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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.

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