Where have come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? What is it all about?
The Restless Quest For Meaning
When man rebelled against God, he doomed himself to a restless, unending search for meaning to life and history. Throughout most of his existence on planet Earth, man has been plagued by three major questions — Where have we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? This compulsion for meaning has driven scientists to probe space and philosophers to build systems of thought. It has prompted Pilate and countless others to ask; “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38).* It is an underlying factor in what has been called “the midlife crisis.” It has even motivated Hollywood to produce a satirical motion picture entitled “The Meaning Of Life.”’
*All Scripture references are taken from the New American Standard Bible.
Philosophy of History
Throughout time, man has made numerous attempts to deal with the issue of meaning in a systematic, organized fashion. The result of each attempt could be called a philosophy of history. What is a philosophy of history? Karl Lowith defines it as “a systematic interpretation of universal history in accordance with a principle by which historical events and successions are unified and directed toward ultimate meaning.”1 According to this definition, a philosophy of history has certain characteristics. First, it offers a systematic interpretation of history. In other words, it explains the why of historic events in an organized way. Second, it covers the whole scope of history from beginning to end. It explains why things happened in the past, why the world is where it is in the present, and the what and why of the future.
Third, a philosophy of history has a unifying principle which ties together and makes sense of events, distinctions and successions. Fourth, it assigns ultimate meaning to history. It demonstrates that the flow of history has an ultimate goal or purpose, that events are not disjointed or unrelated to each other and that future events are the grand climax toward which all previous events have been moving.
The Bible deals with the issue of meaning. It offers a systematic interpretation of history. It covers the entire scope of history from beginning to end, including the what and why of the future. It presents a unifying principle which ties together and makes sense of the whole gamut of events, distinctions and successions. The Bible demonstrates that history has an ultimate goal or purpose. Because the Bible does these things, it can be said that the Scriptures present a philosophy of history. However, since the Bible is God’s written revelation to man, it is God’s philosophy of history. This means that it presents the ultimate, authoritative philosophy of history.
The Necessary Elements of a Valid Exposition of the Biblical Philosophy of History
Over the course of years, Bible scholars have attempted to develop different expositions of the biblical philosophy of history.2 In order for an exposition to be valid, it must contain certain necessary elements. First, it must contain an ultimate purpose or goal for history toward the fulfillment of which all history moves.
Second, it must recognize distinctions or things that differ in history. The biblical record of history indicates that distinctions or things that differ have existed during the course of history. At first glance, some of these things appear to be contradictory. For example, Jesus gave two distinct gospels to His disciples to preach. The content of the first gospel was as follows: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 10:7; cf. 9:35; Mk. 1:14-15).
Paul defines the second gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 when he says: “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you … by which also you are saved … that Christ died for our sins …and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day.. . and that He appeared ….”
An examination of these gospels indicates that their contents were quite distinct. That this was so is made even more obvious by Matthew 16:21. After the disciples had been out for some time preaching the first gospel, they returned to Christ to report on their ministry. Matthew records: “From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.”
The language indicates that, although the disciples had already been preaching one gospel, up to this point Jesus had never told them about His coming death, burial, and resurrection. Therefore, the first gospel contained nothing concerning Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Peters negative reaction to Jesus’ new teaching emphasizes the distinction in the gospels very strongly: “And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You’ ” (Mt. 16:22). If Peter had already been preaching Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, then he would not have reacted so negatively when Christ referred to these coming events.
In addition, Christ gave two distinct commissions to His disciples. When He gave them the first gospel, He commissioned them to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but not to the Gentiles and Samaritans (Mt. 10:5-6). Later, in conjunction with the second gospel, He commissioned them to preach to all creatures (Mk. 16:15) and to make disciples of all nations (Mt. 28:18-20).
Jesus also commanded distinct preparations for the ministries of the disciples. When He commissioned them to preach the first gospel just to Israel, He ordered the disciples not to take money, a bag, two tunics, sandals or a staff (Mt. 10:9-10). However, when it became obvious that Israel would reject Jesus and His first gospel, and when the second gospel was about to become reality, Jesus commanded the disciples to take a purse, a bag, and even a sword (Lk. 22:35-36).
The Bible presents distinctive ways of God dealing with people guilty of adultery. While the Mosaic Law was in effect, God commanded the Jews to put such people to death (Lev. 20;10). Since the death of Christ, God does not command this (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
God has also had distinctive ways of dealing with murderers. Prior to the Noahic flood, God did not command the death penalty for murderers (Gen. 4:1-15), but since the flood He has ordered it (Gen. 9:5-6; Rom. 13:1-7).
Throughout history, God has employed different dietary laws. Prior to the flood, God permitted only a vegetarian diet (Gen. 1:29). After the flood, God permitted man to eat the flesh of all forms of animal life (Gen. 9:3). While the Mosaic Law was in effect, God forbade the Jews to eat the flesh of certain kinds of animals (Lev. 11).
These and all other biblical distinctions must not be ignored, watered down or explained away, if an exposition of the biblical philosophy of history is to be valid.
A third necessary element of a valid exposition of the biblical philosophy of history is this; it must have a proper concept of the progress of revelation. The Bible indicates that God’s truth has been revealed in stages at different points in history. God did not give all of His revealed truth to man in one lump sum at the beginning of history. For example. God did not reveal the fact that there would be a Redeemer until after the fall of man (Gen. 3:15). God did not reveal the practice of capital punishment until after the flood (Gen. 9:5-6). While Jesus was here in His first coming, He did not reveal everything that He wanted His disciples to know (Jn. 16:12). He indicated that the Spirit of God would reveal the additional truth to them after Christ’s ascension. (Jn. 14:26; 16:13). Paul talks about truth which had been hidden from people in past ages of history but was revealed to him and others in New Testament times (1 Cor. 2:6-10; Eph. 3:2-6). In light of this progress of revelation, in order for an exposition of the biblical philosophy of history to be valid, it dare not read the content of later revelation back into earlier revelation. It must not make the earlier revelation say all that the later revelation said.
The fourth necessary element is as follows; it must have a unifying principle which ties the distinctions and progressive stages of revelation together and which directs them toward the fulfillment of the purpose of history. A valid exposition of the biblical philosophy of history must be able to tie the distinctions and stages of revelation together into one, unified whole in a sensible way. It also must demonstrate how these things contribute to the fulfillment of history’s goal.
Fifth, it must give a valid explanation of why things have happened the way they have, why things are the way they are today, and where things are going in the future. An exposition of the biblical philosophy of history must be able to explain the following: how, when and why such things as murder, false religions, capital punishment, human government, different languages, different nations, anti-Semitism, the Church, Roman Catholicism, Islam, the Renaissance, and the Reformation began. Why did the Holocaust of World War II happen? Why is there a modem State of Israel in existence? Why is the present Middle East crisis taking place?
Sixth, it must offer appropriate answers to man’s three basic questions. An exposition of the biblical philosophy of history must be able to answer these questions: Where have we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?
Two Approaches to the BIblical Philosophy of History
Within the last three to four hundred years, Bible-believing scholars have developed two distinct approaches to expositing the Bible’s philosophy of history. Each approach has produced a system of theology. Those two systems are known as Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. Future articles will examine both systems.
- Karl Lowith, Meaning in History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1949), p. 1.
- For one such attempt see: Renald E. Showers, What on earth is God doing? (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1973).