I have often said that few things would be as beneficial to aspiring historians as working through the five volumes of Jaroslav Pelikan’s monumental The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, and jotting down in a notebook each of his frequent one-line definitions of history. And such a notebook would be most appropriately prefaced by these words from the great J. Gresham Machen:
“In the study of history the first step is to learn the facts. No amount of topical study, no amount of reflection on the principles of history, will result in anything better than a mental jumble, unless the memory has first retained the framework of fact.”
I am well aware, of course, that to speak so brashly about “facts” as Machen does would undoubtedly seem almost heretical to the historiographically informed. But here Machen perceptively anticipates the triumph of “theory” in the Academy—that strange and disquieting development that has resulted, for example, in literature professors having shelves upon shelves lined with books about literature (or philosophy or psychoanalysis or whatever), or worse, with books about some hideous beast called “the literary phenomenon,” rather than with actual literary works.
But, as always, Machen is not here concerned with the petty nonsense of academic fads, but with something of radical importance. He continues:
“Biblical history is not different in this respect from any other history. The Bible, after all, is a record of events; the gospel is good news about something that has happened. That something is simply the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ—his life and death and resurrection—which was explained and applied by the apostles whom he commissioned. Apostolic history, which we shall here study, is different from secular history; for the apostles were in possession of a divine authority which is valid still for the Church of today. The sacredness of the history, however, does not prevent it from being history; and if it is history, it should be studied by the best historical method which can be attained. Modern Christians often seem to suppose that piety is somehow opposed to thinking, that hard study should be reserved for secular schools, that the reader of the Bible may afford to be neglectful of the facts. Such an attitude is dishonouring to the divine revelation. Christianity is not wild speculation or bottomless mysticism. It reaches, indeed, to the highest of heavens, but its foundation is laid upon sober fact.
“The purpose of the present book is to ground Christian piety more firmly in historical knowledge. Knowledge cannot be acquired without labour. The labour, however, need not be drudgery. On the contrary, it is lack of study which has made the Bible for some people a dull book. If the study here outlined be undertaken with earnestness, it will reveal the wonderful richness and variety of the Bible story, it will do away with the sense of unreality which sometimes oppresses the piecemeal reader, it will show that the extension of the gospel was a real movement in a real world, and finally it will strengthen the conviction that that historical movement was no mere product of human effort, interesting merely to the scholar, but an entrance into human life of the divine power, working permanently for the salvation of men. Historical study is absolutely necessary for a stalwart Christianity. It is necessary, however, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. Rightly pursued, the study of ancient Christianity will lead every one of us first to the feet of the living Lord, then to a simple confession of him and an active membership in his Church.”
(J. Gresham Machen, The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History [Carlisle:Banner of Truth, 1990], pp. 9-10.)
[And if you don’t get the title of this post, then clearly you don’t read Nathan Eshelman’s Sabbath a’Brakel—a dominical edifying quote from a monumental, 4-volume work entitled The Christian’s Reasonable Service, written by the greatest of all Dutch Puritans, Wilhelmus à Brakel.]