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Book Review

History by Faith

History Through the Eyes of Faith, by Ronald Wells

New York: Harper & Row, 1989, 262 pages, $9.95
Reviewed by Paul Waibel

If a photographer had been present along the road to Emmaus, "and if a picture had been taken of Jesus and his two walking companions, would that picture have shown Jesus of Nazareth, whom most people in Jerusalem knew?" This question of the objective nature of historical reality is critical to both the truth of the Christian faith and a Christian view of history. Professor Ronald A. Wells of Calvin College repeatedly calls the reader's attention to that fact in History Through the Eyes of Faith, a survey of history, meant to provide "a Christian perspective on the history of Western Civilization."

As a Christian view of history, Wells' volume is "revisionist," in that he rejects most of what would normally be regarded as characteristic of a Christian, as opposed to a secular, approach to the study of history. Indeed, Professor Wells insists that there is no distinctively Christian approach to the study of history. "In order to have an acceptable dialogue," he writes, "all historians must discuss the same reality." That "reality" rules out seeing any divine providence in history, for "we historians study humans, not God."

The Bible, writes Wells, "while surely trustworthy, is not without its difficulties." Problems associated with its human authorship render it unreliable as a source of historical facts. It cannot be used either to derive the distinctive characteristics of a Christian view of history, or as evidence for the historicity of, for example, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The New Testament was written to fill the need to tell the story of Jesus to the generations after the death of the apostles. Because the Gospels and Epistles were written after the fact by "people with an `Easter Faith'...who may or may not have been witnesses to the actual events and who, in any case, had an interest in perpetuating belief in the claims surrounding those events," they cannot be appealed to as evidence for "the historicity of Jesus as the risen Lord." The most that an historian can say with intellectual honesty, concludes Wells, is that "Jesus of Nazareth is historical," but Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, "is a belief, founded in a faith, not a conclusion induced from indisputable `facts.'"

Because Professor Wells rules out any providential interpretation, his history of Western Civilization is also revisionist, as viewed from a more traditional Christian perspective. Wells correctly sees that the real break with Christianity as the dominant worldview in Western Civilization came not with the Renaissance, as often assumed by Christians, but rather with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. It was the Enlightenment that toppled God from his position as the Lord of history, and relegated him to the role of "God of first and last causes."

The ideology of the Enlightenment became a secular religion, a Christian heresy, that has largely supplanted Christianity as the dominant religion in the West. As such, it is theoretically incompatible with Christianity. Most Christians can agree with Wells thus far, but many, particularly among conservative evangelicals, will disagree with Wells' assertion that many of their most cherished values arose from the Enlightenment, and, therefore are without a Biblical basis and at odds with true Christian values.

Wells concludes that "all modern thinking stands on an Enlightenment base." This includes all modern economic systems, whether "capitalist, socialist, or `mixed,'" for they are all materialistic. Whether east or west of the Iron Curtain, all economic and social systems are, according to Wells' analysis, equally unacceptable for Christians.

Enlightenment thought gave rise to a great hope, grounded in a firm belief in the inevitability of progress and the perfectibility of man. That hope was a kind of secular salvation, a heaven on earth, the chief embodiment of which is to be found in the American Revolution and the American Dream. The American system, political as well as economic and social, is a product of the Enlightenment. Its roots, according to Wells, are not only not Christian, but are firmly planted in an ideology thoroughly at odds with true Christianity. In this too, Wells is a revisionist, challenging the conclusions of many leading Christian writers (e.g., the late Francis A. Schaeffer).

History Through the Eyes of Faith is an interesting and thought provoking volume for thinking Christians. Professor Wells writes in a clear and very readable style. The Index is very good, and the Bibliography, although limited, will help the reader understand from whence come many of the book's ideas. But as regards the purpose for which the book was written, that is, to supplement the traditional textbook in Western Civilization history courses at Christian colleges, it falls short of its goal. By his own admission, Professor Wells offers no distinctive approach. Rather than provide the student with a Christian interpretation to offset the secular bias of the text, History Through the Eyes of Faith is likely to reinforce that bias.


Paul R. Waibel is Associate Professor of History at Liberty University.

Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1991


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