The “science” of History

So the last 3 or 4 weeks I’ve been engrossed in alternative understandings of the early church; the development of the church into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and the “heretical” groups who provided an alternative to the developing consensus.

In an age in which technology allows us to – fly around the world in 90 ton flying machines, send photos, music and information to each other through the airwaves, and provide power to our cities by splitting atoms, creating steam, turning turbines and moving electrons – it appears as though human beings have acquired immense knowledge of the world around them. In one sense this is absolutely true – the science of technology has given us insight into countless phenomenon and provided us with the tools to harness the power of the earth in unbelievable ways – but not all sciences have been as successful.

The word history come from the Greek historia (στορία) and indicates knowledge acquired by investigation. In this sense it is very similar to the word science which comes from the Latin scientia, also meaning knowledge. Now while the natural and physical sciences have provided major insight into our world, insight that has directly affected our technological advancement, the science of history has been far less successful. The apparent success of the one and failure of the other is due, in large part, to the tools and methods employed and (more importantly) employable by each.

The Scientific Method seeks to explain the events and processes of nature in observable and reproducible ways. History on the other hand relies on the memories of others to tell a story about what has happened in the past. While the findings of natural science can (usually) be judged and evaluated by repeating the experiment – history cannot!

Unfortunately however, in an age where our intelligence has surpassed our wildest imagination, the average person simply believes that the successful domination of the science of history is automatically included in the powerful feats of modern man. But should anybody ever attempt an actual investigation of history, in which the outcome of such an investigation would hold serious consequences for the investigator – say perhaps an investigation into the history and development of the early church – it would gradually become apparent that history has a bias and a shadow that muddies the waters of reflection and darkens the memory so that the truth revealed is (perhaps incurably) obscured.

I once read that history is written by the winners. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it has become much clearer to me since then. George Orwell followed on from this understanding of history and said “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” Once history has been written – with all the bias, lies and deception capable of fallen human beings – it is written. It’s extremely difficult to look back over the expanse of 2000 years and try to get back to the reality of what really happened and what it was really all about. That wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t affect the present and the future – but it does!

What you believe about the past, especially as a Christian, directly affects the way you think about the present and the direction you will go in the future. While on the surface it may seem that the 30 000 Christian groups, denominations and traditions are separated over issues of theology, it would be more accurate to say they are separated by their history.

Each of these groups (and of course it’s more true of some than of others) is reaching back across time and space and telling their story – the history of the birth and development of Christianity. Each group has its’ heroes and its’ villains and each group explains its’ existence as the providential work of God in the face of the continual onslaught by the forces of darkness.

The Catholics tell of their fight against the evil forces of the Roman Empire and their providential victory both over Rome and over the heretical Arians, Ebionites and Marcionites. Later they tell of the lies and wickedness of the Protestant Reformation and the insidious evils of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. But God, they say, protected his Roman Catholic Church and brought it through the terrible trial and their history will show that without a doubt they are telling the truth.

The Orthodox tell of their holy battle against the Western Corrupters and the devastating effect of the rise of the Papacy. The persecution continued under Islam and then under Communism. But thankfully God has protected His One True Church and through the careful retelling of history the Orthodox can prove that they are this Church.

The Protestants tell of their spiritual awakening through the power of the Holy Spirit and their retrieval of the lost history of the Christian Church. They tell the story of the evil Catholics and their corruption of the simplicity of Early Christianity. They also tell of the evils of the Jews and how they sought to bind the young church back under the yoke of Judaism. The success of Protestantism is, of course, proof – that the Spirit of God has sanctioned the history of Protestantism and validated the truth thereof.

These three major traditions are evidence enough of the complexity involved in trying to recapture the past. There are many, many more stories like these and many more groups that tell the story through other eyes and emphases.

Currently I’m exploring the history of Christianity as told by the various Messianic groups. They tell the story of a Jewish Messiah sent by God to restore all things to his God and Father. They have many things in common with other Christian groups and many things that are different (even amongst themselves). But as they say…”the devil is in the details” and when it come to history, it’s the details that are the most difficult to see.

About jacobsstruggle

My name is Jacques - a French variant of Jacob. I Love God, my Family and this wonderful gift of Life. In my experience the Spiritual Life can be quite a Struggle - this is mine.

Posted on July 15, 2010, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hi Jacques, very thought provoking and very very well written! These are very important issues and you have identified a very important challenge for us as Christians. It is very obvious that History is biased and that many many of the details are missing, many because they have been deliberately excluded and hidden.

    Your evaluation of History and Science is fascinating and raises some major philosophical questions and concerns. I do still believe, however, that to view all knowledge as relative as a result of the gaps that exist, is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water – which is not what you’re saying, but it is the general direction many people are headed in (one of the basic tenets of postmodernism).

    Unfortunately most ‘Christian’ history is equally biased, as you have pointed out well. For instance, I have always been fascinated by the Reformed and Calvinist churches for their accentuation of the ‘positive traits’ of their ‘historical heros’ to the exclusion of their weaknesses and the important truths taught by ‘the opposition’. They will present their own reformed take on Augustine’s theology while ignoring other parts of his theology that make them uncomfortable. They never tell you in their history books that Calvin was an autocratic leader who sanctioned the murder of many Anabaptists in the name of God. You never hear about Luther’s bad temper and the often uncivilized way in which he would attack the Catholic church. They will tell you that Kierkegaard was nothing more than a religious humanist philosopher, when in fact it was him who, at the time of Luther, foresaw the many potential pitfalls of the Protestant Reformation which we are stuck with today.

    Of course we know that the Catholic Church did the same in its heyday and you have discovered similar realities in the Orthodox Church. We see the same thing in politics where so many of the truths which mysteriously unlock political mysteries are simply not in the main stream of human knowledge. We see it in education, medicine, big business… the truth is that the truth is not always what it’s made out to be on the surface of things.

    I know that there are many who would argue this, but I do deeply believe that no matter what people have said about the canonization of the Bible, it is the one collection of ‘dissident’ books that cuts through the illusion and speaks plainly into our human reality. For sure, people twist the interpretation of the Scriptures to suit their own agenda (and have. clearly, for centuries), but the Bible never ultimately surrenders to this abuse, rather it has the uncanny ability to expose spiritual fraud as well as the secular fraud that riddles our society, our -‘modern’, ‘technological’, ‘enlightened’ society- like a terminal cancer.

    Institutional/Protestant/Liberal/Conservative/Evangelical/Charismatic… you name it, Christianity, is equally riddled with the self-same spiritual fraud that is the natural inclination of a fallen humanity. That isn’t to say that all institutional manifestations of the kingdom are wrong or bad, but many of them are, because many have lost the genuine basis upon which they were established.

    Sean Tucker wrote a superb article on the foundational motives for establishing the New World of America and the genuine concerns and passions, longings and ideals represented by the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. We all know how horribly short America falls of these ideals today, for all that it has ‘become’. The same is true of the church.

    For me, genuine transformation must be a spiritual reality which is evidenced by genuine spiritual fruits (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control, etc.) and a radical transformation of the way we relate to other human beings. This transformation can only ultimately be accomplished through a genuine connectedness with God as the Bible clearly speaks to – a re-connection made possible by the atonement. The evidence of this transformation is intuitively known by others and very often subconsciously so.

    Conversely, the dark truths that haunt history from the shadows of what is not said, whether they be in relation to the secular and political structures of our societies, or the church (and other religions) in all its forms, are also intuitively (and often subconsciously) known by all, but seldom explored and exposed for what they really reveal to us about the nature of this world and of humanity as a whole. My sense is that if we did explore this well, it would lead us back to the fundamental, and timeless spiritual truths in the Bible.

    God’s judgment of humanity has little to do with moralism, and everything to do with exposing the lies and illusions we have been lead to believe are in fact the absolute truth (even by many quarters of institutional Christianity!). Either we figure this out now, or we will be faced with it when the Ancient of Days takes His seat, the courts are seated and the books of genuine human history are opened, revealing everything that has ever been done in the name of the Devil… and of God (Dan. 7:9-10).

    The question is, how do we connect with the truth now? The answer is that God’s Spirit leads us into all truth, and this, as you have rightly said, is a spiritual reality requiring our genuine and committed surrender to His work within us (connecting with His Spirit), perfecting us and using us to bring about the kingdom, for the good of all and in the face of the growing opposition we will encounter at the hands of a fallen, deluded, angry, abusive and sin-sick world.

    For me, this is the only reality that begins to fill in the gaps, shed light on the dark intuitive mysteries around us and provide a fair and unbiased evaluation of the entire human race without demanding blind and total allegiance to some human institute or authority. The kingdom is spiritual, and it is within those of us who connect with God, albeit imperfectly for now, but one day we will ‘see in full, what we presently see in a glass darkly’, even in ourselves.

  2. Hey Chris,

    Thanks for the reply. I fully agree that the Scriptures are unlike any other collection of books and that we would be more than foolish to believe it can simply be discarded as an outdated piece of antiquity. Unfortunately I think it has been damaged more than the average Christian realizes.

    Even so, I also trust that when we read it with the support of the Holy Spirit we will be led to the truth, regardless of the corruption that may exist therein. I’ve written a new post reflecting on the history of the Bible. It really is one of God’s most powerful tools, but there is reason to consider the problems associated with reading it and the difficulties of trying to determine what it actually says.

  1. Pingback: Translating the Truth « Jacob's Struggle

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