Chapter II. The Predicament of the Christian Historian
Veritas non erubescit nisi abscondi.
– Leo XIII
«Christianity is a religion of historians.»1 It is a strong phrase, but the statement is correct. Christianity is basically a vigorous appeal to history, a witness of faith to certain particular events in the past, to certain particular data of history. These events are acknowledged by faith as truly eventful. These historic moments, or instants, are recognized as utterly momentous. In brief, they are identified by faith as «mighty deeds» of God, Magnalia Dei. The «scandal of particularity,» to use the phrase of Gerhard Kittel,2 belongs to the very essence of the Christian message. The Christian Creed itself is intrinsically historic. It comprises the whole of existence in a single historical scheme as one «History of Salvation,» from Creation to Consummation, to the Last Judgment and the End of history. Emphasis is put on the ultimate cruciality of certain historic events, namely, of the Incarnation, of the Coming of the Messiah, and of his Cross and Resurrection. Accordingly, it may be justly contended that «the Christian religion is a daily invitation to the study of history.»3
Now, it is at this point that the major difficulties arise. An average believer, of any denomination or tradition, is scarcely aware of his intrinsic duty to study history. The historical pattern of the Christian message is obvious. But people are interested rather in the «eternal truth» of this message, than in what they are inclined to regard as «accidents» of history, even when they are discussing the facts of the Biblical history or of the history of the Church. Does not the message itself point out beyond history, to the «life of the Age to come»? There is a persistent tendency to interpret the facts of history as images or symbols, as typical cases or examples, and to transform the «history of salvation» into a kind of edifying parable. We can trace this tendency back to the early centuries of Christian history. In our own days we find ourselves in the midst of an intense controversy precisely about this very matter.
On the one hand, the essential historicity of Christian religion has been rediscovered and re-emphasized, precisely during the past few decades, and a fresh impact of this reawakened historical insight is strongly felt now in all fields of contemporary theological research – in Biblical exegesis, in the study of Church history and liturgics, in certain modern attempts at the «reconstruction of belief,» and even in the modern ecumenical dialogue. On the other hand, the recent plea for a radical demythologizing of the Christian message is an ominous sign of a continuing anti-historical attitude in certain quarters. For to demythologize Christianity means in practice precisely to de-historicize it, despite the real difference between myth and history. In fact, the modern plea is but a new form of that theological liberalism, which, at least from the Age of Enlightenment, persistently attempted to disentangle Christianity from its historical context and involvement, to detect its perennial «essence» («das Wesen des Christentums»), and to discard the historical shells. Paradoxically, the Rationalists of the Enlightenment and the devoted Pietists of various description, and also the dreamy mystics, were actually working toward the same purpose. The impact of German Idealism, in spite of its historical appearance, was ultimately to the same effect. The emphasis was shifted from the «outward» facts of history to the «inward» experience of the believers. Christianity, in this interpretation, became a «religion of experience,» mystical, ethical, or even intellectual. History was felt to be simply irrelevant. The historicity of Christianity was reduced to the acknowledgement of a permanent «historical significance» of certain ideas and principles, which originated under particular conditions of time and space, but were in no sense intrinsically linked with them. The person of Christ Jesus lost its cruciality in this interpretation, even if his message has been, to a certain extent, kept and maintained.
Now, it is obvious that this anti-historical attitude was itself but a particular form of an acute historicism, that is, of a particular interpretation of history, in which the historical has been ruled out as something accidental and indifferent. Most of the liberal arguments were, as they still are, historical and critical, although behind them one could easily detect definite ideological prejudices, or preconceptions. The study of history was vigorously cultivated by the Liberal school, if only in order to discredit history, as a realm of relativity, or as a story of sin and failure, and, finally, to ban history from the theological field. This «abuse of history» by the liberals made even the «lawful» use of history in theology suspect in the conservative circles. Was it safe to make the eternal truth of Christianity dependent in any way upon the data of history which is, by its very nature, inextricably contingent and human? For that reason Cardinal Manning denounced every appeal to history, or to «antiquity,» as both «a treason and a heresy.» He was quite formal at this point: for him the Church had no history. She was ever abiding in a continuous present.4
After all – it has been persistently asked – can one really «know» history, that is, the past? How can one discern, with any decent measure of security, what actually did happen in the past? Our pictures of the past are so varied, and change from one generation to another, and even differ from one historian to the next. Are they anything but subjective opinions, impressions, or interpretations? The very possibility of any historical knowledge seemed to be compromised by the skeptical exploits of the learned. It seemed that even the Bible could no longer be retained as a book of history, although it could be kept as a glorious paradeigma of the eternal Glory and Mercy of God. Moreover, even if one admits that Christians are, by vocation, historians, it can be contended that they are bound to be bad historians, or unreliable historians, since they are intrinsically «committed» in advance. It is commonly agreed that the main virtue of a historian is his impartiality, his freedom from all conceptions, his radical Voraussetzungslosigkeit. Now, obviously, Christians, if they are believing and practicing Christians, cannot conscientiously dispense with their formidable «bias,» even if they succeed in preserving their intellectual honesty and integrity. Christians, by the very fact of their faith and allegiance, are committed to a very particular interpretation of certain events of history, and also to a definite interpretation of the historic process itself, taken as a whole. In this sense, they are inevitably prejudiced. They cannot be radically critical. They would not agree, for instance, to handle their sacred books as «pure literature,» and would not read the Bible simply as the «epic» of the Jews. They would not surrender their belief in the crucial uniqueness of Christ. They would not consent to rule out the «supernatural» element from history. Under these conditions, is any impartial and critical study of history possible at all? Can Christians continue as Christians in the exercise of their profession? How can they vindicate their endeavor? Can they simply divorce their professional work, as historians, from their religious convictions, and write history as anyone else may do it, as if they were in no way informed by the faith?
The easiest answer to this charge is to declare that all historians have a bias. An unbiased history is simply impossible, and actually does not exist.5 In fact, «evolutionary» historians are obviously no less committed than those who believe in the Biblical revelation, only they are committed to another bias. Ernest Renan and Julius Wellhausen were no less committed than Ricciotti or Père Lagrange, and Harnack and Baur no less than Bardy or Lebreton, and Reitzenstein and Frazer much more than Dom Odo Casel and Dom Gregory Dix. They were only committed to different things. One knows only too well that historical evidence can be twisted and distorted in compliance with all sorts of «critical» preconceptions, even more than it has been done sometimes in obedience to «tradition.»
This kind of argument, however, is very ambiguous and inconclusive. It would lead, ultimately, to a radical skepticism and would discredit the study of history of any kind. It actually amounts to a total surrender of all claims and hopes for any reliable historical knowledge. It seems, however, that, in the whole discussion, one operates usually with a very questionable conception of the historical study, with a conception derived from another area of inquiry, namely, from the natural sciences. It is assumed in advance that there is a universal «scientific method» which can be applied in any field of inquiry, regardless of the specific character of the subject of study. But this is a gratuitous assumption, a bias, which does not stand critical test and which, in fact, has been vigorously contested, in recent decades, both by historians and by philosophers. In any case, one has, first of all, to define what is the nature and specific character of «the historical» and in what way and manner this specific subject can be reached and apprehended. One has to define the aim and purpose of historical study and then to design methods by which this aim, or these aims, can be properly achieved. Only in this perspective can the very question of «impartiality» and «bias» be intelligently asked and answered.
The study of history is an ambiguous endeavor. Its very objective is ambiguous. History is the study of the past. Strictly speaking, we have at once to narrow the scope of the inquiry. History is indeed the study of the human past. An equation of human history and natural history would be an unwarranted presupposition or option. Much harm has been done to the study of history by such naturalistic presuppositions, which amount, in the last resort, to the denial of any specific character of human existence. Anyhow, «the past» as such cannot be «observed» directly. It has actually passed away and therefore is never given directly in any «possible experience» (to use the phrase of John Stuart Mill). The knowledge of the past is necessarily indirect and inferential. It is always an interpretation. The past can only be «reconstructed.» Is it a possible task? And how is it possible? Actually, no historian begins with the past. His starting point is always in the present, to which he belongs himself. He looks back. His starting point is his «sources,» the primary sources. Out of them, and on their authority, he proceeds to the «recovery» of the past. His procedure depends upon the nature and character of his information, of his sources.
What are these sources? What makes a certain thing a source for the historian? In a certain sense, almost everything, omnis res scibilis, can serve as a historical source, provided the historian knows how to use it, how to read the evidence. But, on the other hand, no thing at all is a historical source by itself, even a chronicle, or a narrative, or even an autobiography. Historical sources exist in their capacity as sources, only in the context of a historical inquiry. Things are mute by themselves, even the texts and speeches: they speak only when they are understood; they render answers only when they are examined, as witnesses are examined, when proper questions are asked. And the first rule of the historical craft is precisely to cross-examine the witnesses, to ask proper questions, and to force the relics and the documents to answer them. In his admirable little book, Apologie pour l’Histoire, ou Metier d’Historien, Marc Bloch illustrates this rule with convincing examples.
Before Boucher de Perthes, as in our own days, there were plenty of flint artifacts in the alluvium of Somme. However, there was no one to ask questions, and there was therefore no prehistory. As an old medievalist, I know nothing which is better reading than a cartulary. That is because I know just about what to ask it. A collection of Roman inscriptions, on the other hand, would tell me little. I know more or less how to read them, but not how to cross-examine them. In other words, every historic research presupposes that the inquiry has a direction at the very first step. In the beginning there must be the guiding spirit. Mere passive observation, even supposing such a thing were possible, has never contributed anything productive to any science.6
This remark of a conscientious and critical scholar is revealing. What he actually suggests is that all historical inquiry is, by definition, as a true inquiry, «prejudiced» from the very start – prejudiced because directed. Otherwise there would have been no inquiry, and the things would have remained silent. Only in the context of a guided inquiry do the sources speak, or rather only in this context do «things» become «sources,» only when they are, as it were, exorcised by the inquisitive mind of the historian. Even in the experimental science, facts never speak by themselves, but only in the process, and in the context, of a directed research, and no scientific experiment can ever be staged, unless an «experiment in mind» has been previously performed by the explorer.7 Observation itself is impossible without some interpretation, that is, understanding.
The study of history has been sorely handicapped by an uncritical and «naturalistic» conception of historical sources. They have been often mistaken for independent entities, existing before and outside of the process of the historical study. A false task was consequently imposed on the historian: he was supposed to find history in the sources, while handling them precisely as «things.»
Nothing could come out of any such endeavor but a pseudo history, a history made «with scissors and paste,»8 a «history without the historical problem,» as Benedetto Croce aptly has styled it.9 Certain historians have deliberately sought to reduce themselves to the role of reporters, but even reporters must be interpretative and selective, if they want to be intelligible. In fact, historical sources cannot be handled simply as «relics,» «traces,» or «imprints» of the past. Their function in the historical research is quite different. They are testimonies rather than traces. And no testimony can be assessed except in the process of interpretation. No collection of factual statements, no compilation of news and dates, is history, even if all facts have been critically established and all dates verified. The best catalogue of an art museum is not a history of art. A catalogue of manuscripts is not a history of literature, not even a history of handwriting. No chronicle is history. In the sharp phrase of Benedetto Croce, a chronicle is but a «corpse of history,» il cadavere. A chronicle is but «a thing» (una cosa), a complex of sounds and other signs. But history is «an act of the spirit,» un atto spirituale.10 «Things» become «sources» only in the process of cognition, in relation to the inquiring intellect of the student. Outside of this process historical sources simply do not exist.
The question a historian asks is the question about meaning and significance. And things are then treated as signs and witnesses of the past reality, not simply as relics or imprints. Indeed, only signs can be interpreted, and not «pure facts,» since the question about meaning points beyond pure giveness. There are things insignificant and meaningless, and they cannot be understood or interpreted at all, precisely because they are meaningless, just as in a conversation we may fail to understand certain casual remarks, which were not intended to convey any message. Indeed, historical cognition is a kind of conversation, a dialogue with those in the past whose life, thoughts, feelings, and decisions the historian endeavors to rediscover, through the documents by which they are witnessed to or signified. Accordingly, one can infer from certain facts, words or things, as from a sign to the meaning, only if and when these objective things can be lawfully treated as signs, that is, as bearers of meaning, only when and if we can reasonably assume that these things have a dimension of depth, a dimension of meaning. We do not assign meaning to them: we should detect meaning. Now, there is meaning in certain things, in our documents and sources, only in so far as behind them we are entitled to assume the existence of other intelligent beings.
History is accordingly a study of the human past, not of any past as such. Only man has history, in the strict sense of this word. R. G. Collingwood elaborates this point with great clarity. Close similarity between the work of an archaeologist and that of a paleontologist is obvious: both are diggers. Yet, their aims are quite different. «The archaeologist’s use of his stratified relics depends upon his conceiving them as artifacts serving human purposes and thus expressing a particular way in which men have thought about their own life.» In the study of nature, on the other hand, there is no such distinction between the «outside» and the «inside» of the data. «To the scientist, nature is always and merely a ‘phenomenon,’ not in the sense of being defective in reality, but in the sense of being a spectacle presented to his intellectual observation; whereas the events of history are never mere phenomena, never mere spectacles for contemplation, but things which the historian looks, not at, but through, to discern the thought within them.»11 Historical documents can be interpreted as signs because they are charged with meaning, as expressions or reflections, deliberate or spontaneous, of human life and endeavor.
Now, this meaning is available for others only in so far as a sufficient identification can be achieved between the interpreter and those whose thoughts, actions, or habits he is interpreting. If this contact, for any reason, has not been established, or cannot be established at all, no understanding is possible and no meaning can be elicited, even if the documents or relics are charged with meaning, as it is, for instance, in the case of an undecipherable script. Again, «testimonies» can be misunderstood and misinterpreted, just as we often misunderstand each other in an actual conversation or fail to find a «common language» – then no communication is possible; just as we may misinterpret a foreign text, not only because we simply make mistakes in translation, but also when we fail to enter congenially into the inner world of those persons whose testimonies we are deciphering. An Einfühlung into the witnesses is an obvious prerequisite of understanding. We are actually deciphering each other’s words even in an ordinary conversation, and sometimes we fail sorely to achieve any satisfactory result. The problem of semantics, that is, of intelligent communication – a communication between intelligent beings – is inherent in the whole process of historical interpretation. In the phrase of Ranke, «history only begins when monuments become intelligible.»12 One should add that only «intelligible documents» are, in a full sense, historical documents, historical sources – as H. I. Marrou puts it, «dans la mesure où l’historien peut et sait y comprendre quelque chose.»13 Consequently, the person of the interpreter belongs to the actual process of interpretation no less than the data to be interpreted, just as both partners in a conversation are essential for a successful dialogue. No understanding is possible without some measure of «congeniality,» of intellectual or spiritual sympathy, without a real meeting of minds. Collingwood is right in pointing out that
historical inquiry reveals to the historian the power of his own mind… Whenever he finds certain historical matters unintelligible, he has discovered a limitation of his own mind, he has discovered that there are certain ways in which he is not, or no longer, or not yet, able to think. Certain historians, sometimes whole generations of historians, find in certain periods of history nothing intelligible, and call them dark ages; but such phrases tell us nothing about those ages themselves, though they tell us a great deal about the persons who use them, namely that they are unable to re-think the thoughts which were fundamental to their life.14
It is the first rule of the true exegesis: we have to grasp the mind of the writer, we must discover exactly what he intended to say. The phrase, or the whole narrative, or the whole document, can be misunderstood when we fail to do so, or when we read our own thought into the text. No sentence, and no text, should be dismissed as «meaningless» simply because we fail to detect meaning. We misread the text when we take literally that which has been said metaphorically, and also when we interpret that which was meant to be an actual story just as a parable.
You cannot find out what a man means by simply studying his spoken or written statements, even though he has spoken or written with perfect command of language and perfectly truthful intention. In order to find out his meaning you must also know what the question was (a question in his own mind, and presumed by him to be in yours) to which the thing that he has said or written was meant as an answer.15
It is true of our actual conversations, in the intercourse of current life. It is true of our study of the historical sources. Historical documents are documents of life.
Every historian begins with certain data. Then, by an effort of his searching and inquisitive mind, he apprehends them as «witnesses,» or, as it were, «communications» from the past, that is, as meaningful signs. By the power of his intellectual intuition, he grasps the meaning of these signs, and thus recovers, in an act of «inductive imagination,» that comprehensive setting in which all his data converge and are integrated into a coherent, that is, intelligible, whole. There is an inevitable element of guess, or rather of «divination,» in this process of understanding, as there is, unavoidably, a certain element of guess in every attempt to understand another person. A lack of congenial guess, or imaginative sympathy, may make any conversation impossible, since no real contact of minds has been established, as if the participants spoke different languages, so that utterances of one person did not become messages for the other. In a sense, any act of understanding is a «mental experiment,» and divination is always an indispensible element therein. Divination is a kind of mental vision, an indivisible act of insight, an act of imagination, inspired and controlled by the whole of one’s acquired experience. One may suggest it is an act of «fantasy,» but it is fantasy of a very special kind. It is a cognitive fantasy and, as Benedetto Croce eloquently explains, without it historical knowledge is simply impossible: senza questa ricostruzione о integrazione fantastica non e dato ne scrivere storia, ne leggerla e intenderla. It is, as he says, a «fantasy in the thought» (la fantasia nel pensiero e per pensiero), a «concreteness of the thought» which implies judgment and is therefore logically disciplined and controlled, and thereby clearly distinguished from any poetical license.16 «Understanding is Interpretation, whether of a spoken word, or of the meaningful events themselves,» as it was stated by F. A. Trendelenburg: Alles Verstandniss ist Interpretation, sei es des gesprochenen Wortes oder der sinnvollen Erscheinungen selbst.17 The art of hermeneutics is the core of the historical craft. And, as it has been aptly put by a Russian scholar, «one must observe as one reads, and not read as one observes.»18 «To read,» whether texts or events themselves, means precisely «to understand,» to grasp the inherent meaning, and the understanding intellect cannot be ruled out of the process of understanding, as the reader cannot be eliminated out of the process of reading.
Historians must be critical of themselves, probably even more critical of themselves than of their sources as such, since the sources are what they are, that is, «sources,» precisely in proportion to the questions which the historian addresses to them. As H. I. Marrou says, «a document is understood precisely in the measure in which it finds a historian capable of appreciating most deeply its nature and its scope,» dans la mesure où il se rencontrera un historien capable d’apprecier avec plus de profondeur sa nature et sa portée.19 Now, the kind of questions a particular historian is actually asking depends ultimately upon his stature, upon his total personality, upon his dispositions and concerns, upon the amplitude of his vision, even upon his likes and dislikes. One should not forget that all acts of understanding are, strictly speaking, personal, and only in this capacity of personal acts can they have any existential relevance and value. One has to check, severely and strictly, one’s prejudices and presuppositions, but one should never try to empty one’s mind of all presuppositions. Such an attempt would be a suicide of mind and can only issue in total mental sterility. A barren mind is indeed inevitably sterile. Indifference, or neutrality and indecision, are not virtues, but vices, in a historian as well as in a literary critic, as much as one should claim «objectivity.» Historical understanding is ultimately an intelligent response to the challenge of the sources, a deciphering of signs. A certain measure of relativity is inherent in all acts of human understanding, as it is inevitable in personal relations. Relativity is simply a concomitant of relations.
The ultimate purpose of a historical inquiry is not in the establishment of certain objective facts, such as dates, places, numbers, names, and the like, as much as all this is an indispensable preliminary, but in the encounter with living beings. No doubt, objective facts must be first carefully established, verified and confirmed, but this is not the final aim of the historian. History is precisely, to quote H. I. Marrou once more, «an encounter with the other» – l’histoire est rencontre d’autrui.20 A narrow mind and an empty mind are real obstacles to this encounter, as they obviously are in all human relations. History, as a subject of study, is history of human beings, in their mutual relationship, in their conflicts and contacts, in their social intercourse, and in their solitude and estrangement, in their high aspirations and in their depravity. Only men live in history – live, and move, and strive, and create, and destroy. Men alone are historic beings, in a full sense of the word. In the historical understanding we establish contact with men, with their thoughts and endeavors, with their inner world and with their outward action. In this sense, Collingwood was undoubtedly right in insisting that «there are no mere ‘events’ in history.»
What is miscalled an «event» is really an action, and expresses some thought (intention, purpose) of its agent; the historian’s business is therefore to identify this thought.21
In this sense, Collingwood insisted, «history proper is the history of thought.» It would be unfair to dismiss this contention as a sheer intellectualism, as an unwelcome ghost of obsolete Hegelianism. Collingwood’s emphasis is not so much on the thought as such, but on the intelligent and purposeful character of human life and action. In history, there are not only happenings and occurrences, but actions and endeavors, achievements and frustrations. This only gives meaning to human existence.
In the last resort, history is history of man, in the ambiguity and multiplicity of his existence. This constitutes the specific character of historical cognition and of historical knowledge. Accordingly, methods must be proportionate to the aim. This has been often ignored in the age of militant and doctrinaire positivism, and is still often forgotten in our time. Objective knowledge, more geometrico, is impossible in history. This is not a loss, however, since historical knowledge is not a knowledge of objects, but precisely a knowledge of subjects – of «co-persons,» of «co-partners» in the quest of life. In this sense, historical knowledge is, and must be, an existential knowledge. This constitutes a radical cleavage between the «study of Spirit» and the "study of Nature,» between die Geisteswissenschaften and die Naturwissenschaft.22
It has been often contended, especially by the historians of the old school, that historians are led, in the last resort, in their study, by the desire «to know the past, as an eyewitness may know it,» that is, to become, in some way, just a «witness» of the past events.23 In fact, this is precisely what the historian cannot do, and never does, and never should attempt to do, if he really wants to be a historian. Moreover, it is by no means certain that an eyewitness of an event does really «know» it, that is, does understand its meaning and significance. An ambition to perform an impossible and contradictory task only obscures the understanding of that which a historian actually does do, if only he does a «historical» work.
The famous phrase of Leopold von Ranke, suggesting that historians «wish to know the actual past» – wie es eigentlich gewesen – has been much abused.24 First of all, it is not fair to make of a casual remark by the great master of history a statement of principle. In any case, in his own work, Ranke never followed this alleged prescription of his, and was always much more than a chronicler. He always was aiming at an interpretation.25 Obviously, historians want to know what actually has happened, but they want to know it in a perspective. And, of course, it is the only thing they can actually achieve. We can never remember even our own immediate past, exactly as we have lived it, because, if we are really remembering, and not just dreaming, we do remember the past occurrences in a perspective, against a changed background of our enriched experience. Collingwood described history as «re-enactment of past experience,»26 and there is some truth in this description, in so far as this «re-enactment» is an integral moment of «understanding identification,» which is indispensable in any conversation. But one should not mistake one’s own thoughts for the thoughts of others. Collingwood himself says that the objects of historical thought are «events which have finished happening, and conditions no longer in existence,» that is, those events which are «no longer perceptible.»27 Historians look at the past in a perspective, as it were, at a distance. They do not intend to reproduce the past event. Historians want to know the past precisely as the past, and consequently in the context of later happenings. «Un temps retrouvé,» that is, recaptured in an act of intellectual imagination, is precisely «un temps perdu,» that is, something that really did pass away, something that has been really lost, and only for that reason, and in this capacity of a «lost moment,» can it be searched for and rediscovered.
Historical vision is always a retrospective vision. What was a future for the people of the past, is now for historians a past. In this sense, historians know more about the past than people of the past themselves were able to know. Historians are aware of the impact of the past, of certain past events, on the present. As historians, we cannot visualize the glorious Pentekontaetia of Pericles, except in the perspective of the subsequent doom and collapse of Athenian democracy. Or, in any case, such an attempt, even if it were possible (which it is not), would in no sense be a historical endeavor. A perspective and a context are constitutive factors of all true historical understanding and presentation. We cannot understand Socrates properly and historically if we ignore the impact of his challenge and thought, as it has been actually manifested in the later development of Greek philosophy. Indeed, we would know much less about the «true,» that is, historical, Socrates if we endeavored to see him, as it were, in vacuo, and not against the total historical background, which for us includes also that which for Socrates himself was still an unrealized and unpredictable future.
After all, history is neither spectacle nor panorama, but a process. The perspective of time, of concrete time, filled with events, gives us the sense of direction which was probably lacking in the events themselves, as they actually happened. Of course, one can make an effort to forget, or to ignore, what one does actually know, that is, the perspective. Whether one can really succeed in doing so is rather doubtful. But even if this were possible, would this be really a historical endeavor? As has been recently said, «to attempt to make oneself a contemporary of the events and people whose history one is writing, means, ultimately, to put oneself in the position which excludes history.» No history without a retrospect, that is, without perspective.28
No doubt, retrospection has its dangers. It may expose us to «optical illusions.» In retrospect, we may discover in the past, as it were, «too much,» not only if we happen to read anything into the past events, but also because from a certain point of view certain aspects of the past may be seen in a distorted or exaggerated shape. We may be tempted to exaggerate unduly and out of proportion the role and impact of certain historic personalities or institutions, because their images have been disproportionately magnified in our apprehension by the particular perspective in which we are looking at them. And very often the perspective is simply imposed upon us: we cannot change our position. We may be tempted to establish wrong ancestries of trends and ideas, mistaking similarities for actual causal links, as has been done more than once in the history of Early Christianity, and indeed in many other fields. In brief, we may look at the past in a wrong perspective, without knowing it and without any means of correcting our vision. In any case, our perspective is always limited. We can never have a total perspective. Yet, on the other hand, we can never see the past in no perspective at all. The ultimate aim of the historian is indeed to comprehend the whole context, at least in a particular «intelligible, that is self-explanatory field» of research (the phrase is Toynbee’s). Obviously, this aim is never achieved, and for that reason all historical interpretations are intrinsically provisional.
The historian is never content with a fragmentary vision. He tends to discover, or to presuppose, more order in the flux of events than probably there ever was. He tends to exaggerate the cohesion of various aspects of the past. As H. I. Marrou describes the historian’s procedure, he endeavors, for the sake of intelligibility, to substitute «an orderly vision,» une vision ordonnée, for that «dust of small facts» of which the actual happening seems to consist.29 No historian can resist doing so, and no historian can avoid doing so. It is at this point, however, that utter caution must be exercised. Historians are always in danger of overrationalizing the flux of history. So often instead of living men, unstable and never fully «made up,» historians describe fixed characters, as it were, some typical individuals in characteristic poses. It is, more or less, what the painters of portraits sometimes do, and by that device they may achieve impressiveness and convey a vision. This was the method of ancient historians, from Thucydides to Polybius and Tacitus. This is what Collingwood described as the «substantialism» of ancient historiography, and it was what made that historiography, in his opinion, «unhistorical.»30 But the same method has been persistently used by many modern historians. It suffices to mention Mommsen (in his Roman History), George Grote, Taine, Ferrero. To the same category belong the numerous stories of Christ in modern historiography from Keim and Ernest Renan to Albert Schweitzer. In a sense, it is a legitimate device. A historian tends to overcome, in a synthetic image, the empirical complexity and often confusion of individual bits, and occurrences, to organize them into a coherent whole, and to relate the multiplicity of occurrences to the unity of character. This is seldom done in a logical way, by a rational reconstruction. Historians act rather as inductive artists, go by intuition. Historians have their own visions. But these are transforming visions. It is by this method that all major generalizations of our historiography have been created: the Hellenic mind; the medieval man; the bourgeois; and the like. It would be unfair to contest the relevance of these categorical generalizations, which must be clearly distinguished from the generic generalizations. And yet, it would be precarious to claim that these generalized «types» do really exist, that is, exist in time and space. They are, as it were, valid visions, like artistic portraits, and, as such, they are indispensable tools of understanding. But «typical men» are different from real men of flesh and blood. Of similar character are also our sociological generalizations: the city-state of Ancient Greece; the feudal society; capitalism; democracy; and so on. The main danger of all these generalizations is that they overstress the inner «necessity» of a particular course of behavior. A man, as a «type» or a «character,» seems to be predestined to behave in his «typical» manner. There seems to be a typical pattern of development for each kind of human society. It is but natural that in our time the mirage of «historical inevitability» had to be exposed and disavowed, as a distorting factor of our historical interpretation.31 There is indeed an inherent determinism in all these typical and categorical images. But they are no more than a useful shorthand for the «dust of facts.» The actual history is fluid and flexible and ultimately unpredictable.
The tendency toward determinism is somehow implied in the method of retrospection itself. In retrospect we seem to perceive the logic of the events, which unfold themselves in a regular order, according to a recognizable pattern, with an alleged inner necessity, so that we get the impression that it really could not have happened otherwise. The ultimate contingency of the process is concealed in the rational schemes, and sometimes it is deliberately eliminated. Thus, events are losing their eventuality, and appear to be rather inevitable stages of development or decay, of rise and fall, according to a fixed ideal pattern. In fact, there is less consistency in actual history than appears in our interpretative schemes. History is not an evolution, and the actual course of events does not follow evolutionary schemes and patterns. Historical events are more than happenings; they are actions, or complexes of actions. History is a field of action, and behind the events stand agents, even when these agents forfeit their freedom and follow a pattern or routine, or are overtaken by blind passions. Man remains a free agent even in bonds. If we may use another biological term, we may describe history rather as epigenesis than as «evolution,» since evolution always implies a certain kind of «pre-formation,» and «development» is no more than a disclosure of «structure.»32 There is always some danger that we may mistake our conceptual visions for empirical realities and speak of them as if they were themselves factors and agents, whereas, in fact, they are but rational abbreviations for a multiplicity of real personal agents. Thus we venture to describe the evolution of «feudalism» or of «capitalistic society,» forgetting that these terms only summarize a complex of diverse phenomena, visualized as a whole for the sake of intelligibility. «Societies,» «categories,» and «types» are not organisms, which only can «evolve» or «develop,» but are complexes of co-ordinated individuals, and this co-ordination is always dynamic, flexible, and unstable.
All historical interpretations are provisional and hypothetical. No definitive interpretation can ever be achieved, even in a limited and particular field of research. Our data are never complete, and new discoveries often compel historians to revise radically their schemes and to surrender sometimes their most cherished convictions, which may have seemed firmly established. It is easy to quote numerous examples of such revision from various areas of historical study, including church history. Moreover, historians must, from time to time, readjust themselves to the changes in the surrounding world. Their vision is always determined by a certain point of view, and thereby limited. But the perspective itself unfolds in the course of actual history. No contemporary historian can commit himself to the identification of the Mediterranean world with the Oicoumene, which was quite legitimate in the ancient time. These limitations do not discredit the endeavor of historians. It may even be suggested that a «definitive» interpretation of events would eliminate the «historicity» of history, its contingency and eventuality, and substitute instead a rational «map of history,» which may be lucid and readable, but will be existentially unreal. Again, our interpretations are also facts of history, and in them the depicted events continue their historical existence and participate in the shaping of historical life. One may argue whether the «Socrates of Plato» is a «real» Socrates, but there is little doubt that this Socrates of Plato had its own historical existence, as a powerful factor in the shaping of our modern conception of «philosopher.» It seems that our interpretations disclose, in some enigmatic way, the hidden potentialities of the actual past. It is in this way that traditions are formed and grow, and the greatest of all human traditions is «culture,» in which all partial and particular contributions of successive ages are melted together, synthetically transformed in this process of melting, and are finally integrated into a whole. This process of formation of human culture is not yet completed, and probably will never be completed within the limits of history. This is an additional reason why all historical interpretations should be provisional and approximative: a new light may be shed on the past by that future which has not yet arrived.
It has been recently suggested that «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.33 In fact, the term «meaning» is used in different senses when we speak of the meaning of particular events or of the sets of actions and events, and when we speak of the Meaning of History, taken as an all-inclusive whole, that is, in its entirety and universality. In the latter case, indeed, we are speaking actually of the ultimate meaning of human existence, of its ultimate destiny. And this, obviously, is not a historical question. In this case we are speaking not of that which has happened – and this is the only field in which historians are competent – but rather of that which is to happen, and is to happen precisely because it «must» happen. Now, it can be rightly contended that neither «the ultimate» nor «the future» belongs to the realm of historical study, which is, by definition, limited to the understanding of the human past. Historical predictions, of necessity, are conjectural and precarious. They are, in fact, unwarranted «extrapolations.» Histories of men and societies are history, but the History of Man, a truly universal and providential History, is no longer just history.
In fact, all modern «philosophies of history» have been crypto-theological, or probably pseudo-theological: Hegel, Comte, Marx, even Nietzsche. In any case, all of them were based on beliefs. The same is true of the modern substitute for the Philosophy of history, which is commonly known as Sociology, and which is, in fact, a Morphology of history, dealing with the permanent and recurrent patterns or structures of human life. Now, is Man, in the totality of his manifold and personal existence, a possible subject of a purely historical study and understanding? To claim that he is, by itself is a kind of theology, even if it turns out to be no more than an «apotheosis of man.» On the other hand – and here lies the major predicament of all historical study – no historian can, even in his limited and particular field, within his own competence, avoid raising ultimate problems of human nature and destiny, unless he reduces himself to the role of a registrar of empirical happenings and forfeits his proper task of «understanding.» In order to understand, just historically, for instance, «the Greek mind,» the historian must, of necessity, have his own vision, if not necessarily original, of the whole range of those problems with which the «noble spirits» of Antiquity were wrestling, in conflict with each other and in succession. A historian of philosophy must be, to a certain extent, a philosopher himself. Otherwise he will miss the problems around which the quest of philosophers has been centered. A historian of art must be, at least, an amateur – otherwise he will miss the artistic values and problems. In brief, the problem of Man transpires in all problems of men, and accordingly cannot be skipped over in any historical interpretation. Moreover, in a certain sense, historical endeavor, as such, aims in the last resort at something which, of necessity, transcends its boundaries.
The process of historical interpretation is the process in which the Human Mind is built and matures. It is a process of integration, in which particular insights and decisions of various ages are accumulated, confronted, dialectically reconciled, vindicated or discriminated, or even discarded and condemned. If history, as the process of human life through ages, has any meaning, any «sense,» then obviously the study of history, if it is more than a matter of curiosity, must also have a meaning, a certain «sense.» And if historical understanding is the historian’s «response» to the «challenge» of that human life which he is exploring, it is of utter importance that historians should be prepared, and inwardly equipped, to meet this challenge of human existence in its fullness and in its ultimate depth.
Thus, contrary to the current prejudice, in order to be competent within his proper field of interpretation, a historian must be responsive to the whole amplitude of human concerns. If he has no concerns of his own, concerns of the others will seem nonsensical to him, and he will hardly be able to «understand» them and hardly competent to appraise them. A historian indifferent to the urgency of the philosophical quest may find, with full conviction, that the whole history of philosophy has been just a story of intellectual vagaries or «vain speculations.» In the same way, an areligious historian of religion may find, again with naive conviction and with an air of superiority, that the whole history of religions has been but a history of «frauds» and «superstitions,» of various aberrations of the human mind. Such «histories of religion» have been manufactured more than once. For similar reasons, certain sections and periods of history have been denounced, and consequently dismissed and ignored, as «barbarian,» «dead» or «sterile,» as «dark ages,» and the like. The point is that even a pretended neutrality, an alleged freedom from bias, is itself a bias, an option, a decision. In fact, again contrary to the current prejudice, commitment is a token of freedom, a prerequisite of responsiveness. Concern and interest imply commitment. Now, obviously, one cannot be committed in general, in abstracto. Commitment is necessarily discriminative and concrete. And consequently, not all commitments would operate in the same manner and not to the same effect. In any case, the openness of mind is not its emptiness, but rather its comprehensiveness, its broad responsiveness, or, one is tempted to say, its «catholicity.» Now, there is here more than just a gradation, as it were, in volume or capacity.
"The whole» (to kath’olou) is not just a sum total of various «particularisms» (ta kata merous), even if these particularisms are dialectically arrayed (as they were, for instance, in the Hegelian map of intellect) or discriminated as «stages of the progress» (as was done, for instance, by Auguste Comte). Particularisms must be done away, and catholicity of mind can be achieved only by a new, integrating reorientation, which would necessarily imply a certain radical discrimination. For in the last resort one cannot evade the ultimate discrimination between «yes» and «no» – and the compromise of «more or less» is just «no» in polite disguise.
In any case, historical interpretation involves judgment. The narrative itself will be twisted and distorted if the historian persists in evading judgment. There is little difference, in this case, between discussing the Greco-Persian War and World War II. No true historian would escape taking sides: for «freedom» or against it. And his judgment will tell in his narrative. No historian can be indifferent to the cleavage between «Good» and «Evil,» much as the tension between them may be obscured by various speculative sophistications. No historian can be indifferent, or neutral, to the challenge and claim of Truth. These tensions are, in any case, historical facts and existential situations. Even a denial is a kind of assertion, and often a resolute one, charged with obstinate resistance. Agnosticism itself is intrinsically dogmatic. Moral indifference can but distort our understanding of human actions, which are always controlled by certain ethical options. An intellectual indifferentism would have the same effect. Precisely because human actions are existential decisions, their historical interpretation cannot avoid decisions.
Accordingly, a historian, precisely as historian, that is, as interpreter of human life as it has been actually lived in time and space, cannot evade the main and crucial challenge of this actual history: «Who do men say that I am?» (Mark 8:28). For a historian, precisely in his capacity of an interpreter of human existence, it is a crucial question. A refusal to face a challenge is already a commitment. A refusal to answer a certain question is also an answer. Abstention from judgment is also judgment. An attempt to write history, evading the challenge of Christ, is in no sense a «neutral» endeavor. Not only in writing a «Universal History» (die Weltgeschichte), that is, in interpreting the total destiny of mankind, but also in interpreting any particular sections or «slices» of this history, is the historian confronted with this ultimate challenge – because the whole of human existence is confronted with this challenge and claim. A historian’s response prejudges the course of his interpretation, his choice of measures and values, his understanding of human nature itself. His response determines his «universe of discourse,» that setting and perspective in which he endeavors to comprehend human life, and exhibits the amplitude of his responsiveness. No historian should ever pretend that he has achieved a «definitive interpretation» of that great mystery which is human life, in all its variety and diversity, in all its misery and grandeur, in its ambiguity and contradictions, in its basic «freedom.» No Christian historian should lay such claims either. But he is entitled to claim that his approach to that mystery is a comprehensive and «catholic» approach, that his vision of that mystery is proportionate to its actual dimension. Indeed, he has to vindicate his claim in the practice of his craft and vocation.
The rise of Christianity marks a turning point in the interpretation of history. Robert Flint, in his renowned book, History of the Philosophy of History, says:
The rise of ecclesiastical history was more to historiography than was the discovery of America to geography. It added immensely to the contents of history, and radically changed men’s conceptions of its nature. It at once caused political history to be seen to be only a part of history, and carried even into the popular mind the conviction – of which hardly a trace is to be found in the classical historians – that all history must move towards some general human end, some divine goal.34
Contemporary writers are even more emphatic at this point. For, indeed, the rise of Christianity meant a radical reversal of man’s attitude toward the fact of history. It meant actually the discovery of the «historic dimension,» of the historic time. Strictly speaking, it was a recovery and extension of the Biblical vision. Of course, no elaborate «philosophy of history» can be found in the books of the Old Testament. Yet, there is in the Bible a comprehensive vision of history, a perspective of an unfolding time, running from a «beginning» to an «end,» and guided by the will of God, leading His people to His own goal and purpose. In this perspective of dynamic history early Christians have assessed and interpreted their new experience, the Revelation of God in Christ Jesus.
Classical historians held a very different view of human history. The Greeks and the Romans were indeed a history-writing people. But their vision of history was basically unhistorical. They were, of course, desperately interested in the facts of history, in the facts of the past. It might be expected that they would accordingly be well qualified for the historian’s task. In fact, by their basic conviction they were rather disqualified for that task. The Greek mind was «in the grip of the past.» It was, as it were, charmed by the past. But it was quite indifferent and uncertain with regard to the future. «Time’s arrow» was totally missing in the classical vision of human destiny. Great historians of Greece and Rome were not, in any sense, philosophers. At their best, they were fine observers, but rather moralists or artists, orators and politicians, preachers or rhetoricians, than thinkers. Ancient philosophers, again, were not interested in history, as such, as a contingent and accidental flux of events. They endeavored, on the contrary, to eliminate history, to rule it out, as a disturbing phenomenon. Philosophers of ancient Greece were looking for the permanent and changeless, for the timeless and immortal. Ancient historiography was emphatically pessimistic. History was a story of unavoidable doom and decay. Men were confronted with a dilemma. On the one hand, they could simply «resign» and reconcile themselves to the inevitability of «destiny,» and even find joy and satisfaction in the contemplation of harmony and splendor of the cosmic whole, however indifferent and inimical it might be to the aims and concern of individuals and societies. This was the catharsis of tragedy, as tragedy was understood in the classical world. Or, on the other hand, men could attempt an escape, a «flight» out of history, out of this dimension of flux and change – the hopeless wheel of genesis and decay – into the dimension of the changeless.
The ancient pattern of historical interpretation was «cosmic,» or «naturalistic.» On the one hand, there was a biological pattern of growth and decay, the common fate of everything living. On the other hand, there was an astronomical pattern of periodical recurrence, of circular motion of heavens and stars, a pattern of «revolutions» and cycles. Indeed, both patterns belonged together, since the cycles of the earth were predetermined and controlled by the circles of the heavens. Ultimately, the course of history was but an aspect of the inclusive cosmic course, controlled by certain inviolable laws. These laws were implied in the structure of the universe. Hence the whole vision was essentially fatalistic. The ultimate principle was tyche or heimarmene, the cosmic «destiny» or fatum. Man’s destiny was implied and comprehended in that astronomical «necessity.» The Cosmos itself was conceived as an «eternal» and «immortal,» but periodical and recurrent, being. There was an infinite and continuous reiteration of the same permanent pattern, a periodical renewal of situations and sequences. Consequently, there was no room for any progress, but only for «re-volutions», re-circulation, cyclophoria and anacyclosis. Nothing «new» could be added to the closed perfection of this periodical system. Accordingly, there was no reason, and no motive, to look forward, into the future, as the future could but disclose that which was already preformed in the past, or rather in the very nature of things (physis).The permanent pattern could be better discerned in the past, which has been «completed» or «perfected» (perfectum), than in the uncertainty of the present and future. It was in the past that historians and politicians were looking for «patterns» and «examples.»
It was especially in the later philosophical systems of the Hellenistic age that these features of «permanence» and «recurrence» were rigidly emphasized – by the Stoics, the Neopythagoreans, the Platonics, the Epicureans alike. Eadem sunt omnia semper nec magis est neque erit mox quam fuit ante.35 But the same conviction was already dominant in the classical age. Professor Werner Jaeger admirably summarizes the main convictions of Aristotle:
The coming-to-be and passing-away of earthly things is just as much a stationary revolution as the motion of the stars. In spite of its uninterrupted change nature has no history according to Aristotle, for organic becoming is held fast by the constancy of its forms in a rhythm that remains eternally the same. Similarly the human world of state and society and mind appears to him not as caught in the incalculable mobility of irrecapturable historical destiny, whether we consider personal life or that of nations and cultures, but as founded fast in the unalterable permanence of forms that while they change within certain limits remain identical in essence and purpose. This feeling about life is symbolized by the Great Year, at the close of which all the stars have returned to their original position and begin their course anew. In the same way cultures of the earth wax and wane, according to Aristotle, as determined by great natural catastrophes, which in turn are casually connected with the regular changes of the heavens. That which Aristotle at this instant newly discovers has been discerned a thousand times before, will be lost again, and one day discerned afresh.36
In this setting of thought there was no room for any conception of «history,» whether of the world or of man and human societies. There was a rhythm in the cosmic process, and consequently in the destiny of man, but no direction. History was not going or moving anywhere. It was only rotating. It had no end, as it had no goal. It had only structure. The whole of ancient philosophy was, in fact, a system of «general morphology» of being. And it was also essentially political or social. Man was conceived as an essentially «social being,» zoon politicon, and his personal uniqueness was hardly acknowledged at all. Only «typical» situations were regarded as relevant. Nor was the uniqueness of any event acknowledged. Only «patterns» were relevant. There was a great variety of views and shades of opinion within this general and common pattern of the Greek and Hellenistic thought; there were inner tensions and conflicts therein, which must be carefully discerned and acknowledged. But the basic vision was the same in all these variations on the same theme: an «eternal Cosmos,» the «endless returns,» the ominous «wheel of genesis and decay.»37
Against this kind of background, and in this perspective, Christianity meant an intellectual revolution, a radical reversal of standards, a new vision and orientation. Christianity is an eschatological religion and, for that very reason, is essentially historical. Recent theological controversy has sorely obscured the meaning of these terms, and some explanation is required to prevent confusion and misunderstanding.
The starting point of the Christian faith is the acknowledgment of certain actual events, in which God has acted, sovereignly and decisively, for man’s salvation, precisely «in these last days.» In this sense these facts – Christ’s coming into the world, his Incarnation, his Cross and Resurrection, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit – are eschatological events: unique and «ultimate,» that is, decisive, «critical» and crucial, wrought once forever, ephhapax. In a certain sense, they are also final events, the accomplishment and fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy and promise. In this sense, they assume their significance in the perspective of a past history which they «conclude» and «fulfill.» They are eschatological because they are historical, that is, because they are situated in a sequence of the antecedent events, and thereby validate retrospectively the whole series. In this sense, Christ is «the end of history,» that is, of a particular «section» of history, though not of history as such. History, as such, is far from being terminated or abrogated by Christ’s coming, but is actually going on, and another eschatological event is anticipated and expected to terminate history, the Second Coming. This entire pattern of interpretation is definitely linear, running from the beginning to the end, from Creation to Consummation, but the line is broken, or rather «bent,» at a particular «crucial» or turning point. This point is the center of history, of the «history of salvation,» die Heilsgeschichte. Yet, paradoxically, «beginning,» «center,» and «end» coincide, not at «events,» but in the person of the Redeemer. Christ is both alpha and omega, «the First» and «the Last,» as well as the center. In another sense, Christ is precisely the Beginning. The new aion has been inaugurated in his coming. «The Old» has been completed, but «the New» just began.
Time was in no sense «devaluated» by Christ’s coming. On the contrary, time was validated by his coming, by him and through him. It was «consecrated» and given meaning, the new meaning. In the light of Christ’s coming history now appears as a «pro-gress,» inwardly ordered toward «the end,» to which it unfailingly precipitates. The hopeless «cycles» have been exploded, as St. Augustine used to say. It was revealed that there was no rotation in history, but, on the contrary, an unfolding of a singular and universal purpose. In this perspective of a unique and universal history, all particular events are situated in an irreversible order. «Singularity» of the events is acknowledged and secured.
Now, it can be contended that the Biblical vision of history was not, in fact, a «history of man,» but rather «the history of God,» the story of God’s rule in history. Indeed, the main emphasis of the Bible is precisely on God’s lordship, both in the world at large and in history in particular. But precisely because history was apprehended as «God’s history,» the «history of man» was made possible. Man’s history was then apprehended as a meaningful story and no longer as a reiteration of the cosmic pattern, nor as a chaotic flux of happenings. The history of men was understood in the perspective of their salvation, that is, of the accomplishment of their destiny and justification of their existence. Man’s action has been thereby justified and stimulated, since he was given a task, and a purpose. God has acted, and His ultimate action in Christ Jesus was a consummation of His continuous actions in the past, «at sundry times and in diverse manners.» Yet, His manifold actions were not simply particular cases or instances of a certain general law, but were singular events. One can never suppress personal names in the Bible. The Bible can never be, as it were, «algebraized.» Names can never be replaced by symbols. There was a dealing of the Personal God with human persons. And this dealing culminated in the Person of Jesus Christ, who came «in the fullness of time,» to «complete» the Old and to «inaugurate» the New. Accordingly, there are two basic themes in the Christian understanding of history.
First, there is a retrospective theme: the story of the Messianic preparation. Secondly, there is a prospective theme, opening the vistas of the «end of history.» The Christian approach to history, so radically different from that of the ancient world, is by no means just a subjective reorientation of man in time. An existential revaluation of time itself is implied. Not only was the human attitude changed when a new and unique term of reference was inserted into the flux of events, but the character of historical time itself has been changed. What was of decisive importance was that God’s revelation in Jesus Christ was of an ultimate character, disclosing a new dimension of human existence. The decisive contribution of the Christian faith to the understanding of history was not in the detection of the radical «historicity» of man’s existence, that is, of his finite relativity, but precisely in the discovery of perspective in history, in which man’s historical existence acquires relevance and meaning. Therefore, the modern existentialist emphasis on «man’s historicity» is, in fact, neither historical nor distinctively Christian. It is, in many instances, rather a relapse into Hellenism. «Man’s historicity» means, in certain existentialist interpretations, nothing more than man’s essential temporality, his inextricable involvement in the comprehensive context of passing occurrences, which brings him, finally, to extinction, to death. This diagnosis reminds one, however, more of the tragic insight of the Ancients than of the jubilant News of the Gospel. The original Christian kerygma not only intended to expose the misery and «nothingness» of sinful man, and to announce the Divine judgment, but above all it proclaimed the value and dignity of man – God’s creature and adoptive child – and offered empirical man, miserable and spiritually destitute, God’s «enemy,» and yet beloved of God, the way of salvation. It was not only a condemnation of the Old, but an inauguration of the New, of «the acceptable year of the Lord.»
Now, it is precisely at this point that a radical disagreement among Christian interpreters arises. Is there anything else to happen «in history», which may have any ultimate existential relevance for men, after Christ’s coming? Or has everything that could be accomplished in history already been achieved? History, as a natural process, is, of course, still continuing – a human history. But does the Divine history continue as well? Has history any constructive value now, after Christ? or any «meaning» at all? It is sometimes contended that, since the ultimate Meaning has been already manifested and the Eschaton has already entered history, history has been, as it were, «closed» and «completed,» as a meaningful process, and eschatology has been «realized.» This implies a specific interpretation of the «turning-point» of history which was the coming of Christ. It is sometimes assumed that there was, indeed, a sacred history in the past, just up to the coming of Christ Jesus, in which it was «consummated,» but that after him there is in history only an empty flux of happenings, in which the nothingness and vanity of man is constantly being exposed and manifested, but nothing truly «eventful» can ever take place, since there is nothing else to be accomplished within history. This assumption has been variously phrased and elaborated in contemporary theological thought. It may take a shape of the «realized Eschatology,» and then meaning is shifted from the realm of history to the realm of sacramental experience, in which the Eschaton is present and re-enacted.38 It may take the shape of a «consequent Eschatology,» and then history appears to be just a great Interim between the great events in the past and in the future, between the «first» and «second» comings of the Lord, devoid of any constructive value, just a period of hope and expectation. Or else history may be «interiorized,» and the realm of meaning would be confined to the experience of individual believers, making «decisions.»39 In all these cases, history as an actual course of events in time and space is denied any «sacred» character, any positive significance. Its course is apprehended as a continuous unfolding of human vanity and impotence.
It has been, in fact, recently suggested that «a Christian history» is simply nonsense. It has been contended that «the message of the New Testament was not an appeal to historical action, but to repentance,» and that this message «dismantled, as it were, the hopeless history of the world.»40 This radical eschatologism, which simply «dismantles» all human history, is open to serious theological doubt. Indeed, it is a theological, and not a historical, assumption. It is rooted in a one-sided theological vision in which God alone is seen active, and man is just an object of Divine action, and man is just an object of Divine, in wrath or mercy, and never an agent himself. But it is this «inhuman» conception of man, and not «the message of the New Testament,» which makes nonsense of human history. The message of the New Testament, on the contrary, makes sense of history. In Christ, and by him, Time was itself, for the first time, radically and existentially validated. History has become sacred in its full dimension since «the Word was made flesh,» and the Comforter descended into the world for its cleansing and sanctification. Christ is ever abiding in his Body, which is the Church, and in her the Heilsgeschichte is effectively continued. The Heilsgeschichte is still going on. It is obviously true that in practice it is utterly difficult to discern the pattern of this ongoing «history of salvation» in the perplexity of historical events, and historians, including Christian historians, must be cautious and modest in their endeavor to decipher the hidden meaning of the particular events. Nevertheless, the historian must be aware of that new «situation» which has been created in history by the Coming of Christ: there is «now» nothing «neutral» in the human sphere itself, since the Cross and Resurrection, since the Pentecost. Accordingly, the whole of history, even «the hopeless history of the world,» appears now in the perspective of an ultimate, eschatological conflict. It was in this perspective that St. Augustine undertook his survey of historical events in his story of the «Two Cities.» It may be difficult to relate the Heilsgeschichte to the general history of the world. On the other hand, the Church is in the world. Its actual history may be often distorted by worldly accretions. Yet «salvation» has also a historical dimension. The Church is the leaven of history. As Cyril С. Richardson has aptly observed recently, the history of the Church bears a prophetic character, no less than the sacred history of the Bible. «It is a part of revelation – the story of the Holy Ghost.»41
One may suggest that in the modern «hyper-eschatologism,» with its implicit radical devaluation of history, we are facing in fact a revival of the Hellenic anti-historicism, with its failure to ascertain any constructive value in temporal action. Of course, eschatologists of various descriptions protest their allegiance to the Bible and abhor and abjure all Hellenism. They would indignantly repudiate any charge of philosophism. However, the close dependence of Rudolf Bultmann upon Martin Heidegger is obvious. In fact, they advocate the same position as the Greek philosophy, so far as the understanding of history is concerned. Obviously there is a profound difference between a subjection to the fatum, whether it is conceived as a blind heimarmene or as a «fiery Logos,» and the proclamation of an impending and imminent judgment of the eternal God. Yet in both cases human action is radically depreciated, if for different reasons, and is denied any constructive task. This makes the understanding of history an impossible and even a nonsensical endeavor, except in the form of a general exposure of man’s vanity and pride, of his utter impotence even in his ambition and pride. Under the guise of prophecy, history of this kind is in danger of degenerating into homiletic exercise. It is true that, in a certain sense, the modern radical eschatologism may be regarded as a logical consequence of the reduced conception of the Church, which was so characteristic of certain trends of the Reformation. The Church was still recognized as the area of an «invisible» action and operation of God, but she was denied precisely her historical significance. The modern recovery of the integral doctrine of the Church, which cuts across the existing denominational borders, may lead to the recovery of a deeper historical insight and may restate history in its true existential dimension.42
Strangely enough, for those who reduce the Church to the role of an eschatological token and refuse to regard her as a kind of proleptic eschatology, history inevitably becomes again essentially a «political history,» as it was in classical times. It is again conceived as a story of states and nations, and as such it is denounced and condemned. Paradoxically, it ceases to be, in this interpretation, the history of man. It is assumed that man has nothing to do, that is, to create or to achieve. He simply expects judgment, or, in any case, stands under it. But in fact, man is becoming – or, indeed, is failing to become – himself precisely in his historical struggle and endeavor. Eschatologism, on the contrary, condemns man to a dreamy mysticism, that very trap and danger which eschatologists pretend and attempt to evade. He is doomed to detect and contemplate, unredeemably, the abyss of his nothingness, is exposed to dreams and nightmares of his own vanity and spiritual sickness. And a new mythology emerges out of these unhealthy dreams. Whatever kind of «man’s historicity» may be claimed as a discovery of such an impoverished Christianity, the actual historicity of man is thereby, implicitly or often quite explicitly, denied and prohibited. Then history, in such an interpretation, actually becomes «hopeless,» without a task, without a theme, without any meaning. Now, the true history of man is not a political history, with its Utopian claims and illusions, but a history of the spirit, the story of man’s growth to the full stature of perfection, under the Lordship of the historical God-man, even of our Lord, Christ Jesus. It is a tragic story, indeed. And yet the seed matures, not only for judgment, but also for eternity.
The Christian historian does not proceed actually «on Christian principles,» as is sometimes suggested. Christianity is not a set of principles. The Christian historian pursues his professional task of interpreting human life in the light of his Christian vision of that life, sorely distorted by sin, yet redeemed by Divine mercy, and healed by Divine grace, and called to the inheritance of an everlasting Kingdom. The Christian historian will, first of all, vindicate «the dignity of man,» even of fallen man. He will, then, protest against any radical scission of man into «empirical» and «intelligible» fractions (whether in a Kantian fashion or in any other) of which the former is doomed and only the latter is promised salvation. It is precisely the «empirical man» who needs salvation, and salvation does not consist merely in a kind of disentanglement of the «intelligible character» out of the empirical mess and bondage. Next, the Christian historian will attempt to reveal the actual course of events in the light of his Christian knowledge of man, but will be slow and cautious in detecting the «providential» structure of actual history, in any detail. Even in the history of the Church «the hand of Providence» is emphatically hidden, though it would be blasphemous to deny that this Hand does exist or that God is truly the Lord of History. Actually, the purpose of a historical understanding is not so much to detect the Divine action in history as to understand the human action, that is, human activities, in the bewildering variety and confusion in which they appear to a human observer. Above all, the Christian historian will regard history at once as a mystery and as a tragedy – a mystery of salvation and a tragedy of sin. He will insist on the comprehensiveness of our conception of man, as a prerequisite of our understanding of his existence, of his exploits, of his destiny, which is actually wrought in his history.43
The task of a Christian historian is by no means an easy task. But it is surely a noble task.
* * *
“The Predicament of the Christian Historian” appeared in Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Paul Tillich, edited by W. Leibrecht (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959), pp. 140 – 166. © 1959 by W. Leibrecht. Reprinted by permission.
Marc Bloch, Apologie pour l’Histoire, ou Metier d’Historien, “Cahiers des Annales,” 3 (Paris, 1949); English translation, The Historian’s Craft (New York, 1953), p. 4.
Gerhard Kittel, “The Jesus of History,” in Mysterium Christi, ed. by G. K. A. Bell and Adolf Deissman (Longmans, 1930), pp. 31 ff.
F. M. Powicke, Modern Historians and the Study of History (London, 1955), pp. 227 – 228.
H. E. Manning, The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost: or Reason and Revelation (New York, 1866), pp. 227 ff.
An interesting discussion of this issue took place at the Anglo-American Conference of Historians, July. 1926; three addresses given at the conference by C H. McIlwain, A. Meyendorff, and J. L. Morison are published under the general title, “Bias in historical writing,”» in History, XI (October, 1926), pp. 193 – 203.
M. Bloch, pp. 64 – 65.
See the penetrating analysis of experimental method by Claude Bernard, in his classical essay, Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expermentale (Paris, 1865). Bergson compares this book with the Discours sur la methode of Descartes: “The Philosophy of Claude Bernard,” in The Creative Mind (New York, 1946), pp. 238 ff.
See the caustic remarks of R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (New York, 1946), pp. 257 ff.
Benedetto Croce, La Storia come Pensiero e come Azione, 4th ed., (Bari, 1943); English translation, History as the Story of Liberty (London, 1949), pp. 85 ff.
Benedetto Croce, Teoria e Storia della Storiografia, 6th ed., (Bari, 1948), p. 11.
Collingwood, p. 214.
Leopold von Ranke, Weltgeschichte, Theil I, 3 Aufl. (Leipzig, 1883), “Vorrede,” s. VI.
Henri-Irenée Marrou, De la connaissance historique (Paris, 1954), p. 83.
Collingwood, op. cit., pp. 218 – 219.
Collingwood, An Autobiography (New York, 1949), p. 31.
Croce, Teoria e Storia, pp. 29 ff.; cf. Collingwood, The Idea, pp. 214 ff.
Fr. Ad. Trendelenburg, Logische Untersuchungen, Bd. II. 2, s. 408.
G. Spet, “Istorija как predmet logiki” (“History as the Matter of Logic”), in Nauchnyja Izvestija, coll. 2 (Moscow, 1922), pp. 15 – 16.
Marrou, op.cit., p. 120.
Marrou, op.cit., p. 101.
Collingwood, Autobiography, pp. 127 – 128.
For the whole section 2 of this article see my essay, “O tipakh istoricheskago istolkovanija” (“The types of historical interpretation”), in Sbornik v chest’ na Vasil N. Zlatarski (Sofia, 1925), pp. 523 – 541 (in Russian). It is gratifying for the author to discover that this conception is now widely shared by many historians and philosophers, although his Russian article was hardly likely to have been read by many. In addition to the studies by Croce, Collingwood, and Marrou, already quoted, one should mention: Raymon Aron, Introduction à la Philosophie de l’Histoire, Essai sur les limites de l’objectivité historique (Paris, 1948); La Philosophie critique de l'Histoire, Essai sur une théorie allemande de l'histoire (Paris, 1950). Of earlier writers one should mention Wilhelm Dilthey; on him see H. A. Hodges, Wilhelm Dilthey, An Introduction (London, 1944); The Philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey (London, 1952). On Benedetto Croce see A. Robert Caponigri, History and Liberty: The Historical Writings of Benedetto Croce (London, 1955). For other points of view see, e.g., Patrick Gardiner, The Nature of Historical Explanation (New York, 1952); S. G. F. Brandon, Time and Mankind (London, 1951); G. N. Renier, History, Its purpose and method (Boston, 1950).
V. V. Bolotov, Lekzii po istorii drevnej cerkvi (“Lectures on the History of the Early Church”) (St. Petersburg, 1907), I, pp. 6 – 7.
Ranke, “Geschichte der Romanischen und Germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1514,» in Vorrede zur ersten Ausgabe (October, 1824), Samtliche Werke, 3 Aufl., Bd. 33 (Leipzig, 1885), s. VII.
See von Laue, Leopold Ranke, The Formative Years (Princeton, 1950), and especially H. Liebeschutz, Ranke (Historical Association, G 26, 1954); cf. Eberhard Kessel, “Rankes Idee der Universalhistorie,” in Historische Zeitsschrift, Bd. 178.2, ss. 269 – 308 (with new texts of Ranke).
Collingwood, The Idea, pp. 282 ff.
Ibid., p. 233.
Cf. H. Gouhier, “Vision retrospective et intention historique,” in La Philosophie de l’Histoire de la Philosophie (Rome – Paris, 1956), pp. 133 – 141.
Marrou, op.cit., p.47.
Collingwood, The Idea, pp. 42 ff.
See Isaiah Berlin, Historical Inevitability (New York, 1954), and Pieter Geyl’s remarks in Debates with Historians (London, 1955), pp. 236 – 241.
See my earlier articles: “Evolution und Epigenesis, Zur Problematik der Geschichte,” in Der Russische Gedanke, Jh. I, Nr. 3 (Bonn, 1930), ss. 240 – 252; “Die Krise des deutschen Idealismus,” in Orient und Occident, Hf. 11 & 12, 1932.
Henry Gouhier, L’histoire et sa philosophie (Paris, 1952), p. 128.
Robert Flint, History of the Philosophy of History (Edinburgh and London, 1893), p. 62.
Lucretius, De rerum natura, III, 945.
Werner Jaeger, Aristoteles. Grundlegung einer Geschichte seiner Entwicklung (Berlin, 1923; English translation: Aristotle, Fundamentals of the History of His Development, translated with the author’s corrections and additions by Richard Robinson (2nd ed.; Oxford, 1948), p. 389. (italics mine). Cf. O. Hamelin, Le Système d’Aristote (2nd ed.; Paris, 1931), pp. 336 ss.; J. Chevalier, La Notion du Nécessaire chez Aristote et chez ses prédécesseurs, particulièrement chez Platon ( Paris, 1915), pp. 160 ss.; R. Mugnier, La Théorie du Premier Moteur et l’Evolution de la Pensée Artstotelienne (Paris, 1930), pp. 24 ss.; J. Baudry, Le Problème de l’origine et de l’eternité du Monde dans la philosophie grecque de Platon à l’ère chrétienne (Paris, 1931), especially chapters on Aristotle (pp. 99 – 206) and conclusion (pp. 299 ss.).
B. A. van Groningen, “In the Grip of the Past, Essay on an Aspect of Greek Thought,” in Philosophia Antiqua, ed. by W. J. Verdenius and J. H. Waszink (Leiden, 1953), vol. VI; Pierre Duhème, Le Système du Monde, Histoire des Doctrines Cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic (Paris, 1913), t. I; (Paris, 1914), t. II; Hans Meyer, “Zur Lehre von der Ewigen Wiederkunft aller Dinge,” in Festgabe A. Ehrhard (Bonn, 1922), ss. 359 ff.; Jean Guitton, Le Temps et l’Eternité chez Plotin et St. Augustin (Paris, 1933); John F. Callahan, Four Views of Time in Ancient Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass., 1948); Victor Goldschmidt, Le Système stoicien et l’Idee de temps (Paris, 1953); Mircea Eliade, Der Mythes der Ewigen Wiederkehr (Duesseldorf, 1953); Henri-Charles Puech, “Temps, Histoire et Mythe dans le Christianisme des premiers siècles,” in the Proceedings of the 7th Congress for the History of Religions, Amsterdam, 4th – 9th September 1950 (Amsterdam, 1951), pp. 33 ff.; “La Gnose et le Temps,” in Eranos, Bd. XX, Mensch und Zeit (Zurich, 1952), pp. 57 ss. An attempt of Wilhelm Nestle to prove that there existed a certain “philosophy of history” in ancient Greece was unsuccessful; see his “Griechische Geschichtsphilosophie,” in Archiv fur die Geschichte der Philosophie, Bd. XLI (1932), ss. 80 – 114. Nor are the remarks of Paul Schubert convincing; see his chapter, “The Twentieth- Century West and the Ancient Near East,” in The Idea of History in the Ancient Near East, ed. by Robert C. Dentan, American Oriental Series (New Haven, 1955), vol. 38, pp. 332 ff.
See, e.g., C. H. Dodd, History and the Gospel (London, 1938); cf. “Eschatology and History,” an Appendix in The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (New York, 1936 [new ed. in 1944]).
Rudolf Bultmann, History and Eschatology, The Gifford Lectures, 1955 (Edinburgh, 1955).
Karl Loewith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (Chicago, 1949), pp. 196 – 197; cf. also his articles: “Skepsis und Glaube in der Geschichte,” in Die Welt als Geschichte, Jh. X. 3 (1950); “Christentum und Geschichte,” in Christentum und Geschichte, Vortraege der Tragung in Bochum vom 5, bis 8. October 1954 (Duesseldorf, 1955).
Cyril С Richardson, “Church History Past and Present,” in Union Seminary Quarterly Review (November, 1949), p. 9.
For a further elaboration of this topic see my Dudleian Lecture, The Christian Dilemma, delivered at Harvard University on April 30, 1958. (still unpublished).
The problem of “Christian history” (in the double meaning of the word: “actual history” and “historiography”) has been extensively discussed in recent years, and literature is enormous. There are several competent surveys: G. Thils, “Bibliographie sur la theologie de l’histoire,” in Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses, 26 (1950), pp. 87 – 95; F. Olgiati, “Rapporti fra storia, metafisica e religione,” in Rivista di folosofia neoscholastica (1950), pp. 49 – 34; P. Henry, “The Christian Philosophy of History,” in Theological Studies, XIII (1952), pp. 419 – 433; see also R. L. Shinn, Christianity and the Problem of History (New York, 1953); M. C. Smit, De Veroudingvan Christendom en Historie in der huldige Roms-Katholicke geschtcolbeschouwing (Kampen, 1950) [with a French résumé].
The following publications also should be especially mentioned in the context of the present article: Oscar Cullmann, Christus und die Zeit (Zurich, 1945); English translation, Christ and Time (London, 1951); Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik, Bd. III. 2 (Zollikon-Zurich, 1948), ss. 524 – 780; John Marsh, The Fulness of Time (London, 1952); Jean Daniélou, Essai sur le Mystère de l’Histoire (Paris, 1953); Le Mystère de l’Avent (Paris, 1948); Papers of the Ecumenical Institute, 5: “On the Meaning of History,” in Oikoumene (Geneva, 1950); Erich Frank, Philosophical Understanding and Religious Truth (New York, 1945); “The Role of History in Christian Thought,” in The Duke Divinity School Bulletin, XIV, No. 3 (November, 1949), pp. 66 – 77; H. Butterfield, Christianity and History (New York, 1950); E.C. Rust, The Christian Understanding of History (London, 1947 ); Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and History (New York, 1949); Pietro Ghichetta, Teologia della storia (Rome, 1953); John McIntyre, The Christian Doctrine of History (Edinburgh, 1957); Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History, ed. by John J. Mulloy (New York, 1957); Jacques Maritain, On the Philosophy of History, ed. by Joseph W. Evans (New York, 1957).
“Empire and desert” appeared in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. III, No. 2 (1957), pp. 133 – 159. Reprinted by permission of the author.