we can be closed-minded either by not believing at all, or by punting and using the magic wand of inerrancy to absolve us from having to do any research or any thinking. The really dangerous person is the one who is both closed-minded and is a teacher of others. Their students will either pick up the habit of their mentor and remain closed-minded, or else they will turn on their teacher and assume that they have been fed a line of bull because the professor was afraid to pursue the truth. The fact that the great majority of theological liberals come out of a theologically conservative environment is a sad narrative on how ineffective this simple fideism is at producing the next generation of faithful Christian leaders.

    13 replies to "Why History Matters"

    • Vance

      Amen and amen.

      Oddly, I used that same bumper-sticker quotation “The Bible says it . . .” in a post on Euangelion just about ten minutes ago!

      Also consider Luke’s insistence that he did his historical research before writing Luke.

      As NT Wright says, Christianity makes historical claims, so to history we must go!

      Of course, not every text in Scripture is making a strictly historical claim, or not to the same degree as some others, which makes a study of history all the more important. We need to know enough about the culture and the author’s mindsets to be able to come a reasonable conclusion regarding the DEGREE of historicity was intended. Do we follow Calvin and accept that Job was not meant as literal history, for example. A study of history, culture and literature can help us with this.

    • richards

      Good point, Vance. I’m studying John’s Gospel, and while John records historical events, he doesn’t always record them chronologically. Even in historical events, the evangelists offers a few historical snippets, but then offers his own interpretations (i.e., a few words between Jesus and Nicodemus, then John’s commentary in John 3).

      I guess it would be fair to say that we cannot equate historical with a verbatim account. Or another way, I hold more to ipsissima vox, rather than ipsissima verba. Ipsissima verba across the board does not stand up to even a cursory glance at scripture, although this is what most would think of when they think of inerrancy.

    • Kevin

      Please expound on this: “A genuine Christian should never be afraid to pursue the truth. We of all people should devote our lives to this with reckless abandon.”.

      Who should do this? Theologians? Those who are called? Who then will reach the lost and make disciples?

    • Dan Wallace

      Kevin, I think this is a responsibility of all Christians to some degree. For most, it’s not practical to do independent research, but they can learn to trust those in the church who have a proven pedigree of honest scholarship. But as for reaching the lost, I’m not sure that there is any dichotomy between pursuing truth and reaching the lost. Why should there be?

    • veritas83

      Kevin: I agree with Dr. Wallace – there should be no dichotomy between outreach and a quest for truth. After all, Jesus is the truth. In our evangelistic efforts we are merely pointing unbelievers to the One who is Truth.

      Stephen Stallard

    • Lisa R

      For several years, I was very studious about the bible, but was not instructed on reading the bible in a clultural, historical, grammitacal context. And I was impacted by teaching that said, if you question then you don’t have faith. Needless to say that I believed all kinds of crazy stuff and, to be sure, my spritual growth was impacted.

      About 1 1/2 years ago, I was challenged by a new acquiantance (now a good friend) on how I understood the bible. And so began a process that has underscored the importance of proper hermeneutics, historical and cultural significance and being like the Bereans, examining the scriptures to see if these things are so.

      It’s quite libertating! And I agree with you Dan, it does our God a disservice, when He saw fit to reveal himself to us through 40 authors and 66 books that are so exquistedly orchestrated, that we would just settle for a superficial treatment and call it belief.

    • CharlesM


      I think we can assume that the Bible is true.

      But “true” does not necessarily mean conformed to what we want the truth to be. To believe that the Bible is true means being willing to admit that all of our theological sacred cows may not be right! It means being at peace with the idea of trusting God without “proof”.

      I believe that Genesis is true. I also realize that most scientific evidence gathered thus far suggests that the earth is more than 6000 years old. Believing the “truth” of Genesis does not entail embracing any young-earth argument (no matter how far fetched) as long as it supports a literally true 6 day account. In believing that the account is “true” I am willing to accept something other than that which I was taught if it seems to make sense. And I am comfortable that God has the wisdom to have given us what He has given us in terms of His word.

    • Vance

      Charles, on that issue, and in an effort to avoid this thread from getting side-tracked in that direction, here is an article I wrote earlier today over at Euangelion you might be interested in:

    • Dan Wallace

      Well said, Vance! As for how long it took God to create the earth, I think the real question is what genre is Genesis 1? Is it meant to be taken literally? If so, how could there by a 24-hour day before the sun was created? I’m not going to argue for or against a young earth view; frankly, I don’t know what I believe about it, and it’s not central to my convictions. But I do think that once we elevate our interpretation to the level of certainty that belongs only to the text, we can get ourselves into a mess of trouble. And there are simply too many really decent Hebrew exegetes who would claim that Gen 1 is not meant to be taken literally, and that the text fits a theological apologetic genre that really gets at why the Jewish nation was supposed to rest on the Sabbath (after all, if God did, they don’t have a right not to!).

      In my doctrinal taxonomy, there are four expanding concentric circles: the inner circle contains those beliefs that I consider vital to salvation; the next circle involves those beliefs that I think are important for spiritual growth; the next circle incorporates beliefs that are necessary for the practice of the local body of Christ; the outer circle are those things that we can speculate on and do not affect any of the inner circles. I place the method and time of creation in that outer circle. It’s one of those things that I would say is interesting but should never cause division for believers. Obviously, if God created the universe in six literal days, and this could be proven, there would be an end to atheism! But if God took millions of years to create all things, and chose as part of his means to accomplish it macro-evolution, this does not mean that atheism is correct. It just means that both views can be compatible with each other—except, of course, for the source of life in the universe as well as the source of ‘stuff’ in the universe.

    • CharlesM


      That is a fabulous piece.

      I don’t want to sidetrack the thread. My intent was to put “historical truth” in proper perspective. We should approach the scriptures without fear of what history (or science for that matter) will tell us. God never promised “proof” – rather He asked for faith.

      Personally I have visceral objection to the arguments like, “if x is not literally true then we should all go home because God is a liar…” And you are right in seeing this type of stance as a severe stumbling block.

    • Vance

      Charles and Dan, I agree entirely. I think the same problems arise with science AND history in this regard. One thing I added in the comments to that article can be easily adjusted to be relevant to this thread as well.

      If we see an apparent contradiction between Scripture and history or science, then we can be sure there is EITHER a misinterpretation of science or history, OR there is a misrepresentation of Scripture, or both.

      I think the problem has been that too many Christians have assumed that the misinterpretation MUST be on the part of science or history, and have failed to really consider that the fault may lie with their interpretation of Scripture.

      We have fallible humans interpreting history and science, and we have fallible humans interpreting Scripture. I think God has given us both His book of Nature and His book of Scripture, and it is our job to consider all of this evidence together, and then only hold to our conclusions on these non-essential areas as tightly as the evidence allows.

      My motto in all of these areas is “remember geocentrism”!

      Dan, I remember those circles and I think it is really a great way to organize our thinking and prioritize our “battles”.

    • C Michael Patton

      You guys are awesome!

    • William Mayor

      I am both sorry that I have not found this blog earlier, and pleased that I have found it when I have evidence that part of the presented history of the Bible is not historically accurate. I have often seen cited that Luke’s geographic accuracy is proof of his historical accuracy. I know see evidence that Luke’s geographical accuracy is cover for historical inaccuracy, at least in Acts. In fact the evidence seems to suggest that Theophilus might have been Vespasian, and Luke-Acts written to distance Christianity from Judaism at a time when Judaism was in clear disfavor in the Roman Empire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.