In this series we will be answering two simple questions. First, what is the government supposed to look like in an ideal world? Second, what is the Christian’s relationship to the government? Before we can answer this we have to dust off our tools. One essential tool is history. The past is the key to the present and the future. Everything we have learned we have learned from the past. Our medical knowledge is built on past trial and error. Our airplanes are constructed with the help of past mechanical successes and failures. So why would we build our civilization without referring to the past? It would be disastrous in medicine and aviation, and it would be equally a disaster in politics.
“Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other…”
– Isaiah 46:9-11
As our series progresses you will see that I believe the number one failure of our political theory is that it completely ignores God and it glorifies man as the source and centre of knowledge, truth and goodness.
History is a field of study that aims at truth seeking. The use of logic and scientific methodology is applied to all fields, including that of historical analysis. One of the most basic notions regarding the science of history are historical sources. These are written accounts of time periods. Besides archaelogical artifacts, written manuscripts are the gold standard for piecing together what humans did in the past. Nothing reveals more about the thought life and culture of a by gone era than written records. And there is a hierarchy of quality within the world of manuscripts. Let’s do a little “History 101:”
For something to qualify as a primary source, it must be written by someone who lived during the time in which the events occurred. Interestingly, the author does not need to have witnessed the events or even been physically present. He or she or they simply need to have been alive, somewhere on the planet, while the event occurred. Clearly, eye witness testimony is the ideal type of primary source yet a journalist piecing together information for a current event also qualifies as a primary source. William Shirer wrote what many consider to be one of the best and most thorough accounts of the Third Reich. He was physically present in Berlin before the war commenced and witnessed some, but not all, of the events leading to the creation and rise to power of the German National Socialist Party (i.e.: Nazi Party). He fled the country once the war began but continued to chronicle the Third Reich’s activities from afar. In his single work “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” Shirer was both types of primary source work. An eye witness as well as simply a contemporaneous author. Yet both aspects of his work count as primary historical sources.
If a historical text is written by someone who lived after the events in question, the work is dubbed a secondary source. If the author cites primary sources in his work, his work still qualifies as a secondary piece of historical analysis. His or her sources may themselves by primary, but the work of incorporating primary sources into a synthesized work written by someone who was never alive during the events is a secondary piece of historical manuscript. Stephen Oates published “Abraham Lincoln: The Man behind the Myths” in 1984. He used photographs of Lincoln as well as multiple primary sources. Yet his finished work is itself classified as a secondary source.
If an author lived after the historical events he or she is writing about and they use secondary sources, their work is an example of a tertiary source. Most often, tertiary sources also use some primary source material and therefore are both secondary and tertiary sources. Ancient historian Arrian (AD 86 – 160) wrote about Alexander the Great about 400 years after Alexander’s lifetime. Arrian had no access to any primary sources and only secondary sources. Therefore his work can only qualify as a tertiary source.
Another aspect to historical sciences is whether or not we still possess manuscripts today. For example, if you travel to the Rotunda in Washington, DC, you can see the actual original Declaration of Independence penned and signed by the founding fathers of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. The people who physically wrote on a physical piece of paper laid the document down and we still have it today. We can all go see it in actual reality. This is, all at the same time, a primary and extant source as well as an original source. And this type of historical manuscript is exceptionally rare. Almost never will you find the original document written by the original author. When we have primary sources that are still in our possession today, they are nearly always copies of copies of copies of the original authored text. But if they have been reproduced in the original form that the author wrote, it is still considered a primary source and because it still exists today, it is called extant. But it is not the actual original.
If all copies of a primary source is completely lost and only referred to in secondary sources, then we cannot say that primary source is extant. It only exists by its quotations in a secondary work. That secondary work is extant (i.e.: exists today) but not the primary. Sometimes all primary and secondary sources are lost and we only have tertiary sources. Such as is the case for most of the historical texts for Alexander the Great. In the figure below you will see that the best source for his life is the work of Curtius who is a secondary source. Curtius quotes the only primary source on Alexander which is Cleitarchus’ work which itself is completely lost and only survives in the quotations found in Curtius’ work. Curtius wrote about 150 years after Alexander’s life. Justin’s work on Alexander is based on Trogus’ secondary works which are all lost and only survive as quotations in Justin’s tertiary work, itself written over 200 years after the events they describe. Arrian and Plutarch come in last place, writing tertiary sources and doing so about 400 years after Alexander’s life time.
As a point of comparison, the top seven most well preserved historical texts all have primary sources surviving to this day. These “top 7” are ranked by how many ancient manuscripts (# Mss.) we have of the primary sources and the time span of how many years passed between the writing of the original and the earliest copy we possess today. See the list below for a review of these “hall of fame” ancient historical sources.
Many people are surprised to see that the New Testament is, by far, in first place when it comes to the number, age and quality of its primary sources. It is ancient history’s most well preserved text.
The reason for studying the process of historical science is so we can spot bad history. In the 1990’s, Roberta Menchu wrote “An Indian Woman in Guatemala” for which she won the Nobel Prize for literature. It was supposed to be an autobiography of her and her family’s experience during the political revolution in her home country. Unfortunately for Roberta, journalist David Stohl went to her home village in Guatemala and interviewed her friends and family only to discover that the majority of the “facts” in Roberta’s autobiography were fictitious. For example, she had claimed that her brother had been killed by military troops but Stohl found him alive and somewhat wealthy. Also, Roberta had claimed a poor upbringing but her father was a land owner during and after her childhood. Bad history is to be denounced. Especially when it is influential work that makes important statements about a country’s history. We would not tolerate a medical researcher that invented make believe facts about their research. This could lead future researchers to waste time and resources pursuing a false trail. Political history is also dangerous as it muddies the waters of what is and is not good political theory.
Another form of bad history is when we erase parts of a historical text. This would be like breaking parts of a hieroglyph found in ancient Egyptian ruins. Why in the world would we want to blot out irreplaceable artifacts that are our only window into the past? Unfortunately we do see this revision of history taking place. In the 1600’s the first European settlers to come to America with the intention of staying for good boarded a ship called the Mayflower. They landed on the now famous Plymouth Rock on the east coast. These settlers had a specific reason for coming and they wrote a statement known as the “Mayflower Compact.” In modern American history classes this statement is in the following form:
The actual, unabridged “Mayflower Compact” is actually in the following form:
Why would someone alter the actual, historical statement written by those who gave their lives to settle the east coast of America for future Europeans? Good question. Nothing good can come of it. Harsh winter conditions, disease and First Nations attacks ravaged this community of settlers and they had the ship and the resources to make a return trip to Britain. In fact, the ship’s captain begged these settlers to save themselves and return to Europe. But these men and women who had penned the original, unaltered Mayflower Compact saw themselves as being on a mission to establish a free place where other Christians could come and live free from oppression and persecution. In the famous Bradford’s “History of the Plymouth Settlement,” the author writes “Last and not least, they cherished a great hope and inward zeal of laying good foundations, or at least of making some way towards it, for the propagation and advance of the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in the remote parts of the world, even though they should be but stepping stones to others in the performance of so great a work.” These men and women who settled Plymouth Rock were willing to lose their lives in the process because they believed they were on a Divine mission. This insight into their motivation is an important historical detail and to erase it is a disservice to these original martyrs and to the modern student of history.
Remembering the Past
The Old Testament records that when God had the Jewish nation cross the river Jordan to enter the Promise Land (modern day Israel), He stopped the waters of the river to allow safe passage of at least 2 million Jews. After this supernatural intervention, God asked that stones from the river bed be placed on the shore. Twelve stones, one for each tribe of the nation of Israel. Future generations could look back and see a memorial that helped them remember the way in which their nation entered their home land.
Psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple says that history serves an important psychological function. It reminds us that we have received a great deal from our past. We receive our bodies, we receive our economy, our government, our family and our knowledge from those that came before. Blood, sweat and tears were shed to forge the good knowledge we benefit from today. We cannot make true sense of our present without properly understanding our past. Christian theologian Os Guiness states that history should be a source of gratitude for us. To remind us how much we have been given. It should also inform our obedience to right principles that have been tried and found successful in the past. And finalyy, Os believes history is a big part of our identity. If we lose our sense of where we are in the great arc of history, we lose our meaning and purpose. Should it then be a surprise that the levels of anxiety and depression in the Western world have been steadily rising as we become more and more secular?
Nihilism and History
European existentialist thinkers have asserted since the 1800’s that we are not part of a Great Story but simply the unintelligent, non-purposeful meandering of chemistry over long periods of time. To look for meaning and purpose in the “story” of history is like looking for your imaginary friend in your basement. No such thing exists. Jean Francois Lyotard, a modern atheist thinker, made it very clear that “post modernism [does not believe] in metanarratives.” A meta narrative is a fancy term meaning “larger story.” The Judeo-Christian view of history has always been that it is linear and moving in a direction that has a rise, climax and conclusion and is in the hands of God. Materialists, atheists and existentialists reject such a notion because they reject the notion of God. Only physics are at play and they have no special place for us complex apes floating on a dust mite in one corner of one galaxy in a see of hundreds of millions of other galaxies.
As we begin our look at politics and the Christian life let us agree on two things. First, history must be approached carefully, like any other scientific study would be. Accuracy is of utmost importance. We cannot properly understand how ideas would affect us if we do not look to see what they did to us in the past. Bad history and erased history are to be avoided when possible. Second, the question of God’s existence has a crucial role in understanding history. Without Him, it is almost certain that history is not coherent or purposeful. That it is not a story but an accident.