Thursday, November 17, 2011

Christian View of History

A critical thinker should always hesitate to say something like, "This is the Christian view of something."  We usually find multiple viewpoints on issues by people who consider themselves Christians, and of course  it is ultimately God who gets to decide who really is.  We have seen briefly in this chapter that we do indeed find some variety of thinking about history among Christians.  In particular, some see history primarily as a downward spiral till the end, while others look more to the potential of Christianity to change the world for the better leading up to Christ's return.  Other Christians, perhaps without much thought, may operate more cyclically--you live, you die, you go to heaven or hell... next in line.

Nevertheless, among those who take the historic beliefs of Christendom somewhat straightforwardly, we can sketch out some general elements to a Christian view of history, despite disagreements on the details.  First, let me suggest that perhaps the most helpful way to approach the question is to think of history as a story. Since I too as a textbook author cannot see my own blind spots, I hesitate to say that this is the way to view history.  I can only say that I personally find it the most appropriate of all the approaches to history we have mentioned in this chapter.

To think of history as a story allows us to incorporate all the elements of historiography.  For example, it reminds us that, although we are talking about things we think actually happened in the past, we inevitably have to be selective in what we choose to tell about.  Think of the nearly infinite amount of data from the past!  Only God could hold it all in his "mind," with every bit in properly relationship to every other bit.  How ridiculous for us to think for a moment that we have it all sorted out!

When we tell or relive history as a story, we are inevitably skewing it by only selecting some data and "de-selecting" other data.  But that is the nature of the game.  There is no history that is not told from a perspective.  There is always more than one way to tell a story, and there is always more than one way to tell about history.

A story has characters; it has events; and it has settings. [1] So does history.  The characters are not only the people, but the "actors" in the drama.  If we wanted, we could look at history playfully from the standpoint of certain ideas as characters, making their way through the story.  For us as Christians, the most important character of all is God, and the hero of the story is Christ.

Events form the backbone of a story--its plot.  What are the key events of a Christian understanding of history.  Surely the creation is very important as the beginning of history for us. [2] And for those who are in continuity with Christianity historically, the central event of the plot has to do focally with Christ's incarnation, death, and resurrection. Again, different Christians may emphasize one or another of these more than another, but historic Christians will see some or all of these events as the resolution to the tension of the plot.

A traditionally Christian view of history is thus a linear view of history.  It sees the whole of human history starting from a beginning and headed toward a particular destination.  The beginning is the creation.  The historic destination for Christians is when God sets everything right in the world, leading to eternity.  Traditionally, Christians have seen a fundamental problem to be resolved in the story as well, a problem that goes back at least to the first humans.  It is this problem that Christ resolved, although the final working out of that resolution is yet to come.

We should be careful about the details.  There are Christians who think of Adam and Eve as poetic expressions of the human situation.  There are Christians who do not await a literal return of Jesus to the earth in judgment.  They stand outside the historic beliefs of Christianity, but God will be the judge.  "Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve" (Romans 14:22, NRSV).

Since Christians believe that Christ was God come into history, Christians are not historically deists in the way they understand history.  That is to say, Christians believe that God has and does intervene in the events of history.  We are theists.  We may differ in the extent to which God intervenes, but Christians believe that God can become part of the cause-effect flow of history.  We believe at least that miracles have taken place in the past, and most of us believe they can take place in the present.

Historic Christians look to the Bible for the most important content of the story--its key characters, events, and settings.  Christians differ on a multitude of interpretations of that content, but the story of Israel in the Old Testament and the story of Jesus and the early church are the most important elements of the overall story.  As someone once put it somewhat cheesily, "History is "His-story," meaning the story of God.

We are part of that story too.  So are all the people before and after the Bible.  So are all the people who were not in Israel in ancient times.  So are all the people who have not been part of the church after those times.  So is all the creation and all the "settings" of the story in space in time.  The rocks cry out in praise to God (cf. Luke 19:40); the heavens declare the glory of God (cf. Psalm 19:1).  Or as the Nicene Creed says, God is the creator of all that is, "seen and unseen," which includes all spiritual powers.

Another way in which a "narrative" or story perspective on history is helpful for a Christian is the fact that stories are always told from a particular point of view.  Inevitably, we are forced to tell the Christian story from our point of view.  For this reason, no version of Christian history any of us give will be the Christian view.  Any version we create will be inevitably partial and tainted, including this one.

Nevertheless, we believe by faith that the authoritative point of view on the story, what literary critics call the "evaluative point of view," is that of God.  God's perspective on history is the Christian perspective on everything that has happened.  By the end of this book, we will hopefully convince you that we do not have direct access to God's full perspective on the story for several reasons.

For one, Scripture only covers the core of the story.  It does not cover World War 2 or the next presidential election.  A bottom line is also that I am still the one interpreting Scripture and a trip down an average city street will quickly illustrate how many Christian denominational "I's" there are.  Reading the Bible in context also reveals that the Bible itself has multiple narratives on the key events, each with a distinct perspective.  Further, they were revealed in ancient categories, meaning that I am forced to translate them into our categories.  Finally, because narratives are selective, they by their very nature cannot give an absolute perspective on any story.

We thus believe by faith that God has an evaluative point of view on the story.  We believe Scripture gives us the most important indications of what that point of view is.  But we will never have direct or complete access to God's point of view.  We have to wait till the end of the story for him to reveal such things more clearly to us.

One key element in the ongoing Christian debate has to do with whether the key to understanding God in history is love or justice.  While most of us would want to say that these two do not contradict each other, there are clear differences among Christians as they play out one or another in their sense of God's action in history.  To simplify things, those who lean more toward the key to God's point of view as love tend to see God creating a world that is somewhat free to go its own way while longing for the world to move toward him.  History is thus the story of God wooing the creation back to himself.

Those who lean more toward justice as the key to God's character tend to see the creation more in terms of its guilt and sin before God.  History is God punishing humanity for the sin of the first human, while making a way through Christ for his justice to be satisfied, so that some of humanity can escape his judgment.  It should be clear that this text book leans much more toward the first way of viewing God's point of view on history.

[1] An excellent overview of the elements of a story is Mark Allan Powell's, What is Narrative Criticism? (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990).  An excellent examination of the Christian story from a similar point of view can be found in N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).

[2] God's story no doubt preceded our story, but presumably it is mostly beyond our comprehension.


FrGregACCA said...

Ken, I understand your trying to be objective and above the fray, but other than "I AM Who AM", there is basically one ontological statement in the Bible about God: "God IS love".

Further, only a God whose Essence is Love could be constituted such that the Divine Unity is Community and not a radical identification of a single Personhood with the Single Divine Being. Can there be any question, therefore, that Divine Justice is an aspect of Divine Love and not vice-versa?

John C. Gardner said...

Your account of Christian history triggered in my mind the account by Tom Wright that Scripture is a five act play. We as Christians are in the fifth act which must be consistent(thought not the same) with the earlier acts. We know the outcome which will be the Coming of Christ in love and holiness(see John Wesley's sermons).