History has long since won its place in the curriculum as an indispensable study in a liberal education. It has won its place, also, in the ministerial course, and in other specialized courses of study. As a field for study, its utilitarian, as well as its cultural value, is beyond serious challenge. All who would fully utilize the present and all who hope to make their future profitable, dare not neglect giving attention to the past. Although history, because of its complexity, may never repeat itself exactly, the great lessons which it contains for men and nations are recorded for all posterity to read, and having read, to become at least a little wiser.
The study of history yields to the learner not only factual data, but also what is commonly called a historical or objective attitude. This is of incalculable worth to the student of contemporary history. The study of human affairs cannot, strictly speaking, be considered a science, in the same sense as can the physical sciences; yet within limits the approach can and should be similar. In either case the objectives are basically the same; namely, the tracing of truth to its ultimate source.
The gospel minister has frequent occasion to use historical materials in his public work. He develops unbelievers' confidence in Bible prophecies by a review of those prophecies which have been fulfilled, for fulfilled prophecy is the substance of history. How important it then becomes that the evangelist or the minister very carefully sift fact from fiction as he delves into the record of the past. This procedure requires time and effort. It is not the quickest or the easiest way, but it is the sound way, and the only way suited to the high calling of the gospel worker.
This careful method of sermon preparation holds promise of dividends in the form of substantial believers who will prove a real asset to the cause of present truth. The worker for God will be "rightly dividing the word of truth" when the corroboration of prophecy comes from a careful reading and a sound interpretation of the record of history. The zeal of the minister for truth must be projected beyond his Bible research and into his study of secular history.
The selection and evaluation of historical materials is a matter of prime importance. From the standpoint of historical research, obviously, the ideal is that, as far as possible, source materials be studied and used. The farther removed from the original the greater the possibility of error. Some secondary works are entirely dependable and respectable; others must be used with caution; still others are of no value and would reflect on the scholarship of the one citing them as authoritative.
Newspaper citations may be appropriate on occasion, but they should be used with extreme caution. Much will depend upon the general policy of the newspaper in question. The minister's sense of values will lead him to select for regular reading a newspaper that follows a conservative, not a sensational, policy, and one which has established itself as moderately interested, to say the least, in reporting the truth. It hardly need be suggested that the Sunday feature supplement of most newspapers is rarely, if ever, an entirely reliable source for sermon helps.
Stern Test of Historical Accuracy
The great temptation ever remains of casting about indiscriminately for striking statements which will materially assist in establishing a particular point of interpretation. This may be proper, but let such findings be used only after they have met the stern tests of historical accuracy. Our confidence in the correctness of Bible prophecy leads us to believe that dependable history will meet our purposes to the fullest extent.
There are other ways in which the minister draws upon materials from the field of history. Many illustrative narratives have occurred, or purport to have occurred, sometime in the past. These will not receive endorsement from the careful student as having actually taken place unless there is reasonable certainty that this is the case. The effort to embellish a drab, prosaic incident may be justified, provided the imagination is held within certain reasonable limits. More is lost than is gained, however, if glaring and inexcusable misstatements of historical fact are included. It is fairly obvious, even to the least historical-minded, that there were no Lutherans, as such, before Luther ; no proletariat, in the modern sense, before the industrial revolution, and no steam-driven machines in the age of Louis XIV.
Unfortunately for the public speaker, many illustrative anecdotes touching history are either pure fiction or else are seriously diluted with imaginary details. Later chroniclers have often attributed ingenious and stirring epigrams to individuals, epigrams which were never really uttered. The words attributed to them, as having spontaneously come forth on the inspiration of the moment, should have been said, perhaps ; but alas, nothing in the record offers confirmation. Great leaders of men have, on soul-stirring occasions, made classic statements which still survive. However, there is no confirmation of many stories which are repeated as though they were as unimpeachable as the gospel itself. The legends which have grown up with the years, legends touching great figures and events, are legion; nevertheless, numbers do not always make for truth any more than they always make for political wisdom in a democratic society.
At the same time, these time-honored illustrations, although apocryphal, need not be entirely discarded. It might be conceded that they have value purely as illustrations, if at the same time their historical soundness is discounted. The objective method of approach leads one to adopt a cautious and not a dogmatic attitude in his public utterances touching upon materials of history. This attitude appears as a spirit of humility, which actually it is, and all will concede it to be an asset in public, as well as in private life.
Frequently the public speaker untrained in historical methods and materials yields to the temptation to oversimplify basic causes for major events and movements in history. This has been termed the fallacy of the exaggerated and isolated cause. The recognition of this fallacy will do no violence to our fundamental assumption of divine direction in human affairs.
No reasonable person will hold the minister accountable for all the latest findings in historical research, but surely he should be informed of major changes in historical interpretation springing from studies of specialists in history. An acquaintanceship with the current publications, by means of book reviews, and a brief perusal of learned journals in the field, will deliver him from much historical misinformation and misinterpretation.
Likewise, the development of a historical attitude will lead him to realize the folly and positive danger in venturing upon baseless predictions as to the details of future events. The prophetic word provides an outline of that which lies ahead. When man attempts to fill in this outline with elaborate and unwarranted details, he ignores a great lesson which history teaches, and he ventures upon ground where "angels fear to tread."
The minister of the gospel must possess qualities that are many and varied. He must be highly versatile and perform a variety of duties. These range from personal work with a single soul in need, to the presentation of truth to a large audience. He must be "all things to all men." Little time remains, after he has performed only a portion of his duties, for careful study and research. He serves the cause of truth best, however, when his words bear the ring of unimpeachable fact. Earnestness and good intentions cannot take the place of careful study and preparation. "Piety can never take the place of knowledge."
The minister must study not only the word of God, but also the branches of knowledge which bear upon the interpretation and presentation of the word. The challenge to this careful preparation may not always be found in the average audience of hearers, but when truth is involved, this in itself should present sufficient challenge. "The truth shall make you free," said Christ. We might, without violence to the teachings of the Master, give this practical application; The truth shall make you free from common errors of a historical nature.
The standard which God holds before His workers is a lofty one, leading them to aspire to perfection in character, in ministry, and in methods used in that ministry. As children of the light, we can consider no other standard acceptable. The careful use of historical material by the minister, and the cultivation of a historical attitude by him, can contribute materially to his effectiveness as a worker for God.