Calvinism and Modern Thought: In the Sphere of History

Francis Beattie writes,

Historical research in modern times has made wonderful advances. It is no longer a matter of mere annals and statistics. It has acquired a distinct method of its own, which is well known as the historical method, and which has also been carried into many other spheres of inquiry. The historian is no longer content to recite mere story and tradition, but seeks accuracy by getting, so far as possible, at the original sources of information. With scrupulous care he seeks to separate fact from myth, event from opinion, and to ascertain the actual reality of the things with which he deals. In doing so he now relies much upon the sources of information found in the inscriptions on the monuments and cylinders which are now being unearthed in those lands where the nations of antiquity once flourished; and he also seeks to read, with conscientious care, the old documents which tell of the doings of men in the days that are gone. Thus archæology becomes the handmaid of history, and the historian now seeks to trace all human institutions to their original sources in the dim vista of the past.

Above all, modern historical methods have sought to go below the surface of the incidents described, and to get behind the scenes, to mingle with the individual actors in the drama of the ages, in order to discover and trace out the inner connections and inherent relations of the events which have transpired in the past. This is what is rightly called the philosophy of history, and in many respects the true interest and real value of history lie in this direction. By this means it is shown that the events of history are not isolated happenings, but are intimately related to each other. It thus appears that there seems to be a logical order and rational connection between all that has ever happened among men. We often use the phrase, “the logic of events,” and little think how much it means. It may be going too far to say, with the Hegelian school, that history is the concrete expression of the forms of reason, and that all historical incidents must be construed in accordance with the logical categories. Still, modern historical method is more and more recognizing the profoundly important fact that there is a rational factor in all history, and that one increasing purpose seems to run through the ages. The events of history are not grains of sand lying scattered upon the shore of time, but vital germs making up the historic life of the human race.

In all of this there is an echo of Calvinism. This system teaches, as no other does, that God is the sovereign Ruler over all the affairs of men, and that he is slowly but surely working out his eternal purposes concerning men in the march of the centuries. He it is who establishes thrones and sets up princes. He it is who removes kings, and allows empires to pass away. He even uses one nation to overthrow another, and to accomplish his far-reaching purposes thereby. Thus Pharaoh, we read, was raised up to show the power of God, and that the name of God might be declared in all the earth (Ex. 9:16; Rom. 9:17). In like manner, Cyrus is called the shepherd of Jehovah, to perform his pleasure, in connection with what he did, under God’s hand, at the time of the restoration of Judah from the great captivity (Is. 44:27, 28). So has it been ever since. The hand of God is seen in all human history. His wisdom, righteousness, and power, appear in it all. His eternal purpose is the rational bond which binds all events together, and his omnipotent agency is the vital power that constitutes the secret of the historic life of the human race. This is Calvinism in one point of view, for it is God’s sovereignty regarded as the key of human history.

But further, this eternal purpose running through all the ages has a moral quality belonging to it. Human history is not merely rational; it is also moral. There is more than a natural philosophy of history; there is also a moral significance about it. There is moral good and moral evil in it. Righteousness and wickedness play a large part on the stage of human history. The drama is often a terrible conflict between these opposing forces. By the great apostasy in paradise the stream of human history was turned into the channel of evil. But the divine purpose of grace has opened up a new channel, and the opposing forces have been dashing against each other ever since. Toward the Incarnation and the Cross all the ages before Christ were steadily moving, so that he appeared among men in the fullness of time. Then from the Cross and the Ascension all the ages since Christ’s day are moving steadily on to the final consummation of all things. It is only from the standpoint of Bethlehem, Calvary, and Olivet, that all history since the advent of Christ can be properly interpreted. In a word, in the moral sphere, the purpose of God in redemption is the key to the understanding of all history. The prophetic element in the Old Testament makes this abundantly plain. It is equally evident in the New Testament, especially in the book of The Revelation. It is only in the light of the problem of sin and redemption, solved by the gracious purpose of God in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, that the riddle of human history can be interpreted. And Calvinism, with its comprehensive view of the sovereignty of God and of his eternal redeeming purpose, can say this better than any other system; and we may confidently believe that, as the true philosophy of history is more and more fully unfolded, Calvinism will be found to be abreast of its latest and best results. He who reads history aright may decipher the thoughts of God on every page, and thereby he may trace the pathway of his eternal purpose through the ages.


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