By Kenneth Nehrbass
History degree programs are in decline, as students look for majors that have a clear pathway to a career. In 1967, 5.7% of degrees awarded went to history majors; in 2019, the number was down to 1.2% (Townsend, 2021). Yet the study of history is important for the Christian faith – some would say it is essential. A large section of the Old Testament falls into the genre of history. The gospels and the book of Acts are also histories. To read the Bible correctly, we need the tools of historiography. Therefore, all students at Christian colleges benefit from discovering the integration of faith and history. Below, I describe three main ways that history can strengthen the foundation of our faith.
Scripture teaches us to use history to discern the hand of God
The Lord explained to the prophet Isaiah that He directs history for his own sake. “As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand” (Isaiah 14:24, ESV). And later He said, “Have you not heard? Long ago I did it, From ancient times I planned it. Now I have brought it to pass” (37:26, ESV). While it can be difficult for historians to say definitively what God had in mind as He allowed the events of history to unfold, it would be myopic to dismiss the role of the greatest History-Maker from historical inquiry.
In fact, throughout much of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, historians have been “chroniclers”: They have recorded what God has done. They interpreted the past with a deliberate lens of “providence,” asking “What was God doing here?” (Nehrbass, 2021, p. 76). Scripture teaches us two main ways to discern the “hand of God” in history: praise, and repentance.
At times, finding the “hand of God” in history can lead us to praise. “My mouth will tell of your righteous acts” (Psalm 71:15, ESV). Hundreds of years after the Exodus, Israelites recalled the historical events in detail, to thank God for “the great work” He did (Psalm 14-15).
At other times history leads us to repentance. For example, Deuteronomy 4 warns us to keep reading about God’s works in the time of Moses, lest we fall into idolatry. And when Ezra read the greatest History Book (the Torah) to the biblically-illiterate crowd, they repented as they discovered how far they had drifted from God (Nehemiah 8).
The tools of historiography point to the trustworthiness of scripture
Rick Kennedy, professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene, imagines an enthusiastic undergraduate trying to persuade her friends that if the disciples went to college, they would major in history (Kennedy, 2019). As the fictitious conversation unfolds, Kennedy builds a case for why the study of history is inherently a Christian activity.
- The gospel story relies on a historical message – Peter’s first sermon (Acts 2:14-41) was a “history lesson” (p. 92); and,
- The value of Christianity depends on the historicity of its claims about Jesus.
Because Christianity is so reliant on history, early Christian writers like Eusebius developed the field of historiography. They outlined methods for determining the veracity of authors’ claims, and noted the importance of corroborating sources (Kennedy, 2019). A number of prominent Christian leaders have shared that their own faith journey included the application of historical methods. Lee Stroebel (2016) and Josh McDowell (2003) became convinced of the resurrection because of the agreement of multiple credible eyewitness testimonies.
Studying history can teach us about ourselves
The study of history narrows our focus on God’s crowning achievement: humankind – the only thing He called “very good” (Gen 1:31). It looks at ways we have acted as image bearers to create “arts, sciences, politics, religions philosophies, all of it” (Kennedy, 2019, p. 94).
The study of history also helps us develop biblical virtues. For example, we learn the skills of listening (James 1:19), empathizing (Rom 12:15), and representing the oppressed (Isa. 1:17); and, we learn humility (Prov. 22:14) as we discover our deep fallen-ness, and as we learn of the amazing achievements of those who are different than we are.
Not everyone is a “history buff.” But every Christian can find ways that the study of history increases their confidence in scripture, leads them to repentance and praise, and causes them to evaluate ways that we respond to historical events.
We want to know how the study of history has impacted your Christian faith. Respond in the comments section.
If you are interested in more resources about the connection between Christianity and the study of history, consider these sources:
Bebbington, D. (1980). Patterns in history. Downers Grove, IL: IVP.
Butterfield, H. (1979). Writings on Christianity and History. New York: Oxford.
Finn, N. and Dockery, D. (2016). History: A student’s guide. Wheaton IL: Crossway.
Gilkey, L. (1977). Reaping the whirlwind: A Christian interpretation of history. New York: Seabury.
Green, J. (2015). Christian Historiography: Five rival versions. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.
Mansfield, S. (2000). More than dates and dead people: Recovering a Christian view of history. Cumberland House.
Marsden, G and Roberts, Frank (eds). (1975). A Christian view of history? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
McIntire, C. (ed) The focus of historical study: A Christian view. Toronto: Institute for Christian studies.
Nieburh, R. (1949). Faith and history: A Comparison of Christian and modern views of history. New York, NY: Scribner’s.
Pardue, B. (2018) Integrating Faith and Learning in the Western Civilization Classroom, Christian Higher Education, 17:3, 167-174, DOI: 10.1080/15363759.2017.1377649
Wells. (1989). History through the Eyes of Faith. San Francisco: HarperOne.
Kennedy, R. (2019). “The feminine quality of history” in Edward Meadors (ed). Where wisdom may be found. (pp 92- 97). Eugene, OR: Pickwick.
McDowell, J. (2003). More than a carpenter. Nashville,TN: Tyndale
Nehrbass, K. (2021). Advanced Missiology. Eugene, OR: Cascade
Stroebel, L. (2016). The case for Christ: A journalists personal investigation of the evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Townsend, R. (2021). Has the decline in history majors hit bottom? Perspectives on History.