How We Think About History Matters

Photo courtesy of Crossway

History is a subject that I have always found interesting. In history we find accounts of the heroism and bravery of people not unlike ourselves, who accomplished great things. We can look back on the events of history and be inspired. We can also look back in history and see cautionary tales, ways we can improve on the mistakes of others. Yet history is more than this. We can look back on history and see the providential faithfulness of God working through it all. For it is truly His story. For the believer, history is much more than facts and important dates. Those facts and important dates tell us something about God. This is what Vern S. Poythress discusses in his new book Redeeming Our Thinking About History: A God Centered Approach (Crossway, 2022).

From the outset, it must be stated that the book is not a study of history per se, but about how to study or analyze history from a Christian worldview. To quote the opening paragraph, “Is history important? Should it be important to Christians? What is a Christian view of history? And how should Christians study and write about history? We want to explore these questions” (pg. 11). If you already know about worldviews or looking at life with a “Christian worldview,” you may think this book has nothing new to offer. While the book does address the Christian worldview for approaching history, it also provides several other approaches with in-depth reviews of each.  

The author, Rev. Dr. Vern Poythress (Ph.D., Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch), is the distinguished professor of New Testament, biblical interpretation, and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he has taught for 44 years. Given the author’s academic qualifications, there were at times when reading the book; I asked myself if I was the intended audience. I am not a historian, a history teacher, or a professor. A few times in the book, it feels like the author is writing directly to these types of individuals. However, after completing the book, I can answer the question and say that I am the intended audience as well. Anyone can benefit from the book and the many nuggets of thought-provoking concepts. I think this book could benefit someone that is at least a junior or senior in high school if the student has an interest history. This book offers plenty of ideas and wisdom that the history professional, layperson, or student can glean.  

While the author did not mention it, I believe the approaches provided to analyze history can also be used to analyze today’s news as well, which we know today’s news is tomorrow’s history. The author’s concepts can help you strengthen your ability to filter today’s news through the proper God-honoring framework. We know that every news organization and journalist has a perspective and an intent when providing the news. Is it to get to just facts? Is it to understand the participants better? Or is it to show an event is part of God’s plan? This book will help you consider these perspectives and others.  

The book is laid out in five parts. Part 1: What We Need In Order to Analyze History. Part 2: History in the Bible. Part 3: Understanding God’s Purposes in History. Part 4: What Does History Writing Look Like? Part 5: Alternative Versions of How to Think About History. For me, Part 5 is the most beneficial section in the entire book. Poythress outlines several ways to study, research, and write about history. For each of them, he provides arguments for and against them. 

The chapter on evaluating providentialism is thought-provoking (Chapter 23). Providentialism is looking at God’s purposes in history. In the Bible, God sometimes tells us his purposes; however, what about events not recorded in the Bible? Can we know God’s purposes for them? Can we look at history and determine God’s purposes. Poythress looks at the positive and negative arguments for providentialism. The positive argument is that we know God is at work in all people and events to spread the gospel, convert people to follow His Son, and glorify His name. However, on the negative side, we have to think about Job’s three friends. They knew of the events in Job’s life, but none were correct in their interpretation of God’s actions. As far as we know, they never knew. One of the privileges of those who have the Bible is that we can know God’s purpose for Job’s trials. Overall, Poythress believes providentialism is a valid way of looking at history, but it can be abused as we are finite human beings. So we must not be overly rigid in stating God’s providence for historical events.  

One of the book’s main themes is that history should be viewed from three aspects: events, people, and meanings. These three aspects are the foundation of the book and are revisited throughout. While each one could be used on its own to analyze history, such as just studying the people, Dr. Poythress contends that all three, events, people, and meanings should be viewed in harmony with one another when studying history. To strengthen his point, he draws a correlation with the Trinity, stating the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit each have their own distinct purpose; however, they are best understood when viewed as part of the Trinity.   

Keep your Bible nearby as you read this book, as Dr. Poythress generously references scripture throughout the book. Additionally, he recognizes that man is finite, and although history can be analyzed and studied, only God, in His sovereignty, can fully know the reasons (Romans 11:33-34). If you are looking for a book to give you ways to think about history and even today’s events, I recommend you read this book.


Scott Sorenson is engaged in leading technology functions such as data & analytics and privacy for the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His focus is to make Christ Lord of all aspects of his life.


Editor’s Note: Reading For The Glory received this title from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


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