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Teaching History Theologically

In class, I’m often asked if we’ll be studying theology or history on that particular day. I know what the student means; a class on “historical theology” is vast—some days we’ll look exclusively at Scripture, other days we’ll focus in on, say, the Crusades. However, the question itself reveals a bias which all of us children of modernity share: the propensity to separate the “religious” from the “factual,” “history” from “theology.” While theology and history can be distinguished, they can never be properly separated. It’s my contention that history and theology share three things in common which exclude the possibility of hermitically sealing one from another.

First, theology and history share creation. One could define history as “the story of this world.” At first blush, this definition seems to isolate “theology” from “history.” However, the “the story of this world” is precisely that with which theology is concerned! History and theology are both concerned with the same substance: namely, creation. Both disciplines are concerned with telling the same story; namely, “the story of this world.”

The Bible does not limit its sights to the “spiritual.” Rather, the Bible mischievously puts its nose in families, mountains, lakes, kings, nations, and other historical, created things. In fact, when not speaking about God himself, the Bible speaks about nothing but creation, the very same creation with which history is out to chronicle! Theology and history are narrating the same epic. These are the cards Christians are dealt. Should one want a religion which tells the story of a different world, there’s always the mystical, Eastern tables; but from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is telling the true story of this world.

Second, theology and history share sin. When you put theology in a silo far from history, you lose the ability to call past events “wrong” or “right.” For instance, nearly all historians will characterize the move from chattel slavery, to the Emancipation Proclamation, to the civil rights marches, as a positive progression. Even atheistic historians will want to call the freeing of slaves “good.” But by what standard is it good?

Perhaps you think, “but the ideal historian will not take sides, he’ll just state the facts.” Hopefully, anyone who’s watched the History Channel when Pawn Stars isn’t on will recognize the naiveté of such a sentiment. Even in deciding which events to recall and which to leave out, the historian is constructing a narrative in which there are “good” and “bad” actors. In this instance, the atheist historian is assuming the moral presuppositions of Christianity.

Third, theology and history share salvation. Two thousand years ago Jesus came, in history, to liberate the fallen creation from sin. His physical corpse was then, in time and space, raised from the dead. For the theological category of “redemption” to be intelligible, history must be employed.

Indeed, for the resurrection to happen, a personal God would have to be tinkering around in history. The theological claim that Christ rose from the dead, like nearly every theological claim, is by nature a historical one (1 Cor 15). The “theological Jesus” claims to be historical and the “historical Jesus” claims to be “theological.” If you separate the “theological” Jesus from the “historical” Jesus, you lose both.

In conclusion, teaching history theologically requires skill, but not the skill one might expect. The skill one must master is not that of deftly weaving together two, unrelated disciplines. Rather, it’s a more passive, receptive skill. It’s the skill of reading history and theology with the sensitivity to see their inherent connective tissue; the creational, moral, redemptive threads essential to both disciplines. Whether the Christian is teaching art, philosophy, science, or any other subject, he does so with the sure knowledge that this world is created and actively governed by a covenantal, Triune, personal God.

Thus, a distinctively Christian pedagogy tears down the artificial barriers between all “subjects.” Christ’s entire mission is one of unification: Heaven with earth, us with himself, us with the Father, us with one another, us with ourselves. How could education, then, be anything but a process of de-compartmentalization? First of subjects, then of our very person: Christ making our thoughts, desires, and actions coherent, whole, human. To the question, “are we studying history or theology today?” I now answer, “yes!”

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