A Christian Philosophy of History:
“Give me a place to stand, and I will move the earth!” So spoke the ancient Greek philosopher and geometer Archimedes as he discussed the possibilities of the lever and the need for a solid foundation. Historians also need a fixed starting point for historical investigation and interpretation. There is no way to assign meaning to history unless one has a proper foundation. For the Christian historian, the task is straightforward.
For Christians, all history is Christocentric. The pivotal events in the history of the universe were Christ-centered: the incarnation, substitutionary sacrifice, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Revelation 13:8 refers to the Lamb of God who was slain before the foundation of the world. However one translates the verse, it is clear that even before creation God’s overarching cosmic purposes pointed to Calvary. Galatians 4:4 states that Jesus came “in the fullness of time.” The Apostle Paul preached that God would judge the world in righteousness through the resurrected Christ (Ac. 17:35). And Jesus Himself emphasized His return, the consummation of history, and His rendering judgment on the nations (Mt. 24-25). Scripture is clear: history is Christ-centered.
One task of the Christian historian is to explain how Christian convictions influence our understanding of the past. Using the testimony of Scripture, we must seek Christocentric principles in a Biblical philosophy of history.
First, Christian history is “meta-historical.” The meaning of history comes from outside of history, arising from God’s sovereign design. We must understand the true meaning, purpose and direction of history from God’s revealed Word.
Colossians 1:16-20 has an excellent, overarching statement of God’s work in history through Christ. All things were created through Christ and are held together by Him. God is at work reconciling all things to Himself, through Christ’s blood shed on the cross. It is the Father’s ultimate purpose that Christ will have first place in all things. From God’s point of view, true history is Christ-centered.
Second, Christian history is covenantal. Scripture is rich with covenantal language and promises. The promise to Adam and Eve after the fall (Gen. 3:15) was Christocentric, pointing to the Seed of Woman who would crush the serpent’s head. The promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:3), that through his seed all the nations of earth would be blessed, is also Christ-centered. Paul even argues that in this promise Abraham heard the gospel preached (Gal. 3:8).
The great southern Presbyterian theologian R. L. Dabney argued that behind all earthly covenants stands a divine “Covenant of Redemption.” It was “a covenant existing from all eternity between the Father and the Son,” and one from which the Covenant of Grace arose.1 Before time began, according to Dabney’s perspective, the Father promised to give His Son an elect people in exchange for His sacrifice on the cross. The Westminster Larger Catechism (Question 31) alludes to this covenant. And just before going to Calvary, Jesus gives thanks for and makes intercession in terms of this covenant with the Father (Jn. 17). History, then, concerns the unfolding of God’s eternal plan to redeem a people in Christ.
Third, Christian history is presuppositional. It must be noted that every approach to history rests upon basic presuppositions that contain fundamental interpretive elements. Few truly believe, as Henry Ford did, that history is “bunk.” And apart from disillusioned students in undergraduate history courses, few would agree with Mark Twain that history is just “one darn thing after another!” (If history is utter nonsense, why bother to study it or speculate concerning its merits?)
Though secularists speak disdainfully of “meta-historical narratives,” all approaches to the past stress meta-historical themes. Liberals emphasize that history reveals a progressive evolution toward a fuller human freedom and democratization. Marxists focus on economic factors, class strife, and the inevitability of the coming revolution. Even postmodernists, who deny the existence of meta-historical narratives, insist that an underlying historical theme is the corruption of historical knowledge by power elites and modern ideologies.
No Neutral Histories
Furthermore, all historical approaches are essentially religious. Every historical interpretation is based upon certain presuppositions that are rooted in a worldview based upon religious assumptions (e.g., concerning the nature of truth and justice, the nature of man, and questions of morality). Some of the most frenzied modernists are those who ridicule the Christian faith, while simultaneously crusading to save the whales, the rainforest, the snail-darter, or whatever other cause is trendy. These erstwhile secularists are simply motivated by a different religion.
Rushdoony has argued persuasively that religious presuppositions are inescapable. “Neutralism,” he writes in the Nature of the American System, “is one of the persistent errors of the modern era.”2 Modern man makes himself and his knowledge the sole source of autonomous authority, he continues, and man is the final “court of appeal.” Rushdoony concludes his essay by saying: “The alternative to ‘In God we trust’ is ‘In man we trust,’ or in reason, science, the experimental system, an elite, or some like entity. In any and every case it is a religious affirmation. The presuppositions of all man’s thinking are inescapably religious, and they are never neutral.”3
Fourth, Christian history is teleological, moving purposefully toward a divine end. God is at work, for example, to give Christ first place in all things (Col. 1:18). The Father promises to place all things in subjection to His only begotten Son (Heb. 2:8; 1 Cor. 15:27). God will sum up all things in heaven and on earth, Paul argues, in the fullness of time, in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:10). And Scripture identifies Christ as the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end (Rev. 1:8; 21:6).
Fifth, Christian history is doxological, directing us to worship the Triune God. Ephesians 1:3-14 is a glorious Scriptural hymn revolving around the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Each of the three sections conclude with the statement of “to the praise of the glory of His grace,” or “to the praise of His glory” (vv. 6, 12, 14). Having talked about God’s electing grace, His predestining mercy, the redemptive work of Christ and God’s sovereign power, Paul affirms that we exist for “the praise of His glory” (v. 12)4. The very purpose of our existence is doxological — to bring glory to Christ. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism states (Question 1): “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
That is something we readily confess when sharing our personal narratives. We understand how God has worked in our lives; we see first-hand His tender mercies; we glory in His grace. We can testify to God’s direct work in saving us, in preserving us, and teaching us. While it is more complicated to see the doxological character of all human history, Scripture assures us that the past has that function.
And finally, Christian history is challenging and confrontational. It confronts persons and nations with the claims of the gospel and King Jesus. Psalm 2, the great Messianic psalm that has a central position in the New Testament, depicts the nations, peoples, and kings and rulers in rebellion against the Lord and His Anointed. According to Acts 4:24-28, the psalm is fulfilled at the crucifixion of Christ. The psalm’s admonition has special application to a New Covenant people: “Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!”
The modern western calendar is an excellent example of how a Christocentric vision of history was applied. We date all time from Christ — measuring years “before Christ” and “Anno Domini” (in the year of our Lord).5 The use of “A.D.” is a testimony to the influence of Christ on our world. Even the diploma on my wall, issued by the University of Arkansas (a state institution at the time under the Clinton governorship), announces that my degree was conferred “in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred eighty-nine.”
The western practice of marking time from Christ is anathema for secularists. Politically correct and fashionable textbooks frequently use C.E. and B.C.E. (the common era and before the common era). It is not the first time that modernists have flouted the importance and authority of Christ. During the French Revolution radicals created a new calendar with 1792 as the new Year One. (They also renamed and reconfigured the months; each month was made up of three ten-day weeks.) Italian fascists also created a new calendar, commemorating Mussolini’s rise to power. The Soviets briefly adopted a revolutionary calendar, in 1929, though it only lasted eleven years. (They also reconfigured the months: in their initial calendar each month had six five-day weeks.) These futile experiments are reminiscent of the rebellion in Psalm 2, where the nations conspired to tear off the bonds of the Lord’s Anointed.
Historically, calendars had great symbolic significance. They were important in charting the rise of nations and cultures.6Calendars also had deep religious meaning.7 England didn’t adopt a modernized calendar until 1752, for instance, fearing that the Gregorian calendar reforms were a papist plot.8 Calendars were also important in the ancient world to chronicle the ascent of kings and chart the rise of dynasties.
The Christian West measures calendar time from the first advent of Christ. It is proper to do so. After all, God views history and His creation Christocentrically — revolving around His Son and His redemptive purposes in Christ.
1. R. L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust,  1985), 432.
2. Rousas Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System (Fairfax, Virginia: Thoburn Press,  1978), 67.
3. Ibid, 78.
4. I know an Arminian seminary professor who admits that it was difficult to read through Ephesians without becoming a Calvinist. But he worked hard, he cheerfully confesses, and was able to get through it.
5. The first to propose the use of A.D. (the year of our Lord) was a sixth century monk, Dionysius Exiguus. The new dating system was popularized by the Venerable Bede, the English ecclesiastical historian. The use of B.C. became popular much later. Those interested in the religious and cultural uses of calendars, see Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers(N.Y.: Vintage, 1985).
6. Ancient Greeks started the calendar with the first Olympics, dated from 776 B.C., an event that showed a measure of cultural and religious unity. The Romans measured time from 753 B.C., the traditional date for the founding of Rome by Romulus.
7. Muslims measure time from the Hegira, an event in the life of Mohammed, which occurred in AD 622.
8. The Julian calendar, established by Julius Caesar, was slightly inaccurate and by the sixteenth century was a number of days off. Pope Gregory XIII (p.1572-85) authorized the calendar changes that bear his name in 1582. Gregory was also a vigorous supporter of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation and a foe of Protestantism, especially in England. Mindful of Gregory’s record and Biblical warnings about the one who sought to make “alterations in times and in law” (Dan 7:25), the English refused to adopt the Gregorian calendar. It wasn’t until 1752 that Great Britain switched to the New Style calendar.