The Russian invasion of Ukraine echoes the German invasion of Europe 80 years ago. Both Putin and Hitler recite history to justify the war. When a holocaust memorial was damaged in an airstrike, President Zelensky tweeted: “What is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? At least 5 killed. History repeating…” The question we pose today is “How should we think of history?”
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Redeeming Our Thinking About History: A God-Centered Approach” by Vern S. Poythress. 256 pages, published by Crossway in 2022. Available for USD18.99 in Amazon Kindle and, as of this recording, it’s available for pre-order in Logos for USD11.99. I am reviewing a review copy courtesy of Crossway. Crossway had no input on this review.
Vern S. Poythress is a distinguished professor of New Testament, biblical interpretation, and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary where he has taught for 44 years. He has six academic qualifications, thereby establishing that he is a smart man.
His best friend is John Frame. Or at least I think he is because they both share a blog, frame-poythress.org and you only share a blog with your bestie right? I mention John Frame because if you are a fan of John Frame, then you might like this book which builds on Frame’s perspectives.
Poythress is a prolific writer. Relevant to today’s review is a series that began 16 years ago. In 2006, he wrote Redeeming Science, in 2011 Redeeming Sociology, 2014 Redeeming Philosophy, 2015 Redeeming Mathematics, and in 2022 Redeeming History. Or rather it should be Redeeming History instead it’s Redeeming Our Thinking About History.
I love history. I love to redeem my thoughts on it. I jumped in to the book with high expectations.
The book is divided into five main parts:
- What We Need In Order To Think About History
- History in the Bible.
- Understanding God’s Purposes in History. (This is the main thesis of the book.)
- What Does History Writing Look Like?
- Alternative Versions of How To Think About History
There are 26 chapters over 256 pages. Some chapters are really short, the shortest chapter is 3 pages. Now, I will highlight one or two points from each part.
What We Need In Order to Think About History
In Part 1, Poythress argues that history consists of three aspects: Events, People and Meaning. Initially, I pushed back at the idea that people are necessary for history because the first five days of Genesis did not have people and so by his definition the study of the cosmos seems unfairly excluded. But I let it pass. It’s early in the book and also because of the way Poythress links people and history: the historian is a person and for history to have meaning you must have people. Fine. Let’s move on.
All history have these three aspects: Events, People and Meaning. The three aspects depend on each other, so you can’t have one without the other two. And all three have God as their source. God controls all events within history. God controls all humans in history. If you have not come to terms that God is in control over everything including people, then Poythress makes a concise case to show you that it’s true. As for the third aspect, you know the cliche, “There is a reason for everything”? Well, ultimately it is God who gives a reason or the meaning for history. As images of God, we try to puzzle it out and Poythress’ central thesis of this book is historians should articulate God’s purpose in history. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Having described the three aspects, the mutual dependencies and the divine foundation, there are useful discussions like the ethical, spiritual, component of history, the need to understand people and historical causes.
However I think there is an unnecessary distraction here. Poythress unnecessary links the three aspects: Events, People and Meaning with the Triune God. Three aspects in history, three persons in the Trinity. I won’t say that Poythress draws a hard and strong connection but it felt forced and thus distracting. If you are a guy who manages to think of a fourth or fifth aspect to history, you can’t propose it because you will break the Trinity relationship. It would be heresy!
History in the Bible
In Part 2, after telling us what we need in order to analyse history, he shows us history in the Bible, this wonderful book’s unity, diversity and uniqueness. He is saying here, we can learn how to think about history by looking at how God thinks about history. He writes:
God is interested in each person. He is interested in history. It is legitimate for us to be interested too. The Bible also indicates that God is concerned about many other subjects. He gives us commands. He tells us about himself. He shows us the way of salvation. So we should not forget that a focus on events and their meanings—the historical aspect—is part of a larger whole in God’s purposes.
Understanding God’s Purpose in History
Part 3, “Understanding God’s Purpose in History” is better in posing and framing the question than it is at answering it. Let me ask you, “Is it possible for us to understand God’s purpose in history outside of the Bible.” For example, “Would you attempt to explain God’s purpose for World War 1 and 2?” Please observe that we can explain God’s purpose for Assyria to invade Samaria and for Babylon to destroy Jerusalem.
As I read Poythress’ book and reflect on the news. Can we, dare we, explain God’s purpose for Russia to invade Ukraine? The retired evangelist, Pat Robertson, quotes Ezekiel 38 and says, I quote, “Putin is being driven to move against Israel because God says, ‘I’m going to put hooks in your jaws.'” Leave aside your response whether you agree or disagree with Robertson’s interpretation of Ezekiel here. Put that aside. The question is are we sufficiently informed to know the divine purposes in history, whether it’s yesterday’s news or events from a thousand years ago?
Poythress shows us that we already claim to know the divine purpose. When we give thanks to God for answered prayers, we say it was God’s purpose to bless us. When we tell people how we were saved by Jesus, we say it was God’s purpose to save us. So in these little bits of church history or personal history, we readily recognise the purposes of God. Therefore how the individual pieces together of his or her life to glorify God is analogous to what the historian pieces together of small and great events to glorify God.
In these chapters, even as Poythress asks the historian to be more bold in describing the Divine Purpose, he also sounds caution. His favourite cautionary verse is Job’s friends over-reached. They claimed to know more of God’s purposes and was proven fools. In the same vein, Poythress warns on seeing God’s purpose from our favourite causes, I quote here:
We all like to think that God supports our causes, our desires. Too often, sinful and biased desires begin to claim our allegiance. We give allegiance to them instead of subordinating our desires to God’s desires. “My church, my political group, my theology, my family is supported by God,” we reason. So it is easy to deceive ourselves and claim in a proud and self-satisfied way that all events favorable to our cause are expressions of God’s purpose to favor our cause.
What Does History Writing Look Like?
In Part 4 which consists of three chapters, Poythress shows how the historian can interpret the Hand of God in historical events. The easy chapter is the first one. It’s on Rome. Christians against pagans. We have strong confidence to know God’s will for Christians and non-Christians. The next chapter is harder, the Reformation. It’s Christians against Christians. But it’s still doable. When it comes to events within church history it is easier to guess or estimate God’s purposes. We do it all the time when we read biographies. God has prepared Corrie ten Boom, Jim Elliot, Martyn Lloyd Jones and R.C. Sproul for a purpose. And we can trace it through the joys and trials, ups and downs of their lives. So it’s easier to see God’s purpose when writing history about Christians but what about for non-Christians?
That’s what I was looking forward to in this chapter which is titled, “Histories of Other Civilizations”. When I first opened the book, I scanned through the table of contents, and I saw this chapter heading and my mind was just waiting for it. In this chapter, Poythress writes:
What about the history of Greece before the coming of Christ? What about the history of the Incan empire before the coming of Europeans? What about the history of the Chinese empire before the time of modern missions? Even after the gospel begins to penetrate a particular culture, there are still many events that do not have a clear, direct relation to the increased spread of the gospel. There are power struggles, wars, famines, and technological advances. How do we understand such events in the light of the gospel and the manifestation of God’s glory in salvation in Christ?
If we can answer all these questions he posed we can also answer the earlier questions I posed, how are Christians to think about God’s purposes in World War 2 and in Ukraine today.
And to my great disappointment, this chapter is only three pages long. His answer is hinted in the sub-heading: The Principle of Limited Knowledge. We could commend him for not over-reaching, for not speculating the mysteries of God but the way the whole book is set up, arguing boldly that we can and should describe God’s purpose in history, I expected a stronger example to clinch the case.
Alternative Versions of How to Think about History
The final part, Part 5, is subtitled “Competing Ways of Doing History among Christians”. In these last five chapters, Poythress is mainly interacting with Jay D. Green’s book, “Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions”. It’s an obvious change of pace because Poythress doesn’t engage so vigorously with anyone in any of the previous chapters.
However, it is clear that Poythress is putting forward one particular way of thinking about history, and that is Providentialism. I quote:
We know that God controls events because he tells us that he does. But what are his purposes in bringing events to pass? That is a more difficult question. In a narrower sense, a “providential view” of history describes God’s purposes in events. It does not merely say that God did something, but why he did it. Let us call this kind of approach “providentialism.”
Throughout this book, it is clear that what Vern Poythress means by redeeming our thinking about history is not just seeing people as sinners and God as judge and maker of the Earth, but redeeming is to see God’s purposes in history.
When it comes to Christian events, to me, it is a given. It’s describing that water is wet. It is easier to see God’s divine purposes in the church and individuals. But tell me how to describe God’s purposes in non-Christian events.
The way he frames the question is tantalising, you want more. The way he answers the question is disappointing. It’s like going to a restaurant, the waiter describes this menu item, a mouth-watering taste extravaganza, then tells you, “It’s all in the chef’s mind. No one has ever tasted it before.”
The lack of examples, or rather answers to his own question of how to think about Greek, Incan and Chinese history is a let down. And what makes it worse is I think we can. We can trace Greek philosophy, military, economic or political thought to Christianity’s history because when the two spheres overlap. But I argue, if you are a student of Incan or Chinese history, you can also see how the spheres overlap. And as soon as you can link any history to Christianity’s history, we can begin to estimate God’s purposes. The frustration is Poythress is content to tell us such history writing exists and should flourish but doesn’t show us examples of it.
Another criticism I have for this book is it works hard to connect the ideas to Poythress and Frame’s previous work when it should work harder to connect to the works of other historians. In the bibliography, there are 16 references to Poythress and 6 citations to Frame and their ideas were discussed in the book. However, there were references in the bibliography, which judging from the titles, should have been brought in as part of the discussion. The only writing Poythress thoroughly engages with is Green’s Christian Historiography, citing it in the last five chapters of the book.
Providentialism, the idea of writing history with God’s purposes in mind, was as Poythress describes it, “fairly common in the past, but it has become controversial.” Are there any historians doing it now? If we cannot find contemporary historians doing it, can we have examples of past historians or biographers? We want to know what is a good example of history writing because we don’t want to be like Job’s friends, who seeing what happened to people divined the wrong meaning for those events.
This is the only book by Vern Poythress I have ever read but it makes me wonder about the other “Redeeming” books in the series. If the other books are like this one, then it reads like a guy who has an analytical tool or framework, which he applies to philosophy, science, mathematics, sociology and history. And there is nothing wrong with that, it’s good that we can develop and learn new ways of seeing things.
In the case of this book, he sets up the case and fails to deliver. It’s just missing one ingredient, show us how it’s done right. Unless it’s never been done right before. If true, then is Providentialism just nice in theory but impossible in practice?
Poythress makes the audacious claim that this is a God-centred Approach. That’s an oversell. That’s why I expected more. If anything, this book should be titled, A Providence Centred Approach. It would be less audacious and more accurate to the thesis of the book.
Has this book redeemed my thinking on history? When I was watching the documentary, “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing”, Poythress was right in saying we everyone, Christians, non-Christians do inject a moral view in our history. We need to find a villain in the story. So secular history is not absent of morality, it’s just absent of religious morality.
When I read on the five views of how to think about history, I was thinking how “Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History” by John Dickson, ticked all the boxes.
So despite my criticism, Poythress’ book has challenged my thinking on history. The writing is accessible and he clearly wants to set his thoughts on biblical foundations. I just wished he had fully answered the question he posed, “How can we describe God’s purposes in history, specifically non-Biblical and non-Christian history?”
This is a Reading and Readers review of Redeeming Our Thinking About History: A God-Centered Approach by Vern S. Poythress. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD18.99. As of this recording, it’s available as pre-order from Logos.com for USD11.99. I got a review copy of this book courtesy of the publisher Crossway but they had no input on this review.
God determines Events, People and Meaning. Listening to this podcast is an event that connects you and I together. But what is the meaning or the purpose of this event? There must be meaning because we don’t believe in coincidences, right? We believe in God’s Providence. So perhaps, and I want to be careful here, I don’t want to over-reach, perhaps the purpose of listening to this podcast, and potentially subscribing to this podcast, is for me to introduce to you books that will refresh and nourish the soul. Always remember that God’s purposes are great and wonderful. May you walk in His Will. Thanks for listening.