THE BETHLEHEM COLLEGE EDUCATION SERIES
We have established that the Bible is the Greatest Book, and it informs all our courses at Bethlehem College & Seminary, including our undergraduate history courses. God is the author of history, directing the very ebb and flow of human history from the creation of Adam and Eve to the present. The indelible stamp of God’s providence is visible throughout the storyline of history. History is the narrative of God’s kind providence and infinite grace. Therefore, we affirm that Christians should read and study history, and they should do so with the awareness that God is intimately involved in human history and, ultimately, in their own lives. How our students learn history is critically important, and just as essential is what we aim to inculcate in our students through such a study.
Our sequence of undergraduate courses charts the flow of history chronologically by studying ancient civilizations to the present. Tracing the course of history and studying it chronologically allows students to properly read and learn history as a story with multifaceted characters, plots, conflicts, and climaxes. This approach also allows students to observe recurring patterns and themes in every historical period regardless of geographical, geopolitical, and cultural boundaries. Although history does involve names and dates, we encourage students to draw connections between different historical periods and cultures, observing “big picture” themes that traverse human history. Pedagogically, we stress the importance of grasping the larger narrative of history over the mere rote memory or recitation of historical facts. By doing this, they will inevitably draw relevant connections between the past and present. This is what makes the study of history relevant and timeless. As our students learn to rightly interpret the past, they will better understand and rightly interpret the present.
Another important facet of our pedagogy is the intentional focus on and use of primary texts, because those texts express the actual contexts, cultures, and voices of history. Primary texts are the sine qua non of historical study and research. Primary texts transport students to chronological periods and cultures that are unfamiliar so that those periods and cultures become living and more familiar. Our students learn to engage with texts from cultures as diverse as the Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, African, Chinese, Mongol, and Russian cultures. They learn the critical art of entering into the very story, world, mindset, and values of the author(s) of the text. They learn that the analysis of primary texts can yield new discoveries, sometimes challenging their own preconceived notions and biased interpretations. Further, they learn to discuss those texts and their findings with their professor and classmates. While this approach to history is rigorous, it cultivates within our students the beneficial skills of deep textual analysis, critical thinking, effective research, and clear writing, all skills that are essential in developing academic and spiritual maturity.
What do we aim to accomplish and inculcate in the lives of our students through the teaching of history at Bethlehem College & Seminary? While as an academic institution we do aim for the academic and intellectual growth of our students through learning history, we would be amiss if we neglected the spiritual and moral aspects of their education. Even history as an academic discipline can address the spiritual and moral spheres. First, both the purpose and fruit of studying history is doxological. We study history for the praise of God, its author. Historical study should lead our students to worship God. Even the dark parts of human history – the wars, revolutions, genocides, plagues, and the general depravity of humankind – still point to God, for He uses even the wrath of man to praise Him (Ps 76:10). History is the working out and fulfillment of God’s promise to bring salvation to the nations. Christ Himself entered human history. History is the story of God’s redemptive work “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Our history courses and lectures are designed to lead our students to worship God, to acknowledge His providence in history, and to live their lives in submission to God with the awareness that He has written and is writing their own history with such providential care.
The study of history also has a pastoral, reassuring role for our students. It reminds them that God always keeps His promises. God has promised to never abandon His own people throughout the narrative of human history. Moses’ prayer in Psalm 90 testifies to God’s preservation of his people throughout history: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations” (Ps 90:1). Christ promised that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against His Church, and the narrative of history teases out that promise (Matt 16:18). He has also promised to be “with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). The harrowing accounts of persecution in the early church, the testimonies of those in chronic pain, or the experiences of bitter disappointment recorded in history, remind our students that as God was with his people in their valleys, so is He still with them in their own fragility. God will never forsake His own. The narrative of history validates that reality.
Another objective we desire in our teaching and studying of history is humility and empathy. The study of diverse societies and cultures instills both humility and empathy for other people. The proper study of history encourages humility and engenders a healthy perspective on life, one that is larger than one’s self. Provincialism is enslaving. People are much more susceptible to provincialism, prejudice, and pride when they are ignorant of history. Without the compass of history, people tend to drift toward provincialism and cultural myopia. However, the study of history can liberate one from such individualistic, myopic thinking and foster empathy for others. By rightly applying the lessons of history to the present, our students will embrace empathy for other people, both within and outside their own cultural experiences.
At Bethlehem College & Seminary, we aspire to be good stewards and interpreters of human history. We seek to inspire our students to be inquisitive and thoughtful in interpreting historical texts theologically and truthfully. And we affirm God’s providence in history, seeking to guide our students to experience history as William Cowper viewed it and articulated in his hymn, composed in 1774, “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.”
Brian L. Hanson, PhD
Assistant Professor of History and Theology