I came across a quotation today from Herman Bavinck regarding sin and the world in which we live. Basically Bavinck is saying that history is a testimony of God’s judgment upon humanity and the whole world. Indeed, history in one sense is a long record of the effects of this curse. Jesus was articulating this principle when He said that there will be wars and rumors of wars until the end of the age (Matt. 24:6).
It took me awhile to digest this and the digestion was a bit painful. In my undergraduate work, I was a history major. Perhaps it was a poor decision to major in a liberal arts field given the poor job prospects (yes–it’s sad that college is more about getting a job today than actually getting an education), but I loved history as a child. Growing up in a history-rich environment like Virginia served to cultivate this aspect of my character. So to see history as a record of sin’s curse is something relatively new to me and a cause of some discontent. Bavinck was an excellent theologian and I enjoy reading his works, but this statement stung me a bit.
But take heart fellow history-lovers. Yes, it is true that history is a record of mankind’s wrongs. It’s true that the constant urge to reshape society and longings for a utopia are indicative of mankind’s frustrations post-Fall. In our own sinful way, we want to recreate Paradise lost. It’s not a mistake that we were required to read about the radical Anabaptists, Karl Marx, and others who dreamed of creating a heavenly kingdom on earth. My history professors did a good job demonstrating how all of these utopian movements are connected. All of these attempts, of course, ended in failure. And that’s actually good news.
History is not simply a record of mankind’s wrongs. Praise God for that. It is also a narrative of what God has done “for us and for our salvation.” Jesus Christ entered history in human flesh in order to accomplish that work of salvation. Thus it would be a mistake to assume that there are not bright spots in history. The growth of the early church, the defining of essential doctrines in the early creeds, great theologians (e.g., Augustine), the Reformation, and the refining of doctrines (e.g., the Westminster Confession) are all examples of God working in history to strengthen and enlarge His kingdom.
Even so, the bulk of history involves the effects of the curse. The bright spots we see in history are almost always reactions against great sins. On the other side of the coin, those great “progressive” movements and causes (which may have good intentions) almost always end in failure. Often, they end up making conditions worse than they were before. God frustrates these efforts for the same reason He confused the languages of the builders of Babel. History is a record of mankind’s numerous sins replete with examples of how we have fallen short, but God uses all of this frustration to make us more dependent upon Him–that is, not to put our trust in the things of this world or our own labors.
The church finds comfort in the fact that God is sovereign over all things, even our sinful deeds. He uses our transgressions for His own purposes and for our good (Gen. 50:20, Rom. 8:28). When we take that into consideration, the study of history–even with its record of sin in the world–doesn’t seem so bleak after all. Through His revealed word, God has shown us that He is indeed the victor of history and that all of history will culminate in the Second Advent. For this we eagerly await.