I’ve long been fascinated by the study of history. For a while, I aspired to become a historian myself. While that dream is dead and gone, my admiration for historians remains. They approach their work like surgeons, examining and analyzing every detail of every event. I admire their attention to detail, and I try to study Scripture with the same degree of concern. Here are four study methods I’ve learned from them.
Great Man | character studies
The Great Man theory, a prevailing approach to historical analysis, states that history is made by a select group of extraordinary individuals. By studying people like Alexander the Great and Charlemagne, we can understand past events. Great Man theorists spend a lot of time studying the personal correspondence and journals of influential leaders to understand their thinking and motivation.
Scripture is chock-full of correspondence and personal journals. Exodus records many of Moses’ private thoughts and prayers so that we can understand what leadership feels like, and perhaps extend more grace to our own spiritual leaders. Passages like Psalm 51 give us the cry of David’s repentant heart, articulating some very difficult feelings. The latter half of the New Testament is made up of the Paul’s correspondence with churches across Asia and Greece, showing us a blueprint for spiritual maturity. Study of these passages can help us live vicariously through the great men and women of God, learning from their mistakes and failures as if they were our own.
Trends & Forces | word studies
The Great Man theory of history has plenty of critics. Most of its intellectual opponents subscribe to the Trends & Forces theory, which is sometimes called the “fullness of time” theory—they believe that history is best understood through the study of environmental factors and social conditions. Trends & forces do a better job of explaining events that, like the Renaissance, cannot be tied to a single influential person.
We can study trends and forces in Scripture by tracing the use of a term throughout the canon. Studying words like “justice” rewards us with a clearer understanding of God’s heart when we discover passages like Isaiah 58.
Cyclical theory | type & pattern studies
One of the most ancient theories of history, the cyclical theory, tracks history as a series of revolutions. You’ve probably heard some version of the maxim that summarizes the cyclical theory: “those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.”
Scripture shows us some of the same cyclical patterns. The nation of Israel rebels against God, turns to idols, and experiences God’s judgment; then, repenting, they are delivered. This pattern is repeated time and time again throughout Judges. I have seen this same pattern emerge in my own life, and I can eavesdrop on God’s word to Israel and learn about what he might say to me were he to speak audibly. Scripture also tells us that several Old Testaments characters act as pictures of God himself. Joseph, for example, is called a “type” of Christ because the details of his life foreshadow the life of Christ.
Propaganda theory | a word of caution
We can learn a lot about Scripture when we study it with the same excellence that a historian brings to an archaeological dig. One word of caution: the Propaganda theory of history, which presumes that since history is written by the victors, our understanding is largely distorted, can lead us to some dangerous places when we apply it to our study of Scripture. Many of the scriptural writers share some less-than-flattering details in their own stories, reassuring us that God’s Word is not distorted. It is perfectly true, even when those truths are inconvenient or embarrassing.
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