What is History?

History implies at least two things: a sequence of events and a context for events.

1.  Historical Sequence.

  • Events happen in an order.  Some events happen before others.  Some events follow others.  This all seems fairly trivial until we realize some things could not happen until other things happened first.
  • I am not a fan of any form of determinism: naturalistic or theological.  You can picture someone hitting a cue ball in a game of billiards on the break.  The motion of each ball is determined by the motion of the ball before it.  That is determinism.
  • I do believe in historical influence.  A new event does not necessarily cause all subsequent events, but it does open up new possibilities and close off others.
  • The history of the Bible involves God’s interaction with human beings.  God does certain things and says certain things.  He does them in an order that is appropriate.  Some things cannot be said or done until other things happen.
  • Christians have traditionally used the concept of progressive revelation.  God revealed himself and his will progressively, more fully over time.  Progressive revelation is a good concept.  Irenaeus compared the Old Testament to an educational program.  Think about this: Why don’t we teach Calculus and Shakespeare in Kindergarten?
  • On the other hand, because God interacts with intransigent human beings, we cannot say that progress always goes forward in a straight line.  There is a give and take, a back and forth in the history of the Bible.

2.  Historical Context

  • At each point in Biblical history, in each story in the Biblical narrative there is a historical context of geography, nationality, society, and culture.  These things constituted the world of the biblical people.  Their world provided the framework of their understanding.  God communicated with humans in terms of their understanding, that is, in terms of their world.
  • Another traditional concept that is still useful is that of condescension.  When God speaks to humans, he bends down, reaches out, and speaks to them in their language, in terms they can understand.
  • The physical, material, and conceptual world in which people live make up their culture.  Language and thinking are tied closely to language.  Translating the Old Testament is not just a matter of translating words from Hebrew to English.  It is a matter of translating from one culture to another.
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