Gary North – October 23, 2021
A. Benefits of Reading This Book
I wrote this book so that a hard core of Christian leaders and prospective leaders will read it and then will act on what they have read. Leaders act representatively. Action is crucial to all forms of leadership: in households, churches, and everywhere else. Knowledge alone is insufficient for meaningful change, either personally or institutionally. We must act in terms of what we believe. But, before we act, we had better count the cost. Jesus said: “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish” (Luke 14:28–30).
Maybe you do not want to be a leader. You are a leader anyway. If you are a parent, you are a leader. Parents teach their children. If you make decisions on behalf of others, you are a leader. Basic to all forms of leadership is the knowledge of history. Every organization has a history. Successful leaders must know something about the past of the organizations in which they possess God-given responsibility. They need to know how they got into the positions they occupy. They need to know something about the successes and failures of previous leaders.
Why should you start reading this book? Why should you finish reading it? Because you are the heir to a great gift: Christian civilization. It began on the day Adam was created (Genesis 1:26). It will not end on the day of judgment (Matthew 25). It will extend into eternity (Revelation 21, 22). You owe God thanks. The more you know about the history of Christian civilization, the more thanks you will owe. He who has received more from God owes more to God. “There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most? Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged” (Luke 7:41–43).
This debt includes your present knowledge of God’s dealings with His people through the ages. The Bible is filled mostly with stories of God’s dealings with His people. You know some of them. You know about God and Adam, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood. You know about David and Solomon. You may not be able to identify when they lived, but you know that historical time is linear. It had a beginning, and it will have an end: the final judgment. This structure gives meaning to Bible stories.
You also know stories about Jesus. These stories are central to your faith. You know about His resurrection from the dead. Paul put this event at the center of Christian faith. “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Then he said it again: “And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins” (v. 17). If you are wise, you know about the men of faith described in Hebrews 11. They are role models for Christians in every era.
More than any other religion except Judaism, Christianity is a religion based on history. Yet Christians are remarkably ignorant about the history of the church. They are even more ignorant about the culture-transforming effects of the church. Even if they know a little about a few key figures in the history of the church, they cannot explain exactly why these people were important in the history of Western civilization. They cannot tell you what difference these people made outside of the institutional church. They have no understanding of the relationship between the church’s teachings and historical progress.
One of the reasons for this ignorance is that humanistic historians ever since the Renaissance have dominated the profession of historical storytellers. They have written stories about the history of the church prior to 1500. These stories have been almost universally negative. There has been some recent improvement in the accuracy of the humanists’ accounts of the history of Christianity, but not enough. Humanists have written the history textbooks. Textbooks on the history of Western civilization have focused on the historical impact of the rediscovery of Greek and Roman historical documents and sculpture that took place after about 1350, and especially after the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, when Greek refugees came west with copies of ancient Greek documents and the ability to teach. Humanist historians labeled the early history of the church “the dark ages.” They also labeled the history of the West up to about 1350 as “the Middle Ages.” The middle of what? The middle of civilization between the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. and the advent of the Renaissance.
In this book, I explain the nature of the intellectual warfare between two irreconcilable theories of history and two traditions of writing about history. The first is the Christian concept of history. The second is humanism’s concept of history. Both groups have adopted similar organizational categories for understanding history, but their presuppositions are radically opposed. I discuss this conflict of visions in terms of the rivalry between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. I show why you and generations of Christians before you have been deliberately misinformed about the history of Western civilization.
This book will take time to read. You will have to pay attention to some of the details. I have done my best to structure the book to make it readable, but there is no substitute for paying attention. We tell this to our children when they are young. Our children tend not to pay much attention to the warning. I hope you do.B. The Origin of This Book
In 1975, I persuaded R. J. Rushdoony to use funds raised by his nonprofit foundation, Chalcedon, to publish a scholarly book honoring Christian philosopher Cornelius Van Til, who taught apologetics—the philosophical defense of the faith—at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Rushdoony had been an intellectual disciple of Van Til’s ever since 1947, when he read The New Modernism (1947), Van Til’s critique of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, the European neo-orthodox theologians who denied the historical accuracy of the Bible’s narratives. I had taken an introductory apologetics course from Van Til in the fall of 1963. Rushdoony agreed to the project. I then recruited authors who were followers of Van Til intellectually. Each wrote at least one article about a specific academic discipline.
I wrote the article on sociology and the article on economics. Yet my Ph.D. was in history. I decided that the best person to write the article on history was professor C. Gregg Singer of Catawba College. His 1964 book, A Theological Interpretation of American History, was unique. In 1975, Arlington House published his history of the National Council of Churches: The Unholy Alliance. In 1979, his next major book appeared: From Rationalism to Irrationality: The Decline of the Western Mind from the Renaissance to the Present (1979).
Singer was not a well-known historian in secular academic circles, but he was a superior historian. Catawba College was a small Christian college in a small town in rural North Carolina. He did not have ready access to a major research library. But he had a worldview that enabled him to write cogent books on major topics. That was why I invited him to contribute an article. He agreed. The book appeared in 1976: Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective. It was published by Rushdoony’s book publishing company, Ross House Books.
Singer’s essay was titled “The Problem of Historical Interpretation.” He began his essay with this paragraph:
Some five years ago at an annual meeting of the American Historical Association the writer had the occasion to meet informally with a group of the more famous historians in attendance at that conference. The subject under discussion was the meaning and purpose of history. These half-dozen scholars were of the opinion that history lacks any decisive meaning and any discernible purpose. The writer then posed to this group of distinguished scholars one question: If this be the case, then why do we teach history? The scholars looked at him with surprise and even disgust, but no answer was forthcoming from any of them. The group broke up as each went to his own particular luncheon group and discussion of various phases of a subject which they could not really justify as part of a college curriculum and yet which they continue to teach as if the knowledge of it had some inherent value.
In the second paragraph, he drew a conclusion regarding the world of humanist academia:
This incident is by no means unique. The professional historians in this country and in Europe have come to the place where they have little faith in the subject to which they have devoted their lives. Historians with increasing and distressing frequency are openly admitting that history has no meaning and shows little or no purpose or goals. But neither is this anti-intellectual attitude peculiar to the professional historians. The existentialist and positive philosophies have entered into the thinking of most areas of human thought and activity with devastating results. In conjunction with the Freudian school in psychology, they have made irrationalism and anti-intellectualism fashionable and have virtually removed the concepts of purpose and meaning from the thinking of many historians and those who proclaim themselves to be “social scientists.”
His assessment was correct. Leading historians in 1970 no longer had faith that history reveals any authoritative meaning or purpose. This lack of faith is far more widespread today. It had been building for half a century before Singer wrote his essay. Yet this pessimism regarding the relevancy of historical research and publication has in no way slowed the publication of arcane articles in professional historical journals. Historians continue to write these articles, despite the fact that the articles are rarely quoted by other historians or even read by them. Then why write? They do it to keep their jobs in major universities if they do not have tenure, and to get job offers if they are stuck in colleges with poor academic reputations and low pay. In 1970, publishing journal articles was the way that untenured assistant professors became tenured associate professors and full professors—in every field in the humanities and social sciences.
When the acknowledged leaders in any profession begin to doubt its legitimacy, that profession borders on the fringes of irrelevancy. In the case of the academic discipline known as history, the number of students willing to major in the field has steadily declined. There are so few high school teaching opportunities available to graduates with B.A. degrees in history that the number of students willing to take two years of upper division courses has declined. In 2017, 15 million students attended American colleges. In that year, fewer than 25,000 history degrees were awarded, down from over 36,000 in 2008. The number of history majors declined by two-thirds from 1969 to 1985. (Colleen Flaherty, “The Vanishing History Major,” Inside Higher Education [November 27, 2018]. https://bit.ly/HistoryMajors)
There was a time in American history when history courses were part of the core curriculum in both high schools and colleges. In high school in the late 1950’s, I took a one-year course in world history and one-year course in American history. At the University of California, Riverside in the 1960’s, a one-year course in Western civilization was required for graduation. That academic world is long gone. In 2020, an article was published by Forbes, a business site: “Who’s Afraid of Western Civ?” Here are the numbers: “By 2011, none of the 50 top U.S. universities required Western Civilization, and 34 didn’t even offer the course. Nationwide, only 17% of colleges require Western Civ, and only 18% require American history or government.” The turning point came on January 15, 1987 at Stanford University, when 500 students and a visiting celebrity, Rev. Jesse Jackson, demonstrated against a required course in Western culture. Their chant received national publicity by the media: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go!” The faculty took the hint. It dropped the course in 1989. (A long, carefully documented article on the rise and fall of the Western Civilization curriculum was published in 2020 by the National Association of Scholars: “The Lost History of Western Civilization,” by Stanley Kurtz. https://bit.ly/LostHistory2020)
Singer made it clear in 1976 that the academic discipline of history was in a state of crisis. He blamed the presuppositions of secular humanism. Unfortunately, he never wrote a book on the purpose and meaning of history. His article offered no insights regarding an explicitly Christian way of interpreting and writing history. He was therefore in the distressing position of trying to beat something with nothing. Nevertheless, his essay serves as an introduction to Van Til’s writings on history and historiography. This book fills in the details.C. The Nature of the Crisis
In Part 2 of this book, I go into the details of the crisis in modern historiography. I became aware of this crisis in my senior year of college, 1962–63. I took a course in historiography in the second semester. The history department required history majors to take this course. Had it not been required, it is doubtful that many students would have enrolled. I was an exception. I was interested in questions regarding epistemology, the philosophical study of what people can know and how they can know it. I had been reading the works of economist Ludwig von Mises for two years. Also, beginning in the fall of 1962, Rushdoony began sending me spiral-bound syllabi written by Van Til for his students. What I did not know was this: in 1962, Van Til had written a multi-volume mimeographed syllabus, Christianity in Conflict. It was a history of Christian apologetics from the second century onward. His contention was this: the early church began a tradition which undermined the testimony of the church, namely, the use of Greek philosophy as a way to defend the teachings of the church and the legitimacy of the gospel. In Part I of that syllabus, Van Til devoted six pages to an analysis of a book by R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History. Van Til had correctly identified the scholar who was arguably the major humanist philosopher of history in the mid-twentieth century. Singer relied on Van Til’s critique to write his article.
In that course, I read two anthologies of essays on the philosophy of history and the writing of history. Two of the essayists, Carl Becker and Charles Beard, had delivered presidential addresses to the American Historical Association in the early 1930’s. These articles were included in one of the anthologies. I discuss them in Chapters 8 and 9. In most of the materials on the meaning of history written after 1920, historians presented some version of historical relativism. They were in reaction against the ideal of late-nineteenth century historians: the objective interpretation of history. This had been called scientific history. Any claim of scientific precision and authority was not taken seriously by leading historians after 1920.
A neglected cause of this loss of faith in objective history was the rise of the Copenhagen school of physics in the 1920’s: quantum physics. That movement had declared that the realm of subatomic physics is not governed by the same Newtonian laws of cause and effect that govern the realm of atoms, where you and I live. This change of view began to affect the social sciences. One influential scholar who understood the impact of quantum physics outside of physics departments was Roscoe Pound, who was Dean of the Harvard Law School from 1916 to 1937. After this, he became a University Professor at Harvard. In 1940, he wrote this in his book, Contemporary Juristic Theory: “Nothing has been so upsetting to political and juristic thinking as the growth of the idea of contingency in physics. It has taken away the analogy from which philosophers had reached the very idea of law. It has deprived political and juristic thought of the pattern to which they had conceived of government and law as set up. Physics had been the rock on which they had built” (p. 34). Physics was no longer a reliable rock in 1930. I discussed this reconstruction of Newtonian physics in Chapter 1 of my book, Is The World Running Down? Crisis in the Christian Worldview (1988).
. . . God created the world, and then He created man to exercise dominion over it (Gen. 1:26–28). Man’s mind comprehends his environment—not perfectly, but adequately for a creature responsible before God to exercise dominion in God’s name. It is only because mankind has this interpretive ability that science can exist. Even more crucial, it is only because God created and actively, providentially sustains this universe that science can exist.
Few Christians have been told that without three key doctrines that stem directly from Christian theology, modern science could not have been developed: first, the creation of the universe by a totally transcendent God out of nothing; second, the sustaining providence of God; third, linear (straight line) history. The pagan world, including Greece and Rome, did not believe these doctrines, and it did not develop theoretical science. Similarly, both Chinese and Islamic science failed to carry through on their hopeful beginnings in science because they rejected a Christian worldview. Because the West believed in these three doctrines, modern science became possible.
Because modern man has abandoned all three of these doctrines, modern science has become increasingly irrational, despite its tremendous advancement. As the experiments become more precise, physicists have lost faith in the coherence of the universe. The twentieth century has abandoned the stable, rational worldview of late-nineteenth-century physical science (pp. 13–14).
What I wrote about modern natural science in 1988, I am writing about modern historiography in this book. The problem is the same—skepticism—because the cause is the same: the abandonment of a worldview that affirms the possibility of objective knowledge. The twenty-first century is increasingly an era of subjectivism. This started in the late-nineteenth century, and it accelerated after World War I. In his book, Twilight of Authority (1975), Robert Nisbet observed:
Twilight periods are rich in manifestations of subjectivity, and our own is no exception. The retreat to inner consciousness that began in literature at the very beginning of the century, but which was offset for a long time by still-powerful currents of objectivity, has become a major phenomenon in the cultural setting of the present, and may be seen not only in literature and the fine arts, but in substantial areas of the social sciences, philosophy, and, variously, in the wide range of popular therapeutic explorations of self. This subjectivity would be less significant if it were not associated with what has become an enlarging distrust of reason and science in some of the areas of inquiry which only recently have become accepted in the terms of rationalism (pp. 139–40).
As I explain in Part 2, the spread of subjectivism has steadily undermined humanistic historians’ trust in the meaningfulness of their research and the research of their peers. This subjectivism is an inescapable result of the academic world’s rejection of biblical creationism. It assumes a rival view of origins: impersonal, purposeless, meaningless cosmic evolution.Conclusion
I have learned after six decades of experience in teaching, primarily on the printed page and the computer screen, that it is more effective to start with a presentation of what is correct before launching into detailed criticisms of what is incorrect. The old saying is true: you can’t beat something with nothing. It is best to begin with something, and especially something true. This is why I devote Part 1 to a presentation of the biblical foundations of history and also historiography. These five covenantal categories are foundational to the study of society: sovereignty, authority, law, sanctions, and succession. The Bible identifies the content of these five categories in the realm of history: creationism, the image of God in man, biblical law, God’s imputation of meaning, and cultural inheritance over time.
In Part 2, I survey humanism’s rival construct. Humanist historians rely on the same five categories in their pursuit of an understanding of the past—sovereignty, authority, law, sanctions, and succession—but they substitute different content in four of the five: evolution, autonomy, relativism, and nominalism. On the fifth point, succession, they remain silent. It is too depressing: entropy—the heat death of the again purposeless universe. (See Chapter 10.)
In Part 3, I discuss how and why Christian historians must reconstruct the epistemological foundations of their field from the bottom up, and then begin to produce historical studies that are consistent with the Christian worldview regarding the structure of history. There is such a worldview. The fact that Christian historians have ignored it for so long has undermined their understanding of historical development. They have adopted too much of the humanists’ covenant model, which is implicit in the history profession’s university screening system that certifies professional competence. But there is no formal university course in presuppositions in any academic discipline. At most, there are courses in methodology, which never mention the presuppositions that undergird the professors’ worldview. But the humanists’ presuppositions exist, and they shape the thinking of most professional historians.