A noted layman presents seven propositions to help evangelicals find meaning in the complex patterns of history

Why, after two world wars, a worldwide economic depression, and the failure of two world peace organizations, and in the midst of world revolution, has there been no new evangelical approach to a Christian interpretation of history? Is it because evangelicals are so involved and immediately concerned with the facts of revolt and apostasy that they cannot assimilate them into a general scheme? Or is it because the only scholars interested in such matters are so blindly committed to interpretative schemes developed before the twentieth century that they are unwilling to adjust hypotheses and theories to new facts?

Any adequate and acceptable Christian interpretation of history must take into account the following: (1) God has revealed the pattern and purpose of history; (2) there has been but one history; (3) therefore, any interpretation must set forth the complete consonance of God’s revelation with historical fact, for all the history of the past is in keeping with the revealed pattern and purpose.

God’s plan of salvation is so simple a child can grasp its requirements for participation. But God’s historical pattern is complex. In fact, it is so complex that men have difficulty in comprehending just what it is in which we participate. This is particularly true of all that lies ahead. The pattern shown in Scripture is there for all to read; yet it is so complex that no man has ever exhaustively set forth its nature.

That God’s historical pattern is revealed is stated in Scriptures such as Amos 3:7, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” The purpose of the revelation is twofold. First, it stands as a witness against unfaithful men (Isa. 46:8–10; 48:3–5); and second, it allows the faithful to understand history as it unfolds (Luke 24:25–27; John 16:4, 13; 14:29; 13:19).

The one and only history is also sufficiently recorded for all to read. A thousand histories could be invented, but not one of these imagined histories would necessarily accord with real history. There could have been many different histories; there has been only one. The particular written account of this history is largely determined by the pattern the historian adopts on philosophical grounds. However, since the pattern is from outside humanity—i.e., revealed—it is necessary to take a very hard look at the facts that should be incorporated in written accounts.

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Christians believe that whatever history has happened is according to God’s sovereign will and purpose, both of which are revealed in the Bible. Now either the history fits the pattern, or Christians have not selected the pertinent historical facts and events, or they have misread the pattern, or they are mistaken in believing that there is a revealed pattern. For evangelical Christians, the preferred alternative is that they have misread the pattern. Inadequacy in grasping the pattern can be partially compensated for by deriving the pattern from actual history. Yet this is of secondary value. And it is also dangerous, because natural, human, and apparently logical presuppositional grounds are difficult to keep out. It is not at all easy to reduce the total pattern of history to logic. Nevertheless, an attempt to do so may prove helpful to the extent that it increases our faith and confidence in God. The pattern is truly translogical, because its author is the transcendent God.

We believe the Bible teaches that history is neither open-ended nor cyclical but climactic. In the Bible there is so much said of judgment, harvest, the fullness of time, the Day of the Lord, and the like that we are not able to think of history otherwise than as climactic.

When will the end come? The answer is that it will come when the knowledge of God’s offer of salvation becomes planet-wide. It will come when all peoples have heard the message of redemption. When “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations … then shall the end come” (Matt. 24:14). Modern means of communication and travel have made this possible in our century. The worldwide missionary enterprise has taken the Gospel to governmental representatives of every soul on the face of the earth. The witness has gone out to multitudes. Nations and peoples have made their choice. Increasingly, Christians must realize they live in a non-Christian society. Apostasy and revolt have set in within the institutionalized church.

We are now in a unique situation. The increase in world population is a problem to be assessed in terms of the capacity of the earth for people. For the first time in human history, the continued existence of life on earth is thought to be in the hands of man himself with his capability of self-destruction through nuclear or biological warfare. Moreover, man’s venture into space raises questions about his ultimate habitat. These factors of witness, revolt, population, self-destruction, and space have faced man with issues concerning his final destiny. The situation is like the one Scripture predicts as that in which God will resolve all history.

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The following propositions may be helpful in building a Christian interpretation of history. Some of them may seem inappropriate and even discordant to those whose chief vocational concern has been the witness of the Church. Others may seem unreasonable to those whose Bible study and teaching have been confined to the New Testament. For the Christian interpretation of history, a more than superficial knowledge of the entire Bible is imperative. Only through such a knowledge can the basic criterion, “What does the Bible say?,” be applied.

1. God is Creator, man is creature; God is sovereign, man is subject. Our very creaturehood dictates that we are not masters of our own destiny. God is the Lord of History. We do not compose history; we comprise history. We are too base, self-willed, ignorant, arrogant, inadequate, natural, and earthy to provide for our own salvation. Man is separated from God, who created him. Man not in full fellowship with God is said to be lost. The biblical word for this condition is sin. Yet if man is not to be a mere automaton, he must be endowed with choice.

2. God has provided a way to salvation, restoration, completeness, happiness, righteousness, triumph, glory, and eternal life. This way is in history. God did not at a time in the past call for the ultimate decision of all mankind and close the offer. Rather he has allowed the offer of salvation to work out in time (history) that he may bring “many sons to glory.” The central element of the offer is eternal life in the presence of God, which transcends all material existence. The offer is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The essential response of man to the offer is acceptance of the free gift of eternal life by faith. The ultimate end of the offer is the reign of Christ in righteousness over the whole of creation. Thus history fulfills God’s purpose (1 Cor. 15:24, 25).

3. For men to be confronted with the offer, there must be channels of communication through which the choice is presented. The principal channel was a matter of God’s choosing—namely, Abraham and his progeny. It must be admitted as a matter of historical fact that in Abraham’s day God did not reveal himself equally to all divisions of mankind. This principal channel of blessing involves both a Person and a people—Christ and Israel, the one seed and the many seed of Abraham.

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4. That the choice is real is shown by the following: there are many men today who confess that they do not believe in the God of Abraham and that they are not related to God in Jesus Christ. Indeed, some declare themselves to be knowingly lost and without hope. On the other hand, there are men who confess that they do believe in the God of Abraham and that they are related to him by faith in Jesus Christ. They are knowingly saved and certain of eternal life. These facts accord with Scripture.

5. The Church has been chiefly concerned with Christ and with his Person and his work of redemption. It has been a fellowship of believers and a messenger of the offer to “whosoever will.” Until recently the Church had not been primarily concerned with the social issues of corporate society. Of late, the Marxists have offered a materialistic substitute salvation through authoritative corporate action that denies the individual his personal sovereignty of choice. The Church, through its social gospel, is fast approaching the same position.

6. The role of Israel—and subsequently of the whole body of God’s people in history—has not been understood, because this part of the general scheme is not incorporated into a general theory. This is particularly true of the relation of Israel to the Church and the place of Israel in history, as set forth in the Old Testament. Any good interpretation of history requires a proper understanding of these matters, since, in addition to the person and work of Christ, history involves people. That Israel is central is attested by:

a. The specific promises to Israel in the Old Testament that were not completely fulfilled in New Testament times. Some confusion has arisen through the failure to give careful consideration to the distribution of the many provisions of the Abrahamic covenant to the several divisions of the descendants of Jacob.
b. The promise in the Old Testament that Israel is to be the agency of blessings brought to the Gentiles.
c. The proposition consistently presented throughout the New Testament that the Gentiles are added to, and are not a replacement of, the corporate body of Israel (Rom. 11; Eph. 2; Gal. 3). The unconditional promises to Abraham have never been retracted, abrogated, or annulled.

7. The culmination of history is the ingathering of believers of all generations through resurrection into one people of God, when Christ returns to reign over the earth. All our hopes for peace, health, and righteousness are centered in this one hope of his coming again. The details of the circumstances in which he will return are not yet clearly understood, and beyond the glorious appearing of Christ the details are even more obscure. However, we are confident that the tabernacle of God will be with men, and God will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and he will be their God (Heb. 4; Rev. 21:3).

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If these considerations lead to a pattern of history unfamiliar to us, then we are faced with two alternatives: either to show that this is not the biblical pattern, or to show that history fulfills it. It is the Bible, not merely traditional teaching, that gives the pattern; and it is the historical facts, not merely written accounts, that show the affairs of men as response to God’s sovereign will.

The great symphonic theme of the Bible is the story of Christ—his Person, his word of redemption, his coming reign, and his final triumph. But running throughout the entire Bible there is an alternate melody, now swelling, now dying, now lyrical with joyous notes in harmony with the main theme. It is the song of God’s people, without which the main theme would stand unadorned. This song is the song of the redeemed, about which the Prophet Isaiah says (30:29), “You shall have a song as in the night when a holy feast is kept; and gladness of heart, as when one sets out to the sound of a flute to go to the mountain of the Lord, to the Rock of Israel.”

T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.

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