A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Jacob Boyd
History is important. Vern S. Poythress makes a compelling case that Christians should not just learn history, but Christians should look at history as Christians. Poythress makes history a theological endeavor for the Christian historian. Christians are to think about history in light of God’s redeeming plan for humanity. The doctrine of God’s providence is the backbone holding all historical events of the beginning of time together. So, as Christians, in order to study history faithfully, we need to view and analyze history in light of God’s providential work.
Brief Content Survey of Book
In the introduction, Poythress leaves his readers with a grueling challenge of studying history in light of sin. He says,
Let us then consider more thoroughly the challenge of studying history and writing about it. Let us consider this challenge particularly in the context of sin. Sin has contaminated human work since the fall of Adam. And this contamination extends to academic work, including the work of studying history. What do we need in order to study history, and in what ways do we need caution because of sin (20).
This challenge drives the rest of the book as Poythress seeks to show how Christians can indeed study and write about history faithfully, even with the contamination of sin.
In part one of the book, Poythress explores “What We Need In Order To Analyze History” (21-80). In the chapters that make up this first section of the book, Poythress explores how we need God and Scripture to properly analyze the three important aspects of history, which include events, people, and meanings (31). God is the one who plans all of history and Scripture “serves as the primary starting point for understanding history” (24). Because God is the author and orchestrator of all things, including the three important aspects of history (events, people, and meanings), studying and writing history with all three aspects in view is necessary. Poythress speaks about the reductionist view of history and ethics, which predominately only looks at only one aspect. In the end, God is the standard for thinking about history, which means there is one right way to analyze history (73).
After receiving the right tools to analyze the history God governs, part two of this book looks at the “History In The Bible” (81-99). The three chapters that make up this section look at the unity, diversity, and uniqueness of the Biblical story. The unity of God’s redemptive story comes to a collective single end. “Every event contributes to a process leading to an end, the consummation in Christ, the new heaven and the new earth” (88). Within this unity, there are diverse stories of different human experiences. Finally, the history in the Bible is unique because the Holy Spirit is its divine author, giving biblical accounts greater authority over extrabiblical historical accounts.
The third section of this book looks at “Understanding God’s Purposes In History” (101-165). It is in this third section that Poythress highlights the providence of God throughout history. God’s providential purposes in history make the interpretation of history an objective endeavor. God reveals to humanity his purposes in history throughout the biblical text; however, Poythress does still leave room for mystery. God does not choose the reveal everything to his children through Scripture, which is why Christians do not always know the purposes of God’s historical plan. However, there are objective principles that Scripture does reveal that are helpful in interpreting history such as “God accomplishes all things for his glory, … God gives benefits to the saints, … God works trails and hardships for the long-term, benefit of his beloved,” etc. (140-142). This section also discusses the pressure to interpret history neutrally in academic endeavors since the Enlightenment. Poythress calls for a nuanced Christian approach to history that does bring critical tools to historical studies, while still recognizing the providence of God (157-158).
In the fourth section, Poythress unpacks what the Christian approach looks like when writing history by discussing some of its challenges. This section only consists of three chapters with each chapter acting as a case study for writing on a certain historical period. The first chapter in this section looks at “Christianity in the Roman Empire.” He explains that Christians should not be neutral in thinking about the persecution of the Christians during this time period; however, there are ways to write history that brings out a fair evaluation without compromising your Christian approach. For example, the Christian historian may choose to write primarily a factual narrative, leaving out moral values. The Christian historian may also just be honest with their convictions and include a qualifying statement such as “Not everyone will agree with my evaluation, and I do not want to bring in such a polarizing evaluation for fear that readers would then discount my whole work as the product of a partisan” (172).
The fifth and final section of the book builds off of section four to show different ways to do history among Christians. This section wraps the entire book well by giving practical approaches to studying history as Christians. This section surveys Jay Green’s five rival versions of Christian historiography (186-194). In the end, Poythress suggests that Providentialism is unavoidable (222). He carefully explains the dangers and advantages of interpreting history providentially while acknowledging how many historians feel negative about it. Throughout this section, there are seven different approaches analyzed. His final appeal to Christian historians is to “learn from all seven of the Christian approaches to the study of history. The seven perspectives together, as perspectives that potentially are in harmony, can aid our growth in understanding history” (223).
Poythress is successful in showing how Christians can indeed study and write about history faithfully, even with the contamination of sin. From the very beginning of the book, the reader is able to tell Poythress believes Providentialism is unavoidable as a Christian historian. This becomes clear in the second chapter under the subheading “God is Source” (32-35). In this section, he explains how God is the source of events, people, and meaning. God controls events, God controls people, and God controls the meaning. Poythress is honest and does not trick his readers once they get to the end of the book; his conclusions are easily detected throughout the book. Christians should study history with vigor, humility, and discernment.
One point within the book that can cause theological debate is the way he utilizes his well-known triperspectivalism approach to history by rooting it in the Trinity. Throughout this book, his doctrine of the Trinity oozes out. When applying the doctrine of the Trinity to the study of history he says, “The triad of perspectives on historical events [situational perspective, existential perspective, and the normative perspective] illustrates the interlocking of unity and diversity… This interlocking of unity and diversity has its ultimate root in the Trinity” (37). He continues and “corresponds” each person of the Trinity to one of the three perspectives. The Father corresponds to the normative perspective, the Son corresponds to the situational perspective, and the Spirit corresponds to the existential perspective. I found myself questioning whether this analogy is helpful to further prove that this approach is distinctively Christian. Everyone reading this book will need to wrestle for themselves through this theological claim.
A helpful note that Poythress does make is the way he uses the doctrine of common grace in giving the unbeliever ability to still study and interpret history. Because Poythress rightly puts the emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s guiding and leading Christians, giving them the ability to interpret and study God’s history, the reader begins to wonder if he leaves any room for the unbeliever to even have the ability to study and interpret history at all. Even though unbelievers can accurately study and interpret history by God’s common grace, they are still limited since they are attempting the study history, which is intended to display the glory of God, without looking at God.
Redeeming Our Thinking About History: A God-Centered Approach by Vern Poythress is a book every Christian who is interested in history should read. The main concern is his use of Trinitarian theology; however, the main purpose of the book is still important for every Christian to think through – how to study and interpret history faithfully and in a way that honors God.
Jacob C. Boyd
PhD student, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Buy the books
REDEEMING OUR THINKING ABOUT HISTORY: A GOD-CENTERED APPROACH, by Vern S. Poythress