“The right side of history” – what does this mean? History, historicism, and the Christian faith (part III of III)

25 Aug
The greatist history lesson ever: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:32)

The greatest history lesson ever: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

Part I

Part II

if history has meaning, this meaning is not historical, but theological; what is called Philosophy of history is nothing else than a Theology of history more or less disguised.” — Robert Flint (1838-1910)*

In the last post, we looked in some detail at historicism, which I said has been one of the great enemies – along with philosophical naturalism/mechanicism – of the Christian faith.

My take on the current influence of historicism in the Western world is that it is gradually going extinct as particularly Christian notions of divine providence dissipate in the wider populace. That said, I think that historicism still exerts significant influence in the [dying] mainline churches and, ironically, perhaps increasingly in more conservative church bodies as well…. (with Erlangen theology, for example, being increasingly attractive to some conservative proponents of Lutheranism looking for what are widely considered more intellectually respectable options).

An agnostic seeking to be escape the "myth of progress", based, he says, in religion.

An agnostic seeking to be escape the “myth of progress”, based, he says, in religion.  More here**.

Onward. The final post in this series addresses the reality of purpose in history as well as the Christian alternative to historicism (and more indirectly, philosophical naturalism/mechanicism as well).

These days, we hear much from persons – even those who consider themselves quite “non-religious” – about “being on the right side of history”. A good question here is why one would assume – particularly if a person is more atheistic or agnostic – there is a right side to be on? Truly, even those who insist that impersonal and purposeless processes are the foundation of the cosmos consistently find themselves attributing a purpose to life that goes deeper than their mere preferences.

In his book, Christ and History, mentioned in previous posts, George Buttrick says

“…the ‘fatalities’ of nature (interesting word: fate-alities) invade history; and nature sometimes seems irrational, at least to historical eyes. Why should a flash flood in the Pennsylvania hills sweep away an orphanage?..Hitler’s Germany or an engine driver cannot fully be ‘explained.’ There is an irrational streak in history.” (66 and 67)

Russel Crowe as "Maximus" in the 2000  movie, Gladiator

Russel Crowe as “Maximus” in the 2000 movie, Gladiator

…and then perceptively notes that just when people

“say that history is irrational it reveals purpose… [this] heresy [of American progress] could not have risen except as deviation from a true surmise, namely, that history has a purpose – so that man is able to ask, “What is the meaning of history?” How strange that amid all the fatefulness of human freedom, politics is still a valid quest! How strange that history is not a raveled chaos, but a tapestry of which we ask, “What does this portray?” Good statesmanship is the right reading of events and the proposal of realistic action: it assumes that history will honor, at least in measure, our honorable purpose – because history itself is purpose. Jesus seems to have assured men of this trustworthiness in our human story: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” Here he compares the dependability of nature with the sure purposes of history. So each man says of public and private pilgrimage: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends.” Yet how can purpose be irrational, and irrationality show purpose?” (67-68)

He also writes, compellingly

We assume human freedom, and have little option; for if we deny freedom, we assume that the denial is free, not merely the lip movements of a marionette. Similarly we assume that freedom is responsible freedom, as when we say, “he was brave’ or “he was a coward.” If we confess, as we must, that we have small right to judge our neighbors since we cannot read their inner history and may be ignorant even of their outward circumstance, and since we also have a tarnished record, we thus make a larger confession, namely, that we are all under a higher court….Yet history seems often to scorn the responsible man…” (p. 70)**

Only written by the winners?

Only written by the winners?

And as noted in our first post, history goes down to the deepest levels. Who am I? Where am I from? Where am I going? What is the meaning of life? Or, in words Buttrick uses: Who am I? Why am I? What is the meaning of history? From where have I come and where am I going? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? And if we should not, like those under the thrall of historicism, talk about “salvation history” as distinct “world history” – but rather say “history is history is history” – what does this look like?

History is a part of who we are – not just the facts but the meaning of the past, present and future are always before us! We cannot avoid being creatures who must give an account of who we are: from where we have come, where we are, and where we are going. This is because we are the crown of God’s creation created in His image. As He does history, we do history.

That said, it is true that from the beginnings of the creation only God has perfect knowledge about what has, is, and will happen on this stage that He has prepared – the drives, the thoughts, the words and deeds of all flesh. And this is true even as He Himself is far from being a “neutral observer” but rather moves (in Him all “live and move and have their being”), influences, directs and harnesses all things. It sounds a bit trite, but it really is true – history is “His story”.

And yet, thanks be to God! He has revealed to us that which we need to know about our living, moving and having our being in Him in space and timethe things that really and truly matter. God has spoken! – He is there and not silent, as the 20th century Reformed Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer liked to say. In working with His prophets and apostles He tells us what really matters – primarily who He is and what He has done and who we are and what we have done – giving us forgiveness, life, and salvation and – telling us also what He is doing and will do – filling us with direction, purpose, and power for living.

whereishistorygoingIn giving us this life-giving account of what has unfolded by His design in time, our Lord is, again, certainly not “neutral” – such a depressingly deadening and uncommitted word! – even as He certainly is just, fair, and reliable – true – in its telling. In His words to us we discover that in His work in time our Lord has chosen to work intimately with His image-bearers – that is the mini-Creators bent on rejecting Him due to the historic space-time fall. In fact, He has done this very thing – that is working with men – in giving us the Bible (again, see this post on the role of trust in human beings in God’s plan). This book was “co-written” with men more “given over to Him” than most – that is, by those who allowed Him to work through them to give us the Divine Scriptures, which we can and should say are in but not of this world. Like the Son and like the sons themselves.

But of course, it is only natural that we want to ask: if this is the case can we say that God is “objective” in His telling of history? Again, we can see that what is really being asked here is whether or not the account that God has given us is fair, accurate, and reliable – true. It is indeed this – we can rest assured that in giving us the only real message that brings forgiveness, life and salvation He has described the past – and the future – in just this way, even as, again, it is not only this: fort the True One has also been in the midst of it, shaping it. Without a doubt, as regards what has come before us, for example – that is, history proper – we can and should say that there is a certain past that really happened, and that only God knows this past in its fullness, for He very actively knows all of us perfectly. We have no better account of the doings of God and men in time and space than what He can provide us with.

So all of this raises a very interesting question for us: what to make of all other human efforts to record the facts and meanings of man’s past, present and future? Compared with Holy Writ, we can simply say that these are pale imitations – some better, some worse – of what our Lord has done. As men have worked to create accounts which portray the past and speak of its meaning both then and for now, there are certain things we notice. When we talk about the important events in history we tend to focus on victory, wealth, power, prestige, fame, worldly success (and post-Enlightenment, “progress”). He, on the other hand, seems to focus on more simple matters, particularly the power and work of death-defying love – divine and human – that goes deeper than all of these things, transcending them.

So, some historical accounts of men will be more valuable than others, and not only because some are more “objective” than others. Of course, it really does go without saying that no human history is “objective” – it simply cannot be “unbiased”, as if we were the all-seeing and neutral narrator of a novel (of course detailing only the important events in the story – neutral?). And we come to this important point again: even as this idea of the Author and the novel has often been connected with our ideas of God for good reasons, His knowledge of the past, present and future – as we have repeatedly noted above – is much more involved than this! We might equate the notion of “objective” with having a “God’s eye-point of view”. But of course when we think about what having a “God’s eye-point of view” on the world and history means, we might again be tempted to think of God as not being involved – or that involved – in the story.  

How God is "objective" in the ultimate sense.

Is it more that God is objective or that He has an objective?

But He is deeply involved – for He is the great Subject and the Lover of His whole creation (Psalm 145), with man its crown, as the great object. Yes, God’s objective is His beloved object – so here is how history is “objective” to the hilt! 

God’s reliable history – the Holy Scriptures – are not a removed and dispassionate accounting of the facts, but of the meaning of a romance between the Husband and His bride, the Church. Here, all the facts are important – incredibly important!*** – but fall into this wider context.

And there are indeed dark nights in the soul in this history-defining relationship.  But as Buttrick reminds us: “Faith in action has eyes when our natural eyes cannot see”. (p. 79) And in the crucified One, it overcomes the world – in the “long defeat”.

Finally, perhaps some are disappointed that what I have said here does not take more of a “systematic theology”-like approach.  That is deliberately the case – for I think that the Reformed theologian Michael Horton is right when he often asserts that “the doctrine is in the drama”.  As I hope is clear from what I have written here, I think that what the Christian church has to offer the world when it comes to this matter of history cannot be underestimated in terms of its importance.

That will become even more clear in an upcoming series: *How* will we know the truth that sets us free? What is TSSI and is Jesus’ bodily resurrection the validation of His teachings? 

I hope you will join me for that one to.




*Quoted in Montgomery, Where is History Going?, p. 184

**He goes on to say: “[Israel] admitted that judgment had rightly fallen, or so at least her prophets knew; but Assyria! – Assyria was blind to God and His judgments, and worshipped only idols! So we ask why a megalomaniac paperchanger should bedevil the world. Yes, the seeds of Hitlerism were in every land, but the world arraigned against him was not Hitler. Bright eras come, not by man’s contriving; dark eras, not by man’s intention and desire. We are still responsible, but history ever and again appears irresponsible, as if there were no right and wrong… (pp. 70-71)

***In a recent post, the prominent and highly influential Eastern Orthodox blogger Father Stephen Freeman said:

Deeply connected to materialist Christianity is a “materialist” understanding of time. In the modern understanding, time is simply a description of the chain of cause and effect – the past being a collection of causes, the present being the result of those causes, and the future being the results that have not yet happened (and therefore do not yet exist). With a materialist notion of cause and effect, history (with a solid/fixed existence) becomes of supreme importance. Christianity as a “historical” religion, becomes a description of Divine causes and effects. The linear character of time takes on a controlling character. Thus historical (solid/fixed) events such as the Creation of Man, the Fall, Noah’s Ark, the Red Sea, etc., have their historical character as their prime importance. The story of the universe is a story that takes place entirely within a materialist system of cause and effect. Sin is a historical problem requiring a historical solution. And because of the fixed nature of time/cause/effect, each historical event presupposes and requires the same character of its causes. Thus if the historical character of Adam and Eve are questioned, then the historical character of all subsequent events are challenged as well. The Fall becomes the cause of the Cross.

Elsewhere, he had written:

“Adam as the progenitor of sin is nowhere an idea of importance (or even an idea) within the Old Testament. St. Paul raises Adam to a new level of consideration, recognizing in him a type of Christ, “the Second Adam.” But St. Paul’s Adam is arguably much like St. Paul’s Abraham (in Galatians), a story whose primary usefulness is the making of a theological point.

Nevertheless, St. Paul’s lead eventually becomes the pathway for history’s ascendancy. For while it is true that man’s breaking communion with God is the source of death, this is reduced to mere historical fact in the doctrine of Original Sin. For here Adam, as the first historical man, becomes infinitely guilty and deserving of punishment, and pays his juridical debt forward to all generations. This historical understanding of the fall, with inherited guilt, locks the Fall within historical necessity. It is among numerous reasons that Original Sin, as classically stated in the West, has not found a lasting place within Orthodox tradition.”

One must wonder: are we then, in the West, by virtue of our believing in a historical Adam, all crass literalists now?  In responded to him regarding that first post above, I asked this

.when you say that “Sin is a historical problem requiring a historical solution”, is this not, from our perspective, something that seems to be very true? A simple reading of the account in Genesis 1-3 would seem to suggest this, would it not? Is there not some sense in which innocence was lost? Do they not realize they are naked? Do they not run? Does not “everything change” in some mysterious sense here? You speak of us misunderstanding the Fathers today, seeing them through the lens of this materialist Christianity (the “alien metaphysic” as you say). Do not some of the Fathers speak in this way though?

He said, in part:

you correct that there are fathers who speak in this way. I would speak in that way in certain contexts.

But the Genesis account is not a simple account and there are many things within it that signal this. It is layered and complex and sometimes begs questions (that call us beyond the simple). I sometimes think that the “simple” approach to Genesis forgets to stay with the text and reads an imaginary construction of the text that ignores the signals to abandon the simple.

“In the Beginning.” Sounds simple. St. John did not think so. Many fathers immediately noted that Christ Himself is the “Beginning.” I could go on and on and never leave the first verse.

I replied, in part:

What concerns me is that for many, Gods’ word seems to be merely something like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – the main intention not being to convey real history that speaks to us and forms us now, but rather to simply speak to us and form us now…

Now, now, now.

But look at Jesus… he never gives any indication that He took the events of the OT as anything other than things that really happened. What do we do when the True Myth Incarnate gives us such impressions… and then tells us to to believe like children?

For it seems to me, there is a ruthless logic here. There are these genealogies that connect Adam with Christ after all… Why stop with Genesis and Adam as being mythological so as to just be for the now, now, now – at the expense of words acknowledging that it also has to do with the real past?

Must these be set against one another? Is the realism you speak of – and which I hold to as well – against this?

And that, for now, is where the conversation ends.  I am told that someone like C.S. Lewis was “absolutely not a Christian materialist” but a decided “Realist” like the rest of the Inklings.  And I ask “What does this mean?”  Are we in the West who believe in a literal Adam not realists now where those who would deny him are?

What do you do when the True Myth Incarnate (Hat tip: C.S. Lewis) gives every indication that the stories of the Old Testament are utterly historical as well as for our moral edification? Do you, in an effort to stifle this inconvenient truth, eventually end up consigning the True Myth Incarnate to more ethereal realms as well? Why wouldn’t you? And then, even if you still say that you believe in Jesus Christ (as Jowett – see part I – no doubt would have claimed), do you really?  Might it not be time to wonder, with Paul, whether or not you have a “different Jesus”?


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Posted by on August 25, 2014 in Uncategorized


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