Is There a Christian Theory of History?
By Father Stephen Freeman
I am a child of the 50’s. I became aware of the world around me in the 60’s. I finished college and seminary in the 70’s (and have embarrassing pictures to prove it). I could go on with my decadal memories. I daresay no people at any time have been more aware of time labels and how the fashions and trends of those periods shaped their lives. Of course, the labels and generalizations are all make-believe. One decade blends into another. Time passes and fashions change. The actors in the next war change (though the wars continue). But is all of this going anywhere? Is there actually a plausible theory of history? Is there something Classical Christianity has to say about the passage of time?
The Scriptures certainly know how to mark time. The passing of the months (Old Testament Judaism had a lunar calendar) were carefully denoted for the observation of particular feast days. But the passing of years was only of note in the cycle of the Sabbath years. Thus the 50th year marked the end of seven Sabbath year cycles and the year of the Jubilee. Time, however, had not moved forward.
The ancient Romans and all the civilizations surrounding the Holy Land also marked various mixes of solar and lunar calendars. But there was no particular idea of moving through time. The gospel of St. Luke offers a typical Roman-styled calculation for the positioning within time:
Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, (Luk 3:1-2)
Occasionally a year might be numbered from some event, such as the founding of the city of Rome, or the “carrying away in captivity to Babylon,” etc. But again, there was no since of a pattern or movement through time.
It is in later Christian thought that the notion of time as a movement towards a goal comes about. But even then, the thought as often as not contained heretical concepts.
The expectation of the Second Coming of Christ is a likely culprit in the development of historical theories. The end of the first millennium raised those expectations and spawned a wide variety of speculations. These were largely on the fringe of the faith and not at the center of Christian believing.
It is during the various crises that gave birth to the Modern period that theories of history first began to find fertile ground and moved into the mainstream of Christian thinking. The labeling of periods (“Dark Ages,” “Middle Ages,” “Modern,” etc.) is an entirely modern (post-Reformation) invention. The radical changes of the Protestant Reformation were accompanied by a heightened sense of history. There was an intellectual need to justify the seemingly complete break with what had gone before (and to explain that it was not, in fact, a complete break). How could things have gone so wrong? Why was such reform required? Had God foreseen and predicted such events in history?
The birth of the modern world is also the birth of historical consciousness. It is not that those who came before had no awareness of history, but that they did not think of “history” itself as a force and movement. The rise of reason and rationalism in the Enlightenment transferred to history the same laws of cause and effect that were seen driving the cosmos. History had movements, causes, direction, even purpose.
The great heresy of historical thought appears in the 19th century with theories such as Marxism. There, modern Christian thought is secularized, stripped of its religious elements, and the movement of history laid bare. Marx held to an idea of a worker’s paradise, a time of equality and justice that was the inevitable (!) outcome of the laws within history. It was a secularized Second Coming. But Marx was not alone in such imaginings – they were already a commonplace among intellectuals. Marxism was unique only in that some political leaders adopted it as a blueprint and justification for their radical political programs.
In 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, it became popular to declare that Marxism had been swept away into “the Dustbin of history” (itself a phrase borrowed from the Marxist, Leon Trotsky). But whatever its failure might have been, its lasting legacy is found almost universally in the modern mind and its view of time and history.
Today, we think that history is going somewhere. We think everything is in movement towards something. Evolution, whatever its scientific basis, is often nothing more than a modern theory of history imposed upon the backdrop of normal change. To the modern mind, it is not a theory of change, but a theory of movement towards a goal. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest,” itself a theory that coincided in time with Marx, imposed a value within the laws of cause and effect – things are not only changing, but changing for the better.
The entire notion of progress is itself only a popular version of these same modern assumptions. Progress is not a Christian idea. It is an artifact of the modern imagination. We mistake the aggregate of technology as a movement towards something. And our same imagination frequently imagines that the something must be better. The accompanying notions of historical superiority (“we now know”) add power of these ideas.
But is there a Christian theory of history?
No. There is no such thing. The parousia (the coming of Christ) has never been taught as an event that is caused by anything within history. Nor has there ever been a teaching that history is leading to such an event. That it comes at the End of history does not make it the result of history or even history’s goal.
Indeed, in Classical Christian thought, the Second Coming has a profound mystical timelessness about it. St. John Chrysostom famously refers to it in the past tense in his Eucharistic prayer. In proper theological understanding, Christ Himself is the End. Wherever He is present, there the End is also present. He Himself is the End of All Things – their purpose, their goal, their final place of rest. And He was already the End of all things before their beginning! That this End makes an appearance within history does not make Him the End. He was already the End before He appeared. He is the Lord of time.
Historical consciousness (an awareness of time’s passing, of one’s place within it, and an internal sense of direction through time) is a hallmark of modern human beings. We are easily persuaded to make present-tense sacrifices for the promise of a rewarded future. Even secularized persons, perhaps more than most, have an intense interiorized faith in a direction-driven history. It gives the individual a sense of place and purpose apart from God. We are building a better world.
This historical consciousness, born of a distortion of the gospel, has now come full circle and been taken up by the mind of modern Christians. For many, history is the scene of Christian development, a movement within time directed by God. It is therefore not surprising to see believers thinking of spiritual progress, or of progress in the Church or movement towards certain historical goals.
In the 19th century, precisely at the time Marxism and Darwinism were historicizing politics and science, Christian thinkers were carrying similar ideas into evangelism and mission and later into what became known as the “Social Gospel.” Modern man had discovered Progress and could not wait to apply its hopeful balm to all areas of his life.
The modern Church has been buffeted and reshaped by the ideological forces of historical consciousness. A false template has been imposed on contemporary theology contending that theology and Church discipline, like everything else in our imaginary historical narrative, are subject to progress. Theology is “going somewhere.” In the name of this movement, every innovation can be seen as an improvement, a natural evolution of all that has come before, and another step on the ladder of human perfection.
Classical Christianity, particularly in its Orthodox form, utterly rejects (or should) such foreign propositions. The Church is not a movement within history. It is the abiding presence of God-with-us as His Body. It is not the product of cause and effect (John 1:13). It is that place where the End of all things is made present to us at this time.
Progress is not a measurement within the Kingdom of God. It is a word that is not only foreign to the gospel, it is a word of quite recent coinage. Faithfulness is the more appropriate standard within the Christian life. We are not progressing. Rather:
…giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light…. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, (Col 1:12-13)
…But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus… (Eph 2:4-6)
Note that these declarations are in the past tense.
True Christian “historical” consciousness is expressed quite clearly by St. Paul:
For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2Co 6:2)
Now. Not sometime. Not as the result of our progress. In Christ, all time is now.
~Father Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things, “Is There A Christian Theory of History?” https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2014/11/07/christian-theory-history/.