History Does not Repeat

The last time I blogged, I had no idea that coronavirus was about to erupt into a two-year saga, or that I would sit here with a mandatory vaccination in my arm. I never dreamed the government of my state would threaten me with the loss of my livelihood for non-compliance, or that most of my fellow countrymen would enthusiastically applaud this move.

There has been at least one positive effect of all this on many Christians in the last two years. Many have been forced to think through issues that the church has left largely untouched for at least 200 years. In particular, the correct relationship between Christians and the state and a depth of theology that goes beyond the recitation of Romans 13:1 like a Hindu mantra.

But it has also had another effect. Or perhaps more accurately, has brought to light a theologically unhealthy tendency among Christians.

That is, the tendency of Christians to gravitate toward a particular form of historiography that supposes that history is in some sense cyclical, and that what has happened in the past is likely to happen in the future under circumstances that are foreseeable to the informed. In some ways, a lot of Christian discourse at the present closely resembles a form of divination as Christians strive to read the tea leaves of contemporary trends in the light of what is known about the past . “A new authoritarian age is about to start!” some say. Or “We’re going to go back to normal and life will continue as before!” Or, innumerable other predictions and prophecies.

As I have written many times, historiography matters. It matters almost as much as theology. In fact, both are linked. I often wish Christians would demonstrate far more interest in historiography and apply some prolonged meditation to some of these issues, because it would greatly enhance how people relate to the Bible and church history, and of course how we see the present age.

Almost all of the Christian revelation comes to us in the form of history – with perhaps the exception of prophecies yet to be fulfilled, but even the prophecies themselves have been given by God in the past. This fact does not mean the Bible is merely an artefact of history. The Bible contains God’s word; it is infallible data about God. It is an inerrant record of what God has said and done in real places, with real people, in real time. It is always alive and always true. Yet scriptures have an inextricable historical element to them that simply must be dealt with.

Regardless of whether we adopt a historical-grammatical hermeneutic or (heaven forfend) we adopt a liberal revision of biblical history and submerge it in a warm bath of Marxism or scepticism, all Christians who engage meaningfully with the biblical texts must develop a theory of history, even if it is just a sketch of assumptions. I suspect most Christian readers are not conscious of historiography when they read the text. But it is not possible to regularly approach these texts without at least some set of historical assumptions and ideas.

Importantly, those historical assumptions will colour not only our view of scripture, but also of the world at large. Guided by his reading of scripture, Augustine notably developed a whole new historiography when Rome was sacked in what was the ancient world’s equivalent of the World Trade Centre attack, as the city was likewise hit by a group thought to be inferior.

I would argue that much of the distress, anger, fear, and deflation many fellow Christians have experienced over the last two years is directly attributable to a dysfunctional historiography that appears to be conservative, orthodox, and biblical, but in fact is none of these things at all. In some ways, it is a historiography that contradicts God’s word and therefore has magnified fear and heightened emotions well beyond a biblically allowable level.

What do I mean by “dysfunctional historiography”?

Let’s look at one of the chestnuts that have been traded endlessly on social media after every subsequent government announcement. If I had a dollar every time I heard the expression “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it“, I’d be swimming in money by now.

It’s an old aphorism. We’re all familiar with it. On the surface it seems to be profoundly practical and logically necessary. After all, if I do not remember to brush my teeth I will get a filling. I shall continue to get fillings if I continue to forget to brush my teeth. What, then, is history if not the same essential matter? Does it not stand to reason that if we forget what caused old wars, we will be doomed to have new wars? If we forget the causes of old dictatorships, we will have new dictatorships? In fact, this is precisely the politically accepted premise behind the yearly memoryphilia that all Western nations engage in: “lest we forget” and so on.

But, upon closer inspection this aphorism is, in fact, a highly defective historiographical doctrine that teaches the errant idea that history – the knowledge of the past – contains an inherently predictive power.

This belief is instinctively held not only by many of my fellow Calvinists, but also by other Christians who have a high view of the scriptures. This tends to be an instinctive reflex for many Christians because the scriptures do contain prophetic events fulfilled in time and space long after they were uttered so it is only a short step between accepting prophecy to the conclusion (though a non-sequitur) that history must be predictive.

At the same time, this common aphorism – “remember history or repeat it” – implies all of the following errors:

a.) history contains the repetition of the same events that arise in analogous circumstances and situations;
b.) like numerical data, history contains recognisable patterns of causality;
c.) human beings can programme a desired outcome of a society by choosing a correct response to events as determined by history, and
d.) the future can be controlled by a form of gnosis. If we simply “remember” the past, then we have near-certainty over the direction of the future.

Now, absolutely none of this is true. It is simply not the case that historical events are a form of law, akin to the law of gravitation or the law of thermodynamics. History may reveal trends, and those trends may reappear over time, but a trend is not inevitable and neither does a tend have the force of a law.

Moreover, history does not repeat, at least with the level of machine-like precision implied by the aphorism.

Yes, if we boil two historical events down to a handful of basic similarities – let’s say, the assassination of JFK and Abraham Lincoln – on the surface it can look impressively similar. A certain selectivity of detail will always give the impression that history does repeat. Nearly all conspiracy theories, and that superficial parallel-o-mania style literature that does the rounds on social media relies exclusively on this technique.

But as soon as we start to colour in the context, the circumstances, the precursor events, the ideologies, the personalities, the international situation, the economic and social conditions, and so on, what emerges is a chasm that yawns wider and wider, until these two assassinations are so dissimilar it is apparent that there is no real repetition occuring at all. Certainly, they fall into the same category of things. But do two events in the same category constitute a “repetition of history”? If that is the case, then each morning when I eat my bowl of High Bran WeetBix, I am “repeating history” since my deceased grandfather also used to eat cereal for breakfast, and his father before him.

Ask yourself as we go through some detail whether this really is “history repeating”.

Lincoln was killed in the aftermath of a violent, destructive, protracted, and bitter civil war; JFK at a time when the United States had reached the apogee of military power and global influence. Is this a repeat of history?

John Wilkes Booth was motivated by a ludicrous effort to revive the lost cause of the Confederacy. Lee Harvey Oswald, had no particularly clear motives but declared himself a Marxist, had definite communist sympathies, and declared himself a fall guy for the real gunman. Is this a repeat of history?

These historical events – though in the same category of things – are so dissimilar that even a thorough knowledge of Lincoln’s assassination and its aftermath would never give a person the predictive power to forecast the assassination of JFK and its results. Here we see the point. It is because historical events are disanalogous with each other that very few people ever see a major event coming even when it falls in the same category.

Almost nobody forecast the two world wars or the Global Financial Crisis. And those who did forecast some kind of conflict or fiscal meltdown did not describe it with meaningful nuance. They give every impression of having made a prediction by accident.

The reality is we do not know the future and cannot predict the future, and the Bible tells us this is so because God has obscured the future. It is for God’s glory that he and he alone knows the localised teleology of our lives, and the grand teleology of all events. We must therefore dispense with the idea that history is a predictive science, or that because Hitler came to power in democratic Germany in 1933 invariably Western politicians will acquire state dictatorship in the 2020’s through the use of virus terror.

We simply cannot know.