History: Christian Views

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Christians understand history from the perspective of the life of Jesus of Nazareth (c. 4 bce30 ce), whom they call the Christ. Christians believe that in Jesus Christ God became incarnate in human history and thereby provided the key to the character, validity, and significance of history. Salient events in Jesus' life in ancient Roman Palestine, as Christian understand themnotably his birth, his ministry, his death by crucifixion, and his resurrection to lifeform the basis of the Christian religion. At the same time, the life of Jesus Christ provides the ultimate orientation for understanding the whole of history and the historical process, past, present, and future. To be Christian unavoidably entails bonding with an understanding of history, and over the ages the variety of Christian views has been considerable.

Christian views of history have in common that they encompass all peoples as well as all nonhuman creation. For Christians, history began with the creation of the world and will culminate with the return of Jesus Christ to the world. Christians give a special role within history to the Jews before Jesus' time, to his immediate followers during his lifetime, especially those called the twelve apostles, and to the church and the kingdom of God for the remainder of history after Jesus. For Christians, the ongoing temporal course of worldly existence proceeds according to cycles of worship as well as in cycles of forgiveness and renewal as, under the providence of God, Christians seek to do the will of God and to overcome evil with good.

Christian views of history contrast with the alternatives provided by different ultimate orientations, whether secularist, Islamic, capitalist, Hindu, Buddhist, New Age, or something else. With the secularization of thought and society in European and North American cultures during much of the twentieth century, Christian views tended to shrink to an emphasis on church history. But in tandem with the persistence of religions in pluralist relations with each other across the world, many Christians have reaffirmed the validity of Christian approaches for understanding the whole of history and for engaging in the study of any historical subject.

Elements of Christian Views of History

The first people who gathered around Jesus disclosed what they believed mattered for the Christian religion. This they did not by instruction in ritual or law, not by theological discourse or logical argument, but by telling the history of Jesus. At first the followers of Jesus told each other about what happened to him. Paul wrote letters to several Christian communities that recalled aspects of his life. The earliest Christian historical writings are the accounts known as the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles that emerged out of and consolidated the recollections that people passed on after the death of Jesus. Christians ever since have looked to the Gospels as the source for their knowledge of Jesus and for his message of the coming of the kingdom of God. History came to be seen as the repeated overcoming of the kingdom of darkness by God's kingdom of light. In the words of the Lord's Prayer, "Our father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

The experience of the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus totally transformed the first Christians' understanding of history. They created the earliest Christian views of history by reworking the views they inherited from Jewish sources. They regarded Jesus as the one whose coming the ancient Hebrew prophets had often promised. John called Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, the one anointed by God to be the savior of Israel. The very use of that title constituted an understanding of the role of Jesus in world history. Matthew and Luke contained genealogies constructed to show that Jesus was the direct descendant of the two greatest names in Jewish history, Abraham and David, and, according to Luke, the direct lineal offspring of Adam, regarded as the first human being created by God.

The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles also told how Jesus projected a new horizon for the future. After leaving his followers for a time he would return again to be among them. They caught suggestions of the end of the age, the eschaton, some time in the near or distant future, and they anticipated a final resurrection of the dead.

Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans, created an understanding of history that explained both the continuity of Jesus with Israel and Adam and the radical innovation that Jesus inaugurated for his followers in the future. Paul viewed Jesus both as the descendant of Adam and as the New Adam. History, for Christians, thus divides into two ages. Before Christ there were the creation, the old covenant, the old self, the way of the law, whereas after Christ there would be the new creation, the new covenant, the new self, the way of grace. Paul thought that the Hebrew scriptures, which Christians knew as the Old Testament, contained many anticipations of Christ. The children of Abraham and David were to be completed by a new Israel called the ekklesia, composed of children of Abraham by adoption.

It is important to understand that the early Christians formed their views of history as part of living within the new community of the ekklesia, later called the church. Their views of history emerged as they engaged in their worship, read their scriptures, preached their sermons, produced their their art, instructed their young, and uttered their confessions of faith in Jesus Christ. Over the centuries, it was largely through such tangible and close-to-home means that Christians taught, maintained, elaborated, revised, and unfolded their views of history into the wide variety of forms known in the history of Christianity. The writings on history by the great thinkerssuch as Paul, Eusebius (d. c. 339), Augustine (d. 430), Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), Luther (d. 1546), Calvin (d. 1564), and Bossuet (d. 1704)depended upon and emerged from within the experience of the worshipping community. The great creeds of the churchfrom the simple confession of Peter ("You are the Christ, the son of the living God") to the important Nicene Creed (325), the famous and popular Apostles' Creed (eighth century), and the many creeds of the Reformation erawere affirmations of the faith of the church that entailed reciting the history of Jesus and a Christian version of world history.

What develops is an understanding of universal history that depicts the course of the ages as a sequence of creation, fall, redemption, and culmination. History begins with the creation of the world, Adam, and Eve by God and continues with a decline into sin and suffering. God then offers the possibility of restoration, first through the line of Abraham and Israel, then through Jesus Christ and the church. Finally come the last days, the eschaton, when all things culminate in the return of Jesus Christ, followed by the Last Judgment, the appearance of the new heavens and the new earth, the resurrection of the dead, and the experience of eternal life. It is a comprehensive vision that gathers up the past, opens up the future, and explains the meaning of the present.

Seen in this way, the history of the world has a beginning and will have an ending. History is ongoing. Christian writers, like the author of Hebrews and Augustine, use the figures of a journey and a pilgrimage, and others following the Gospels use the image of the way to catch the ongoing tendency of things. They endeavor to grasp the meaning of the course of history by identifying the ages through which the world passes. For example, Paul's two ages, the old and the new, could also be regarded as one, the present age, surrounded by eternity before creation and eternity after the end of time. The genealogies in Matthew and Luke calculated four or five ages. The Letter of Barnabas (early second century) turns these into six ages by analogy with the six days of creation. And since a day in the eyes of God is like a thousand years (2 Pt. 3:8), this suggested that God would bring the world to an end after six thousand years. Augustine adopted the six-age scheme and noted in the final pages of his monumental City of God that the world was then in the sixth and final age. Later writers, notably during the Reformation of the sixteenth century, divided the six thousand years into four monarchiesBabylon, Persia, Greece, and Romebased on the Old Testament Book of Daniel. In the seventeenth century the threefold scheme of ancient, medieval, and modern came into vogue, appearing first in relation to Christian history. Even then, many Christian writers thought that if the history of the world was analogous to human life they were living in the old age of the world. History was moving toward culmination by way of beneficent decline.

With all this emphasis on ongoing tendencies and periods, many people have asserted that Christian views of history are by definition linear and for that reason distinct from views depicting history as cyclical. They contrasted Christian views as linear with Hindu and Buddhist views as cyclical. However, Christian views are also cyclical, even as Hindu and Buddhist views are also linear, and Christian views offer many ways of understanding the recurrent rhythms of history. The earliest instance was the common meal initiated by Jesus Christ in his last supper, later called the Eucharist or the Lord's Supper, which became a way for Christians when gathered together to remember (anamnesis ) the life and death of Jesus. The introduction of Sunday as the day of worship symbolized the resurrection of Jesus and gave Christians a recurrent beat for the life of their communities. Paul emphasized the rhythm of creation and re-creation, and Christians over the ages have sought to implement his message by striving repeatedly for the overcoming of evil with good and the renewal of all things. In other guises they know this recurrent rhythm as the pattern of repentance, forgiveness, and restoration by which God repeatedly shows mercy to sinners and brings new things out of old. The symbol of the resurrection itself is an affirmation of the recurrence of blessing and healing in spite of the persistence of death and evil. Following the example of Jesus and Paul, Augustine envisioned world history as a recurrent spiritual conflict between the city of God and the city of this world. In these and other ways, Christian views of history posit the reality of recurrence in the world within the drama of the ongoing course of events from the origins to the eschaton.

Christian views of history also have a personal side. They permit Christians to orient their lives within the overall course of history. Over the years Christians as the church have fashioned rituals that, according to their ecclesiastical traditions, they call sacraments, ordinances, or special services. These mark both the linear course of life in the world and the cyclic experience of life in the world: baptism initiates each person, whether at infancy or as an adult, into the church; confirmation or acceptance into church membership marks religious coming of age; marriage establishes companionship on the journey and the procreative relationship; the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper, remembers Jesus Christ's death; penance or prayers for forgiveness register the cycle of sin and restoration; and holy unction, last rites, or the funeral complete the earthly pilgrimage.

Christians gradually came to express their views of history in the form of a calendar that liturgically recalls the events of the life of Jesus Christ in an annual cycle. The first fixture in the calendar became known as Easter and celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, although agreement on when to mark Easter has eluded Christians and yielded diverse representations of the calendar. Christians have remembered the birth of Jesus as Christmas from at least the early fourth century. The advent to Christmas came to mark the start of the Christian new year. Christians later added the events of Epiphany, Holy Week, Pentecost, and the Ascension. Christians also mark the ongoing sequence of years with reference to the birth of Jesus, counting the years from "Our Lord's Incarnation" (AD, anno Domini, the year of the Lord). This scheme, which formalized a popular Christian usage, was devised by Dionysius Exiguus (early sixth century) as part of his calculation of the liturgical date of Easter. Much later and more slowly, Christians began to count the years backward from the incarnation, calling them "Before Christ" (BC). By using these important symbols, they claim that the whole course of history centers on Jesus Christ and that the annual cycle of Christian experience recapitulates Jesus' life.

A solid tradition of historical writing reflects the emphasis Christians put on recording the course of events, creating a common memory, and handing on their story in writing to future generations. It began with the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Early in the third century Julius Africanus produced a five-volume Chronology with the dual purpose of establishing that the antiquity of Moses was greater than that of the Greeks and of tracing the continuity of Christianity with Jesus Christ. Eusebius of Caesarea (early fourth century) stabilized a lasting tradition of Christian historiography with his Chronology and his Ecclesiastical History. Augustine's magisterial City of God formulated what became the most influential Christian reading of world history. Following patterns of explanation found in the Old Testament, he showed how the activities of God, humans, angels, and devils conjoined to produce human history as a struggle between the city of God and the city of this world. Augustine's student Paulus Orosius elaborated upon this. From these sources an immense number of medieval chronicles, annals, and histories took their cue. Between the seventh and the fifteenth centuries writers produced histories shaped by Christian views: histories of the church, of the peoples of Christendom, of rulers and governments, of cities, of the Crusades, of the saints, of monasteries, and of the whole world known to them. Protestants, Anglicans, and Catholics from the sixteenth-century Reformation onward wrote histories that continued the fecund traditions of Christian historiography and that served to enliven their polemics against each other.

Running through Christian views of history is the understanding that many actors generate history. The Bible offered the necessary models, and Eusebius provided the example for how to translate the biblical vision into a reading of the post-biblical course of events. Christian historians in other periods, of whom Merle d'Aubigné (17941872) was a stunning case, as well as pastors and preachers in their sermons every Sunday to the present day instantiate the view that history is a lively arena for many actors. God is primary, and, although God's abode is the timeless present of eternity, God acts directly in history. Acting against God are Satan as the Evil One as well as various devils and evil spirits whose deeds impact the course of history. Joined to these are human beings regarded as responsible for what goes on in the course of the ages. Next to all these are the non-human creaturesthe animals, the trees, the wind and the rainthat likewise effect what happens in history. How to explain the relations and relative effects of these great actors in historyGod, the Evil One, humans, and naturehas been a matter of perennial disagreement among Christians. Christians created the doctrines of divine predestination and human free will in an effort to explain some of this. The Old Testament supplies the model for understanding God's work in history, while the New Testament does the same for the work of the Evil One. Just as God governed Israel by leading the Israelites out of Egypt, taking them into the Promised Land, establishing David on the throne of Israel, and confounding the enemies of Israel, so God governs the church through the ages. And just as God also ruled over Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon, so God rules over all things in the world throughout the whole of history according to God's will. Christians call this wise governance by God "Divine providence."

In a similar way, following the Lord's Prayer, Christians attribute to God's action everything from their daily food to the rise and fall of kingdoms. Yet all the while they know, according to their roles in life, that they are responsible for tending their fields as farmers or governing the commonwealth as rulers. God's central act in history was the incarnation in Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ continues to rule as Lord of history. Christians began to talk very early in the church's history of God's eternal plan of salvation and God's plan for the world. When human actions fulfill the will of God, God bestows blessings; when they do not, God sends judgment instead. The prospect of the Last Judgment came before the people by means of art, especially during the medieval and early modern periods. The providence of God has given Christians confidence and comfort in history, while the Last Judgment has often given them cause to tremble.

Types of Views

From the time of the apostles to the present, Christian views of history have proliferated into at least four dominant types. All types have in common the elements already summarizedorientation by the life of Jesus Christ, the envelopment of universal and personal history, an account of the ongoing and the recurrent matters of history, and so on. They differ, however, in the way they interpret these elements and in the priorities and emphases they assign to them. All appeal to Jesus Christ, the Bible, and the experience of the history of Christianity for justification.

The four types may be called the millenarian, the ecclesiastical, the reform/revivalist, and the mystical. The millenarian type of understanding of history appeared quite soon among the early Christians and has reemerged periodically throughout Christian history to the present day. The millenarians, or "chiliasts," emphasize the future of history and eschatology. They are deeply aware of the troubles of the present world. They look forward to the return of Jesus Christ as the means of salvation, and they expect salvific change to be abrupt and total. Their name comes from the anticipated thousand-year rule by Christ at the end of history, the seventh eschatological day after the six days of world history. Their scriptural sources are the Book of Daniel, chapter 24 of the Gospel of Matthew, and the Book of Revelation. The earliest millenarians (see the First Letter to the Thessalonians ) expected the return of Jesus to occur in their lifetime. Millenarian movements over the years have included the prophets of the end around the year 1000, some elements in the Crusades, Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202), the Fifth Monarchy Men (seventeenth century), and the followers of John Darby (18001882). In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries most fundamentalists and evangelicals have been millenarians. They have called themselves "premillenarians" because they emphasize the return of Jesus before the advent of the thousand-year reign of purity, and "dispensationalists" because they emphasize the various ways God has changed the divine mode of working with the world over the ages.

The ecclesiastical type of understanding of history began as the early Christians created the institutional forms of the church community and has carried on to the present by means of the dominant churchly traditions. The ecclesiasticals emphasize the continuity of history expressed by means of a specific sequential connection with Jesus and the apostles (e.g., apostolic succession). They contrast the church and the world, while nonetheless struggling for and often achieving some alliance with the political rulers and some penetration of the general culture with Christian ecclesiastical mores. They believe that salvation comes primarily by means of God's work through the church, notably in the sacraments and in preaching. They value institution-building, maintenance, and stability and seek to control change. Their biblical sources are the letters of Paul, especially Romans. The ecclesiastical view emerged with the appearance of bishops and ecclesiastical organization as recounted by Eusebius. The papacy, the church councils, and the Jesuits are among those who perpetuated this view. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, standard Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, and Lutherans exemplify this type.

The reform/revivalist type of understanding of history has ridden in tandem with the ecclesiastical type throughout the history of Christianity. The emphasis in this third type has been on renewal and recurrence, together with either a return to some normative past or a renovation to some better future. Its proponents are concerned with overcoming spiritual or moral decline and often stand in judgment against the dominant structures. They see God's salvific work especially in institutional reform or personal spiritual revival. They expect the need for change to be periodic, or as the motto of one strain within the Protestant Reformation expressed it, they aim to be "always reforming." Reformers have readily converted to the ecclesiastical type (in a conservative form) once their reforms have become established. They take their scriptural inspiration especially from Paul's theme of new creation in Romans and Colossians. Some of the many movements that have viewed history in this way have been the early Benedictines, the early Franciscans, Cluny monks, early Calvinists and Lutherans, early Methodists, and in recent times, the evangelical revivalists and reformational Kuyperians. The Pentecostal movement of the twentieth century has been a major revivalist movement stressing the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the restoration of the pristine spirit of Christ. Liberation theologians in Latin America are another example.

The mystic type of understanding of history also appeared early and has reemerged periodically throughout Christian history. Mystics seek to transcend the course of mundane history, suspending themselves, as it were, above the process of past-present-future. They have tended to condemn and belittle the history of the world and to seek salvation by union with another realm. Their hope has been to overcome change, yet through all that, they have also consciously intended to exercise an influence upon the affairs of the world. The vision of John in Revelation inspired them biblically. Notable examples of the mystic type are the pillar saints (Stylites) of Syria, the contemplative orders, the Neoplatonic tradition, Meister Eckhart (d. 1327?), Teresa of Ávila (d. 1582), Jakob Boehme (d. 1624), and the early Quakers. Many Christians in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have welcomed the influence of Buddhist and Hindu mystics on the Christian practice of meditation and prayer.

Decline and Renewal of Christian Perspectives

By the late eighteenth century, as part of the early phases of the secularization of European thought and society, many began to call Christian views of history into question. In particular, capitalist industrialization, the new powers of science and technology, and the thought of philosophers as different from each other as David Hume, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau combined to evoke new faith in humanity and in human powers of control, creativity, and reason. These gave support to new convictions that this world (the saeculum ) was ultimate and that history was progress toward human improvement.

The practical consequence of the secularizing tendency upon Christian views of history has been the accentuation of two sets of distinctions. First, Christians focused more narrowly on the history of the church and tended to regard the history of the rest of life as a secular concern properly handled by scholars acting as secular historians and not as Christian historians. This contributed to the creation of specialized kinds of histories, such as histories of politics, art, and economic affairs, and treated church history as just another specialization. Second, Christians began to formulate a theology of historyas distinct from a philosophy of history. In the hands of philosophers like Voltaire, J. G. Herder, G. W. F. Hegel, and a host of more recent thinkers like those of the British analytic school, reflection on the world's history could appear to be an exercise quite remote from what theologians did when they thought about the biblical sources, Jesus Christ, and Christian experience.

In this manner a distinction between sacred and profane history became more pronounced. Church historians and theologians came to see themselves, and to be seen by others, as sociologically set apart from other historians and other scholars of religion. They commonly found themselves employed in seminaries, Divinity schools, and Christian colleges, either separated from universities or other faculties within universities. They associated with each other in specialized professional societies organizationally separated from general scholarly associations. From the perspective of the general culture, people commonly came to regard the church as merely one institution next to others, with the result that the relevance of Christian views of history to life as a whole no longer could be assumed. Liturgy and preaching continued in their cyclic rhythm as the primary vehicles for the transmission of Christian views of history, but with a built-in separation of Christian history from the history of life as a whole, now called secular history. Historians, including those who were themselves Christians, found they could readily explain the temporal course of history solely in terms of human actions in the milieu of the natural environment, without reference to the work of God and the Evil One. This they did quite apart from their still operative belief in the activity of God in history and any Christian vision of universal history. The theories and findings of geology, biology, astronomy, and "prehistory" make a convincing case that the world's history has already taken perhaps billions of years in spite of previously honored calculations of the creation of the world based on Genesis. The difficulty, if not impossibility, of genuine prediction beyond the most proximate future made Christian visions of the future eschaton seem irrelevant to the course of history if not simply wrong.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, however, many historians, philosophers, theologians, writers, and biblical scholars have led a notable renewal of Christian views of history. They have come from a wide range of Christian traditions, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Reformed, Russian Orthodox, Baptists, and others. Prominent names since the 1930s include Reinhold Niebuhr, Herbert Butterfield, Arnold Toynbee, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Christopher Dawson, and Georges Florovsky. After World War II, the renewal formed part of the general ecumenical and church renewal movements associated with the World Council of Churches (after 1948), the Second Vatican Council (19621965), and the resurgence of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism.

Several trends concerning Christian views of history have become noteworthy since the 1970s, even as the four major types of views continued. First, many Christians stressed the need to integrate Christian views of history with their newly emerging awareness of the diversity of Christianity across the world, and with their renewed appreciation of the genuinely universal character of history. Second, many historians who were Christians explored how Christian insights about human beings and worldly existence might suggest approaches to the historical study of all facets of history, including, in addition to churches, the history of politics, gender, class, economic affairs, art, technology, families, the environment, climate, and so on. Third, the ongoing encounter with other religions of the world, notably Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and the primal religions, has led Christians to reevaluate the meaning of the claims about Christianity being a religion of history. Fourth, the experience of the secular religions of humanism, capitalism and Marxism has stimulated revisions of Christian views of history as a way of helping to overcome economic, social, and political oppression and to promote the well-being of the whole human community. Fifth, the disintegration of the dominant modes of scientific history characterized by commitment to facts and emphasis on hegemonic elites has given new life to post-modern discussions of historical methods and epistemology, discussions to which historians enlivened by Christian views of history make distinctive contributions.

See Also

Apostles; Christian Liturgical Year; Christmas; Church, article on Church Membership; Creeds, article on Christian Creeds; Easter; Epiphany; Eschatology, overview article; Eucharist; Free Will and Predestination, article on Christian Concepts; Gospel; Historiography; Jesus; Lord's Prayer; Millenarianism, overview article; Mysticism; Revival and Renewal; Secularization; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Christian Worship.


No general book exists that covers all the elements of Christian views of history as they are brought together in this article. Ernst Breisach's Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1994) treats Christian views as part of the general account. The closest thing to a survey of the history of Christian views of history, albeit in reverse time order, is Karl Löwith's Meaning in History (Chicago, 1949). Oscar Cullmann's Christ and Time (London, 1951) and Philip Carrington's The Primitive Christian Calendar (Cambridge, U.K., 1952) are classic statements about the views of history found in the New Testament and early Christianity. The Jewish antecedents of Christian views of history are introduced in John Van Seters's In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven, Conn., 1983). Gregory Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy, 2d ed. (New York, 1982), explains how liturgy manifests the sanctification of time. The way the creeds recite history is evident in Philip Schaff's The Creeds of Christendom, 6th ed., 3 vols. (Reprint edition, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1983). Langdon Gilkey's Reaping the Whirlwind (New York, 1976) discusses Providence, and Brian Hebblethwaite's The Christian Hope (London, 1984) surveys the history of eschatology. Of the many books on Augustine, Robert A. Markus's Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, rev. ed. (Cambridge, U.K., 1988) is a good place to start. Herbert Butterfield's Christianity and History (London, 1949) was central to the statement of Christian views of history in the twentieth century. My introduction to his Writings on Christianity and History, which I edited (Oxford, 1979), and my Herbert Butterfield as Historian (New Haven, Conn., and London, 2004), examine his work in detail. For the renewal of Christian views of history in recent times, see my God, History, and Historians (Oxford, 1977). Dale T. Irvin's Christian Histories, Christian Traditioning: Rendering Accounts (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1998) relates Christian views of history to the ongoing life of Christian communities across the world. History and Historical Understanding, which I edited with Ronald A. Wells (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1984), indicates how historians work with a Christian view of history to engage historical study generally.

C.T. McIntire (1987 and 2005)

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