What is a biblical approach to history? While we often discuss contemporary cultural issues on this podcast, this episode we talk about how to think biblically about history itself by exploring what biblical principles approach how we think about the past. Our guest is Dr. Vern Poythress, author of Redeeming Our Thinking about History.
Vern S. Poythress, Ph.D. Harvard University, is Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Biblical Interpretation, and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He has six academic degrees and has written numerous books and articles.
Sean McDowell: What is a biblical approach to history? On this podcast, we often discuss contemporary cultural issues and aim to help you think biblically about them. But sometimes we also want to take a step back and talk about how to think biblically about an entire discipline itself such as history. That’s our goal today and we think you will greatly enjoy our guest, Dr. Vern Poythress, who’s a professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and he’s written a great new book called “Redeeming Our Thinking About History.” Dr. Poythress, thanks so much for joining us.
Vern Poythress: Oh, well, I appreciate your asking me.
Sean McDowell: Well, let’s jump right in. You’re a professor of New Testament and systematic theology. What led you to write a book on how Christians should think about and redeem history?
Vern Poythress: Well, there are several things in the background. One is because I’m interacting with the Bible. I teach a course on how to interpret the Bible. I’m really aware of the fact that bad ideas about history have penetrated university, major universities of the world in their treatment of the Bible. There is an approach called the historical critical method that has become dominant in elite universities. And it’s thought of as being, well, this is the scholarly way of analyzing any issues in history and any piece of literature, including the Bible. But the assumption in the background is that miracles don’t happen. It’s a massive program of reinterpreting the Bible within a naturalistic framework, and of course, the central miracle in the Bible is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, bodily resurrection.
Sean McDowell: Amen.
Vern Poythress: And to be consistent, they have to be skeptical about that. But it’s not only there. You will find it throughout scholarly commentaries that comment on individual books of the Bible. They try to explain the origins of those books and the composition of those books entirely in naturalistic terms, as if God did not exist or He was not involved. So, it’s had a tremendous bad influence on the surrounding culture and people’s attitude toward the Bible. And behind it, of course, is an assumption about the nature of history, right? But miracles don’t happen or even if they do happen because some people would make a few exceptions. Even if they do happen, we cannot responsibly deal with that as scholars. Well, that’s like putting blinders on the horse, right? So he can’t see anything that’s outside the range of what he wants to see or what we want him to see.
So that has been a major motivation just because I want people to have confidence in the Bible. I want them to understand a lot of the skeptical things that are said. And you’ve got these documentary things on TV, for instance. A lot of the stuff there is a product of television people who go to the major universities. Why not? You know, they say, “Well, these are the experts, right?” So they go there and they don’t realize that these people have a very deep bias in their understanding of the unfolding of history. So that’s one reason. Another reason is that the Bible itself, in its own contents, is very much interested in history. Christianity is a historical religion, unlike some other religions. So for instance, Buddhism. Yeah, There was a man that was called Buddha, and he did live and die, but the system of religion that Buddhism represents is really a system that is religious philosophy. It’s not about events in the life of this man who has treated virtually as a deity now, but Christianity is not like that. It’s about events that God brought about in time, beginning with creation, but centrally in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Christ is not raised from the dead, the Bible itself says through the apostle Paul, “If Christ is not raised from the dead, your faith has nothing in it.”
Sean McDowell: That’s right.
Vern Poythress: That’s 1 Corinthians 15. So the Bible itself indicates that these events and that the fact that they really happened, that God was really accomplishing something, are absolutely central to genuine Christianity. And again, many people don’t understand that because there has come a corruption, so-called liberal theology that wants to make Christianity acceptable to people who no longer believe in miracles. It’s in a sense the same issue. So the third issue is that I believe that Christians who are professionals in writing about history are under very serious pressure to write like everybody else does in the secular world, pretending that God does not exist and that He’s not involved in the events.
Sean McDowell: Wow. Scott Rae: So, Vern-
Vern Poythress: Well, of course, the Christians who do this, who do write, know that God is in charge of all events whatsoever. But you don’t need to be endlessly repeating that if you’re writing a book that you’re writing to non-Christians as well. So the issue that comes up in addition is what’s called a providential interpretation of history, of interpreting history in terms of what God’s purposes are in particular events. And that providential approach to history has been very common in the history of the Christian church from the very first centuries of being interested in events that is outside the Bible, right?
So I’ve talked about events in the Bible and what the historical critical approach does in its skepticism. Well, what about events outside the Bible? What about the history of France under Napoleon? What about the First World War? Things like that. Well, the Bible doesn’t include any direct information about it. So we might think, well, we know that God brought the events about, but we have no idea what His purposes are. And it’s true that we have no idea unless He tells us. But there are some general things in the Bible that guide us in our understanding of what He’s doing. For one thing, He is undertaken to have the gospel spread throughout the world, and that is what’s happening. We can see it happening in history, in our modern history, and we can have confidence it, yes, that’s happening because God is doing it. So, the issue of seeing the hand of God in providence and understanding His purposes is a complicated one because we don’t always know. There are many things, even in our personal lives, that we don’t know. Why did God bring sickness or disaster into my life? Why did I get into this car accident and, you know, I’m having to deal with the insurance and all the ups and downs of that. But why did I barely escape from an accident? Well, there are many “why” questions that God does not give us definite answers to. And so the issue of how we understand the purposes of God in history is important both for the professional historian and for the ordinary person who’s saying, why are things happening in my own life? So, I attempt to address that in terms of the Bible’s own view of history.
Scott Rae: So, Vern, let me just go back a little bit. I think it’s really clear, I think, that history should be important to the average believer in Christ because the Bible is grounded and rooted in history. And without those historical events being true, having actually happened like the cross and resurrection of Jesus. You know, 1 Corinthians 15 is pretty clear that our faith has nothing to it. But what about history outside of biblical history? You mentioned, you know, the history of the first and second World War. Why should the study of history be important to Christian faith in general, and what value does it have for Christians in their own personal and spiritual lives? Because I suspect that many of our listeners would, they think of history as sort of, you know, it is what it is, as sort of one thing after another, and they don’t really give much attention to it. But in your book you suggest that giving attention to history and being students of history is something that should be, you know, at least a point of curiosity for all followers of Christ. Why is that?
Vern Poythress: Right. Well, it’s a very good question. And I do want to stress that the starting point is what the Bible says and the history recorded in the Bible, because God says by recording it, “Look, this is something you should know.” So that’s, I think, what needs to be stressed first, and you have already mentioned it. The second thing is to take, you might say, the grand view of history, because people who write about history always have a context of their own. And the context the Bible indicates is a context of creation while redemption and consummation, that is, the new heaven and the new earth. History is going somewhere. And of course, that’s important to us. It’s important to understand we’re creatures, God in that it’s simply not that we exist and depend on God, but He made us. He made each of us and He made the world as a whole. And He has a claim on us and He knows all about us because of that foundation. And then there’s the fall, and this comes to bear in understanding that human beings today are not basically good. We’re basically in rebellion against God, everybody who comes into the world. Now, that doesn’t mean that they can’t do externally good things. But the Bible takes a very, very realistic view of the capabilities of human beings for good and evil. And people who don’t understand that, don’t understand that people are going to be really evil, are going to be caught again and again in the stakes in life, in their ordinary life. Maybe they’re too trusting of somebody or they’re not trusting of anybody. And I… understand that God gives a common grace. He enables people to be better than what their starting principles and their spiritual rebellion would naturally lead them to.
So understanding human nature is important. And then where we’re going is important. Why are you living the way you’re living? What’s your goal? Right? And so the new heaven and new Earth is very important, and that is going to come. It is in God’s plan, and it will come without fail, and that makes a very, very big difference. But I think the question you’re also asking is, well, what about World War I, World War II? What about studying biographies of famous people? What about that kind of thing? And there it’s more subtle. I think the fact is that each of us has an inclination to be caught up in his own life and not to have perspective of what was going on in other people’s lives and sometimes in very different settings than our own. Part of the value of reading about history is understanding people lived and died and struggled in settings like our own and settings very different than our own. And it helps us to stand back from just a preoccupation with the limits of our own lives. And there are sometimes lessons to be learned when people do foolish things and there are foolish consequences. It used to be that a lot of people lived in small communities, and you could observe within your lifetime the development of other families and how so-and-so was a drunkard and never mounted anything because he was addicted to alcohol or so-and-so was always striving and ambitious and he achieved something, but then he was dishonest and he lost his reputation.
Well, lessons from life, they’re there in the book of Proverbs, but they’re there also in the people around us if we stay with their lives for a long period. Part of the trouble with most modern people is they move around and they don’t stay long enough in one place to see this kind of thing. And so history is a big reminder of the fact that decisions have consequence. Now, that’s in a sense just reinforcing what the Bible says, particularly in the book of Proverbs. Now, we ought to know it, but it’s further reinforced by the perspectives, as I say, of times and people that are very different from us.
Sean McDowell: Let me ask you a specific question about how we do history Christianly or biblically, so to speak. One of the sections I enjoyed most in your book was how you talked about belief in the Trinity affects how we do history. That was a novel thought for me. So unpack what you mean by how there’s unity and diversity in history and how our Christian faith informs the way we uniquely approach those kinds of issues.
Vern Poythress: Right. That’s an excellent question. The Bible teaches clearly that there is only one true God. That’s the unity of God.
Sean McDowell: Amen.
Vern Poythress: It also teaches that there are three persons, each of whom is fully God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and those persons are eternally distinct from one another. In other words, even before the world was made, God had in himself both the unity of being one God, and the diversity of being three persons. And the people who have reflected on this have come to think that that’s the only kind of God that can make a world distinct from Himself. Because the world has to be distinct, you see, it has to be diverse from God. Well, how can that happen if there’s not already a diversity in God? Well, I don’t want to get into that very high kind of generalization so much as to observe that when God made the world, he made it to have diverse kinds of things, right, of having heavenly bodies and having distinction between dry land and the sea and having various kinds of animals. When he made human beings, he made them as a distinct race, a distinct kind of creature. But he also made us to have unity and diversity in ourselves, right? So there is a unity of one human race.
And actually, that’s important when we confront the modern ideas of racism, because the Bible is clearly opposed to that, and saying we all belong together in one humanity. But there’s also diversity, and diversity includes, and now, diverse ethnicities, and that’s okay. Now, it’s not okay to sin. It’s not okay to be in rebellion against God, but it is okay to be different from the people around you and for there to be different cultures throughout the world. You can see how, even though this is a very general principle, it’s really very important in human life, right? Because people tend to look down on somebody who is different from them in the wrong, what they think of as the wrong kind of way, right? So maybe it’s the color of your skin, or maybe it’s just the way you eat your food. Some cultures, they eat food with their hands. In Chinese culture, they eat with chopsticks. Well, people can be offended by that if it’s not the way they do it and think, what’s the matter with them? Right? So there’s plenty of room for hatred to grow because it’s already, sin is already in the heart and tempting us that way. So, the issue of unity and diversity is actually a big one among human beings. But if we realize that God made it that way and that He Himself has unity and diversity and harmony, it actually gives us a different kind of perspective on what it means to be human.
Scott Rae: Vern, it’s very common today to hear postmodernists make the claim that anything like objective objective history is not possible because we all operate from our own subjective perspectives, we have our own biases, we see the world through our own set of lenses and therefore we can’t know or determine historical truth objectively. As a Christian, how would you respond to that kind of claim that the postmodernists are making?
Vern Poythress: Well, I would respond positively and negatively. Negatively, I would say, the claim that objective history is not possible, is self-refuting, because postmodernists, their own claim is limited to their
perspective. They can’t possibly, they say there’s no universal, there’s no universal truth. Well, your own claim that objective history is not possible, that’s in a universal claim. So, the postmodernists have a problem. Many of them that are sophisticated know that they have a problem. But in the kind of popular forms in which it comes into common life, people don’t realize that you can’t live with that. You can’t believe that truth is just a matter of subjective opinion and survive very long. Because what about the view that you can get killed by stepping in front of a moving bus, right? Is that objective truth or is that merely subjective?
Scott Rae: I don’t think I’d like to try and find out. Sean McDowell: Exactly.
Vern Poythress: Try to find out, right? Don’t try to experiment. Nobody actually believes, nobody is saying that, you know, there’s insane people who have to be locked up because they would accidentally kill themselves because of their wrong beliefs. But that’s an extreme, right? People walk in the street know very well that is to stay out of the way of fast-moving buses. And that’s got to be objective. It’s not just your opinion, “Well, you would think that, and I think something else.” That’s right. And there’s plenty of things like that. So what’s happening is really the use of this thing to get off the hook with having to search for what is really true, right? It’s a matter of, I think, of the idol of self, right? That you want to be able to specify the truth. You want to be able to control things just by believing them. It doesn’t really happen. It doesn’t really work.
But people want to make it work because they love, they’re preoccupied with themselves. So that’s the negative critique, and it’s saying, really there’s a deep and insolvable problem with this way of living in the world. But the positive response would be to say, “You know, there is a grain of truth there because each of us is limited. We’re all finite creatures, and that is part of the way God made us. But he also made us to be in communion with himself. And the way that postmodernism has gotten off the ground is by ceasing to believe that there is one true God that we can actually know and be in contact with. When you lose that, you lose the ability to find a way of arbitrating between competing claims, right? So one person says murder is wrong. Another says it’s only wrong if it’s not against people that you hate. So who’s right? How can you decide who’s right without a transcendent source that rises above the opinions of individuals? And the answer, I think, is no, there’s no way of doing it. Fortunately, God exists. Fortunately, God is good and is a standard for all goodness. And everybody in the world knows Him according to Romans 1. Now we suppress the knowledge, we corrupt it, we make for ourselves false gods, but in the end we never totally escape God. And that’s why people know deep down that murder is wrong. They can’t escape God and His standards. And that’s the source for objective truth. That’s what I would say positively.
And the same goes for an objective view of history because actually God is a controller of history, of every event. It’s God’s meaning, it’s God’s purposes, it’s what God knows that is the objective standard. Now, our access to that is limited and finite, right? So, there is a kind of humility, but that’s a Christian virtue. There’s a kind of humility in saying, “You know, God is greater than I. I can know some things because God has put me in a world where my own interaction with the world is basically trustworthy.” You know, if you don’t believe in God, you can’t even believe that. So that means that as God reveals things to us, and I don’t mean simply in the Bible,
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Vern Poythress: but I mean there’s every day the category of general revelation that God’s showing us things that’s true about the world. People, the scientists discovering things, they never discover apart from the gift of God. So that means that there’s plenty we could know. And the struggle is then when we have people who disagree with us to listen and to talk and to look at evidence and to sift through until we come to a satisfying conclusion. Okay, this is the answer. This event really happened in history. And somebody up, made up this other story of an event and it didn’t really happen the way they said. There’s ways of checking that out, right?
Sean McDowell: Sure
Vern Poythress: By going to multiple human beings and multiple sources, written sources and non-written evidence in the past. Sometimes, a historian has to say, “I don’t have enough evidence to make it clear, to arrive at a clear conclusion.” Well, that’s just part of our finiteness. Sometimes too much of the evidence is slipped away in the passage of time, right? We know less about ancient Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar than we know about World War II.
Sean McDowell: That’s right. That’s a really helpful way to think about our limitation on a particular area doesn’t mean we have an overall limitation from doing history. You know, you said earlier that postmodernism is self-refuting because it has a perspective that it’s coming from. There’s another sense where the claim that history is unknowable is self-refuting. If I say history is unknowable, by the time I get to the word unknowable, the two words “history is” are now a part of history. And I can only make that claim if I assume I can still know what they mean and apply them to the present. So if you allow for two seconds, why not two minutes? Why not two days? Why not two years?
So I think you’re right. There’s a negative critique of postmodernism self-refuting how to approach this history, but Christianity offers a solution to it. Super helpful. One last question for you. Again, this is one of the favorite points that jumped out to me is I’m curious what advice you have for Christians how we should and should not claim to know God’s purposes in history. Because I hear Christians see there’s an earthquake in Haiti and they say God did this. There’s a pandemic. This is God’s hand. How do we know when to conclude that God has acted definitively in history or not?
Vern Poythress: Yeah, excellent question. There’s actually two questions underlying it. One is whether God has so-called primary cause brought an event about. The second is what were his purposes? Why is he doing it? Right? Now, the first question I think has a definite answer from the Bible, namely that God controls all events whatsoever. Lamentations 3:37 and 38, “Who is commanded and it came to pass, and thus the Lord has ordained it? Is it not from the mouth of the most high that good and evil come?” Now that’s a big verse to swallow, but it doesn’t mean that God is Himself evil, but disasters, tragedies, bad things in our lives, they are also a product of the mouth of the Most High. He has brought them to pass. You see this in Job, right? Job suffered all those disasters, and we know there’s more to the story, right, that Satan is trying to destroy Job and so on. But when Job, the disasters come to him, he says, “The Lord is given, the Lord is taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” And the text comments, “In all these things Job did not sin or accuse God of wrong.” So now that’s a hard thing for people to swallow today. And the people want to think, “Oh, the good things are from God and the bad things are from Satan or they just happen.” No, no, no. The Bible teaches otherwise.
But where we get into the second question is, why is God doing it? That is where Christians, I think, can make a mistake because most of the time God doesn’t tell us. So you think of the man born blind in John 9, and it’s a good example that is used by people who want to pull us back and saying, “Don’t be presumptuous. Don’t be overstretching what you think you know about why God is doing things.” Because the disciples asked Jesus, “Why was this man born blind? Was it because of its own sin or the sin of its parents?” They thought, “Oh, there’s some sin, some particular thing from the parents or from the man himself that is why God brought this man into the world blind.” And Jesus answered, “No.” You can’t do that, just as Job’s friends were rebuked by God for thinking they could say, “Job, you must have done something bad, really bad, and that’s why all these things have happened to you.” So when disasters come, and I know, you know there’s been interpretations of 9/11 and earthquakes and tsunamis and so on, well, this happened to punish somebody. And that’s overstretching according to the Bible’s own teaching. But what Jesus says in another case is, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” That’s in Luke 13. That’s a good example if people want to look it up.
He’s saying every time there’s a disaster, it’s a warning that the judgment is to come. And unfortunately, I don’t think that a lot of people look at disasters that way of saying, it’s not because these people were necessarily worse. We don’t know God’s purposes and plans at that kind of level. These things didn’t happen to people because they were worse ethically and morally than anybody else. But that they happen, they might happen to you. You need to repent and this is where it becomes uncomfortable.
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Vern Poythress: Because there is a coming judgment, and God is thoroughly in charge of the world, and coming judgment is going to be a just reckoning. Short of that, justice is very uneven in history, right? There are criminals that appear for a long time to escape, and there are righteous people who suffer, whether it’s from illness or from other people who oppress them or whatever it is. It’s uneven. Now, we can see general principles in Proverbs that overall there are many cases where the righteous prosper and the wicked find themselves caught in their own schemes. But it’s uneven. It isn’t uniform. And Proverbs is saying there is a pattern you can see. And Ecclesiastes, if I may generalize, is saying, “Yes, but there are many exceptions.” And we have to look to God for the final judgment to see full justice done.
Sean McDowell: Amen. I really appreciate that perspective. You’re right. Someone like Manasseh, an evil king, reigns for decades. Why would that be just? Well, we don’t know unless God reveals it to us. And it says in the scriptures, you know, it reigns on the righteous and on the wicked, so to speak. Now, I knew this last, the last question I asked you would have somewhat opened a theological can of worms. In fact, we have debates and discussions and differences, even within Talbot School of Theology, exactly how God acts within history, what it means that he’s providential, ordains things, how to answer the problem of suffering and evil and why God acts and he doesn’t act. But you lay out your position very clearly in your book, “Redeeming Our Thinking About History.” And I want to recommend it to our viewers. Now, it’s not a light read, it’s doable, but it’s meant for people who want some depth with some tools to approach history, not starting with secular history, so to speak, but like you said, starting with a Christian view of human nature, starting with a Christian view of God’s providence, starting with the Trinity. And both Scott and I enjoyed it very much and really appreciate you coming on the show. Thank you, Dr. Poythress.
Vern Poythress: Well, again, thank you for inviting me and I appreciate the excitement that you expressed. I did want the book to help ordinary people as well as to challenge the scholars, professional historians, to be more thoroughly Christian in their approach.
Sean McDowell: Well, I think you’ve done that. And again, thanks for coming on. This has been an episode of the podcast “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” The “Think Biblically” podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including an accelerated Bible theology and ministry program that allows students to earn a bachelor’s and master’s together in just five years. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and consider sharing it with a friend. Thank you for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.