History: Why Read It?

Why should history have to make a case for itself? No one questions why we should study mathematics or science. The humanities are always having to justify their existence in a way that is not expected of other disciplines. Even so, I do not mind the question—either as a writer of historical fiction or a student of historic theology—because I believe that studying history provides many benefits to us, not only as human beings, but specifically as Christians.

  1. History reveals the depravity of man.

I once worked on a social science research survey where I was required to ask young people whether they believed that human beings were basically good. Nearly all of them, regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education, or religious beliefs, answered that we are basically good. Scripture, on the other hand, suggests that human beings tend toward evil apart from the grace of God.

As Jeremiah prophesied, “The heart is more deceitful than all else, And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) The Apostle Paul wrote that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and Isaiah lamented, “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Isaiah 64:6)

It is impossible to study history without encountering this truth. If we only focus on what is happening in our immediate context, and that immediate context happens to be protected from many of the ills of this world, we can start believing the lie that people are generally good. However, if we look beyond to the heartache that has plagued every generation, we understand that things are not as rosy as we supposed. Who can read about the Soviet gulags, the African slave trade, or the systematic rape carried out by invading armies without wondering, “Are we really good?” No culture in history has made it through any substantial amount of time without committing wicked acts, including our own. This is a testament to our innate depravity.

  1. History reveals the sovereignty of God.

Isaiah tells us, “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, And are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales; Behold, He lifts up the islands like fine dust…He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless.” (Isaiah 40:15, 23) Likewise, the Apostle John revealed that all of history points toward the final victory of our God, who is king over all the nations. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15b)

History once again confirms this biblical truth. Empires rise only to fall. The princes and principalities we fear today are in the hand of our God, who works everything according to His sovereign purpose. As we study history, we see powerful kingdoms ascend one by one, and each time we think, “Maybe this one will last.” Like clockwork, they all decline. Moreover, the Lord uses both the great events of history and the small events in our own lives to bring everything toward that point when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord. (Philippians 2:11)

While it can be dangerous to read God’s purposes into history, scripture itself reveals how the rise and fall of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman empires helped to bring about God’s salvific plan. Caesar Augustus was the most powerful man in the world for a time, and yet in one of his seemingly mundane acts—his command that a census be carried out of the entire Roman world—he unknowingly played a part in God’s intent that the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem. (Luke 2:1-5) God is sovereign over everything, including boring government decrees.

3. History reveals the faithfulness of God.

This is a related point. When we study the history of God’s people, both in the pages of scripture and various historical records, we see how the Lord provided for them time after time. When the light of the gospel seems to dim, He brings forth a flame. When it looks as if His people will be destroyed, He preserves a remnant.

The survival of the Church and its continued growth in the face of tremendous persecution is a testament to God’s faithfulness. Likewise, the transformative power of the Spirit in our own lives and those of great Christians throughout history reminds us what kind of God we serve. When we read about such people as Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, and John Bunyan, we see the impact of the gospel. More than that, we see how God remained faithful to them through many trials. Whether our lives be short or long, the Lord will have his way in them. He will accomplish His purposes.

Studying history does not simply help us become critical thinkers and sympathize more easily with others. It also reveals important truths that reinforce the inspired teaching of scripture. Therefore, go forth and read about history!

Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at www.amymantravadi.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.

Amy Mantravadi