I enjoy history. Not the boring, droning of mere facts and figures, but rather, digging into history, finding out the way and why of our past in an effort to inform our approach and understanding of the present. Understanding the past is vital. Nathan Finn, in his book History: A Student’s Guide, provides the reader with an introductory presentation of what it means to engage the past.
This book is part of Crossway’s Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition series, a collection of books intended to serve as a gateway to the topic each book discusses. This book is not a lengthy treatise on the nature and purpose of historical studies by any stretch. Instead, this series and Finn’s book on history, in particular, are meant to provide the reader with the basics. In this case, Finn focuses on the basic construct of understanding history, historical interpretation, and how history relates intimately to matters of faith.
The typical audience for this book is at the undergraduate level. With that said, there is much within this book that everyone at all levels of historical understanding will find useful. For instance, I appreciated Finn’s salient reminder that history is not only about the past. The past includes the reading of the last sentence I just typed. There is an important distinction to be made between the past and history. Finn aptly notes, “history is the discipline of reconstructing and interpreting the past.”
After building a helpful foundation on just what history is, Finn then outlines the various methods by which historians interpret history. Everyone has a particular lens that impacts how they understand events in history. Furthermore, depending on the historical discipline, certain events can be approached from a variety of methods and angles.
I will submit a slight point of disagreement that Scripture points more to a linear path than a cyclical one. We see throughout Scripture processes/cycles. The largest cycle is the movement of history back to the Garden, the return to a state of restoration and redemption that was lost due to sin. As Finn rightly noted, we see the cycle of obedience and rebellion in the book of Judges and I might add in all of history. It would seem then that while there is forward movement (i.e. linear history) taking place, such a movement takes place within the construct of a larger cycle (perfection to redemption) and numerous life processes and cycles that take place daily, weekly, yearly, and so forth.
Finn’s commitment to noting the importance of a biblical worldview as we engage history is noteworthy and valuable. This involves something Finn notes throughout his book and that is the need to do history with all manner of integrity, faithfully investigating the facts, and helping people grasp history through the framework of God’s divine plan for humanity. This is where history and the faith truly intersect, thus the need for what Finn’s labels as “bilingual historians”.
History is not just something that academics do in their so-called ivory towers. History is important for all local gatherings of believers, for all believers personally, and for the world at large. While we are not all professional historians, we should take note the important truths Finn relays in this book because at some point in our lives, we will actively engage in interpreting history. Whether this occurs as a result of something we are reading, in conversations with friends and family, or perhaps more importantly, or as we combat the revisionist tendencies that are taught in schools today.