Saturday, November 12, 2011

Cyclical versus Linear history 1

I feel like I'm a little more than half way around the track on the final lap of this philosophy thing!  Here beginneth the second to last section of the chapter on the philosophy of history...
The default human sense of history would seem to be cyclical, a perspective captured well in the famous words of Ecclesiastes 1:9-11: "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See, this is new'? It has already been, in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them" (NRSV).

It is well for us to remember that these words came before the New Testament and that they express the perspective of perhaps all cultures prior to the centuries just before Christ, as well as most cultures to this day outside the influence of the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  This perspective is what we might call a cyclical view of history, a sense that the story of the past is merely a series of repeated vignettes in which the same basic types of things happen over and over again.  People are born.  People die.  In between they find food, find shelter, raise children, and grow old.

For the bulk of living, this view of the world has much to commend it.  Perhaps we are so used to technological developments coming along every two or three years that we forget that most of what we do as humans in the world is mostly the same as what humans have always done.   Because of the massive scientific improvements of the last century, we have come to expect the way we live our lives to improve quickly.  But the basic categories remain the same as always: food, shelter, pleasure, clothing, and so forth.

[George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."]

In a purely cyclical view, history is not "headed" anywhere.  It is not waiting for some day when all the dead will come back to life.  It is not waiting for Christ to come back to earth and set up an eternal kingdom.  In other words, the cyclical view contrasts with a linear view, where history as a whole is moving toward some ultimate culmination and "end" of some sort.  It is a significant insight into the original meaning of the Old Testament to realize that the vast majority of its authors understood the world in a cyclical way, just like the people of their day. [1]

Remember in the last section when we talked about taking into account the paradigms of a culture at a point in history?  The historical paradigm of the bulk of the Old Testament was, in its original meaning, cyclical.  We tend to read the Old Testament in linear terms because that is how the New Testament recasts the individual stories of the Old Testament.  It takes what to the original readers were fairly localized petits récits (small stories--see earlier in the chapter) and reinterprets them in the light of a grand récit (larger metanarrative).

For example, we do not find Solomon in 1 Kings talking about the temple as a temporary solution to the problem caused by Adam in Genesis, to be solved once and for all in Jesus Christ.  This sort of large narrative understanding of history was completely foreign to the time of 1 Kings.  Rather, people have always offered sacrifices to secure good relationships with God and the gods.  Important kings build big temples.  It is only when we get to the time of Christ that such events are recast in the light of an overall story of salvation planned by God before the creation of the world. [2]

Remember also Troeltsch's rule that says we should try to account for an event in terms of the things that happened before and after it?  Unlike Troeltsch, most of us will want to leave open the possibility for miracles in history, but we might apply his rule in relation to what biblical texts most likely meant.  If we can account for the meaning of a biblical text in terms of the thought categories of its day, we should tend to see that meaning as what the original authors and audiences were likely thinking.  Accordingly, since we are able to read the bulk of Old Testament texts in cyclical terms and that is how the people of the day likely thought, then that is the most likely meaning such texts originally had.

We might use 2 Samuel 7:16 as a case in point.  Here God tells David, "Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever" (NRSV).  But what did "forever" mean at the time.  Because most of us come to this text with a linear and absolute sense of history, we assume "forever" means that even 3000 years later--indeed a million years later--we will find a descendant of David ruling.  This plays into our sense that Jesus is that descendant of David and that, yes, he will rule forever, literally.

This is certainly something most of us believe and affirm--that Jesus will be king forever, literally.  The New Testament understands the Old Testament in this way and that makes this interpretation legitimate.  But this is not likely anything intended in the original meaning of 2 Samuel 7 because its author would have understood "forever" more in the sense of "for a really long time."  This example brings together a number of key points.  It brings together what we have said in chapter 4 and will say in the next chapter about words being capable of multiple meanings, and it brings together our sense in chapter 8 and this chapter that we interpret things from within paradigms, so that the same words might have quite different connotations in different contexts.

[1] The philosophy novel Sophie's World understandably lumps Judaism, Christianity, and Islam together as having "linear" views of history without seeming to realize that it is really not until the time of Christ that some Jewish groups began to have a linear view.

[2] The same principle applies to the way most of us look at prophecy about Jesus in the Old Testament. The New Testament applies many words to Jesus from the Old Testament in new ways.  Take Isaiah 7:14.  Matthew 1:23 reads these words in relation to the virgin birth of Jesus.

However, if we read Isaiah 7:14 in the flow of its own text, the verse seems to promise a king at that time, Ahaz, that the child of a young woman already pregnant would not reach maturity before the kings to the north were removed from power.  Both in terms of the flow of the words (the literary context) and the way history was understood at the time (cyclical paradigm), it is extremely unlikely that Ahaz would take a sign to him to be about something that would take place over 700 years after he was dead!

The original meaning is a petit récit, a small story.  The New Testament then legitimately gives those words a "fuller sense" (a sensus plenior) and places them into a grand récit.  For more on New Testament interpretation in a "fuller sense," see Walter Kaiser, Darrell Bock, and Peter Enns, Three Views on the New Testament Interpretation of the Old (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 167-225. 


Dick Norton said...


How can you say that the O.T. doesn't have a linear view of history? What about Jacob gathering his sons around him before he dies and blessing them and telling them what their families will be like in the "latter days?" Or what about Daniel forseeing the disintegration of the world powers at the hands of a coming Kingdom of God in the "latter days." Or what about Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and others foretelling a glorious future for the people of Israel in their own land under Messiah?

And, frankly, it is getting a little tiresome when you keep bringing up Isa. 7:14 when the larger context of that passage is expanded IN ISAIAH'S OWN MIND to a climax in Isa. 9:6 where he himself sees the coming of Messiah to be presaged in his own time by the birth of his own son!

The O.T. is God's Word, the Omniscient One who knows the beginning from the end. I suggest you read it with that in mind, instead of reading it through the biased lenses of scholars who have their own naturalistic axes to grind.

Our Lord Jesus read the O.T. as linear! Otherwise, why would He have scolded the disciples on the Emmaus road for not understanding the Scriptures, and not being able to see the coming of Messiah in those Scriptures?

Mobius Trip said...

Could the use of some technical terminology clarify the process of moving from a cyclical to linear paradigm? Terms of logos such as: final cause, formal cause, efficient cause and material cause.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Ken: "This is certainly something most of us believe and affirm--that Jesus will be king forever, literally. The New Testament understands the Old Testament in this way and that makes this interpretation legitimate."

Something is proven by believing it to be so??????? There is no reason to investigate?

Is tautological argument a reason to believe? The Bible says that it must be believed, therefore, it must be believed.

Does metaphysics legitimize methodology? or is one's methodology important in how we understand what is real? and what is true?

Is reality about a worldview or a "world picture"? A worldview is a comprehensive understanding of "all that is and will be", whereas, a "world picture" is a specified area of interest and investigation as to understanding an aspect of the world.

I think the "worldview" vision is presumptuous, while the later is a way to affirm man's limitations or grasping understanding the "whole" and grappling with only a "part". The "part" that interests him.