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History from a Biblical Worldview

History from a Biblical Worldview, Continued: Biblical Characteristics of a Good History Book

By Matthew Exline.

Note: I am indebted to Dr Travis Moger for the original idea for this post.

Since ancient times, the study of history has primarily been an exercise in reading and writing. This is truer now than ever before. Every year publishers churn out new history books, ranging from well-written but poorly researched popular bestsellers to well-researched but poorly written scholarly histories. If only there were some way to combine the best of both worlds, the accuracy of academic history with the readability of popular history!

Fortunately, the Christian historian is uniquely equipped to do just that by following the example set for us in Scripture. In particular, Luke provides a handy summary of the characteristics of a good historical account at the beginning of his gospel: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4 ESV) Let us briefly look at this passage to see what we can learn about the Biblical characteristics of good history.

The first characteristic is that history is an “account,” a narrative. History is a story, and needs to be told in story format. This might seem blindingly obvious, but many academic historians sneer at “mere” narrative, instead drowning the reader in endless statistics or analysis. The second thing to notice is that Luke’s account was about “things that were fulfilled.” In other words, history is the story of things that actually happened. Again, this might seem a bit obvious, yet many popular history books are full of errors, or deliberately mix fiction with fact in a misguided attempt to make the story more interesting.

The third thing to notice here is that Luke’s account was “handed down” by “eyewitnesses.” Good history needs to be based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, which historians usually call “primary sources.” A primary source is any source with first-hand information about the topic, such as a document, a photograph, a recording, or the testimony of a literal eyewitness. Many history books contain errors that are perpetuated when historians simply repeat each other, rather than consulting primary sources, the “eyewitnesses.” Fourth, Luke “carefully investigated everything.” Good history has to be based on research, which is how the historian finds those crucial primary sources.

Fifth, Luke was determined to write an “orderly account” for Theophilus, the intended recipient of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. Good history must be organized in a way that is logical and easy for the reader to understand. The Gospel writers are excellent models of the power of effective organization—Luke’s gospel is organized chronologically, Matthew’s is arranged around Christ’s discourses, John focuses on important miracles. Sixth and lastly, Luke wrote his gospel so that Theophilus would have “certainty” about what he had been taught about Jesus. Good history, which meets all the criteria already mentioned, enables the reader to know the truth about what happened in the past. Again, this might seem to go without saying, but with the recent rise of postmodernism and moral relativism in higher education, it has become fashionable for some historians to claim that it is not possible to know specific, concrete truths about the past with any degree of certainty. Luke, however, assures us that historical truth is knowable.

Thus, it is possible to identify good history books from a shelf of mediocre impostors by evaluating them against Biblical criteria. Good history is a logically organized narrative, about things that actually happened, written using primary sources discovered through research, that enables us to know with certainty what has happened. The Biblical narrative, crafted under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is the only work of history that fulfills all of these criteria perfectly. But with care and effort, Christian historians may yet follow in the footsteps of the Biblical authors.