I am astounded at the way Prof. H. Hanko represents my views in his review of A Christian View of History? He quotes a passage in which I say (in part) that Christians should study history “since the Christian’s task is to live in this world and to witness to the love of God as manifested in Christ, it is essential for us to understand ourselves and the world as well as we possibly can.” Prof. Hanko observes, “This taken by itself, is a wholly inadequate reason for studying history, but it follows from the general view of the authors, for they reject the traditional view of history as the unfolding of the counsel of God.”
I would agree that taken by itself this statement is inadequate, since it tends to emphasize an ethical aspect of living to the glory of God and does not include some important theological bases for the Christian’s understanding of the significance of history. However, the point is that this statement can not betaken by itself. If it is it distorts my whole position by ignoring the essential context of my fundamental theological presuppositions. Since I state such fundamental points directly, I can only ask for this space to set the record straight so that your readers can see what is the actual position in my essay.
On the same page from which Prof. Hanko quotes I speak of the centrality of God’s revelation in Scripture for our understanding of all of history. Then (after a passage in which as a matter of fact I defend an antithesis between Christians and non-Christians even in their knowledge of elementary facts) I have a section clearly entitled “OUR KNOWLEDGE OF GOD’S ACTIONS IN HISTORY.” Part of this reads:
“We know of God’s actions particularly in the history of redemption recorded in Scripture and centering in Christ. We also know that God will continue his redemptive work through the workings of the Spirit in the church, and hence that the highest value and the most meaningful experience for men is knowing and loving God. We know also that human experience for men is knowing and loving God. We know also that human history will end in judgment. We can say therefore that there is meaning in the most fundamental developments in history and that there is a general progression defined by the actions of God in our history.” P. 38
Compare this to Prof. Hanko’s sentence (following the one quoted above): “Doing this, they can no longer find in history the revelation of God, and they no longer see in a study of history the benefit of growing in the knowledge of God in His works and ways.”
I do argue against those persons who argue from the “valid observation” “that all things are under the providence of God” to one “that does not necessarily follow, that we know specifically how God providentially influences history.” My main argument against this “traditional approach to history” is that it involves “an apparent failure to distinguish adequately between God’s special revelation in Scripture and his more general revelation elsewhere.” If I took Prof. Hanko’s review by itself I would suspect that he does not adequately make this distinction between special and general revelation. He at least blurs this distinction when he suggests such things as that our purpose should be to “find in history the revelation of God,”while making no clear distinction between the revelation we can find in Scripture and that which we find elsewhere. Taken by itself Prof. Hanko’s statement amounts to the principle of Modernism, that we find God revealed just as much in the historical progress of culture as in Scripture. I’m sure that Prof. Hanko does not intend this blurring concerning the quality of special and general revelation, so I’m sure it would be as unfair of me to take his review by itself as it is for him to take my one statement by itself.
I expect that Prof. Hanko and I do have real disagreements. These disagreements, however, have to do not with whether history is the general revelation of God but over how accurately we can read what is revealed in God’s providential work in history. I think Prof. Hanko is mistaken and presumptuous if he thinks that we make definitive declarations on what God’s purposes are in everyday historical events.
I do not, however, think that if Prof. Hanko is mistaken on this point (as I think he is) therefore his whole position on history is “of little or no help (except by way of antithesis).”
I am genuinely offended that he is so ready to draw such a conclusion concerning my work and of that of my colleagues. I hope at least that he will withdraw that remark. Perhaps then we could begin to come to an understanding of each other which I think should at least be among the minimal goals of Reformed Christians.
I expect that Prof. Hanko may be able to find some theological imprecision, misplaced emphasis, and even some inaccuracy in my essay. This would not surprise me since (as our book emphasizes) we do not claim infallibility for our formulations of Christian views of history. I leave it for your readers to judge, however, whether the essay takes the essentially anti-Christian stance that he attributes to it in his review.
Professor of History
Although it is somewhat distasteful for me to have to defend a “Book Review,” nevertheless Dr. Marsden’s letter requires at least a brief response.
The first part of his letter deals with my criticism of his statement concerning the reason for studying history. He takes exception to the fact that I leave the impression that this is the only reason the author gives for studying history and that I omit other reasons which he enumerates. In this connection, I remind Dr. Marsden of the following—facts of which he himself cannot be unaware.
1) The reason for studying history which Dr. Marsden gives and which I quoted is said by him to be “the basic reason.” (p. 31; underscoring is mine.) I emphatically disagree.
2) On p. 34, Dr. Marsden calls this same reason: “the most compelling purpose for studying or teaching history.” He writes: “Although for the Christian the most compelling purpose for studying or teaching history is to gain such a perspective that contributes directly to Christian living . . . .”
3) The only other reason I can find (after rereading the chapter two more times) for studying history which Dr. Marsden offers is the reason of “memory.” Exactly what he means by this, I am not sure, but it is not germane to our subject.
4) Dr. Marsden speaks of my failure to pay special attention to the essential context of his fundamental theological presuppositions. Nevertheless, in the whole context of his theological presuppositions, I do not find any other reason given why the Christian ought to study history.
It is, however, indeed correct that our basic disagreements lie in the area of these theological presuppositions. I disagree with Dr. Marsden’s view of man. I do not believe that “the biblical revelation” gives us a “paradoxical” view of the “character of man,” namely, that, “on the one hand, man is the crown of creation, made in God’s own image, and given both responsibility and capability to subdue the earth”; and, “On the other hand, man is fallen and is the great self-deceiver, constantly prone to think more highly of himself than he ought.” (pp. 40, 41.) I believe in the truth of total depravity, that man was created good, but fell and lost the image of God, and is therefore unable to do any good at all.
Dr. Marsden denies, in a somewhat scoffing way, that “history is a contest of good guys versus bad guys, good ideas versus bad ideas, Christians versus lions.” (p. 43.) I be1ieve this to be true. I believe in the absolute antithesis in history—an antithesis between the works of darkness and the works of light, between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, between Christ and Belial.
But centrally, as Dr. Marsden also notes, our differences center in the concept of revelation. Although it may come as something of a shock to Dr. Marsden, I do not blur the lines between special and general revelation because I do not believe that Scripture teaches the idea of general revelation in the generally accepted use of that term. I accept the traditional view of history, although I do not accept Dr. Marsden’s description of it as “lessons of history becoming largely the readings of the special providences of God” (p. 39); or, history as the means whereby we can tell “what God’s purposes are in particular historical events” (p. 39.); or, that the Old Testament national distinctions are still in force today and serve as a basis for blessing and cursing. I, along with Dr. Marsden, reject these ideas.
But that is not the traditional viewpoint of history—although I am not interested in getting into an argument about what is traditional and what is not. I do believe that God’s counsel is absolutely decisive in all of history. I do not believe, as Dr. Marsden does, that God “has decisively entered into and changed human history” (p. 38.); or that “men’s sinful actions work against the purposes of God.” (p. 38.) While this is dot the place to discuss this whole question (and indeed it would be nice if we could “begin to come to an understanding of each other” on these matters), it must certainly be maintained that because God’s counsel is absolutely determinative for everything which transpires, God sovereignly realizes His purpose in all that takes place in history. That purpose is attained in Christ through the salvation of the elect and the condemnation of the reprobate on account of their sins. That purpose is constantly being realized in history as Christ, from His position at God’s right hand, executes all God’s will. But because reprobation must serve election, all of history, in all its details, serves the salvation of the Church. This must be the fundamental starting point for all the interpretation of history, and this must be the deepest explanation for the absolute antithesis which runs through history between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent.
While this certainly does not enable us to interpret every detailed “fact” of history, and while the purposes of God are not always apparent to us, nevertheless, history interpreted from any other viewpoint is incorrect interpretation. To use Dr. Marsden’s own example, while we cannot see God’s purpose in the isolated fact of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, we can see God’s purpose in some measure in the American Revolution. And we can and must pass moral judgment on that Revolution as well.
How can we do this? We can do this because Scripture itself gives to us the key to the understanding of history. And Scripture gives to us the objective standard to pass moral judgments on the events of history. Because we have the Scriptures we are compelled to do this. Does Dr. Marsden hold to this view of Scripture?
While indeed the whole subject of the relation between so-called historia revelations and world history is an important one—especially as it relates to the whole question of revelation, whether special or “general,” I do not find in Dr. Marsden’s essay any of these truths emphasized. But they should be emphasized by any history teacher who is Reformed and Calvinistic.
Prof. H. Hanko